, , , ,

I my memories of my encounters with Officialdom at the Holy See (Vatican) in the period of 1998-2001 I was on post in Warsaw, Poland. The Embassy of Canada is across the street from the Polish Parliament in a nice park like setting in the centre of the Polish Capital near the Royal Park of the Lazienki Palace (pronounced Wajenki) built on water.

At the time Jean-Paul II was Pope and the favourite son of Poland. His long pontificate from 1978 to 2005 was coupled with the end of the struggle in Poland with the Worker movement Solidarity who received his support to the cause of National Liberation from the influence of the Soviet Union. I was in Poland at a time of great changes in terms of building of first ever new infrastructure like shopping malls, gas stations, modern banking, ATM machines etc. What I took for ordinary as a consumer was a discovery for most Poles who had never seen anything like that prior to 1990. Suddenly they went from an economy where everyone had to queue for bread and any other commodity to giant supermarkets with so much on offer that it often created a kind of paralysis in shoppers who did not seem to know what to buy. My first experience with these brand new modern shopping malls was during my first week in Warsaw, I walked into a supermarket wanting to buy milk. I was not prepared for the fact that despite the fact that the Supermarket was a chain from Holland all the products on sale were labelled in Polish language only. So what is the word in Polish for Milk? Good question, there I was in front of a gigantic dairy counter with all kinds of products with not a clue as to how Milk would be labelled. So after 10 minutes of a frustrating search, no one amongst the staff could help me since they also only spoke Polish. So finally a mother with a little boy around 4 years old come along and I see the boy make a beeline for a carton of milk, the word is MLEKO. Needless to say after that I made a point of learning the language, you cannot take for granted that Nationals will speak either French or English, though at the time in Poland anyone over the age of 50 spoke French and people under 30 spoke English. Most Poles spoke Russian or German, but generally refused to speak Russian, a language they were forced to learn by their Soviet Comrades.

So during my stay in Poland we had visits by the Pope which were treated by Polish authorities as grand State Visits. Meaning that building were re-built, renovated, roads repaved, parks renovated, enormous expenses for the State all to prepare for the ”visit”. Every minute of the visit had to be historically significant, with jubilant crowds, marching bands, honour guards, etc. Poles would say that the Pope should visit more often since the infrastructure got a lot of attention prior to his visit. Essentially each visit was pastoral or religious in nature but in reality they were nothing short of Political with messages directed to the Government of Poland on what the Vatican would like to see in reforms in Law and to the Constitution. Per example, prior to my arrival in Poland, the Polish Constitution had no mention or description of what constituted a couple. The Communist government did not bother with describing what constituted a couple or a spouse or a family member. However now that they were gone from Office the new Catholic members of the Government strongly linked to the Archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal Josef Glemp and connected with the Papacy were rewriting the Constitution along Catholic doctrine.

Within days of our arrival in Poland so I could take up my post, the Polish Embassy informed me that they would not issue a residence visa to my spouse because we did not fit the new official definition voted by the Polish Parliament 48 hours prior. I informed my Ambassador who took up the matter with the Polish Foreign Minister, a diplomatic visa was issued though it did not Officially recognize the existence of the bearer but did permit entry and residence in Poland. A strange twist of logic only possible for anyone in that rarefied world of protocol and diplomacy. When my spouse wanted to work, the Embassy asked for a formal recognition, the Foreign Ministry could not help since according to them he was not ”Officially” in Poland though physically present in the country. The Official directed us to the City of Warsaw, maybe they could help since they issued work permits and this matter was out of his hands. The City Official had a interesting opinion on the matter, he could not issue a work permit to a person not recognized by the Foreign Ministry. If we returned to the Protocol Office maybe they could help us because any diplomatic matter was not a Municipal jurisdiction. So you would think at this point all is lost, well not quite. We had made the effort of asking Officially the pertinent question and were given an answer, no one could fault us for going ahead and having my spouse work, since the Polish authorities had played ping pong with the question. If the matter came up again, and everyone concerned knew it would not, we could simply repeat what we were told officially on recognition. As for the Officials, diplomatic circles are very small and everyone knows everyone else, the situation was documented and no one was hiding. The Officials had done their job by repeating verbatim the official position in their sphere of competence and would take no further action because it would cause embarrassment and in polite society no one wants to cause unpleasantness between allies. My spouse went on to work for senior officials of the Polish Government in Warsaw.


Lazienki Palace, Warsaw