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Moving Toward a Seamless Continent

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 1998


Very curious painting hangs in the municipal museum of Poznan, in western Poland. Painted in the last century, it depicts the town hall surrounded by water.

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It's not floodwater, though, but canals, as if this central European city had been magically transformed into Venice.

When you see the town hall, however, you understand the artist's flight of fancy. The building is indeed a piece of 16th-century Italian architecture, its arcaded loggias and bell tower the work of Giovanni Battista Quadro, from Lugano in northern Italy.

Poznan's town hall, and the ancient square in which it stands, are a vivid reminder of how firmly Poland sits within Western Europe's cultural tradition.

The Roman Empire did not reach this far, but its influence was felt. And all the great waves of Europe's intellectual history washed over Poland - from the Renaissance and the Reformation to the Age of Enlightenment.

On the balmy Sunday that I spent in Poznan, the city was alive with jesters, mimes, and assorted roaming players, staging street shows as part of a theater festival. The dynamic spirit exuded by the performers and the crowd was the same spirit you might find at Edinburgh or Avignon or any other of the myriad theater festivals that have sprung up around Europe in recent decades.

And the young audiences, dressed in T-shirts, baggy shorts or jeans, and sneakers were indistinguishable from their Western counterparts.

More prosaic, but equally indistinguishable from its Western counterparts, was the German-owned Aral gas station on the highway outside Poznan. The map told me I was in Poland, but my senses told me I was in Germany: the pristine forecourt with new pumps; the air-conditioned shop decorated in restful shades of blue; and the carefully arranged shelves neatly stacked with candy, soft drinks, snacks, and magazines. The public telephone in the corner was even equipped with a pen and notepad for customers' convenience.

European styles and systems may be making inroads into Polish life. But they have by no means eradicated the border between Germany and Poland, marked by the Oder River ever since the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II.

Today, the Oder marks the easternmost point of the European Union - the traditional boundary of Western Europe. And though the residents of the German town of Frankfurt an der Oder - not to be confused with Frankfurt, Europe's futuristic financial center - complain that they live on the neglected margin of their country, they are still better off than their neighbors across the bridge.

For a start, they have functioning municipal services. As I wandered the streets of Slubice, on the Polish side of the river, a stiff wind whipped dust and litter into my face. A few minutes later, on the German side, the same wind found nothing on the streets to blow.

The bridge in between was packed with cars and pedestrians as Poles made the crossing in search of decent quality clothes, shoes, and electronics. Germans trekked to the Polish side to buy cheaper fruit, vegetables, and gasoline.

Latent borders

But if Germans go to Poland to buy what they need, they can shop for fun only in their own country. In Frankfurt an der Oder I came across the first mall of my journey - the first temple to consumerism. It was a small affair by American standards, a modest split-level glass and steel construction. But it offered a cornucopia of home furnishings, clothes, personal-care products, videos, computers, books, jewelry, toys, and other consumer goods.

Even for a small provincial town, this mall had more for sale than you could find in five square blocks in Warsaw.