There was a long queue at passport control at Warsaw’s Chopin airport on arrival from London. ‘Never happened before’ said a young polish lady. I and another British national looked at each other with the thought passing through our minds- is Brexit already with us?
It turned out there were a couple of police officers who had turned up late for their shift and in the end we all swept through the EU lane relatively smoothly- but for a few minutes it did make one think, how bad things could get if governments wanted them to.
Poland is outside the Euro, but inside Schengen and the EU. Poles are now the biggest immigrant group in the UK having grown to 800,000 since Poland joined the EU in 2004. The Polish government wants their rights guaranteed. The man with the real power in Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski , the chairman of the ruling Law & Justice Party, is much respected by UKIP and rightwing Tories. He is a conservative ideologue who is publicly opposed to the centralising tendencies of the European Union. Whichever way one looks at it, Poland looks set to play a not insignificant role as broker or ally as the political dynamics of Europe shift with the Brexit negotiations.
During the late 1950’s and 1960’s when Poland was under communist rule I shared an English Catholic prep and boarding school education with several mainly titled Polish aristocratic exiles. However this is my first visit to Poland on a short but intensive publicity tour arranged by my Polish publishers. It leaves me little time between interviews to take in the city during a packed scheduled of TV, radio, website, and newspaper interviews. But it’s enough to catch a glimpse, to take note, and yes to want to return.
The Poles I meet are warm and friendly, fiercely nationalistic, as well as cultured-,much as I remember my school mates. I am struck, on a first sighting, by Warsaw’s small size and the generally low-key and unambitious architecture and infrastructure of the city compared to other European capitals. It is not a rich country or a militarily powerful one. I also made quickly aware of the extent to the county’s historical experience may make it understandably concerned about the future direction of Europe and its potential break-up. There is an enduring memory of Poland’s carve up during and after WW2.
My companion for the next 48 hours is , Piotr ,is from Krakow . He a young publishers’ publicist whose grandparents and parents survived the traumas of Nazi and Soviet rule. Piotr by contrast has grown up enjoying the benefits of democracy and being part of the European community.He tells me he feels reasonably relaxed about Brexit as long as it doesn’t end up making life worse for the Poles in the UK and those, like him, whose best future is linked to a prosperous and peaceful Europ. For there is no doubt in his mind that life in Poland has become a great better since it joined the EU in 2004 . He hopes that Britain and the EU will work out an arrangements that benefits everyone.
My hotel is not among Warsaw’s current best but it’s functional, central, and one that an enterprising local publishing house can afford for a visiting author . It was built under communist rule. It is gracelessly decorated and bureaucratically run, its long corridors and box-like rooms, a less famous legacy of communist rule than the nearby iconic , socialist realist 231m high Palace of Culture and Science. This ‘gift of friendship’ from the Soviet Union is nicknamed Stalin’s penis, Piotr informs me, an Orwellian monstrosity some Poles wished had been torn down long ago but which has lived on as a tourist attraction , Poland’s highest building. It dwarfs any 21st century building in Warsaw, a reminder that the communist legacy still hangs heavy on modern Poland, alongside an enduring nationalism that has shown itself as prone to authoritarianism as well as liberation.
When I ask Piotr , a Catholic, what he thinks of Pope Francis, the subject of my latest book published in English, he tells me that he knows of one priest who likes him but many Polish conservative Catholics don’t. In Poland, a majority of bishops and priests and regular mass goers find it difficult to come to terms with a Pope they regard as a socialist politically and a liberal theologically and doctrinally. By contrast, John Paul 11nd, himself a Pole, endures as their most loved Pontiff. Despite Pope Francis’s call for less clerical and a more compassionate Church, Polish largely conservative bishops and many priests are fervent supporters of the current right wing government and its uncompromising assault on liberal sexual morality and curbs on Muslim refugees.
The latest book of mine to be translated into Polish is about the politics and history of Spanish football. It coincides with the publication of a new edition of an earlier book on FC Barcelona which focuses on the relationship between the club and Catalan nationalism and its rivalry with Real Madrid. Football is popular in Poland and the literature of Spanish football has attracted a particular strong following. Poles are fascinated by the way nationalist politics plays out in the rivalry of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the endurance of a sport whose popularity has survived revolutions, civil wars, and dictatorships.
During one interview, I am asked why it was that Catalans are sometimes called Polacos (Polish in Spanish). To the interviewer’s surprise and barely concealed consternation I tell her that its used in a derogatory fashion by Castilians or radical Real Madrid fans against Barca fans on the grounds that the Catalan language is as incomprensible as Polish. The conversation then switches to whether what Catalans and Poles have had most in common is their nationalism or their sense of victimisation at the hands of a foreign power.
In a Greek restaurant in the centre of Poland I watch FC Barcelona play Sporting Gijon on a giant screen together with the manager, a Barca fan with an uncanny resemblance to Hristo Stoichkov, the Bulgarian player who once played for Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.
FC Barcelona seems to have a bigger following in Poland than Real Madrid, with Barca’s Polish fan club the Catalan’s club’s largest in Europe, a fact that my Polish publishers have so intelligently exploited by having 5,000 names of local Barca followers printed on the inside cover of my book as if they had assumed collective ownership.
On my one and only night out in Warsaw, a local journalist called Karol walks me through the city’s old quarter to his favourite beer haunt . Being a weekday on the first day of Lent, the neighbourhood is emptied of tourists and local inhabitants, which gives it a strangely surreal feel . We wonder across its restored market square, in and out of medieval alleyways, and small courtyards, its monuments to brutally repressed uprisings, its markings of the wall separating the Jewish ghetto, its grand imposing Churches, and aristocratic buildings, some of them rebuilt with the original stone or brick , so many ghosts of the past in our midst, and yet a testimony to man’s ability to rise again from even the most appalling devastation, and all inexorably linked to Poland’s past and struggling sense of collective identity.
Among the Polish journalists who interviewed me several spoke Spanish better than in English. Some had benefited from EU Erasmus grants in Spanish universities and work places, others had learnt simply from following the Spanish League La Liga on the internet. Leaving Frederic Chopin airport, I remember that another airport I had flown in and out of recently – Funchal in Madeira- is about to be named Cristiano Ronaldo airport. Another of my Polish interviewers, one of the country’s top radio journalists, himself a Real Madrid fan, had told me he hoped Poland’s best player, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski might end up with the Spanish club soon. There is much excitement at the prospect. No one has suggested, as far as I know, that Warsaw airport should be named after him. Polish culture goes deeper than that, thank God. Compared to Chopin’s Nocturnes, even the best CR7 performance is ephemeral.