The more I read about the city of Lodz, the more I discover one could nearly write off the 20th century as a historical gaffe. Yes, Lodz is no stranger to difficulty and development, transformed by industrialists and investors from all over Europe who built factories there throughout the 19th century. By 1914, it served as the most densely populated city in the world at 34,400 people per square mile. The special chemical nature of its water supply allowed it to house the largest textile industry in Europe. It carried the dubious distinction behind Warsaw holding Europe’s second largest ghetto (and most productive) during World War II. As part of the Polish communist state, it saw its private factories nationalized and individual fortunes disintegrate. Finally, in 1990, as the Berlin Wall was falling and the USSR was disintegrating, Lech Walesa became the president of Poland in the country’s first free elections since the end of WW II. Again, life for people in Lodz suddenly got much more complicated. It saw itself restarted by a new regime, and of course, capitalism. Its corner into the Russian market was shattered. Its population was cut down, and its economic stability faltered. Although the country’s overall GDP exceeded pre-communist levels by 1995, 21 years later I still feel like I am walking into the aftermath of a meltdown.
zloty 3,80-€1 was the exchange rate I got at the Lodz airport, the obvious detail I noticed walking out of the international arrivals terminal. For a split second, I felt I had won the lottery. Finally, an exchange rate that plays to the $ instead of taking from it! As my taxi driver took us into the city, I quickly realized why living was so cheap here. I was no longer in the scenic lands of Western Europe, but rather in post-Communist Poland, a hauntingly real image of the not-so-distant-past. Lodz is a scary city at first. You see the run-down buildings, the brick scars on the sides where the concrete has worn away. There are skinheads on the street, mostly passive alone but intimidating in groups. I’m pretty sure most of the tram cars have not been replaced since 1980. When the driver wants to change tracks, he has to stop the tram, get out with a steel rod and push the guide to change his direction. Although the occasional skyscraper pokes its head through the rubble, the ghetto caricature remains—that is, unless you take into account the occasionally neo-gothic architecture. At times covered in grandiose archways and soot-blackened goblins, this city has no lack of striking architecture. It’s something where Jay-Z might walk past Harry Potter on the street—if only there were black people in Lodz. The only non-caucasian people I saw the whole time I was there were the Japanese saxophonists I met at the music competition we had travelled to participate in. Honestly, the beauty of this city never really meets the eye; there isn’t much to see until you start meeting the people. Only then does one begin to discover the richness offered here.
The Polish generally seem to be divided by generations more obviously than many countries I have visited, simply for the fact that most people older than my age don’t seem to speak much English. As a foreigner, that can be quite the challenge as Polish bears 0% resemblance to the Romance languages most Americans grow up studying. Being so dramatically different, Poles somehow manage to speak English with clearer accents than most foreigners I have met. I found it odd sitting in settings where at times nearly everything seemed American-influenced, but with a foreign tongue twist. I found Polish people to be quite friendly, free of grandiosity and excess. They are generally conservative in conversation and lifestlye, probably due to being ±88% Catholic. This is easily the most religious country I have visited in Europe, I could feel it in the air. People will go out of there way to help you, taking time out of their work to make sure your need is met, something I cannot say for many places in the world I’ve been to.
Lodz is rebuilding itself. There are shopping malls and restaurants installed in places formerly holding dilapidated factories such as Manufaktura, one of 19th century Jewish philanthropist Izrael Poznanski’s most notable creations. There is Leon Schiller’s National Higher School of Film and other academies, which foster a burgeoning student population. There is even music, a worthy endeavor in the city the great Artur Rubinstein hails from. I find a cultural renaissance happening in Lodz, in the midst of a global crisis which never really touched Poland in the first place due to its comparatively weak economy (think USA and Eurozone) and in spite of a generally uneducated public. I like this city because I see its citizens working to rebuild anew that which was destroyed by a myriad of obstacles—there is resilience here! Take the time to check it out if you ever get the chance, but take a taxi at night.