Returning to Warsaw after a lapse of nine years, a visitor expects visual changes as dramatic as the political. That expectation is quickly dashed. The Polish capital simply looks more tired than ever, with its heartbreaking Stalinist architecture, mercifully relieved here and there by restorations of a few older buildings. The whole city seems covered by a deeper layer of grime: pollution control costs money, and in its absence a film of gray dust envelops everything even on the brightest days.
Yet a few hours of walks and conversation reveal that things are changing, and not simply running down. Sidewalks are full of small private stands, selling everything from fast food to kitchenware. The new government has legalized such entrepreneurial activity to lower prices and foster convenience for consumers. The once-pervasive blackmarket currency traders, now also legal, have set themselves up in storefront shops. Real estate speculation has begun in earnest, with residential land available at market prices, usually beyond the reach of ordinary Poles. The high price of fuel has driven many auto owners off the road, yet the remaining traffic seems to include a higher proportion of BMWs and Mercedeses. Crime is up; membership in Solidarity down. Communism is out; markets are in. The media are lively and informative; the domestic news is rarely reassuring. Poland is coming to resemble a Western democracy —but not a very prosperous one....
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