30 years ago today: Our dinner with Andrej on a surreal evening in Krakow.


The only two photos I took in Krakow in 1987.

Previously: 30 years ago today: The mysterious case of the phantom Warsaw pub.

Warsaw, July 10.

Four of us – myself, Barrie, Nick and Nate — really wanted to go to Krakow, and if possible, to Auschwitz. There wasn’t much tour time left, but we thought we had an “in,” this being an acquaintance of Nick’s named Andrej.

If we could navigate the three-hour train ride to Krakow, Andrej would meet us at the tourist office and arrange matters. The return train would get us back to Warsaw in time for the final group party on Saturday night. Our leader Kim was fine with our side trip, so a plan was hatched.

I decided to devote Friday morning to an American Embassy visit. In places like Eastern Europe, holders of American passports were allowed to go inside and browse the reading room, catching up on the outside world in a way that wasn’t possible in closed societies without a free press.

For me, it meant checking the baseball standings and an all-purpose survey of the headlines. Walking back to the hotel, I felt raindrops — yellowish-brown raindrops with the consistency of mustard, and of course they weren’t raindrops at all, but pigeon droppings.

On a ledge two stories up, a woman was feeding a row of pigeons, whose butts hung out into space, depositing in perfect harmony with their intake.

Let it be noted that pigeons are rats of the air, and should never be fed in my presence. A perfectly functional Zantigo t-shirt was rendered obsolete, though quickly replaced from the seemingly inexhaustible supply hidden somewhere inside Barrie’s duffel bag.

Daypacks promptly were loaded with overnight essentials, and rail tickets easily procured at Warsaw’s central station. So far, so good.

However, we hadn’t reckoned on it being an afternoon train out of the capital on a summertime Friday. Our tickets gave us the right only to stand in the corridor, and I was at peace with the idea.

Then I saw Barrie huddling with the conductor, gesturing and reaching into his travel pouch. Direct action once again carried the day, and moments later a whole six-seat, second class compartment had been cleared of its occupants. We were shown our places by the gracious, beaming and newly enriched conductor.

I’d like to believe the conductor split his cash bribe with the displaced passengers, though this is highly doubtful.

In Krakow, the tourist office informed us that no private rooms for travelers existed anywhere in the city. A luxury hotel was available, far out of our price range. We huddled; perhaps our local contact Andrej would be able to help us find a place to sleep.

After much waiting, Andrej belatedly materialized, promptly got us into to an upscale but scandalously inexpensive restaurant to dine on Polish duck and Bulgarian wine, but he possessed few coherent ideas about lodging.

Finally we were able struck a deal with a tiny, ancient woman Andrej knew, who showed up at the tourist office long after dark. At first she balked at housing all four of us, and so we upped the ante: $10 for the quartet. Soon we were on a tram headed into a leafy neighborhood, trudging up flights of stairs in an older building with no elevator, and entering the woman’s flat.

It was diminutive, with a kitchen, bathroom, truncated living room, and two other small rooms, all squeezed together like a dollhouse. By this time it was just before midnight, so we all turned in, scavenging an array of beds and couches.

What none of us realized, learning to our chagrin, each in turn, as we awoke through the night to use the toilet, was that our minuscule and superannuated host had surrendered her own bed, and was sleeping on two kitchen chairs pulled together.

Granted, she was short enough of stature to make it work, but to a man, we felt pure chastened embarrassment. On Saturday morning, she became belligerent (understandably) and angrily demanded more money, but what she didn’t realize was that without even conferring first, each of us had left a wad of assorted currencies to sweeten her pot.

I hope it was enough. Amid thanks, a hasty exit was made, and we returned downtown for brief sightseeing and bus tickets to Auschwitz. It wasn’t a place any of us wanted to go, but we all knew it was a necessary visit.

Next: 30 years ago today: Both Auschwitz and Lanzmann’s Shoah.