Courteous, hopeful Polish give the lie to a far bleaker past


LETTER FROM POLAND:Young people engage in consumerism, while other faces speak of hardship and toughness, writes PADDY AGNEW

AFTER THREE weeks of travelling up and down Poland, I am beguiled by the extent to which modern Poland is up and running, full steam ahead. As you walk around the cities of Gdansk, Cracow, Poznan and Warsaw, modernity hits you in the face.

You look at all these good- looking kids on their mobile phones or their iPods as they check out the Max Mara, Pierre Cardin or Hugo Boss shops in one of the many huge, multilevel, cement and glass shopping malls that seem to have mushroomed all over the country, and you say to yourself, “Wojciech Jaruzelski? Who was that?” It is as if the horror story of Nazism and Soviet-dominated communism over 50 years never happened.

People walking around the streets, thoroughly engaged in the not so noble art of consumerism, do so with total nonchalance. It is as if they were saying: “Well, hang on folks, this is the way it has always been around here.”

And then of course, if you do the maths, you realise that for any Pole under 23, there is a sort of truth to that assertion. While there hasn’t always been an economic boom (4.3 per cent growth in gross domestic product last year), it is true that no one under the age of 23 has lived through communism.

The faces of the older generation tell another story – hardship, wariness, toughness. The generations are divided linguistically. Almost all younger Poles seem to speak excellent English, and also are unfailingly polite and helpful. If you are driving around Gdansk late at night looking for your hotel with a grey-haired taxi driver, however, then your rusty German is your only man.

Echoes of the past may be reflected in the extent to which this remains an orderly society. Cafe, pub and restaurant life tends to be busy but orderly, and not given to the drunken hysterics of a Saturday night in many Irish (and other) towns.

At a pedestrian crossing, no one moves until the lights go green, even if there is no car in sight. On my first morning in Warsaw, I was pulled over by a policeman because in my anarchic way I had gone jaywalking on a busy boulevard. The policeman in question did not look much amused and I am still not quite sure what sort of fine he would have landed on me were it not that I was wearing my Euro 2012 accreditation prominently round my neck.

In the build-up to those same Euro 2012 finals there were many who doubted the ability of not only Ukraine but also Poland to stage such an event. Your correspondent put this point to Zbigniew Boniek, the former Polish international soccer star who now divides his time between Poland and Rome. “We’re pleased with the way things have gone . . . When there was a whole lot of pessimistic publicity about our preparations, we simply stayed quiet. People were saying, ‘Poland doesn’t have hotels, airports, stadia’ and all we could do was smile and wait for everyone to come here and see for themselves and discover that this is a normal country . . .

“But I wouldn’t link a sports event like this to the current economic moment. We were going strong before the Euros and we will still be going strong after the Euros.”

I asked the same question of an old friend, Jacek Palazinski, a one-time “dissident” who for many years sat at the desk beside me in the Foreign Press Bureau in Rome. Jacek was an opposition activist who got himself smuggled out of Poland in December 1981 just hours before that same Gen Wojciech Jaruzelski, the communist leader, declared martial law.

Jacek, now presenter of his own programme on Kontakt 24 TV, is one of those who returned, opting to do so in 2005. Sitting in his elegant, light-filled apartment in central Warsaw, he offers a succinct explanation for the Polish economic turnaround: “There are 45 million of us . . .”, he says with a grin.

Jacek is not the only one to have come back. Tadeusz, who used to work as a carpenter in Trevignano Romano, moved back to Zamos in the mid-1990s and has since built up a thriving furniture supply business.

Mikhael, the man who owns the “student” apartment I am staying in in Cracow, has also returned. A Jew who lives in both Israel and Cracow, his parents were Auschwitz survivors and he has returned to reclaim family property – not always an easy proposition.

The stories of those who have returned are for another day.

In the meantime, sit back and marvel at this modern Poland where wifi always seems to work, people are courteous, the coffee is good and only the football team disappoints.