We went to the Internet Cafe on Krakowskie Przedmieszie which was a very cool space, all steel, and wire and cable. The workstations were on platforms of diamond-ribbed steel plate suspended by steel cable from the high ceiling. It was a pretty cool techno/industrial decoration scheme. But there was no message from Angus. We sent him another message just to let him know we were in town now, and then went to investigate the campground that was reccommended in the guide book. They told us that all their bungalows were filled, they only had tent camping, and since we had no tent, we were out of luck. They were quite helpful though, in directing us to the student dorms across the street, which act as hostels during the summer. The first one was full, but the second one had a room for us. We still thought we might catch up with Angus and save ourselves the cost of a night in the dorm, so we went by his house. We knew his address, but were missing his apartment number, so we didn't know which of the eight buttons to push from the gate. We tried to ask a woman coming out if she knew Angus (Paul said "Angus Lyon?" to her with a a questioning look and a smile) but we got nothing from her as she walked away. After that, we went to plan B, which we made up on the spot. I would hang out in front of the building to catch Angus coming home from work (I had to stay because only I would recognize him) and Paul would go to the Student Dorm and nail down a room, then go to the Hotel Polonia and get the luggage. Admittedly, I had the easy job. But it was really hard for me to stand on the street and allow all the inhabitants to eye me and wonder what I was doing there. I felt like a criminal. But it was much harder on Paul, who hurt his knee again with all the walking. He came back through on his way to the hotel (after getting us a private room in the dorm), then had to walk back again to get the luggage receipt from me. Also, the ATMs were refusing to give us any cash, so he had to go the American Express office in the ground floor of the Marriott building to get a cash advance on the American Express card so we could pay for the room. Luckily he was able to take a taxi to move the luggage to the room in the dorm. When he came back to get me it was 7:00, and he was limping and hungry and grouchy from the pain. He almost never gets grouchy, so I knew it must be bad. In the meantime, Angus hadn't shown up, so we gave up and went in search of dinner. All the grocery stores were closed by this time. We walked into one bar, but it was all men drinking and smoking and didn't seem to serve food. Finally, we turned the corner and there at the Plac where all the trams stop was a Hong Kong restaurant with outdoor seating. We sat down gratefully, although Paul was worried about the prices. All I could see was that his knee was bothering him and we had to sit down and get a beer and some food into him.
I'm coming to see now that it's probably always going to be a disappointment to go a chinese restaurant in most foreign countries. Probably not in Britain and hopefully not in China and SE Asia, but probably everywhere else; the owners of the restaurant will have tailored the menu to the local's taste and we'll be disappointed. The Poles like their food very bland, just like in Göteborg, and the food here was completely consistent with that preference. We got a few laughs from Paul's dish, which was chicken with vegetables - the veggies were peas, carrots, and corn, as if from frozen. Mine was chicken with nuts - peanuts - and that was it. Nothing else. And rice was extra. Needless to say, there were no fortune cookies. But the evening was fine and the beer restored our spirits.
After dinner, we went home to the student dorm. We were on the fifth floor, and luckily there was an elevator. The room was a triple: three single beds, two end to end on one wall and the other on the opposite wall. The room was long and narrow, with one large window. There were two desks, a few shelves, and three narrow lockers by the door, and a sink. It was pretty cramped, and I can't imagine how three people could live there a whole semester. The sink was cracked and I was afraid it would leak, but as long as you didn't plug the drain it worked fine. I got used to the room, but I never really enjoyed the bathrooms. They were filthy, wet, and the doors were all rusting and falling apart. There were also unisex, as there was only one bathroom on each floor. At least the shower stalls had doors. One bright spot was that there was plenty of hot water, thanks to Warsaw's centralized hot water plant. But yet again there was no way to sleep together, so we put our pillows together and slept head to head. My bed must have had rusty springs - I kept waking myself up every time I rolled over. The dorm is right next to a major road as well, so the traffic noise was quite bad. But it was a roof over our heads, and it was safe so we were fine.
On this day, we went for a stroll in Lazienki Park, which was the summer residence of Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last Polish king (late 18th Century). It's one of the few places that were virtually untouched during the war, and I think it's one of the most beautiful places in Warsaw. We had "lunch" there, which consisted of fries and drinks at a cafe. Two boys came in collecting money for "the children's home". They had a spiel in Polish, and as soon as we let them know we didn't understand they switched right into English. We saw that the locals at two other tables gave them something, so we decided they were legit and gave them a little something too. Another sign that the Warsaw is beginning to prosper - Poles are giving to charity. There was a wonderful dog at the cafe, whom I couldn't resist petting. He seemed starved for attention. I think his person was rather taken aback.
Lazienki, which means bath, has a palace built on the water, just a little one, but impressive enough. The last time I was there, the lake surrounding the palace looked like a sewer and was full of trash, but it's looking much better now, and they even have gondola rides across the lake. I used to spend a lot of time at the little ampitheater there, which was made to look like an ancient Greek ampitheatre (with broken doric columns and partially collapsed lintels), with the stage set out into the lake so that some of the action can take place in boats. People used to bring their lunches there, and students would study there, or come to draw and paint. But now it's all locked up and you're only allowed in when there's a performance. In attempting to show Paul the rose garden where they have Chopin concerts on Sunday (and getting hopelessly lost), we stumbled upon a snake and reptile house, and Paul just had to go in. I was less than enthusiastic but I followed. They had an impressive collection of snakes, but as always, I felt sorry for them being in captivity. Most of them had only fake plants in their glass boxes, and a few of them didn't seem totally healthy. I think Paul had been expecting to see tarantulas as well, but they were off in another exhibit. Most horrific were the pictures of people with snakebite wounds and snakes in the process of devouring rabbits, birds, and other snakes. Its was horrifying and mesmerizing at the same time.
On the way out of the park, we found out the time for the Chopin concert on Sunday, then spent quite a while trying to find someplace to buy more bus tickets before heading home.
I stayed in bed all morning and most of the afternoon, letting myself be sick. Paul came in and out and catered to my every whim and made me drink orange juice and tea. Late in the afternoon, we walked over to the other campground in Warsaw, Camping 123, to check it out. I'd initially been against it because it was right across the road from the Hotel Vera where Rob and I had first stayed when we got to Poland. but I wasn't keen on staying in the dorm much longer. I needed a good night's sleep. We walked by the Vera and it was completely different, all white an freshly painted, and I knew it was okay. The bungalows in the campground were really nice, with twin beds we could push together, a table and pegs to hang things. They were paneled all in wood, and had a little porch on the front. We were attached to another bungalow, a triple with a WC. Only later did we find out how thin the walls were. But it was a green area, with a swimming pool in the middle, with very nice communal showers and WC. So we booked bungalow A1 for the next night and made our way back to our soon-to-be-ex home.
We finally decided to go see Armageddon that night, which was really our only choice. It was playing everywhere - the big summer blockbuster. It's amazing how your standards come down when you're desperate for some easy entertainment (in English). After the movie, which we enjoyed, we got the last tram back home, which was now at Camping 123.
We walked up the street and got a Coke for Paul and a Fanta Citron for me and looked for a phone. We didn't have a phone card and couldn't find a coin phone. Fortunately, we just gave up the idea of calling ahead and went straight to Angus' house. Luckily he was at home and welcomed us with open arms. He's the same guy, now a little heavier and has a tidy beard and mustache that makes him look very distinguished. We sat down in the kitchen next to what appeared to be an enormous pile of laundry, but it may have been what normal people, who don't carry everything the own on their backs, tend to wash. Angus fussed about cleaning up, then made himself a cup of tea. Two minutes later it was like we'd seen each other just last week, not a couple of years ago. There were just a few details to fill in, one of them being that he in in love, with a Polish woman named Olena. We talked for a while, then headed out to get groceries so we could make dinner. Boy have things changed in 4 years. I used to go on the "store circuit" every day to find the things I needed. One day one place would have something, then the next day not. It would take a couple of hours to get groceries. Not there's Géant, across the river, a huge superstore complex with everything. It's so big it's scary. The shopping carts are chained together and you have to put in a 1 or 2 zl coin to free one. When you chain it back up to another cart in the corral, you get your coin back. This was the first time we saw any really aggressive begging by Gypsies, and it came in the form of a little girl not older than 10. (In the old days, if you wanted to be entertained by aggressive begging, you could go to the train station and stand in the incredibly long lines to buy tickets. Women and children would alternately paw and stoke your arms, asking for money. It used to give me the creeps. The lines in the train station are shorter now, and the Gypsies are gone. This girl was determined to return our cart for us so she could get the coin, and she gave Paul quite a fight for it. Polish people are much meaner than we are about saying "no". You can see where you'd really get sick of it after a while.
But I'm jumping ahead : the store was grocery paradise with german old lady etiquette - a man rammed me in the ankles from behind with his shopping cart, so hard that it bled, and when i yowled and turned to accept his apology, he turned his eyes up to the ceiling. I sicced the Gypsy girl on him. We got pasta, veggies and bread, and of course, Angus' favorite, Grolsh beer. Then we went home and cooked and talked and drank beer. After dinner, we switched to Zubrovka (Polish buffalo grass vodka) mixed with apple juice. The bottle comes with a blade of grass in it from the fields where the buffalo once roamed. It was great stuff in the apple juice. I'm sure I'd hate it otherwise.
We drank and talked until pretty late in the night, and Angus had to get up early to go to Lublin - I thought it was for business, but it turned out that he was going to pick up Olena at her parent's house and bring her back to Warsaw Sunday evening. She all but lives with Angus now, so we were going to get to meet her. (Her real abode is with her sister and her boyfriend, and to hear about it, there was no fridge when they moved in, and there will never be a washer until one of them wins the lottery). We would have the place all to ourselves that weekend.
The market likewise was not quite what it used to be. It used to be the place to get russian military-issue night vision goggles, watches and small medals, as well as knives and small arms. The busses from Belorussia and Russia would come rolling in during the early hours of the morning. There were Russian crafts, and bras in all one size (huge). Now its the place to get bootlegged software - Windows 95 and 98, with Office 97 and Photoshop was 30 zl ($10), and that was before we even started bargaining. One of the CDs we looked at still had the CD-R recordable media insert in the back of the jewel case, but most of the copy jobs were more professionally done, though none had the ubiquitous Microsoft hologram. There were also knives, small arms, industrial machinery parts, tools, and lots and lots of clothing. It was crowded but not packed. The marked itself takes place around the rim of a huge soccer stadium, all concrete with rotting wooden benches. We talked to a guy names Johnny, who was called in to translate for us when we inquired at the next stall about software prices. He's been living in Poland for seven years now, before that he was in Hamburg for five years. He's originally from India. He has a Polish wife now, so he figures he'll be staying for a while. He made it sound like he does a brisk software trade. I wonder how long before the long arm of Bill Gates reaches these guys. Or the Polish government comes to collect the taxes?
Once we'd had enough of people pressing too close to us, we took the tram back across the river and walked South to Lazienki Park to hear the Chopin concert. We were pretty early, so we got choice seats where we could watch the pianist. It was incredibly windy all of a sudden, and little dust devils formed along the paths between the roses. The concerts are held in a lovely rose garden with benches lining the paths around a small reflecting pool. At the Western end of the pool is a gigantic sculpture of Chopin with a tree curving up and over him, bending close to hear better. Or maybe chopin is being inspired by the wind in the tree, and it is the wind which causes the tree to bend low. Anyway, is a really cool, very large piece of sculpture. For the concert, a grand piano is set at the base of the sculpture, next to the pool, and a guest performer is invited to play a selection of Chopin's works. It's becoming quite a sophisticated event: they have the piano miked and speakers are set up. A man welcomes the crowd in Polish, English, German, and some other language we failed to identify. He said "Let the sun shine, let the wind blow anyway, and let the music play!" It was very sweet, and again I was impressed by the leaps Poland has made. Maybe if I'd been there the whole time, I'd be more cynical, because the day-to-day stuff can wear you down. But I see great things for Poland if these trends continue. Her greatest advantage is her people, who are so lovely, so willing, and so charming. The concert was really only mediocre, but it was great to see how people crammed eight people on to a bench built for four or five in order to enjoy the lovely atmosphere. I don't think the music has to be top-note, the spirit is enough.
After the concert, we walked through the rest of the park and stopped at a Kawiarnia (Cafe) to have lunch. There was a choice on the menu called Pierogi Firmowe ("House" Pierogies) so we decided to give that a try, and we ordered a salad as well. It was way too much food. Usually pierogies are just a snack or a side dish. These were two huge pierogies each filled with rice, chicken and vegetables in a curry sauce. It was a totally unexpected combination, but it was marvelous. I couldn't finish mine. After lunch, we went back to the apartment and enjoyed having it to ourselves for a few hours before Angus and Olena arrived. A while later, the phone rang, and it was Olena telling us they would be arriving within the hour, so we made ourselves decent and set about straightening up the house.
When they arrived, and we had all been introduced, we decided to go out to Lalek, a bar and restaurant in one of Warsaw's huge parks. There's another bar there called Balek as well. The story is that Lalek and Balek are the two boys in a Polish cartoon. It's drawn simply, like stick figures, or they may be cave boys. Another place will be opening up soon named after the little girl in the cartoon. The park is a great place for the pubs people can barhop without having to get in cars or walk in traffic. You just meander through all the trees to the next place. At the end of the night, taxis are there to whisk you home. Lalek was a kind of Flintstone-style place with big, rough-hewn tables and chairs in an outdoor area surrounded by a fence made from big, rough timbers. There were also wooden swings, a jungle gym, and putt putt golf. Families were there with their dogs. It was a big picnic. Inside, everything seemed to be disproportionately large: the counters were high, made from thick slabs of wood, the stone fireplace was gargantuan. Olena made Angus order for us, so he could practice his Polish. She seemed a bit reserved, or perhaps just shy when we first met her. But it's obvious that Angus adores her. I caught a glimpse of them together in Angus' room before we went out. They were standing very close together but not touching. It seemed so intimate; I felt like I was trespassing. I think they may have the real thing. Olena is younger than Angus, she's 23 and he's my age. She's studying computers at school, and she and Paul got a chance to talk shop for a while until Angus got bored of it and insisted on a change of subject. Maybe he didn't like to have Olena involved in an area where he couldn't compete. But he was cute about it, and he's her lover, so we let him have his way. She's smart and funny and playful. She worked in Germany and Finland, speaks a handful of languages, and is very independent. She loves hiking in the Ukrain, has strong opinions on politics, and she Adores Angus. What's not to love? After eating, we headed to another pub, but it was very smokey, and the live music was so loud you couldn't even talk. We opted to sit outside at Balek instead, where the band did renditions of the Beatles, and ended one set with John Denver's "Country Roads". It was very amusing. Angus and Olena told us funny stories about their travels in Croatia and we told them the story of the Drover's Inn. Rather suddenly, Angus ran out of steam, so we went out to get a taxi to drive us home (we had walked out, but it was a long walk). The plan was for Olena to do the talking so we wouldn't get the tourist rip-off rate. Angus and Olena whispered Polish sweet nothings in each other's ears to make it convincing. Paul and I must have seemed suspicious though. Next time I'll feign a drunken sleep. Poor Angus had only gotten back Tuesday, and went straight to work Wednesday. We arrived on the scene Friday and kept him up late, before he had to drive out to Olena's parents, stay put late with them, then come back Sunday so they could go out with us. I hope he finds time to recover no that we're gone.
When we got back to Angus' apartment, Olena wasn't back yet (we hand only one set of keys between us, and she had them) so we walked over to the park to set up the tent and check it out. While we were putting it up, a man came walking over from the neighboring apartment building all worried, trying to tell us we couldn't camp there. We laughed and tried to tell him we were just trying out our new toy. His English was about as extensive as our Polish though, so at first he didn't understand. But then three boys who had overheard the exchange explained it to him, and he seemed mollified and went away. Olena got into the apartment just before us. She called Angus at work and found out he'd be leaving in about a half hour, then he planned to stop at Géant for groceries for dinner. But that seemed silly for him to have to do the shopping, so Paul and I said we'd go shopping and cook dinner. We left Olena there with strict instructions to meet Angus at the door with an open bottle of Grolsh. There was only one store open this late within walking distance, and it turned out ot be pretty decent. Naturally, our plan was to make stuffed peppers, which we can do with our eyes shut now. We found everything we needed except spinach. I don't know why it's so hard to find in Europe. We made french bread toasted and topped with cheese (it got a little burnt on the bottom because no one knew what temperature corresponded to the oven settings 1 - 7). After a bit of scraping, that made a fine appetizer. The peppers were a big hit, even without the spinach, and substituting Grolsh for sherry. We stayed up and chatted for the remainder of the evening, then put Angus to bed at the reasonable hour of 11:30.
We decided to see a movie and settled on Wild Things (yeah, we were desperate). It didn't start for an hour and a half so we hung out at McDonald's (fries and cokes) in their outdoor seating and did a little reading. As the sun went down, I got cold, and I thought I'd freeze in the movie theater (I forgot that fear of excess AC is totally unfounded in Poland) but we decided anyway that we had enough time to run back to the apartment, change clothes and come back, which we did. Olena was home when we came in so she knew our plans and knew we were giving her and Angus an evening alone. We presume they took advantage of it. Wild Things was about what we expected. The last four minutes were pretty good.
At 6:00 we met Olena and some of her friends for drinks at a pub behind and down the hill from the castle. The pub was in a really nice market square, the afternoon was warm and sunny, and it was Maczek's birthday, so there was cake. He was the shyest of the group, and arrived late. He has a shock of white hair in front, which makes him look quite interesting. The other two plus Olena were already there when we arrived, and kindly switched into English for our benefit. They were Pawel Zawila-Niedzweicki and Mariusz Szczerbinski. How's that for great Polish names? They are both studying computers as well, one is in software, the other hardware. They both have jobs for the summer, so they were still dressed in office attire. They both had excellent English, and we had a great time talking with them and getting the Polish point of view. They'd all recently gotten back from a trip to Turkey, so we got to see their photos and hear the stories. By the time Angus showed up we'd all had a couple of beers and were feeling great, so we didn't mind waiting while Angus drove the HR director of his company home.
We went to the Blue Cactus for dinner, a great Southwestern (as in U.S.) restaurant, where everyone seemed to speak English better than they did Polish. We ordered margaritas and poppers and little empanada-like things for appetizers. They were gone in minutes so we ordered another round. The we had dinner. I had an excellent chimichanga (with chicken, no vegetarian option). Angus entertained us with witty stories, and we stayed out until quite late.