As a correspondent in Poland, you have to be permanently ready for the unexpected. Every morning for 30 years (with four spent in between in Vienna and five in the USA), I have woken wondering what my dear Polish friends will find on this particular day to amaze me. Almost every day they succeed. It is a country of contrasts and paradoxes: white is never really white and black never really black. At least this teaches you to show restraint and tolerance.
To be sure, living here provides many opportunities to get frustrated and upset. The Poles can be as unreliable as anyone, considering good planning and organization unnecessary when plain improvization does just as well. Most of the time, at any rate. If you were in an optimistic mood you might even call it panache. It's probably because of such shortcomings that a Frenchman like me feels comfortable in Poland. Indeed, my wife of nearly 30 years is Polish. And I believe that it is not sharing the same qualities but sharing similar flaws that brings people together.
I am very fond of another Polish characteristic which is a kind of practical humanity. The most important thing here is human relations. This is sometimes as frustrating as it is charming. Bureaucracy, for example, is not bureaucracy in the normal sense: right or wrong, you cannot manage if you don't know the right person in the right place. This was so, of course, even during communist times. You didn't have the slightest chance of getting your plumbing fixed if you didn't know 'Pan Piotr' (Mr Peter) working at a construction site nearby, who was more than happy to come after hours and install a new tap, probably stolen from the state.
In some ways, the work of a Western correspondent was more interesting during those communist days. The official press gave no more than 10 per cent of the news you needed. You had to do everything: go to where the news was, confront your sources, bring the puzzle together and, if possible, even try to understand the meaning of the facts before presenting them for the delectation of your readers. To achieve all this, you had to build your own network of sources, people whom you could trust and who trusted you. They had to be in all areas of public life: the party, the opposition, the Catholic Church. As Hedrick Smith, the former New York Times correspondent in Moscow, wrote, 'to be a correspondent in a socialist country was to play Watergate every day'.
Sometimes it was dangerous and annoying. As a correspondent of Le Monde and Le Figaro (each successively for 10 years), I was rarely able to walk my dog through the park without two security people following, admittedly at a respectful distance. How important you felt! After being expelled from Poland in 1971, I met a young architect in Vienna who told me that his parents, who lived across the street from our apartment, were very happy when we had to leave. He added kindly, 'It's not because you were bad neighbours, but during your whole stay one of my parents' rooms was occupied by two not particularly charming fellows with some strange equipment.'
At times it was also very good for the health: one leading party official was often ready to talk but only when walking in the forests near Warsaw. I doubt if it did much to fool the security apparatus, but it was quite enjoyable anyway.
After 1989, I thought the press in democratic Poland would provide me with all the news I needed; that it would be as banal to be a correspondent here as in Paris or Washington. But I soon realized that elements in the Polish media were learning the tricks of democracy, adding to the sins of the past (fighting for ideology, a propaganda style, a lack of expertise) the sins of the new era (money making and sensationalism). The news is still often selective and unverified. The penetration of Western media groups is improving the picture. But I still need to rely on my own sources.
Happily, democratic Poland is no less surprising and paradoxical than communist Poland. The post-communists have controlled the government and parliament for over two years and their leader, Alexander Kwasniewski, was elected President last November. They are nonetheless implementing a liberal economic policy, 'a la Thatcher', with 10 per cent of the population making huge fortunes and almost half of Poland's families living below the poverty line. They are, in fact, the new capitalists: former party and security bosses who control two thirds of private businesses and banks.
On the other hand, the right is mostly represented by intellectuals who, together with the workers, were responsible for the revolution of 1989 but are now, with them, the main losers in the implementation of this 'wild capitalism'. Now, with the rightist Solidarity union, they fight for social justice and for respect for moral and spiritual values, which are in danger of being destroyed under the new regime as efficiently as they were by the former.
FIRE STILL BURNING
Poland remains a magnificent, surrealistic theatre and when I wake up tomorrow it still won't be a boring place to report from. Nevertheless, for somebody who witnessed the magnificent struggle of the Polish workers and intellectuals in the Eighties, it is hard to look at today's Poland without a feeling of nostalgia. Where is the ethos of Solidarity? How did the fight for human dignity end up transferring the materialism and totalitarism of communism to the materialism and permissiveness of wild capitalism? Where is the Poland I love, which was supposed to be an inspiration and example for us in the West-a call to build at last what John Paul II calls 'the civilization of love'?
Hope is still there. I look at the deep faith of so many young Poles and my doubts fade: the fire is still burning beneath the ashes, Poland is still Poland.