Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, finds himself living each day twice. His Day As are spent travelling, his Day Bs on his career – but a visit to Poland finally opens his eyes on the bigger picture, and how bad the situation in France has become.
Download the audiobook/podcast version here or subscribe to the podcast RSS feed by clicking just below:
Read on for the chapter!
Chapter 13: The Trifecta from Hel
I kept travelling on Day As. After having extensively visited Southern, Western, Central and Northern Europe, I turned my sights to the East. Romania, the Czech Republic, and so many other countries I had only vaguely heard of that still remained unchecked on my map.
When I landed in Gdansk, a city at the very northern tip of Poland, on the coast of the Baltic Sea, I spent the early afternoon going through all the main tourist spots. I walked down the Long Lane, the wide shopping avenue lined with tall, slim and pointy pastel buildings, all the way from the Green Gate at one end to the Golden Gate at the other. Gdansk reminded me a bit of Nice for two reasons. It was also a town built on tourism, and it clearly enjoyed messing with its tourists: the Golden Gate was white while the Green one was red.
I took a left when I reached the canal, passed a giant medieval-looking building that stretched out over the water, went down another small alley bustling with shops and landed at St. Mary’s church, the largest brick cathedral in the world. I decided that I wanted to see the sea, and opened Google Maps to find my way to the nearest beach. But then, I saw something that intrigued me.
The map showed me what I had expected, having checked out the geography of the place in the plane. Gdansk was part of a tri-city system, and to the north of where I was were the other two: Sopot and Gdynia. But what I hadn’t seen before was still north of that. Jutting out from the mainland, curving in a thin hook towards Gdansk, was the thinnest and longest peninsula I had ever seen. I zoomed in, and saw that it was so narrow there was only space for a single road going all the way to the tip.
Most intriguing of all: it was named Hel.
I always knew I’d end up in Hel, I chuckled, and went straight to the port. I asked around, and ended up on a one-hour ferry ride across the Bay of Puck. The sea was choppy, and I was glad to finally land in a micro-town at the middle of the Peninsula. I had managed to keep my lunch of pierogis down, which was a victory in and of itself. The micro-town consisted of just a few tiny streets lined with restaurants, so I headed straight to the beach, barely 500 meters away, intent on walking all the way to the tip.
It was awe-inspiring. The beach was an endless stretch of pure white sand, completely devoid of people. My own private piece of heaven. I took off my shoes, stepped in the water, and immediately jumped out. The water was freezing cold. Used to the warm Mediterranean Sea, there was no way that I would be dipping anything more than a toe in there.
I walked down that beautiful endless stretch of sand for kilometers. Just for kicks, I ran into the forest of pine trees behind it, jumped over the train tracks, dashed across the main road and landed straight on the other side, facing the Baltic Sea. Damn that’s a narrow peninsula. It had taken me barely two minutes to cross. It felt surreal.
I finally arrived at the tip just as the sun began to set. It was yet another micro-town, so I strolled down one of the tiny streets looking for food. Every single restaurant advertised Ryby in bold letters, which based on the images, I guessed to be the local fish-based specialty. I chose one that seemed reasonably crowded, sat outside at a covered terrace, and randomly pointed at an item of the menu with Ryby in the name.
Diagonally from me sat what I could only assume to be a local. He was in his forties, with just the beginning of a beer belly and neatly cropped hair that focused the attention on the hard features of his face. He was busy ferociously tearing into his fish.
After over a month and a half of travelling and meeting people, this had almost become a routine. I stuck out my hand across the table.
“Hi,” I said, “I’m Leo.”
He looked at me warily from behind knotted eyebrows, cautiously extended a hand and shook mine.
“Can I get you a beer?” I asked, “I’m visiting here and I like to meet locals.”
“Heh,” he snorted, “Why not. I’m Tomek.”
His English was heavily accented, but curiously enough, his grammar was perfect.
“British?” he asked me.
“No, I’m French. From the South, Nice.”
“Ha,” he said, “Did you go to Sopot?” he pointed across the bay.
“Uh, no,” I answered hesitantly, “Should I have?”
“It’s there because of a Frenchman. Jan Haffner, one of Napoleon’s doctors. He opened healing baths and built the biggest wooden pier in the world. You should go.”
“Napoleon was here?” I had had no idea.
“No, not Napoleon. He was busy in Warsaw being a hero.”
“Napoleon is a hero in Poland too?” I asked enthusiastically.
He paused and grunted.
“It’s complicated. Yes, he’s a hero. He’s in our national anthem. But… How to say. He used Poland for his own means. He wanted to invade Russia, so he ‘liberated’ Warsaw. He took fine Polish troops and sent them to die in the Caribbean. So, a hero, and not a hero.”
I was getting schooled on the history of my own country.
“How do you know all this?” I asked, “And how come your English is so good?”
“10 years abroad in the military. Until they sent me here,” he took a hard swig of his beer. The knot above his eyebrows grew deeper and he fell into a brooding silence.
I racked my brain trying to come up with something smart to say.
“Oh!” I said, “I was in Stockholm recently and I saw the Vasa! It said it was supposed to be used for the war against Poland…?”
I didn’t expect what came next. He turned bright red and slammed his fist down on the table with such force that my beer shook and spilled.
“THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT’S WRONG WITH POLAND!”
He must have seen the shock and fear on my face, because he immediately calmed down.
“Sorry,” he apologized, “It’s just… I get very passionate about these things.”
“Poland,” he said, sudden sadness spreading across his face, “It’s going to hell.”
He went on to recount the details of the Polish-Swedish wars. Poland had won battle after battle, trouncing King Gustavus, and come to the negotiation table with both clout and influence. When they had left it though, they had somehow ceded Sweden the larger part of Livonia. Poland had won the war but lost the negotiation.
“This is always what happens,” said Tomek, my impromptu teacher for the evening, “The moment we’re doing well, we lose it all to infighting.”
“You said Poland is going to hell?”
He looked into his beer, and took yet another deep swallow.
“Of course you don’t know,” he sighed, “It’s normal. No one cares outside of Poland.”
“I’m interested,” I said as my fish arrived. I carefully unwrapped the aluminum paper it was wrapped in, and inhaled the delicious fumes that wafted up. It was amazing in its simplicity: a huge chunk of white fish with fries and lemon served on a paper plate. My stomach growled in anticipation.
“There’s too much. They’re fucking it all up,” said Tomek.
I used a trick that I had learnt in my travels. If you want someone to keep talking, stay silent and wait. Right on cue, he continued.
“Look around. Everyone looks happy right? They’re not. They’re scared. Anyone’s a target these days if they don’t agree with the government. It’s how I ended up here. My commander got ‘retired’.”
Every word held more intensity than the last. He was just getting started.
“There are rumors of a Secret Police department that was created a year ago to spy on political opponents. Just like under communism. They’re leveling accusations of treason against every single person who challenges them, throwing them in jail without a trial.”
“Not that a trial would matter,” he went on, “They forced a third of the judges to resign a year ago. They stacked the Supreme Administrative Court with cronies. That’s how they managed to outlaw abortion last year, despite the EU’s protests.”
“They outlawed abortion?” I asked, “And wait, who’s ‘they’?” It sounded terrifying. And Third-Worldly. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about any of this despite my increased reading over the last two months.
“It all started with Smolensk. That’s when the country was split apart. You’ve heard of Smolensk at least?”
With blushing cheeks full of fish, I slowly nodded no. He rolled his eyes in frustration.
“It went like this. In 2010, to commemorate the massacre of 70,000 Polish soldiers during World War II, our president, Lech Kaczynski, and a bunch of his advisers went to Smolensk, a city in Russia. But the plane crashed and they all died.”
My eyebrows popped up in surprise. “The whole government was wiped out?”
“No. Lech was the president, but the opposition held the government, under a man named Donald Tusk. But when the plane crashed, the president’s twin brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, started to yell out that it was all a planned assassination. That Tusk was trying to get rid of the president.”
“Was it true?”
“OF COURSE IT WASN’T!” he slammed down his beer, “Lech Kaczynski was on his way out. The twins had run the country since 2005, but it had been so bad that barely two years later the government dissolved and Tusk came to power.”
“What was bad?” It was proving a challenge extracting any information from Tomek, even though I had finally managed to discover a topic he was passionate about.
“It was… They were useless. They picked fights with everybody. They went on witch-hunts for Communist collaborators. We had just entered the European Union but all they did was shout that they wanted to create a new Polish republic.”
“Eventually everyone had had enough and they had to call in a new election. That’s when Tusk got in. A good politician. He focused on Europe, opened up the country, modernized everything. He helped the economy, and Poland became a model in Eastern Europe. We were finally becoming a power again.”
“But Jaroslaw Kaczynski wouldn’t shut up about Smolensk. He kept calling it a political assassination. The country split in two. Two sides that hated each other.”
“When the next election happened, Kaczynski came back with a vengeance. He defeated Tusk’s party in the election. Except this time, he had learnt from his mistakes and wasted no time. He wanted power, and more importantly, he planned to keep it.”
“In barely a year, he sacked judges, generals, state officials, anyone who could oppose him. He redefined the electoral cantons so that no matter how well the opposition did, his party would always win. He banned journalists from political discussion. He took over TV, firing half of all executives, so that only favorable news would show. Now it’s all propaganda.” Tomek spat on the floor.
“So that’s how he took power? By convincing people Smolensk was an assassination?” I asked.
“No…” he groaned, “Smolensk was just the beginning. Smolensk is what divided the country. But then Kaczynski also played it smart. Anybody from 20 to 30 had no memories of the Kaczynski times – they were too young. So he focused on social media. His party made memes ridiculing their opponents online. They became cool. And they also reached out to the countryside. They played the good Catholic card, warning that a Poland without them would legalize gay marriage. They promised to give them money. Just that: ‘We’ll give you money’. No one saw it coming, but in just a few months, they went from 20% support to winning the election.”
“That’s it?” I asked, “That’s all it took? Money and social media?”
“Well,” said Tomek sadly, “Money, social media, and Russia.”
“Russia?” I hadn’t been expecting that.
“Russia. The country that never accepted that they were no longer a superpower. For them, Poland is their backyard. You want to understand why Smolensk is so important? They never gave the wreck of the plane back. That’s why Kaczynski was able to go on for years about the assassination. They were messing with us on purpose.”
“It didn’t stop there. Kaczynski picked fights with Russia. He called them ‘neo-imperialists’ and said they were going to try to invade Poland. And Russia was smart. They played with that. They threw back accusations and reacted aggressively. They knew that with every provocation, they were making Kaczynski more popular. Tusk looked weak, but Kaczynski was the one who would be able to protect us against the Russian threat.”
“Kaczynski was bad news for Poland. But bad news for Poland was great news for Russia. He cries out against Russia but everything he does plays into their hands.”
“And now, bit by bit, they’re expanding their influence here. Our Minister of Defense, our Minister of the Interior… there are rumors. That they’re agents, or informers, or being helped by Russia.”
“Why isn’t the EU do anything to stop that?” I asked, “They can’t be happy that Russia is interfering.”
“How old are you?” asked Tomek out of nowhere.
“Umm… I’m 25,” I said hesitantly.
“That’s why. You’re young. Naive,” he leaned forward, “Listen to me. The EU didn’t do anything because Russia’s interfering with all of them too. Financing opposition parties. Promising cheap oil.”
I could see anger burning in his eyes as he stared straight at me.
“The EU is already in Russia’s pocket. France is just like Poland. Russia’ll drive it to hell just like the rest of us.”
“But enough about this,” he waved a hand in the air, “Too depressing. Tonight, you’ve learnt about Poland, and that’s a good step for your first time in Gdansk.”
He smiled. His brow was unknotted, the anger and pain past.
“Now for the real lesson. Tonight, we test your mettle.” He raised a hand calling for the waitress.
“Vodka” he ordered with a wide grin.
I barely remembered the rest of the night. I had vague recollections of Tomek trying to teach me the Polish national anthem and cracking up at my terrible pronunciation, but that was about it. One thing stuck with me though. Was Russia really influencing France? Or had Tomek just been messing with me? I found it hard to believe.
I checked the time: it was five minutes to ten. Today was Sunday, Day B, and I had agreed to meet Hanaa and Cedric for an entire day of doing nothing. I grabbed my wallet and keys off the bar top and headed to l’Alouette in the center of the Old Nice. Hanaa was already there when I arrived, lazily smoking one of her Dunhills.
“I think there’s a rule,” she said when she saw me, “The closer you live to a place, the later you’re going to be,”
“Sorry,” I apologized as I sat down in front of her, “But to be fair, if that was the case Cedric would have been here first.”
“Now wouldn’t that be fun to see,” she laughed.
I ordered a cup of coffee and lay back in the chair, enjoying the warm sun on my face. Cedric finally arrived a quarter of an hour later.
“Fucking finally,” said Hanaa as he greeted us with a bise and sat down on a straw-thatched chair.
“Absolutely not my fault,” said Cedric, raising his hands in the air, “A bunch of FN idiots have Place Masséna all clogged up and I had to take a massive detour.”
“What?” I asked, “Seriously?”
The FN was, simply put, the scariest thing on the French political landscape. French politics had been a two-party system ever since World War Two, with the Left on one side and the Right on the other. But starting in the 90s, the FN began to gather steam.
The FN was France’s far-right, extremist and nationalist party. It had always had a strong base in the South, due to high levels of immigration and a huge population of old and conservative (read: overtly racist) retirees. For years, it was dismissed as a joke, something politicians wouldn’t even address. But when the party’s leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was succeeded by his bulldog of a daughter Marine, the party worked on revamping their image. From an original group of neo-Nazis and negationists, they rebranded themselves as populist. They reached out to France’s lower class, frustrated by years of stagnant wage growth and ineffective policies, and played on their anger.
Every year since, to France’s growing horror, and sadly, the enthusiasm of many, the FN had garnered more and more support. At the last presidential election, it had reached a record high 35%. In the South, that proportion was 55%. The only thing that had stopped Nice from getting an FN mayor was the fact that the incumbent had ranted against immigration just as ferociously as the FN. From the frying pan and into the fire.
“What were they protesting about this time?” Hanaa asked.
“They’re convinced the government is cutting their subsidies but not touching those of immigrants,” answered Cedric.
“Oh yeah,” I said, remembering the latest magazines I had read, “The government said it would have to cut the ‘large family allowance’ or something?”
“It’s actually all because of AGRCOC,” said Hanaa, looking at me intently, “Remember when I told you it was a bluff to get the government to step in? Well, it worked. They decided to bail it out, but now the government is in deep shit.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because to do that they had to take out a massive loan and the market panicked. People finally started to worry about the French retirement funds, and now no one wants to lend any money to France except at outrageous rates. Which means that the government is completely out of cash.”
“Yeah, that’s why they’re cutting the large family allowance temporarily,” she insisted on the word, “It’s a stop gap measure until they can get an emergency loan from the EU and calm everyone down.”
“But why are they not cutting it for immigrants?” I asked.
Cedric slapped me on the back of the head.
“You’re an idiot,” he said.
“I humbly concur,” said Hanaa with a professorial nod of the head.
“What?” I asked indignantly, rubbing the place where he had hit me.
“Of course they’re cutting it for immigrants,” said Cedric, “They’re cutting it for everybody. This is just FN propaganda. Manipulating people into an uproar. They’re sending fake news all over the Internet, and these people are buying it hook, line and sinker. Then those people share it with all their friends, and getting even more heated up about it.”
“Idiots,” said Hanaa angrily. Being an immigrant herself, Hanaa had the most to lose if the FN ever came to power.
“And you wonder why I’m not on Facebook,” said Cedric, “Because that’s how they control you.”
“That’s messed up,” I said.
“The whole country’s messed up,” answered Cedric, “We should leave and move to somewhere else. Like Sweden.”
“Sweden’s too cold. And it’s messed up too,” I laughed, remembering the discussion I had had on immigration there barely a month ago. Come to think of it, Sweden wasn’t the only one with that particular problem. Almost all the Northern Europeans I had spoken to in my travels had ranted about immigration in one way or another. Germany, Belgium, Norway, Finland, the UK. I had even seen it in Italy with the Lega Norte. It wasn’t surprising that France was facing the same problem. The fear and hate of immigration spanned the continent.
We headed to the beach and grabbed a brie panini on the way. We spent the afternoon lazing around on towels and going for occasional dips in the cool water of the sea. Hanaa pulled out a textbook to study for her upcoming exams while Cedric played a game on his phone. I, meanwhile, kept on thinking.
My travels around Europe had shown me that every single place had its problems. But had I somehow not noticed that those very problems were present in France too? I thought back to London, Naples, and Barcelona. Each of those places wanted to break out of their country or out of the EU. Each had a secessionary vibe that infused their thoughts and discussion. But wasn’t that exactly what was happening in France as well? Could the rise of the FN be partly due to the fact that people blamed the EU for the terrible economy and wanted out?
It made so much sense that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought about it before. One last puzzle piece was missing however. Russia.
As soon as I got home that night I popped open my laptop and started searching. I didn’t have to do much digging. Right there in the top three Google links was what I had hoped not to find. ‘The FN’s 40 million euro Russian Loan’, ‘Cypriot bank backing Marine Le Pen has Kremlin links’ and ‘Marine Backs Russia in Ukraine for 8 million euros’.
For the next two hours I went over dozens of articles. Le Monde, Libération, and all the other major publications agreed: the Front National had received a total of over 60 million euros in Russian loans over the past four years. They were wired through Cypriot banks owned by oligarchs, Czech joint ventures and Swiss accounts, but the paper trail left no doubt that they had all originated straight from the Kremlin.
Tomek had been right. Again, and to my utter frustration, it wasn’t that surprising. It made sense. Anything that destabilized the European Union was good for Russia. And what better tool than the FN, who wanted nothing more than to leave the EU and severe all ties with foreigners.
I suddenly remembered a history professor of mine who had called France the ‘keystone of Europe’. He argued that France’s geographic position, bordering the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the North Sea and 6 different countries meant that it was always at the center of any major European event and problem.
And it was. Immigration. Secession. Russia. We had the trifecta. Somehow, I had been so engrossed in the fun I was having that I had failed to see just how messed up France had become. Or maybe I simply had never been willing to see it before. Prior to my power showing up, had I ever been concerned about what was going on in France? Things had just been much simpler then. My biggest worry was when I would earn enough to move out from my parents’ place.
It was incredibly sad to admit, but I kind of missed it. I missed the bliss of ignorance. The more I learned, the more worried I became. France had become a pressure cooker in which all of these problems were building up day by day. Unless long-term solutions were brought out, it was bound to explode. I truly hoped that wouldn’t happen.
Unfortunately, just three days later, it did just that.
~ End of Chapter 13 ~
No chapter next week as I’m taking a bit of extra time to prepare the grand finale of Encore – but I do have two surprises planned for you! Stay tuned on my Facebook page here!
Thanks for reading!