31 March 1980

Ice skating and drinks

Downtown Warsaw
Usual morning classes. At 6:30pm Andrew, Ann and I meet Borzena at school and go for a skating session at a nearby ice rink. Borzena is quite good at it, and so is Andrew. Ann is OK and I am just pathetic. Anyway it's fun.

Later out for a drink at the Krokodil restaurant where we make the acquaintance of Rani, an young Indian who works in Tehran for an Italian company. Interesting guy. It's a difficult moment between the Americans and the Iranians because of the hostage crisis still ongoing, but for him it's business as usual. I forgot to ask him why he is in Poland.

Can't believe March is already over, we are moving ahead with our course. Our adventure is almost half-way through and actually I sort of begin to feel at home here in Poland. I have learnt enough Polish to carry on a basic conversation, order duck (and a few other things) at restaurants, buy icecream and break ice with the locals.

30 March 1980

Easy Sunday over vodka and Katyn news

Katyn Memorial, Krakow
Easy Sunday. We get together with a few friends in our room. Ann, Romek, Tadek and a ping pong player whose name I missed all join for a few glasses of vodka. A bit funny to drink in the morning but well, we are in Poland.

They convey some harrowing news: a man in his seventies set himself on fire at the Krakow memorial to the victims of the Katyn massacre. Apparently he was one of the few from the group of Polish officers and intellectuals who made it out alive. Today's newpapers did not mention anything but the ping pong player has a brother who lives in Krakow and he told him over the phone.

The subject of the Katyn massacre is pretty much off the agenda in Poland. Everyone knows the politically incorrect truth (the Soviets did it) but no one is allowed to say anything other than the ridiculous propaganda line (the Germans did it) and so most prefer to just ignore the issue. The poor man who set himself on fire was probably sick of this fiction and lack of respect for the Poles who died such a cruel and useless death in 1940.

We are all in a somber mood after the news.

Tadek tells us about his brother's studies at the military academy. Apparently they have to study American weapons and the best instructors are Vietnamese soldiers who have recent first hand experience! Funny ironies of history.


29 March 1980

A song for the Polish pope

At 2:30 in the afternoon we meet Jasmina, a friend of some Americans of Polish descent who live in Pascoag, Andrew's home village in the state of Rhode Island. She takes us to the home where she lives with her sister, a bit outside of Warsaw. One room without bathroom, no running water, and a wood-burning stove for heating.

She says she makes 5,000 zloty per month, about the national average these days. Very welcoming, she and her sister deploy a predictable array of drinks and food, though it is not meal time. Of course we must eat and drink all. Very simple people, they give all they can and are excited to meet us.

She then pulls out a cassette player and asks me to translate a couple of Italian songs about pope John Paull II. I translate into English and Ann then from English into Polish. JP II is clearly a superstar here, and his visit last year was, by far, the most memorable event to have taken place in the country in many decades. We made their day!

Stare Miasto, Warsaw
Evening out with Borzena, we walk around looking for a place to have a drink but somehow all bars are full on this Saturday night. Poles can't really splurge but know how to have fun! Dinner at Victoria, good food and a good deal as usual. Pleasant conversation with Borzena, who is open minded and very talkative about her (mostly negative) experience in making ends meet in Warsaw. She seems to have no secrets of any kind, and is eager to share it all, even if I don't ask. Interesting person.

After dinner a policeman tries to give me a fine for illegal parking and threatens to notify the Italian embassy if I don't pay. Maybe he wants a bribe, maybe not, hard to say, but I am not sure what to do. I simply tell him I have no money and he lets us go. That was easier than expected!

28 March 1980

Gasoline and ping pong

After our usual classes we go for dinner at the Staropolska. Good. Then three more hours of classes at the Center for International Affairs.

Later on we go and fill up the tank at our usual gas station, where by now we are friends with all the staff and proceed with our usual "Polish" price purchase to fill up Giallina.

In the evening we are joined by a group of Poles, Vietnamese and Mongol (both countries are "socialist brothers" of Poland) students for an international ping pong tournament at the student house.

27 March 1980

More Berlin planning and party

Socialist econ lass at SGPiS
Our usual morning lesson in socialist economics. The professor is rather shy, and sticks pretty closely to the party line. Even if I am really interested in trying to find out how they want to do away with the inescapable laws of demand and supply, this guy is just plain boring.

Afterwards we try, and fail, to buy our train tickets to East Berlin. We need to bring our passports, our visas and the receipt for our official money exchange. We'll have to come back another day. Can't believe they want all this paperwork just to sell a train ticket to a "brother" socialist country.

In the afternoon four hours of foreign policy classes at the Center for International Studies. As usual quite official and bureaucratic. However I get the definite impression that some of the professors speak to the limit of what is considered politically acceptable. I am sure they would say more if they were free to do so.

In the evening there is a party in Zbiszek's room. Nine men and two women, so it's not so interesting after all. Borzena is quite pretty and also the most friendly and open Polish girl we have met so far.

26 March 1980

Planning a trip to East Germany

In the morning we drive to the East German embassy to pick up our visas. Have to pay USD 6 per person for a double transit visa: we'll be able to travel into the DDR from Poland and out to West Berlin, then return the same way.

In the afternoon we are invited by two Cuban students to have some coffee in their room. Cuba makes excellent coffee of course and they claim to have some of the best. Well, it's OK but not great, though of course we appreciate the offer and it is in any case better than what is available in Poland.

In the afternoon I go with Christopher to a piano concert at the Chopin academy. He tells me that he knows two lady friends in East Berlin, and would like to introduce them to us. He is sure they'd be delighted to have contacts with Italians and Americans but he fears for their safety should they be seen haning around with non-authorized Western company.

Wadim and Marco

In the evening we have a few drinks in our room. We meet Wadim, a jovial if somewhat shy fellow student, and Romek, a cool guy who speaks good Russian, French and German and some English. He says he taught English to himself because that is the language he will need in the future. Has experience abroad, having worked in the USSR and France. Very confident, he feels the system in Poland is a real straightjacket to opportunity and growth.

25 March 1980

Another good dinner

Today we meet Larissa, a friend of a friend. Elegant and pretty lady, our age, speaks enough English to have a basic conversation. She is obviously interested in making our acquaintance.

Dinner at the Canaletto restaurant. We finally get to try their famed Chateaubriand steak (we had asked for it a few times but it was never available) and red Italian wine, Grignolino d'Asti. With dessert, it come to 500 zloty per person. About five dollars. So cheap, for us.

24 March 1980

Struggling to get visas

After the usual morning classes we go and have lunch at the Ambassador restaurant, good as usual.

Then we are off to the Soviet consulate for our visa, there is still hope to get it but it's not yet there for us. We'll have to go back one more time.

Then to the Polish visa office: if we do go to the USSR, we'll need a re-entry visa for Poland, as the one currently stamped on our passport is valid for one entry only. And in any case it is going to expire before we return from the USSR, because it was only meant to last until the end of our study program, so we have to extend its validity as well.

By the end of the afternoon we have filled out a dozen forms in three different offices. And it's not over, they all tell us to come back in a few days. I manage to squeeze in a phone call to my folks in Rome from the post office. Everything is fine and they will try to plan a visit next month.

In the evening Marta comes over once again, she is really determined one has to admit!

23 March 1980

Elections for Parliament

Morning walking about Sandomierz without any particular goal in mind. By lunch time we say goodbye to Elzbieta's family, but not before we are treated to another pantagruelic meal.

It so happens that today is election day in Poland. People are called to vote for the new Parliament, the Sejm. There are few political posters in Sandomierz, I guess because there is no need to campaign, really. The outcome is well known in advance. One poster does exhort voters to participate: "Support the party: vote!"

Just for fun, we go and have a look at a polling station. People walk in, take their ballot and drop it in a big box. Not one of them goes into a small booth to mark anything on the ballot. Not that there would be much choice. Only the Communist party and its allies are allowed on the ballot. A blank ballot is taken as a vote for the list of communist candidates printed on it. And anyway, in Poland, Parliament's role is maily to rubber stamp the Party's decisions.

We then set off to Kazimierz, a small medieval town with a pretty castle on top of a steep hill. We climb up the "Hill of Three Crosses", on top of which there are ...three crosses and from which we can enjoy a great view of the town. It's very cold.

22 March 1980

Tartars and Lenin in Lublin

We spend the morning walking about the old town. There is not one single restaurant that is open for business. Also, most shops are closed so we can't buy a funnel, which we would need to fill our car's tank with the black market fuel we carry in the trunk.

In the afternoon we drive to Sandomierz, where we contact the family of Elzbieta P., our colleague at SGPiS who is the resident "przewodnicząca " (a kind of student/administrator) in the Sabinski dorm with Ann. They are extremely welcoming and of course absurdly overfeed us.

A young lady called Ulla offers to take us around town. We visit the Cathedral, whose walls are largely covered with bizarre paintings of horror scenes depicting the repeated Tartar invasions during the XIII century. People gutted, quartered, eviscerated. The friendliest thing the Tartars apparently did to the locals was to behead them. There is also some depictions of Jewish ritual murders of Christians. A bizarre Church indeed.

After a while a friend of Ulla's shows up. He tries,unsuccessfully, to make a few moves on Ann, but then resigns himself to showing us around the Lenin museum, overflowing the images of the revolutionary leader during the various phases of his rocambolesque existence.

The last highlight of the day is a long tunnel, about 420 meters, that was used by the local population to hide from the Tartars.

As we go to sleep it comes to mind that Lenin was of partial Tartar descent.

Lenin the part-Tartar (www.saveyourheritage.com)

21 March 1980

Off to Lublin

After our classes at the Central School the three of us go for lunch at the Warszawa hotel. We order appetizers but for some reason each of us is served two portions. We ask but there is no explanations, we just get to eat double today.

In the afternoon foreign policy classes at the Center for International Studies for three and a half hours. Again, very official, stiff teaching by the professors who just push the party line.

In the later afternoon se set off to Lublin with Giallina. The "highway" is pathetic, no guardrails, lots of potholes, bumps, narrow turns, a mess. Truck drivers make things worse by using their high-beams very liberally, a coupld of times I risk an accident because I am totally blinded.

Lublin is rather underwhelming and unimpressive. The old town has been restored but still... too neglected, dirty.

I am at the same time a bit ashamed and a bit proud of the many times we broke the law today. Silly and unjust laws perhaps, at least some of them, but still laws. Bought fuel on the black market, moved it in illegal plastic tanks, drove into a pedestrian area of town, paid with Polish zloty for the hotel room that, as foreigners, we should have paid in dollars at the official rip-off exchange rate.

20 March 1980

Class in Polish foreign policy

First lesson in Polish foreign policy. It is not held at the university but rather at a think tank run by the ministry of foreign affairs.

Our teachers are former Polish diplomats. The tone is very formal, official and while they are likable and reasonable people they stick to the party line. Let's see how it goes but we get the definite feeling that they sometimes don't really believe what they tell us.

18 March 1980

Hope for travel to the East

Another visit to Orbis gives us some hope, apparently, for some reason, we are now likely to get an individual visa to the USSR and we'll be able to travel with Giallina and stay in various hotels and camping sites. We'll have to decide on an itinerary and not change it a bit after the visa is issued, but apparently we are on!

Evening at the restaurant "Under the Pigeon", pretty good and sooo inexpensive. (We did not eat pigeon.)

17 March 1980

Tour organization for DDR and USSR

After our usual morning classes we spend the afternoon touching base with the respective tourist offices and consulates to organize our trips to East Germany and the Soviet Union. It seems we'll have quit a lot of problems in both cases. Especially in the case of the USSR: we are told at the ORBIS tourist agency that apparently all the Western exchange students who tried before us were refused a visa.

Marta again returns to try her luck with me and Andrew...

Evening in Stefan's room with a few friends. We all eat various cuts of meat, red beans and peppers. Everyone is so kind to us it is almost embarrassing. Even with those who dont's speak much English there is no problem of communication.

16 March 1980

Lazenski park, old Jewish ghetto, change of the guard

Quite a full Sunday that starts with a tour around town in the company of our new acquaintance Jurek.

We first visit the Lazenki park, a mix of green and classic buildings and fountains. The Chopin monument is a moving permanent exhibit here.

Afterwards we move downtown and witness the very martial change of the guard at the monument of the unknown soldier.

FInally we walk around the old Jewish ghetto. There is an enormous monument to the victims of the Nazi repression there. A few people labor on the public gardens, it's the so-called Sunday voluntary work instituted by the socialist regime to show people's solidarity to the common good. The look on their faces shows something less than unbridled enthusiasm however.

In the evening another dinner with Marian and Ewa, but this time they take us out to the Krokodyl restaurant, one of the best in the old town. Another superb meal in Warsaw, repleated with red meat and good wines. I do feel a bit guilty about being able to splurge like this in the face of widespread penury meat in the city. But not enough to give it up! And it would not help anyone to give it up anyway.

15 March 1980

Warsaw Museum and lines for bread

In the morning the three of us go to the Warsaw Museum and watch a film on the systematic destruction of the city by the Nazi. The first part of the film focuses on the diabolically methodical approach to the destruction, the second part on reconstruction. The Russians' contribution takes center stage in this second part, which is highly propagandistic in nature.

Patient Poles line up for bread.
As we drive away we see a long line of people, at least forty, queuing up for bread!

We then go for lunch at the "Habana" restaurant, which ha actually very little Cuban anything to show.

In the evening Stefan comes to talk to our room and tells us how when at official meetings (he is the president of the SGPiS students' association) they are always kept apart from the Russians. He makes no qualms of his growing disillusionment with the socialist big brothers.

Note: In 1983 they have established the Warsaw Uprising Museum, fully dedicated to the tragedy of the city during the Nazi occupation.

14 March 1980

Fusilli alla carbonara

Uneventful day of classes and reading.

In the evening I go to the girls' dorm to cook pasta. For the occasion I invested in a 30-zloty pot of sufficient capacity. I also bought Polish pasta (fusilli to be precise), not without serious reservations (will be be made of durum wheat?) about its quality.

I also bought eggs and bacon (the closest I could find to Italian pancetta or guanciale) to make carbonara.

The end result is actually pretty close to the real thing, and the girls like it quite a lot!

12 March 1980

Car wash and cold pork broth

After a history class Ann and I go to the Victoria anticipating a good steak, they are well known for their "Chateaubriand". After we park the car two rather destitute men ask whether we'd like Giallina cleaned while we eat. I decline, she is clean enough. besides, they asked for three dollars, while on another occasion, when we were with Polish friends, the rate was only one and a half.

As we walk in we realize that Canaletto restaurant is closed. and the "taverna" does not have it on the menu. We settle for another lunch. A waiter still asks to change money as we are about to leave. As we walk away a bit disappointed a taxi man drives by and he also asks to change money. We find that the two men had claned our car anyway! Well, I give them 200 zloty.

We then go with Ann to various tourist offices where we find no information at all on Wroclaw, Gdansk or Lublin, three cities we'd like to visit over the next several weeks. Poland is clearly not geared up to welcome international tourism. Or domestic tourists, for that matter.

On the other hand we walk into a photographer's shop to get some passport size shots in anticipation for various visas we'll be applying for in the near future. We get 21 pictures each for only 71 zlotys! Several days later I will come back to this shop and have more photographs taken of me, and I will use them for my passports, driver's licences, ID cards etc for many years to come, to the point that by the time I ran out I hardly resembled the twenty year-old man pictured in them.

In the evening we dine with Marian and Ewa. Lots of pork and a special sausage, kind of a "coppa", made by Ewa and served with a tasty cold broth.

10 March 1980

Duck, moon and stars

After our usual morning classes we go for lunch at another "Duck Place", i.e. the restaurant Kmicic. I eat my usual duck, kaczka. Somehow there is never want of ducks in Warsaw.

In the evening we all go to a party at the home of a certain Leszek, also called Dyndol. Lots of friendly people and kanapki and vodka abound. People start behaving funny. A certain Jan sets up a barricade of furniture for the purpose of cornering Ann and making clear his predilection for her. This despite the fact that he is married, his wife Bozena is pregnant and everyone at the party is aware of this. I try to make some sense of this hitherto unheard of (to me) behavior but Alina explains to me that this is normal: "Jan is used to Bozena", she says, and it is natural that he is looking for fun with other women. All Poles do this, apparently, once they "get used" to their partner, and make no apologies for it. I will hear this expression on a number of occasions in the next couple of months. Apparently it is standard operating procedure.

Ann is a bit confused because at the same party Vadim promises "the moon and the stars" if she agrees to accept his love. Well, in the end the matter is resolved innocently and harmlessly, and we all go home safe, if a bit perplexed.

09 March 1980

Church in Warsaw

A pretty easy and uneventful Sunday.

We are not religious but Andrew and I decide to go and have a look at a Church downtown.

The Church is packed to the brim with people. In fact the crowd overflows the building and many faithfuls listen to the Mass from outside. We are of course aware that Poland is a very Catholic country. The official Church has found a modus vivendi with the Communist government, but it remains one of the few channels through which dissent can be aired, if cautiously.

The election of a Polish pope two years ago has galvanized the nation and has provided a ray of hope for the opposition to the Soviet domination.

08 March 1980

Another concert and meeting Polish girls

Wake up late, around noon for a lazy Saturday. Ann and I go for lunch to the Forum hotel (in later years bought by Novotel) but it's nothing special, a little disappointed for its price level. Ann has a bit of stomach ache, who knows why.

In the evening I go to another concert at the Chopin Society, the same venue as yesterdays' concert. Again Buchbinder but this time he plays Schumann and Beethoven.

I have been invited by Christopher, a Pole who speaks perfect English and German.

Ann has gone out with Vadim. After the concert I meet Andrew at the Stodoła (the barn) where we pick up three Polish girls and spend the rest of the evening with them, ending up at the Bazyliszek restaurant for ice-cream.

07 March 1980

Credit, Beethoven and bear steak

Usual classes in the morning.

Rudolf Buchbinder
At 5:00 pm we listen to a lecture by a Polish professor on "East-West Trade". He says nothing unpredictable: we need to increase East-West trade, we need to raise the volume of exchanges. He also asks for "cheap credit" from the West to finance it. Right. Well not surprising: Poland is running out of cash. During the 1970s Gierek's government has been splurging to keep people happy but the coffers are empty. Lacking market reforms cheap credit is the only way forward. I ask him how Poland could increase productivity and thus afford international credit but he is rather evasive. Poland, like other Comecon countries, is getting subsidies from the USSR in the form of cheap energy but it's not enough.

In the evening great concert by the Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. The three of us manage to get good seats (second row for only 60 zlotys).  All-Beethoven program, including the "Appassionata", one of my favorites.

After the concert we go for dinner at the Canaletto restaurant of the Victoria hotel and for the first time in my life I eat a steak of bear meat! Delicious. Only 1500 zlotys (about 13 dollars) for the three of us and this is the most expensive restaurant in the city. This can't work. Something has to give. The day ends with a long talk in the car with Ann, until 3:00am.

05 March 1980

Pałac Kultury i Nauki

After our usual morning classes again for lunch in the university's cafeteria.  After which I go to the post office to call Rome. I am getting used to not having a phone at "home" as well as not having a phone number people can call me at.

Andrew and I then go downtown for a walk. Our target today is the Palace of Culture and Science. Highly controversial for some time, but we find really nothing special inside that we can access or appreciate. I actually kind of like the architecture of the Soviet style skyscraper, one of many such buildings "donated" bu the USSR to its socialist "brother socialist countries" in the 1950s, though it is easy to understand how Poles see is as a symbol of Soviet domination and therefore resent its intrusion into their capital's skyline.

Pensive Marco in dorm room, Italian flag on the wall
In the evening Ann goes out with Vadim, a Russian who is after her, and some Russian guys while Andrew and I decide to rest in our dorm. After a while, however, Andrew is bored and decides to go and check out the Hades bar/café our friends have recommended, but there is a concert tonight so not as much chance to socialize and pick up!

04 March 1980

Locked up in the dorm

In the afternoon we go to the Praga district of town to deliver two letters on behalf of some American friends of Andrew's. No success, we have the wrong address maybe, but can't find the people to whom the letter is written. Shame. We walk around a bit, it is a dark and desolate place. Dark. Mud everywhere, piles of mud in the streets. This is not a fun part of town... (NOTE 2013: it will change a lot over time though.)

After that we go to Hortex, an eatery serviced by a large food company, and have a good fruit salad with ice-cream and walnuts for 46 zloty.

The three of use spend a quiet evening in our dorm room, chatting and having a light dinner. Around midnight, when it's time for Ann to leave and go back to her dorm we realize all the dorm's doors are locked! No way to get out of the building, not even an emergency exit. Only a quarter (25 US cents) to the chubby, crancky and sleepy porter lady finally buys Ann the freedom to go back to her dorm a few hundred meters away, across the Independence Avenue.

This is a procedure that will become fairly common in the coming months: to get into the dorm late, to get out for a late party somewhere in town, and to let guests in and out the dorm after hours.

Italian flag by my bed

Bread, cheese and Vodka. Polish coat of arms and map on the wall behind Andrew

03 March 1980

Bison in Warsaw

Routine morning of classes at SGPiS.

In the afternoon we go to a public reading room. There are some international newspapers. Under a sign that reads "Newspapers from capitalist countries" there are two-week old copies of "L'Unità" (the offical paper of the Italian Communist Party!) and "La Stampa" (a newspaper owned by the Agnelli family, which also owns FIAT, which made a huge investment in a car factory in Poland). I suppose it all makes sense.

Marco and Marta
Later on Marta once again comes to my room and tries various moves on Andrew and me. Again without success.

I then go to the post office to call Rome. We have no telephone in our room, or in our dorm, and need to go and try our luck at the post office every time. It usually works. I have a funny conversation with my brother Fabio when I try to let him have our address: Ul Niepodlegloszczi (Independence) and when he asks for a spelling I can just utter "you write it as you read it"! As if it were the most obvious for an Italian to understand Polish pronounciation over a decrepit phone line.

(NOTE: As I put these notes in this blog, it is now 2013, my brother still does not miss an opportunity to make fun of me because of this, and he is right!)

Later on we have a chat with Stefan, a fellow student who is also a leader of the youth organization of the Communist party. He is a smart and very reasonable guy, not at all fanatic and in fact highly critical of the Russians. We have yet to find one single really dedicated Polish Communist in fact.

In the evening we go for dinner to Bazyliszczek, one of the best restaurants in town. It is another epicurian experience and for the first time in my life I eat bison steak. A sumptuous meal sets the three of us back by 1300 zloty (12 dollars) including wine and it's as much as we'll ever be able to spend in Warsaw.

(As I look at their website 33 year later, they no longer have bison on the menu. However they have Argentinian beef and Norwegian salmon. Panta rei...)

02 March 1980

Full churches in Warsaw

Get up around 9 and at 10 we go for lunch with Marian and Ewa, together with her brother, father and sister in law. They recommend a restaurant outside Warsaw, on the road to Katowice, called Mak. We buy some "black" gasoline on the way, it is now pretty much routine.

Ewa's father reads our hands, and guesses a number of our personal character traits with surprising accuracy.

Marian is very happy because he has just obtained his passport and asks to change some money. We are given the usual lecture on the "real" Polish economy, this time concentrating on the real estate market. Comes in handy because I am looking for a short let when my parents will come visit in the Spring.

Marian also tells us a lot about the international sales of furs. Like many other things, these are cheap in Poland, if you can find them, and can command a considerable profit if sold in the West.

As we drive around on this easy Sunday we notice a number of packed churches, with crowds of faithfuls overflowing outside the door. Catholicism has a long and deeply rooted tradition in Poland, we know that, but this is surprising. We are told that rallying around the Church is one way (legal and unobjectionable) to demostrate political opposition to the regime. This even though the Church has come to a number of inevitable compromises with the Communist regime. Or perhaps precisely because it has.

Quiet evening at home.

01 March 1980

Partying in the dorm

Andrew and Elzbieta

Evening party at the girls' dorm. One of an endless series of such parties we will attend during our stay i Poland, improvised on the flimsiest of excuses: it's my uncle's birthday, my parents' wedding anniversary... Anything goes to open a bottle of vodka and gobble up a few "kanapki", small open sandwiches topped with pickles, tomatoes, and the inevitable kielbasa (sausage), cheese, and anything else that happens to be at hand. Andrew and I are a bit tipsy but everyting is under control!

Elzbieta is a quiet, soft spoken lady whom I will remember for a heart shaped decal on her glasses. Her friend Bonga is very different exuberant, hard laughing.

Marco Bonga Andrew
Marta is on the offensive: she tries with all her might to get into my bed. Or Andrew's for that matter. Fun company, not so much politics tonight.