A note about one odd moment in the day’s events (conference that is). A British woman, Baroness someone was describing efforts to improve the situation in prisons. She explained at one point, in a very royal sounding voice, that hers was not a hereditary title but simply one given to members of parliament. Nonetheless, it seemed bizarre to hear recounts of condom distributions and nonconsensual sex in prisons in that particular dialect. Not unlike the queen doing the voiceover for a foreign porn film.
We had decided the night before to move to the Bristol and worked out late that night online. That morning after breakfast we moved our bags into storage and while we went back to the conference C hung out in the room a little and then tootled off to the other hotel just before lunch. We had already electrical issues with my shaver practically flying out of my hand: we had a converter but it did nothing to help with the more powerful current. C on the other hand became curly haired for the rest of the trip since her straightener blew out entirely.
I was able to get over to the hotel around seven or so and C and I wandered the few blocks to the square to look for a place to eat. We were looking at the menu at one place and were cajoled in by a very young waiter. He got us down a long hall and then downstairs into a series of crowded rooms. We said “no smoking” and he said ‘yes” and made for what we thought must be that but he was shooed out by a woman who ended up being our waitress. They were full there so we were seated in the room next to it right next to a table of four Russians chain smoking the foulest cigarettes on Earth. We realized that when you ask for no smoking in a Polish restaurant that translates into “oh no, you do not have to smoke at your table unless you want to”. But the meal was good…she warned me off the game and towards the goulash and roast potatoes.
At the end of the meal I found out they did not take mc so I had to find a bankomart. I asked the waiter and he beckoned for me to follow him. He set off at a good clip out the door and across the square pausing to light a cigarette and then to hail others outside of other establishments. It was a very warm night and it made me feel like I was following Eric Idle at the end of Meaning of Life. He took me to a machine about two blocks away and then told me he had to get back to the restaurant. I got my money and took my time strolling back, perfectly content to be walking beside the old buildings over the rough cobblestones down the narrow street to the square in this perfect night in a city so far from home.
We paid and decided to have coffee and or dessert somewhere else. C told me that when I was gone the smoky Russians had tried to sweet talk her but with no common languages it was a bit of a chore.
Heading back in the general direction of the hotel we chanced on a hopping little student vodka bar. We got two cool shots of vodka and a couple of espressos. Never been a big fan but this was very good…..it came out of some bottle with a red stripe and started with an S I think. (We are going to find it again one of these days; we were hoping they would be selling it on the flight back but no such luck). We wanted to have more but we were already on a few glasses of wine but at least for a bit there we felt a little Polish. And maybe it was partly the alcohol but it felt very warm and good to be there; felt like part of the crowd rather than tourists. Next posting there will be pictures for sure….walking the morning rain in old Warsaw….cold, beautiful and old.
Breakfast was a not atypical hotel assortment of eggs (a little oranger than ours), buns and bread (much much better than what passes here), cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, coldcuts and a large rack of wieners. Orange juice in very small glasses and coffee in half size cups to fill from a Nescafe machine with settings for espresso or regular. This was very much a portent of life for the next week as regards coffee; bad and always machined Nescafe (with a couple of exceptions only) and bread worth writing home about.
Here in Canada, I fear to buy bread even in bakeries at times for the poor quality about but there I had not one slice or bun that didn’t rank high. Didn’t like the butter but it did not matter at all. And cookies or pastries….a very dangerous place for the weight conscious. And in general, the vegetables and fruit tasted better than here; even the potatoes tasted home made. Food in Poland was good (even the hotel convention food) with only the coffee substandard.
We ended up sitting at a table with K, an Australian whose wife was at the conference but he was trying to keep himself amused. He knew a bit of the history and had already done one day in town and offered to be personal tour guide for C. They spent the rest of the day in the Old Town visiting the palace, some of the gardens, various military sites and also the Warsaw Ghetto. C said that she saw a Rembrandt which struck her as somewhat postmodern in that the figure’s hand extends over the picture frame within the painting.
She was also quite moved by seeing the holes in the bases of the palace walls which had once held German explosives and only by chance had not been detonated during the retreat. So much of Warsaw had been bombed and in fact one of the interesting displays at the Old Square was photographs of the destroyed buildings and the reconstruction which took place using Canaletto paintings of the same. (We were to see many more Canalettos later in the Prado.) I could not find the painting displayed but this other one of his will give you an idea of the sort of detail he was capable of (and when 85% or so of your city is destroyed and you would rather recreate the old glory than start fresh, this just the sort of thing you need).
When C and I reunited later in the day she remarked as well on how many beautiful 17 years old girls were in evidence as well as strapping young security guards. But before that I spent part of the day warming seats and listening to others jaw and another part having others listen to me flap my gums. My colleague and I presented in the same session and ended up after in the Gromada bar with our other presenter (from Nigeria) and some amusing individuals from a couple of tobacco companies. Three beer each later and we ended up (with C) in a very fine restaurant (U Fukier) off the old town square. That’s the square below (not our picture) we have some to come during the wet days that followed. But this is kind of what it looked like that night.
After fine dining (Russian crab in crepes, tomato and onion salad, fine red wine, dessert and a good latte) we spilled out into a hot night onto the cobblestoned square which had people under canopies drinking beer (almost all Poles as opposed to the tourist haunts for most of the rest of the trip). As we walked across the square I recalled a German concept I had recently read about called “Platzangst” which is the fear that can overcome you as you are attempting to traverse a square that you will never actually reach the end of it.
We tottered into the bar at the Bristol (an art deco bar dating from around 1905 where Marlene Dietrich reputedly used to hang). Most of us had beer and C at my suggestion tried the bison grass vodka we had read about. Interesting but not repeatable. (I could not find a picture of the bar itself and did not take one regrettably but see one of the hotel below; we did not know it at the time but we would end up spending a couple of nights there). (C almost ended up taking a side trip with one of the others to Krakow and the camps (Dachau and Birkenau) but the price was a little out of range. Krakow would have been great since it had most of the old architecture still intact.)