Poland emerging from the shadows

I spent some small amount of time in the heavily graffitied home of the “Pozan,” the celebration made famous in the States by Manchester City’s rapacious fans. It’s a bustling town surrounded by acres and acres of fields – a bit like Peoria, IL, without a central highway and with a watertower tagged by high school kids.

The Poles are ready to host the European Championship – even if that readiness is belied by their countryside. The infrastructure of the country is clearly quite behind neighboring Germany, and this is either charming – as it is to my eye – or worrying.

The trains are from the 1950s and 60s – and would be considered shabby chic today, with rough scrub felt seats and stern twill floors. The farm machinery still has a Soviet edge, and the newer machines, German in manufacture and design, looked small in contrast to the billowing fields. Barley, rye grass, all as far as the eye could see.

Things felt sparser – a bit of a feat considering I had come from Finland, a country that has fewer people than Chicago and more woodland. The buildings, rough and rude, poked up at erratic intervals. Some were brick, most were the Brutalist concrete that seemed to be favored in countries of that socialist era.

One of the things that has always been so attractive about Poland, however, is the spirit of the people. They respect tradition – but display a remarkable ingenuity. I’m lucky to know a little about this: Chicago has more Poles than Warsaw, and there two large sections of the city – I live on the edge of one of them – where you do not have to speak English; the bartender at the dive down the block is twenty years younger than I am and still shows up in full-on gural gear, then natters away on Facebook like any young American.

And as there, here: if the countryside and the world around them remains old, the Poles as a group seem instead to be moving forward full force. There isn’t the sleekness of modern Europe – you won’t see many Mac Airs, and the Razr still seems to be the phone of choice – but there is a heartbeat and a pulse. There was a non-stop chatter on cell phones, laptops were slung about, things were getting done.

When I was a teenager, my favorite author was the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, who I read in translation. He wrote sci-fi, and he seemed to me at that age to be either the smartest dumb writer I’d ever read, or the dumbest smart one. His stories largely concerned the failings of a hapless pilot named Pirx, who struggled with his equipment more than anything else and rarely completed his missions. I didn’t understand until quite a bit later that Lem’s works were satirical, takeoffs on the bizarre workings of the socialist system that he couched in genre fiction in order to elude the censors.

This spirit – ingenious and cavalier to the point of recklessness – is so far the defining characteristic of the tournament. While Ukraine implodes under politics, price gouging and some truly ugly incidents around the country, Poland is left smiling. Poland has its problems, mind you: league games are widely thought to be fixed, racism and hooliganism problems are present, and few people are moving their tech companies to Gdansk.

But this tournament is a feat that should not go unremarked. Four years ago, the idea of having the Euros here was sniffed at. Kiev was the shining star of the East, and Warsaw was the old lady. How times change, quicker than we care to think.

This week is Poland’s time to take a bow, and it is well-deserved. Some may think of this country merely as a source of cheap European labor – a common refrain in Britain and Germany – and more than a few have sniffed at its lack of sophistication. To those, I would point out that this is a nation that put its head down and shoulder into it, and got the work done. The same cannot be said of their partners in hosting, nor could it be said of a number of other places that have been awarded top-flight tournaments with great pomp. Say, South Africa. Or Brazil.

As I left Poznan a couple of teenagers ran to catch our train as it pulled away into the tunnel. They did not make it, but they were smiling and running as they faded back. We moved forward to Warsaw, past the wind tower, past the fields, and into the future.