The Runowo Conference commenced at approximately 6:00 AM in Runowo Krajenskie, Poland. Ostensibly a wedding celebration for friends, it was in fact a meeting of distinguished representatives from the United States (me) and three Polish delegates: a guy in a salmon shirt who looks like British comedian Stephen Fry, a loud guy in a White Shirt, and a guy everyone called Bialy who kept spilling vodka on my leg.
This was a rare chance for two countries to get together and discuss politics, economics and history. But mostly it was a common opportunity to drink staggering amounts of vodka in the wee hours of the morning. I can’t say America won, because America was eventually ushered to bed by America’s wife, but America proudly outlasted White Shirt. It should be noted that representatives from Germany, Northern Ireland and an Australian Serb failed to even make the conference – citing the necessity to sleep.
Iraq: “I think… this is not so good idea.”
Electronics: “So much cheaper in the U.S.”
George W. Bush: “He makes many promises to Poland and, we don’t see reward for it. Does he fuck with us?”
The Kaczynski twins (Poland’s leadership): “They are short… embarrassing.”
Iran: “When will you attack?”
Polish men: “We are sensitive.”
American foreign policy: “You want to be help but you make trouble all the time. Why?”
Not much was resolved and no one knows exactly what was said. All that is certain is the conference ended at 6:42 AM when White Shirt fell asleep in the butter.
Franek the cat met his end courtesy of Rocky, the insane Caucus Mountain wolf/dog that guards the premises with lethal force. The new cat, Rusek (“Little Russian”) is young, feisty, and probably doomed.
While eating kielbasa, I was told with a smile that it was made from the ostriches I’d met on my last visit. I seldom eat things I’ve met, photographed and played with, so this inspired me to not eat any more bird kielbasa. I prefer anonymous ham.
The new ostriches are not as friendly or curious as the last bunch. In fact, they operate mostly in “flee” mode. I assume this is because they’d heard I’d unwittingly eaten their grandma.
The disabled gentleman with the hearty speech impediment gets paid 63 cents an hour for various tasks. The able-bodied one who drinks a lot earns $1.25/hour. The concepts of discrimination and minimum wage don’t have much hold here in the village, which is governed more by reality and the free market.
The only bar in the village – a single, unheated room that served warm beer – is closed. Not because it was unheated and served warm beer, but because they lost their customer base as a result of the exodus of able-bodied young men and women to other EU countries. One of the perks of EU membership (for young Poles, not bar owners) is being able to go elsewhere and make more than the $1.25/hour my brother-in-law would pay you here (less, of course, if you’re disabled).
It was a close race between the village mayor and the village priest for Most Overwhelming Christmas Display 2005, but ultimately the crown goes to God’s humble servant whose power bills are subsidized by the Vatican. He had an electric sleigh on his roof and lots of people eager to earn brownie points by wiring his bushes. Honorable mention goes to the mayor, whose lights flashed wickedly and often.
Christmas mass in the 600 year old unheated pine church enjoyed a record high attendance, probably because the village lost power at 11:30pm and there weren’t many excuses not to go. Since the priest’s speaker system wasn’t working, folks in the back couldn’t hear anything and chatted loudly. Presumably about the power going out.
The freshly paved road between the farm and the carton factory makes for great tow-behind-the-car sledding until you hit the not-freshly-paved cobblestone. Then your poorly made sled will slowly disintegrate and you’ll scream for your father-in-law to stop the car before you and your son are impaled on wood shards.
The closest toy store (40 minutes) is across from the other closest toy store. Both sell the same products, most of which are Chinese knockoffs of famous brand names. The winner for Bravest Little Copyright Infringer goes to the Chinese take on Legos, called “Ligao.” A third the price and one-quarter the quality.
While browsing said toy stores, I learned that “Huey” is “The World’s Most Famous Interactive Troll ™” whatever the hell that means. Perhaps one of the worst product tag lines ever shat out.
New Year’s Eve was celebrated in the village soccer field. The Mayor paid for a limited fireworks display, supplemented by several freelance bottle-rocketeers and the indiscriminate distribution of lit firecrackers. He also offered cups of Russian “Champagne” which tastes like fermented pears, and reminds you that Russians are better at producing vodka. Fortunately I’d brought a bottle of quality French stuff given to me in London by a Virgin stewardess because my seatback TV didn’t work and I can bitch well.
I saw a fat man in the only decent Mercedes I’ve seen around here and asked if that was the mayor of the village. “Yes,” they said, “How did you know?”
Otis Langmann once said “Humor is not universal” – a strange thing to say during a blimp crash, but absolutely true and insightful. Indeed, humor is not universal. Just like languages, traditions, or attitudes about walking around naked, humor is influenced by many factors, from geography and culture to politics, religion and even economic development.
Thus, one man’s Desperate Housewives is another man’s Shoah. It seems incredible, but if an uproarious American comedy offering like That’s So Raven found itself in Iran, you wouldn’t hear a single ululation in the audience – even if women were allowed to see it. Likewise, bring Iran’s chador-busting comedy Allah’s Fiery Nuclear Condemnation of Jews and Zionists to the U.S. and we find ourselves asking “What’s so funny about that?” before calling the U.N. and requesting an explanation and/or some sanctions.
In an effort to understand the comedy of other cultures, Banterist is setting out on a global quest to analyze some of the premier humor offerings of various countries in the hopes that some day we’ll all be on the same page – if not religiously, culturally, developmentally or intellectually, then at the very least, comedically. As Otis Langmann once said: “Understanding a national sense of humor is paramount to the hey hey hey haw.”
It doesn’t make much sense, but in his defense he was on fire.
Today’s explored country: France.
It’s Thursday, but it feels like Sunday. In fact, every day feels like Sunday in rural Poland, having traded the cacophony of New York for the relative silence of the Wielkopolskie countryside. Gone are the Big City’s perpetual sirens and the aural assault of mobile, hyper-bass stereo systems. Instead I am surrounded by the low-fi offerings of crickets, barking dogs and distant farm machinery most likely harvesting the miles of surrounding wheat fields.
The pace of life here is much slower than New York, requiring you to actually experience it. One is forced to spend quality time with others, read books, make pickles and watch ostriches shit on themselves – things you don’t do as much when in your hyperactive society, fretting about terrorists and bitching about the celebrity du jour.
Here among family, friends, 15 ostriches and the half-wolf/half-dog Caucasus beast, The Boy celebrated his first birthday. As is Polish custom he was presented with a table of symbolic offerings which are said to determine his future. He approached the table and immediately smacked his palm on a few coins – cheered as a sign he’d be successful in business. But in short order the coins lost his interest. He proceeded to run off with a shot glass and rosary beads – sealing his future as an alcoholic priest.
With no Fox, no CNBC, and internet browsing a painfully slow affair, I’m forced to make do with local news. There’s not too much of it. Someone has a new tractor. Someone’s extra-marital affair was discovered. And unfortunately, a gentleman from the village, whom I’d met before, was driving drunk a few weeks ago and killed a woman from the village. He’ll most certainly go to jail and lament the fact that he drove drunk in a village a pedestrian can cover in a fifteen minute walk.
The most interesting news was the discovery of some communist-era mischief. Apparently in 1985 a corrupt official engaged in the sale of a tiny portion of my mother-in-law’s farm without her knowledge or consent. Lacking any regard for the concept of personal property, the official quietly sold a small plot of the land that wasn’t his to the national electric utility and pocketed the money. The illegal sale was done to facilitate the construction of a small transformer tower – which true to communist organizational savvy was then built in the wrong place. The end result is my mother-in-law has a transformer tower on her legal property, next to the small plot of hers which was illegally sold. The electric service can’t access either, as the area is surrounded by her property which she has the right to refuse them access to. No doubt lawyers and money will be required to address the 20-year old crime. Meanwhile, in a show of defiance we built a sandbox on the land in question.
Although the Poles are quite pro-US as it is, I’m still concerned about reversing any possible negative opinions stemming from our unilateral foreign policy. While at a neighbor’s post-Christening party, as a gesture of goodwill I offered my services to a 78-year old man who still plows his own fields, fells his own trees, and chases after 19-year olds while his wife of 50+ years looks on and laughs. He had requested help shoveling wheat from one place to another, or something to that effect, and after several vodkas I was fully committed to getting up in the morning and assisting him. He should have retired twenty years ago, but his Type-A personality forbids it. He’s as workaholic as any Wall Street investment banker, though the rewards are far less substantial and he’s destined to collapse among corn stalks rather than on a yacht. He’s as rugged as you’d expect any life-long farmer to be, with skin leathered by the sun and reddened by the drink. Quite charismatic and dapper in a suit, too. As lively and as happy as can be. Despite the age and the vodka, he woke before any of us who’d offered assistance did and moved the wheat without us, so that he might beat the rain which never came.
We have a stroller. Does your building have an elevator?
We have a stroller. Does your building have an elevator?
Great. By any chance does it open in the middle of the stairwell?
In this tiny village in the Polish countryside, entertainment options are somewhat limited. There is one bar, no restaurant and the movie barn burned down over a decade ago.
So, New Year’s Eve – called “Sylvester” here – is a big event; an occasion to get dressed up for a night on the hamlet. I haven’t asked exactly why it’s called “Sylvester” because I immediately assumed there’s a Saint Sylvester and he was given 31 December because he liked to party.
At any rate, this is a big event and all the guys break out their tie.
Next to the infamous Squat-hole toilets of Asia and southern France, the German Poo-Shelf Toilet is undoubtedly one of the least pleasant methods of waste removal – assuming you’re like most folks and don’t feel the need to get to know your waste. It finds itself here in western Poland because this region was once part of Germany until the Germans got all riled up and tried to take over the world. They’re better now, but the legacy of their doody-tech remains.
The Poo-Shelf comes from a period in German history when Germans were less interested in world domination and apparently more interested in spending quality time with their feces. That, or they were prone to accidentally eating their wedding rings and needed a toilet that allowed them to conveniently rummage through their dung before dispatching it to the abyss. Those must have been fascinating times and I’m quite glad I wasn’t born in them.
I don’t know how many such devices are in existence. Perhaps they’re quite rare and I was simply lucky to stumble upon such a specimen. All I know is that upon encountering the German Poo-Shelf Toilet, one is forced to solemnly contemplate the reason such a horrible mechanism exists, and what demon designed such a thing.
Rather than whisking your waste away, the GPST simply lets it sit there, mere centimeters from your rump, so that you might think about the brief time you had together. When you’re done reminiscing – or when the odor of a pile of poop begins to negatively affect the ambiance of your bathroom – you simply pull up on the flushing mechanism to send your creation on to the Great Beyond. However, if the flushing mechanism doesn’t work – well, you’re on your own with a shelf full of poo and a toilet designed so as to render the plunger useless. Good luck and God bless.
It should also be noted that any gentleman who chooses to stand up and use the German Poo-Shelf Toilet for the purpose of bladder-emptying can be expected to enjoy as much splash-back as one might get from say, peeing on a coffee table. The toilet, in all aspects aside from cigarette butt and chewing gum disposal, is utterly useless.
Those who believe in intelligent life in outer space often say that any culture advanced enough to achieve space travel would probably not make themselves known to us until we too have reached a certain level of civilization. I take that to mean the elimination of war, and every German Poo Shelf toilet currently in existence. Although stopping warfare is a tall order at the moment, I encourage every able-bodied soul to grab a sledgehammer, get to Germany, and start swinging.
The ostrich has the timid demeanor of Michael Jackson with the expressionless face of Brendan Fraser. It can be described as a small beanbag chair perched on two corn stalks with a vacuum hose neck and Nerf football head. They have very large eyes that they use to take in the world around them – which, judging from their behavior, they don’t really understand all too well.
The ostrich is naturally very curious and prone to stare at you. If an ostrich were to ride the subway to the Bronx it might start to believe “What you lookin’ at, bitch?” was a special greeting reserved for large flightless birds.
As a result of its twiggish bird legs supporting its compact torso, the ostrich has an awkward gait which no doubt would get them much verbal abuse in any high school cafeteria. They waddle like a penguin, but a tall one with scoliosis, locked knees and a touch of effeminate saunter – the likes of which is not unknown to any guy who dreams of a Bronski Beat/Eurasure comeback tour.
The ostrich default mode is Run Away followed by Stare and Approach Awkwardly. It’s quite prone to cycling through this line-up numerous times in a five-minute period.
If an ostrich arrives at the conclusion that you are a threat, it will hiss loudly, then nip at you. If it decides you are not a threat it will just nip at you. Either way, your encounter with an ostrich will most likely involve a nipping.
For that reason, it is not a good idea to approach an ostrich in nice clothing, as the ostrich has little to no regard for designer labels and would just like to eat the buttons on your jacket – be it Boss or B’Gosh. It would also like to eat your wedding ring, Poland/U.S. flag pin, finger, eye, wrist and hair. Pretty much anything in their vicinity is prone to be nipped whether that be you, the fence, the ground, the plastic sheeting that keeps their pen dry or other ostriches. When an ostrich nips at another ostrich, it starts a cycle of nipping and counter-nipping that can last for several minutes until one of them gets bored and looks for something that won’t nip back.
Ostrich nipping is not particularly dangerous or painful; in fact, it can be fairly entertaining if not a bit filthy, as their mouths are often filled with mud. In addition to their harmlessness their nips are also not very productive – like Gary Coleman in the post Diff’rent Strokes years. Nevertheless, an ostrich will frequently act as though his or her nip somehow magically produced a morsel of food. Regardless of what it just nipped at – you, a brick, firewood — it simply assumes it was successful and that it must be eating something, which explains why it will go through the motions of chewing and swallowing. In that sense, it seems to regard the entire world as edible.
An ostrich cannot be bothered to escape. A low fence, some wire, twine, or other minimum-security perimeter will guarantee the ostrich will be in your custody for life. They have assumed, correctly, that they’d fare no better in the outside world. In this respect they are like many college professors on the tenure track.
Ostriches produce sturdy feathers – which would be a great commodity if this were 1730 and there was an abundance of talented music composers creating high demand for quill pens. Sadly, in the age of the Bic and word processing this demand is well satisfied. Although ostriches can be eaten and their skins made into leather, their main reason for existence seems to be to lay more eggs for the creation of more ostriches. When the ostrich market bubble will burst is anyone’s guess. When it does, expect an abundance of ostrich steaks and purses as ostrich farmers purge their supply in favor of more lucrative farming endeavors – like alpacas, llamas or government subsidy abuse.
No escape lads. We’d have to step over. I say we give up.
Admittedly, I have taken Closed Captioning for granted all my life. That was until this evening when I discovered Polish Sign Language Lady.
Polish Sign Language Lady is a portly, bespectacled, beyond middle-aged woman who sits in the bottom right hand corner of the television during the broadcast of the Polish soap opera M Jak Milsoc (L as in Love) on TV Polonia’s Channel 2. Nothing separates her from the actual program, such as a box or different colored background, so she appears in the scene itself – signing away as the actors speak or sitting quietly with her hands in her lap during less talkative moments such as the scene where a bikini-clad woman inexplicably sauntered around her friends to a vaudeville soundtrack.
One might think having a hyperactive Polish elder in the corner of every scene would prove to be distracting. It totally, totally is. Perhaps with training one can try and pretend that there’s not someone flailing away in the southeast corner of your LCD display during a dramatic exchange, but the untrained Polish soap opera watcher such as myself is hard-pressed to avert his or her gaze. I can’t really follow the show anyway – my Polish isn’t up to snuff, even for soap dialogue – so I became transfixed by the ever-present grey-haired temptress in the corner.
She lost me briefly during a scene with an exposed breast, but only because I momentarily freaked out about the FCC’s reaction to such a provocation. However, she had my attention moments after I remembered I was in Europe and not subject to the whim of repressed puritans and the government bureaucracy that goes to bat for them. Here, the only reason Janet Jackson would have made waves with her boobantics is because only six people in Poland have ever seen a black breast, much less one with a starfish on it.
But back to Polish Sign Language Lady.
On occasion, during moments where there was an extended dialogue-free period, Polish Sign Language Lady would dissolve away, only to re-appear instantly when dialogue commenced. All this did was draw my attention even more, as a miniature old lady suddenly appearing on a man’s shoulder during a scene about an affair is, frankly, kind of funny.
Why hasn’t TV Polonia 2 upgraded to more conventional means of reaching the deaf Polish audience? I don’t know. Perhaps there’s a powerful union of Polish sign language interpreters in cahoots with the industry. Perhaps Polish Sign Language Lady has had the gig for 30 years, and no one has the heart to fire her. Or perhaps they haven’t figured out a way to type closed-caption dialogue on the fly for a language that’s mostly a maniacal jumble of consonants. Regardless, Polish Sign Language Lady is one of my favorite shows, and I’m not even quite sure what it’s about.
Having successfully got my visa, pausing only to smile smugly at the angry South African outside the Kazakhstan embassy, I journeyed to Gatwick where the charter flight to Uralsk was departing that evening. I picked up my ticket, checked in etc. and proceeded to wait for the flight to be called. As anyone who has traveled outside what are normally described as first world countries can attest, one of the tricks to doing so successfully and with the least hassle of any kind is to adopt a completely open attitude to timetables and how long any particular process may take. True to form, we boarded the plane and sat on the tarmac for a little while. Eventually the pilot came on to say that we did not have ATC clearance for Kazak airspace. It’s worth noting at this stage the charter had been flying on the same plane every week for four years but Kazak ATC were feigning complete ignorance of the plane and everyone on it.
“We’re trying to get the paperwork sorted in Kazakhstan and we leave as soon as possible” announced the pilot.
“We’re going nowhere tonight” thought the passengers, knowing full well it was four hours ahead and thus past midnight in Uralsk. Sure enough, after making us wait for another hour or so (just for form) we were all booked into Gatwick Hilton for the night, one of the less well known Hilton daughters.
The charter was only for employees and contractors of an oil company, a joint venture formed between the Kazak government and several big Oil Co’s to exploit a very large oil, gas and condensate field in the North-West of Kazakhstan near, well, nowhere. As such, we all promptly went to the bar where I learnt that the most likely explanation for the delay was a local operator trying to muscle in the charter business which was currently held by an English low cost airline. The English company had won the business after a number of incidents (cracking windows/engine shutdowns etc.) with the local operator had led to a demand for a change. However, as can be seen, in true free market style the local boys were not letting these “minor safety issues” get in the way of encouraging the company to switch back.
Next morning, we got to take off with no doubt the right amount of paperwork having been filed in the correct brown envelope and delivered right into the hands of the appropriate official. It was a direct flight to Uralsk, made pleasant by the fact that the plane was less than half full. It was dark when we began our descent into Uralsk and thus came the first real evidence of the remoteness of this part of the world: as we descended there was no signs of electric light at all. Bearing in mind that the skies were clear, this gives you some idea of how sparsely populated the region is.
We bounced down the runway (uneven but thankfully no potholes) and were eventually let off the plane to begin stage two characteristic of customs & passport control in LDC’s and, from recently, the U.S. This is the weirdly long customs wait combined with much pointless filling out of forms.
Amongst other forms (Are you a terrorist? Yes or No – if you answered “Yes” are you not a very good terrorist or just an idiot? etc.), I filled out a customs declaration form on which you must list anything of value that you have with you and much it is worth in US dollars. This includes such things as wedding rings etc. If it’s not on the list you’ll run a real chance of having it “confiscated” permanently.
We came down the stairs of the plane to de greeted by an unsmiling woman in Military uniform (army, customs, police – who knows?) who gave us each a numbered card. This was to hand to passport control so they could work out if any passenger did a runner in the freezing cold darkness to the middle of nowhere, in a bid to break into Kazakhstan which should be a whole new concept from their point of view. We then went over to the terminal, which was a small two story building. We then sat & stood in the standard bare room on plastic seats queuing to go through passport control & customs which for 70 people has been known to take up to four hours. Nobody knows why.
Perversely, having been through many similar situations, once you get to the relevant official or whatever it never seems to really take very long. Eventually I got to the counter of the plywood booth containing an unsmiling woman in military uniform who took my passport, opened it, compared the photo, did some furious typing on her computer, asked me my date of birth, checked it on my passport to make sure vanity hadn’t got the best of me, more furious typing, asked me what company had sponsored my visit (there’s no such thing as an unsponsored visa – somebody in the country has to sponsor your visit), yet more typing, checked to make sure it was the same answer as everybody else on the private flight chartered by the local company and that I was not just some thrill seeker coming to the empty steppes of Kazakhstan, maybe she’s taking the opportunity to type a novel at work to make up for an undemanding job?
Picked up my luggage by climbing over the unmoving luggage conveyer & went on to customs which consisted of four trestle tables in a small room, two each side, leaving very little room for us and our luggage. Behind each table was an unsmiling man or woman in military uniform.
I opened it and he made a very desultory show of looking in it.
Gave him the customs form. He clearly could read neither English nor my handwriting. That said, I can’t read my handwriting.
I showed him the $200 I had with me. He looked a little disappointed.
“Nope” He’s looking even more disappointed now.
“No” I almost said sorry – he looked so terribly sad.
He then dismissed me with that universal “you no longer exist to me, so please fuck off” air that custom officials the world over do so well. I went to the exit door where a pretty young woman jumped out at me, thrust a plastic bag into my hands containing an apple, water and sweets and wished me a “Welcome to Kazakhstan”.
I stepped out into the cold and dark.
London is big city in the southeast of the United Kingdom. It is the capital of the UK. The UK is a member of the European Union, which is a collection of various unhappy European countries mocked and tortured by France and Germany’s shadowy diplomacy. The aim of the EU is to create a significant counterbalance to the economic power of the United States. So far they have created a cute new currency that at least a few of them agree on. And they have a blue flag with a circle of stars. Aside from that, it’s as organized as any collection of countries with independent, incompatible, secret agendas can be. The EU headquarters are located in Brussels, Belgium – one of the blandest cities in the world. Belgians are intolerably boring but they speak more languages than the average American so they are probably smarter.
London is a big city like New York is. However, London is much older and dirtier and therefore has much more history and plague than New York. While New York’s history is pretty much limited to the Indians and the Dutch owning it for a while, London’s is far more interesting. They have Roman ruins for starters. And they had lots of heads being lobbed off for various offenses, like spitting on the sidewalk or buggering the Queen’s brother.
The indigenous people talk like the cast of Monty Python, except for the American guy who was on the show. Although many Londoners’ accents may sound the same to an average American tourist, their accents actually identify whether the speaker grew up amidst sewage or is related to a Lord. By someone’s first ‘Hello!’ you will have immediately formed an opinion on whether or not the conversation will continue.
London does not feel as safe as New York in that there are more stabbings and ass-kickings. In addition, every English male is required to break at least one window a year. This was very evident on New Year’s Day when it seems the lads brought in 2004 by cheering, kissing girls in the area, and punching a window.
London today is kind of like New York under Ed Koch or, God forbid, David Dinkins: sometimes gritty, dirty, rough-and-tumble. The citizens are still awaiting their Giuliani to come and clean up the city and get Disney in there. During my trip a survivalist-loser type shot and killed a cop. There was a rumor that the killer was Canadian, which made me very happy. Later it turned out he was American, which made me very sad. They caught him but everyone was kind of freaked out for a day to have a lunatic American running about the subway system. Many cops in London do not carry guns and instead are armed with rolling pins and incredible self-confidence about their ability to roll an armed assailant into submission.
The most interesting thing I learned on this last trip was that the expression ‘one for the road’ comes from the fact that criminals (sidewalk spitters and Queen’s-brother-buggerers) on the way to the gallows from Newgate Prison would be allowed a last pint of beer at a pub to boost their morale and make them all Tally Ho! about being hung. The guards would not be drinking and instead would stand ‘on the wagon.’ This is either very interesting history or 100% horse dung disseminated via the tour guide on the overpriced, open-top double-decker tour bus.
London’s subway is called the ‘Tube’ while New York’s is called the ‘Subway.’ The English folks I know there don’t use the ‘Tube’ much, for fear of some ‘Arabs’ who they feel are ‘fucking insane’ and may try to ‘kill’ people on the ‘Tube’ for the chance to attend an ‘orgy’ in their twisted version of ‘Heaven.’
London has a beautiful pub culture. They take pride in their bars which are warm, comfortable establishments where one can enjoy a lovely, tepid pint of beer and a chat. You can also have a ‘fag’ which in London is a cigarette. The word has a totally different connotation in New York, usually meaning a gentleman who reinforces a stereotype by putting on an outrageous accent and getting disowned by his family.
The best way to remember it is this way: In London pubs you can have an English ‘fag’ and an American ‘fag.’ In New York pubs you can have an American ‘fag’ but not an English ‘fag’ unless you’re talking about an English gentleman who reinforces a stereotype by putting on an outrageous accent and getting disowned by his family. In that case it’s okay. The reason you can’t have English ‘fags’ in a New York pub is because our Mayor hates them – though he has a soft spot for American ones and gives them private high schools at taxpayer expense.
If there is music in a London pub it tends to be at a very low volume so as to facilitate a conversation. This is unlike pubs in America where the bartender sets his techno mix tape to volume 11 and you’re forced to shout over choruses of Yeah! Dance! Freedom! Party! The fact that Londoners have enjoyed pub conversation since the age of 18 or so rather than shouting over trite lyrics explains why conversations in London tend to be witty and interesting, while many New York conversations are as deep and rewarding as Yeah! Dance! Freedom! Party! allows.
English pubs are extremely enjoyable until 11pm when they close. This age-old early closing results in a lot of last minute binge-drinking before the pub closes. At 10:45p a bell rings advising you that you have only 15 minutes to binge-drink. At 11p, a bartender uses 800-year old clich’s to ask you to quit the premises. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here, people and Get the fuck out, please are good examples.
New Year’s can be enjoyable, though not if two ladies in your party are drugged with Rohypnol. If that happens, their New Year’s Eve will end prematurely when they become paralyzed and incoherent. I’d like to meet any guy who would spike a girl’s drink so he could explain to me the merits of drugging people he doesn’t know whilst I discussed the finer points of inserting finer points in him.
For those lucky not to be secretly drugged, it is customary to await the New Year until you notice half of the pub ‘ the half with a TV ‘ celebrating something. At about 12:03 you’ll realize that they are celebrating the New Year. To generalize: bartenders in London may not inform you of important things, like New Year’s, as they are busy serving drinks and remembering the 800-year old clich’s they plan on using when they ask you to leave the bar.
Musically, there are many differences and similarities to the New York scene. However there will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever be a #1 hit called Touch My Bum in New York, or the United States for that matter. Ever.
London has great taxi cabs, better than New York taxi cabs for numerous reasons. For starters, their drivers are educated and speak the same language as their customers. They also know the streets by heart, the result of something called ‘training’ which has yet to be imported into the United States. The cabs have plenty of leg room and can easily accommodate five passengers. The worst part of the taxi experience is the fare meter, which shows you how weak the US dollar really is.
London lacks a few things New York has – such as an overly-regulatory, bureaucratic entity to micro-manage the building of commercial-use toilet stalls. You’ll also notice London has a different take on water pressure. To imagine a shower in London, wet a paper towel with cold water then hold it over your head and squeeze. Congratulations, you have just had your first London-style shower.
London’s several newspapers are similar to New York’s several newspapers. The left-wing, America-hating Guardian is very much like the left-wing, America-hating New York Times. The Sun, which is for dockworkers, is much like the New York Post, also for dockworkers. But the Sun has boobs on page three, making it a better paper for dockworkers.
Overall, London is a lovely place to visit – especially for the quarter-billion Americans who don’t speak anything other than English.
Rocky, the hyperviolent canine/wolf menace, spent the better part of the night engaged in a fierce, vocal debate with the neighbor’s remaining dogs. The conversation consisted mainly of Rocky letting out three of his patented guttural, bowel-shattering Woo Woo Woo barks followed by a coordinated reprisal of smallish sounding yippy-type barks off in the distance – as if gay guys and old ladies from New York had abandoned all their abhorrent mini-pets next door.
My guess is that the neighbor’s canine court convened; Rocky was tried in absentia and sentenced to a lifetime of being yapped at – the result of his murdering two of their own. Rocky seems perfectly capable of handling such a sentence. I do not, as the exchange of barkfire woke me up more often than the New York Fire Department, which routinely overreacts to smoking toasters at 4am with a 150 decibel medley of ear-piercing sirens and nerve-racking air horns.
During my stay in rural Poland, Rocky has dispatched two of the neighbor’s dogs. There is also evidence, scattered around the farm, that he was complicit in the early demise of no less than a basketball, soccer ball, plastic planter, door mat, several mole hills and a styrofoam block. The plastic squeaking pig I purchased as a goodwill/don’t-kill-me gesture has surprisingly been spared. So, the one thing that Rocky was actually supposed to chew to bits is in great condition, aside from being filthy. Rocky takes it with him at night and leaves it somewhere around the exterior of the house for me to find during my morning stroll.
This morning when returning the squeaky pig pal to Rocky’s daytime holding pen, I was approached by a farm worker named Stefan. He had previously stared at me from a distance, probably wondering why I was taking a picture of a plastic pig in the grass – for which I have no good answer. Stefan suffers from a very disabling birth defect that affects his speech and crippled his limbs. The good news is that in the last few decades the disease has gone the way of polio, the bad news is Stefan missed that train fifty years ago. As a result, he has the normally hard life of a farm hand rendered much harder by cruel happenstance.
Rocky hates Stefan, and it was quite obvious that if he were freed from his pen, Stefan would have been absolutely torn to pieces. The reaction was unusually violent even for an insane wolf/dog. Rocky performed what I will call the Rocky Is Very Angry routine. This involves running loops around the cage, barking all the while; every so often he jumps into the wall on one side of his pen, bounces off of it and addresses his potential victim with a hearty assortment of terrifying barks before resuming the routine. He’s jumped into the wall so often that the paint has been removed, revealing a 3×2 foot oval of paw-polished aluminum.
Stefan approached me for a little conversation. Conversation with him is not at all easy. Even Polish people have a very hard time understanding him on account of the effects of his debilitating birth defect. When he speaks, it’s coming from a disfigured palate and everything comes out in a burst of slurred words, some amplified and some muted, a la The Elephant Man. On top of all that the words are in Polish – not exactly my native tongue.
Our conversation was in Polish and was amazingly uncomfortable. It lasted what felt like an eternity, and had I known some of the family members were watching me squirm from the living room window I would have called for backup. The entire time Rocky performed the Rocky Is Very Angry routine and the obvious target of his venom was Stefan. Stefan seemed unfazed by the fact that death was only a thin wire fence away.
Me: Good morning.
Stefan: no idea
Stefan: no idea
Stefan: no idea dog no idea dogs.
Me: I do not speak Polish very well.
Stefan: no idea Polish no idea
Me: I do not understand. I speak only a little Polish.
Stefan: What no idea English?
Me: I speak English.
Stefan: I no idea English.
Me: I speak English. I speak some Polish.
Stefan: no idea Are you from England?
Me: I am American. I live in New York.
Stefan: Ah, American. no idea waiting no idea terrorist?
Me: Am I waiting for a terrorist?
Stefan: no idea terrorist no idea New York.
Me: I don’t understand.
Stefan: no idea terrorist no idea dogs.
At this point, Stefan waves his shovel at Rocky. This does not please the mad wolf/dog, and the barking escalates in volume and violence.
Me: Oh, no, no.
Stefan: no idea dogs no idea.
Me: Very well. I will go to the house now. Good bye.
At first I thought Rocky had been trained to hate disabled people, but I later learned that Stefan regularly tormented the already unstable and dangerously violent wolf/dog. I don’t think this is a good idea. The family acknowledged that Rocky would undoubtedly attack the man if it had a chance.
I hadn’t thought to ask why a tree trunk was leaning against the house outside the kitchen window. It had been there since I arrived nearly two weeks ago. Last night I discovered why it was there when out of nowhere a furious Rocky repeatedly dove into the window, howling and pawing at the glass. It was his way of notifying us that he was in the mood for a pre-patrol snack. This morning I noticed there is now a bicycle leaning on the tree trunk leaning on the window. That passes for self defense measure, I guess.
We leave for London tomorrow. It was decided that since we’re not near the airport, we’ll have to leave the farm at 2:30am. Concerns about getting up and out of the house on time were secondary to the first thing that occurred to me: Rocky’s going to be out there, somewhere, unleashed. I hope he remembers the pig.
A son from the richest village family was sent off to jail for six months for having a few too many stolen tractors in his possession. No one seems to care because the family is a little too snobby for village tastes, plus he stole their tractors.
Marcin’s wife was sleeping with another man, also married. Marcin seems to believe the affair is over now and forgives her. Marcin says he doesn’t have a problem with the fact his faithless wife was then hired to be the man’s secretary.
The former socialist restaurant and function hall remains up for sale. The efforts to keep the restaurant open failed shortly after socialism did, as the new method of charging people for meals turned out to be unpopular. Home cooked meals remain the norm for most, if not all, here. The closest restaurant is about 20 minutes from the village and always appears to be closed. It isn’t, they just keep the lights off to save money.
The old guy with the horribly broken nose didn’t want to move his jacket, but was eventually encouraged to do so by the village bartender.
Wladek thinks he’s going to make a killing when Poland joins the EU. He thinks Germans will be eager to buy his one acre plot of land in the middle of nowhere for outrageous prices.
In 1945, the Russian Army helped the Polish resistance punch through German defenses here. Then the Russians tore up the train tracks and took them back to Russia. This is one of many reasons the locals aren’t fond of Russians.
Also in 1945, Piotrek’s grandfather’s Army brigade discovered a huge cache of moonshine. After they drank it all they worried they might be attacked. They weren’t, but folks agree it was a dumb thing to do at the time.
The village disco is still out of business. No one seems to know why opening a nightclub in a tiny village and charging an unheard of cover charge didn’t pan out.
For the second year in a row the folks who live across the street from the bar have entertained the masses with the high-pitched Christmas jingle generator they have mounted outside. It runs through a repertoire of five or so jingles before running through them again and again and again. All night long.
It’s official! Anja makes the best cakes.
Even though suicides are supposed to be buried in a different part of the cemetery, if you pull some strings you can get buried in the normal place.
The girl who the former village priest got pregnant lives with her mom. The priest has since been relocated. The new priest is very nice and lives across from the doctor. Nobody thinks there’s any monkey business going on with him.
If you’re friends with the police officer who is checking your seat belt he will tell his superior that you’re wearing it, even if you’re not.
There is no plastic food wrap available for sale in any of the stores in the village.
Twain said golf was a good walk, spoiled. But, I submit he probably never stumbled upon dead dogs during his jaunts, which he might consider a good walk even more spoiled.
For the second time while meandering around the farm I came across another victim of Rocky, the half-mad canine security detail that handles the night shift on the premises. Unlike the previous victim, which seemed almost peacefully at rest, the second victim showed signs of a violent struggle. The crime scene would be considered unpleasant. The deceased was youngish, a mutt of some sort, with what looked to be a little Labrador Retriever in him. There are lots of mutts in the village on account of the lack of a neutering program or leash law. A dog’s life here seems free and easy, with infinite places to soil and a variety of partners to sex up. Your only concern as a dog here would be not encountering a formerly abused, currently psychotic wolf/dog who is guarding a field of black currants.
There is, it seems, a hole in the neighbor’s fence that allows their dogs entry onto the premises which are defended by Rocky with such lethal force. Apparently twice they have been warned that it needed fixing. Shame on them, for they never heeded the warnings and as a result the number of dead dogs I have stumbled across during the course of my holiday is now two. I was told that there was a third victim dating back earlier in the summer – also the neighbor’s and through the same hole. Either the neighbors have an unimpressive learning curve or they simply haven’t noticed three of their dogs are missing.
This is the most dead dogs that I have ever come across, or care to. I’m not much of a dog person myself and in fact am less than fond of most of the pissing, pooping, shrieking little fiends I come across in New York daily. I think people who dress dogs in sweaters or pack their little creatures in special totes and drag them shopping at Barney’s are freaks. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean I want their precious things mauled by a crazed Caucus wolf/dog. In fact, like the ending of Les Miserables and hearing Gary Coleman talk, dead dogs make me a little sad, I have to admit.
It didn’t take much sleuthing to determine the final moments of victim number two’s short life. The tracks were fresh in the snow, and like a skilled ranger I simply followed them to the fence where the intrusion occurred. Lo and behold, there was a hole in the fence the size of which would have easily accommodated the dead dogs I came across. Several of the neighbor’s dogs barked at me as I approached. Apparently they have a lot of dogs to spare. The dogs barked and ran away and came back and barked and ran away. I imagined what they were saying. Where’s Antonek? Where’s Slavomir? What have you done to them? Murderer!
My wife’s family was not as concerned as I was about the whole affair. When I originally pointed out victim number one, my mother-in-law followed me out to the crime scene, acknowledged that I had in fact found a dead dog, and headed back to the kitchen to prepare lunch. Victim number two got even less attention. Again? Oh.
At first they tried to tell me that Rocky may have thought he was playing and accidentally killed his mates. But the Catcher In The Rye defense didn’t really work for me. They changed their case to That’s just life. When you’ve grown up on a farm and have experience raising, killing and cooking your own dinner your attitude towards animals changes, I guess. I, on the other hand, have never raised, killed and eaten my own food. I was horrified as a child when I actually caught a flounder. I cried when I saw a broken bluebird egg. I erected a memorial for my ex-girlfriend’s asthmatic, rug-pissing, pain-in-the-ass cat. Sure, I could kick P. Diddy out of a helicopter without remorse, but I’d swerve off a cliff to save a squirrel.
I decided to repair the fence. My wife’s family was not keen on this. They maintained it was the neighbor’s fence and subsequently their problem since they had twice been told to fix it. In their eyes, and probably rightly so, the canine casualties were unfortunate but an end result of the neighbor’s negligence and laziness. However, I convinced them that if I kept coming across dead dogs during my walks on the farm it would present a bigger problem than me fixing the fence. The idea of getting a good night’s sleep while Rocky was chewing intruders didn’t sit well with me. I eventually received what I think was their blessing and wandered about the farm looking for materials to repair the hole. It wasn’t long before I found a some extra wire fencing rolled up and in another locale a pair of snips and pliers. I detached several strands of the fencing and made my way back to the breach.
If the neighbor looked out their window they’d have seen a complete stranger squatting amongst the pines in a long dressy overcoat, wool slacks and leather gloves more suited for the theater than fence repair. For forty five minutes I cut wire and twisted it in an effort to render the hole impassable. Meanwhile, a brutally cold wind chilled me to the core while smacking me in the face with pine tree branches. No good deed goes unpunished. After I was thoroughly convinced the hole was closed, I cruised the perimeter one more time in an effort to secure the premises.
Mission accomplished. No dead dogs were discovered this morning. From this point on they’re on their own though. If they haven’t learned by now and dare to undo my handiwork, they kind of deserve what they get – even though it will still ruin a good walk.
The Polish countryside with a dusting of snow makes a remarkable Christmas landscape. The snow was exquisitely timed so that it got the coming down part taken care of two days ago. Everything was in place just in time for the holiday. The day before Christmas the skies were clear, the sun was out, and everywhere I looked – except where I saw a dead dog – resembled a lovely Holiday card.
I’m not sure what killed the neighbor’s little dog, but something tells me it was my wife’s family’s emotionally scarred, Cujo-dwarfing wolf/dog from the Caucasus. Rocky (ro-kee) sleeps just fine in sub-zero weather, howls like the part wolf he is and comes across as terribly menacing. Rocky handles the 11pm – 8am security shift on the farm. Something tells me he might have been the one that dispatched the neighbor’s dog when it chose to visit the premises without permission. There didn’t look to be much of a struggle. If I didn’t know there was a canine berserker on premises I might even have believed that the poor doggie died of natural causes.
I have been told that Rocky knows not to kill me. I think my wife’s family is hoping he’s noticed I’m not an intruder. There seems to be no guarantee however and I am still under strict orders not to leave the house when Rocky has been released. I plan on taking their advice. The other night while walking past the kitchen window I couldn’t help but notice the wolf/dog staring at me just outside, fangs bared and emitting a low, pants-wetting growl.
Oddly, when off duty and in his cage he cowers in fear. Apparently he was abused by his previous owners. This is very sad and it’s probably what made him a good security dog that kills intruders and threatens Americans on the premises. I bought him a plastic squeaking pig and a dog biscuit as a token of international friendship but that doesn’t seem to have won him over. Then again, he hasn’t killed me, so maybe it did. The silence of a winter night in rural Poland is occasionally pierced by the high-pitched squeal of the plastic pig. This is reassuring because it means Rocky is still outside, and possibly likes my gift enough to consider not attacking me.
Christmas in the Polish countryside seems a very hectic affair. The big deal is Christmas Eve, as Christmas Day is just a day to sleep in and relax. The events begin on the 23rd with a frantic housecleaning and acquisition of food from the various stores in the village. The 24th is the busiest day, with tradition dictating that women run the kitchen while the men muck about and fiddle with things.
What was most surprising to me is that the Christmas tree doesn’t go up until Christmas Eve. This is unusual to an American because Christmas in the States begins on November 1st when stores pack the last of the Halloween decorations away and haul out the Yuletide cheer in an effort to maximize store sales. Thanksgiving is a mere hiccup on the way to Christmas.
Two Christmas trees were delivered to the premises by an elderly farmer of some relation to the family. In the U.S. he’d long have been living in Florida. Things are different here though, and despite his age he spent the better part of two days out in the frozen woods hacking down pines after paying the land owner a few dollars. Cheap Christmas trees are one of the upsides of life in rural Poland. One of the downsides is when you’re 85 you might still be out swinging axes at them.
As the women prepared Christmas dinner, my brother-in-law and I looked for a place to plant the second Christmas tree outside. I thought it odd that we were planting a tree that had been chopped down but it was too bitterly cold to stop and cherish irony. We hacked a hole in the frozen ground with a pick, dropped the tree in and hung lights on it. All under the watchful, caged eye of Rocky the potentially murderous wolf/dog.
Last year when we arrived for Christmas I went to the bathroom and discovered a large fish swimming in the bathtub. Never having seen a large fish in someone’s bathtub before, I naively assumed they must have rescued it from a very cold pond. I remember thinking how sweet it was of them to help out a fish in severe weather. I later learned that it was a carp, and it was slated for termination and consumption as part of Christmas Eve dinner. Every time I went into the bathroom I was guilt-ridden and played with it. To the family’s amusement I started referring to the carp as ‘my friend.’ A couple of days later, one of the big Polish soap operas featured a retarded boy playing with a carp in a bathtub, wondering aloud why ‘his friend’ had to die. Art imitating life I guess. This year the carp was conspicuously absent, presumably because of my obvious emotional attachment to them. Leave it to the American to show up and start changing centuries of tradition.
On the 24th you’re not allowed to eat or drink alcohol. This is too bad. I was hungry and felt I deserved a beer for the effort involved in planting the Christmas tree. Tradition decrees there will be no food until the first star is visible in the sky; no drink until after midnight. Why it’s okay to drink on Christmas Day I’m not sure. I assume the rules are there to make sure folks show up at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Radio is the usual jumble. In the space of an hour you can cover a dozen genres. Whitney Houston segues into Polish Folk which segues into Bon Jovi. Most music is Christmas-themed. If it’s in English or Polish and about Christmas, it’s on rotation. I heard Silent Night by more artists than I can remember, in both languages. How they managed to translate the lyrics of Silent Night and keep the melody is pretty impressive, seeing as Polish words tend to be three feet long and stuffed with consonants. The cheerful holiday songs were briefly interrupted by an inappropriate Phil Collins ballad about children starving and dying in the streets because of evil politicians, but that gave way to another rendition of Silent Night and all was well again.
Christmas dinner starts with everyone taking a wafer. It may be a religious type of wafer, like a Body of Christ type thing. That would certainly make sense, but I’m not really privy to Catholic traditions. You go around to each person in the room, take a piece of their wafer and eat it. Then you say nice things to them and offer wishes for the upcoming year. In the wishes directed at me I understood a lot of yh’baby’, ‘next year’ and ‘please’ so if I’m not mistaken, the pressure is on. After the wishes comes the traditional left-right-left cheek kissing, then you’re off to eat someone else’s wafer, and so on. I thought it would be nice to include the bird in the festivities but apparently these wafers are off limits to the winged.
Dinner is a sumptuous affair with a required 12 dishes – no more, no less, no meat. In addition to the traditional Polish fare of mushroom and cabbage pierogi, breaded fish and assorted salads, my wife introduced her family to nontraditional dishes she picked up in New York from her addiction to the Williams Sonoma website. Some changes had to be made – fresh salmon was nowhere to be found – but the Poland debut of shrimp cakes, halibut with avocado/mango chutney and hearty cream of mushroom soup went swimmingly. It all went down great with a hot mug of borscht though I really would have loved a beer.
Presents are exchanged after dinner. My love for Polish beer glasses was again indulged and now I have to figure out how to get the four Okocim glasses back to the U.S. in one piece. I was relieved to learn that the wine rack and eight wine glasses I received were intended to remain here.
Apparently the Santa aspect is different here since gifts are exchanged in the evening when children are still awake and waiting by the tree. Santa’s arrival and gift-leaving is logistically complicated and requires coordinated child deception/distraction, stealth and a decent Santa costume.
After presents, coffee and a variety of cakes are enjoyed. Cakes are very big in Poland, and they’re all quite delicious.
Close to midnight, we donned our warm apparel and headed for the village church. It’s not a long walk, but it felt longer with the combination of bitter cold and strong winds. The church is gorgeous, 600 or so years old, a half-timbered affair that was recently renovated so it looks as brand new as a 600-year old building can look. It was the church we were married in, so it’s very sentimental. It was also very full by the time we arrived, and even though it is completely unheated we would have preferred to be on the inside of it rather than standing outside in the freezing winds. Church sells out on Christmas Eve, standing room only, be warned. After 15 or so minutes of straining to hear the priest over the winds and chatter outside, the family decided to call it a night and we trudged back to the house.
There was more eating to be done, pierogi and such with a mug of hot borscht which was a delight after having been freezing for the last half hour. There was some horrid movie on. It was an American film with one of the people from Beverly Hills 90210. It was dubbed in Polish though and all I could really discern was that they were on a big, scary cruise ship.
With all its tradition and Norman Rockwell ambiance I understand why my wife considers Christmas in Poland the most important holiday of the year.
One by one, they started fading and excusing themselves to bed. Rocky was released from confinement and I was again warned not to exit the house under any circumstances, just in case the wolf/dog decided to try and spoil an otherwise lovely Christmas.
1996 Polonez Caro
Color: Darkish something
Engine: 4 cylinder, 65 Catpower
Transmission: 5 Speed Standard
In-floor ventilation holes
Automatically opening windows
Random door-locking (3 doors)
Keyless entry fourth door
Gaping AM/FM Radio Hole
Passenger-side seat belt
Ass-penetrating seat spring
Windshield & rear Windshield Streakers
Extremely loud analog clock
Security system (guaranteed not to be stolen)
Magically opening glove box
Automatic Skidding System
Detachable fender and wheel well trim
Occasional Ka-tang noise
Spare parts under driver’s seat
Asking price: 12 minute backrub, or best offer.
Yesterday was an exciting day. We left the village and drove to the ‘big city’ of Pila (pee-wa) which isn’t really a big city – it just has some taller buildings in it. It’s big only if you’re normally used to dealing with small buildings and windmills.
Sadly, most of the buildings in Pila were built during the years of Soviet occupation, so they look like crap. A reminder to all of you college kids and professors who think communism rocks: It doesn’t! Communism sucks! They made ugly gray buildings that don’t hold up. Marx is a big loser!
I got a lecture on the days when folks were assigned ration cards. Since the folks out here fell under the ‘agricultural’ category they were not rationed any meat. Even people who were only growing fruit or vegetables. If you had a kid, you got four pounds of meat per month. Four whole pounds. Rock on, commies! No wonder why it caught on like wildfire.
Everyone I know here looks back on those days with a mix of anger and amusement at how awful it was. That’s because they actually experienced it, unlike some enlightened, Che-loving, 20-year old from Berkeley who has all the answers.
But their nightmare ended a little more than a decade ago and now they’re getting the hang of it. In the village they still have what the average spoiled American might consider unacceptable business practices. Like not heating the store. Hi, I’m completely freezing and looking for an ottoman. May I see what you have in stock?
My wife explains it as the aftereffect of growing up under the Soviet system and the level of poverty that came with it. It’s no different than the economic environment that left my Depression-era grandmother forever hoarding mayonnaise and reusing tea bags. It’s simply habit, and a hard one to break – even if breaking it might make better business sense. Now I know why the restaurant we had lunch in didn’t have any lights on.
The Green Party folks would love the conservation aspect. I can imagine the thrill they’d feel as they walked into a dark (saving electricity) restaurant that was barely heated (saving gas) and ordered some food handled with bare (reduced plastic glove waste) hands and a non-refrigerated (lower freon emissions) beer. Nirvana they would exclaim as they shivered in the shadows and washed down their e.coli with tepid lager. The only thing that might possibly bother them is that everything is meat, next to meat, stuffed with meat or in a meat sauce. As long as they weren’t vegetarians they’d have found their slice of luddite paradise. Come to think of it – the Unabomber was Ted Kaczynski. Interesting.
Not that the conservation mentality is bad, mind you. It’s actually refreshing to see a culture that’s not inherently wasteful. It’s nice that instead of stuffing your single loaf of bread into a plastic bag they look at you, wondering why you haven’t just taken the bread from the counter. I can imagine the shock if they ever ordered coffee in a New York deli. They’d get coffee, a plastic stirrer, sugars they didn’t ask for, creamer they didn’t ask for, an extra cup with a thermal barrier to protect their hands – and it would be stuffed with napkins into a paper bag.
I’m sure there’s a middle ground somewhere that would let them cater to their post-Soviet scars and the customer at the same time. I’m all for saving electricity, paper, yadda, yadda, but it’s a little creepy when you walk into a dark restaurant. And I’m assuming the wax paper napkins are designed to keep you from using them, thereby saving a dollar a month. Personally, I’d like to be able to leave the bedroom and go to the bathroom without someone turning the lights off. Give me that, and I promise I won’t buy an SUV. Though on these roads and with this weather an SUV makes a hell of a lot more sense than it does for some suburban American soccer mom. Has Jody from Boise ever tried to sip hot tea while her brother-in-law navigated a half-cobblestone/half-dirt road in a dilapidated 4 cylinder Polish rust-bomb? I think nie.
Prices here are dirt cheap. The downside is that there’s not a lot to buy. Or rather, if you think the prices are dirt cheap then you wouldn’t be interested in buying anything because it means you can afford nicer things. For example I saw a sweater. It was called ‘Kaptan – Lambswool.’ At only $40 I’m thinking I’ve found a bargain! Turns out ‘Kaptan – Lambswool’ is 70% Cotton and 30% Acrylic. I know what you’re thinking: Where’s the frickin’ lambswool? Apparently it’s in the name of the product.
A few products caught my eye. There’s a total Diesel rip-off brand called ‘House’ for a sixth the price and a third the quality. House was nothing compared to ‘Red Indian’ Shoes. Can you imagine the anti-you rallies you’d suffer if you tried to sell ‘Red Indian’ shoes in Michigan? I can. And it would be hilarious. The tagline for Red Indian is ‘The symbol of braves [sic]’ which makes about as much sense as the name Red Indian.
Other labels that I noticed were ‘Poolman’ and ‘Blend of America.’ Bad news for the Poolman folks: cleaning a pool, though potentially lucrative, isn’t necessarily something you’d brag about. Who knows, they may have found a niche market for any pool cleaning professionals who make it to rural Poland. They can buy a Poolman sweater and advertise their trade while at the same time letting folks laugh at the inexplicably large, utterly pointless flap that spans the chest.
At the awkwardly named women’s store ‘Troll’ I saw a shirt that said ‘Hot women in the middle of the road is just how I like it’ with a silhouette that looked like a cross between Morrissey and Grace Jones. This is exactly why I never wear shirts with Japanese symbols on them: I don’t know what they might be saying. I don’t want to parade around with Meat Demon Ninja: Love Clause Active. I’ve noticed a lot of absurd English phrases, but the hot women one took the cake. The ‘In life we belive [sic]’ shirt wins for spelling, I believe.
The elite U.S. Army force has their own hygiene product line apparently. ‘Delta Force’ deodorant was on sale, and not too far down the shelf was ‘Bond’ shaving cream. The shaving cream tried everything it could to say ‘James Bond’ without the legal troubles of actually doing so. There was a man’s silhouette, a picture of a Ferrari, and for some reason it said ‘Speedmaster.’ All that was lacking was an ‘Albert R. Broccoli Presents Shaving Foam’ on the cap.
A store full of zany chemicals for weightlifting freaks was called ‘Arnold Shop.’ I asked if it was named after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and they answered in the affirmative – and as if I were a lunatic for asking. Come on! The answer seemed too obvious which is why I asked in the first place.
Groceries for about 6 folks ran us about $50. Stuff is so cheap I’m tempted to get on the PA system and announce Skittles for everyone. On me! Please love America! Yet when a kid came up to me in the parkingowy lot asking for money, I played the dumb tourist card and pretended not to understand.
Bad news for Home Depot shareholders: There’s already a Home Depot here. It’s called ‘Nomi’ and it looks just like Home Depot except for the name being ‘Nomi’ instead of ‘Home Depot.’ Same colors. Same layout. Orange aprons on somewhat cheerful staff. Everything. I had already decided to purchase the $10 drill bit kit because it was such an amazing bargain but I was overruled by the wife because I don’t even have a drill here. Yet. The best part is your shopping experience at Nomi is not hindered by darkness or cold. The lights and the heat are on.
What finally convinced me that they’ve got a knack for capitalism is that they understand one of the fundamentals: identify what people want and make it available to them. This point was driven home when I passed the Bicycles/Fireworks store. They’re learning quickly folks. It’s no wonder the Germans and French are getting all cranky and trying to change the European Union rules on them.
The village bar, so called because it’s the bar and in a village, is a smallish one-room affair. There are a handful of tables and folding chairs likely purchased from the equivalent of a Bed Bath & Beyond were such a thing to exist here.
There is one beer on draft. Several beers are available in bottles. The bottles are stored next to the bartender, stacked three cases high. This explains why your beer is warm.
A pint of beer will set you back 65 cents. A bottle runs about 78 cents. Assuming you have a few dollars, you will be able to experience the whole range of warm beers and the cold draft one. If you’re in the mood to dine, potato chips are available. There is an electronic darts game for your pleasure, wedged between the wall and the bar. Make sure no one is sitting at the bar or they will be sitting in between the electronic dart game and your darts.
The front door of the bar was recently bricked over because village people felt it was wrong for a bar’s door to face a church and school. The entrance is now in the back, with the door opening on to anyone who may be playing darts.
The bathroom is remarkably clean, considering it is a bathroom in a village bar and that it is unisex. The bar is not handicap accessible, nor are there any plans to make it such. Smoking is totally allowed, and in fact may be mandatory.
The village is home to several folks, many of whom know each other. They may or may not be congenial depending on several factors, including but not limited to whether you slept with someone’s significant other, or told someone’s significant other that their significant other has been sleeping around. Some of the folks you may encounter include:
-A gentleman your brother-in-law knows who is celebrating his birthday and is so drunk he can barely stand up.
-A gentleman with an eye patch energetically declining the last cigarette. This is apparently due to the widely held belief here that “even a whore” wouldn’t take someone’s last cigarette.
-A gentleman passed out face down on a table. I was told this is called “stamping documents” because the posture resembles a bureaucrat hunched over a desk.
-A gentleman who gained an extra girl because his friend is “stamping documents.”
-Various people staring at you because you’re not from the village.
-A gentleman named the equivalent of Martin, described as the “gasoline guy.” He lives near the village pharmacist and would like to discuss rising oil prices.
-A couple married for eight years with an eight year old daughter.
-A lady who works at the town hall. She is considered a power player because she can get you in to the big New Year’s Eve party.
The village bar is open from whenever until sometime. Air conditioning is manual. The village bar does not accept credit cards, but you can run a tab and pay later. They trust you. Dress code is farm casual. Reservations are not necessary. The village bar is located on the village’s main street, right around the church, school and everything else for that matter.
Virgin is the greatest airline ever in the history of flight to cross the Atlantic. I have flown numerous carriers over the years, most of which suffer suck to the nth degree, despite the $20 billion bailout they insisted the U.S. government make the taxpayers hand them.
Virgin is what the Wright Brothers might have had in mind if they were at all thinking about the commercial potential of aviation. They were probably much more concerned with not dying, but they would undoubtedly give a big thumbs up to Richard Branson and the Virgin experience if they weren’t so dead.
My love for Virgin began at check-in, though they did not have us at ‘hello.’ At ‘hello’ we made the mistake of getting in line behind a dozen or so folks from Nigeria who were trying to bring a flea market on board the plane. This is apparently not allowed, and you are liable to be standing there a long time while the details regarding the embargo on their horrid little country are sorted out. Forty five minutes later, they apparently were.
Immediately in front of us was a man, probably a militia member from Texas, who did not for one second cease talking. He was the potbellied, denim-wearing, bearded, creepy type who probably listens to radio host Art Bell religiously and assumes all airplane vapor trails and helicopters are part of some vast government conspiracy aimed solely at him.
During his time in line he hijacked a poor Englishman who was unable or unwilling to utter a single word, such as stop. The Englishman simply nodded at Mr. Gabbermouth whenever he deemed it appropriate. To make matters more lovely, Gabbermouth came equipped with Demon Breath which required turning away so as to avoid attacks of nausea. As Gabbermouth babbled away it occurred to us that the Englishman was his victim, not friend.
After the disclaimer “I’m not racist but–” you don’t expect to hear anything too enlightening, and Gabbermouth did not disappoint. The poor, silent Englishman was introduced to Gabby’s non-racist theory that Orthodox Jews were annoying because they all “stand up as soon as the plane touches the ground” presumably because they were “all the same” and “weird folks.” Based on his experiences with rapid-standing Jews, Gabbermouth posited that they must all think they’re better than everyone. To sum: Gabby’s “not a racist” though he sounds the same as a 1937 German propaganda film. During the whole presentation the poor, silent Englishman nodded as his mind no doubt drifted off into a paradise where he was free from the confines of his body. Eventually God arrived and saw to it that Gabbermouth was summoned to the counter. Free at last, as the good reverend [not Al Sharpton] once said.
After the Nigerians, Gabbermouth and the Silent Englishman had been handled, it was our turn. I told the ticketing agent smugly that he could upgrade us to First Class if he wanted to. Ha ha. The sarcasm was ignored, our tickets were issued and we were on our way. It was only at the gate that we realized that he had in fact upgraded us to Virgin Upper Class. I love this man dearly for doing this.
This was my first trip on Virgin. In several years of flying Delta, I have never once been upgraded going overseas, much less felt the slightest bit appreciated by them in any way. Virgin instantly made us feel like royalty. Better yet, I watched as Gabbermouth was marched off to the cruel confines of Economy Class where I prayed he’d be seated amongst the Chosen People. There would be no better justice than him being chafed to death by all the kooky sitting and standing he feels they do.
Whereas Air France endeavors to test the limits of your endurance, Virgin seems to understand the things that make an airline not suck. Like having a pleasant attitude. Like a selection of movies that aren’t crap. Decent food. Great service. A lady that goes around giving massages. A bar that you can sit at. These are things that make time pass sweetly, which is what you want when you’re on a long flight. Virgin is the kind of airline you would create if you were told to build an airline that you’d actually like to fly on. Air France is the kind of airline you’d create if you felt like punishing people to get back for the ass-kicking you received at Agincourt.
On the London to Warsaw leg I attempted, twice, to use the same upgrade technique. No takers. That was fair enough. We had already been blessed for the longest leg of the trip. Besides, the only difference between Business and Economy on Lot Polish Airlines is that the stewardesses in Business are a tad prettier. The seats looks like they took a row of three Economy seats and made them into two and a half by moving the inside arm rests a few inches. The end result is a seat in the middle that looks like it could hold a briefcase, or someone the size of Webster‘s Emmanuel Lewis.
Bags in London and Warsaw seemed to take considerable extra time to make it to the claim area. We assumed it was due to heightened security. In reality, it’s probably because we were in England and Poland. “We’re definitely not in Switzerland,” as one traveler put it.
The puddle-jumper to Poznan was even less eventful. Poznan Airport is a relatively new, space-age looking thing that seems to only turn on when you arrive. When we rented a car once, I watched them enter the Hertz booth and open for our sake. Once we had rented the car they exited the booth, shut the lights off and went home. Or perhaps to a Hertz booth in another airport where someone else was going to be renting a car.
The drive to the village took a lot longer than normal on account of a truck accident. Poland’s road system lends itself to accidents of all sorts. This particular one was either a chemical spill or chickens, because the fire department was sweeping a whole lot of something off of the road and on to the shoulder.
No trip would be complete without me developing a throat infection. Fortunately I know the signs and had the foresight to stop at the village doctor, who lives across from the village priest. At 5pm the wait for the village doctor is zero seconds. I was examined and handed a prescription. The cost of the visit was zero dollars because the doctor knew my wife’s father. The cost of the prescriptions came to about $7 for penicillin, multivitamins, vitamin C, and anti-fever medication which had been prescribed “just in case.” This is hardly a suggestion that socialized medicine is a good idea, but one must call a bargain when he sees it.
The road to the farm — for years, a rim-shattering, tire-flattening, hole-riddled obstacle course — has been completely paved. Some sort of civic road-repair program? No. My brother-in-law had simply gotten the village Mayor drunk and made him promise to fix it.
Back on the farm, a hearty dinner of pork cutlet, beets, cabbage and potatoes. At bedtime you’re faced with the one thing a New Yorker finds oddly disturbing: absolute and steady silence.