All 21 entries tagged Poland

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June 19, 2012

Euro successes

Market SquareThe two Euro 2012 groups playing in Poland (and the only ones I've followed so far) may have not offered the best football, but they did offer the best fans: the Irish, winners of all prizes as most popular fans, the Russians, undeservedly attacked by hooligans in what however became an occasion for most Poles to rethink their anti-Russian complexes, the colourful Spaniards, the noisy Croats, the musical Greeks, the good Czech soldiers, and of course the poor Poles, who keep singing “Polacy nic nie sie stalo” (Poles, nothing has happened). The only exception is the Italians: few and made of essentially two groups: clueless families and fascists. A few times I wished I was sitting on the other side, but at least, after last night, I can confirm the positive observation that even right-wing fans now appreciate Balotelli.

I spent much of yesterday afternoon and night in Poznan with the Irish fans. While still in a good mood, they did go through a certain involution over the last week: “you’ll never beat the Irish” became “you’ll rarely beat the Irish”, and eventually “you’ll always beet the Irish”. As the football became less and less rewarding, “stand up for the boys in green” gradually gave way to “stand up for the Polish girls” (a bit sexist: just like the various versions of “shag the queen”, not an inherently wrong concept, but space for improvement on form). By the end, they even stopped cheering Trapattoni (he had to wait until the age of 73 for conceding 9 goals in 3 games). Poznan's beer, Lech, is sold in green bottles and cans and enjoyed much favour, even more than the equally green, but weak, Calrsberg sold in the stadiums. Seeing the queues outside bottle shops in Poznan, Polish onlookers could only comment: “it’s just like under communism”.

Quite. Mass rallies on Plac Defilad in Warsaw, under the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science, were not seen since the 1st of May marches of communist times. And Poland’s tournament, even if unsuccessful, has still been their best since… 1986.

What has changed since communism is the perception of Poland. It is, so far, a very successful tournament, all visitors visibly enjoying the perfect organisation, the new stadia and, most importantly, the beautiful cities and the landscape between them (not always the roads, but believe me, they are so much better than just ten years ago). Just like the 2010 World Cup changed the perception of South Africa from dangerous violent country to emerging world economic power, Poland now has strong ambitions of getting rid of any ‘grey’ or ‘poor’ perception. Most Poles have kept the white-red flags on their cars despite defeat. The open racism feared by the BBC has been limited so far to one Croat banana. This ‘feel-good’ effect may not last. When in 2006 Germans broke the tabu of waving their national flags during their home World Cup, the surge in national pride registered by surveys only lasted one month or two. In Poland, the bills for the stadiums, and the poverty of those who could not afford a ticket, will remain. Many companies building the stadiums (incluiding the main contractor of Warsaw's National Stadium), after cut-throat competition for the contracts, have already collapsed and failed to pay subcontractors, leaving hundreds of workers without months of hard-earned wages: like for the recent North Korea-style queen jubilee in London, should modern mass events have to rely on unpaid labour? Unpaid workers were rightly protesting at Wroclaw stadium last week.

PS I was forgetting that the Euro is about football after all. Cheers to Spaniards and Croats, who have provided the ultimate falsification of stereotypes on lower morality of Latin and Slavic people in comparison to pretendedly superior Scandinavians (see Swedish-Danish biscuit, Euro 2004). And cheers to Pirlo, but it hurts to think Milan gave it to Juventus for free last year... a karma for having previously given away Shevchenko and Kaka for trillions after their sale-by date, I suppose.


June 18, 2012

Defensive Greeks

GreeceOn Saturday night, sitting in between thousands of increasingly desperate Russians, I observed an example of Greek bravery, against an intense 90-minute siege. As an Italian, a part of me secretly believes that the best football, the most exciting , the most difficult and the most clever, is defensive football, the catenaccio (my Milanese part believes exactly the opposite, but fortunately football does not require intellectual coherence).

Shame Greeks were as defensive, but not as brave, on Sunday against German austerity as they had been against prodigal Russians. Even if Left voters rallied around Syriza, rightwing ones did the same around New Democracy. So we have, once again, a last minute survival of the Euro. It is not that a Syriza’s victory would have been a rising star, as some Greek friends believe: socialism in one country was impracticably for the largest country in the world (Russian fans on Saturday reminded me of that), let alone for the most dependent economy of the EU15. Tsipras’ project of defaulting while keeping the Euro would have been an adventurous bet and require more than a political, fiscal and accounting miracle (by the way, it would be less difficult for Italy, which does not have a primary deficit and could survive on its own Euros). Maybe, actually, Samaras will be able to negotiate better conditions from the EU than Tsipras would have: he has more friends and more (undeserved) credibility. The point is rather a distributional one: given his electorate, Samaras will not really touch tax evasion nor rent, the roots problems of Greek public finances. And I believe it is urgent, for the Left, to expose the distributional aspects, rather than the technocratic ones, of the Euro-crisis.

Russian minersHere in very sunny Poland (yesterday I even got sun-burnt while kayaking in the countryside) people do not worry about Greece nor the Euro (they are at the end of the news), but only about Euro 2012. On Saturday night, I left the stadium with thousands depressed Russians (what a difference with their singing at the beginning of the match), the best so far in the Euro), heading silently towards the city centre. In the middle of the long Poniatowski’s bridge over the Vistula, we run into an even larger crowd coming in the opposite direction: the Polish fans leaving the Fan Zone after Poland-Czech Republic 0-1. In this same place, on Tuesday Polish hooligans had tried to attack the Russians. This time, typically Slavic melancholy and hang-over united both sides in a depressed and totally innocuous mood. In Wroclaw (where Poland had played) there were some minor incidents, but even there, the large majority of Polish fans opted for joining the Czechs in celebrating the elimination of Russia – for both sides a goal in itself.


June 16, 2012

Croatia – Italy, national questions

Italy - CroatiaPoznan is one of the most dynamic cities in Poland, radically changed since the times I went there as a visiting student in 1989. It is one of the most western in both geographic and socio-economic terms. Which also means that on Thursday, it was full of cars with German registrations but Croat flags… There are more Italians than Croats in Germany, but clearly they are either lazier or, having been in Germany for much longer, less keen on expressing their national pride.

Croatia is a young nation and pride is even more important for them. On the packed tramway from the old town to the stadium I was about the only Italian in a sea of White-Red chessboards… who started to jump with an intensity close to bring the tramway off the rails, while singing ‘tko ne skaca pravoslavni je’: who doesn’t jump is orthodox. Not very relevant on a day match against Italy. But I knew that: when in Travnik, Bosnia, in 2008 as a election international observer, on one evening I was eating some cevapcici in a bar. A group of local (i.e. Bosnian-Croat) youth stared at the way I was eating and then asked why I was not eating the mountain of row onion accompanying the meat – a clear sign that I was a stranger, a rare one in that corner of Bosnia. Once learnt I was Italian, visibly unhappy (Italy had an ambiguously pro-Serbian stand during the Bosnian war), they asked me to make the sign of the cross. This is when my Catholic education came to hand, and I did it the "right" way (left-to-right), earning me the locals’ enthusiastic appreciation –(in Travnik they clearly didn't know that the probability of finding an Italian Orthodox are etremely low). They even offered me a glass for a toast to the pope, adding that ‘we are all Catholic here’… Which was true in Travnik East, but only because the Muslims had either ended in mass graves, or been expelled to Travnik West. Three years earlier, I could imagine, my unexpected drinkmates were fighting. But things have moved on a lot, especially in Croatia, and Zagreb is probably one of the most liberal and open cities in Central Europe – although Croat Bosnia and rural Croatia, especially if affected by the war, less so. And I still have the unpleasant feeling of remembering that some of their hooligans, like the Serbs, were also active in the paramilitary forces in the 1990s.

Although my knowledge of Serb-Croat (sorry Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs, but it does look like one language to me) is very limited, I could often understand the Croats in the tramway and later in the stadium. The youngest ones, while singing in Croat, spoke to each other in German: they are no ‘Integrationsverweigener’. Some also spoke Italian, either because from largely Italian-speaking Istria or because of having spent time in Italy. And in the stadium, they were often singing insults in Italian, thanks to the strong links of love-hate between Croat and Italian hooligans. The Italian fans are too illiterate linguistically to be able to answer – and towards the end of the match were also too depressed.

Apparently some Croat fans booed Balotelli, and one threw a banana. I did not hear or see any racist tone, though, all Croats I saw were all friendly and hopefully, despite the negative efforts of a bit of the Italian right who want to equate fascist crimes and Yugoslavian crimes against Italians at the end of the war, the bad times may be at the end. What I am sure of is that, in both two opening matches, Italian fans supported Balotelli unanimously, and not for instrumental reasons given that he clearly disappointed on the pitch: the time when a part of Italy booed the first black Italy player are definitely over (we have come really last on that: even Poland and Croatia have had black players for longer, and easily got over that).


June 13, 2012

After Poland–Russia

PoliceDespite days of media tension-building, the Polish-Russian war of 2012 went by with only minor incidents – and with little damage even in football terms.

Maverick Polish rightwinger takes on the USSR

I went to the start of the much-disputed Russian march, at the beginning of the Poniatowski’s bridge over the Vistula. A large police presence defended a few thousands Russians who were in a good friendly mood and avoided ostentatious communist symbols – tsarist ones prevailed. Maverick rightwing politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke, in desperate search of publicity, tried single-handedly to stop a lonely USSR flag. He caused amusement instead of a fight, but he is the usual case (think Le Pen and Nick Griffin) of far Right in a neck-tie, cunningly making space for the violent one. Only a little more threatening were little groups of Polish hooligans, who shouted their hatred to the Russians and ‘Russian whores’ to the police who defended them. When I had to cross the police lines to leave the Russian march, a Polish policeman addressed me in fluent Russian explaining me that I was going in the wrong direction. It is not the first time that I am mistaken for a Russian in Poland – but it is the first time that I am treated politely for this.

A little later, more Polish hooligans tried to attack the Russians and were dispersed by water cannons, with about 200 arrests and a few minor injuries. Comparisons with 1794, 1830, 1905 and 1920 are rather misplaced.

I then moved on to the Polish fans zone under the Palace of Culture and Science, the skyscraper that Stalin donated to Warsaw. Some 50,000 Polish fans, and I could spot only one Russian, a young woman wrapped in a national flag. Russians can be no less brave than Poles.

Some pictures from around Euro 2012 here, and more occasional comments on Twitter: @guglielmomeardi


June 11, 2012

Euro–history – ahead of Poland–Russia

Irish historian Norman Davies, after XVI Century's Polish poet Jan Kochanowski, defined Poland as ‘God’s Playground’. I dislike his romantic approach to history, but indeed the playground of Euro 2012 football matches having been the main playground of European XX Century’s history, it’s no surprise that every day brings new history politics issues. Let see some of them, because rather than ‘don’t mention the war’, here the point is it to mention it right.

German history (1)

Only two weeks ago Obama caused a major diplomatic scandal when, while delivering the Presidential medal of Honour to the memory of Jan Karski, the Pole who in 1942 brought the news of the extermination camps to a West unwilling to hear, to see and to act, pronounced the words ‘ Polish extermination camps’. Nothing is more offensive to Polish ears: it is just like saying ‘American terrorist attacks’ for 9/11, just because it happened in America. The Polish authorities, usually very flattering towards the Americans, asked for a public apology, Obama obliged immediately, but the damage is done. Last week, the German, Italian and Dutch team, and a few English players, visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the pictures show them with the guided tour headset. The first thing the guides say in Auschwitz, is that in 1942-45 there was no Poland: Auschwitz was in Nazi Germany. Let’s hope they will remember what Obama has not remember from his tour two years ago (when he mixed up Auschwitz with Buchenwald).

German history (2)

One who needs a bit of history lessons is the second coach of Germany, Hansi Flick. He invited the team to a ‘Stahlhelmen auf’. In Gdansk. He apologised more convincingly than Obama, probably because the Germans at home care about history more than Americans do.

German history (3)

The Czech Republic and Germany might meet in the quarterfinals, although this is unlikely given the Czech bad start. In any case, President Gauck, while leading the hardliners towards the Ukrainian government on the Tymoshenko case, just made a historic step towards better Czech-German relations with an excellent letter of unconditional condemnation of the Nazi massacre of Lidice in 1942, which significantly avoids mentioning the Benesz decrees (as if they retrospectively justified German crimes) and express admiration for the Czech resistance (which can no longer be considered moraly responsible for the massacres, for having assassinated Reichsprotektor Heydrich). Well done. Czech Republic and Germany may meet in the quarter-finals.

Polish history (1)

In Warsaw the impressive Museum to the 1944 Insurrection (not to be confused with the Ghetto insurrection of 1943!) has become a pilgrimage point for Polish fans before each match. And he is crowded with western fans too, and are conquered by the dramatic, if one-side, history of Warsaw’s sufferance. Everybody hopes that Russian fans will visit too: the museum blames them as much as the Germans (but does not blame the mistakes of the Polish underground leaders). Some Russian fans have left flowers at the Insurrection monument.

Polish history (2)

The tramways to Gdanks new stadium run along Gdansk shipyards, now largely dismissed, where the army massacred strikers in 1970, Solidarnosc was born in 1980, and communism started to end in 1988. Yesterday, Italian President Napolitano left his flowers under the monument to the victims of 1970, which was appreciated by locals even if they could not avoid to notice that back in 1970 Napolitano was a communist himself (although as moderate as a communist can be). Now my Polish friends define the impressive shipyards as the monument to the collapse of communism, and indeed there is a ‘Museum of Freedom’ here since 2005, when I came for the 25th years of Solidarnosc celebrations. But I can’t avoid to notice that the dismissed parts look to me rather like a monument to the collapse of capitalism. Moreover, in the part that still is active, just meters away from the ‘Museum of Freedom’, a few years ago it was discovered that North Korean welders, posted from their government, were working for no salary…. Selective freedom indeed.

Russian history (1)

In 1920, the Soviet Army arrived to Warsaw gates. Germany and Hungary being then in a revolutionary state, a Soviet advance would have changed Europe’s history – who knows if for the better or for the worse. Pilsudski guided the freshly created Polish army to the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ and condemned socialism to be ‘in one only country’. Tomorrow, for the Poles, it is re-enactment of that battle, and they hope in a new miracle. All Russia (or USSR)-Poland games are politically charged: in 1957, during the Polish Spring of 1956-58, when Poland beat the USSR in Chorzów, hundreds of thousands sang the national anthem, in tense awareness of what had just happened in Budapest; in 1982, Poland stopped the USSR 0-0 in Barcelona, qualifying for the semi-finals, and the Soviet TV could not broadcast the match live because of the big Solidarnosc banners behind one of the goals (old times: now anything vaguely political cannot enter the stadium).

Russian history (2)

But for the Russians tomorrow, the 12th of June, is national day: the announcement of Russia’s exit from the USSR in 1990, following Eltsin’s election victory. Russian fans asked the permission to organise a match through Warsaw ahead of the match, which was initially banned but eventually allowed on a very short tract. The end of the USSR is something Poles should be happy to see celebrated. But the Polish Right is inflamed: Russians marching in Warsaw! Dressed in red! The Russian fans are nationalist, their leader being active in Zyrinovski’s party, and add to the provocation by announcing they will carry communist symbols (banned by a law on the same ground as swastikas in Poland, which however the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional but the Constitutional Court). One has to hope right-wing Polish football hooligans will not react. Some of them have left flowers at the liberating Red Army monument, though.

Polish Fanta-history

As Spanish novelist Cercas writes in his Anatomia de un instante, according to some survey (?) a quarter of British people believe Churchill was a fiction hero. What is sure is that a quarter of Polish people believe that the 2010 Smolensk disaster, when the Polish president and the highest political, military and economic authorities died in a plane crash when heading to Katyn’s remembrance day, was a Russian attack. On the 10th of each month, the Right demonstrates in memory of Lech Kaczynski in front of the presidential palace – which is just besides the Bristol Hotel, where the Russian team is based. Fortunately no problem at all occurred during yesterday’s demonstration, and the Russian team made the nice gesture to leave flowers at the Smolensk victims monument. Still, some nutters (under the banner ‘Solidarni 2010’) still cry that Kaczynski was murdered by Russians. They were kindly invited to get out of the stadium area last Friday, will they try again tomorrow?

Ukrainian history

There are two Ukraines, one hates the Russians, the other hates the Germans, neither trusts the Poles, who on their side would like to bring Ukraine under their influence and away from the Russian ones. During the Orange revolution of 2004, Poles were wearing more orange flowers than the Ukrainians themselves. The horrible crimes between Ukrainians and Poles at the end of WW2 are less and less mentioned. Signs of hope?

Italy-SpainOn a lighter note

For once, I wasn’t ashamed of being Italian yesterday in Gdansk. For Polish speakers, the two best Polish comments on the events of the last few days:

“Tyton ratuje zycie”

“Yakunovich siedzi na trybunie. Tymoszenko tez siedzi”

(untranslatable, sorry)


May 14, 2012

Brave New World under threat

Follow-up to Warsaw's Brave New World from Around Europe 2010-12

Last remains of the GhettoThe Brave New World club-cafe of leftwing group Krytyka Polityczna, an oasis of free criticism in Warsaw's downtown I frequently pop in to (and one of the most interesting cultural cafes in Europe), is again under threat. The current rent of the historic New World's cafe is due to expire, and the association has succefully bid for another space, the former Menora restaurant on Plac Grzybowski - the centre of the former Jewish Ghetto, which is now being regenerated. It is less central than the current location, a bit further away from the University, but still a great place: actually, Brave New World is exactly what is needed to bring back to life a square that has become sleepy and neglected.

In an insult to the rule of law, the local authority have declared the tender won by Brave New World void and reopened it, with the requirement that any activity should be focussed on Jewish traditions - in the previous tender, there was no mention of them. This selective rediscovery of Jewish Warsaw is nothing more than a pretext to exclude a politically and culturally fastidious presence.

Polish cultural and political personalities, from Baumann and Holland to Mazowiecki and Kwasniewski, have signed a petition in defence of Brave New World (Wspanialy Nowy Swiat). I can't find an English version, but I guess it will appear soon on the London's virtual site of Krytyka Polityczna.


November 21, 2011

PSG & the rise of the French far right

Follow-up to Polish fans' political own goal from Around Europe 2010-12

Polish football “chuligani” (I love Polish spelling and declination of English words, one of my favourite being “hot dogi”, reminiscent of Venetian history) scored one more political own goal on the 11th of November, Polish national day (Independence). They took part in an extreme right demonstration, turned it into a major guerrilla with the police who stood between them and antifascist demonstrators... and maybe, hopefully, from next year these traditional 11th of November neo-fascist marchs will be banned. The Polish Right still defends them, including the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, which used to be very serious... and their crisis goes on.

Fiers de nos couleurs... oui, mais quels couleurs?Extreme right’s affairs with football fans are not a Polish prerogative, though. A special case in this landscape are the supporters of Paris Saint-Germain: I went yesterday to check out at the Parc des Princes, but they do defy any easy interpretation and would require more extensive research (there is quite some literature on it actually, e.g. D. Bodinas et al., “Racisme, xénophobie et ideologies politiques dans les stades de football”, Raisons politiques, 1, 2008; N. Hourcade "Supporters extrêmes, violences et expressions politiques en France", in T. Busset et al. (eds.), Le football à l’épreuve de la violence et de l’extrémisme, Antipodes, 2008).

The Boulogne end of the Parc des Princes took the name of Kop of Boulogne in the 1970s, imitating Liverpool’s fans, and it became increasingly infiltrated with neo-nazi skin-heads. But the weird stuff started in the 1990s, when Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) actively promoted its matches to wider groups (sounds like educational “widening participation” policies...), by handing out discounted tickets to the other end, Auteuil. The Auteuil end became popular with ethnic minorities... ooohps, you can’t use such racial wording in France: youth of African and especially North African descent. Tough rivalry between the Kop of Boulogne and the Virage Auteuil quickly developed. Since then, the intriguing specificity of PSG’s fans is that they spend more time fighting against each other, than fighting against other teams’ counterparts.

Things went increasingly nasty during the last ten years, with major accidents such as during PSG-Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2006, with anti-semite aggressions and one Kop Of Boulogne fan killed by a police bullet. After further violence in 2008 Sarkozy even threatened to dissolve the club. Recent years saw major ‘security plans’ being introduced. While, unlike in Italy and Poland, no compulsory ‘fan ID card’ has been introduced, photographic identification is required to attend the two ends. Fans obviously protested against the changes, Auteuil's even going on strike for a while. Many fans moved away from the two ends, to the Paris stand. A part of Auteuil fans have moved to the H blue stand, where I watched first-of-the-league PSG against second-from-bottom Nancy. Nancy won 1-0, and in the H stand they were not happy, although still mostly busy with chanting the name of popular manager Kambouaré, threatened with sacking, and replacement with Ancelotti, by the new owners (from Qatar) and new director Leonardo. Auteuil's defence of Kambouaré looks like resistance against new foreign plutocrats, by the best of black France... ooops, you can’t use this word in France: a citoyen from Nouvelle Calédonie. I must say that in no football stadium in Europe I have seen such a melting pot as in the Parc des Princes, nicely contrasting with the frightening whiteness of many British stadia.

And the extreme right? The Front National was directly accused of involvement in the 2006 accidents during PSG-Hapoel Tel Aviv, but nowadays, it tries hard to present a more respectable face: unlike the Polish right, it avoids being mixed with nazi-skins and hooligans, although it keeps a paramilitary ‘security service’. The problem is that this strategy seems to be rewarding. Opinion polls put the new leader Marine Le Pen at 15-20% ahead of April’s presidential election. This could allow her to improve the record result of her father: 17% in 2002 and a surprising qualification to the second round. Ahead of that election, polls put Jean-Marie Le Pen at only 8-10%, because half of his voters were too ashamed to confess voting for him. Marine Le Pen appears as more ‘respectable’, so one hopes this 15-20% corresponds to all actual support and she will not double the forecast on voting day. But this respectability makes her more dangerous: in fact she is miming very well Sarkozy 2007, and the differences between the two are more and more blurred...


October 30, 2011

Do zobaczenia Warszawo

Polish autumnAt the end of a month in Warsaw, it’s time for putting down some impressions as I had done for Berlin and more fragmentarily for Madrid and Barcelona. Unlike those previous stops of my investigation, Warsaw is not, and probably will never be, a prime tourist destination. Which alone makes it an interesting and exciting place to my eyes. University library - best contemporary building in town

Warsaw is a very young city – architecturally and demographically. Levelled to the ground by German dynamite after the 1944 insurrection, it was rebuilt (including the Old Town) in a hurry and cheaply, but at least with some good ideas and a lot of green space by the communist regimes. The transition to capitalism was the opportunity for another wave of hurried and cheap wave of construction – this time of skyscrapers, shopping malls and pretentious villas for the rich. The urban tissue has suffered for it, as described on the Za Żelazną Bramą estate, but now, with increasing wealth, also some interesting, more ambitious architecture makes its mark. Warsaw will probably have the highest European skyscraper soon, the University library, with its façade with different alphabets and its roof gardens is one of the most beautiful library buildings I have ever seen, the High Court is extremely elegant... and Warsaw keeps growing and surprising.Supreme Court & Krasinskich Palace Public transport is also improving, but slowly: the first line of the tube was completed a few years ago - after a few decades works. The second line, which connects to the new national stadium on the other side of the river, will spectacularly miss the planned opening date of next year: Euro 2012 fans should expect inconvenient transport, and residents a month of extra traffic jams.

Demographically, first the loss of over a third of the population during the war, then high birth rate and the huge baby boom of the early 1980s (martial law: a year of curfew, nothing interesting on TV and shortage of contraceptives), and finally strong internal migration (Warsaw’s unemployment is three times lower, and pay level twice as high as in the rest of the country) and some good universities give Warsaw a much younger look than most western capitals. The result is a fast changing place where things happen and nightlife is as vibrant as anywhere.

Even if the cultural capital of Poland is still considered to be Kraków, Warsaw has a much more cutting-edge scene. Warsaw is now full of klubokawiarnie, intellectual cafés for the most disparate tastes where young people discuss books, politics, travel, try new tunes on the guitar.... I have already written a blog on the leftist ‘New Brave World’ café, but there are plenty more, especially near the University, but also hidden in the various neighbourhoods. Concerts (very strong jazz and classic traditions, open to innovation) and especially theatres are first-class. Polish stages are marked by experimental and absurd streams (Kantor, Lupa, Grotowski, Mrożek, Gombrowicz) and thanks to a tradition of generous subventions are particularly popular. The most famous Polish cinema actors who appeared in Wajda and Kieslowski’s films are above all theatre actors, and give their best live – actually, if they can be criticised, it is for being too theatrical on film. Among the recent novelties there is Teatr Polonia, a new independent theatre set up by the most famous Polish actress, Krystyna Janda, who has played 700 times her pièce de résistancemonologue, Shirley Valentine. A live transmission of a comedy from Polonia had some 3million viewers last Monday, more than most Polish national team matches (and deservedly so).

During my stay I sadly did not find the time or the tickets to go to her theatre, nor to see the best plays in town (Mrożek’s Tango at the neoclassic National Theatre and the Dostoyevsky-adapted Idiot at the Studio Theatre in Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science). I went instead to some more cutting edge shows. Wyzwolenie (Liberation), at the Teatr na Woli, is a re-adaptation of the neoromantic play by Stanisław Wyspiański, who already one-hundred years ago offered a smart sardonic view of Polish nationalism (my favourite Wyspianski poem/play is Wesele, the Wedding, a satire of the unconsummated marriage between peasantry and revolutionary intellectuals – you can see the film transposition by Wajda if you can’t go to theatre in Poland). In this adaptation, director Piotr Jędrzejas brings the action to our days, and the satire is of current rightwing nationalism, including the use of the Cross, in an absurd set reminding of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: actors repeat Wyspiański’s verses but don’t know what to do with them. Besides the provocative aim (some rightwing journalists asked to stop the show and incriminate the director) and the good (but short) performance of Jerzy Trela, the play was a bit unconvincing, to most of the audience and especially to somebody like me who has not read the original Wyspiański’s text. For this reason I was in a position to enjoy more fully, at the Teatr Powszechny,“jesteś piękne... mówię życiu’ (You are bueatiful... I say to life), based on the poems by Wisława Szymborska, Nobel Prize 2006 and one of my favourite poets. Unlike Wyspiański and much of the Polish literature, Szymborska does not deal with big historical issues, but with intimate everyday experiences – which are not necessarily less political. The play, in which three women around a table tell each other their life impressions through Szymborska’s words, is a triumph for both the fragmented, ironic short poems, and the art of reading of them.

Warsaw is also a city of cinema. The setting of Kieslowski's masterpiece Dekalog, and host of an incredible varieties of cinemas for the most cosmopolitan programming. Besides the new multiscreen, 3-D complexes, a handful of splendid or intimate vintage cinemas, like Muranow. I went to a new cinema, KC Kino, opened in the projection room of the monumental building that used to host the communist party's Central Committee (KC stands for Komitet Centralny), and in a sign of the times in 1990 was turned into the stock exchange. I watched there Czerwony Czwartek (Black Thursday) by Krauze, a film on the December 1970 worker rebellion in the Polish costal cities, which was brutally repressed by the army killing 41 demostrators. The movie is clearly inspired to 'Bloody Sunday' by Greengrass, and it avoids the heavy nationalist rhetoric of most Polish historical movies, although the whole second half is filled by typically Polish martirology, i.e. the portrait of families' grief and victims' funerals - which are not historically irrelevant though: to avoid demonstrations, the funerals took place in the middle of the night, with families given only 30 minutes advance notice. Anyway, the interesting experience was that the movie presents many scenes of Gomulka deciding the repression in the Central Committee, exactly one floor above where I was watching the film...

With so much food for the soul, what about food for the body? When I spent a few years here in the mid Nineties, there were just a handful of acceptable restaurants: the pseudo-Jewish Pod Sansonem in the old town, the pseudo-Japanese Tokyo, the new creative Kuchnia Artystyczna in the Ujazdowski castle, and a couple of communist-era places with extremely slow and bureaucratic service (Lotos, Mozajka – happily for gastronomic archaeologists they still exist and they have not changed). Now, Warsaw’s wealth and curiosity for the world have filled the city with all kinds of restaurants, from revisits of Polish traditions to all corners of the world. The restaurant critic of the main newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (still one of the best newspapers in the world, and the best for information on the eastern part of Europe), Macjej Nowak, for many years wrote nearly exclusively caustic reviews: eating out in Warsaw looked more like a masochistic adventure than a pleasure. But recently, he asked in a column if Warsaw has become the food capital of Europe. The answer is no, but just the fact that the question can be raised tells about the progress made: and in terms of value for money ratio, there are really not many places in Europe where eating out is so enjoyable. Try for instance Przy Trakcie or Papu for smart Polish cuisine, Zgoda for unpretentious traditional Polish food, Izumi Sushi for spectacular Japanese, R20 for very good French, and, especially for desserts, the very feminine Słodki i słony of Magda Gessler. From next week, while in Paris, I will miss Warsaw prices and friendly service.


October 26, 2011

Polish fans' political own goal

Football in Central Eastern Europe has some cultural specificities, rooted in a more artisan style, political subtitles under communism, lower incidence of media and sponsors, and stronger oral traditions – see the instructive ‘Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football’ by Jonathan Wilson. With westernisation, much has changed, but sometimes in unexpected directions.

Widzew Lodz fans in actionWhen I was in Poland in the 1990s I was tempted to go watch the football, but never actually went despite the very cheap tickets. The level of the game was disappointing but especially the fans were not recommendable. Not because in Poland there were more violent hooligans than in Italy in absolute terms – if any, the opposite would be true. The problem was the ratio: in my home town's San Siro, there would be maybe 1,000 potentially violent hooligans, hidden among 80,000 totally (well, almost totally) normal people; it is enough to know some basic geography of the stadium and you don’t have anything to worry about. In a Polish stadium, there will still be just 1,000 potentially violent hooligans – but only 500 ‘normal’ spectators...

Things have moved on. Sportwise, Polish football is still in dire straits and does not remember the great team that arrived third in the World Cups of 1974 and 1982. Over the last twelve European or World Cups, Poland has qualified only three times, and even then has always gone out immediately. They did qualify for Euro 2012 – but as hosts. The clubs are even worse, given that the best Polish players have gone the same way as the plumbers - abroad. No Polish team has qualified for the Champions League in sixteen years. Add to this regular corruption scandals and there is not much to enjoy.

But in terms of attendance things have moved on, although not necessarily improved. In the last few years a few modern stadia have been built – for Euro 2012 but also for the richest clubs like Wisła Kraków and Legia Warszawa. They are very rarely full, but still attendance, and ticket prices, have increased a lot, together with the average income in the country. Legia fans strip off after a goal - despite winter temperature

More recently , football fans (kibice or in slang kibole) have also become a political actor. As in many countries, they are permeated with extreme right groups, but the novelty is that in Poland they have unanimously organised in support of one party (the rightwing Law and Justice, PiS), or, more precisely, against one party (the ruling liberal Civic Platform, PO), responsible for heavier policing in and around the stadia, but also not sufficiently ‘patriotic’. In the last election campaign, the liberal prime minister undertook a bus campaign journey throughout the country – and everywhere he would be met up by organised football fans disrupting his events and shouting ‘Tusk, ty matole, rząd obalą ci kibole!’ ('Tusk, you fool, these fans bring down the government’). The Right, on its side, started idealising football fans as an example of modern patriotism. Senator Romaszewski, a famous former dissident, even compared the football fans beaten by the police to the workers of Radom and Ursus violently repressed by communist security forces in 1976. One week before the election, when a police car killed a fan in Zielona Góra at the end of a speedway match (speedway is nearly as popular as football in Poland), the tension reached dangerous levels.

However, if football fans may have brought a few thousands votes to Kaczyński’s party, they lost many more to him. In the last election of the campaign, PO broadcasted a TV ad showing violent football hooligans in action and concluding ‘they go to vote – and you?’. According to surveys, the main reason why voters abandoned Law and Justice was the football fans. To stay in football talk, the fans scored an own goal of massive proportions.

On Sunday I went to see Legia Warszawa – Widzew Łódź. In the mid-nineties this was the decisive match for the title, but since then the two teams followed the economic fate of their cities: Warsaw's wealthy modernity is reflected by the new stadium in the beautiful Łazienki park, while Łódź is depressed, fighting to avoid relegation in an old stadium in decay. Still, the rivalry between the two largest Polish cities is very strong and Łódź is still often labelled as ‘Jewish’ by fans of other cities. Legia’s are particularly nationalist and anti-semitic: last month, in the Europe Cup match against Hapoel tel Aviv they exposed a large green banner ‘Jihad Legia’, and around the stadium Ku Klux Klan signs started to appear. There have been some cases of violence too. The shameful peak was reached by the Legia fans three weeks ago: they went to a match of the youngest team of Warsaw rivals Polonia, just to verbally abuse and physically threaten them: a team of nine-year old kids had to run in tears from the pitch to the changing room and be protected by the police...

This Sunday was not so bad fortunately. The specificity of Polish fans is that they shout rhythmically without any interruption, but they have an extremely limited vocabulary – which, on the positive side, means that I did not hear any racist slogan. The impression is that the large majority has absolutely no clue about politics.

Polish fans seem to have gone through a sort of specific natural evolution determined by their specific natural environment. Given that the quality of the game is so poor (a 2-0 with just three shot on goal, on a Sunday afternoon when, elsewhere, Balotelli was destroying United and Milan was recovering from 0-3 to 4-3), the fans have developed the special attitude of not caring at all about what happens on the pitch. They only care about themselves and, possibly, the opposite fans and the police. Goal opportunities, missed balls, referee decisions would not affect the level of noise in the match. They keep shouting in the same way regardless of whether the result is 0-0, 0-3 or 3-0 – a quality which actually gained them the title of best fans at Euro 2008, and has been recently admired by Manchester City fans who adopted the customs of Lech Poznań’s ones. A second natural evolution of football fans in Poland is resistance to low temperatures. On a very cold autumn Sunday, when Legia eventually scored (the only events that they seem to notice), a good number of them threw their white Legia shirt away, remaining happily topless for the rest of the match while I was freezing despite two sweaters (and in Poland they don’t sell Glühwein like in the German stadia).

There was indeed one change of attitude of the fans during the match, but not related to football. Five minutes into the game, when Legia's players first reached the opposite end of the pitch, they were met by intensive fireworks fire from Łódź fans. The match was stopped for a few minutes and security forces reacted by charging the visiting fans and forcing them further away from the pitch. At that point the Legia end, in political solidarity with their counterparts, changed the target of their insults from the visitors to the police, and the hitherto uninterrupted ‘Łódzka kurwa’ roar was replaced by the slightly more sophisticated ‘jebać policię – kurwo zostaw kibica’ (sorry, I can’t translate these ones, without violating University rules on obscene language and having this blog shut down immediately).

The fans are not just a problem for Kaczyński – they also are for the football clubs, who unsuccessfully attempt to attract the middle classes in the new stadia (especially through prices, already higher than in Germany and Italy although much lower than in the UK and Spain). There is an intrinsic contradiction, though, between the methods used to control the hooligans and the aim at attracting new fans and their families, willing to spend more money and cause less trouble. As in Italy, Polish authorities have had the bad idea of enforcing compulsory ‘team fan cards’ to control who enters the stadion. This segregates fans from the beginning into ‘tribes’, and constitutes a barrier to the occasional neutral fan. I had to get this card in Italy for AC Milan, and I was a bit annoyed to be forced to get one also for Legia Warsaw, a team I do not support (I prefer Polonia Warsaw, and the KKK signs are at odds with my life promise that I would only support Inter Milan the day they play against the Ku Klux Klan). At least, the Polish card is made instantly by just showing an ID card, unlike the Italian one that, like everything in that country, needs a mountain of paperwork and a long wait. Most of all, however, I miss the informal, Volksfest style of German stadia, and the less tribal setting of Italian stadia in the 1980s. I remember seeing a few Milan – Napoli back then (how do I remember? you don’t forget Diego Armando Maradona), and the fun of bartering with the numerous Napoli fans sitting around, given the large population of immigrants from Naples in Milan. Variety is lost, homogeneity has been enforced – in Poland, even politically.


October 23, 2011

Living in Za Zielazną Bramą – Ghetto, communist council estate, financial district

I am spending a month in Warsaw, staying on the 14th floor of one o the 19 identical huge blocks of the city’s most famous communist council estate in the capital, Za Zielazną Bramą ('Behind the Iron Gate'). It is like living on an open contemporary history book, in continuous updating.Za zielazna brama estate

The estate was built in the early 1970s on the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, where in 1940-1943 over one million Jews were packed and then sent to Treblinka. Just as Krakow’s Ghetto of Kazimierz has been put on the tourist map by Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the Warsaw Ghetto has been shown to the world’s public by Polanski’s The Pianist. The difference is, however, that Kazimierz still exist and Schindler’s List was filmed there, while there is virtually no building left of the Warsaw Ghetto: The Pianist was filmed in Potsdam, Eastern Germany (it is nonetheless a superior film to Schindler’s List, although not entirely faithful to Szpilman’s own book). The Ghetto was destroyed during the revolt of 1943, possibly the greatest expression of human dignity ever: more than Szpilman’s book (who was hiding and did not take part in the revolt himself), I recommend the account by the surviving revolt’s leader Marek Edelman, a protagonist of Warsaw history for the following sixty-six years (he died two years ago), whom I had the honour to have a coffee with in 2005.

Before the war, three points of this area were possibly the liveliest of the whole Warsaw: Chłodna Street with its shops and nightlife, Plac Grzybowski with its craftsmen shops, and the market halls of Hala Mirowska. The little that survived of them went into decay after the war, and only over the last year Chłodna Street and Plac Grzybowski have been revamped. It is now the round of the only Ghetto street which had not been destroyed, but was now in total decay, Ulica Prożna. In some points, the place of the former Ghetto wall has been marked in the pavement, in the same way as it has been done in Berlin for ‘their’ wall. On Ulica Chłodna, which with its tramways in 1940-43 cut the Ghetto into two halves but remained non-Jewish, a monument marks the position of the outrageous bridge which in 1940-43 allowed Jews to move between the two parts of the Ghetto without entering in contact with the non Jewish population in the street below them. Moreover, the Jewish centre, the Synagogue and the Jewish theatre are increasingly important presences not only for Israeli visitors, but for the city.Ulica Prozna

The estate Za Zielazną Bramą that was built in 1965-72 on the ruins of the ‘small Ghetto’ is quite unfamous, just like with all low-income estates (e.g. mine in Coventry). To many, it represents brutalist communist architecture at its worst, and its flats are notoriously small. People do not want to live in such places anymore, despite the excellent central locations, and those who managed to leave were replaced during the 1980s and 1990s by many Vietnamese, in what may become the first ethnic inner city in Poland. However, such fame is not entirely deserved. As architect Jarosław Trybuś writes in his ‘Guide to Warsaw blocs’ (Przewodnik po warszawskich blokowiskach, 2011), this estate was the most ambitious attempt in the whole of Europe to realise Le Corbusier's utopian ideas on council houses (think his famous buildings in Marseille). The nineteen blocs are put in geometric order so that they do never look cramped. In fact, they were immersed in large green space, which back under communism was filled by parks, playgrounds, communal services. The entrance halls are spacious and bright, each bloc with its little internal shop (I like buying the newspaper for breakfast without having to go out).

Za zielazna bramaThe problem is that history moved on and we now have a third life for this area: the financial district. Skyscrapers and luxury hotels grow like mushrooms, in between the old communist blocs. In the remaining space, playgrounds become private kindergarten and parks become car parks: the effect is an increasingly cramped unique architectural and urban mess: 5-star hotels and financial institutions headquarters looking directly into poor flats. One may wonder why developers do not take the blocs down and, given the very prime locations, replace them with much priceier buildings. But the blocs are built in cast concrete and would be the only buildings in Warsaw to resist a nuclear attack: they are going to stay. At the moment there are mostly old residents who can’t afford anything better and Vietnamese immigrants, but over time, with some modernisation, they could become ideal one-bedroom flats for the emerging young cosmopolitan ‘professionals’ (like my neighbour: a Greek chef).

Warsaw marketSomething which is changing very slowly, fortunately, is the Hala Mirowska market. The XIX century halls, after war destructions and communist-time defacement, host some old stalls and two old-fashioned supermarkets. All around, there is a vibrant market with great fresh vegetables, cakes, cooked and fresh meats, flowers, some fish. It is not as spectacular as the Spanish markets, but it is more lively. It was here that Margaret Thatcher, on her official visit in 1988, ostentatiously went to buy some grocery surrounded by photographs, to show that the market was the way. But over two decades of market reforms later, Hala Mirowska suffers from British presence: that of Tesco. A proper market needs regulations, not Margaret Thatcher...


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