An unremarkable advertisement, somewhere on the tram, promoted the newly extended bus shuttle connecting Berlin with the (outdoor) Polish market of Hohenwutzen – daily schedule. For the unbeatable price of only 10 Euros return, I could finally go and see for myself what the fuss of the Polenmarkt was about. I asked my equally curious and photo-savvy friend Hieronymus if he’d like to go with me and see the madness ourselves.
For those of you who did not grow up in the former GdR, the Polenmarkt in Hohenwutzen is a wondrous place just a few kilometres away from the reach of strict German law and its party poopers (the police). The Polenmarkt, as we call it (as opposed to Polnischer Markt) , that’s where petrol and knockoff clothes are plenty, booze and cigarettes are cheap, and best of all, everyone speaks German.
Other families made the trip frequently back then; they crammed their trunks with all sorts of dead cheap stuff, well beyond the allowed limit, and somehow made it past the border, back to Brandenburg or Berlin, unhindered.
But not my family. We didn’t even own a car – my parents understandably thought it was a waste to have one in Berlin. However, I wasn’t even envious of the other kids’ jetset life, as that place in Poland offered only little that a Game Boy or a computer with ISDN couldn’t give me. Or so I thought.
It took another fifteen, sixteen years for me to realize that Polenmarkt, after all, could be an interesting place to visit. They’d sell not only the sort of inadvertently hilarious fake sneakers I secretly collect but also attract the low-income layer of East Berlin’s population.
So off we went. Truth be told, the bus was packed that day – much to the anger of some seasoned bargain hunters. We managed to get on another one operated by another company (turns out this is a business bus companies from even as far as Thüringen caught on).
Only an hour later we finally crossed the Polish border at Hohenwutzen and after another hundred meters stopped on the spacious parking lot. The excited crowd of noticeably young families and elderly people stormed out of the bus, hoping that they would be the first to pick up all the bargains. It was chaotic.
We had our goals: Find some memorable souvenirs, get some Polish vodka and food, and most of all, soak up the vibe of the place. After all, that’s what you’re supposed to do in this former paper factory that was first destroyed by the Germans and later, after the Wall came down, converted to become more German than any other place one could imagine. Much like Mallorca, it sometimes takes a place abroad to condense all the mundane aspects of dull German culture and bring out both the best and worst of it.
This particular place is perhaps more about the latter, given that you’d find plenty of fake Thor Steinar clothes and Landser CDs. But then again, the same Polish vendors sell Thug Life shirts of German rapper Haftbefehl, as well as equally fake and ridiculously cheap Nike, Adidas and Air Jordan shirts. Can’t argue with supply and demand.
Just as the range of advertisement during a TV segment reveals the preferences and attitudes of the anonymous audience, the booths at the Polenmarkt reveal something about the average customers.
The market is famed for its infinite supply of cheap petrol, dangerous fireworks (not in season) and the large supply of counterfeit cigarettes (always in season). Kindly enough, its website informs about the maximum amount of duty free of popular goods: 800 cigarettes per person doesn’t strike me as much after I saw how many some booths had in stock.
If there’s anything else to learn from the assortment, then that kinky Germans are not so much interested in the arrays of obscure sex toys that have faded by many sunny summers; meanwhile, lingerie and fetish clothes are big sellers.
And if that didn’t help to spice up a relationship gone stale, nearby friendly pharmacist can help with a range of very competitively priced and equally SEO unfriendly wonder drugs.
Germans being Germans, a meal at the variety of Döner and grilled sausage stands, as well as a visit to the huge and hilariously stocked garden decoration, are also a must. Everything in the range of tasteless garden gnomes, disfigured Buddha statues, faux marble antiquities and life sized epoxy cows can be bought. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sight of all these figurines will soon replace the dreaded Dong Xuan Center fake flower jungle on your favourite photo app. It was just that weird.
The nearby weapons booth – looking like a Hollywood trope of a black market bazaar in some war torn Arab country – had thrilling goods for sale. Knuckledusters and butterfly knives, in all colors and designs imaginable, commemorative Luger pistols and the casual hunting rifle. 10 bucks for a baton that didn’t seem too sturdy (an important quality of beating equipment, I suppose, but what would I know), another fiver gets you one of those ridiculously large Crocodile Dundee style hunting knifes.
But it’s not all fake. There are also some unexpected goods to find. Once you stroll down Ku’damm, Schopenhauerstraße or one of the other aptly named streets, you’ll also find the famed Polish sausage, mushrooms and other delicacies. Not to mention the liquor that is often better than what your average Späti carries. In fact, most visitors seemed to be crazy about the amount of boletes, chanterelles and vodka.
And so were we. We might not have found the weird souvenirs we hoped for, but we scored a good deal of food, vodka and thuggish silver jewelry, as well as an adorable pink tear gas spray.
I wouldn’t mind go back some day but then again, it’s just another Dong Xuan Center with less Instagrammers and rappers who shoot their music videos. And that’s probably the most noteworthy aspect about Polenmarkt: It’s really just another cheap stuff market for people who like cheap stuff.
Photos: Hieronymus Ahrens