Expectation weighing heavily on bashful Poles


LETTER FROM POZNAN:SLAWOMIR, THE conduktor, is losing patience. It is hard to blame him. The man has several hundred tickets to check on the Gdansk-Poznan Express (it covers 380km in four and a half hours so PKP, the Polish rail service preserves the old CIE’s understanding of ‘express’) and so far his portable machine has been able to show no trace of the ticket booked by The Irish Times.

He keeps getting interrupted, now helping a fuller gentleman with a staggeringly large valise negotiate the narrow corridors, now pointing new arrivals towards their seats and then returning to try and solve the problem, staring into his machine as if it is a crystal ball displaying all the troubles of the world.

“Peece of sheeet,” he murmurs at one stage, looking up with sorrowful eyes. Slawomir seemed to accept that the transaction had been legitimate and he sighed every so often and seemed to be about to waiver and just issue a new ticket that would guarantee seat 55 in carriage 14 all the way to Poznan.

But, in the end, his duty to PKP won over and he shrugged and said sadly: “what we do about this” and looked out the window to make it clear that although he would be reluctant to eject the The Irish Times from his train and deposit him in rural Poland, he nonetheless would.

As Slawomir scrolled through his machine and the train flashed by several village stations, we saw on one platform the wonderful sight of a father and son. They were the only people at this particular station and both were dressed from head to toe in Polska shirts and carrying their flags waiting for a train which would presumably take them to the match.

All week, it has been clear that Poland’s opening game against Greece represented a strange moment for the country. This night and this tournament is their moment and, as a nation, they are a bit bashful about glorying in it. When you ask anyone how they feel their team will do, they will say that they are “hopeful” in a way that suggests they feel that hope is a dangerous concept; that hope is too often dashed. For once, Polska are not the plucky underdogs, putting it up to the Germans or the Dutch or the English. They are the hosts. They have qualified automatically and, for a fortnight, their cities will come alive with an exotic infusion of accents, faces and colours.

Just as Germany used the 2006 World Cup to reinvent what it was to wave their national flag, so the Poles are hoping to use this tournament to increase the national self-confidence.

Naturally, it is all being done on a more modest scale. On the short drive from Sopot to the outskirts of Gdansk where the German team have their training base, Uefa welcome signs were posted on rusted bridges and Irish tricolours were hung on ruined buildings.

The old town in Gdansk is quaint and tourists stroll through the square in the evening but in other parts of the city lie buildings bombed out in the Second World War and never restored.

Sopot, the beach resort where the Irish team is based, was manically busy during the week. School kids were celebrating the end of exams by drinking vodka on the beach; the main street was teeming with tourists. But just past the church, at the train station, haggard men sat drinking, some sleeping rough, seriously busted-up men who were nothing like as old as their faces suggested. Not far away, moneyed youngsters hired stretch limousines with blacked out windows to take them to the bars at night time.

On Thursday morning, though, the main street was completely swept and tidy. A mass was held outside the church to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. Hundreds of locals gathered and it was striking how many of them were young and modish. Some held banners featuring ornate mosaics of the Saints. The mass was said through loudspeakers. It was like a scene from Knock 20 years ago.

Next week, thousands of Irish are expected to arrive in Sopot with their green jerseys and flags and inflatable tricolours and they will expect their Polish hosts to be charmed and delighted by their “having the craic”.

And many will, but walking along Sopot on any evening are plenty of stacked Polish guys who look like they might have a low patience threshold for the beery antics of Irish men.

For sure, the Polish are eager to make this tournament a success. With Ukraine cast as the bad brother, already damned before a football has been kicked, there is an unspoken pressure on the Polish nation to rise to the occasion.

And as the train rattled past flat lands and farmhouses which looked as if they had changed little in half a century, Polish flags flew from houses and telegraph poles. Soon, everyone would be sitting in front of their televisions just to see if luck was smiling on a country that has not seen too much of it.

Like all former Eastern Bloc countries, Poland feels as if it is still coming up for air. Nothing is flashy: on the train, the service attendant comes around with a huge jar of Nescafe with which to make the coffee: they are in for a shock in the early hours of Sunday morning when Irish fans head straight from the stadium in Poznan for the 3am train in the hope of finding cool beers in the restaurant carriage. There is no such carriage and no such beers.

Which is a pity because it is after six o’clock now and word has begun to spread through the train that Lewandowski has scored the first goal of the tournament and Poland lead 1-0. Little whoops of joy escape from the various compartments.

Slawomir breezes by and he is close to smiling. They just might enjoy this.

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