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Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Speed of Poland

I've said it before. I love to go fast. Roller coasters, planes surging toward take-off, speed boats, and yes, cars. I love the sensation of speed. I was first stopped for speeding late in my senior year of high school. Doing about 60 in a 30 mph zone on a narrow road between my home and the school. Ironically, I was in a hurry to get something to my mother. I was let off with a warning. Maybe that was a mistake. I am dutiful and careful in town, especially in neighborhoods and on city streets. But out on the road, an open road, it's easy to get into the left lane and just fly. It feels wonderful. I'm prudent, watchful and careful and have never done anything really dangerous, except for the fact that speed alone can create its own conditions, making it harder to react. I'm not aggressive or rude. I don't weave or (rarely) pass on the right. I don't sit on somebody's bumper and I signal when changing lanes. Driving from Denver to Aspen, or anyplace west on I-70 is a low-fly zone, with well-engineered highways that make it easy to go along at 80 mph and often even 90. The sensation of freedom and movement is one I've always craved. So, driving in Poland is an exercise in absolute frustration. Absolute. There are no good roads. I believe I've complained about this before. Interestingly, I just read an interview with a Polish emigre, now the director of The Macquarie Group, an Australian investment bank with assets of more than 340 billion dollars. Arthur Rakowski works from the London office and oversees infrastructure investments that include ownership of the London sewer system, airports, electricial grids, waterworks and roads. The Group also has the ownership stake in the container port at Gdansk, Poland. Rakowski, who left Poland in 1981, as martial law was declared, is the son of the late and last Communist Prime Minister of Poland and the long-time editor of the widely respected newspaper (now magazine) Polityka, Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski. He's been away from Poland for a long time and has few close ties there anymore but still has an interest in seeing his native country be successful, most certainly. In fact, The Macquarie Group tried to invest in the development of roads, of highway infrastructure in Poland for years. They worked at it for ten years. But never in those ten years were the policy makers able to overcome petty grievances and partisan grudges and make a deal, "who, how and with what to make them." Hence, there are still no good roads, no expressways, no autobahn in Poland. That does not, however, stop Polish drivers from trying to treat their two-lane, unimproved roads, where tractors and geese still cause accidents, as racetracks. And city driving is, well, not for the timid. Or the less than fleet-footed pedestrian. A week has passed since President Kaczynski's funeral. Two weeks have passed since the tragic plane crash near Katyn Forest. It's a respectable time to talk some difficult truths. "My view is that Poland is difficult to rule and the nature of the Poles is not conducive to the development of the country," Rakowski says. "The whole story shows how much we lost, we can not reach a compromise." This despite great intelligence, highly educated leaders, and a real sense of urgency to move forward. To be sure, Poland has the strongest economy of any of the former Communist countries and has made great strides in the 20 years since it accepted a "shock therapy" instant immersion into market capitalism. I have been known, myself, to go on and on and on about the marvels of Prada and Ikea and Cheetos and Nissans and Bose speakers, and everything one could hope for now available -- and almost affordable -- to Polish people. The private sector is moving along. Despite continuing bureaucratic obstacles to privatization of large enterprises, to say nothing of the bungled mess of simply trying to get a license to open a beauty salon, for example, or a car repair shop, Poles on their own have been remarkably resourceful, and successful. Resiliency at work. But. But but but. Politics. Government behavior (I don't know what else to call it) in Poland is still churlish, petty, petulant, and always always always obstructionist. Spinning their wheels. Refusing to compromise for the sake of a greater -- and attainable -- good. "They still talk about who said what in a bar on the corner 20 years ago." I danced around the matter in writing my initial posts after the tragic plane crash. It seemed a bit too crass too quick to say it out loud, to say what I said to my spouse the instant I learned the plane went down. Kaczynski didn't have to make that trip. It was churlish and, frankly, childish. And I'm the least of those who have said so. Roger Cohen in an excellent NYTimes article this week spoke directly. The President of Poland needed to make his own statement, to stand apart from any Russian overtures at reconciliation. Had he wanted, he could have been invited and taken part in the official ceremonies at the Katyn Forest memorial earlier that week, when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister shook hands and words were said that moved the relations between the two countries forward. But he would not. Politics is not "the art of the possible" for such persons. It is the act of obstinacy and vindictiveness, revanchism and vengefulness. In such a case, nothing positive can happen. And tragically, in this instance, it is fatal. So that's the reason, in a nutshell, why there are no good roads in Poland. And that's the reason why, in a nutshell, 97 people died in Smolensk. And that is the reason why some of the most brilliant people in the country, who still try to make it work, to contribute to its growth, tell me over and over, "I am irritable all the time I am in Poland." "Poland makes me all the time irritable." These are the true patriots. Not the man who was buried last Sunday in Krakow. Not his twin brother who will now try to exploit the tragedy and continue the behaviors of their political party. Whatever good they have accomplished, it is undermined by the short-sighted and tragic (there's that word again) and petty and even stupid behaviors that seek only to avenge, to obstruct, to punish their old foes. I remember a long ago speech by Australian physician, Dr. Helen Caldicott, and her warning, "If you don't like the other guy in your boat, you don't drill a hole in his end." Sadly, that's been going on in Poland ever since the country saw its Communist government wither away. Lots of drilling, lots of holes. And no roads. There are lessons in here for all of us, whether our ancient enemies are near or far, personal and private or public and political. There are lessons for Americans here, as we move toward increasingly strident and dangerous public behavior, and for us as individuals who have reason -- but perhaps not purpose -- in hanging on to our old anger, our desire for revenge. It doesn't go anywhere, fast.

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