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New Europe

Day One Hundred: Warsaw

Kevin Aiston 
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With Kevin Aiston, the Cockney boy who joined the Polish fire brigade, at Warsaw's Number 4 Fire Station.
Michael Palin - New EuropeKevin Aiston is an Englishman married to a Pole and Monika Richardson, who shows me round Warsaw this afternoon, is a Polish woman married to a Brit. She's a wafer-thin blonde with a sharp, acute eye and a good line in well-informed irreverence. She resists my tendency to expect simple answers.

'The Brits in particular have this need to sort everything out and put it in the right drawer, otherwise there's a bit of fear that things might get out of control, and with the Poles... so many things are spur of the moment.'

'D'you think the Poles are a little more spontaneous perhaps?'

'Very spontaneous... more impulsive and unpredictable than the Brits,' she nods as if surprising herself with a simple answer. 'We seem to function OK in the European Union and we do the right thing and progress according to the plans, but it just doesn't seem to be the real us, you know.'

As we're talking we look out over Warsaw from the chilly ramparts on the thirtieth floor of the Palace of Culture. This is a building of massive bulk, heavy-hipped and tall-towered. Stalin gave it to the city in 1952 to show how important Poland was to the USSR.

'Apparently he gave us a choice,' smiles Monika, 'you either get a metro system or a Palace of Culture, and we said, "Oh, can we have a metro," and he said, "OK, I'll give you the Palace."'

'But you've got a metro now, so you're all right.'

'Yes, but not thanks to Stalin.'

This colossus, a gigantic marking of the territory, was much disliked and there was talk of taking it down, but like Ceausescu's Palace in Bucharest, its greatest achievement was that it defied demolition. It was just too big to remove. So now, long after Stalin, the Palace of Culture is reluctantly accepted as a Warsaw landmark, possibly the Warsaw landmark, and everyone is trying to like it and be positive about its theatres and swimming pools and the Congress Hall where interminable political speeches and announcements of Five Year Plans have been superseded by Bob Dylan concerts and Miss World Competitions.

The view from the thirtieth floor is spectacular but there is frustratingly little spectacle to see. Warsaw was once compared with Paris, but after eighty-five per cent of it was destroyed in the war, it never recovered its grace or beauty.

Monika agrees.

'It's not a beautiful city, but it's a brave city, and a working city. A good down-to-earth city of people who have busy lives. I have a lot of respect for it.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred: Warsaw
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Warsaw
  • Book page no: 236

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  • Eating
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 3 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 6 
  • Pole to Pole