Perhaps perversely, now that spring is here and the daffodils and forsythia are out and dandelions are starting to gleam along roadsides, I’m feeling nostalgic about snow. I missed most of this past winter’s Island snow, but on a recent trip I found it frosting the evergreen forests in Germany and Poland, and it led to a most serendipitous encounter.
I was visiting Goerlitz, the easternmost city in Germany, a city split in two in 1945 when the River Neisse was declared the border with Poland. That made Goerlitz’s eastern suburbs that had been inhabited by Germans since the 13th century Polish.
I had been to Goerlitz before. Three years ago, it and Zgorzelec, the Polish city, were jointly named the cultural capital of Europe. I had visited both then, to see the more than 4,000 late Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings that still stand there for, happily, World War II did little damage to the area.
On my most recent visit last month, there was snow every day. It was not drifting snow, but a gentle, continuous, fluffy snowfall. All the same, I was glad I had Yaktrax from the Vineyard to keep me from slipping on my sightseeing ventures.
Just at dusk one day, I was in search of a special café I had been told I must visit. There was only one other person on the snowy street near the River Neisse, and, in pidgin German I asked if he knew of the café. Clearly, my German was not up to snuff. Did I speak English, he asked in accented English. And soon we were talking. He was Polish, but working on the German side of the river. He was on his way home to Zgorzelec. Instead of just having a coffee in the café I had asked him about, why didn’t I join him for supper across the river in Zgorzelec, he asked. So I did. His name was Krysztof Strcelinski. “Call me Chris,” he said.
We dined on Zurek — a sour rye bread soup (delicious!) and Zurawina, a confection of apples, red berries, cinnamon and honey (also delicious!). He pointed out the new buildings under construction, in an appropriate old style, in Zgorzelec. He asked if I planned to see any other part of Poland.
I told him I hoped to visit Wroclaw, once the German city of Breslau, just a few hours away. And where would I stay, he asked. I replied that until I got there, I had no idea. Sometimes I travel with plans and hotel reservations, sometimes just with the hope that no major convention at my destination will have filled up all the beds. This time, my plan was the latter. Perhaps he could help, Chris said. He had friends in Wroclaw. They might have room for me.
I gave him my card as we parted and he asked where I was staying in Goerlitz. He said he would call my hotel in the morning with more information about his friends. And he did. They would meet me at the train station in Wroclaw, put me up for the night and show me their city, Chris proudly told me.
Was there a clock under which I could meet them, or an information booth? No need for that, Chris said. They will know you by your picture. “By my picture?” I gulped. “Of course,” was his reply. It turned out it was a picture taken on the steps at Alley’s last summer and printed in the Boston Globe. He had found it on the internet.
That afternoon I boarded the train for Wroclaw, watching the snow still falling ever so gently on the hills, trees and villages that we passed. By 9 p.m., I was in Wroclaw where Lukas Kujawski, an architect-turned publicist, and Mariuz, the young ceramicist at whose house I would be staying, met me as I left the train.
It was a beautiful time of night to see Wroclaw, the architect said, if I was not too tired. So in the same soft snowfall that had accompanied me everywhere, I visited Wroclaw. We began at the main square, the Rynek, with its Gothic town hall that was largely saved from destruction in the second world war when most of the city was destroyed. Hitler had insisted that it not surrender to the advancing Russians in 1945, no matter what. I learned of the demolition of houses in the center of the city to create a takeoff place so the German Gauleiter could flee after the Russians had taken the airport. He did flee, but was captured when he landed.
I was driven to the city’s Ostrow Tumski, Cathedral Island, where, among six other churches, the city’s Gothic cathedral (largely rebuilt) rises. Then as it neared midnight, we arrived at Mariuuz’s little house for a late cup of tea and preserves made from the fruits of his garden. We sat before a wood fire, his cat snoozing beside it, and saw some of the ceramics he and his wife make and sell at fairs across Poland.
It was not the first time in years of travels that I had encountered such warmth and generosity. Whatever is happening in international politics, at the local level there are warm-hearted, welcoming people everywhere.
The day after my night tour of Wroclaw, with snow still falling, I went on a proper tour with Marcin Hutyra who runs Wroclaw Sightseeing Tours. It was a fine tour, but it could not compare with my introduction to Wroclaw in the dark as the snow fell, with the architect and the ceramicist, all thanks to a serendipitous encounter on a snowy German street.
Home now, I am pleased that spring has come. The first tulips are up in my garden. The birds sing melodiously in the morning and the pinkletinks are an evening chorus. But there is something special in a snowfall.