Warsaw: One Square Mile of Poland
- 20 April 2012
- From the section World Radio and TV
When we visit Poland's new National Stadium, a man is mowing the grass. For a patriotic Pole, surely there's no better job in the country. But like so much here, the National Stadium has history.
Poland and Ukraine are joint hosts of Euro 2012 - the European Football Championships. When the opening whistle sounds for the first game in June there will be pride in Warsaw, but also relief. Three workers died during construction, and the massive project was hit by delays.
But now organisers hope for a world-class atmosphere and perfect playing conditions under the retractable roof. The new stadium stands on top of the old one, built under communism and opened in 1955.
Parts of the original have been saved including one stone with a mathematical formula for explaining the measurements of the athletic track.
Industrial and bohemian
Close to the Wisla (Vistula) River, it stands on the east bank, the right bank of the river in the capital city.
It's home to the famous Praga district, and it's more industrial, and less developed, than the west bank, home to commerce, politics and the university. Locals on the east side like to say they're more bohemian.
"This has probably been the most poor part of Warsaw," says journalist Monika Brzywczy on a tour of some of the artist studios on the east side.
The first game in Euro 2012 will pit Poland against Greece. With seats very close to the pitch, the passion from fans might well blow the socks off the players. It's quite a symbol of modern Europe that Poland - still with its own currency - is playing Greece, which is at the heart of so many crisis meetings for the euro.
We head over the river to the university on the west bank, to meet Dr Slawomir Jozefowicz. He graduated in 1988 just as European history once again centred on Poland.
"That was the last full year of the communist rule in Poland. The next year, 1989 was the time of major changes. You tend to say that was when the Berlin Wall fell, but we tend to say it was the year of roundtable talks a couple of months earlier that changed everything." He adds with a smile: "We were first."
He is kind enough to let us disrupt one of his politics classes and around 20 students agreed to answer questions in English. Do you want the euro? I ask one student.
"No," she says. "Unfortunately, I don't like the euro. I love a Polish value to things, and I think that Polish people should pay with polish currency."
"For me it's the opposite," says the girl next to her. "I believe the euro is much more comfortable especially when we travel around Europe. The problems are because the banks lent too much money to people of your generation," she says, looking at me.
There is also a lot of excitement at the upcoming Euro championship. "I love the idea that people from all over Europe can see the country and meet the Polish people," says another student. Does he feel you can be a proud Polish student and a good European at these difficult times? "Yeah, sure," is his instant reply.
A cleaner Vistula
We head back to the Vistula. It flows just about the entire length of Poland from the south of the country, up through Warsaw in the middle and on to Gdansk on the Baltic coast. It's around 1,000km (620 miles) and we take a history lesson on the banks. Seven years ago, Przemek Pasek gave up his job as a photographer to devote his life to the river.
While his two dogs scamper along the east bank woods, he tells me why the river is so important to Poles.
"It's the richest and most interesting natural environment in Poland," he says. I look around at the dark waters, which for years were subjected to industrial pollution.
"Now after 20 years, the river is getting cleaner. This year, the city's first water treatment plant will open up. Further south in the countryside, there's a bounty of flowers, plants and birds. We hope to see this section cleaned up and bring people back en masse to the river."
Just like the team at the new stadium, Mr Przemek has great pride in his own emblem of Poland. It's not the national side heading out to play football, it's not the new buildings rising from the roots of the old, it's the mighty river defining the geography of Poland, and which has come to define his life too.