Lech Walesa, former Solidarity leader and President of Poland, and Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, meet with National Geographic Expeditions travelers on the Society’s “Exploring the Baltic’s Historic Waterways” expedition. On a recent departure, Walesa swept guest Ethel Scully off her feet—not just with his insights on history, but also with his deft dance moves. I spoke with her about the experience.
Tell me about your Baltic expedition.
It was wonderful. I like to travel to learn and to grow, and am always looking for enriching experiences. This expedition really did that for me. It took a horizontal slice through history. We spent a lot of time looking at the Hanseatic League, then focused on the fall of the Soviet Union across all the Baltic republics, Poland, and so on. The entire experience was so enriching, not just in terms of the countries we visited, but the other travelers as well.
You met Mikhail Gorbachav and Lech Walesa, both momentous figures in 20th-century history and the unraveling of the Soviet Union. What was that like?
It was tremendously exciting. Here were two Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning men who had tremendous roles in changing the course of history. They were both philosophical.
In the case of Lech Walesa, he spoke of course about his Solidarity movement. It didn’t just mean labor unions, he explained, it meant everyone working together. He spoke of the impact Pope John Paul II had in encouraging the Polish people to stand up for themselves against the Soviets. He spoke of European integration and how it’s working today.
Walesa was thoughtful, and his sense of humor shone through. He seemed warm, down-to-Earth, and engaging. He said he liked to address difficult issues in a light-hearted way. He spoke about not wanting to be the President of Poland after the Soviet Union fell, but feeling that if he didn’t step up, the Poles risked losing so many of the advances that the country had made. And he gave credit to lots of other people. He also spent a lot of his time looking forward and speaking about the future.
Gorbachev also spoke about many things: He spoke of Glasnost and about nuclear disarmament. (He said he was proud of what he’d done to advance that cause.) He spoke about his relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, said his first impression was that Reagan was a dinosaur. As he got to know him better, that assessment changed. Gorbachev said Reagan would ultimately confide to him that his first impression was that Gorbachev was an old-school socialist. Gorbachev said they ultimately grew to have great respect for one another.
Gorbachev also spoke of an environmental organization he founded, Green Cross International. Both Walesa and Gorbachev spoke about the environment being a global issue, something people need to cooperate on a lot more than we currently do. I hadn’t thought so much about the environmental consciousness of Russia, but it’s a priority for him, and he spoke about it.
Someone asked Gorbachev what he would like his epitaph to be. A simple one, he answered: “He tried.” He spoke of how his current health issues are holding him back. I was literally only about 12 feet from the man! I was struck with how warm, real, and down-to-Earth he came across.
Lech Walesa spoke to us aboard ship, in the lounge. He leaned back on the bar and spoke from the heart. I got the impression they were both speaking from the heart. This is what I look for in travel: I want to learn something from the places I see, and want to be enriched by them.
So how did you end up dancing with Walesa?
At the end of his talk, Walesa was gracious and invited people to come up and take photos with him. He’d posed with about a dozen people before I got up with him. I was by myself, just smiling and happy to be there. And instead of a stiff photo, he broke into dance!
The world wants to know: Is Lech Walesa a good dancer?
Oh, yes! He’s a polka aficionado, and he’s quite good.
Did the Baltic expedition change your outlook on the places you visited?
It did, forever. And it made my Christmas Card: “Polka With Peace-Prize-Winning Polish President!”
Over the course of my life, I’ve measured experiences by asking “Is this a National Geographic moment?” I’ve had many figurative National Geographic moments, but this was my first literal National Geographic moment. It was lots of fun, and very memorable. This experience will always stay special for me.
Schedule your brush with history: Explore the Baltic’s Historic Waterways in 2012 with National Geographic Expeditions.