30 May 1980

Air ticket no, train ticket yes

Back in Warsaw Ann and Cathy want to buy airplane tickets to go to Krakow. Cathy has not been there and Ann wants to show the beautiful city to her. But to buy an airplane ticket in Poland, even a domestic flight ticket, you need a passport. Or at least foreigners need a passport. However we don't have our passports as they are currently with the police to extend, yet one more time, our visas. So no tickets. We drive to the railway station, where they can buy a train ticket to Krakow, for which you don't need a passport. Oh well, they'll enjoy the landscape more.

To celebrate their accomplishment we go all together to the Winiarna, on the Rynek Starego Miasta, the central market square of the capital. The choice of wines is average but prices, for us, are very low even for imported Italian and French wines.

An ice cream at the Victoria hotel concludes the morning. A couple of drunkards are hanging out by the hotel gate and they offer to wash our car while we lick our ice creams, whch we readily accept. Giallina badly needs a good clean after the adventure in Mazuria.

Ice cream leads to tea at Borzena's. Her mother insists that we have lunch there but we don't want to take advantage one more time of their hospitality, which we know costs them very dear. This time, somehow, we are able to extricate ourselves. Back home, easy afternoon of rest.

Dinner with Andrew and Romek at the Baziliszek restaurant. These dinners at expensive (for the locals) restaurants have become so routine that I have almost completely ceased feeling ashamed about it. I felt even a bit guilty in the beginning, but that went away quickly.

27 May 1980

Getting lost in the Mazurian region

Giallina in the Mazurian forest
After breakfast we get rolling for Augustow. We arrive for lunch and eat at a totally non descript place for peanuts, nothing to write here about but it's filling and reasonably tasty. We decide not to spend more time here and instead try our luck in the beautiful surrounding forests.

After which we keep driving into the Mazurian forest. We decide to be adventurous and veer off the main paved road into a dirt side path lined by very tall trees. We wanted adventure and sure enough we got it, as for the second time in this trip we got hopelessly lost. Luckily this time we did not run into any Warsaw Pact military bases. There are no soldiers around, I think with a sigh of relief. There is no one around at all, actually, I think with somewhat less relief.

We drive through a couple of small villages, farms really, but there is no one around to talk to. We then run into a drunk old, very old man, in his eighties for sure, or at least he looks in his eighties, who is driving a tractor. That is fairly remarkable a feat in itself, as most farmers we have seen in the region have their plows pulled by horses.

He leads us to his nearby farm, where we are introduced to three, possibly four generations of Mazurian farmers.

She can stay in my room, niema problemu

There is a really really old lady dressed in black with a green shawl on her head, who does not speak much. Perhaps because she seems not to hear much either. But she is very friendly, smiles a lot. Then there a a couple of very young kids, maybe five and three years old or something like that. They should be in school, I think.

The drunk tractor driver shows us around a bit. We are invited for tea in the modes but dignified farm house. Here another man, I guess the son of the old lady, in his forties maybe, becomes very friendly. He says we can stay with them for the night if we want, we are welcome. The house is clearly not adequate to host four additional people. We insist that we do not want to disturb. He insists too, specifically indicating with hands and eloquent smiles that Ann can stay with him in his room. Right. He must be the father of the two kids, but where is his wife? Or maybe he is not, who knows, and does it matter? He insists, Ann would not disturb him at all in his room, even if there is only one bed. He really tries to persuade us that this would be best for all, as it is getting late in the day and it might be difficult for us to drive out of the forest and find a place to stay.

It is with some difficulty that we eventually manage to extricate ourselves from this friendly company. After some trying, we even manage to get out of the forest and find a hotel to spend the night.

Mazurian farming

26 May 1980

Rowing in the wind

Ann rows hard
There is a pretty lake nearby and we try to rent a canoe or a row-boat. No chance, they say all their boats are reserved. But there is no one around, the place is clearly not busy. I suggest to Ann that she tries and out some dollars and repeat the question. Magically, any boat we want is now available!

This says much about how deeply rooted corruption is in this country. I am not even sure it is appropriate to call it corruption. Corruption means you are doing something wrong, out of line, disruptive of the system. But here it is a way of life, it is normal, it is expected and universally practiced. It IS the system, for things big and small

We choose a row boat and go out into the lake. The sky is cloudy but it does not rain and it is just altogether pleasant. It's cool and windy but it's fun to be out in the nature and do some exercise.

After a while, it get really cool and really windy and it's difficult to steer our boat back to the peer we started from. The man who rented the boat to us sees this and come out to pick us up with a small outboard. It is a bit humiliating, especially as we were never really in danger, but still, it's helpful! We give him three dollars as an extra tip for getting us out of trouble and he is so happy he literally jumps with joy.

Easy evening of card playing and chat in our hotel. We mostly play "scopa", the Italian game I have taught my three American friends.

25 May 1980

Leave Gdansk for Oliwa and the Masurian region

Late departure after a leisurely breakfast that does not end before 10:30, but yesterday was a long day...

Oliwa cloister
Anyway we finally get going and head to Oliwa, a suburb of Gdansk with an interesting abbey that exudes history. This was a major headquarters for the Cistercian monks for centuries. Poland's catholic roots reach quite deep in history. It was also a proud town, even an independent one when it was briefly separated from the city state of Free Gdansk in the 1920s. Huge organ inside.

We then move toward Malbork, where we arrive in the late morning to admire the imposing fortress.

Our next stop in the Masurian region. Finally we get some sunny weather and the countryside is beautiful. The small towns and villages we drive through are rather desolate however, much poorer than those we saw in the South of the country.

We reach Olsztyn at dinner time and end up eating at the "Karolowe" restaurant. We have no clue where to go and this is a recommendation from an Italian guide book I have with me. Less than impressive meal, but cheap.

After the early dinner we decide to move on and try to aim and find a place to sleep at Ruciane Nida. In the meantime we need gas for Giallina. We find a station and buy 48 liters. The man at the pump agrees to sell us fuel at black market prices, but refuses to take his cut like all his colleagues. I think he says something along the lines of "this is the right price for the Poles and it should be the same for the foreigners, screw the government rules" but I am not exavtly sure. He is a really honest black market fuel seller.

When we reach Ruciane Nida there is no hotel to speak of.  We move on to Wygryny, a small village of a few hundred people. We stop and ask some passersby for a hotel, and they look at us with puzzled expressions: "Where are you trying to go at this time in this neck of the wood?" they seem to say without speaking. We move on and run into a bunch of drunkards that can't believe they got free entertainment making fun of us fools.

Then luck seems about to strike when a tiny old man says he is working to build a hotel, but then adds that it won't be ready before next year! However, a big signpost from the PTTK (the Polish Tourist Board) announces that "the trees are our friends". Which is just as well as it looks like we may have to spend the night in their company.

We fearlessly drive on and reach Pisz, a small town of some 20,000 souls. it's past 10 pm but we find a small hotel with two rooms. We even manage to smuggle Cathy in as a student of SGPiS so that she can pay the reduced rate.

The evening ends with a couple of beers and playing cards and a long conversation with Ann under the romantic starred sky.

24 May 1980

To Hel and back

Get up early and take a ferry to Hel (one "L"). Nothing special, but lost of dogs with no tail roaming around, and tons of dead fish on the beach, bizarre. It is very cold.

Fish and chips Polish style
From Hel we take another boat to Sobot, a nice little town. Long walks until we stop for some fish and chips and a beer (60 zloty).

We almost miss the boat to go back to Gdansk in the evening, as the sea gale (Force 6) forced the cancellation of several ferry rides. We have to buy a ticket to gain access to the ticket office because the peer we need to go to at the harbor is considered a "garden", really bizarre.

Again we unsuccessfully try to change some money on the black market but the changers' technique is always the same and we can not conclude an honest black market currency transaction!

It's been a long day, we grab some food so not memorable I forgot to write about it and hit the sack without the usual card games or chat and comments on the day.

23 May 1980

Gdansk money, atlas and music

It gets a bit complicated at check-out in the morning because Cathy, who is a visitor while we are "locals" must pay in hard currency while we can pay in zloty. The difference is huge, about 4 times the real cost in black-market money. And we have to stay at least another night. So we decide to pay up for today and then check her out. She will sneak back into the hotel tonight unofficially.

Baltic Sea
Full day touring Gdansk. We need more money and try to change with some street changers, but unsuccessfully. They all try to cheat us. Can you cheat someone who is trying to illegally change money with unauthorized currency dealers at black market rates? Mmmmmhhh...... Anyway, their technique is always the same: they first accept any exchange rate we suggest, and hand you the zloty equivalent, minus 50 or 100 zloty. When we count the money and point out that they are short changing us, they start arguing and try to take money away from our hands. We are alert enough to avoid being literally ripped off our dollar bank notes, at which point they want their zlotys back and run, and try with some other tourist.

At a second hand bookstore I find a beautiful atlas, printed in 1923, which I buy for 1000 zloty. The bookseller warns me that I may have problems exporting it because it was made before 1945, and as such it is considered an "antique" item and needs an export licence. We'll see, I am sure Marian can help with this kind of things.

In the evening classical concert: the Gdansk Philharmonic plays a program of Brahms (violin concerto) and Sibelius (2nd symphony). They play quite well in my opinion, but the concert hall is quite beat up. Tired furniture and chairs, fading colors. It could use a refit.

Dinner at the Pod Lososzem restaurant, where I taste a great piece of liver. The others have grilled salmon, also quite tasty.

22 May 1980

Drive North to Gniew and loud rock in Gdansk

Today it's our designated departure for Gdansk, the old Geman Danzig, in the North of the country, by its Baltic Sea shores. But, of course, we can not leave without our almost-daily meal at Borzena's. We are served a sumptuous breakfast at 9:30, lots of proteins and caffeine. Good, we'll appreciate that during our long drive.

After taking care of ourselves we take care of our car. Giallina needs a clean, and only after having fulfilled that duty we can start our drive north.

We drive by Torun, some 250 km to the north, after a winding and altogether pleasant road along the Vistula river. No time for sightseeing though, we must reach Gdansk tonight. Just after Torun we stop at a road-side eatery to eat some excellent mushrooms.

We choose to continue on secondary country roads instead of the highway. More interesting, you never know whom you we might meet. We are in Pomerania, a land of ancient Teutonic (German really) roots and deep historical significance because of that.
Gniew of Teutonic memory

We do take a little time off at Gniew, an old "Mewe" fort of the Teutonic Knights, it's really fascinating. Another quick pit stop is to buy some gasoline, and even though we don't know the guy he sees our foreign plate and immediately proposes a deal for some black market fuel. Kombinowac...

We finally arrive in Gdansk by sunset, after some 450km of driving, and find two rooms at the hotel Monopol. We are quite tired and decide to have dinner here, to just eat and relax.

If only... Little did we know, there is a very loud and unbearable rock group playing really bone-shattering music until midnight. Yet the locals seem to appreciate it. It seems that, even though Poland does have access to most Western music, there is still a fairly naive attitude to rock and roll: the louder the better. Not unlike what one can find in smaller Italian provincial towns, only more so. Rock music as protest is a thing of the past in the West, but I have a feeling it is still very much a thing of the present here.

21 May 1980

Visa, food and dreaming the West

Quick trip to the consulate of the Hungarian People's Republic for our visa, which we'll need as we are going to transit through the country on our way back to Italy. Ann, Andrew and I, as "locals" (because we are "permanent" students here) pay only 160 sloty, but Cathy, who is not permanent enough has to pay in dollars: six dollars to be precise, hardly breaking the bank but they want hard currency for the Western visitor.

After which we all go for yet another great lunch at Borzena's. I just can't get used to this, it's just too much. There is always a bit of a sad atmosphere during these meals, despite our by now deep friendship with the family and mutual trust. Borzena's father joins us today he has a day off work. He is a pilot. He was in the air force, but now flies small planes to spray crops in the countryside.

Her brother is a cool guy, handsome and soft spoken. He does not say much but he, too, dreams of a free life in the West. In fact our conversations at these meals are a bit repetitive when it comes to this. Our gracious Polish host do not relent in their uninterrupted litany of complaints about, well, Poland. I fully understand them, and agree with them. It's just that I feel a bit frustrated in hearing the same stories over and over again when I can do very little that is of use.

Actually maybe I can. Borzena's desire to visit me in Italy, which I will do my to fulfill, just might open the door for her (and perhaps the rest of the family?) to move to a better life in Western Europe or America. Yet their problems are the same problems of all other Poles we met in the last three months, and I certainly can't help all of them.

Lunch at Borzena's apartment

20 May 1980

Unesco hopes, car engine oil and the future of the world

Market Square

Funny episode today. I went for a walk to the Old City (Stare Miasto), which Poland expects to become a Unesco World heritage Site later this year. (Post scriptum: It will, in September.)

After parking I am approached by one of the usual illegal parking "guardians" who promises to look after my car for a tip. Same as in Rome, really. But perhaps more useful here, where petty theft of windshield wipers and light bulbs is a much more common occurrence. In fact  when you walk around you see most cars which are parked in the street have their windshield wipes removed to prevent it being stolen. It would be very difficult to replace, not so much for the cost, but because of unpredictable availability.

Anyway, after agreeing on a tip we chat a bit. Our only common language, beyond my yet way too basic Polish, is German. He tells me of his detention in German camps as a prisoner of war in 1944, where he learned the language. A grim experience but somehow he managed to survive.

He asks how much it costs to buy a car in Italy.
-What car?, I ask him.
-Well say a Polonez.
-No one would really bother to buy a Polonez in Italy - I respond, and he is not a bit disappointed - but if they did it might cost some 4-5 months' wages to an average worker.
--Really? - he is surprised - Pretty good, here it costs about eight years of wages, 400,000 zlotys. It is hard to really calculate the cost of a car in this way, but anyway I get the point.

He then starts to share his views on world history, past and future. He believes the first great empire in history was Rome, and the second that of Bismarck's Germany. The third one will be Russia's empire. Russia is economically weak today, but has great potential and will rise to rule the world.  It must be that way, there is no other possibility. He does not sound like he is an indoctrinated Communist and hopes for socialism to prevail under the leadership of the Soviet Union. In fact he does not even mention the Soviet Union at all. He speaks of Russia as destined to lead the world in the next century.

Royal Palace
I am not sure whether I should be more amused or worried, but I don't take the conversation much further, because of both language limitations and lack of a meaningful exchange. But it was interesting to listen to him. He is very helpful, I have a problem with the lubricant of Giallina's engine and he helps sort it out, for which he gets a nice tip. One of those nice people you meet along the way, share an intense moment with, shake hands and will never meet again.

After my walk about the old city I go to the Czechoslovak embassy to apply for another transit visa, we'll need it to drive back to Italy at the end of our stay. I also ask for a map of the country, I'd like to avoid getting arrested again at a military base, but none is available. Let's hope for the best.

19 May 1980

Soviet visa and duck

In the morning we drive to the Soviet consulate to pick up our visas. Of all people, who do we see driving past us as we approach the imposing building? Leonid Brezhnev, the President of the USSR and General Secretary of the CPSU. He sits, as per protocol, in the rear right-hand seat of the big black armored car. It looks like a joke but we later learn  that he is on an official state visit to Poland.

Relations between the two countries are a bit tense recently. Moscow does not like Poland's relative freestyle communism. The Polish brother party allows lots of easy contacts to the West and little ideological discipline, never mind the large room for maneuvre enjoyed by the Catholic Church, especially after the election of pope John Paul II and his triumphal visit to his home country last year.

Our visa is ready and is quickly handed over by a dour employee of the embassy. Unlike most visas issued by countries of the world, it is not stamped on our passport, but rather it is a separate piece of paper, with all of our data and a photograph. All of which will be taken away from us when we leave the USSR. Luckily, I took a picture. It is, of course, in cyrillic alphabet, and stipulates exactly where and when we are allowed to go in the USSR. For every day we have prepaid our accommodation to Intourist, the Soviet tourism board.

We are warned by Marian and other friends not to even think of exchanging Soviet rubles in the black market, an activity we have grown accustomed to after months of Poland. It would be very risky.

My Soviet visa

In the afternoon the three of us go for a round of shopping, we'd like to find some porcelain to take home but can't find anything of quality worth buying. Prices are reasonable for us but a proper set of tea cups and pot would cost an average Pole some half of his salary. At least the official salary, but as we know by now very well very little here is official, and very much is "kombinowac", the art of solving problems circumventing the law.

In the evening dinner at our first "duck place" where we ate one of our first meals when we arrived in Warsaw for this incredible experience which is about to come to a close. We called it "the First duck place" to distinguish it from the "Second duck place" we found a few days later. Good duck at cheap (for us) prices. I never had much duck before, maybe never had it come to think of it. Chicken, turkey, quail, but not duck. But I have come to like it and I will make sure I look for it when back home.

Home? What is home? Where is it? Sometimes I think about it. I am Italian, but live in the States, and now feel more and more comfortable in Poland, at home here really. I like that feeling: to feel at home where I am. Maybe I have just been lucky, to spend time in hospitable places and make good friends. Maybe I am a nomad by nature. I guess I am too young to deliver a verdict yet. We'll see.

18 May 1980

Customs controls, newspapers and cars

FIAT 126p made in Poland in the 1970s and 80s
Witnessing some creative trade with Simona. You can buy very cheap (in black market dollars) good here, like fur. And an Italian lady won't let that opportunity pass. Marian knows someone who knows someone who works at the airport customs control. FOr USD 100 they are willing to close an eye on her departing luggage.

The way it works is that after check-in and passport control ALL luggage, including big suitcases that will go into the hold of the aircraft, are visually inspected by customs officials. They are looking for stuff that is cheap in Poland because it is coming from other socialist countries (mostly the USSR) at subsidized prices. Caviar is a prime example, but also furs, carpets, and gold. It is entirely up to the official to check. If she or he is willing to close an eye, the departing passenger can get away with anything.

In the afternoon I try to call my former roommate at Georgetown, Ben, to sort out where to leave my stuff. After a long wait at the post office, over an hour and a half, I have to give up, despite the fact I had booked time for an international call.

While killing time I try to buy a newspaper: foreign papers have wildly different prices: the CPSU's Pravda costs only 20 groszy (cents of zloty), practically nothing. The Italian Communist party's paper, l'Unità, costs 5 zloty and La Stampa costs 32 zloty, perhaps because it is owned by the Agnelli family of rich exploiters of the proletariat.

Yet it is the only Italian paper available, at least that I could find. perhaps because the FIAT auto company (also owned by the Agnellis) is a big investor in Poland, where many cars are produced for the domestic market and for export. Among them the 126 model. Polski FIAT produces cars in this country since 1932, it's a long history.

There are actually a lot of cars in Poland, at least in the big cities, it is much easier to get a hold of one, even if just a basic model, than in East Germany, where the wait is measured in decades.

In the evening dinner at Marian's, where I meet Nicola.

17 May 1980

Flying back and meet Cathy

In the morning another tour of the city with Ann. Juwenalia still ongoing, but somehow not so sparkling. They just don't seem excited and are not so exciting.

Antonov 24, made in USSR
At 3:00pm departure back to Warsaw, by plane. It is a Soviet-made aircraft, quite spartan and noisy. Service aboard is basic, to put it mildly. There is a smoking section of the cabin and a non-smoking, but the funny thing is that they are not positioned forward and back of the aircraft like in most airlines. Usually I try to get a seat as far forward in the cabin so as to be away from the smokers, except that if you are too far forward and it is a small aircraft you end up just behind the smokers of business class.

But here smokers and non-smokers are assigned to the left and right of the aisle. With the obvious result that all non-smokers receive generous wafts of smoke no matter where they are seated.

In Warsaw we meet Cathy, Ann's friend who will be traveling with us for the rest of our stay in Eastern Europe and then back to Italy.

In the evening dinner at Marian and Ewa's, where I meet Simona, the wife of my cousin Nicola, a surgeon who is here for a medical conference. It is always very instructive to spend time with them, we always learn a lot about Poland.

Marian and Ewa

16 May 1980

Zakopane tour and Juwenalia

Day trip to Zakopane, a ski resort in the Tatra mountains, next to the border with Czechoslovakia. It is still unseasonably cold for May. We take a nice and easy walking tour of the town, with a tasty lunch in a local eatery. Nothing special really, it would be much better to come here in full Winter, for skiing, or in Summer, for trekking. Now we can't do either!

In one quaint shop I buy a tea set: pot, 6 cups, and milk jar for zl 2500, nice souvenir.

Dinner in the evening at the Staropolska. Our local guide, Halska, maintains this is a "typical" restaurant, but I hope she is wrong. It is really nothing special, a smoky joint with mediocre food.

Today it's the start of the "Juwenalia", a kind of youth celebrations during which college students go around asking for money. Seems like a Halloween for older kids. The make more noise and ask for money instead of candies.

15 May 1980

Dunajec river cruise and promises of liberation

Day trip to the Dunajec river, on the border with Czechoslovakia. We drift down the river for 18 km on a big wooden raft piloted by some quite deft local sailors. It is very cold and windy.

We stop for lunch at a local eatery along the banks of the river, al100 for a hearty meal of sausages and potatoes, hot soup. Cheap, tasty and filling.

During the boat ride, we often get very close to the Czechoslovak bank, and a few people here and there come down to have a look at us. It is very embarrassing to hear Pat get up on our raft and yell at them from the top of his lungs: "Hang in there, we'll come to liberate you from Communism!". Once, twice, three times... If only... He is being silly and if he weren't silly he'd be irresponsible.

People here have memories of such promises in the past, when it was Western (especially American) government agencies, such as Voice of America, that gave false illusions to the peoples oppressed by the USSR. Especially when Hungary rose in 1956, many brave Hungarians actually believed that NATO could come forward and liberate them. But it did not, and they were crushed by Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks.

In the evening we are back in Krakow. Good lunch in a local restaurant,      always lots of meat and potatoes. Andrew and I take a walk to the Wawel, hoping to catch a night view, but it is closed and watched by threatening dogs, so we turn around and end the evening with a chat in the cool wind.

14 May 1980

Pieskowa Skala

Morning walking around town for some shopping, but as usual quantity and quality leave a lot to be desired. But I do find something quite interesting: an old Atlas, a huge book printed in Germany right after World War I, which still shows the old German Empire, when Poland, carved up by Russia, Germany and Austria, did not exist as a country.

Polish-German relations have always been touchy, to say the least. They were terrible in the first half of the XX century. It is a bit ironic to find this atlas here. A great buy for zl 2500.

In the afternoon we drive to the Pieskowa Skala castle. Quite impressive. Not so much inside though, even if I feel proud to see that most of the interior decorations, furniture, paintings, sculptures etc are Italian. Apparently the queen of Poland at the time was a Medici and tried to take as much as possible from her native Tuscany to decorate her new home.

Not much here is Polish. They even display pictures of objects which are at other museums elsewhere in Poland. We have to wear some funny slippers to preserve the tired parquet...

13 May 1980

Salt mine and fine arts

Nativity scene made of salt

Salt reproduction of Leonardo's last supper
Today an unusual trip to a salt mine in the town of Wielicka. We are lowered about 80 meters into the earth's bowels by a crancky elevator and then proceed to walk for some five km underground, along the mines shafts and tunnels.

Pat picks up a cute girl from East Germany. Two in fact. Good luck.

Then back to Krakow, to visit the Museum of Fine Arts. Many many paintings by Italian artists, among whom a madonna with an ermine by Leonardo is the most notable.

12 May 1980

Oswienczim, the Nazi Lager of Auschwitz

This morning must be the most heart rending day of my life so far, and probably for some time to come. The extermination camp of Auschwitz is now a museum and kept in pristine condition, and yet the atmosphere of death, the sinister smell and the vision of ghosts is there, inescapable for me to feel, if not to see. And the inescapable grotesque irony of the gate sign: "Arbeit macht frei", work makes you free.


Wall of executions

Cloth made with human hair 
Belongings of prisoners




We have lunch at 4:30, we could just not get away from the museum and its sister camp of Birkenau, where more people died than at the more famous Auschwitz.

Afterwards a walk downtown to do a little shopping with Ann, but all stores close at 7 and we can't get much done.

It's been an exhausting day, emotionally if not physically, and the evening is spent in the hotel room, reading and writing this diary.

11 May 1980

Krakow visit and Moscow Olympics

Today we visit the city with Bogdan, who has hired a local tour guide to show us the sights. She is rather shy and underwhelming but we do learn a few bits and pieces of information as we go along.

Morning at the Wawel, impressive.

Excellent lunch at the Holiday Inn hotel. All meals for this trip are paid for by SGPiS, so we can let hell break loose and order anything that strikes our fancy!

Afternoon touring downtown with Ann, we'd like to do some shopping but it's Sunday and most stores are closed.

During dinner I have only a start of a discussion with Mat, our classmate from New Jersey, who is in a particularly bad mood. Always a sueprconservatives, he is especially belligerent today. Only a start of a discussion because it is impossible to discuss with him, so I let go. Despite his dislike for president Carter, he supports his boycott of the Moscow Olympics in light of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I think differently, and believe that politics and sports should be kept separate. France is sending its athletes to Moscow, and they will march under the French flag at the opening ceremony. Italy is sending its athletes but without a flag, only the seal of the olympic committee. I kind of agree with my own country this time. Mat would like to inflict infernal punishment on any American athlete who would want to attend the Olympics in Moscow.

Great meal in the hotel, then we all hit the sack early, it's been a long day.

10 May 1980

Trip to Kracow

Not sure whether to spell it Cracow with two Cs or Kralow with two Ks. Somehow I prefer Krakow, it's more Polish.

After an early breakfast we meet with our professor Bogdan and Borzena. Bogdan has organized a minivan to take us to the second most important city in Poland. We spend the whole day in the vahicle, a rickety product of Czechoslovakia, I think, but I am not sure. It's got pretty hard shock absorbers and it's pretty slow, not that you could go very fast anyway on the Polish "highways" but it does the job. Reliable and not too noisy.

Short break at Jaskinia Raj to view some pretty impressive caves of stalactites and stalagmites.

Later one lunch break at Kielce, not impressive.

We finally reach Krakow by the late afternoon. The evening starts well with an excellent dinner at the "Cracovia" hotel. Lots of tasty and hearty food, especially meat.

We then decide to try a local disco, but it's a dark and stinky lair and we run away after less than five minutes inside. Much better to take a walk around the old town. The city is full of Italians, you can hear the language everywhere. This is certainly in part because of the publicity Poland got in my country after the election of the Polish Pope two years ago. But it is as certainly also because of the reputation of Poland, among other Eastern European countries, as a place to easily trade a pair of stockings with a night of love. Not love, really, just sex.

The most fun part of the night is going back to the hotel in a horse-drawn carriage that looks like it's been taken from a fairy tale.

As we go to sleep, Andrew and I share a room, Ann and Borzena another.

09 May 1980

World War II Victory Day celebrations

Polish Army parading on 9th May 1980
It's a big day today in Poland: the 35th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Many countries suffered because of the war, but Poland can reasonably claim to have endured the worst.

Victoria Hotel behind unknown soldier monument
Poland was squeezed between The USSR and Germany, Stalin and Hitler, Communism and Nazism, whichever way you look at it, it was a pretty unenviable position in 1939.

These days, of course, it is the fight against Germany that takes center stage. And for sure that is what detonated World War II. And Germany inflicted unspeakable human and economic damage to Poland between 1939 and 1945. More so to Polish Jews. The Soviet attack that immediately followed the German invasion on 1 September 1939, however, gets very short shrift. The official propaganda sings the praise of the heroic Soviet army that resisted German aggression and then moved to counterattack and liberate Poland (and Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and Romania etc.) from fascism.

Of course, all but the most naive Poles know that is far from the whole truth. But they can't talk about it, not these days in Communist Poland where no one is a Communist but censorship, and self-censorship, are tight.

08 May 1980

Foreign policy exam

Morning at home studying, then light lunch (sort of light) with bread and sausages we got from Marian and Ewa.

There is not much meat available in Poland, not expensive choice cuts anyway. But sausages (keilbasa!) have been our best friends for many meals. Cheap and almost always easily available, they go very well with hearty Polish bread and savory butter. And vodka of course, though not today, since we have to write an exam this afternoon. Not that it will make much of a difference, give the kind of exam that awaits us.

In the afternoon, written exam of Polish Foreign Policy. Easy. Too easy, not challenging at all.

07 May 1980

More studying and eating

In the morning we get a phone call in our collective corridor phone. It's the Orbis travel agent: our Soviet visa has arrived! Or rather the confirmation from Moscow that we are going to get our visa. Good enough, I hope. Apparently we are the first Western group of students in an exchange program with SGPiS to get a Soviet visa, everyone else who tried before us was turned down.

Written exam on CMEA. Nonsense, but easy. All we have to do, really, is to praise the glory of the socialist brotherhood of nations. We also interject some mild criticism to make it more credible. What a joke.

Then another lunch at Borzena's home. Her hospitality is really incredible. Yes she obviously has much to gain from her friendship with us, but still, she goes far beyond what would be expected or even hoped for. It is difficult to think of reciprocating. Her mother almost moves us to tears every time for her efforts in the kitchen. But that is not the point.

After another pantagruelian lunch back home to pseudostudy Polish foreign policy with Ann. We then go for a cosy dinner at the Canaletto restaurant of the Victoria hotel.

06 May 1980

Exams and study

In the morning we go for our Political Systems exam, very easy.

Afternoon to study the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or Comecon. This was once believed to be the USSR's response to the Western European Common Market. But it's always been anything but. Anyway, relations are mostly regulated bilaterally.

Moreover, many countries wanted to join the Common Market, there was a waiting list and no country ever left once they joined. While no other European country I was aware of wanted to join the CMEA, while more than one member state would have likely left already if they had had a chance to do so. Albania actually did.

Never seen so much nonsense concentrated in so few pages like in our course material.

05 May 1980

Informal lecture on the real political system of Poland

In the morning we have our history exam. The question is "Communist takeover in Eastern European Communist countries". The wording is a bit convoluted, even recursive.

In the evening I am in my room studying for the next exam on "Political Systems" when Stefan pops in and tells me not to waste any time with this nonsense. Things are not like what they teach us. He sits down and goes on for a long time with a most interesting monologue on "real politics" in Poland, ie on how the HQ of the Communist party decides everything and sends orders down the chain of "democratic centralism", all the way to the lowliest head of a small party cell in the countryside.

Most interesting indeed, even if I won't be able to use this material in the exam tomorrow. But who cares? I learned more tonight about Poland's political system than in all of our classes put together.

04 May 1980

End of an era in Yugoslavia

Full day at home studying for our exams.

Except for a longish lunch break at Borzena's. As usual, we are treated to a wide array of hard to find animal proteins, tasty bread and veggies though I try to be careful with the alcohol so as not to endanger the prosecution of my reviewing later in the afternoon.

We hear some news which is very relevant to our studies: Jozif Broz Tito, the long-time ruler of Communist Yugoslavia, has died today. Things will never be the same in Yugoslavia, and are likely to change between Yugoslavia and the rest of the Socialist camp, not necessarily for the better. I wonder whether the USSR, strong of its initial success in Afghanistan, might be tempted to reassert its control in neutral, but nominally Communist, Yugoslavia.

03 May 1980

Telephone in the dorm house

Full day at home studying with Ann for our upcoming exams. Easy stuff.

The afternoon is interrupted by Ewa's call: they need the apartment's keys back for the landlord. Oh well, too bad but I could see it coming. But we already got quite a few free days. Apparently Marian had come by the apartment in the afternoon, but we were not there. We should have been there!

We don't have a private phone in our dorm rooms of course, only a common telephone in the corridor. When we receive a call someone of goodwill must pick up and alert the person being called. Or take a message. We never pick up the phone because we hardly ever receive a call, and anyway it would be difficult to understand unless the calling party speaks English. So in a way we are phone free riders. But most colleagues seems happy to do us this favor, and guessing the content of calls makes for some good gossip among the students.

Andrew and I deliver the keys in the evening. Always a good opportunity to have a chat with Marian and Ewa and catch up on their vision of the world.

01 May 1980

1 may: International Workers' Day celebration

Unfortunately today my folks have to fly home. So they will miss the great celebrations of international workers' day, especially important in a socialist country. Preparations have been underway for several days and the city is full of fancy decorations, ideological banners, red flags and big stars.

Andrew at the HQ of the Communist Party

Marco with the school's flag

After taking them to the airport I return to school and join the SGPiS students for a long walk to downtown. Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life converge to the Marszalkowska avenue and parade in front of a grand stand with General Secretary Gierek, the Politburo of the communist party, the government, foreign diplomats etc. Stefan is with them, as representative of the students!

Warsaw is red today.

I take lots of pictures. At one point I want to take a picture of Andrew with his arms raised up in a parody of surrender in front of the headquarters of the communist party. It looks a bit ironic, we have been mocking the party aloud and maybe they heard and understood us? Anyway the zealous officer wants the roll of my camera. I am a bit upset and start arguing when Borzena comes along and persuades him to let us go. Phewww...

In the evening back to the parents flat to study for exams with Ann. At 11pm I prepare some spaghetti arrabbiata to appropriately see off a very red day! And a hot evening...