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I think I was flagging at this point; feeling the lack of sleep in general and a bit of museum overload. We were once again scheduled for the ECS and the highlight of the week, a meeting with the former president, Lech Wałęsa.
In advance of this highlight, we were shown a film about the women who were involved in the Solidarity strike. It was made by Andrzej Wajda, who was a key figure in telling the political and historical story of Poland. His short film about the women was interesting, especially the contribution made by the tram driver, whose story was remarkable for her way of telling it as something very ordinary and somehow self-evident. It was also interesting to see how the strikers knelt to pray en masse in the open air of the shipyard and were confessing to the priest in the middle of everything. The influence of the Catholic church, personified by John Paul II, was evident in everything we saw at the ECS.
We squeezed in a lightning fast coffee break while Gosia instructed us carefully on the correct protocol. To my surprise, there had been no requirement to submit questions in advance, even in broad terms. We were told we could ask anything we wanted. In excited anticipation, we gathered in the room to await the arrival of the hero of Solidarity; one of the architects of the fall of communism.
Former president Wałęsa arrived in a cloud of charisma. Despite the years that lie between his striking days, his presidency and now his fairly active retirement, it is easy to see how he could spring to the head of the movement and inspire his colleagues to action. He presents himself as a ‘man of the people’, is neither pretentious about his achievements, nor falsely modest about what was accomplished. He has a deprecating humour and a definite twinkle in his eye. If he was acting, then he gave a very good impression of a man at ease with himself, able to put others at ease, yet with a clear point of view that he was able to explain.
He spoke for a few minutes about general stuff to do with his life and experiences then threw everything open for questions. He answered everything graciously and, it appeared to me, sincerely. He talked about his childhood, which shaped his values and about his experiences of rebelling, wherever he was. He moved things along briskly and looked personally at whoever asked a question and held their attention while he responded.
I had been prepared to meet someone who was a bit full of themselves and instead encountered an extremely charming older man with whom it would probably be a pleasure to have a cup of tea and a long chat. When it was my turn to pose a question I asked about the help that Solidarity had received from other workers’ movements abroad and he talked at length about the different roles played by East and West Germany. As he expanded on his answer he continued to respond to me directly and concluded by saying he had not been asked this particular question before and would give it more thought now I’d raised it. This could have been complete nonsense, of course, but he seems to have the knack of making people feel special, and giving his undivided attention. Maybe I was naive to feel flattered, but I certainly did feel flattered that I had given him something he claimed he would ponder on.
The hour with Wałęsa flew by and at the end, lots of photos were taken. By the time he left us, he proudly told us that one of the images was already on his Facebook page! He is clearly au fait with the latest technology. I couldn’t help thinking that if more people could have small meetings with their political leaders there would be far less mistrust of the whole political class, if only because the idiots would be identified more easily and the sincere ones would be recognised. My feeling of tiredness had miraculously disappeared as a result of meeting a genuinely inspiring person.
The whole week had been fascinating, albeit hectic. I had refreshed my Polish, gained some new insights and friends and rediscovered my love of Poland, despite its problems and shadowy side.
Do zobaczenia Polsce!
By 10.00a.m. the events in the morning mist of Westerplatte felt as if they’d happened on an entirely different day …
The first part of Day 4 merits a post of its own. It was an interesting morning in many respects. …