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AMONG EQUALS


The first journey I undertook across Europe was by train from Russia to England. After four months in cold and bleak Moscow I was to spend the winter break from college with my father in London and I had secured the exit visa, an improbable feat then as students were not normally allowed to travel outside Russia during the first year in college. Not having been in Western Europe before the journey, the prospect of traversing Europe through three time zones and countless languages was exciting.

In London after a train journey from Moscow, 1974
I and my travel companion Janardan Kumar Shrestha, JK to friends, was my senior at our school in Nepal and had already been in Russia for a couple of years. His command of Russian and resilience to the effects of vodka would stand me in good stead during this journey. Our train started from Kievski Station in Moscow bound for Brest-Litovsk, the historical town on the Polish frontier best known for a treaty the Russians signed with Nazi Germany before World War II.

I remember some remarkable oddities during my journey which would stand out like a sore thumb in the melting pot Europe has become today with the expansion of the European Union eastward. At Brest we had to change our train from the broad gauge Russian track to the narrower gauge Continental. Passport control took place frequently as we traversed through geography and history. It was at the height of the cold war. Soviet Immigration checked the exit visa at Brest and Polish immigration checked the Polish transit visa. After having crossed Poland, similar formalities awaited us at the Polish - East German frontier. This was repeated at the East Berlin - West Berlin divide, while entering and leaving West Berlin. Then we were checked once more at the East German - West German border. Finally we entered Holland and sailed from the Hook of Holland to Harwich in England. Juxtaposing with today's seamless travel possibilities in the borderless European Union, my journey was no doubt an ordeal but it was the stuff of history I would be poorer without.

The trip was like watching a monochrome movie slowly changing to Technicolor as we traversed the continent westward. From Moscow to Kiev and on to Brest the journey was a bleak canvas of Russia in remiss, a vast grey land yet to be touched up from the artist's palette. The artist finally stepped in at the Polish frontier somehow turning even the mundane farmlands more colourful. Warsaw was like a breath of fresh air even then, an ethereal reminder of the ephemeral but feisty sovereign state forged by the independent minded Poles taking the opportunity of the Russian revolution only to be crushed later under the jackboots of Adolf Hitler's invading army. The liberation following the end of World War II was anything but; the Soviets installed their own puppets under the guise of a Socialist national liberation movement. This was my first visit to Poland and fate would bless me with many more to come.

Having met and later married a Polish lady back in 1979 I have had front seat view of the tumultuous times history would once more heap on Poland. When I got married in a Catholic Church in Lublin, Solidarity was getting to be a household name, a movement that might succeed in bringing a new lease on life to an ossified society created in the image of another. Poles joked that their government pretended to pay them, and they in turn pretended to work. However, it was not to be. By the time I and my wife visited Poland in 1981 for Christmas General Jaruzelski had already outlawed Solidarity and declared martial law, an act of repression he later justified as a patriotic act to save Poland from imminent Soviet invasion. The jury is still out.

I remember in pre-satellite TV Nepal to listening to BBC Radio news broadcasts on how the Soviet bloc fell like the pins on a bowling alley. First there was Rumania, the hated Ceausescu regime fell. Solidarity won in Poland. Gorbachev became a hero when the Berlin wall came crashing down to liberate one-third of Europe. Even the Baltic Soviet Republics declared independence. And finally Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank outside the Russian Parliament to announce the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself! There was boundless joy in Poland and we celebrated in Nepal with lightness in our steps and alacrity in our hearts.

I have come back to Poland once again in 2009, two decades after the heady days of Solidarity and the Polish Pope. Flying in from London on a Shengen visa, I was out of the terminal building in 10 minutes flat, through immigration and baggage retrieval. The Zloty is strong now at 3 to a Dollar, to make way for the Euro they say. Poland looks and feels different; there is growing wealth and sense of purpose. Poland is in business, among equals.

In front of the Presidential Palace, Warsaw

Comments

  1. Poland's ascent since 1990 and Nepal's descent since the same year - a juxtapose in contrasting fortunes. Perhaps we became too complascent sans Nazi and Soviet oppression.

    I recall JK from Godavari. He forced me to do 'the twist' in front of a school gathering.

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  2. It is interesting how Poland moved away from the shackles of Lenin and Stalin for their own betterment; and we here in Nepal in this day and age venerate Lenin and Stalin. Nepalis must be primitive in our thought processes. Yet to evolve.

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