As I drove to Charleroi airport one last time, I thought about the ending to my journey…and the beginning. I remember my first trip from here, only a 30 minute drive from my house in Belgium…I went to Edinburgh and thought this was the best and easiest airport ever. Then on my second trip, to Croatia, I got into the wrong passport line and nearly missed my flight. Over two years later this airport is like second nature to me, though I still obsessively check my car before leaving. Nothing to worry about…doors locked…in neutral…hand brake on…headlights off. For a small airport in a gritty, rundown town, it’s remarkably efficient, as it has routes to 24 countries and over 60 cities. Budget airlines in Europe are incredible, I will miss the cheap flight options when I move back to the U.S. Moving back, only a few weeks now…beginnings and endings.
Gdansk was a fitting final trip, as it has its own history of beginnings and endings. This was where World War II began, when Hitler ordered the attack on the Westerplatte peninsula in 1939. This marked the start of some dark times…a brutal Nazi occupation, unspeakable atrocities at death camps, and the eventual bombing and leveling of Gdansk similar to what happened in Warsaw. There is a somber monument at St. Mary’s Church that commemorates the 2,779 Polish priests executed by the Nazi terrorists.
I’m reminded of the oft-asked question…if you could go back in time and kill Hitler when he was an artist in Vienna, would you do it? Ethical debates aside, this is a loaded question. People can build castles in the air about science fiction fantasies, but in reality there are no do-overs in life…what happened has happened. No one would blame the Poles for being depressed and morose about their history, but I think they emerged stronger. I deeply admire the Polish people for their faith and fight, and they rebuilt Gdansk into the beautiful city it is today.
As if the Nazi occupation wasn’t bad enough, Gdansk next faced oppressive Soviet rule for nearly 45 years. Stalin allegedly held a grudge against Poland, so he treated them the worst. He misjudged the strength of the people, however, as Gdansk was the beginning of the end for communism in Eastern Europe. Lech Walesa, an electrician, started the solidarity movement when he pushed for independent unions for shipworkers in Gdansk. His message was so strong that the Soviets became afraid, and declared martial law on Poland in the early 80s. After 18 months of hell that saw Walesa himself imprisoned in an internment camp, the solidarity movement kept moving…with the help of local hero Pope John Paul II and President Reagan…the city honors these two with a monument in Park Prezydenta Ronalda Reagana.
The inciting incident to this movement was the murder of shipworkers in 1970 by Soviet troops, and there is a three crosses monument at the harbor to honor those fallen.
The Pope, being a native of Poland, personally championed Walesa’s cause and made it an international effort. Reagan of course had his country’s interest in squashing the Soviets, so this made sense for him as well. With all the changes this man set in motion, you wonder if naming the Gdansk airport after Walesa was enough. The solidarity museum by the harbor is the main attraction of Gdansk.
So what is Gdansk today? A city with a vibrant, youthful population likely driven by their parents’ and grandparents’ vision that future generations would have more. A city with a grand, refurbished old town with a picturesque riverwalk and a Ferris wheel overlooking a metropolis beautiful in its simplicity. A place where you can have a drink at the Hard Rock Cafe while also scuttling off to a nearby sandy beach. A city where people and dogs are equally friendly, and the local beer is good…really good! This is where the last great war began, and where my tour of Europe ended