Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Grandpa Ludwig’s trip to London

The freedom to travel without visa or restriction is the main benefit of EU membership for the ordinary Pole – even if you are an 84 year old pensioner on a bike. (pictured: Znin railway station, central Poland).

The family of Ludwig Zon, an 84-year-old pensioner from the small town of Znin in central Poland, were getting worried last week. The old man had gone missing. The last anyone had seen of him was when he set off on his bike a few days before and rode off into the winter sun.

And then he disappeared into thin air.

The family reported him missing and sixteen policemen and ten firemen searched in the neighboring forests and fields. But no sign of the old man, or his bike, were found.

And then, much to the relief, and puzzlement, of his family, they received a telegram from the Polish Consulate in London informing them that granddad Ludwig was alive and well and having the time of his life in Britain.

But how had he got there?

Apparently, for months and months, Ludwig had been secretly saving up around 12,000 zloty – that’s around 3,000 Euros – from his 600 zloty pension, in order to live out a dream: a trip to London.

So, one day, he rode his bike to the nearest train station, traveled to Warsaw, got on a bus to the airport, purchased an airline ticket on a scheduled flight to Heathrow and got on board the plane.

H e was found a few days later, still wondering around the airport.

Though he hadn’t got very far in London, he was still having a great time. He told the Polish Super Express tabloid: “I thought I might look around for a job. Here in Poland, a person hasn't got a future."

Back in Poland, his granddaughter, Malgorzata Kocinska, told the paper: "Granddad had never traveled farther than the neighboring village before, and he speaks no English at all.”

Freedom to travel

The story of the intrepid Ludwig Zon is a moving one, and shows that the main perceived benefit of joining the EU is not the chance to participate in endless rounds of budget negotiations; or the joys of being told by Brussels that they will have to put funny little traffic light symbols on all their food packaging just in case the Polish consumer is too dumb to know which is a so-called ‘healthy food’ and which one is not; or the many other intrusive measures from Brussels that membership of the Union brings with it. The main benefit of EU membership for most ordinary Poles is the freedom to travel around the 24 other countries unmolested by customs officials.

Journalists and politicians have been trying to convince Poles that the EU budget talks, which staggered on for much of this year and were finally resolved last week, were a very, very interesting topic and that everyone should be reading the acres of newsprint and hours of radio and television that have been dedicated to the whole affair.

But the talks were crucial to this country for many reasons. Poland simply could not make any long-term investment plans until the deal was done and dusted. But many of the benefits of EU membership are not obvious to many here. But benefits there are, even though the price of these benefits is paid by giving up certain aspects of national sovereignty.

Polish drivers, for example, who spend a great deal of their time behind the wheel moaning about the lack of decent motorways, and the awful state of Polish roads – and which have more holes in them than granddad Ludwig’s string vest – are crying out for so-called EU structural finds. But these projects could not go ahead until the leaders of the 25 members came to an agreement on the share out of the budget.

And many Polish farmers have seen some of the benefits of membership these last 18 months. Subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy have started to flow into the larger, more efficient farms. Exports of farming produce have increased by as much as 40 percent.

But when I talked to Poles last week about the budget, their eyes just glazed over and I noticed that they were having trouble staying awake. But when I asked what they thought the main plus of membership was they all said the same thing: the joy and dignity of free travel.

No more will Poles have to suffer the embarrassment and hassle of being grilled by immigration officials about the reason foe their stay, what address would they be staying at, how much money they had with them, etc.

Second class travel

Poles do remain second class citizens in the EU, though, as only Britain, Ireland and Sweden are allowing them to work in their countries, This situation is slowly getting better, and Finland is in the process of opening up its labour market to the Polish plumber, nurse, dentist and bar worker.

None of which seems to have bothered Ludwig Zon, our granddad with a mission, I am glad to say. But sadly, and much to his chagrin, when he was found at Heathrow airport he was promptly sent back to Poland and his distraught family on the next plane home.

He wasn’t too pleased by his forced ejection from the UK. In fact he seems to have rather liked it there: “"It's too bad I wasn't allowed to stay longer, because the people there have got a wonderful life," he said.

I imagine his family will be watching him like a hawk over the Christmas holidays, in case he slips off on his bike again with his passport.

But you never know: if you live in London, the next time you ring for a plumber don’t be too suprised if an 84 year old Pole turns up, with only his monkey wrench for luggage and the glint of freedom in his eyes.


BiB said...

Yes, I noticed that story. It's a really nice one. What a shame he didn't make it beyond Heathrow though.

I'm a native Londoner now exiled in Berlin. The number of Poles one sees when back in London is really impressive. I'd say Polish is the foreign language one hears most often. I also like to think, ever the optimist, that the Poles have got a pretty good reputation there. People know they're there to work and no-one is surprised to hear the waitresses chatting to each other in Polish as you wait for your (overpriced) coffee or to hear the plumber explaining the problem - I witnessed this when I last visited my mother - in a nice, Polish accent. It all adds to London's colour.

Szcesliwego Nowego Roku from Berlin...

beatroot said...

Cheers! Berlin is a great city. I noticed the same thing in Dublin. Apart from the usual casualties, Poles are settling in well.

Happy New Year to you too...

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Unknown said...

Interesting blog.
I also always dreamed to visit England.
I know that Londoners are lucky, especially when it comes to the National Lottery. The London pay-out office has awarded £757 million to Londoners since 1994. In total, the 11 pay-out offices have handed out £5.1 billion, which averages out at £469m each. If i win in the National lottery I will buy a big and huge Limousine London vehicle.
Also I want to visit all famous London's sightseeing, such as the Big Bang, London Eye, Westminster Abbey and others.