A Polish Wedding

An account of our trip to Warsaw, April 27-May 6, 2001

 

 

            It’s not even 6:00 am on the clock in front of me but my body is still on Warsaw time thanks to the twenty-two hours of daylight I experienced yesterday on my journey home.  The mighty Boeing 747 flew so fast against the jet stream that we covered the 8,000 miles in just a few hours according to man’s time.  But it would probably be best to start this account from the beginning rather than the happy ending and working backwards.

 

            I, and with me my family, was invited to attend the wedding of Ms. Maiia Yevgenievna Ofitserova to Mr. Paul Vincent Smith, to be held at the Civil Wedding Chapel in Old Town Warsaw on May 5th, 2001 at 3:00 pm.  Smart dress preferred.  That was about all the invitation I needed to begin plans for a trip to a new country.  A few quick phone calls later and all four of my adult, but unmarried, children signed on to go to Poland with Dad (all expenses paid of course).  Since Poland is one of those enigmas that few people know anything about, I assigned my oldest, and wisest daughter, Jonette, to research what we needed to know about visas, customs, and the like.  She put herself to the task by buying books, looking information up on the Internet, and even going so far as to interview people that had actually been there.  She hates to have ugly surprises so she comes well prepared to all of her outings.  With that part taken care of, dad set about to figure out the expense part of the trip.  In checking the travel offices on the Internet I found a huge discrepancy in airline ticket prices for the same exact flights.  The name “Cheaptickets.com”, well, don’t believe it!  They were $400 more per person for the same tickets that I eventually purchased from Expedia.com for $719.00 each.  Jonette would fly down from Salt Lake City, Jared would drive down from Hearst Castle, and Wendy and I would leave work early to all meet at Los Angeles International Airport.

 

            Friday, April 27th, eventually arrived and we were all glad because that meant we could finally leave and stop answering the burning question, “Why Poland?”  It seems that very few people know anything about it, except that there is supposed to be such a place because that’s where we get “Polish Sausages” from, right?  I left work and went home to pick up Jared so we could drive to the “Fly-away” together and only have to park one car there for the week.  Wendy would catch a ride from work and meet us there and get us tickets for the 4:00 pm bus to LAX.  Everything was going wonderful, I had run home, changed into sweatpants for the long flight, grabbed my suitcase, which I had packed the night before, got a cold Pepsi from the cooler, and Jared and I took off for the Flyaway.

 

            About half-a-mile from the Fly-away in Van Nuys, I realized that my wallet, the one with all the money and Visa cards in it, wasn’t in its sacred place on my right buttock, possibly due to the fact that the sweat pants didn’t have a pocket there.  It was nearing 4:00 pm and I was turning the car around to make the trip back home, which from that point was about twenty minutes each way.  Have you ever tried to stay calm in the face of total panic with your children making rude comments about your memory loss at such an early age?  It wasn’t going as well as I had imagined and it was showing.  It wouldn’t have been soo bad except that I had nearly done the same thing when we went to Andrea’s birthday party in Germany last November.  I was in the car, with the motor running, when I suddenly remembered that my passport was still in the house.  No harm, no foul!

 

            We arrived at the Flyaway about 4:20 pm.  Wendy had exchanged the tickets from the 4:00 o’clock bus to the 4:30 bus and was starting to get a little nervous that we weren’t there at quarter past.  But, “all’s well that end’s well” as the saying goes and we took our seats on the bus for the anticipated half-hour ride to LAX.  At the bottom of the hill, where the 101 Freeway joins the 405 Freeway, we entered the L.A. experience of controlled parking, one car length at a time.  The half-hour bus ride tripled and we were getting short on check-in time for an international flight.  Fortunately, I had misread the tickets and we didn’t take off until 7:00 pm, so our six-o’clock arrival at the airport still gave us a window to beat the system and get on the airplane.

 

            We found Jonette sitting quietly, waiting, and hoping we would show up since Dad had all the tickets.  We checked our suitcases full of gifts for Maiia and her family and boarded KLM flight 604 to Amsterdam, row 26, seats A-D, where we would have a five hour layover before catching a hop to Warsaw.  KLM is a very clean airline, with nice attendants who speak perfect English, and we were excited to be on our way.  The seats were cramped, as in all tourist class cheap seats, the food was….well, by the time the movie came on it was well past midnight to my brain which had awakened at 5:00 am that morning to go to work, so as I sit here trying to think of the name of it, I haven’t a clue.  I know I watched it but when you’re tired and in that zombie state you only operate on that section of your brain that provides basal functions, like breathing and TV watching.  Needless to say, I can now watch it again and enjoy it like the first time since I don’t know what happened.  (Note: it turned out that the movie I semi-watched was “Family Man” with Nicolas Cage,  Save your money.)

 

 

            Amsterdam is a lovely city, the people are clean, the streets are clean, the whores sit behind clean windows hawking their wares, you can buy marijuana at the market and the girls are tall, blond and beautiful.  We spent our five-hour layover walking around downtown, just looking and shopping.  It was Sunday afternoon and the sidewalks were crowded with people trying to escape the confines of their small apartments and enjoy the truly warm and beautiful day.  We found a small souvenir shop that sold Dutch things, like wooden shoes and windmills, etc., so we bought some stuff using my newly paid-off Visa card and continued walking around.  We ate lunch at an Argentine restaurant in the Dutch city as American tourists, ahhh……, you have to love traveling in Europe!

 

            The flight from Amsterdam to Warsaw was about two hours and we arrived at 9:45 pm and were grateful to at last be stationary and in a new country.  For those of you who have never been to my estate in West Hills, I have a world map framed in the living room where I and my children can put little pins with flags on them in places around the world where we have stayed the night.  The world map looks like a large Voodoo doll in the hands of someone very angry, with pins sticking out of it all over the world.  Arriving in Poland gave us all a new country to put a pin in.  Anyway, back to Warzawa and being in a strange country in the middle of the night.  As we disembarked the plane we were greeted by a sign in Polish, which politely told us to disinfect our hands before entering the country, and there was a rather large gentleman with a badge that would help you if you couldn’t figure it out for yourself.  There were dispensers on the wall for an alcohol based solution that smelled like some bathrooms after they have been cleaned, but it was painless and quick and we got in line to have our passports checked.  It didn’t matter what line we got in, that became the slow one, and we ended up being the last people to check in.  The beauty of it is…… we now have a Poland stamp in our passports!

 

            After picking up our luggage we headed for the “Nothing to Declare” door and quickly passed through it before being caught.  Outside the door was Maiia’s smiling, round and beautiful face, just as it was when I landed in Moscow and felt all alone.  She is truly a beautiful woman and so bubbly that it makes those around her happier.  Her fiancé Paul Smith was there also and seemed like a nice chap.  Hugs and kisses all around and then a short taxi ride to our hotel ended the long day for us.  The hotel was called, “Hotel Karat” and was located just across the street from the monstrous Russian Embassy.  It got three stars in the Poland Guide book.  About 11:00 pm we settled into our rooms on the top floor of the six story hotel, (the only non-smoking floor), and called it a long but very interesting day.  To our bodies it was about 2:00 pm on our second day of awakeness.

 

            Sunday morning dawned way too early, somewhere around 4:30 am and I just lay in bed, tossing and turning for another couple of hours before abandoning all thoughts of more sleep.  After a quick shower in the small but adequate little corner shower cubicle, where I had to open the doors so I could bend down and pick up my razor that I dropped, (do not assume that it was because my butt was too big) I put on some clothes and took a walk to see what the neighborhood looked like.  The kids would stay in bed for another couple of hours pretending they were asleep but then I understood the desire to just lay there after the previous day’s journey.

 

            So, out the door I went, camera on my shoulder, into a new country, on a fresh and beautiful Sunday morning.  The sun had been up for hours by the time I left around 9:00 am, and the air was crisp and still.  The trees were just feeling the effects of the spring weather and pushing their little green leaves out of their hiding places under the bark.  Around the corner and up the block, taking in the sights, smells, and feeling of Warsaw, as I walked up the hill, around the curve, toward the main street.  Traffic was sparse and very few people had ventured out onto the sidewalks at that early hour, giving me plenty of room to swing my camera and sing a little song to myself as I walked along.  As I reached the corner I tried to access an ATM in a bank building but it was locked up and the guard, sitting behind his desk, eyed me very carefully as I looked around the inside of his building.  Fortunately, across the street there was another ATM that gladly accepted my card and spit out 500 Zlotys, or about $110.  It felt good to have cash in my pocket that I could at least spend if I found something open on a Sunday in a totally Catholic country.  Ah..Ha!  Across the street, over the two sets of streetcar tracks and six lanes of empty traffic lanes was a familiar sight – McDonalds.

 

            I stood back from the counter for many minutes trying to figure out how to order me something from the menu board which had all kinds of specials written in cryptic signs.  I finally settled on a cheeseburger and a coke.  Big Wow, huh!  Now say “Cheeseburger” in polish without sounding like a dork.  But the poor kid behind the counter figured it out and I handed him a 50 Zloty note and hoped for the best.  For the curious, it tasted just like any McDonald’s cheeseburger, anywhere, and the coke was “Iceless”.  But after all the airplane food from the day before, it was great.

 

 

            Back at the hotel we waited for Nikki to arrive from Florida on LOT Polish Airlines.  Due to work conflicts she couldn’t take the same flight as we did.  Maiia and Nikki arrived by taxi around 11:00 am and Nikki went up to her room to freshen up while I sat in the lobby and talked with Maiia.  Around noon Maiia left for home and the five of us jumped on a trolley and headed downtown to do some sightseeing.  Since it was Sunday all the stores were closed except the tourist shops and novelty stands.  That didn’t stop the thousands of people who left their apartments and came downtown to get an ice cream cone on a beautiful, warm, spring day.  There were stores full of amber jewelry, hand carved wooden dolls, linen tablecloths, and other wonderful items that just seemed so cheap that they begged to be purchased.  I stopped at a little old lady’s display and bought two hand crochet tablecloths for about $15 each.  They ought to go well on my table at home, at least until I have to wash and iron them.

 

 

            Strolling through “Old Town”, which is where the rebuilt old Palace is, there were street performers, musicians, clowns, and people hawking all kinds of edible delights.  Wendy bought a “Pretzel Necklace” for 3 Zlotys, made up of sweet dough little donut shaped pretzels strung on a string so you could wear it around your neck and eat it as you walked.  We had been walking for about three hours when my knees told me I’d had enough fun.  We had walked several miles around the main part of Warsaw and seen a lot of neat things but it still felt good to take a taxi back to the hotel where a short little rest was definitely in order.  Wendy and Jared stayed behind to do some more shopping but found their way home a couple of hours later with bags of goodies, including some very nice amber necklaces.

 

            Around 7:00 pm we walked around the corner to a little restaurant we saw on the way to the trolley station called “Steakhouse Safir”.  We sat down at a table outside on the patio and enjoyed the warm breeze gently blowing in from the east.  The most expensive meal on the menu was less than $5 and the steak I had was very tasty.  The total bill for four of us was less than $25.  It was after 9:00 pm when it finally started to darken into the night sky.  Jared was just finishing his reading of Harry Potter, book one, and the TV’s were tuned to CNN to catch the latest sports scores and news.  It had been a glorious day in Poland and we were glad to be there.

 

 

 

First Impressions of Poland:

 

            My preconceived expectations of what Poland would be like probably stem from my visit to East Berlin back in 1964, when the Communists were in charge and everything was shades of gray.  Since Poland isn’t well traveled there is little information on the Internet except dire warnings about pickpockets and muggers, about the same thing one could expect if coming to Los Angeles.  The reality turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.  What we found was a modern European city with well-dressed people, clean streets, efficient transportation system, beautiful parks, lots of automobiles, good food, and a great exchange rate of a little over four Zlotys to the dollar.  As we walked around the town on Sunday there was a police presence of two young officers about every block, black fatigues, batons and occasionally Makarov 9mm pistols tucked inconspicuously on their belts.  They were very non-threatening but never-the- less available if you would need them in a hurry.  We never felt we were in any sort of danger the entire time we were there, except maybe from the throngs of people crowding to get in line for ice cream cones, or “Lody”.  After one day we were very happy to be in Poland and loving every new experience we faced.

 

            Monday morning, April 30th, dawned sunny and bright with the promise of another glorious day.  We decided to get up and go for our continental breakfast that came with the rooms, about 9:00 am.  When you travel in Europe you get to love the fresh rolls and cheeses, meats, and jams that come with the breakfast.  Somehow the breads are always fresher and tastier than we have in the States.  The only problem is asking for water.  The waitress understands the request but then must ask if you want “gas” or “no gas”, meaning, mineral water or tap water.  So to order a glass of just plain kitchen tap water you have to say, “Woda, niegasawania” and hope for the best.

 

            After breakfast we huddled and decided to take a walk in Lazienkowski Park, just a block away, to see the sights and enjoy the beautiful weather.  There is a huge monument to Frederic Chopin, who was born near Warsaw and spent his early years in the city before moving away.  He is still claimed as the city’s own and there are international competitions of his music held in the city every summer.  The park is very large and criss-crossed with large and small paths winding through incredible forests with grassy floors, azure blue lakes and small streams, peacocks strutting their stuff amid the people strolling along, and squirrels with bushy tails eating out of the hands of little girls holding out food.  In the center is a palace in the middle of a lake filled with swans and large carp.  The warm spring sun was working its magic on all the flowers and trees and the park began to fill with people, even on a Monday.  About noon we made it back to where we started and were trying to decide what to do next, which as you all know is very difficult when more than one person is involved.  It was finally decided to jump on a bus and see where it went, since we could always take the same one back to where we started.  Jonette sort of guided our thinking by adding that a palace was at the end of the road so off we went.

 

 

            At the end of the line we found a McDonalds and stopped for a bite.  It was crowded with school kids with cell phones, wearing Levis and Italian designer outfits.  After lunch we crossed the street to “Wilanow Palace” and paid the cashier 120 Zlotys for an English language guided tour.  With my selective deafness I only heard about a third of what the lady told us, but it was obvious that she was very proud of her heritage and the history of the palace.  It was built by King Jan III Sobieski in the late 1600’s and underwent many remodels and constructions over the next century until it became what is now available for people to see.  After the tour we went outside and enjoyed the beautiful magnolia tree that was in full bloom with white and pink blossoms. 

 

 

            We planned to visit the gardens and the porcelain exhibit on display in the arboretum but we arrived at the entrance with just seven minutes till closing, so we decided not to enter.  We crossed over the street and entered the cemetery to look around.  It was very crowded with monuments, flowers, candles, etc. but reading the inscriptions was very humbling.  The cycle of life and death visits everyone and to each person it touches it is important, no matter who they are or where they live.  From the efforts and money spent on marking the resting places of loved ones, the polish families were no different than anyone in America.  So with those thoughts in mind we boarded the 118 bus and headed back into town.

 

            Wendy and I made a little trip over to “Super Sams” supermarket to get some drinks and stuff.  The rolls were still hot in the bin so I grabbed 10 and some cartons of juice, and of course some Fanta Pink Grapefruit soda and off we went to the hotel.  We were scheduled to have dinner with Maiia and Paul that evening at their apartment around 7:00 pm so Maiia had to come and show us the way on the 138 bus.  Paul had sprained his knee on Sunday playing Soccer with the guys so he was hobbling around in the kitchen when we arrived at the small but adequate apartment on the 8th floor of the 16-story high-rise.  Fortunately there was an elevator or I might not have made it to dinner.  My right knee had been hurting me since leaving home and all the walking we did wasn’t a great help to its healing.  Paul had prepared his international favorite dinner of chili on rice.  It really was quite tasty and we had a lovely time visiting with the two of them.  We excused ourselves early and headed home because we were taking the train to Krakow early the next morning.

 

 

            We had to roll out of bed early, around 7:00 am, which is always hard on my children and just to complicate things, we took the wrong trolley and had to walk several blocks to the train station to catch our 8:30 am train to Krakow.  We didn’t make it.  But since I always seem to have a back up plan it all came together.  Maiia’s family was arriving from Moscow on the 8:45 am train and there was another train to Krakow at 9:30 am, which made no stops in between cities.  So we went down to the platform that the board said the Moscow train was coming in on and waited.  Maiia eventually showed up and was very surprised to see us, since we were supposed to be on our way out of town.  Anyway, when Maiia’s family arrived there were joyous hugs all around and then Maiia helped us buy our tickets, with the return that evening on the last train at 8:00 pm.  The cost was about $35 each, or $175 for the day, and we got our own compartment just like in all the European spy movies.

 

            Taking the train was my back-up plan to renting a car.  It was going to be about $1,000 for the week to rent a big enough car to hold all five of us and the public transportation was so efficient that there really isn’t a need to have a car in the city.  So, as we rolled along at speeds approaching 80 mph through the polish countryside, I sat back and enjoyed the trip, sparing myself the driving on narrow country roads in unfamiliar surroundings.  It turned out to be a good move.  Out the windows there was a beautiful panorama of rolling hills, farmers plowing their fields, modern towns and cities, graffiti, and warm, sunny spring weather.  It took us about 2 ½ hours to make the trip on the train and it was very pleasant.  They even came by with snacks and drinks for free, just like on the airplanes.

 

            Krakow is an old city.  There is a fortress wall surrounding the oldest part of the city called, appropriately “Old Town”, which somehow escaped the destruction of World War II.  As we walked through the old entrance into the inner city, the streets became narrow and built of old, rounded cobblestones, with three and four story buildings leaning on each other on both sides.  The street level was a collection of shops from McDonalds to KFC, to The Amber Chamber, to trendy Italian designer fashion ware, all living close on each other in perfect harmony.  The street was filled with people, all kinds of people.  It was May 1st; a holiday in Poland equal to our Labor Day, and everyone seemed to be out enjoying the warm weather and blue skies.  Fifty feet inside the gate I stopped at the “Amber Chamber” and bought a beautiful dark amber necklace.  I don’t have anybody in mind to give it to at the moment but it sure is a pretty thing.  The central square is huge and in the middle is a long building called the “Cloth Market”, which dates from prior centuries when the square was used as a giant market place for people to shop and sell their goods.  The Cloth Market is now a tourist mall filled with small booths selling things that are fun to take back to your friends, i.e. Amber jewelry, chess sets, icons, hand crocheted linens, crystal, etc.  With the exchange rate at four to one, everything seemed really cheap.

 

 

            On one side of the square there is a church with tall towers.  Every hour, on the hour, a small window opens in the top of the tower and a bugle is heard playing the polish national song, once in each direction.  As the story goes, it was a rallying cry to the polish people during some war and the bugler was pierced with an arrow and killed after playing just the first few notes.  Another bugler picked up the instrument and played the song, rallying the troops and saving the city.  So every hour, on the hour, the first few notes are played and then a pause is made to honor the dead bugler before continuing.  Those two things were on Jonette’s list of things to see in Krakow and after seeing them we hurried off to the bus depot to find a bus to take us to Auschwitz concentration camp that I thought was just outside the city.  So we stashed our packages in a locker at the train station and looked for a ride to Auschwitz.

 

            After 45 minutes of getting the runaround and not finding the bus, we decided to try a taxi.  I honestly thought it was only a few miles outside of town so a taxi seemed like a good deal.  I picked a big Mercedes and asked the driver how much he would charge us to go to Oswiecim, the town Auschwitz is near.  He told me he would take us there and back for 300 zloty, or about $75.  I thought that was rather steep for a short trip so I asked him how far it was and he wrote with his finger on the window what looked like 17, meaning about 10 miles, but it was actually 70 kilometers.  Well, we had come this far and I wasn’t going to miss visiting it for a few dollars so we all piled in and took off.  Jonette sat on Nikki’s lap in the front seat and the rest of us sat in the back.  We had to make a quick stop at the gas station because at $1 a quart, nobody fills their tank unless they have to.  Fortunately the sunroof was open so Jonette could stick her head out because the 10-mile trip turned out to be 50 and the driver, Yacek, kept that Mercedes humming through the narrow little streets that wove through the countryside.  We did have to slow down to pass two separate funeral processions along the way.  The entire populations of the small villages were walking behind the casket from the church to the cemetery, just outside of town.  Zipping past bicycle riders at 70 mph on a narrow road would bother me but Yacek didn’t seem to mind a bit.

 

 

            We arrived at Auschwitz around 3:00 pm and I made hand signals that we would only be an hour but the driver assured me that he would wait as long as it took so not to hurry.  I gave him half the money over his objections and we went in the entrance door.  The building housing the entrance isn’t anything special.  It has a snack bar, bookshop, and bathrooms, and a small theater where they show a film of old war clips of when Auschwitz was occupied.  Outside you first see the old barracks where the prisoners were housed behind rows of electrified barbed wire.  The facility is clean and well kept up so there is no hint of the squalor that one could imagine was the normal living conditions at such a place.  The entrance to the compound had the now famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign over the road and every few feet there were signs in several languages explaining what went on at that point.  We entered one of the barracks and looked at the display they had erected depicting the sleeping accommodations on straw filled mattresses.  On the second floor there was some artsy fartsy welded display with photographs attached of people that had lived and died there.  It struck me that the display of metal grates and wire hanging around the place actually took away from the stark horror of the pictures.  It was third world Disneyland. 

 

            We continued our walk around the compound and saw the gas chambers, crematorium, etc. and as you enter those rooms and try to picture yourself as one of the scared people that had just had a long and uncomfortable train ride and were now offered a refreshing shower and a place to sleep, it became all too easy to allow yourself to become one of the victims.  It changed my thinking on why the Jews went so lamblike to the slaughter by holding on to that tiny crumb of hope that it would be okay somehow.  It would be wonderful if I could convey that feeling to everyone living today so that it would be hard to repeat such a horrific act on humanity but the reality is that most people don’t want to face the truth.  It is one of the things that I learned early in life that, “People can only do to you, what you allow them to do to you”.  Unfortunately for the people passing through Auschwitz the other choices were worse than the unknown.

 

 

            We finished our walking tour, went to see the movie, visited the gift shop, and found our taxi waiting right where he said he would be.  After loading ourselves into the car with me in the front and the four kids in the back seat, the driver offered to take us to the real killing camp, “Birkenau”, which was about a mile away.  It was there that most of the people were actually killed because the camp was built just for that purpose.  They would be unloaded off the train and sent directly to the gas chambers.  An unlucky few would be spared to help drag out the dead bodies and move them to the ovens.  The killing capacity was between 12,000 and 24,000 a day, seven days a week.  We didn’t stop but Yacek drove us to both ends so we could see what was left of the place, a few huts and barbed wire.  Then we left to go back to Krakow.

 

            The taxi ride back to town seemed shorter except for the four people crammed into the back seat.  It was still a lovely, sunshine filled day but a lot quieter in the car.  Once we arrived back at Old Town I paid the taxi driver and thanked him for taking us and then we went shopping again before we had to catch the train back to Warsaw.  I bought three chess sets to take home and the kids all bought more gifts for people they wanted to surprise.  We caught the train and settled in to our little compartment and relaxed for the ride home.  Back in Warsaw we hopped two taxis back to the hotel because of all the baggage we had with us and settled in for the night around 11:00 pm.

 

            Wednesday dawned and we finally made it up in time to go to breakfast at 9:00 am.  We had used up all the guidebook stuff and so after breakfast I called Maiia and asked her what she thought we should do that day.  She suggested that we jump on the number 18 trolley and go to the new, big mall in the suburbs, “Galleria Mokotow”.  For want of a better plan, that’s exactly what we did and we found a beautiful, modern, trendy, high-end mall that rivals anything in the Los Angeles area.  I was so surprised that I took out my camera to take a picture of how lovely it was and a young man in a dark suit started yelling at me that no picture taking was allowed.  Shades of Russia.  We walked around a while and Wendy and I went into the grocery store.  Well lit, well stocked, and really a great store full of foods from all over the world.  I snagged some polish vodka for my neighbor and some fresh bread baguettes to nibble on, along with some bottled water to drink.  We didn’t really buy too much and after about an hour or so we climbed back aboard the old number 18 and headed back toward town.  My knee was starting to hurt so I volunteered to take the packages back to the hotel while the kids continued on into town to shop some more.  I was going to join up with them at the main square but opted to rest in my room instead, taking a little nap and watching CNN on cable.

 

            The kids came back around 6:00 pm and I was very pleased that they could get around on their own so I could stay home a little.  We had a dinner date with Maiia and her fiancé, Paul Smith, at 6:30 and they were very punctual.  We were going to go to the little restaurant around the corner where I could feed them all for $30, but unfortunately it was closed and Paul suggested a trendy little spot a block away called, “Klik”.  Trendy is a very expensive word, even in Poland.  It cost me almost $30 for EACH of them, for a whopping total of $150 for dinner.  Thank goodness I had paid off my Visa before I left.  Of course I did have the Breast of Duck with figs in a plum sauce, with French Onion soup to start me off and finished with hot apple pie alamode.  The others all did likewise and each dish was more like an art piece when it reached the table.  It was almost too pretty to eat.  As near as I can figure out, the polish equivalent of Montezuma was hiding somewhere in the figs because it came back to haunt me for the next couple of days.

 

            Thursday, May 3, Constitution Day.  This was the second holiday this week and the only bad thing was the banks were closed so we had to use the very convenient ATMs to get our spending cash.  We were going to meet Maiia’s family downtown at noon so we lounged around until about 11:00 am and then grabbed the trolley to the downtown area near Old Town.  The stress of riding the trolleys and busses was great because the ticket buying was all on the honor system.  You had to buy your ticket before hand or from the driver and then punch holes in it to make it valid.  At 3 zloty, or 75 cents a ride, it wasn’t that expensive but it was fun to see if you could use the same ticket over and over by not punching it.  The only trouble with that plan was that there were plainclothes inspectors who rode the trolleys and busses checking on valid tickets and if you didn’t have one it was a hefty fine.  We still gambled on riding free a lot.  It was the polish equivalent of July 4th and the whole town was out on the street to watch old veterans marching around and listening to patriotic speeches.  At the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the monument to the war heroes there was a big rally with thousands of people.  We edged our way past and continued on to the Old Town Square in front of the Palace where we were to meet.  At the gonging of noon we walked up to the place we were supposed to be and waited less than five minutes for Maiia’s family to arrive.  There were troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts marching up and down the Square, and the Fire Department was demonstrating its newest aerial basket rescue truck.  Next to them, the Harley Davidson Bikers posed for everyone to see, in their finest leather goods.  The South American flute band was playing the background music and selling their CD’s.  It was a HAPPENING, and we were there!

 

 

            We wandered up and down the streets of Old Town with Maiia’s family, the father and me communicating in German, the mother and other daughter, Leela, doing their best in English.  It was a very cosmopolitan feeling.  Again we found some small gifts to buy and walked until it seemed time to quit walking.  Maiia’s family left us at the Trolley stop and continued walking to their hotel and we caught a ride and went back to the comfort of our small but clean rooms.  Jared wandered off and Wendy stayed to find him and continue shopping while Jonette and I went home.  Nikki had stayed at the hotel to study for her presentation the next week.

 

 

            We were all invited to dinner at Paul and Maiia’s at 7:00 pm.  That meant that I was to guide the English people to the bus stop and get them to the apartment.  We were all staying on the same top floor so it was easy to arrange.  We grabbed the bags of gifts that we had brought with us for Maiia’s family, the picnic basket for the wedding pair, ties and binoculars for dad, scarves for mama, and lots of stuff for 14-year-old Leela.  We all climbed aboard the 138 bus and rode the 5 stops to “Torwar” where we unloaded and walked the 200 meters to the apartment house.  There were 5 in my family, 3 in Maiia’s family, and 8 from England, plus Paul and Maiia in that tiny cubicle.  We became CLOSE friends quickly.  Dinner was lots of different sausages, salads, potatoes, etc. and very good.  It was my first opportunity to eat polish sausage since arriving in the country.  Naturally, I had to eat 3 helpings.  Nikki did her usual disappearing act halfway through the evening, but it didn’t seem to dampen the festivities any.  Around 9:00 pm we called it a night and caught the 138 back to the hotel.  Paul was going to show his family and friends around Warsaw the next day and we had no clue as to what we were going to do.

 

            We got up in time to eat another continental breakfast downstairs in the restaurant and Paul’s family was already there, so we chatted over fresh rolls and sliced ham.  It was again one of those days when we didn’t have anything planned so we just started walking down the street toward town so see what there was to see.  Nikki stayed in her room at the hotel.  We walked a mile or two, in no particular hurry, looking into all the stores as we went until we came to the main part of town near the train station.  There was supposed to be another mall area there, but it was more like just a bunch of large clothing stores close to each other.  We wandered through them and I wanted to by Jared one of those cool, Italian designer, three button suits that he would look fantastic in, but he wasn’t in the mood so I saved myself $150.  After milling around with no particular goal in mind, Jonette and I decided to go to the movies to see “Miss Congeniality” with Sandra Bullock.  Jared and Wendy wanted to shop some more at the outdoor booths across the street, so we split up.  The movie was cute and cost 15 Zlotys each, or about $3.75.  It was sort of strange sitting in a big theater again after getting used to the little mini-theaters back home.  There were all of 10 people watching the movie that afternoon and only a few of them knew when to laugh, since the picture was in English with polish sub-titles.  After the movie, Jonette and I returned to the hotel and then went crystal shopping at a store just around the corner.  I had no intention of buying anything but the prices were so reasonable that I had to buy a goblet set and a platter.  Jonette was on a roll, spending someone else’s money and having a good time.  We dropped several hundred dollars in Zlotys in that store, much to the delight of the owners.  That shopping thing can be soo much fun when you actually have money.

 

            Jared and Wendy met us for dinner at our little, “Steakhouse Safir”, around the corner.  They had found an armor store and bought themselves some authentic, hand made battle shields to hang on their walls.  Nikki had gone to get her hair cut and strolled up just as we were about to order our food.  For a place with the name Steakhouse you’d think that beef would be on the menu, and it was, but they were out of it so I had to have chicken.  Not bad, but not beef.  Back at our rooms in the hotel, Jared was still trying to beat me at chess.  The first game we played on Wednesday he was killing me and allowed me to stalemate with only my king left on the board.  In subsequent tries I had managed to beat him 3 times in a row, until finally he won and then we quit playing.  Sounds a lot like his dad.  Nikki’s haircut was “the little Dutch boy” cut.

 

            Saturday, May 5, 2001.  The big day!  We didn’t really have to be down in Old Town until 2:30 pm for the wedding so we just lounged around our rooms.  Jonette, Jared, and Wendy all had books to read and I watched BBC news for entertainment.  About 11:00 am we were all bored so we took a walk back to the armor store to see what they had.  There were some fabulous clocks of bronze and Jonette got herself one of those, there were swords of polished steel with engraving so Jared got himself one of those, and threw in a Mace just for good measure.  Nikki was going to buy a shield but changed her mind, and I didn’t have any more room in my suitcase so I just drooled.  It was a fun store to browse around in.

 

            Finally, the time came to get all prettied up and go to the wedding.  Paul had ordered 3 taxis to pick us up and take us downtown.  We loaded into the first one and realized we didn’t know where we were supposed to go, so fortunately one of the English ladies had directions to give the cabby and we took off.  Nikki had packed her things and taken them to the airport and we never saw her again.  The wedding was a civil ceremony and being held at the Justice of the Peace chapel in the building next to the Palace.  Everyone gathered for the 3:00 pm ceremony, I, as the official Dave Newman Trained Photographer, took lots of pictures of those present.

 

 

 

            The chapel doors opened and they bid us to enter so Maiia yelled at me to quickly get in front and get a picture of them entering, which I managed to do.  I spent the entire time moving around the chapel taking shots from different angles, not knowing if my flash would work or not, since I had never taken any pictures with this camera using a flash.  But I was having a good time and the couple was soo cute, it made my job very easy.  The ceremony lasted only about 15 minutes and after the couple and all the witnesses had signed the book, it was over and we were back out in the lobby giving our congratulations to the new couple.  I gave Maiia a big hug and kiss as the first one to call her “Mrs. Smith”.  More pictures and then it was time to go outside and see the happy married couple off on their carriage ride to the restaurant.  I ran out of film just about that time and had to change rolls, but I still got the camera working in time to get some cute shots.  God Bless the guy who invented those self-loading cameras.

 

 

            It was supposed to be just a short walk to the restaurant but it took us half an hour in the hot sun.  By the time we arrived we were all sweaty and ready for some cool refreshment and food.  Fortunately there were lots of pitchers of drinks on the table, water, berry juice, and wines.  The 4 or 5 courses that followed were all very good and I managed to only spill once on my new $60 turtleneck shirt that I bought just for the occasion.  I sat on the end corner of the main table, next to Paul’s mom and dad, across from another young English teacher in Poland, Richard, and next to Ludmilla, a cute redhead from Belarus.  You talk about International; this table had its own United Nations representatives, all speaking and communicating somehow over dinner.  If only the politicians would get a clue, there might just be such a thing as World Peace.

 

            Three hours into this eating thing my rear end was starting to get sore.  The reception didn’t start until 8:00 pm about two blocks away but it felt good just to get up and walk around a while.  The evening was warm and there were people walking on the sidewalks, window shopping and enjoying the stillness.  The ever-present young police officers were strolling along the avenues, never in a hurry, never more than just a presence.  It had been a very fun day so far and the best was yet to come.

 

            The reception was held on the third floor of the Staszic Palace, just behind the statue of Copernicus.  The refreshment table was one of the most beautiful arrangements I have ever seen, and I’ve been to a lot of weddings with Dave Newman.  There were all kinds of prepared appetizers, drinks of every persuasion, and done in a very organized fashion which turned it into an art piece.  There was a Disc Jockey playing Rock and Roll music, and the glass doors opened onto an outside patio on the roof, which was the only relief from the heat that built up in the main rooms.  We danced, ate, and visited with everyone until we finally had to take our leave around 11:00 pm because we had an early flight the next morning.  There were hugs all around and hearty handshakes with our new friends from England, and it was really sad to be leaving.  The kids even said that it was the highlight of the week and a good way to end our trip.  Maiia was drop dead gorgeous in her lavender wedding gown and Paul soo handsome in his dark blue suit.  They will be a very happy couple and bear lots of children.

 

 

            We had a 4:30 am wake up call for Sunday morning but I didn’t sleep that long.  I, being the dad, was worried that we might miss out flight, oversleep, etc. so I was awake at 4:10 and just waiting for the phone to ring.  It did ring right on time and I woke the kids to give them the bad news that they had to get out of bed.  It was already getting light outside so it made it at least a little easier.  The two taxis I had ordered were there on time and we left our hotel to return to our real lives in another world.  It was a fabulous trip and a great experience for all.  For the curious; five round-trip flights, three hotel rooms for a week, and food & gifts = $7,000, and worth every penny.