The Red Dotted Line

The fastest way to drive from Kutna Hora to Szczecin was to go back the way we came, to drive on the freeway through Dresden to Berlin and then Northeast to Pomerania. But we’d already been there, and besides, East German autobahns are not magic little slices of hyperspace, at least not this month. We decided to drive north along the Neisse and Oder rivers and the westernmost parts of Poland. It looked like there might be some parts that were freeway, and there were, but only parts. We drove through some towns with major industries and some towns with crooked roads.

The Polish highway people are building freeway overpasses using culvert technology. They lay down half pipes and cover them with dirt and put the road on top of the dirt. I suppose this must be cheaper.

We stopped long only once, for lunch, at a place that had a slight web presence in the way of reviews. Dave used Google Translate on the menu. It worked out fairly well. Duck breast, and goulash soup. The duck breast had likely been frozen, which is not a bad move with duck, as it can be stringy.

When we got to Szczecin, we checked in to the Ibis Centrum and went out to find dinner. The tourist industry in Szczecin has performed an interesting bit of ostension: they have taken the colored lines which have occurred in tourist guidebooks since Mathew of Paris invented the AAA TripTik, and painted them onto the ground. If you have your tourist map in hand, you will shortly pick up a red dotted line on the sidewalk, which goes to all the places the paper goes, and the same numbers appear on paper and in life, along with explanations in key languages on little signs, illustrating fragments of the city wall and the old post office building and the castle etc.

We went to the castle and found a fancy restaurant, Na Kuncu Korytarza, of the Celebrity Graffiti tendency. Write on the walls and we won’t erase it if it’s clever or you’re famous. Being close to the Baltic, we felt justified in ordering fish: pike soup and pickled herring. Also fresh squeezed orange juice, since we hadn’t found any yet that day. Not in the same dish. They also had kasha in pirogi which seems redundantly starchy but it’s tasty.

Afterwards, we continued on the red dotted line down the waterfront past handsomely reconstructed and dramatically uplit government buildings, through a square commemorating the city’s part in the Solidarnosc revolt. It is in the form of a skate park, or that’s its current nighttime use. In America, Solidarity would be a distant memory by now, fit for epithets such as “That’s so ” or “You’re history.” In some historical times, being history was a goal, not an insult. I think around here they keep memories alive, for use in the manufacture of future wars.

Nearby was a monument on the tourist map honoring one of Poland’s great national poets, Adam Mickiewicz. The accompanying description says that in 1821 he wrote a poem called “Four Toasts Raised by a Certain Chemist in Honour of the Radiant Creatures” or “Viva electricity!” for short. This poem long antedates Faraday’s apocryphal comment to Gladstone about the utility of a newborn baby. It marks Mickiewicz as considerably prescient. The radiant creatures are specifically light, heat, magnetism, and electricity, whose precise relation would not be delineated by Maxwell for nearly a half century. Writers are not often impressed by the right things. Vonnegut once said (archly, mocking the voice of the critics) that you couldn’t be a writer and understand how a refrigerator works.

For the next three days, Wednesday-Friday, Dave worked and Ray wandered about the city. Each day began at Coffee Point for coffee, tea, orange juice, and whatever little pastry was on offer. It was never a wide selection. Then, we could experience traditional Polish culture as practiced by the students at the art college across the street. The first day there was a boy with four girls and he wasn’t flirting with any of them. If I need to learn Polish gaydar, I will start with him.

(Polish people don’t seem ludicrously gendered, regardless of how obsessive their political leaders are. The oldest written sentence in Polish is, “Day, ut ia pobrusa, a ti poziwai,” which means, “Come, let me grind, and you take a rest.” It sounds like a farmer offering to help his wife in the kitchen, which by the standards of 1270, verges on trans.)

Wednesday, I followed the rest of the red dotted line. We both ended the day by meeting in a beer hall underneath the old City Hall, which is now a museum. Wonderful brick pillars and arches, wonderful unfiltered wheat beer which came by its slight banana overtones honestly, from yeast, rather than cleverly marketed fingernail polish remover as in the more modern brew-and-adulterant pubs of the Bay Area. Not that there is anything more wrong with chemistry than with any of the radiant creatures.

On Thursday, I decided to see if there were old post cards to be had in the antique shops of the town. There weren’t. Looking in junk shops, you become aware of how thoroughly the German history of the town has been erased. There isn’t even any German junk. One tiny metal swastika. Although founded by Slavs and forcibly converted to the Church of Rome by Poles in 1124, the town of Stettin was part of the Holy Roman Empire from 1181 on, and majority German by the time it joined the Hanseatic League in 1278, even when the Swedes governed at the time of the 30 Years’ War. This all changed after World War II. Poland was picked up and moved West. The Germans became refugees in the DDR and Poles from the territories seized by Russia populated Szczecin and rebuilt it Polish. The buildings in the old town are in the old style and in the new parts, Communist blocks, and in the newest areas, Capitalist blocks.

Thursday night, Dave’s coworkers Alicja and Todd had dinner with us.

Friday, I visited the cemetery. Surely you would find Germans there. Not many. It’s a giant graveyard; perhaps I was in the wrong place. Both days were accomplished with walking, for the most part:

The thing about Poland is not their zany “l” with a line through it. The thing about Poland is, HOW DO YOU TELL IF A DRIVER IS GOING TO STOP FOR YOU? About 85% of the drivers here in Szczecin follow California rules — if a pedestrian is detectable on the same block, they recoil like a slapped mutt. Even 95%. But 5% is too great a risk to take, walking in front of a car whose driver thinks no more of your presence than that of a wafting leaf. All the old ladies with their Wyzinski’s Meat Market bags know instinctively which kind of driver is the next car up, just as Parisians can sense dog shit beneath their feet while fiddling with Gauloises, iPhones, or each other. Dave and I have been honked at a couple of times. The only safe thing I can figure, is always to tailgate a local across the street.

As in Germany, I don’t see a lot of crossing on a red light at crosswalks, despite the indefensible practice of having staggered green lights when a street is divided by a trolley island, which is all the streets that you would be concerned about. Red light, Green light. Why is that such a complicated bit of traffic theory?

Friday night, big dinner with the whole Avid Szczecin crew. They speak English a lot, as there are a Turk and Italian on the team. How odd to think that someone sitting across from me at the table, and who works for an American company, could not legally enter America just now. I haven’t read the news this morning. Maybe Trump and Erdogan have patched up their differences.

There weren’t any reservations made, which meant we had outside seating in the brisk winds of early autumn at the same beer hall we had eaten two days ago. Later on, we moved to another place where an indoor table for 12 or 14 could be assembled.

On Saturday, we went back to Coffee Point for the last time and finally ordered an Amerykaner cookie. They aren’t very good. Wikipedia says they are based on a Black and White cookie, of some age. We then drove to Berlin, a drive similar to going from Sacramento to SF.