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New Europe

Day One Hundred: Warsaw

Michael Palin - New EuropeOur arrival in this big grey capital coincides with a grey overcast day. The streets are still hung with posters for the Miss World Competition which took place a couple of nights ago at the Palace of Culture, the massive landmark edifice that was Stalin's gift to the people of Warsaw, though if he'd known they might use it for Miss World Competitions he might well have taken it back again.

We're driving through Stalin's other gifts to Warsaw, wide streets flanked with long lines of relentlessly undistinguished housing blocks. They've not aged well and appear to have been ignored in favour of high spending on Old City restoration.

One strip is lined with small, seedy sex shops and peep-show parlours. The name on the wall, I notice, is John Paul II Street.

Even though it's over two years now since Poland joined the EU, there are still so many jokes about the number of Poles working in the UK that I'm happy to show that it's not all one-way traffic.

At Warsaw Number 4 Fire Station I meet a Cockney called Kevin, born in Chelsea, who's even named his daughter Chelsea, but who's lived in Poland for fifteen years and is now a section leader in the Straz, the Polish fire brigade. Speaking to him you might think he'd just come over the day before yesterday. His London accent is untarnished and he looks and talks with amiable chippiness as if he's just come out of the Duck and Parrot. In fact, he speaks Polish so well he's written books in Polish, has his own television show, and has just returned from doing stand-up comedy in the tough industrial cities of Silesia, where, he says, German jokes go down very well. Clearly nothing fazes Kevin Aiston.

It's just as well Kevin's amiable, because physically he's quite daunting. Over six foot with head shaved close, he walks straight and tall and fills the space around him like a goalkeeper at a penalty.

He shows me round Number 4 Fire Station, laid out like a stables with the engines housed in long red gabled roofs around a yard.

They have a small museum from which I learn that the 170-year-old Warsaw fire brigade suffered grievously under the Nazi occupation in the Second World War.

'For acts of sabotage, like slowly extinguishing the strategic buildings, many fire-fighters were punished and died in the mass extermination camps,' reads one caption. It reminds me that one in five Poles, twenty per cent of the population, lost their lives in the 1939-45 war, a higher proportion than in any other European country.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred: Warsaw
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Warsaw
  • Book page no: 235

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