28 February 1980

Another duck

After our daily classes at SGPiS we drive again to the Stare Miasto for lunch and try a new small and unremarkable restaurant. We try and order a number of different offerings from the menu, but the only available dish is... duck!

It's actually quite good and (for us) dirt cheap.

27 February 1980

Chinese restaurant

After an uneventful day we decide to try the Shanghai restaurant, on the Marszalkowska.

We try to order sevaral meat dishes but after repeated kind denials we are told that there is no meat today because it is Wednesday.

At the time we did not understand, but later on our Polish friends told us that, for some reason that we still do not understand, there is no meat in any restaurant on Wednesdays... I might have understood if Catholic Poland did not serve meat on Fridays, but why Wednesdays?

26 February 1980

No amatriciana today

Full day at school and homework then out again for dinner at Ewa's.

I had planned to cook my famed "Amatriciana", which I execute following the traditional recipe very strictly, but none of us was able to find anything resembling guanciale. Not even bacon, nothing. Not even Ewa with all her black market connections.

Anyway we cook some spaghetti and have a good time, eating away while engaging in another interminable conversation on the "real" Polish economy.

24 February 1980

Duck and wine

Easy Sunday. We get up late and drive to the Stare Miasto in search for food.

After some walking around we run into a pleasant small restaurant and take our seats. Using what little Polish we know (Ann actually gets by OK) we ask for the menu, but there isn't any. We then ask what is available, and the answer is clear: duck.

OK so we order a delicious duck and not as delicious red wine. Apparently duck is a pretty popular dish in Poland, it seems it's going to become a regular presence on our table. For the three of us the bill is 750 zloty (less than seven dollars).

Before heading home I saw some painters in the square and bought two water colors of the Stare Miasto.

Back in the dorm we learned that Marta has come looking for us...

23 February 1980

Gasoline and the Russians

A Polish friend takes us to a gas station in town where he knows the owner and makes an introduction so we can now buy gasoline at the "Polish" price, without coupons, and pay in zloty. He charges us 25 zloty per liter instead of the official price of 16 zloty, so he pockets 9 zloty per liter but this is still a huge saving for us. Coupons cost 60 cents per liter, ie about 55 zloty.

We celebrate with a great lunch at the restaurant of the hotel Victoria. As we park Giallina in front of the hotel some guy asks us whether we'd like the car cleaned: 1.50 USD for the job. OK it's a deal. The restaurant is called "Canaletto" and two large paintings of the Venetian master are there to be admired by their patrons.

After lunch we go for a walk and some coffee in the Stare Miasto (the old city). The charming downtown has been reconstructed after having been completely destroyed by the Nazis during WW II. It is an exact replica of the original that is lost forever.

In the evening there is a party in Ann's dorm, where we meet Marta. She does not really study there, but is a friend of a friend or something, and is on the prowl for a Western boyfriend.

Most students are very happy to talk to us and their favorite topic of conversation is the Russians. They just loath the Russians and resent the system that the Soviet Union has imposed on Poland. One Arbus (Water melon?) is drunk and spends a good half hour spitting on the ground and yelling: "Russki" and then stepping on his spit. Even though we have no language in common that is communication enough.

What no one mentioned, or knows, is that gasoline in Poland is cheap because it is provided at subsidized prices by the USSR. It is a price Moscow is willing to pay to contain discontent in the satellite countries and avoid a repetition of the experience of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

22 February 1980

Exploring Warsaw stores

We spend the morning with Bogdan to set up the course schedule and sort out many small issues related to our stay here over the next several months. He is a quiet person who acts calmly and deliberately. He is obviously elated to be managing this exchange program with a renown American university.

In the afternoon the three of us explore the city. First we go the "Supersam": a mediocre supermarket, with long lines for the meat counter. As we go in the staff forces each of us to take a basket, maybe to keep count of how many people get in, I am not sure. The quality of available groceries seems rather low.

Later I went to the local police office to renew the temporary visa I got in Vienna, easily done, no problems.

By the end of the afternoon the three of us again exploring various stores and shopping malls: prices are incredibly low, at least for us, but for most Poles too. The shelves are pretty well stacked up with merchandise but again the problem is that the quality is so low. The same can be said of the cars we see in the streets: many of them, there is  even the occasional traffic jam, but mostly cheap locally made FIATs and Soviet Ladas (also FIATs).

21 February 1980

Getting acquainted with Warsaw

Morning with Bogdan Radomski, who takes us around SGPiS and explains how everything works. He then takes us for a walk in the Marshalkowska, one of the main avenues of the city. First impression is of a general sadness. People don't smile in the street. Everything looks a bit shabby. The predominant color is grey.

In the evening we pay a visit to Ewa and Marian, two friends of Italian friends. He makes ends meet by doing a bit of everything, including selling telephone parts to Italy handset manufacturers. They live in a nondescript apartment building in the outskirts of the city but are doing pretty well by local standards. We have a great evening with them and two lady friends who are there.

Of course we are treated to a gargatuan dinner, during which we receive the first of many lessons on the "real economy" in Poland. We stay until 3AM (this seems like its going to become a habit) and exchange our first "black" money, 110 sloty for a dollar instead of the official 29.

20 February 1980

Finally in Poland

We cross into Poland just after midnight and it is early on 20 February when we check into the first nondescript hotel we find on our way. It's pitch dark and very cold.

It's been a pretty intense day and we are exhausted but also elated for the extraordinary adventure we have just live through. I would of course never have guessed that thirty plus years later I would have copied my notes onto a blog...

I notice how cars here are parked ON the sidewalks and not just next to them. Also, all owner remove the windshield wipers for the night. Or for the day for that matter, just anytime they lave the car alone. I knew there was a chronic problem of spare parts for cars in Poland but would never have guessed it was that bad!

We wake up early in the morning and head onwrd to Warsaw. First we need money however, and we have to change at the official rate (1 USD = 29 Sloty) at a bank, one of the few times we would do it this way for the whole trip. But little do we know yet...

The second thing we need is to fill up Giallina. This time we would love to buy gas at the official price (very cheap) but foreigners are not allowed to and must buy special "coupons" (much more expensive) which can then be exchanged for fuel at the gas station. Again, this won't happen very often over the next several months...

We reach Warsaw in the late afternoon. I call Bogdan Radomski, our professor/supervisor at the Central School of Planning and Statistics who is in charge of the exchange program with Goergetown University. We meet up and he leads us to our dorms.

Andrew settling in our room
Andrew and I are in the male dorm, and our room is rather large if not so well appointed. Ann will share a room in the ladies' dorm with three other girls. We drop our bags in our room and spend the evening (until 3 a.m.) with the girls, getting acquainted and soaking our first shots of vodka.

A bit of Americana
The girls are extraordinarily welcoming, the offer us drinks and food, and are obviously ecstatic to have Westerners in their midst.

19 February 1980

Arrested in a Warsaw Pact military base. (This is not a joke.)

What happened on this day deserves special attention as it was one of the defining days of my life. It was not funny when it happened, though it made for countless hilarious conversation afterwards.

We left Vienna in the morning and crossed into Czechoslovakia with transit visa, with the goal of reaching Poland by the end of the day. We clear the border quickly, little more than ten minutes. Barbed wire as far as the eye can see.

Very few cars on the Czechslovak side, while many buses and trucks slows us down quite a bit. Almost all cars are withre FIAT 124 (Soviet made Lada) or Skoda. The road to Brno and beyond is dotted with hundreds of small monuments to Communism and red banners hailing socialism. One such banners reads: "Our union with Russia is a guarantee of peace". Small red stars are ubiquitous, even on lamp posts, street signs, everywhere.

The Iron Curtain at the border between Austria and Czechoslovakia

This episode was so shocking it deserved an article in the newspaper published by Georgetown University.

Roberta Oster and Pat Singer (HOYA Features Editors), interviewed Andrew and me for The Hoya, and the following article appeared in the 27 October 1981 issue.

Show ‘Em the Way to Go.

Marco: We were driving through Czechoslovakia to Poland where we were to study second semester last year. We had a transit visa through Czechoslovakia which allotted us only 24 hours to pass through, and we possessed a very bad AAA map which had all of Eastern Europe on it.

Andy: Driving along the highway that was delineated on the map, we suddenly reached its end. It did not end on the map, but in reality it ended in mud! There was a large sign in Czech that explained the detour, so we sat there for a little while trying to decipher it. At last, we thought we had a good idea of which way to go, so we moved on.

Marco: There were three options. We tried them all and we didn’t get anywhere. We tried to communicate with some old Czech ladies we met but we didn’t do much better. Finally we decided to try our last option, a very nice road with no traffic, nice asphalt, and a really beautiful landscape.

Andy: We were winding our way through the mountains of Czechoslovakia and the sun had gone down, so it was now evening. We figured we had to be going in the right direction because it was the only road.

After a little while we came to a small sign with no words, just a silhouette of a tank on a yellow background.

Marco: We looked at it and said, “Well, so what? It is the only road.” Ann wanted to go back, but we decided to keep going and came upon this little village. It was a nice village, kind of neat and tidy. Some soldiers were walking around, so we stopped one of them and asked him for directions to get back to the highway that goes to Poland, but the guy really didn’t understand what we were talking about. All he understood or knew how to say was, “Passport.”

We didn’t know why he wanted our passports, but we handed them to him and he took them away. He went into this little room and made a couple of phone calls. Meanwhile, we were trying to talk to him. Between the three of us, we speak about six different European languages: English, French, German, Italian, Russian and Polish. He didn’t understand any of them but Czech, however, so we couldn’t communicate. He called someone else who spoke German, who ordered us to slowly follow him to where he was going. We did, and found ourselves in this little compound. By now it was about 6:00 p.m. There was ice all over the place, and it was pretty cold. He just told us to wait out there for him. So we were out there waiting for about 45 minutes, and it was freezing cold.

Andy: There were people arriving at the building and entering, including a few officers (you can tell officers by the stripe on their hats). Basically they were just trying to figure out what to do. They just didn’t know what do with us. After a while they came out and they called Marco in. So we started to realize that something must be wrong. By this time we knew we were on a Warsaw Pact army base too because there were soldiers everywhere. We all tried to go in and they said, “No, Marco! No, Marco!”

Marco: They took me into this room in which there were a couple of officers with red bands around their hats as well as a few soldiers. One of them was an interpreter—he spoke German. He was the only one I could speak with because not one of them spoke English.

On the wall of the room they had medals from Lenin and a poster of him, as well as a picture of Felix Dzrezhinsky, the founder of  Russian Secret Police: I did not immediately recognize his face and asked who it was. Someone replied: "the founder of the Soviet secret police"- I replied: "Do you mean of the Czechoslovak decret police?". Answer: "No, the Soviet secret police". Silly me. Also on the wall, rather more understandably, was a picture of the president of Czechoslovakia.

And there was a guy sitting at a typewriter to record the session. They interrogated me for an hour and a half ...in German. That was the first time I utilized my German other than in class.

He said, “Did you see the sign of the tank?”

I said, “Yeah.”

“Did you realize that you could not get through because there was a no trespassing sign?” he continued.

“Yeah, but we had no choice because we tried all the other roads, and we could not get anywhere. We have to get to Poland within six hours.”

He said, “What if you had found such a sign in a military base in your country? What would you have done?”

“I would have turned back because I would have known where to go.”

Andrew: By now they were ready to shoot us, thanks to Marco.

Marco: Six times I had to show them on the map my itinerary through Czechoslovakia—which cities we were going through. And they kept asking me, “Who are you, Marco? What are you carrying? You are studying in America—why are you studying in America? Do you know of military bases in Italy so you can tell about military bases there?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been in the army yet.”

“Do you know about military bases in the United States?” he asked.

I responded, “Well, I know there is an air force base near Washington; it’s called Andrews Air Force Base. Maybe that would interest you.”

So he wrote that down. And he kept asking me why I had trespassed the line if I knew I could not get through.

And I kept saying, “Because I knew I didn’t have any other choice; I had to go to Poland, and I only had six hours left to get the hell out of there.”

Meanwhile, the others were freezing in the car.

Andrew: It was twenty below zero in February in Czechoslovakia so we were sitting there debating what we ought to do, when I remembered I had a frisbee and a football. So I took them out of the car and about this time Marco joined us. So we tried playing frisbee, but we couldn’t really grip it because it was too cold.

At this point they called Ann in because they had at long last found someone who spoke Russian, which was Ann’s second language. Then the guy who interpreted for Marco, who turned out to be a law student and really nice guy, came out and joined us. Another guy, one of the guards, came over and picked up the football. The interpreter thought it was rugby and said so. We told him it was a new American football, and another guard exclaimed, “Oh, Joe Namath!”

We showed them how to throw the football. Then a couple of other guards joined in. The big guard knew he was supposed to crash into the others (like Broadway Joe). He didn’t know exactly how, so I showed him how to assume a football stance and set the other guy up in one as well. Then I showed them that I would pretend to hike. I indicated they were supposed to hit each other. They said, “Okay.”

All of a sudden there was a group of twenty or thirty very drunk soldiers coming down the hill. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it seemed very coarse.

Marco: I asked about them, and was told, “Oh, don’t worry about them; they’re only Russians. They’re always this way.” So we started asking about the Russians at the base but they refused to answer any military-related questions.

Andrew: Marco asked to take a picture, but they responded that it would “not be a good idea.” They said they would take the camera away and jail us.

As we were playing football, the guy who had interrogated me picked up some drinks and went to his room. He returned with a little Statue of Liberty (about four inches tall) his uncle had taken from New York in 1931, or some time around then. He had kept that little statue and was always carrying it with him, even on a Warsaw Pact base!

Meanwhile Ann was being interrogated inside for an hour and a half. They accused her of being a spy because she did not know the exact itinerary. She had not been driving since she had been asleep most of the way. Because of this she had made mistakes describing the way we’d come.

Andrew: So they said, “Ah, ha! You stories do not match up. We think you are a spy.”

We said, “Yeah, right. Three unarmed kids in a bright yellow Volkswagen—perfect elements for a surprise attack!” It was not a very spy-looking car with an American flag, a Polish flag, an Italian flag and various decals as well.

Marco: At the end of the whole thing they had both Ann and me sign a six page report in Czech reporting everything we had been telling them. We really didn’t know what it said. We didn’t care either.

Marco: One nice thing: We didn’t have to worry about getting out now because they were going to kick us out of the country, anyway.

The guy who interrogated me was a lot nicer away from the officials. He asked, “Are you hungry?”

We said, “Yeah.” By now it was 9 p.m. and we were very hungry. The interpreter wanted to take us to this military restaurant, but the officers wouldn’t allow him. They said, “It’s now allowed to take foreigners to a military restaurant.”

Andrew: Finally the guys with whom we were playing football were instructed to escort us to the border … so that was really good … they were nice guys. The other officers got a jeep and said, “You are to follow these guys.”

Marco: When we got to the border, our custodian angels got out of their cars to shake our hands and take us with the customs official and passport control. We walked into a dimly lit booth and hand in our passports. Nothing to declare, we are going to Poland to study for a few months. We presented our papers, and the border guard said, “Ooooh, you have been assessed a fine.” “We said, “Yeah that’s right.” We don’t know if the soldiers escorting us said something, or what, but the border guard just chuckled and threw our papers into a drawer, and we didn’t pay anything.

Andrew: In the end, they just said, “You are going to be assessed a fine,” and escorted the few meters remaining to the Polish side of to the border.

We said, “Fine, show us the way!”


PS I am grateful to Eamon O'Connor, editor of The Hoya in 2011, and Shakti Nochur, layout editor, for providing a transcripton of this article 30 years after publication.

18 February 1980

Handling bureaucracy for a new passport

I am in front of the Italian consulate's door at 8:30 before it opens its doors for the week. It's an endless series of phone calls bu in the end it all works out for the best. I have a new passport by the end of the morning and a new Polish visa (albeit a temporary one) in the afternoon!

In the evening dinner in the hotel room with a bottle of Italian Merlot, getting psychologically ready to cross the "iron curtain" tomorrow. It will be a memorable day, tomorrow, but we don't know that yet!

Celebrating a new passport!

17 February 1980

Gloom in Vienna

A gloomy Sunday. The sky is gray just like my mood. Most everything is closed down, not much to do except trying to cheer myself up for the loss of my passport. Ann and Andrew are good comfort in a difficult moment.

Which a couple of Sachertorten and a great dinner of wild game and red wine help to do.

Hit the sack early, tomorrow I'll have to try and get a new passport!

16 February 1980

Drama in Vienna

A day that started well with a tour of the Schoenbrunn palace turned into one of the worst nightmares of my life.

After the tour, we went to the Westbanhof for a quick and cheap lunch. Which we got, no problem. We ate standing up at some tall tables. I was carrying all my essentials (passport, wallet, etc. though I did not have any credit cards at that time yet!) in a small shoulder bag, which I took off to eat and put on a shelf just under the table. Where I left it after I was done eating and we all left.

I only realized my blunder a few minutes later. We were driving in town, I turned around and sped back to the station, but the bag was gone. I made a feeble attempt to ask the lady at the counter, but is a busy railway station café she, quite comprehensibly, had not seen anyone take it away.

This is going to be a problem, not so much for the money as for the passport and Polish visa, without which it will be impossible to continue my journey. Are months of preparation going to be in vain?

I felt so dumb and, for a brief moment, powerless.

Yet I never lost hope. I knew this could be made right and started calling home to see if mum and dad could help me get a new passport at the Italian Embassy in Vienna. A procedure which could take weeks, but my country being Italy, where organization might be wanting but common sense sometimes prevails over procedures, I was hoping a couple of phone calls might allow all of us to continue on our journey with minimal delay.

Police report on a stolen passport

15 February 1980

Drive from Salzburg to Vienna

We leave Salzburg at 10:00am for an uneventful drive to Vienna.

In the evening we get tickets to watch The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini at the Wienerstaatsoper.  Great show! My American friends are extatic, and actually so am I. You can see a couple of "Barbers" on youtube below. To me it is an incredibly powerful yet playful music: that is the genius of Rossini.

Afterwards we find a restaurant called Paulusstube to eat the typical Wienerschnitzel. Funny when we ask whether it comes with a side dish, as in America a piece of meat is usually served with some potatoes or vegetables. "It comes with nothing" is the peremptory answer of our otherwise friendly waiter. Our tasty schnitzel is profusely irrorated with good Austrian beer, after which we hit the sack.

14 February 1980

Salzburg, Austria, remembering Mozart

Breakfast at 9:00am, followed by a quiet walk in the downtown area. We visit first the cathedral, where Mozart was baptized, then the Franziskanerkirche, a sober yet intense moment.

After that we climb up to the Hohensalzburg fortress. It's a cloudy day and a pretty cold one in Salzburg, the city of salt, from the barges laden with the precious ingredient that passed through the city in antiquity on the aptly named river Salzach.

In the afternoon we visit Mozart's birth home and stop at the Fuerst Konditorei, on the Brodgasse, for a big chunk of chocolate torte!

Slow walk in town in the evening, nothing much, just a peaceful walk in an atmosphere charged with history where Mozart's notes somehow keep ringing in my mind. Andrew is not feeling well and I have a Wienerscnhitzel with Ann in a small restaurant near our hotel.

13 February 1980

From Venice to Salzburg under the Alps

Crossing the Alps
We leave Venice at 9:45am and take the Autostrada to Vittorio Veneto, then a regional road to Cortina and the Austrian border. The weather is great, sunny and chilly, ideal for driving.

After refueling and changing the windshield wipers we cross into Austria and the Grossgloeckner glacier presents itself to us in all its mighty beauty. Normally one would drive up the pass and enjoy the drive but there is too much snow and the road is closed. No choice but to return to Winklern, then Obervellach where we can put Giallina on a train car that takes us through a tunnel to the other side of the Alps, and finally we reach Badgastein. Andrew and I alternate at driving.

When we get there we can't miss a typical local Wurstel. Ann sprains an ankle. We get to Salzburg in the early evening and after looking around for an inexpensive accommodation we settle for a room in the "Wolf" B&B, near the Mozartplatz. Right, Mozart, the enduring champion of Salzburg.

Salzburg in Mozart's time
Of Salzburg, yes, but not of Austria. A German friend of mine pointed out to me how the Austrians pulled this incredible trick in persuading the world that Hitler was German and Mozart was Austrian. In fact, Hitler was of course an Austrian who then became a naturalized German. Mozart however was never Austrian. During his lifetime (1756-1791) Salzburg the capital of the eponymous Arcbishopric, part of the Holy Roman Empire, Germany's immediate predecessor state if you will, not of the Austrian one.

Salzburg only became part of Austria after the Congress of Vienna, over twenty years after Mozart's death. That Wolfgang Amadeus worked in Vienna for much of his life did not make him a citizen.

Quiet evening in town.

12 February 1980

Visiting Venice and Murano

Wake up at 9:00 and back to Venice by car and ferry. Usual tourist spots: Rialto, San Marco with its superb Pala d'oro, the Palazzo Ducale.

In the afternoon we visited Murano and its world famous glass blowers where I bought a new key-chain for Giallina, a small multifaceted crystal sphere for our trusted bright yellow VW beetle that will lead us through this trip.

Long day of walking, interrupted only by a couple of snacks and a good gelato. In the evening we eat some bread and cheese in the hotel room, and end the day with a game of scopa and a bottle of pinot noir. Hit the sack by 11:30, tomorrow it's going to be a driving day to Austria.

11 February 1980

Departure from Rome to Poland for an academic semester abroad

By way of background

I was a student at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service from 1978 to 1981. In the Spring semester of 1980 I wanted to enroll in G.U.'s "semester abroad" program. Among various options, G.U. offered an exchange with Poland. Well, it was a one-way "exchange", in that no Polish students were allowed to the U.S.

It was not a happy time, the USSR had just invaded Afghanistan and NATO was about to deploy its euromissiles in Europe. One day I was having lunch in our cafeteria with my friend Andrew, and talked to him about this opportunity. "Would you go? I am not sure I am into spending a semester in a Communist country on my own" I said. He replied "Well I am not sure I would either, but if you go, I'll go".

Author and Andrew in Rome with Giallina
Three months later Andrew came down to visit me in Rome, Italy and then the two of us and Ann, another fellow SFS student, were on our way to Poland in an old, bright yellow VW beetle nicknamed "Giallina" (the little yellow one). But to get to Poland we had to cross Austria - easy, piece of (Sachertorte) cake - and Czechoslovakia with a 24-hour transit visa, very poor maps and, of course, neither GPS nor GSM...


So the moment of truth has arrived, after months of preparation we are off to start our semester abroad.

Andrew, Ann and I depart from Rome at about 9:30am. We reach Florence at about 2:00pm where we stop for a short walk in the old city. Start again and after having the car's tires checked we drive on until Mestre, just outside Venice. I was looking for an Agip motel but it's no longere there. We book a room at the "Vivit" and then we go to Venice to explore.
In Florence

Walking around this magic city is always an experience to remember for life. One most memorable moment is when we approach Piazza San Marco late in the evening, at about 1:00am. It is totally empy! An eerie sensation. The ground is shiny from the rain of the day and the lamp posts emanate a tenuous light. We stand in silence for a long moment before heading back to the ferry that will take us back to Mestre for the night.