Back to the land where the waiter brought Coca-Cola in a silver bucket now

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The Independent Online
As soon as I opened the door, I knew I had been in this hotel room before. I was back in Warsaw, back in the old Europejski Hotel, back among surreal memories.

This was room 145. In here, during an awful winter of shortages and no heating, Bill Webb of The Guardian and I divided the last match in Poland lengthwise in two with a razor blade, in order to light the last two cigarettes in Poland. Round the corner was room 104, where I used to drink whisky with Desa Trevisan of The Times after helping to pull off the boots frozen to her elegant legs. And room 114 where I was robbed, and room 109 where the Deputy Foreign Minister enjoyed the hotel hookers after lunch, and room 122 from whose window I saw the Pope speaking to a million people. How did I stand being away from all this for so long?

As it happens, this is a big moment in British-Polish relations. The European summit at Luxembourg, which ended yesterday, ushered in the six- month British presidency - and the British are out to do something memorable. At Luxembourg, they won agreement for a rapid start, before the end of March, to the negotiations to get Poland into the European Union, with Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus on the same ticket. This meant shouting down the Scandinavians, who wanted slower, vaguer talks with all the 11 original applicants rather than the shortlisted six. Now that Britain is unchaining the gate, the Poles should be full members of the Union soon after the year 2000.

Mrs Thatcher was baffled by this Polish passion to get into the Union. She wondered how a nation so furiously patriotic, which had suffered so much for centuries in struggles to regain its independence, could now be happy to surrender that hard-won sovereignty to the Eurocrats at Brussels. I know how: it's because those centuries taught the Poles that being free and being European came to the same thing. But sometimes, all the same, I ask myself the same question.

Downstairs, a ball was going on in the hotel restaurant. People were dancing in the same old Polish way, as if their lives depended on it. A young woman was showing her boyfriend that she could do a shimmy with a full glass of vodka balanced on her head. It felt like the same place that I first hit 40 years ago last month, when I arrived in Warsaw with 300 Canadian dollars in my wallet.

Those were wild, happy times. Changing the dollars on the black market allowed me and my new Polish friends to live like crazy kings for three weeks. Only the year before, the country had risked Soviet invasion to break out of Stalinism and open the door to the West a little. Everyone was rolling in freedom, wallowing in experiment. I took a young woman to a nightclub, where the manager whispered that he could offer us Coca- Cola. It arrived in a silver bucket, carried by an ancient waiter with all the other diners peering excitedly over his shoulder. He opened the bottle, and poured a few drops into a champagne glass for me to taste. I sipped, and nodded. Yes, 1957 in Poland was a very good year indeed.

Now Communism is dead and the transition to capitalism is nearly complete. The world's bankers are most impressed. Poland's economy is close to fulfilling the criteria for European Monetary Union, while the Czech Republic - once the West's spoiled darling among the ex-Communist states "in transition to a market economy" - is in dire trouble. This pleases the Poles, who have never liked the "smug" Czechs. But they themselves have paid a hard price for their transformation. Some people are getting rich fast. Many live worse than before. Older people worry about the rise in prices and the decline of morals. They mourn the passing-away of the old world in which intellectuals flourished in spite of Communism and patriotic values were passed down from parents to children.

Poland is free now, and 19th-century insurrections are no longer what the young dream about. Hustling to make an income leaves little time for reading or talking. My friends, only one of whom has become a successful entrepreneur, worry that their country is becoming mindless. There is a rude Polish expression which, cleaned up a bit, means "wanking about Chopin". This saying dates back to 1981, when martial law was declared and the radio played nothing but his Etudes and Polonaises. Now it means all efforts to start up again the old steam-organ of Catholic, patriotic, victim-nation rhetoric which used to keep everyone's hopes alive.

The elections in September cleared the air a bit. The government led by the Social Democrats (the reformed ex-Communists) was defeated. The new government is an uneasy alliance of the centre-right, between the liberal Freedom Union and the much larger and more conservative Solidarity Alliance whose support ranges across the political spectrum from trade unionists to old-fashioned Catholic nationalists. The new administration's policies will be much the same as the last one's: join the EU, join Nato, and carry on with privatising the economy. This leaves the ultra-right in a fix. They, with a section of the Catholic clergy, have developed doubts about the Europe which once seemed so alluring. As extreme nationalists, they hate the global free market and they fear that Brussels is delivering Poland into the hands of atheists, abortionists, Germans and freemasons. And yet now they are locked into coalition with the Freedom Union, which they regard as a conspiracy of anti-clerical liberals and cosmopolitan Jews.

Their voice is Radio Maryja, a private radio station whose powerful transmitters deluge Poland with a torrent of doom-laden nationalist drivel, laced with ill-concealed anti-Semitism. It is run by priests, although the Catholic episcopate are often appalled by what it says. Father Rydzyk, its leading figure, is embroiled in libel suits; he is currently trying to force the state to prosecute a left-wing Warsaw paper which called the Pope a "boorish vicar".

But Radio Maryja, said my friends with despair, has an adoring audience of millions who believe every word it broadcasts. One boy I know, who went to work for Tony Blair's election campaign in England, found a Polish couple in Buxton who had built a special aerial to receive it. Gravest of all, some 80 members of the Polish parliament on the AWS right wing owe their seats to Radio Maryja support, and defend its worst excesses.

Walking back to the hotel one frosty night, I passed new memorials to old agonies: the mass deportations by the Soviets in 1940, the Warsaw Rising of 1944. (It's a rule that monuments grow bigger as memory diminishes). I wondered who this tremendous past belonged to now. Once it was everyone's. But today - would the new Poland cast away its history as it passed on into Europe, and leave it to be picked up and abused by xenophobes and fanatics?

Next morning, things looked up again. Two schoolgirls in red cloaks stopped me on the pavement and offered me a cup of hot beer with raspberry juice. Then I met my oldest friend, a survivor of Jewish origin, who suddenly said: "Poland is in one of those periods when it is under God's protection". I read the morning papers, astonished at their wit and vigour and their grasp of what mattered in the world. On the bus, people laughed and chattered as if they were travelling towards something interesting. Poland in Europe, I realised, hasn't any intention of abandoning its past, that country it once was, but is merely learning a new way to manage it.