Erm, erm, erm… Mr President


It’s not every day you address the person sitting across the table from you as Mr President. Neither is it every day that you interview a man for whose freedom you marched as a teenager. Whether or not these are sufficient reasons to explain my bumbling questioning of Lech Wałęsa, Poland’s first democratically-elected president after the fall of communism, they are all I can offer in my defence.

I had landed at Lech Wałęsa International Airport in Gdańsk, with little idea that I would be sitting in front of the man himself less than 24 hours later. I was in Gdańsk to research a short feature about the city for an airline magazine and had arranged to meet Margaret, a lady who runs her own tour business in the city. We’d connected online and I had asked her to show me the sites of Gdańsk that relate to the Lech Wałęsa story. A high-profile biopic movie about his role in the peaceful overthrow of communism in Poland was about to be released and my story was timed to coincide with the film’s expected release.

Margaret had hinted by email that she would try and secure an interview with Wałęsa but I had never expected anything to come of it; so much so that I’d already booked an onward train the next morning and had no clothes with me that were remotely suited for meeting a former Head of State. I had woefully underestimated Margaret’s connections and ability to deliver the impossible.

That night I practised my introduction and drew up a list of questions – about the film, about his current work, about his favourite spots in Gdańsk, even about his meeting the previous week with the Dalai Lama. I would conduct the interview in Polish and while it’s the first language I spoke as a child, the vocabulary you pick up in your early years has limited value when you’re interviewing ex-presidents.

My late-night preparation was blown away within seconds of the start of the interview. Here’s the transcript of my woeful opening:

Me: So I’d like to begin by giving a brief introduction…
LW: No, first question

Me: Ok, the first question (I fumble around a bit)
LW: Are you prepared for this?

Me: Yes, yes. (More flustered fumbling). So I’m writing an article about the film…
LW: First question (I listen now and still hear the impatience in his voice)

Me: Ok, first question. (Nervous pause before finally getting started).

For the next 20 minutes I stumbled through my questions with Margaret offering Mr Wałęsa valuable translations of my broken Polish along the way. I finished without any further alarms, but I didn’t want to leave with the impression that this was just another in a daily grind of interviews, so pulled out what I thought was my trump card. I passed him a photo of me marching through the streets of Nottingham with my brothers carrying a Solidarność banner that we had made, in support of the union that Mr Wałęsa had started. This at least produced a wry smile, before it was time for the official photo (above) and a prompt exit.

While my Gdańsk article duly appeared in the Wizz Air magazine, I was unable to place the Lech Wałęsa interview as I had hoped. My efforts were not helped by the fact that the film is still awaiting its release, 16 months after my interview. While his feelings about the upcoming film might still apply, his thoughts on the Euro 2012 tournament are probably not of interest any more.

My encounter with the Polish ex-President and Nobel Prize winner proved a baptism of fire in terms of interviewing famous people. If I’m put in that position again I hope I’m able to perform with a lot more conviction. In the meantime I’ll look out for the film and see if I recognise something of the man I met on that nervous morning in Gdańsk.

Oh, and if you happen to be in Gdańsk and want a good tour guide to show you around, please get in touch with Margaret – she’s helpful, knows that city and surrounding region very well, and can arrange the seemingly impossible.

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Freelance travel writer

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