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Warsaw pact

July 31, 2009

Religion, opium for the people. To those suffer-

ing pain, humiliation, illness and serfdom, it

promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we

are witnessing a transformation. A true opium

for the people is a belief in nothingness after

death – the huge solace of thinking that for our

betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not

going to be judged. (From Roadside Dog by Czeslaw Milosz, Polish poet)

Contrary to the weather forecast about Warsaw: a warm hat, gloves, scarf, and stockings are essentials between late November and mid-March, my trip to Poland’s capital, early last March, providentially coincided with an unannounced spring. What struck me most during the three nights in Warsaw (in 2008) was the contrast, from the buildings to the city’s history, which embodied everything around me. I recall vividly how the airport was a meld of the old and modern. Driving down from the airport, the Communist-era apartment buildings interspersed with rapid construction of new multi-storey buildings. Alternatively, the old apartment blocks were being refurbished to wear a modern look.

The hotel I lodged in, Metropol Hotel, seemed to have been renovated as well. Ensconced within the crossroads of Al Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem street) and Marzalkowska Street in the central business district of Warsaw, the hotel jostles for patronage along with a constellation of international brand names: Grand, Marriot, Novotel, Sheraton, Radisson, Holiday Inn etc all sprinkled either along Jerusalem Street or a couple of streets away. Nifty billboards, advertising international brands, threw light on Poland’s transition into a free market economy.

For miles along Marzalkowska Street, the Palace of Culture and Science is noticeably stark in your face. You couldn’t miss the Empire State building inspired monstrosity even if you tried. A walking distance from this gift of Stalin to the people of Poland is the glistening Zlote Tarsay (Golden Terrace), a shopping mall adorned with a 10,000m glass dome that can both filter sun rays and stop snow from building up.

Monthly pedestrian traffic is estimated at one million plus, ironically the same number of people has emigrated since Poland joined the EU – palpable socio-economic consequence of globalisation. The surge of Poles to developed countries, Britain is a popular destination, is attributed to demand for new workers coupled with high labour taxes in Poland, both have spiked labour shortages in Warsaw whittling away Poland’s low wage advantage, a major attraction for multi-national companies that are shipping factories and jobs to former Eastern European countries.

Take Lukasz, an accountant I met during the flight to Warsaw. He works for a company based in Warsaw that has been contracted to take over the accounting of a company in England. For the past three weeks he had been in England to understudy the migration of a client’s accounts to Warsaw. Lukasz lives in Lodz, 140km south west of Warsaw, and commutes daily to the capital. I tried to convince him of the benefits of an MBA but the fees, the equivalent of an apartment he earnestly needs as he prepares to marry, did not make sense in any language. In a society attuned to State funded education, shelling out money for a post graduate degree is anathema.

Nonetheless, young Poles with wads of British pound notes huddled before a Kantor (bureau de change) in Ztlote Tarsay was not uncommon. Other people may fret about the ills of globalisation, these young Poles, at the receiving end of its diffuse benefits, were not complaining. Yet older Poles, at the least some of the ones I met, were wary of the impact of globalisation on Polish culture. This keen sense of cultural identity is recognised has the sole reason for Poland’s survival as a country. Ironically, the partitioning of Poland that wiped it off the world map for 123 years, the Nazi promise of a new breed of ‘supermen’ and the Communist guarantee of a new ‘Jerusalem’, could not expunge Poland’s religion, culture and language. It was edifying to find out that through out the Lenten most Polish households abstain from meat.

Mind you, I came with the idea, rather naïve, that every Pole was a classical music spouting intellectual.  Rather I met more football enthusiasts – Poland is to co-host the Euro 2010 football competition. However, I met a graduate of philosophy and classical music. He had quit his full time job as viola player with the orchestra to devote time to youth leadership activities. His humour had a satirical tinge.

On my first morning as we meandered through a ‘short cut’: an area of office complexes with several shiny black Honda Accords parked around, I was taken aback when he told me it was the House of Parliament. Anyone ambling through the National Assembly premises in Nigeria could be arrested for being a security threat. A few minutes later, as we crossed a street he pointed to a gleaming building behind us, several storeys high, it was the stock exchange. Right across it was the initial premises of the exchange in 1991, prior to that, it had been the headquarters of the Communist Party.

On Saturday 8th March, we met with our English speaking guide (several Poles I met conversed fluently in English) for a tour of Warsaw. Our tour started off at the Lazienki Royal Park. In the park, she was pleased as punch to show off a monument to Federic Chopin, a Polish composer: seated under a willow tree, listening intently to its rustling, for inspiration. Chopin’s compositions were deeply rooted in Polish folk music but had a global appeal. Every Sunday, during the summer, open air recitals of Chopin’s music are organised while the public seat on benches amid a garden of full bloom roses. Next was a detailed tour through the Royal Castle, according to Warsaw in Your Pocket, a travel guide: “…the Palace’s astonishing interior, is a jaw dropping safari of extravagance and opulence”.

We dispersed for lunch after a walking tour of the Old Town, the Old Town market square and the Barbican: a 16th century fortress that was restored after World War II. Over lunch we mulled over the granitic resolve of Poles to reconstruct Warsaw, one of us thought their hold onto the past was galling. Each of the places we had toured had been rebuilt after being torn down, razed, destroyed and left in rubbles: millions of cubic feet high, during WWII.  Every drop of sweat, toil of muscle and ounce of jewellery (eg, gold trinkets used to re-ornament a great part of the Royal Palace), were contributed by Poles, voluntarily. After lunch, we went to see the Ghetto memorial, monument to the Warsaw uprising and the tomb of unknown soldiers. Preparations for the construction of a Jewish museum, a modern multi-media exhibition chronicling 1,000 years of the history of Polish Jews, were evident.

Overall, I came away with a better understanding of John Paul II, a witness of Poland’s socio-political and economic transitions, whose perceptive and perennial teaching on the relatedness of culture, religion and economics is detailed in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year) “the inefficiency of the economic system, which is not simply a technical problem but a consequence of the violation of the human rights to private initiative, to ownership of property, and to freedom in the economic sector. To this must be added the cultural and national dimensions; it is not possible to understand man on the basis of economics alone. Man is understood within the sphere of culture through his language, history, and the position he takes towards the fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work, and death.”

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