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Chapter 3


The Unheeded Warning

When I met Tokarczuk, she asked me to submit to her a written description of what were my intentions for usage of the historical edifice she had just purchased. In so doing, I outlined my multicultural artistic vision. Both she and her young female real estate agent buttered me up with talk of wishing to participate in my plans, of making use of the building for cultural purposes. The agent’s husband was a photographer, who she said surely would love to exhibit his work there, and Tokarczuk said it would be a perfect place to hold literary meetings.

I was so inspired that I proposed that she share a small piece of the ownership of the business that I was just then formalizing, but she turned down my offer.

As I was searching for a place to rent, I was introduced to a Polish businessman, who wrote for an American-owned English language magazine named Poland Monthly, which had done some serious investigative reportage of corruption in Poland. God only knows what my life would be like today had I heeded his advice. Not long after, the publisher’s home was ransacked and his life was threatened. The magazine folded and he left the country.

The Polish businessman gave me a stern warning, that local landlords typically use their tenants to invest in restoring their property and build up a business, then evict their tenant and take over the business. I had already encountered a few landlords in my search, whose intentions were suspect but several Poles I spoke to were enamored with Ms. Tokarczuk and assured me that such a highly esteemed and beloved author would never do anything like that.

Not only did it appear serendipitous to rent from a highly respected author, but me a California artist leasing a 13th century tower? I thought, fairytales can come true, it can happen to you! Sigh. When believing in fairytales, it is so easy to ignore that the devil is in the details.

One day, Tokarczuk’s real estate agent invited me back to her office, to meet with Tokarczuk, and handed me a five-year lease contract. She was living in a village quite a drive from Wrocław and she informed me that she was in a hurry. Upon arriving with my newly hired young assistant, a recent graduate of the local economics school, we waited for a Polish friend of mine, who specialized in Polish contractual law and had offered to look over the details of the contract before I made a final decision.

What could have seemed more ordained, including the fact that I was looking to import foreign wines to Poland and that the tower had been the first wine bar in the city? On its menu were wines from around the world, but they were among the lowest quality wines sold in the west. Not only could few Poles afford to pay for quality wines but import tariffs that protected sales of the domestic beer and vodka industries made them far more expensive than the price of the same wines sold abroad.

Most Poles, who grew up during the communist era, knew little about wine. They became accustomed to drinking homemade sweet wines typically made from other fruit, such as apples, peaches or pears.

One year earlier, Poland had joined the European Union and the stiff import tariffs were significantly reduced, making it possible for new wine importers to emerge, offering higher quality wines at a not too excessive price. Nevertheless, the new tariffs were still so high that one would pay far less for the same wines in western countries, which made it necessary to search for reasonable quality wines at the lowest possible prices. Wine sales were particularly daunting for a general populace, who both knew so little about quality wines and who earned salaries nowhere near what was possible abroad.

For me, this became an interesting challenge, as I had become accustomed, when living previously in Paris and Barcelona, to search for inexpensive quality wines, that in both France and Spain are a daily staple of lunch and dinner.

The prior ownership of the tower, which was known as Baszta (pronounced, Bahsh-tuh), meaning, “Guard Tower,” was a student-run organization, which I knew nothing about, though I knew the place well as an occasional customer. They had designed the interior in an eclectic artistic fashion with plush beet red crushed velvet sofas, old sewing machine tables and a cleverly conceived ventilation system, that was disguised as an enormous iron sculpture of the trunk and branches of a tree, that started on the bottom floor and extended all the way into the attic.

My ambition was to upgrade what they had done, to create a new wine bar, with a menu the likes of which most Poles had never previously seen and to restore the tower’s interior, also in an eclectic fashion.

This most rare opportunity was at the heart of what had led me on a long saga in Europe, for ancient European architecture was where the roots of my artistic expression for many years, in the ancient craft of stained glass, had originated.

That dream became a nightmare, when I was forced into a now or never demand to sign the contract. The friend, who was to read it over first, was caught in traffic, had difficulty parking and Tokarczuk, who insisted that she couldn’t wait, threw down the gauntlet. “I chose you among many interested individuals, because I like your artistic intentions for usage of the building,” she declared. “However, I must leave. If you want it, you must sign the agreement now!”

With a gun to my head, I handed the document that was in Polish language to my newly hired young assistant, who quickly read it over, said it looked fine and I signed the contract from hell on earth.

Not even afforded the time to have it translated or show it to someone with knowledge of Polish landlord/tenant law, nor with any chance to have the building professionally inspected, the obviously wise move would have been to walk away. Seduced by the words of a famous Polish author, I threw caution to the wind and relied on what I had heard of her highly regarded reputation, while fully aware that such an incredibly rare occasion would never come again.

Yet, the writing was on the wall, or should I say, in her contract. As the Polish businessman had warned me, Tokarczuk stated that it would be my obligation to pay for all interior improvements of the building and that I could not request a refund upon termination of my tenancy. However, this appeared, on the surface, to be neither unreasonable or very costly, for unlike other places I had visited, which were completely empty on the inside, without even plumbing or electricity, the tower appeared to be fully equipped with what I needed to move in quickly, as only cosmetic changes seemed necessary.

Not only that, but I had visited the tower, as a customer, only three weeks earlier, when it was still open for business, under the prior ownership. There were quite a few customers, everything seemed to be working fine and it didn’t appear important to ask for a professional inspection of the premises.

To my surprise, the cosmetic work had already been done, for what lurked behind the facade, of what I had seen, started to become apparent just weeks later.

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