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New Europe

Day Ninety-eight: Gdansk

Lech Walesa 
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Meeting a legend. Not many people can say they changed the course of European history. With Lech Walesa and my translator Witold, in the great man's office.
Michael Palin - New EuropeHe apologises briefly, he's come from a hospital check-up, but doesn't elaborate on it. He's a few months younger than me and looks quite trim. Now he's here he wants the interview to start right away. Now. He answers my polite questions efficiently enough, but while his answers are being translated back into English he feigns total lack of interest, reading newspapers and letters, fiddling with his computer and generally contriving to look both busy and bored.

He sees globalisation and European unity as the most important new factors at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Having helped dismantle what he calls 'the communist monopoly', he now feels his country must avoid creating any monopoly to replace it.

'We have to create democratic institutions that compete with each other, like in the West.'

He sounds a little disillusioned, or is it just false modesty. 'If I were a capitalist, I would be the biggest capitalist, but that's too late for me. I'm rather poor and frankly I would have to start my business by putting light bulbs in the ceiling again. Frankly, there's no place for me. I'm watching politics. Watching globalisation and peace and how powers interact.'

But a last remark of mine seems to completely change his mood. I'd heard that his daughter is a big success in the Polish version of Celebrity Come Dancing, and as we wind up the interview I decide to take a nothing-to-lose gamble with my last throw.

'Thank you very much, Mr President. A privilege to talk to you and may we wish your daughter all the best in her dancing career.'

Suddenly he's all smiles, standing up and reeling off a whole list of reasons why, as he put it, he might have been 'a bit abrupt'.

He's off to Hamburg in the morning. He shrugs and spreads his arms wide.

'I don't know where I'm going or what I'm going to do there,' he laughs.

Then he's due in Italy to talk to 7,000 people.

'A huge gathering!'

Then Portugal. Then the United States.

'It's madness!'

Having got all this off his chest, he shakes our hands and seems genuinely grateful that, just for a moment, he could lay aside the baggage of the Great Statesman and be himself.

Later that night, dipping into a book by Radek Sikorski, a journalist, now Foreign Minister of Poland, I come across his account of a chat with the great man back in 1991.

'I had interviewed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the murderous leader of Afghan fundamentalists, and... Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan guerrilla leader accused of burning his enemies at the stake... But I still rate my interview with Walesa as the worst experience of my journalistic career.'

Unfortunately for him, that was before they had Celebrity Come Dancing.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-eight: Gdansk
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Gdańsk
  • Book page no: 232

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  • Miscellaneous
  • Day 3 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 34 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 22 
  • Pole to Pole