Some of you may be deeply disappointed to hear this, but let me begin by reassuring all my readers that, no, my car did not blow up this weekend. I'm afraid it simply isn't true that the Russian mafia are out to get me. I know it would have been more fun—and for some of you much more satisfying—but, alas, I was never under attack at all.
Here is what happened: I was driving home from a friend's house in a Warsaw suburb Saturday night when my engine died. I tried to restart it, pumped the accelerator, heard a small explosion, and saw a flame. Smoke started coming out of the hood, which I didn't want to open. (This was a bad move, in retrospect, but I've seen what happens to smoking cars in the movies.) Someone called the fire department, which clearly didn't take my car problems very seriously.
When they finally arrived, around 20 minutes later, the scene did admittedly look rather spectacular. Columns of billowing white smoke, flames, the works. Still, it was only the engine burning, not the entire car, and the policeman who showed up agreed that the cause was probably some weird mechanical malfunction. The car was seven years old, after all, and it had been configured to run on both gasoline and natural gas.
Nevertheless, he did do a kind of double take when I mentioned that the car belonged jointly to me and my husband—and that my husband, Radek Sikorski, happens to be the Polish foreign minister. Nervous, he called his boss. His boss called the secret service. In an overabundance of caution, the secret service decided to check out the car and hang around me for the next day. Fine, I thought. That's their job. They would do that in any country.
Someone tipped off the Polish tabloids, and the Polish tabloids sent photographers. (They would do that in any country, too.) There were some radio reports, and pictures of my poor Jeep, looking like something off the streets of Beirut, were spread all over the Internet under headlines like "Attack on Sikorski's wife???" The stories were accompanied by the inevitable Internet commentary, which ran the gamut from paranoid to hysterical. (Our personal favorite: "Clearly, Sikorski was trying to change BOTH his wife AND his car in one go.") But they were just tabloid stories, and I reckoned they would be filed away with alien abductions and starlet pregnancies and soon forgotten.
How wrong I was. The very next morning, anxious friends started calling from London. It seems the London Times had run a story, both in the newspaper and online, headlined "American author Anne Applebaum given police guard after car blows up." The story described the incident (incorrectly) and concluded by ominously noting that both my husband and I "have been sharp critics of the Kremlin." Well, that certainly beat the Polish tabloids, which didn't mention anything about the Kremlin or exploding cars. At about 9 on Monday morning, I wrote to the Times correspondent and another couple of acquaintances at the paper and asked them to please take down this ludicrous story and run a correction. They said they would investigate.
All day long, while they were "investigating," I fielded telephone calls and e-mails from worried friends, many of whom sent me links to an ever-increasing number of Web sites. At one point, I noticed that the Daily Telegraph—for which I sometimes write—was running a copycat online story with even more speculation about possible Russian motives. I called its foreign desk. It took the story down immediately. A friend told me the Estonian press was all worked up about the "incident," and I heard about some Russian Web sites, too.
Surely the high point of the entire day, however, was the link that appeared on Gawker, the gossip site beloved of twentysomething New Yorkers. The headline? "Anne Applebaum's Freaking Car Explodes." I quote:
Still Anne Applebaum has some bodyguards with her now and we would advise her, on general principle, to come on back to America and try not to get poisoned by dioxin or shot up, as is wont to happen sometimes, although of course we know nothing and are not implying anything and would never jump to conclusions, about Russia's state-sponsored gangsterism. But: Car explosion! Damn.
Finally, at about 5 o'clock, the Times deigned to alter its story. The new headline is "Police called after Anne Applebaum's car catches fire." The story now mentions a "small noise" as well as smoke. It notes that there is a police investigation. It notes that I was "unharmed." And that's it.
At some point, perhaps Gawker and the Estonian Web sites will notice that the story to which they are linking has undergone a change of tone. Though as of this writing, there is no correction and no explanation as to why on earth the great London Times, flagship of the Murdoch group, is reporting the fact that Anne Applebaum's car engine caught fire.
If you ask me, that's the weirdest part of all.