Marek made a trip to communist Poland in 1979 and I found the story pretty entertaining. I’m very familiar with today’s Warsaw, and comparing it with my dad’s frustrated experiences and impressions put a smile on my face. Although Poland is no longer communist, it still has lots of hangovers from that era, and you still encounter the odd story like the one below today… – AZ
Warsaw, which I only got to know once I had grown to be a young man, always struck me as a little exotic, but now even more so than back then. On the one hand, it’s the excruciating, dull bureaucracy and the exaggerated politeness, while on the other, the exceptional loutishness.
Every clerk, every member of the militia, is treated as “the authority”, rather than, as in England, a functionary in service of society. And each of these officials acts like a bigwig, like a lord of life and death. They sow fear instead of helping people in their everyday lives.
I was arranged to meet the director of the Department of Foreign Cultural Cooperation in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was about an exhibition of mine which was to take place in the spring of 1980. I was a bit early for the meeting, so I sat waiting on a comfortable sofa in the building’s large hall.
When the time came, I asked the receptionist wearing black glasses and a military disposition where the director worked. He replied that I needed “a pass” first. I found this a little odd, but went off to do as directed. Sitting at the little pass window was a fat bald nitwit. I said politely: “My name's Marek Zulawski. May I please have a pass? I’m supposed to meet the director at 10.”
“And how am I supposed to know that?” he replied impudently.
“You just heard about it from me, sir…” I was genuinely confused. “I told you a moment ago.”
“That’s not enough for me.”
“What isn’t enough? The information, or the source?”
“I have to have it written down.”
“I don’t have anything in writing for you.”
He pulled out his hand: “Where’s your ID card?”
“I don’t have one. I don’t live in Poland.”
I suddenly remembered that just before I left, Maria had put the Golden Cross of Merit into my pocket, a real legitimisation which I’d received one time for Polish-English relations in the field of culture. I quickly pulled it out and handed it to the slaphead in his little window.
“Here’s my ID,” I announced, delighted.
He looked at it suspiciously from every angle for a long time, after which he handed it back with an imperial gesture.
“Based on this, sir, I can’t give you a pass.”
“Why?” I asked, taken by surprise again.
“It doesn’t have a photograph.”
“In that case,” I said in an icy tone, loud enough for everybody in the hall to hear me, “please phone the director and inform him that I can’t attend our meeting because you won’t let me pass.”
“You can call through yourself, sir. There’s a telephone in the hall.”
I was furious. I was annoyed by his idiotic neologism, and didn’t want to lose my place in the line.
“I’m not going to ‘call through’! I have no reason to. I came here on time.” I raised my voice enough for the whole building to hear, while the rest of the queue went pale from horror and held their breath. “Pick up that phone immediately and explain to the director why I’m not in his office – the office where he’s been waiting for me for the last 15 minutes!”
A moment of tension followed. We stared, measuring each other up. On his greasy face, at that moment as grey as Polish toilet paper, appeared an expression of fear. He clearly had decided that anybody who dared speak to “the authorities” in that tone had to have an unusual amount of backbone.
Slowly, as if under the influence of hypnosis, he put his hand on the phone and, without taking his eyes off me, communicated with someone in a hushed voice, covering the phone with his hand. A moment’s pause, and then he spoke to me in a quiet, limp voice.
“You can go ahead without a pass, sir. Second floor, third door on the right.”
I turned on my heels without a word. In the corridor on the second floor, I found the director waiting for me. Neither of us said a word about the incident downstairs. I supposed that, in the bottom of his soul, the director himself feared that pass watchdog and preferred to refrain from comments concerning his behaviour. I stopped caring the moment I reached the second floor anyway.
We arranged the matters of my exhibition in a smooth and polite manner. The director was exceptionally courteous and after our conversation he walked me to the stairs.
My departure from Warsaw came the next day, horribly early in the morning. It was colourless, necessary. A sleepy Magda prepared breakfast for me. Dr Malgosia arrived at dawn to sit with us and after I finished packing she drove me to the airport at the last moment. After two or three hours, I was in London again.
It was hard to believe. I unpacked a suitcase I had only just closed. It is hardest to believe in those things which happen automatically – independent from our will, as it were, but in tandem with their own kind of logic and an inertia which we don’t have the strength to oppose.
Ultimately, it’s because we insist on taking into account other people’s judgement of our conduct. We fear scandal. We get into a car or plane in a stupor and in no way can we halt the process we’ve initiated. After all, it would be impossible to return, even from the threshold of the door…