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Chapter 5

 

What’s in a Name?

Shortly after I signed the lease, Tokarczuk visited my apartment during a visit to Wrocław, and she gave me a copy of her only book that was as of yet translated into English. She also handed me a bottle of Greek sweet white wine. I graciously accepted her gift, though it was instantly obvious that, like most Poles, she knew precious little about wine. I said to myself that it was a shame I hadn’t the opportunity to invite her to one of a series of wine tastings I was hosting before I had found a place to start my business. Prior to leasing Baszta, I drove through remote areas of south Central Spain, where some excellent very inexpensive wines were being produced and met with directors of wineries, who sent sample bottles of their wines at no cost to Wrocław. I made a video from this journey of the automated wine bottling process:

In both a bar and in my home I organized events for a maximum of fifteen people, each who tasted from ten different bottles, completely unaware of what wines they were consuming.

I asked each participant to rate the wines, on a scale of one to six, one being poor, six excellent. A few had never tasted a dry wine, while others had some experience in the West of drinking quality dry wines. What I discovered, for the most part, was that there was a consistency of preferences and that the best inexpensive dry wines I shared scored higher than the one or two sweet wines I included in the tastings, simply to draw comparisons. After my business was opened, I invited sommeliers representing wine makers from abroad to promote their products at wine tastings that I organized.

I started reading Tokarczuk’s book but didn’t get very far. I put it down after suffering through an early passage that was a most heartbreaking intimate description of what it must feel like to stand inside the shoes of a village drunkard. As the spring was then arriving, I was about to become intimately acquainted with such depressing characters, who loitered in the tower’s surrounding courtyard.

After going to the trouble and paying quite a sum to install the handmade windows throughout the structure, for the sake of daytime customers, it quickly became apparent why the prior wine bar only opened in the evening, when the vagrants and derelict neighbors disappeared. I concluded that painting over the windows on the lower floors was likely also intended to keep these desperado men from seeing inside.

This aspect of the darkness of Poland’s haunted past so vividly narrated in Tokarczuk’s book, became a prominent feature of what I was soon to encounter daily, once spring had arrived.

I contemplated a name that perhaps unconsciously conveyed the spirit of where I came from, sunny southern California, that I wished to shine inside of Tokarczuk’s tower. The first name I came up with for my new business was “Lighthouse,” but after a second thought, I felt that this was too trite. Eventually, I decided to name it, La Luz, literally meaning, “The Light,” in Spanish. I had also considered calling it Hotel California, as it seemed that wherever I traveled abroad, I would hear either on the radio or some street performer singing, “You can check out any time you want but you can never leave.” It then struck me that I might inadvertently attract travelers, who would be calling incessantly and at all hours, in search of a place to sleep.

Little did I know, as I began to see that I didn’t know many things, that coincidentally the word, Luz, in Polish, is slang for “Chill out.” This was fine with me at first, for I intended to provide an enlightened laid-back ambiance. What I didn’t know, until I had made stationary, business cards and commissioned two large neon signs that were installed outside, over the door and inside on the back wall of the bottom floor, is that it is a term commonly associated with Polish teenagers. Once again, I had made a choice that risked attracting the wrong customers.

Downstairs interior wall

Acrobatic fire show on top of the medieval wall

When the water from melted snow poured inside of the building, I immediately informed Tokarczuk, who had become difficult to reach. Shortly after I signed the contract, she began traveling, which she did pretty much nonstop from that time on. Her reaction was also a foreboding of what was coming, that she felt no obligation to repair the roof of her newly acquired property. Hoping to avoid starting out on the wrong foot with my new landlord, I agreed to pay half of the cost for a minor patchwork repair of one corner, where small holes and cracks in tiles had been located. She also left me with the burden of finding roofers, which was by no means my responsibility. This was a terrible omen of things to come.

My need for an assistant was mainly to help obtain a slew of required permits, which for me would have been impossible to do on my own, due to my very elementary knowledge of Polish language, which is considered one of the most difficult languages on earth to learn. I had learned well enough for basic one-on-one communication but in no way was I able to decipher and discuss documents and in particular their complicated legal jargon.

Also, with just three months to spare, there were so many tasks at hand. Soon I would find out that nothing whatsoever inside of the building met new EU regulations. The entire electrical and plumbing systems needed to be replaced and the ventilation ducts were too narrow in circumference.

All was just an illusion, conditions of the building no better than had I rented any of the other places I had visited, where I would have had to start from scratch.

Not even the inside stairway was considered wide enough. This was impossible to change, hence, I received a quick lesson from an architect, who I became obligated by Polish law to hire, on greasing palms, which was still how things were frequently done in a post-communist society.

Still unknown to me, the tile roof’s deteriorating condition was beyond patchwork repair and most shocking, above all else, the alcohol licenses I applied for (one for wine and another for beer) were denied, due to the behavior of the prior owners, whose licenses had been revoked. All of this came as a shock to me, for when I had visited the tower shortly before it was sold, I saw customers drinking both wine and beer, which I suddenly realized must have been sold illegally. Among many shocking discoveries, after the contract was signed, tenants of the nearby tenement apartments had complained incessantly about wild drunken parties that went on into the late evenings.

Were Tokarczuk and her real estate agent oblivious of all of this? I had just signed a 5-year agreement in order to operate a wine bar and my business faced the prospect of never opening, due to the irresponsibility of the prior owners, who I had never even met! Nor had I ever visited Baszta during loud, late night beer drinking parties. All I ever knew was of a very serene, quiet, romantic place to bring a date and to drink cheap wine.

What also became news to me, was the requirement to hire an architect to make a detailed project assessing the building’s condition, including new plans which had to be drawn of the entire structure. Why, I pondered, hadn’t this been the obligation of the new owner, before leasing it to a tenant?

All documents being written in Polish language, neither my architect or assistant ever informed me that a study of the roof, that was part of the architectural project, stipulated that it needed to be completely replaced.

New architectural project of the existing 13th century tower, 2005

If all of this was not a big of enough surprise, the new ventilation system, that the architect designed in her project, would cost more than my entire calculated renovation budget, while I was simultaneously paying, without any income, for my living expenses, my assistant’s salary and two rents.

What a contrast to the apartment I had been living in by then for about eight years. The owner was an elderly man, who treated me like I was his son. If anything went wrong, he came with a plumber, electrician or carpenter. Not nearly as old as Baszta, it was still a very old building constructed by the Germans prior to the war and it was in constant need of repairs.

It took some politicking but eventually I convinced the director of the alcohol permit department to visit the tower and have a meeting, at which time I insisted that I was not planning on repeating the mistakes made by the prior student owners. My intended demographic, I reassured him, was a more mature clientele and I had no intention of selling cheap beer at late night parties, which had cost the previous owners their alcohol permits.

Though I was finally granted the permits, in a matter of time, it would become obvious that I could not have possibly chosen a more inappropriate name than La Luz.

I consulted with a couple of ventilation contractors and discovered that there were ways to install a system that would still be expense but nowhere close to the price that my architect had stipulated. When I informed her that I had sought opinions from other experts, as I had no means of paying for such an expensive system, she was furious and quit. Wouldn’t you know, she had a personal relationship with the person, who she chose to install the ventilation system.

If only I had understood earlier that I was just a pawn, as a naïve western man, in a game of bribery and nepotism.

Suddenly, I had an architectural project but no architect to present to city offices, in a long and arduous process of obtaining a seemingly endless list of required permits.

Instead, all I had was my young, inexperienced assistant, who had already advised me to sign a disastrous lease agreement, far more disastrous than I still knew at that time.

Meanwhile, Tokarczuk was traveling abroad and as I informed her by email of my many troubles, she started reacting as if I had become nothing but a huge nuisance.

My young assistant was immersed, not only in the endless office crawling to obtain business and construction permits but also those I required personally, for as a non EU citizen it was legally required to establish a Polish limited liabilities company, obtain a residency and work permit, both which had to be painstakingly renewed annually, each time having to start over, as if none of the prior documents that were approved were valid. Much of his effort required Tokarczuk’s permission, while she had become more and more distant, both geographically and in spirit.

In so doing, my young assistant missed a crucial filing date, which distressingly set back obtaining my business license by several months. It was suddenly obvious that no way would it be possible to open the business within anywhere close to three months, at which time my rent would have been tripled, without the ability to earn any income.

A fundamental problem with the new free enterprise economy in Poland was rooted in the agreement made on the very day that I was invited to Poland, in the spring of 1989, at what is famously known as the “roundtable discussions. “The first election that was held allowed for a slate of candidates for just one third of the country’s legislature, known as the Sejm (something akin to a western country’s Parliament or the US House of Representatives). Candidates of the Solidarity union’s party won a landslide victory shortly before I made my maiden voyage to Poland, but still the Communist Party maintained majority control.

Due to Solidarity’s tremendous victory, they were allowed to select the new Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. People said was a nice man, who became far too accommodating to the Communist Party. Unlike in Germany, where, when the East and West were reunited, all communists with government positions were banned from public service for life, in Poland they were allowed to keep their jobs. This meant that the entire bureaucracy and judicial system was still inundated with ex-communists, while incongruously, free enterprise began to take hold. This is what the Law and Justice Party has claimed that it intends to correct many years later, while opponents on the left see this as an attempted authoritarian coup.

The former communists’ handling of a single day late in the filing of a document was unforgiving and would be met with debilitating punishments. This would happen down the road several times, in each case at the hands of a young assistant. Even though I implored them to be on time, they simply didn’t believe that it was that urgent, sort of like refusing to wear masks during a pandemic.

Twice I lost my wine sales permit for several months, because an assistant showed up to pay a quarterly fee a day late. I had become painfully aware of what to anticipate, when once I had a meeting at the alcohol department and saw a young woman I knew crying, as she left the office, that I was about to enter. She managed a bar with her boyfriend and was sobbing because she had appeared a few days late, unaware of the severe penalty she would receive. Because of this, each and every time I asked someone, who I had hired as my assistant, to be certain to not miss the deadline, they did so anyway. One of them, a young woman, cried for days but didn’t tell me why. I finally sat down with her and asked, “Did someone in your family die? Did you break up with your boyfriend?” “No,” she confessed. “I applied for your wine permit a day too late and they revoked it.”

I had been negotiating with a wine importer at the time to make a small shop inside of the bar floor of the tower and the opportunity, among several to follow, was never to be.

There was little hope of hiring someone with adequate experience, because it was extremely rare that anyone, who had been raised and educated during the communist era, could speak more than broken English. Plus, standards and service habits during those times were terribly lacking. I found over time that some workers had an awful attitude of “elitist arrogance,” that made quality customer service impossible to teach.

There were occasional exceptions, usually workers, who had already spent time in the West, though sometimes their motivation was poor because they had to accept being paid back home a fraction of what they had become accustomed to receiving abroad.

Many young Poles, who grew up as Poland was vying to join the European Union, knew that their futures depended on speaking English. What they themselves didn’t grasp was that the old communists, who still ran the bureaucracy, had not changed their practices and habits, which were in direct opposition to policies that would support the sustainability of a new small business.

My expressed upset at my assistant’s failure to file on time for the business license was met with extreme anger. He wasn’t sobbing and he quit on me, as had my architect. I had become rather hysterical by then, not yet aware that even had he met the deadline, it would have not made it possible to open my business on time, as many more dreadful hurdles lie ahead. Some of them relied on Tokarczuk’s cooperation, when she was nowhere to be found, as she seemed completely unconcerned whether a tile from the roof fell directly onto someone’s head.

Very likely, I was already suffering from PTSD over prior experiences that occurred long before I ever met Tokarczuk or even imagined starting such a venture. I found it a distressful pattern that Poles sometimes would run in the opposite direction, if I ever expressed urgency about anything or insisted on the importance of being on time. I came to recognize that the nation was still recovering from profound historical wounds and that its people suffered from PTSD that was regularly being projected onto me. They had been subjected to extreme oppression over centuries, having endured several invasions and partitions of their homeland. After all, I had rented an ancient red brick symbol of the origins of this, a guard tower that was built to protect the original medieval city.

Hope sprung eternal, when by chance I met a Pole in a shop, who overheard me speaking English and said hello. Like many Poles, he went west after Poland was liberated in 1989 and was living in New Jersey. When I told him of my new business venture, he expressed strong interest in becoming my silent partner.

He also knew a woman, who had managed restaurants and highly recommended that I hire her, which I did, but as feared, she didn’t speak a word of English. Further, he said to me that in Poland five years was not enough time to recover one’s investment, which I was quickly finding out, and he insisted that in order to become my partner it would be necessary to convince Tokarczuk to extent the duration of the contract to ten years.

It was fortunate that she was in town, while he was visiting Poland, to see his sickly mother, and I introduced him to her as my prospective investor. However, Tokarczuk refused to amend the contract.

The next day, he said he had spoken to a friend, who owned a restaurant and warned him that no foreigner owning a restaurant in Wrocław would last longer than six months.

That was the last I heard from him, as he returned to the US without saying goodbye.

Like many jolting encounters to come, this would prove to be a repeated pattern.

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