Poland got a couple of years headstart on East Germany when it became free of Soviet domination. So that meant it would be ahead of East Germany in terms of raising the standard of living and benefitting from investment dollars, right? One obvious place would be the little towns relatively near Germany where tourists would want to see. Two of the closer ones are Rzepin and Staroscin which are only separated by a few kilometers.
To put it mildly, this place was a shock. The landscape was pretty stark and the cold light rain didn't make everything look like something from a Chamber of Commerce brochure. But the services like buses and police must be pretty good because there were there were college-age girls in the little turn-offs where a bus could stop. The country houses were pretty rough – just cinder blocks and bits of metal in many cases, but the towns would certainly be improved. Right?
Not so fast. The town of Rzepin looked nearly as dire as the third world towns you find in Central or South America. The town square was empty and if hadn't been for a few people scurrying on the fringes, you would almost think you were in a ghost town. For miles leading up to the town, there were billboards advertising the “big night club”. It's principal claim to fame was that it appeared to be much newer than the other buildings.
Not all of the houses were basic: there was new cinder block construction and two or three houses that would have been fine in a typical American middle-class suburb. Most of the homes appeared to be heated by wood and every house had a large woodpile and the smell of burning wood filled the air. But it also appeared that mortgages are a relatively new concept in Poland as most of the construction was clearly being done in very incremental phases where you bought the materials you could afford at the time and built up from there.
For the life of me I couldn't see any industry beyond a few basic shops. Clearly jobs are few and far between. Only on the drive back to Germany did I realize that the “bus stops” were actually young girls all alone in the cold working as prostitutes. It was a stark reminder that while the Soviets may be gone, at least some parts of Poland remain mired in the past.