The world cannot be switched off over the holidays
Minister Witold Waszczykowski tells the Poland.pl portal about whether he will have a chance to rest over Christmas, what his favourite Christmas films are and what delicacies will appear on his Christmas table.
POLAND.PL: For 2017, you wished your compatriots health, joy and success in their personal and professional lives. What did you wish for yourself and did these wishes come true?
WITOLD WASZCZYKOWSKI: On a personal level. I wanted to lose a few kilos. Unfortunately, I failed in doing so. With regard to professional matters, I wanted the decisions that were made a year earlier to come into force in 2017. We were worried whether, according to the decisions made at the NATO summit in Warsaw, the Alliance's troops would be deployed in Poland, whether the new US administration would honour the previous obligations - all this was accomplished. These fears turned out to be unfounded, especially since President Trump dispelled them personally during his visit to Poland. Another wish that came true was Poland's election in June to the group of non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, in line with my announcement in the exposé. All this means that we can all end this year with satisfaction. In my case, the more so given that I turned 60.
What will Christmas this year look like at the home of the Waszczykowski family? Will they be like those you remember from your own family home growing up, or will they be more modern?
Certainly different than in my childhood. We are talking here of the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, when Poland was poor and the holidays were associated with a few days of a better, richer life. Better food, sweets, gifts - a big escape from everyday, grey life. I hope that children still look at Christmas in a similar way today.
In the modern world, holidays often turn into a few days off. We treat them, unfortunately, as a short break in the pursuit of our daily affairs. We do not experience them the same way as was done years ago. The pace of life and modern technologies have made it ever harder to prepare for Christmas. Still, Christmas is one of the most important holidays of the year, we celebrate it with family and that's what counts.
Will there be a chance for the Foreign Minister to rest during the holidays?
Not really. Both weekends and holidays are a state of constant readiness. Unfortunately, the world cannot be switched off.
Is it not possible for you to put your phone on silent for a few hours and forget about God's world?
If the phone is muted, there are always vibrations and a light that reminds you of received messages. Turning off the phone is not an option. I also have my superiors who can ask for information about what is happening in the country and in the world. The world and the surroundings of Europe are not stable.
Even if rivals make arrangements for a Christmas truce, often one party breaks it. This has happened in recent years in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, two Christian nations. There are also many groups that do not respect Christian holidays and for them it is often an excuse to strike, as, for example, was the case in Berlin last year.
But you will no doubt find a free moment for celebrating the holiday. What happens then?
From time to time there is indeed a break for a family meal or watching one of the classic Christmas films together.
I actually do not want to watch Home Alone anymore. During my last trip to Houston, for example, I watched Christmas with the Kranks with Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis. A married couple is planning a holiday trip, but at the last minute they are forced to stay at home and in a wild rush organize a typical American family Christmas – a classic.
Any other film tips for Christmas?
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase is one of my favourites. I’ve basically memorised everything the Griswold family does for Christmas, but I will be happy to watch it again this year. Maybe for the twentieth time.
When I was a child, there was often a better television schedule on holidays. Some of the youth-oriented and western series were broadcast only at that time. They were rarities and often took priority over sledding and skating.
What does the Christmas menu look like in your home?
The menu has changed over the years. I spent my childhood in Piotrków Trybunalski, where my family emigrated to from the East, so at that time dishes such as Ukrainian borsch or cabbage with peas appeared on the Christmas Eve table. I used to love poppy seed cakes and other Christmas cakes, but with age the desire for sweets has passed.
Now borsch has been replaced with mushroom soup, in addition to traditional dumplings with cabbage and mushrooms, fish. Many years ago we eliminated carp, which I cannot stand. I’ve maintained this dislike since my childhood. An unappetising fish full of little bones, I never wanted to eat it.
Which fish have replaced carp?
Different ones, for example salmon. At least three types appear on the table. As well as a whole range of herrings, prepared in various ways, with the "herring under a blanket" in the starring role.
Christmas is also about carols and Christmas hits. What are your favourites?
For years, it has been a tradition at our home that my wife and I bake Swedish gingerbread with our children. You have to start a few days before Christmas, for them to mature, crumble and achieve the best taste at Christmas. We then sit down with the whole family and listen to Christmas music, especially world hits.
Wham’s Last Christmas?
No, rather classics. Bing Crosby, I'll Be Home for Christmas, for example. I also have a CD with carols by Elvis Presley, I like it very much, and I love Presley himself, the now forgotten King of Rock and Roll. And on Christmas Eve, we like to switch on a televised broadcast of a Christmas carol concert.
Do you sing Christmas carols at the Christmas table?
Not really. Not with these voices. We like to watch a broadcast from some beautiful church, in a winter-Christmassy setting. I remember a few years ago watching a television broadcast from my church, which is next to my house in the suburbs of Warsaw. It was touching.
Did you celebrate Christmas when you were an ambassador in Iran?
Yes, we tried to celebrate them the same way we did in Poland, also because our young children were with us. Fortunately, there were quite a lot of expats in Tehran, including Christians, so it was possible to buy a Christmas tree and decorations. Dumplings and mushroom soup were also prepared, although some of the dishes had a slightly different taste than in Poland, because not all products and spices could be bought.
What gifts are you hoping to receive this year?
We have stopped giving each other surprise presents. Within our family, we discuss who needs what. We are all too old, too grown-up, to be surprised. So a little more planning is needed, so that no one protests about “receiving socks and a tie, yet again.”
In one of your interviews, you said you wanted to buy a winter coat in the USA, but there was no opportunity to do so. You've just come back from Houston. Did you manage to buy a coat?
Unfortunately not. We had a packed agenda. Houston is a very large city, traveling between items on our agenda consumed a lot of time. There was no way to spend half a day driving to some distant shopping centre.
What will you do in your free time this Christmas?
Above all, talk to the family, with my children who just started their studies this year. There is no time to talk on a day-to-day basis, and after the first few months of study it is worth talking about how they like studying at university or how are they coping with their studies.
What are they studying? International relations?
No, my daughter is studying law, and my son’s studies are related to security.
What other plans do you have for your free time?
I would love to watch a good movie. And I will hope that my phone does not suddenly ring with some global problem that needs to be solved quickly. And let me remind you that we have an increasing number of commitments in connection with Poland’s UN Security Council membership, which starts in 2018. Therefore, there is a danger that this phone will ring more and more after Christmas.
Apparently you always take a book with you on a plane. What have you read recently?
These past few days, I've read mainly newspapers, longer journalistic articles. I browse them, then cut out some of the articles and take them aboard. Before Christmas, several weeklies published extended editions, which I also intend to read in the coming days, or spend some time at the "Press, Radio and Television Ball" as I sometimes joke.
You wrote your doctorate on the "European civil war" and disarmament negotiations between 1919 and 1936, do you still find these topics interesting? Do you have time to continue your academic passions?
I feel close to the United States, if only for the sake of being interested in US policy on a regular basis, professionally. Sometimes I read a magazine, for example Foreign Affairs, which looks more broadly at Washington's policy, but mainly current affairs. However, I no longer deal with the subject of disarmament, because this topic has fallen from the international agenda. As I argued twenty years ago, disarmament negotiations do not contribute to international security and peace. On the contrary, they contribute to the exacerbation of the situation.
I am still very interested in the problems of the Middle East. Today, this region is somewhat reminiscent of a 19th-century Europe. It is full of geopolitics, variable alliances. Also the relationship between the world of Islam and modernity - how Islam tries to adapt to current times and how it fails in doing so, unfortunately. Iran is still very interesting to me, with its culture and foreign policy, and its great history. The world in general is very interesting, which is why we work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from which we have a great observation point of the world.
What would you wish for yourself and for your readers for 2018?
For myself, again, to lose a few kilos. On a professional level, I would like for us to be able to manage the situation in Europe, in our part of the continent and across the EU. We find ourselves at a conceptual bend with regard to the future of European integration. There is a serious discord on whether integration is to serve the needs of citizens, raise the standard of living, or be targeted at some utopian ideological creation - at the expense of citizens. Some politicians would like, for example, to strengthen bureaucracy and other things that do not help people, but satisfy the ambitions of politicians. If we continue being stuck in this dispute, we will not be able to face the challenges and external threats and someone else will do it for us. The sooner we settle our European and transatlantic affairs, the sooner we can move on to solve the problems around us.