I became blase about travelling to Poland. After all, I’d been to Warsaw several times before. I remember one trip in particular when we went for a celebratory meal in a restaurant. It was a very cold January outside. Inside, it was like entering Dante‘s inferno. We travelled downstairs where the inside of the restaurant glowed red from the infernal heat of the kilns.
As we took off our coats, a waiter approached us brandishing a bottle. In heavily accented English he asked if we would like some vodka. We declined and asked for the wine list. He looked puzzled and offered the bottle again with a single word “vodka?” We gave up on the wine list and used one of the few Polish words we’d learnt. I held up 3 fingers and said “Pifco” indicating we’d like some beers. “Vodka?” was the reply.
The vodka was so cold that we found it refreshing in the searing heat of the restaurant. However, it didn’t last. The warmth of the surroundings seeped into the vodka and as the temperature rose, the drink became more and more chewy. The relief when the last of it disappeared was palpable. I couldn’t believe it when my boss called the waiter over and asked for another bottle. We all looked at him dumbfounded and he explained “We can’t just drink one bottle – they’ll think we’re poofs!”
This particular trip, however, was not to Warsaw – it was to the industrial heartland of Katowice. The plane was so small that the pilot gave the safety briefing. Katowice airport had exactly one gate, exactly one luggage carousel, exactly one x-ray arch and exactly one runway. Yet all the signage was strangely reminiscent of a larger airport. A young guy picked me up – a sheet of paper with our company logo the sole means of communication between us.
The hotel was an old KGB headquarters and seldom have I stayed in such a dour building. I checked in after a game of charades with the receptionist. Upstairs a bizarre Benny Hill style sketch played out between the prostitutes leaving cards with their phone numbers everywhere and the hotel staff getting rid of them.
I went down to the bar. Getting a drink was easy enough. Not only did I know the Polish word for beer, but there was a nice big pump I could point to. I asked for a menu and the barman looked puzzled. I mimed shovelling things into my mouth and the penny dropped. He gave me a laminated sheet which was no use to me at all – everything was in Polish characters.
I kept asking if anyone spoke English and after a while, someone had a light bulb moment. They dashed off and returned with a boy wearing a ridiculously large rubber apron and rubber gloves that looked like they might fall off any second.
“Please?” he said.
“Do you speak English?”
I thought what the hell and asked for a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. He nodded as if he understood and disappeared off to the kitchen. I sat back, wondering what manner of food lay ahead of me. After a short delay, a waiter appeared with a massive silver platter topped with a handled dome. With a flourish, he revealed my meal. Underneath was a beautifully prepared salad, topped with two slices of toast upon which stood a cube of cheese.
I couldn’t help but smile.
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