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New Europe

Day One Hundred: Warsaw

Michael Palin - New EuropeWhen the war ended and the communists took over, Kevin tells me, the country entered a forty-five-year period that Poles call the Deep Freeze. When it was over many were confused as to where they were. As the author Eva Hoffman put it, it was like exchanging the claustrophobia of no choice for the agoraphobia of freedom.

Kevin singles out hospitality as one of the great qualities of his adopted country.

'They'll empty out the whole fridge and knock on the neighbour's door and empty their fridge in order to entertain you,' and he notes their religiousness. 'If a Polish man's on a bus and he's got a hat on and the bus passes a church, the Pole feels an obligation to take his hat off and bow to the church.'

On the whole, the Poles like the British but they do bear grudges over what they see as misapprehensions about the war.

'Twenty per cent of the RAF was made up of Polish airmen, but no-one ever says anything about the Poles taking part in the Battle of Britain.'

The lack of Allied back-up during the Warsaw uprising, when nearly 200,000 civilians died in the unsuccessful attempt to overthrow their Nazi occupiers, is deeply resented, especially by the older generation.

This is not all I learn from Kevin. Before we go, I'm gold-star proficient at sliding down the firemen's pole.

'Lean into it with your shoulder, put your forearms round. Don't hold it with your hands, you'll burn them going down. Leg over leg. Off you go!'

Lunch at the restaurant next door, called Florian's after the patron saint of firemen. It's decorated in a disconcerting butch-bordello style with lacy tablecloths, firemen's helmets and brass-band instruments. A suitable place for my first taste of smalets, a delightful confection of congealed lard smeared on bread, a dish for the poor that has suddenly become fashionable. Well, so Kevin says, but then he's a comedian as well as a fireman.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred: Warsaw
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Warsaw
  • Book page no: 235

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