The author’s uncle was a concert pianist who harboured a passion for Chopin. He extracted a deathbed promise from his nephew to ‘visit those places Chopin frequented as a young man . . . to better understand the patriotic roots of Chopin’s music’ and implored him ‘to scatter his ashes over the Mazovia plain near Chopin’s birthplace’. This was the genesis of the author’s engagement with Poland.
Accepting an assignment to a Swiss-Polish joint venture formed to ‘introduce Polish companies to “the joys of the market economy” ’, he took up residence at its training centre near Warsaw in January 1992:
It resembled an abandoned military barracks . . . . Cats fought under the radiators and dogs ate scraps of lavatory paper on the floor . . . . The corridors were decorated with curling photocopies of Polish medallions and photographs of onions and tomatoes . . . . Three times a day a truck arrived in a cloud of diesel to pump out the cesspit at the rear of the buildings.
His first foray into Warsaw was also discouraging. He gets lost in ‘a labyrinth of socialist concrete’ of ‘soulless’ residential blocks ‘intended to crush the spirit and standardise the mind’. And there is
that monumental creation of Stalinist paranoia and commissar prissiness, that inescapable monolith, that cake confectioner’s nightmare, the Palace of Culture and Science. Stalin ‘gifted’ the edifice to Poland in 1955 from a ‘friendly Soviet nation’. One of the tallest buildings in Europe, it was known as ‘Stalin’s finger’.
Nevertheless, Moran is no afficionado of capitalism, which loves glass and hectares of advertising ‘in the way the communists loved concrete’. He notes the Poles’
nostalgia for the lack of crime, ease of state-subsidised holidays and the reverence for cultural values and solid education under communism.