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Chapter Four

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If I Can Make It There, I Can Make It Anywhere, Wrocław, Wrocław

Before the end of WWII, Wrocław, the fourth largest city in Poland, was known as Breslau, the largest German city east of Berlin. With a population of 650,000 and almost unknown abroad, Wrocław has been on quite a roll. The city was voted to become the 2016 Culture Capital of Europe, the World Book Capital of 2016, host of the European Film Awards of 2016, host of the European Men’s Handball Championships and host of the 2017 World Games.

Situated near the apex of the city’s center is a thirteenth-century tower known for centuries as “Baszta,” (pronounced: Bahsh tuh), which in Polish means guard or defense tower. According to legend, it is inhabited by ghosts. After WWII, Baszta became nicknamed, Bear Tower”. This is due to the insertion of a sculpture of a bear on the building’s exterior that was found elsewhere, by architect, Mirosław Przylecki, who restored Baszta after WWII.

Once again destiny had fallen into my lap. A native Californian with a medieval tower?

Old La luz website main page animation

It was less than one year after Poland joined the EU that I leased Baszta from its new private owner. For the prior ten years, the tower had been the home of the first wine bar in the city. It was both the most unusual and romantic place in town for going on a date. With a moody atmosphere and artsy decor, two of its three floors were furnished with antique marble topped sewing machine tables and plush burgundy colored velvet sofas. Most striking was a concealed ventilation system extending from the floor to the attic that appeared to be an enormous iron sculpture in the form of tree trunks and extending branches.

My business plan was to broaden the tower’s usage and purpose to become a place of cultural and educational enlightenment. Thus, I named my new business, “La luz” (“The Light,” in Spanish). The circumstances once again seemed serendipitous. Just as fate had led me to visit Poland for the sake of cultural exchange during its historical transformation in 1989, at the very moment that I was looking for a venue to sell imported wines from around the world, Baszta was offered up for rent. Fortuitously, this coincided with the relaxation of import duties on wine thanks to new EU regulations.

Because alcohol import duties prior to 2004 were prohibitively expensive, the quality of the wines on Baszta’s menu was marginal. With no better alternative, I patronized the place never harboring even a passing fantasy of ever owning such a business.


When years later I did wish to start a wine import business, just before Baszta was sold, I visited the wine bar and saw that something had gone terribly wrong. No longer was the menu presented, as it previously had been, in a charming handmade binder containing several pages of wines. Its replacement was an unattractive single-sheet menu that was more focused on beer and listed only two brands of mediocre cheap wine. What had been a serene ambiance with a muted turquoise interior had been turned into a typical student beer pub, with a brash mix of off-white and blood-red walls and ceilings. The “tree branches” of the immense iron ventilation-sculpture had been removed and what was left was reduced to an indoor eyesore of contorted pipes leading from the bottom floor into the attic. This was a disconcerting transformation since beer pubs in Wrocław, with aesthetically unappealing atmospheres, were ubiquitous. “Why here,” I asked myself, “when the tower was such a magical place to express a creative imagination?”

I had no idea that the cheapened and ruined ambiance was just the tip of the iceberg of whatever had brought down the business and why the tower was for sale.

The reason for my visit was that a real estate agent had tipped me off. Despite my disappointment about the new decor and menu, there were quite a few customers present. Everything appeared to be functioning just fine in the dead of the snowy winter, but when I inquired, the manager denied that the tower was for sale. To my surprise, only a week or so later, another agent informed me that Baszta was for rent and that there was a new owner. I had already seen a few places and, like I had been warned, in most cases the interiors were gutted and I would have to pay for everything, from the electrical wiring, to the plumbing, to ventilation. 

The terms for leasing Baszta were no different, except for what had appeared to be a major advantage: that there had already been an existing bar, a prior clientele who drank wine and everything appeared to be in working order. Not only that, when I learned that the new owner was a highly respected female Polish author, it gave me hope that this was not a typical scenario of a real estate speculator out to screw one’s tenant. 

Two weeks after she bought the tower, in December of 2004, I signed a 5-year long lease agreement.

In so doing, she flattered me by stating that she loved the artistic vision I described to her, for the use of her newly acquired property. Because she portrayed herself as a poor Polish writer, I could only feel sympathy for this woman, who somehow had scraped together the funds to buy a run-down historical building that was clearly in need of a cosmetic facelift.

It appeared to me to be a serendipitous win-win scenario. As it had been my hope that the new business would allow me to continue to pursue my personal artistic goals on the side, I also envisioned that my Landlord would be enabled to do the same as a writer.

The only small problem was that this mutually supportive spirit commenced with a gun held to my head, as I was pressured to sign the lease on the spot or risk losing the rare opportunity to what I was told was list of other interested candidates. In so doing, a dreamy foreigner became the consummate unsuspecting sucker.

Once again destiny had fallen into my lap, as I fell down another rabbit hole. A native Californian with a medieval Polish tower, one might ask? After all, long before setting foot in Europe, I had mastered the art of stained glass, its origins a key component of medieval architecture.

My creative impulses, dreams and ideas ran free as I set out with an ambitious agenda. First in order was to replace the prior bottom of the barrel wine list with quality affordable imported wines. Beyond that, it was my plan to transform the tower into an open venue of creative expression and educational enlightenment, with an ongoing monthly schedule art exhibitions, film screenings, live music, seminars, wine tastings and private parties.

Here is a typical La luz events calendar from 2007

Nor had the original Mexican restaurant concept gone to waste, when I also decided to serve a burrito that I had perfected, after living in Europe for many years. Necessity being the mother of invention, this had everything to do with badly missing the delicious Mexican cuisine found all over southern California that is in rare supply in the Old World.

Everything had seemed to be in place to start up my business, with only minimal decorative changes required. That is, until the first big surprise that occurred one month later, when the winter snow on the roof began melting and water poured inside of the building. Broken roof tiles were patched, but the leaks were a premonition of torrential cascades to later come crashing down.

The contract provided me with three months of reduced rent, which I naively assumed would be enough time to open the new business. After all, there didn’t appear to be much more to do than slap onto one the walls some fresh new paint, buy new furniture, lamps, wine glasses and so forth.  

Unknown to me, there were also several other reasons that opening the business within a few months would prove to be impossible. Three months after signing the lease, my new manager discovered a copy of the sales contract, which made it obvious that my new Landlord had to be aware of impending stumbling blocks. As she read it, she screamed hysterically: “[She] is using you to invest in her building and she is going to throw you out afterward!”

“No way!” I exclaimed. I didn’t want to believe it, while in the back of my mind was the memory of the contract in Polish language I was asked to sign by the media festival director years before, not even aware that it was a contract. The written agreement contained a most unusual clause stating the following:

If the city council does not approve usage of the building for commercial gastronomic purposes by December 12, 2005 [exactly one year after the sales agreement was signed], and if this is due to no fault of the buyer, then the seller will reimburse 60,000 złoties of the purchase price by no later than January 31, 2006.

Here is the clever fail-safe clause in the contract

It further stipulated that the building could be used for no other primary purpose, including residential.

It certainly did seem awfully fishy that this assurance was a clause of the sales agreement, when the lease agreement only allotted for a three-month rent reduction, on the premise that the new business could be opened so quickly. Surprise, surprise, suddenly the inexpensive cosmetic interior restoration required a completely new electrical system installation, new plumbing and a new ventilation system, for nothing met new EU regulations. Even the stairs were too narrow, according to fire department requirements, which was impossible to change.

Solving the stairway dilemma was a quick lesson in the rules of the game, as this boiled down to being politely asked to pay a big bribe to pass inspection. As would become increasingly apparent, the main job of corrupt bureaucrats was to invent problems that forced me to grease their hands. Simultaneously, the new owner stood to gain both from large unanticipated restoration expenses that became my responsibility and from my destined failure to open a business within the first year of her ownership.

For those who had read about the food in foreign tourist guides, La luz was like finding an oasis in a cabbage field.

As months passed by, I was in an ever-accelerating panic. My business plan was already shattered, my budget too small to absorb enormous hidden costs without earning any income. Still unaware that the savings from the reduced rent would not come close to covering the cost of the necessary restorations, with the aid of two lawyers, I persuaded the Landlord to extend the period of discounted rent. As I was slowly running out of funds, I was forced to eliminate everything from new furniture, to a leased car for the business. Instead of purchasing new furniture, I took taxis to weekend flea markets, where for a pittance I purchased small used antique tables and chairs, two or three maximum at a time, and bought a few tables from a used restaurant supply business. Back at the tower, I would sand them and apply new varnished or painted finishes.

That’s when the first of critical threats to my new small enterprise struck. Also without my knowledge, my newly hired architect designed a complicated ventilation system that alone cost more than my entire restoration budget. When I made it clear to her that there was no way that I could afford this, she threatened to not just quit but stop me from opening the business. It seemed like something strange was going on behind my back, as if everyone thought that when I sneezed dollars would pour from my nose. It was like déjà vu all over again concerning the attempted sabotage of finishing the video editing for the WRO Media Festival several years before.

One bizarre obstacle emerged after the next. Finally, after one year had transpired, I managed to obtain the legal permission to open my new business, surely assuring my Landlord her contractually guaranteed kickback from the prior owner.


Finally opening as if one hand was tied behind my back, without a ventilation system, I could not cook food, therefore, I could not hire a chef. So, I taught students who attended one of the nearby universities to prepare burritos heated in a microwave oven, which emitted no fumes. To further complicate matters, as insanely strict sanitation regulations forbade cutting fresh produce or meat without investing in radical changes in the kitchen layout, everything had to be pre-prepared, canned or packaged. The solution I came up with to add meat to a burrito was to insert meat pierogi (Polish dumplings) inside of a tortilla. To my astonishment, within a short time, various British-owned media ran rave reviews of the only “authentic” Mexican food in Wrocław. One of them even rated La luz among the top-ten best restaurants in the city. My hole-in-the-wall, microwave kitchen, being operated by students with no culinary training, was being favorably compared to top established, expensively-designed and constructed restaurants in Wrocław, with fully equipped kitchens and professional chefs.

It did not take much to teach someone to prepare what amounted to a fast food burrito that I had first concocted at home and perfected over many years. It was authentic “Cal-Mexican.” Few Poles knew what the term “Tex-Mex” meant, so this was a leap from the norm of Polish-owned Mexican restaurants, which typically served ketchup-based salsa and substituted cabbage for lettuce. In fact, the owner of the first Mexican restaurant in the city told me that “a burrito only has to look like one.” He even claimed that Poles have genetically weak stomachs, so they cannot handle spicy food. It seemed preposterous, as even KFC sold spicy chicken wings in Poland. Besides, often Poles coming back from living abroad where they had learned to love spicy exotic food, could not wait to come to my tiny microwave restaurant, which they usually discovered, of all places, in Western English language tourist guides.

Paradoxically, the local lack of awareness among most of the natives was exacerbated by having become accustomed to Polish perversions of Mexican food. A new restaurant chain opened in larger cities throughout the country serving what I coined “Pol-Mex” food. Young waiters dressed as Zorro shot toy guns at customers while serving deceptively huge glasses filled to the rim with crushed ice, a bit of strawberry syrup and a shot of vodka. Billed as a “strawberry margarita,” the drink was sold at a ridiculously low price.

Patriotic Pol-Mex Burrito (an oxymoron?)

Sombrero Tower

No one knew differently, and it was all good fun. Kitsch atmosphere and imagery was all that mattered, and such restaurants were highly successful. When out of curiosity their loyal customers visited the tower, they would sometimes ask, in a disappointed tone: “Where are the sombreros?” I answered, “Hats don’t make the food taste better.” Alas, when in Mexi-Wrocław do as the Mexi-Wrocławians do, so eventually I gave in and bought some sombreros that I used as wall lampshades.

One day, a student bartender decorated a burrito with alternate thick parallel lines of red salsa and white sour cream. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied, “This represents the Polish national flag.” From that day on an “authentic” Pol-Mex burrito became a trademark of the business.

I constantly worried that should travelers show up in my absence, that God forbid, ketchup would get squeezed onto their burrito!

Still, the sombreros did not impress the most stubborn of the locals who preferred cabbage and ketchup. Survival in the guard tower became a relentless battle to maintain standards in stark opposition to stubborn tastes born in times of extreme scarcity. Over my dead body would I allow a burrito to be served without cilantro. It was not so easy to come by fresh cilantro either. Nevertheless, if need be I would run all over town to find some. For those who had read about the food in foreign tourist guides, La luz was like finding an oasis in a cabbage field. It was hard enough to made sure that my waiters regularly asked customers whether they preferred spicy or mild salsa, that I constantly worried that should travelers show up in my absence, ketchup would get squeezed onto their burrito!  

My ambition to expose Poles to not only foreign food that was new to them, but good wine and music was a never-ending battle. Prior to Poland’s liberation, the wine of choice, as in other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, was sweet homemade wine, often composed of fermented fruits – apples, cherries or peaches. Most of the first imported wines from the West came from France, and because they were the bottom of the barrel in quality, this gave French wines in particular a bad reputation. Making matters worse, until Poland’s entry into the EU, taxes on imported alcohol were excessive, presumably to protect the domestic beer and vodka industry from outside competition. For this reason, it was prohibitive to sell decent imported wines. After Poland’s admission to the EU in 2004 when import tariffs were significantly reduced, even then wine would have to be marked up three to four times the sales price in Western Europe. Thus, the constant challenge was to find inexpensive quality wines for a country that was in the formative stages of economic redevelopment.

As for music, there was no way to have a party without Poles clamoring for Abba, one of the few popular Western groups to become major stars behind the Iron Curtain. It was sometimes a war with my workers to control the kinds of music played for customers. Nothing personal against Abba, I had to put my foot down as “Dancing Queen” just didn’t quite mesh with the laid back artsy Old World atmosphere I had created.

Despite the many obstacles, I gambled that if I could still achieve so much critical success with a microwave burrito, then I could do something spectacular – that is, if only I had a real kitchen and a professional head chef. The menu expanded slowly and always solutions had to be found to get around the ridiculously impractical sanitation department regulations. First I added a home fryer, to make our own tortilla chips from corn tortillas. I bought a small hotplate to fry small chunks of chicken to add to the burritos. Because this was not allowed due to lack of a ventilation system, we prepared everything when the restaurant was closed. Later on I found a woman, who cooked at home, to prepare traditional Polish dishes and to make cakes for wedding parties. Eventually I hired her on a monthly basis to make salsa, taquitos, tortilla chips, Spanish rice and to precook chunks of garlic chicken. In 2007, the kitchen was expanded to include more microwaves, small home toaster ovens and a hotplate that was visible to the customers’ view, which the sanitation department director accepted, on the premise that eventually the kitchen would be upgraded with a ventilation system. I hired young inexperienced chefs as there was no one in the city who knew a thing about preparing Mexican food. Few local professional chefs knew anything other than traditional Polish or maybe some Italian cuisine and none of them were about to accept working with such amateurish equipment, let alone in such a tiny kitchen. By then, we were also offering quesadillas, taquitos, Mexican salads, tacos, dessert burritos and what we called “sweet nachos” with ice cream.

In 2008, my sister passed away from cancer and with inheritance money received from home, I built a new kitchen, found a chef with talents way beyond my highest hopes and renamed the business, “Abrams’ Tower.” My new chef had recently returned from London, where he was trained by masters of world fusion cuisine. He convinced me to hire him when one evening, at his home, he prepared for me an impressive variety of exotic dishes. Together, we concocted a dream menu with influences from Thailand, Japan, India, the Caribbean, Morocco, France, Spain, Italy and Poland, while a separate menu was reserved exclusively for Mexican food.

It was fortuitous that for the first time, some of the basic ingredients necessary to prepare food from foreign cultures at home appeared in small neighborhood markets. One might have assumed that my business plan could not have been timelier. As recognition for Abrams’ Tower continued to blossom abroad, locally there was an ever growing resistance. One day, I found the food to have lost the quality that had made it exceptional. I confronted my brilliantly talented head chef, who confided to me that Polish customers had complained to him that the food had too much flavor!

Something in the wind seemed to be conspiratorial as one unanticipated obstacle after the next curtailed negotiations with one prospective business partner after the next. It also became apparent that devoting time to my artistic projects and ambitions would have to be sacrificed. Channeling my creative juices to new challenges, I applied my creative wits to both the continued restoration of the tower and to designing posters for diverse activities pertaining to my mission of cultural exchange. This included theme food parties from tapas to sushi, Carnival, Halloween, an annual Polish celebration known as Andrzejki (St. Andrew’s Day), Thanksgiving, Women’s Day, St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, French Night, Mexican Night, Wine tastings, Super Bowl parties and Exotic World Tour New Year’s Eves. I also photographed our cuisine and sometimes transformed the photos into abstract images (see the background slide show).

By default, I had not only rented a medieval building but I also inherited the ghosts of Baszta’s, Wrocław’s and Poland’s haunted past.

Some of the competition

There was also no end to the myriad of dangers that I fell prey to. This included confrontations with the law and with bureaucratic institutions, while I lived in constant fear of becoming subjected to frivolous investigations. I ended up feeling trapped like Rapunzel, my wanderlust Landlord usually jaunting somewhere abroad. Without any choice, I assumed the insurmountable burden of my absentee Landlord’s responsibilities without the legal authority or means to do anything about them. This primarily concerned the ever deteriorating condition of the tower’s roof and related issues pertaining to the surrounding neighborhood. Numerous instances occurred whereby I was in no position to attempt to resolve a problem that was the responsibility of the building’s owner. As soon as regular rent payments started rolling in, she took off to travel the world, leaving me to stumble upon the dark secrets about Baszta that were not revealed when I signed the lease agreement. By default, I had not only rented a medieval building but I also inherited the ghosts of Baszta’s, Wrocław’s and Poland’s haunted past, ranging from the history of the building’s medieval role originally as a guard tower, to its near destruction during WWII, to its restoration and why the prior owners abandoned the building just as Poland joined the EU.  

Simultaneously, as I struggled for survival with my small enterprise, the city was encouraging an invasion of Western corporate brand-name businesses. As far as the caliber of personnel that these companies attracted, this was also good for my business. However, there were terrible consequences that deeply divided Polish society, which in turn had a drastic impact on, not only my business but on the new free economy’s development. While globalization attracted well-heeled Westerners, who could not only afford but appreciate cuisine that most Poles could not, the best and brightest Poles started leaving in droves for the West, in most cases for the United Kingdom. This made hiring and keeping quality workers virtually impossible. In January of 2007, one year after La luz opened, the Los Angeles Times ran an article, headlined: “Looking west for work – Young Poles drawn to wealthy European nations leave skill shortages in their wake, putting their homeland’s economy in jeopardy.” which even described this phenomenon with respect specifically to the city of Wrocław:

Through decades of Communism, Poles longed to be part of capitalist Europe. Now this nation of 39 million is losing citizens to Western prosperity when it needs them to fuel its own economy. Foreign companies are expected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs here in the coming years. Major European manufacturers are planning to build new facilities in Wroclaw.

But with some of the nation’s best-educated and youngest workers opting to leave, who will work here? Who will be the bricklayers, the computer experts, the dentists?

For that matter, who will be the qualified restaurant and bar managers or roof repair men?

The best of my Polish chefs – who had worked abroad where they learned about other ways of doing things – often felt like they were pariahs in their own homeland.

As for the local competition, aside from bland Polish hybrids of Mexican cuisine, both American and Polish-owned fast food chains were booming. Also, government support continued for inexpensive post-communist cafeterias known as bar mleczny (Milk Bars). Not only did Poles love clichéd Hollywood-themed restaurants but they flocked to a new breed of communist era late night dirt cheap Polish food bars. Fact is, Poland was rapidly growing economically, but, as was happening back home during my long absence, the spoils were mostly going to a new elite class. As the country was becoming bombarded by Western fast food, mostly young Poles who hardly recalled the communist era retreated to a kind of cult nostalgia. Suddenly as if out of nowhere, these all-night bars serving cheap traditional Polish dishes were sprouting up as fast as Starbucks, which was growing like weeds. 

This development paralleled a seemingly incongruous explosion of upscale sushi bars, while Italian food proliferated everywhere, pasta being a cheap staple.


Most Wrocław bars and restaurants relied on clichéd themes. My sensibility, on the other hand, tended toward eclecticism, a style which had begun to proliferate when I was living in Barcelona during the 1990s. One day each month, residents of every barrio (neighborhood) of the city were allowed to toss old furniture onto the street and there was plenty of quality stuff to be found. It was not only great for the sake of furnishing homes but for decorating bars, restaurants and cafes. One restaurant made tables from old wooden doors and hung old wooden chairs on the walls as if they were readymade sculptures. Recycling junk had become a post-modern fad in the 1980s New York East Village art scene and in Barcelona this was being played out about a decade later by commercial establishments for the sake of interior design.

My purpose of cultural exchange caused another confrontation: with strict Polish education, which frowned upon eclecticism. My goal being to awaken Poles to the endless possibilities of abandoning hard-boiled stereotypes of whatever is considered to be correct design, I tried to show them that from cuisine, to wine to architecture and interior design, eclecticism, in fact, is a philosophy. However, it was not as simple as substituting ketchup for salsa.

The New World Encyclopedia offers an explanation and definition of the term which applies to philosophy and theory, art and architecture, psychology, the Marital Arts and music. In the broad sense, it defines eclecticism as:

a conceptual approach that does not hold rigidly to a single paradigm or set of assumptions, but instead draws upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject, or applies different theories in particular cases.

After all, the entire point of being invited to Poland was in the spirit of eclecticism, for what else defines a society that is multicultural? This presented a great challenge: to face a nation’s rebirth in the wake of the lingering remains of the monumental human tragedy of Nazism, which had attempted to wipe multiculturalism off the face of the Western Civilization and had, for all intents and purposes, succeeded to do so in Poland.

Despite the constant criticism I faced, design ideas I implemented would soon become fashionable. I painted the tower’s interior walls pure white contrasting with old wooden floors to create an art gallery atmosphere. During the evening I utilized colored lamps to reflect delicate accents onto the walls, the inspiration coming from American light artist James TurrellPoles said it looked too sterile, like a hospital. My managers and workers gave me fits, until I finally broke down and covered the walls with colored paint. When my white walls were history, they became a hip new concept in other city bars and nightclubs. Aside from a few places in the train station that were open all night, I was the first in the city’s center to keep a kitchen open late. Repeatedly I was told by Poles that eating after 7 pm was unhealthy, which must have meant that everyone in Spain, where I had lived for six years, was dying, since dinner there is rarely served before 10 pm. Then, suddenly late night eating of unhealthy fast food and hanging out at all-night nostalgic communist era food bars became the rage.

Mexican Pierogi

Experimentation is one thing, but the obsessive attention I paid to utilize the correct ingredients in the proper preparation of ethnic dishes was also perceived as abnormal. I encouraged my chefs to also invent fusion concoctions, but only on the strict condition that they first understood the proper preparation of authentic ethnic dishes and that they served me first as a guinea pig. While it was not always easy to find all required ingredients for an eclectic menuover time their availability continued to grow. The way I saw it, the kitchen became an artist’s atelier with a broad palette of herbs and spices from around the world. Collaborating with my head chef, we conceived a new menu that we called, “Global Tapas.” Another subsequently hired young chef invented fusion Pierogi, featuring unheard of ingredients and sauces. Pierogies were essentially the same everywhere. Typical fillings are potato, meat, sauerkraut, mushrooms, cheese, spinach, cherries or blueberries. Among the choices we served was blue cheese pierogi with orange sauce, frutti di mare pierogi with pesto sauce and spicy chicken pierogi with mint sauce.

Ultimately, it became clear that the 2016 Culture Capital of Europe was not ready to halt the subversion of foreign cuisine with ketchup and cabbage. Nor was it about to relinquish a medieval guard tower historically intended to protect the city from outside invaders, especially one who was messing with traditional pierogi. The best of my Polish chefs – who had worked abroad where they learned about other ways of doing things – often felt like they were pariahs in their own homeland.

Click here for Chapter Five: Hell’s Tower Kitchen