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Chapter 12


Cross Cultural Ignorance

Nothing would budge Tokarczuk, as more and more became apparent about what was behind her obstinate attitude, when one day a female architect showed up to take measurements inside of the building, her main interest being the attic.

I was no less obstinate in seeking a way out of the deep hole I had fallen into and I came up with a brainstorm, with the attic on my mind as well, upon encountering another possible investor. Each year, two European cities are deemed “European Culture Capital” and Wrocław had won the distinction for the year 2016. With this in mind, on my own I hired another architect to draw 3D renderings of my concept for restoring the roof and transforming the building into what would surely become a can’t miss tourist attraction.

My idea was inspired by a contemporary style of restoration of historical buildings elsewhere in Europe. This was a very controversial idea, when it was attempted by American-Chinese architect, I.M. Pei in Paris, who designed the Glass Pyramid in front of the Louvre, in the name of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, which took place in 1989, the same year that Poland had been liberated. It was said that ninety percent of the French public was at first against what has become as important to Paris’ reputation worldwide as is the Eiffel Tower, which was also heavily criticized during its construction one hundred years earlier. A few years after the Glass Pyramid was completed, an enormous glass dome was constructed on top of the Reichstag in Berlin.

The idea struck me that if the entire roof must be replaced, why not do it with glass? Such a concept would not have been possible during medieval times, because such large sheets of virtually indestructible glass did not exist. I myself had designed and created large stained glass skylights, but stained glass roofs of such monumental dimensions was unheard of and, in any case, far too fragile.

A stained glass ceiling I designed and executed for a hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana

My idea served several practical purposes. Baszta, sat only around fifty people maximum. One of the most attractive ways to earn income was to rent out the building for wedding parties, but Polish weddings are often very large and I lost one opportunity after the next, for lack of available seating. Not only would opening the attic to guests have changed this, but it would have transformed the tower into an overnight sensation, with a dramatic 360 degree view of the city. At night the enormous glass enclosed attic would have become a beacon of light, as a modernized symbol of the city’s ancient history.

Further, the drawings illustrated the plan to project artistic images onto the exterior walls of the building and a new terrace was to be placed on top of the tall brick wall that is attached to the building, which would have direct access to the middle bar floor, for there was another cemented shut door that could be opened just above where the wall is attached to the tower.

                                                                                                        Renderings by Tomasz Szenk

Once the drawings were completed, I informed Tokarczuk that I had attracted another investor, I had a proposal to resolve our differences and asked to meet her in person. She replied that she would not talk to me, unless I coughed up several months of unpaid rent.

I answered that this was absolutely impossible, that due to her gross negligence, the building was inhabitable in the winter, that she had driven away one investor after another and this had caused me to go bankrupt.

A few days after Tokarczuk refused to meet, a copy of papers filed in court suing me for unpaid rent arrived in the mail. Apparently, she believed that artists shouldn’t file lawsuits but it’s OK if creative writers do.

What on earth, I pondered, was she thinking? I had long since concluded that many Poles just assumed that Americans were born with money trees, that green bills fell from our nostrils when we blew our noses. Often they would say to me that Americans can’t find Poland on a map but I don’t know how many times I heard opinions of the United States based on Hollywood fairytales Poles saw in movies and on TV. For that matter, this was Solidarity’s iconic election poster in 1989:

Gary Cooper, High Noon, June 4, 1989

I came to a conclusion that mythology about all nations and cultures become deeply ingrained and that they outlast societal changes. Chauvinism is born of such mythology. How often have I heard Americans defend their global ignorance in the name of “American Exceptionalism?” Once I dated a Polish nurse, who one day said to me, “I talked to my mom and I can’t see you anymore, because she told me that we come from aristocracy.”

Was this what members of the Law and Justice party meant by “arrogant elitism?”

A Polish friend, who had lived in Manhattan driving a taxi for several years, told me that when he returned home, everyone thought he had become wealthy living in New York and that whenever he went out with someone, he was expected to pay for everything. Some Poles couldn’t understand why I didn’t pay salaries like one could earn abroad. It was useless to point out that it was because I didn’t live abroad and that it was impossible to sell quality cuisine in Poland for anywhere near what one could charge in a western country. Nor was it easy to explain that the tariffs on imported wine made it very difficult to make any profit, taxation was extremely high, I had to pay for my workers’ healthcare, let alone that months were wasted yearly just dealing with endless bureaucratic headaches. Among the worst were applying annually for new liquor licenses, my residency and work permit and that whereas tax returns are filed annually in the US, they had to be filed monthly in Poland!

A perfect example of the misunderstandings caused by cross cultural relativism, in 1989 a director from the Łódź Art Museum asked to purchase three of my computer generated drawings and said to me, “I’m really sorry, but we are a poor museum and I cannot offer you much money.” At that moment, he placed onto a table right before me a brown paper bag stuffed with Polish paper currency, known as “złotys.” There had been hyper inflation at the time and one dollar was worth around 11,000 zlotys. What looked like a small fortune amounted to a payment, in equivalent US currency, of about $30 per drawing. I told the museum director that I would gladly donate the drawings to the museum for free but he insisted that it was necessary legally to make a monetary transaction.

An attitude I would encounter many times was first expressed to me by a woman curator, who worked for the museum. She accused me of being greedy, because the $30 that the museum paid me for a single drawing was about equal to her monthly salary. It did not dawn on her that the museum had also given her a place to live on the museum premises, that the cost of living in Poland was a pittance compared to LA. Her monthly salary might have paid for the cost of sending an extra suitcase on my flight back from Poland, let alone that I still had to pay rents both for my apartment and art studio back home, where I had been selling some of the same series of drawings for $500 each.

On the other hand, two decades or so later, when Poland had western style supermarkets, Walmart style hypermarkets, high speed internet and satellite TV, many people I spoke to in the US still imagined a country that had just discovered electricity.

I came up with a term that I call, “cross-cultural ignorance,” which was about to play out in a Polish court of law.

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