Real Estate: History In Reverse

It's our dream house," says Tomasz Pawlik, clicking through the slides on his laptop. In a few days, the 33-year-old restaurant owner in Szczecin, Poland, expects to sign the contract that will make him the owner of a handsome two-story country house, built in 1917 for a Lutheran parson. What's unusual about this homeowner's bliss is that the house is in a different country. He and his girlfriend, a painter, will soon commute to Szczecin from the German village of Wetzenow, a 25-kilometer hop across what used to be a tightly guarded border.

Before their countries joined the European Union, the Poles' and other Eastern Europeans' biggest fear was an invasion of rich Germans and other Westerners who would buy up land in the much poorer East. In Pawlik's corner of the Polish-German border, however, the invasion increasingly looks to be going the other way. There it's the German side that's poor and depressed, while Szczecin, a boomtown of 450,000, has seen incomes rise and prices explode, thanks to shipbuilding, trade and a rocketing national economy that grew 5.7 percent last year. As a result, newly prosperous Poles--their wallets fattened by more than a decade of economic growth--are snapping up German real estate.

On this strip of land along the Baltic, the stereotypical contrast between a wealthy West and a ramshackle East couldn't be more reversed. While Szczecin thrives, joblessness in Germany's poorest and least populated region, rural West Pomerania, runs as high as 35 percent. Communist-era manufacturing and collective farms have collapsed. Despite tens of millions of euros in subsidies for new roads and infrastructure, young people are leaving in droves. Looking for work in Dusseldorf or Dublin, they leave behind old people and empty homes.

For the Poles, that makes Germany a house hunter's heaven. Real-estate agent Magdalena Pysz, who just opened her office in Szczecin last November, says she has 600 clients looking to buy on the German side. She's found apartments for Szczecin University students, who (as long as they're willing to commute) can rent freshly renovated apartments for less than they'd pay for a run-down flat in town. Pawlik is paying only 15,000 euro for his parsonage, a fixer-upper that he expects to take a year of work. "On the Polish side a house like that would cost 75,000 euro," Pawlik says. "And I would have to look at least 50 kilometers outside Szczecin to find it."

It's not just Polish homeowners. German store owners report rising numbers of Polish customers for everything from consumer electronics to beer and wine, all cheaper in Germany. German companies are migrating in the other direction. Gunter Mullenberg, owner of a fence and scaffolding business in the German town of Torgelow, says the subsidiary he set up across the border in the 1990s has already outgrown its parent. His Polish profits help secure jobs at home. "We're happy for anyone who spends money here," says Andre Schnittke, owner of a pharmacy in Penkun, a scenic lakeside village where Pysz has found four homes for eager Polish buyers.

Perhaps the best indicator of the area's new economic pecking order is the rising number of Germans learning Polish. Anne-Katrin Nirtl, a tenth grader at the new German-Polish High School in the border town of Locknitz, says she is learning Polish now so she might one day get a job in Szczecin. The Uecker-Randow community college offers 39 Polish classes, up from just one in 1996.

This may be a case of geography winning out over history. Szczecin was once Stettin, a German city annexed by Poland in 1945. For almost 50 years, an impenetrable border cut the once prosperous region in half. Thanks to a newly united Europe, those old ties can finally grow back. "I don't think of it as Germany," Pawlik says of his new home in Wetzenow. "It's just a suburb of Szczecin." Exactly as it should be.

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