He’s off, again. Not content with spanning the globe, crossing the Sahara and scaling the Himalayas, Michael Palin’s on the road once more. This time, he’s in central and eastern Europe, travelling to places as diverse as Kiev and Kaliningrad.
Palin’s one of the jewels in the BBC crown. His engaging approach in these programmes – part innocent abroad, part have-a-go goon – has won him a following far beyond his native shores, and the accompanying books are instant best-sellers.
I've especially enjoyed this series because I've been to some of the places Palin visits - in recent weeks, he's been to Hungary and the Baltic republics. This week, the programme took him from the shores of northern Poland to the southern border with Slovakia and, like a Polish sausage, there was a lot squeezed into it. Palin makes it look easy, but it’s not every presenter who could carry off a show featuring an interview with Lech Walesa, a visit to Auschwitz and a walk-on part in a comedy cabaret. The Monty Python trouper took it all in his stride.
While thousands of people from Poland have travelled to find work in Britain in recent years, some Brits have made the journey in the opposite direction. In Warsaw, Palin met Kevin Aiston. Originally from London, Aiston moved to Poland in 1993 and is now a Warsaw firefighter. He’s also something of a local celebrity, regularly appearing on a morning tv show. The genial Londoner was generous in his description of his hosts and expressed the hope that Poles working in Great Britain might receive a similar welcome. Invited by Aiston to test his linguistic skills, Palin made a decent stab at the fiendishly difficult Polish language.
The lighter moments contrasted sharply with reminders of Poland’s tragic past. In Warsaw’s lovely old town square (completely rebuilt after 1945), Palin chatted with an attractive Polish journalist. She insisted that Poland was ever-conscious of history, but also keen to take its place in the modern world. Later, visiting Auschwitz, Palin was understandably low-key. Wisely, he let the piles of hair, suitcases and gas canisters speak for themselves.
After attending an exhilarating, exhausting village wedding, Palin sailed serenely out of Poland and into Slovakia, from where he will begin the final stage of his journey next week. In a weekend schedule dominated by sport and phone-in competitions, Michael Palin’s Polish passage was a horizon-broadening breath of fresh air.
Michael Palin's New Europe
Polish Postcript: 1
Palin’s meeting with Lech Walesa reminds me of a story about the former Polish president, which may or may not be true.
During a state visit to London, President Walesa was introduced to the Queen. Stumbling through his speech, he finally confessed, “I’m sorry, your majesty, I must polish my English. The Queen gave him a withering look. “No, Mr President. Your English is Polish enough.”
Polish Postcript: 2
Polish Prime Minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has lost today's general election. Having won a landslide victory, the Civic Platform Party will form the next government. Kaczynski's aggressive nationalism has been abrasive abroad and divisive at home. His twin brother, Lech, still has three years of his presidency to run, but may find it harder to deal with this muscular new government.