When one first lands in Warsaw, it’s easy to dismiss the prevailing Soviet realist architecture. The endless blocks of flats in various stages of deterioration. The post-communism proliferation of soulless Western hotels and office blocks. What stands out, however, is the collective heart and spirit of her people.
I abhor nanny state absurdities and thus came to attend the Global Nicotine Forum, an annual conference debunking myths about nicotine’s dangers, and promoting alternatives for smokers wanting pleasurable nicotine fixes without what kills: the deadly tars and toxins in tobacco smoke. In Britain and Europe, and soon in Canada and New Zealand, ‘vaping’ nicotine has been recognised as both at least 95 per cent safer than smoking, and is legal while in Australia our governments and public health zealots refuse even to contemplate the possibility of legalising the use of nicotine except in, as federal poisons regulation puts it, ‘tobacco prepared and packed for smoking’: in other words, deadly fags. Go figure.
The conference heard scientists and doctors adding to the evidence with quality, peer-reviewed research indicating vaping reduces greatly harm to smokers and is safe for bystanders, and increasing legal access is the way to go. Otherwise, smokers who want to vape keep smoking, or become criminals by illegally importing vaping fluid online. Again, go figure.
A joy of Warsaw is food. My driver told me that in the dying days of communism there were a handful of restaurants in all the city, but now every second business is a restauracja, serving a dazzling variety of food and drink, including the humble Aussie flat white. There was much decrying of the Australian nanny state’s stupidity among conference-goers over Polish piva and steaming bowls of borscht.
Late one evening I went to a Polish TV studio to do a satellite cross for the ABC. The interviewer in Sydney grilled me on my just-out essay on the death of the sensible centre, but the Polish studio manager was only interested in whether I knew George Lazenby, and when I said I didn’t we happily debated which Bond was the best. As do blokes everywhere.
As for the essay, I’m arguing Labor is off with the populist pixies, the Liberals don’t know what they stand for any more, and the ideas vacuum is being filled by shouty activists and social media warriors. The problem with Malcolm Turnbull is he’s too Right for the Left and too Left for the Right. 14 losing Newspolls show what the Australian public think of that.
The conference over, I’ve had two days playing tourist. The Ruritanian Old Town is Warsavians’ special pride, with its gaudily-coloured tenements, winding laneways, mediaeval Royal Castle and cobbled squares. Yet it’s an illusion. The original Old Town was bombed and blown up by the Nazis, and was painstakingly and lovingly recreated from scratch as a symbol of Poland’s recovery and national pride. Truly remarkable.
I joined thousands of picknicking locals for a Warsaw Sunday ritual, an open-air Chopin piano recital at the foot of the composer’s statue in the Lazienki royal park. On a glorious cloudless day, with tall trees making a verdant amphitheatre, it was a sublime and uplifting experience sharing Chopin’s wonderful music with people of all ages.
From the beautiful to the brutal. Anyone who wants to understand the true spirit of Warsaw must go to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, celebrating the doomed partisan insurrection of August and September 1944. Tens of thousands of Poles fought, suffered and were murdered by the Nazis while the Soviets stood by across the river Vistula, and the city wiped out in reprisal on Hitler’s orders. There are still many once-ruined buildings scarred by Uprising bullets and shells.
It’s impossible to leave the Museum without a lump in your throat and white-hot anger at what brutality is done in the name of perverted totalitarian ideologies. Yet through the worst of Nazism and Communism, Poles survived, and now a free and democratic Poland thrives.
Finally, Poland also has the most beautiful young women of any country. Polish blokes are nothing to write home about – think Lech Walesa – but Polish women are beautiful, sexy, and everywhere. Heaven!