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05.03.2004

Poland Joins The European Union

I was warned that it was utter madness to arrive in Warsaw on the last day of April, the day before Poland and nine other countries were slated to join the European Union. There was a meeting of the World Trade Organization under way, the city was filled to the gills with prime ministers, central bank heads and other luminaries, and fully half of the city center had been designated a "red zone", accessible to residents only, with no vehicle traffic allowed. Traffic gridlock surrounded the city, the airport was overwhelmed with clouds of black helicopters, every window within throwing distance of a Warsaw street had been boarded up in preparation for the "alternaglobalists" who follow WTO meetings like tie-dye artists used to follow the Dead. Anybody who could find the means had already left town - the capital was utterly deserted, menacing, bristling with police and furtive al-Qaeda operatives wrapped head to toe in plastic explosives. I was to understand that my father bore no responsibility for fetching me at the airport, none at all, that I would have to fend for myself, and God help me.

I arrived in Warsaw on a beautiful spring afternoon, the trees around the airport shockingly green in their new suit of leaves, a few bored soldiers standing guard and ignoring the meatheads who had managed to get themselves drunk on our two hour flight flight from London. A friend was already waiting for me in front of the terminal with car and driver, and we zoomed through the empty streets of Warsaw in style, not a single barricade or overturned burning bus in sight. My friend was wearing a wireless phone headset, giving him a secret service look, and I felt just like a prime minister.

Before dropping me off, my friend informed me that there would be a massive accession ceremony shortly before midnight, in case I wanted to watch. He also warned me, in familiar dire tones, that if I didn't buy groceries immediately, before the three-day weekend, I would surely perish of hunger. I washed my head, changed my shirt, laid in some supplies for MEATFEST 2004 ("Escape from Vermont"), and settled down at the television to wait for the magic hour when I could decently fall asleep. But the television tuned straight to the giant street party on Palace Square, a Euro-extravaganza under way about four hundred meters from where I was sitting. "Blogging is journalism", I thought, drank a half-liter can of Zywiec beer to help me blend in to the crowd, and stepped out into the night.

Palace Square

Palace Square is a telegenic, postcardy expanse right in the middle of the old city; a carpet of cobblestones with the recently rebuilt Royal Palace on one side, and King Sigmund standing on his column in the lonely middle. To cheer in the European Union, a massive blue sound stage had been erected along the north edge of the square. The platform had two huge projection screens on both sides, and was bracketed in every conceivable direction by cameras: cameras on cranes, cameras on rooftops, cameras on the silently hovering black helicopters. It is hard to correctly estimate the size of a crowd, I would estimate it at five thousand; certainly enough for a good turnout at a Middlebury hockey game. Fully three thousand of these were professional pickpockets, according to my usual sources - pickpockets who would strip me of my money, documents, and camera as soon as I set foot in the square, and I couldn't say I hadn't been warned.

The screens were projecting some impossibly overproduced television special, most of it in German, which periodically brought in a grinning, bespectacled Polish announcer who stood patiently at the front of our stage. He spoke sometimes in Polish, sometimes in the indeterminately accented World English that will one day take over the planet. The whole show was masterminded back in a German studio, where a tall blonde mistress of ceremonies cut between our own announcer and similar sound stages in seven other capitals (not a hint of Malta or Cyprus, unfortunately). I got a creepy Philip K. Dick watching her, waves of German flowing out from loudspeakers across the Old Town, but it didn't seem to faze the crowd. Once in a while, a Polish translation would kick in, making us appreciate its absence.

Main stage

The announcer brought out Cold War relic Katarina Witt, who looked like she had just been removed from cryogenic storage deep in an East Berlin bunker. Witt confessed to an early crush on some Polish figure skater in the eighties, by way of illustrating why European expansion needed to happen. Our announcer gave a rubber grin and said, in English "But Katerina! While you were falling in love with a Polish ice skater, millions of Polish men were falling in love with you!" Her sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithm responded with a smile.

A string of other B-list eurocelebrities followed, each reading a short paragraph about What European Expansion Meant To Them, interspersed with live musical acts. The show featured some horrific sequencing - sugary pop previews of Eurovision contenders were interleaved with long, pompous performances of classical music. A Lithuanian opera star with a suspicious resemblance to Rosie O'Donell came close to breaking windows in the Old Town; a few moments later we were watching little figures on our own sound stage, humiliating our entire country with their English-language single "Sweet Sweet Love, I Want Sweet Love", a desperate cry for lyrical help.

When the classical pieces played, the cameras cut to boring, pan-and-zoom slide shows of the charms of the Eastern bloc: smiling peasants, glass skyscrapers intersperesed with squat Stalinist buildings, storks, dynamic businessmen on cell phones, beech forests, girls in folk costume.

The crowd bore up well. Everone seemed to be having an extremely sedate good time. I noticed a couple of signs reading "UE NIE" (No EU), but for the most part the mood was calm, happy, and somewhat bemused. A fire engine was parked at one end of the square, with firefighters sitting across the top, watching. Foreign camera crews moved frantically through the crowd, looking for anything that would offer a good visual. The had to queue up to film the few people who were carrying homemade signs. One woman held a banner reading "The End of Yalta"; another one carried a picket sign that said "Immortalize This Moment By Buying A T-Shirt". It looked political enough if you didn't speak the language.

Palace Square

Towards midnight, the music swelled, and the cameras on stage again cut to our announcer, who said:

"With only a few minutes left before midnight, we want to sing for you a Polish anthem that we hope will be an anthem for all of us in this historic new European Union. But we want everyone to sing along, so we will sing it in English!"

And then he pointed to a boy-band refugee on the stage behind him, who launched into the following song, which I have attempted to transcribe verbatim:

There's nothing you can do that can't be done
nothing you can sing that isn't sung
Nothing tra la la but you can learn don't play the game
It's easy...

ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE etc.

There's nothing you can make that can't be made
Nothing you can see but isn't saved
Nothing la da dee but it can make how you feel inside
It's easy...

ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE etc.

This performance mortified me on an unusual number of levels, so that it took a while before I noticed that the formerly sleepy crowd was now grooving, and singing along (at least to the chorus). Even the anti-EU sign guy seemed to swaying in time to the beat. I couldn't quite get over the shock of it - four hundred fifty million people were being asked to put their faith in the lyrics of a guy who thought Yoko Ono was hot. Lyrics that they could not even be bothered to look up before singing on transnational television. And it didn't help to know that the actual Polish anthem goes like this:

Poland has not yet perished
While we are still alive
What a foreign force has taken from us
We will take back by force

Which is a jauntier lyric, but admittedly not quite in the spirit of the evening. Despite a favorable mention of Italy, the anthem mainly dwells on the joys of unleashing whoop-ass on occupying powers, at least two of which are now fellow EU members. Still, "All you need is love" seemed like an unacceptably loose translation.

Being a cynic, I couldn't help making a little mental list of

    Things the European Union Needs In Addition To Love
  • A common foreign policy
  • Consensus about the proper scope of federal rule
  • A credible army
  • Mandatory musical re-education camps
  • A meaningful role for the European parliament
  • Decent Mexican food
  • Reductions in bureaucracy
  • Agricultural reform
  • Some degree of sovereign power
  • A constitution
  • 24 hour convenience stores
  • Jobs
  • An increase in the birth rate
  • A sane immigration policy
  • Deportation of all Eurovision contestants to karaoke bars in Central Asia
  • Lower taxes
  • Aircraft carriers
  • Air conditioning

I had a strong suspicion that tonight's show was masterminded by the same genius who first juxtaposed slow-motion footage of the Berlin Wall coming down with the Scorpions' "Winds of Change". In the future, every momentous historical occasion will get a crap soundtrack.

At the end of the exercise, the clock counted down ("eight, four, five, three, two, one!", I kid you not) and suddenly we were in the European Union. A kind of strangled "yip!" rose into the night air, very anticlimactic. Imagine REO Speedwagon asking the Humboldt County State Fair if they are ready to rock and you have the sound Poland made on joining the European Union. Perhaps it was all the stress, and anticipation, and anxiety at finally having fifteen years' hard courtship consummated, or perhaps it was the rigid ban on outdoor drinking that night. But after an embarrassed silence, the firefighters saved the day by doing some funky loud things with their sirens, and the crowd worked itself into a proper frenzy of applause.

Part of my own motivation in coming out so late was that there might be indiscriminate kissing at the stroke of midnight, New Year's Style, but the ragged cheer dashed my hopes. The women in the crowd seemed very far from wanton abandon, and very near to their protective boyfriends and husbands, who stood behind them with arms extended protectively across their bellies in the international pose of "I am in a commited relationship and my little pumpkin is feeling chilly". But what the moment lacked in euphoric osculation, it made up for in quiet happiness. Fifteen years was a long time to wait, and it was still hard believe that this had truly happened. People were talking, smiling, drinking late-night coffee in shops, sneaking swigs of what I can only patriotically assume was cheap potato vodka out of plastic bottles.

As I wandered back home, the fireworks started over the Vistula, with more energetic cheering and hyperexcited kids running about to get a better view. I passed two men walking out of a restaurant, one looked at his watch and said to his friend "well, sir, as of five minutes ago we are Europeans".

It was a fantastic feeling. Not only did I now have both an American and a European passport, meaning I could have any Russian bride in the catalog, but it also meant that this silly but deeply beloved country was here for good, was here to stay. It would be come a normal, second-tier European nation, besieged by annoying backpackers and completely unremarkable. That may not sound like much of a national dream, but for Poland it is the culmination of two hundred years' bitter struggle. My own grandfather is older than modern Poland; being in Europe means we can now take the independence and continued existence of this country for granted, a remarkable luxury.

Polish flag waving

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