The US President is not the only one looking for change. Poland is, too.
Take for example Warsaw. For the past few years this city, which was almost entirely leveled to the ground in WWII, seems to possess a psychological need to rise as high as possible. Tall buildings have been rising here as if Poland were trying to compete with the biggest of cities in the skyscraper department.
With millions upon millions of dollars poured in by the EU, Poland looks as if it is in a rush to turn into a successful EU story. The growing appetite for money here, coupled with the wish to be like "them," has turned Polish people into money-chasers in ways that would be unbelievable in western parts of the EU.
Look at Michal. Born and raised in Poland, Michal is a man with dreams, big dreams. When I met him a few years ago he was busy day and night trying to buy and sell skyscrapers to different companies.
Personally, he does not need a skyscraper. His office, in its entirety, consists of a Nokia: not the company, the cellphone.. Bought for a total investment of 35 euros, Michal was constantly on the cellphone shopping for the cheapest offers from one part of town, then nicely repackaging them to the highest bidders on the other side of town. Everywhere we went, Michal was busy with skyscrapers. Those on the other side of the line, his contacts, were people just like him: Cellphone Businessmen. They too made an office out of a cellphone. Their deals, and price lists, were pretty straightforward: the closer a building was to heaven, the more expensive it was.
That was then, before the global real estate market hit bottom. Heaven or not, people today prefer goods closer to earth. Michal, the ever consummate businessman, is perfectly fine with this; his cellphone office keeps on thriving. Today, the day I land in Poland, Michal gets a great, unbeatable offer: a one-year contract to sell 300,000 diesel metric tons a month with a guaranteed $50 discount below market rate per ton. If he gets a buyer, Michal says, he will make 33 cents in commission per ton, which translates into hundreds of thousands of zlotys. The end buyer of such a huge deal is either a country or a gigantic oil company. The middlemen, the ones who see this through, are an untold number of cellphone people -- people just like Michal.
I decide to join Michal on his daytime routine to experience first hand how one man with one cellphone can sell tons of oil.
Cellphone at hand, fully charged with spare battery in pocket, Michal goes to a "branch" of his office, which, in this instance, is an elegant, expensive French café at the fashionable Nowy Swiat Street. We sit down at a sidewalk table, eat some French cakes and sip an Italian coffee.
Michal is smiling east to west. Today he is going to make tons of money.
I look at him, then look around: Nothing is happening.
How does one make money drinking coffee? Is he waiting to meet somebody here?
"Do you have an appointment?" I ask him.
"No," he says.
"Then why are we sitting here?" I persist.
"Look," he explains patiently, "I sit here, look around, and soon people come to me to make deals. This is not America, this is Poland. Relax."
Sure enough, in less than two minutes Andrzej shows up. Andrzej also carries a cellphone -- another big businessman. Older than Michal, Andrzej is in real estate, selling and buying street-front stores. And is he dressed: top of fashion with the "coolest" scarf in all of Warsaw; you can tell that this man is doing well.
Andrzej is a smooth talker. The first thing he says is: "Me and my girlfriend, we make love twice a day. Never miss. She will be here soon; you will see her."
I look at this marvel of businessmen: In New York people with big dreams put in 70 to 80 hours of work a week just to make ends meet. Is it possible that you can achieve much more with a cellphone and French cuisine? Is this the way New York began?
Luckily for Poland, the EU is generating such an appetite by pouring billions of Euros into it, all in the name of making Poland look Western. It is so invasive here, this EU push, that sometimes you wonder if this is Poland or, say, Germany. And as the EU keeps on pushing, the charms of Old Europe are certainly fading away.
A case in point is the train system.
I love Polish trains, been using them for years. They are real trains, made out of real metal; they sport big windows that you can open higher and higher and let the good air of nature sing on your face while you puff your favorite cigarette. Big, wide seats, softly cushioned, embrace you lovingly as if to say: Thank you for sitting on me.
The mere thought of these Polish trains makes me want to use them. So, without much ceremony, I leave the Cellphone Businessmen at the café and head to the central station to pick myself a train that will get me someplace. Where to go? Well, why not Lodz, one of the biggest Jewish cities before World War II. I have been there before, why not go again? I enjoyed the train ride to Lodz last year, let me repeat it this year.
But when I arrive at the train station, I notice that my beloved trains to Lodz are gone. No trace of them. In their stead, courtesy of the EU, new ones are on view. The one I am boarding, a multi-million zloty train, has seats that are hard and harsh, more for metal boxes than for humans; no windows to pull up and down; and signs that say smoking is totally forbidden. Welcome to the EU, Land of Uniformity: the EU gives, Poland takes.
I walk the streets of Lodz. This town, once one of the poorest in the country, is today thriving. The street restaurants here are full, the pubs packed, and everyone is going to the mall. I never believed that Lodz would one day look like Hamburg.
Yet, not everything changes here. Walking the streets of Lodz you cannot avoid noticing its graffiti. Anti-Semitic graffiti, to be precise. It is everywhere. Soccer fans of rival teams call each other "Jew," which in this part of the world is the worst thing you could call anyone. Widzew, a local soccer team, becomes Zydzew on Lodz streets, Zyd being Jew in Polish. Widzew fans, in retaliation, scribble a Star of David on their rivals' names, as if to say: It is you who are a Jew, not me. Almost every street in Lodz has anti-Semitic graffiti. And while most of them have to do with soccer fans, quite a few of them have to do with nothing more than just blatant Jew-hate. "Send the Jews to gas chambers" is particularly jarring. Sometimes it is just a Star of David, as if saying: I really hate you. Others are bilingual, as in: "Juden raus." Lodz, the city where the Nazis first introduced the Jewish yellow star, according to local historians, cannot shake off its anti-Semitic bent. Only one street, ul. Piotrkowska, Lodz's commercial street catering to high-end shoppers, is clean of anti-Semitic signs, courtesy of Lodz's city authorities. After all, if the Jewish tourists see this, they might not spend their dollars here. And Jews, people here tell me, are "very rich." So not to offend its Jewish tourists, the city of Lodz makes sure all anti-Semitic graffiti are painted over in ul. Piotrkowska. During the Reich's occupation, Piotrkowska Street was changed to Adolf Hitlerstrasse. Who would imagine that the only street clean of anti-Semitic proclamations would be Adolf Hitlerstrasse?
The EU, this entity that works overtime to reshape Poland into a modern and uniformed EU country, flexes its financial muscles at every turn. You want money? Abide by our rules. Why isn't the EU flexing its muscles when it comes to anti-Semitism? Why don't they say to the Polish government: You want new streets? Paint over your racist walls. Why is smoking a bigger offense to Europeans than anti-Semitism?
Do not for a second kid yourself that the anti-Semitic graffiti is just the handiwork of some bored teenagers with no indication as to what the public in general thinks. The mere fact that the authorities here steadily neglect to enact laws forbidding such racist displays is telling. No wonder that when you talk to people on the street you hear some of the most anti-Semitic delusions. When I speak to an older man I meet at random, he tells me that the sexual organ of Jewish women is different from that of all other women in the world. How different is it? "It looks like a cross," he says. A woman I meet here tells me, "Jesus Christ might have been a Jew. But the Virgin Mary? Never!"
With a government that is not bothered by public displays of "Juden Raus," why should the citizens not carry hateful thoughts in their hearts?
I meet Eva, a retired Polish journalist, and ask her why are there so many anti-Semitic slogans on display in her city. "Poland," she says, raising her voice, "is not more anti-Semitic than other European countries."
"Change" sounds like a nice word, but it all depends on what you change. Some things, I guess, are hard to change. Especially our ugliest of habits. You can have the newest of trains, but there is no guarantee that they will not take you to the hell of hate. You can sit at the nicest of cafés, but of what pleasure is it if the person next to you wishes that you would disappear into a gas chamber? You can have towers that reach the heavens, but if the front door says "Jews Out," how comfortable will you feel on the top floor?
There is a probably a reason why the EU does not take any action against this. Maybe, just a thought, they actually like it. Maybe, who knows, anti-Semitism is the best Entry Ticket into the EU community. And maybe, just maybe, Eva was right.