In 1993, John Borrell, a longtime foreign correspondent with no permanent home, decided to abandon journalism. Tired of writing about wars and violence — he had been in Beirut, Rwanda and Nicaragua — he determined to throw himself into European rural life. But instead of a year in Provence, he chose 20 years in Kaszubia, northeast Poland. Borrell, originally from New Zealand, had married a Pole. They bought an exquisite piece of land beside a pristine lake, and there they built a boutique hotel.
I was a Warsaw correspondent at about the same time as Borrell, and remember a certain amount of head-shaking over this venture. Even by Polish standards, Kaszubia is deeply provincial; many Kaszubians speak their own dialect, incomprehensible to other Poles, and in the early 1990s there were still Kaszubian villagers who lived without electricity and running water, let alone paved roads. A hotel in such a place — would anyone come?
Not that I was in a position to be critical. In what seems, retrospectively, like an equally irrational moment of madness, my husband and I began to restore a ruined Polish manor house at about the same time. The romantic appeal of the wild Polish countryside, the desire to bring civilisation back to a place that had been destroyed — all of this I can understand very well. But at least our house was in western Poland, half a day’s drive from Berlin. More to the point, we weren’t trying to make a living out of it. Borrell gambled all of his savings on Kania Lodge, and moved his wife and young children there as well.
His story has a happy ending (as does ours) but only after a long struggle. As it turned out, the creation of an elegant, popular and profitable hotel (and eventually wine-import and vodka-export businesses too) required not only the reconstruction of some local infrastructure — roads, for example — but an overhauling of local politics. From the very beginning, he encountered resistance from his neighbours, from local government and, unexpectedly, from his wife’s jealous relatives. Nobody liked the idea that a foreigner could make a profit out of what had been, after all, just a piece of land by a lake.
Worst of all were the officials who tried actively to halt his progress. He is particularly good on the causes, sources and origins of corruption in the communist era:
Since many life-changing possibilities depended on the whims of an official, large bribes were common…there was no point shouting at someone that you were entitled to a passport and they had better hurry up and issue it.
Unwilling to hand money over to such people, whose arrogance ‘reminded me of government ministers in dirt-poor African countries stalked by famine’, the only thing he could think of doing, given his background, was to expose it.
And so, ‘stoking my Citizen Kane fantasy’, he founded a newspaper, the Kaszubian Express: ‘Impulsive risk-taking and a quixotic, almost Polish disdain for practicality had always ruled both my personal and professional lives.’ I won’t give away the whole plot here — it involves court cases — but the paper took on the local cabal, exposed corruption and ultimately unseated the mayor who was unscrupulously trying to destroy Borrell’s project.
In order to make good his investment, keep his house and protect his family, in other words, Borrell had to become an active part of the transition to democracy and capitalism that has taken place with varying degrees of success all across Eastern Europe over the past quarter century. Unlike foreign investors who might have just paid the bribes or moved out, Borrell determined to alter the culture of the place itself. Eventually, he handed the paper over to local journalists.
By the time he has finished, The White Lake has moved a long way from Toujours Provence and become the story of a personal and political struggle, a kind of alternative history of the Polish transformation. It might even be the perfect book for anyone feeling the need to catch up on what exactly happened after 1989. There is just enough background history for outsiders to understand the motivations of the characters, but not so much as to become incomprehensible.
At the end, Borrell surveys the changed political and physical landscape, from the wild purple thyme and the dark green forest to supermarkets and the coffee shops:
The abundance and availability of so much is a visual rebuke to the inefficiencies and outright failures of the communist era, a time when people queued every day for a loaf of bread. Our children’s generation cannot imagine how grey, melancholic and dispiriting it was.