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Chapter 6

 

The Set Up

Fighting for my life, only my new manager was still on board, who I had not hired to obtain permits or engage in architectural renovation. Just when I desperately needed divine intervention, I was introduced to a young man named Jacob, who told me that his father was the director of a small Jewish community, that I had already become aware of, though in a not so pleasant way. Not far from the center of town is a large synagogue that had been damaged during the war and had never been restored but was nevertheless being used regularly for both religious services and weekend concerts. Like the tower, it was hidden in a courtyard behind some buildings, including a restaurant serving traditional Jewish food, that were owned by the small Jewish community. Two doors down was a space for rent that, like all others I’d considered leasing, prior to Baszta, was completely gutted inside. An elderly man representing the Jewish community made me an offer, that he claimed to be at an unusually low price, that he was doing as a big favor.

When I submitted a formal written proposal upon his request, I learned that he had already rented it to the owner of a discotheque that was situated in the center of town, who had offered him more money.

Jacob said to me that he knew that, as a foreigner, I would face many obstacles and he offered me protection, though this was not an encouraging sign. It was never in my mind that I would be confronted with such a dynamic in the year 2006, to turn to my inherited religious affiliation for such help. It felt as if he was speaking as the son of the community’s mafia Godfather, yet he appeared to have little if any sway.

Nevertheless, in dire need of support from somewhere and with nothing to pay him, I offered him a small percentage of ownership of the business. In exchange, he assumed the responsibility of obtaining construction permits and overseeing the restoration work that needed to be done, while helping overcome all of the mounting obstacles I faced.

Still unknown to me, those obstacles were just the tip of a slowly melting iceberg.

Jacob was at my apartment one evening, with my new manager, as she went through a cabinet full of papers collected by my former assistant. As she looked one document over, she suddenly screamed, in Polish, with Jacob translating:

“Oh my God! Tokarczuk is using you to invest in her building and then she is going to kick you out!”

Where before had I been warned of this?

What my new manager had found in the drawer was a copy of the sales agreement between Tokarczuk and the former owners of Baszta, which I didn’t know was there. Surely, my young assistant had received it from her, which became necessary to present upon applying for various permits. Either he never read its contents, had done so with the same lack of comprehension, as when he read the lease agreement just before I signed it, he knew and didn’t care or had been sworn to silence.

My new manager proceeded to recite a most curious clause that Jacob translated into English, which stipulated that the building was zoned specifically for a restaurant or bar and that no one could live on the premises. This fact I already knew. What I did not know, until that moment, was a most peculiar clause, which I have copied from the actual contract:

This is the English translation:

Waldemar Zbytek on behalf of the Association of Polish Students with its seat in Warsaw, in the event of refusal by the City Hall to issue a permit to run a food services business in an establishment located on the property described in item 1 of this act, by December 12th, two thousand and five (12.12.2005) for reasons not attributable to her, undertakes to pay Olga Nawoji Tokarczuk, as a contractual penalty, the amount of 60,000 PLN (sixty thousand Polish złoties) by January thirty-first two thousand and six (01/31/06).

The sales agreement was signed on December 13, 2004. I signed the lease agreement on January 18, 2005 and was unable to receive the permit to open my business until January 22, 2006.

I contractually committed to pay 4,500 złotys on a monthly basis, after the first three months, during which time I paid one-third of that amount. Meanwhile, if it became impossible to obtain a permit to open my business within one year’s time of the date that Tokarczuk signed the sales agreement, she would receive back from the seller the equivalent of 5,000 zlotys for each of the first twelve months.

In other words, she would profit, even if my business failed before it ever got off the ground.

It instantly struck me that she and her real estate agent must have known everything about the snake pit I had fallen into, when she offered me a lease with only three months of a lowered rent fee. She had to be aware of the many horrors that lie ahead and had negotiated a guarantee to protect herself, in the event that a naïve tenant might never be able to open one’s business, while she would still be covered from any loss of paid rent.

For all I knew, that clause was included on the premise that she herself was assumed to go through the long and arduous process of restoring the roof, installing new electricity, plumbing and ventilation and obtaining permits before leasing the building to open up such a business. The argument she and her boyfriend would repeatedly make was that she gave me such a terrific deal on the price I would pay each month, as if this somehow compensated for the nonstop nightmares that ensued, which surely explains the reason that such a clause was included in the sales agreement in the first place. Meanwhile, I invested my blood, sweat, tears and personal funding into restoring the interior of the building, ultimately for her own benefit.

Had she chosen me as her tenant because she was so enamored with my artistic and cultural plans for the usage of Baszta, or because a wide-eyed California artist was an easy target to sucker?

Adding insult to injury, my manager then showed me clauses, which made it easy to evict me for any trumped up reason.

It was a set up.

This was just the beginning of the nightmares I was about to endure, as Poles, who were enthralled with their cultural hero, regarded her a sacred cow, while I had become her convenient hybrid of an all-in-one cash cow, pawn, guinea pig and sacrificial lamb, who had signed a toxic agreement, whereby I inherited a monumental can of worms, in an impoverished village of hostile locals and down-and-out drunkards.

In such situations, highly cultured Poles would typically say, kurwa mać!, (pronounced, koor-vuh mahch), or in English, fuck!

Not knowing what to do, I was introduced to an elderly female lawyer, who said she knew Tokarczuk personally, insisted, as had others, that she was an honorable woman and that surely she would amend our written agreement to provide me with more security as her tenant.

In fact, I had by then seen three lawyers, one of them, who stated that it was Tokarczuk’s legal obligation to install a functioning ventilation system for a building that was zoned strictly for a restaurant/bar business. When she found out that I had seen lawyers, she made an extraordinary statement to me: that artists don’t file lawsuits. I guess we artists are supposed to be merely easy-to-exploit children, even as owners of a business that cannot be opened, unless a seemingly endless series of legal requirements must be met that the building’s owner has no time for.

Tokarczuk, Jacob and I met and she agreed to maintain the rent at one third what I had agreed to pay monthly for the entire first year. However, once again this was on the stipulation that all of the further investments I made in restoring the interior of her building would one day be hers to keep.

The Polish businessman, who had warned me, sounded more and more like the only voice I should have trusted. My friend, who never made it to the real estate office on time, repeatedly rubbed it in, and rightfully so, that I had made a monumental mistake not to insist that Tokarczuk wait for him to read the contract.

Still, I had no idea at that point in time that the architectural project I had paid for stated that the entire roof required being replaced! Once again, someone I had hired never informed me of an incredibly vital matter, even though my architect spoke fluent English. I began to wonder, was this all intentional?

Incredibly, invited many years before to Poland in the spirit of cultural exchange, I had been trying to help restore Tokarczuk’s recently purchased historical treasure and to open a business inside, in cooperative good faith, unaware of foreboding details in my lease agreement, in the architectural project I had paid for, in sweeping new EU regulations, the disastrous condition of the building, the purportedly reckless history of the prior ownership, the suspicious sales agreement she signed with the prior owners, the bad blood between them and the neighbors and the city department that grants alcohol sales permits.

The only person who awakened me to the truth, my new manager, was also the only person I relied on, who didn’t speak a word of English.

I should have known better, for this was not the first time that I had walked blindly into such a monstrous predicament, in post-communist Poland. I had lived through a similar movie plot once before, which began on the day that I returned to Poland in 1996, and crossed the German-Polish border in a private car, that was driven by a Polish friend, who had picked me up in Berlin, with my belongings that had been shipped to Berlin from Barcelona. At that time it was not yet legal to make a commercial shipment across the German-Polish border. The car was loaded with musical equipment, a computer and personal belongings I had brought from Barcelona, where I had last been living, to perform for a media festival in Wrocław. Upon arrival at the border, I became a sitting duck, as corrupt custom officials entrapped me in an act of institutionalized extortion. All went downhill from there, as the festival director in Wrocław was in bed with the flu, had to run down to the only open post office on a frozen over Sunday morning, in the dead of winter, to send a FAX to the border. He had warned me in advance that he wanted nothing to do with my journey into Poland and the problems that had only just begun led me down another path of dodging a litany of booby traps.

Following the festival, which was no less of an ordeal to prepare for, a Polish businessman friend hysterically screamed upon reading a document, in Polish language, that I had signed, without first asking for a translation. It didn’t seem necessary because the festival director, who had invited me, informed me that it was merely a formal document that was required for tax purposes. My friend nervously said that it was a contract and that I had just signed away the copyright to my life’s work as an artist!

My businessman friend had lived with his family for many years in Australia, after they had escaped from the communists during the lockdown of the country under Martial Law in the 1980s. He returned after Poland’s liberation, in 1989, no less naïve than myself in believing that it had become possible to establish an honest business, when he filled up a parking lot on the outskirts of Wrocław with kiosks that he rented out to pioneers in the new free enterprise climate. It was something akin to a cross between a flea market and a primitive version of what Europeans call “hypermarkets,” all-in-one massive department stores, similar to Walmart, that sell a bit of everything. Out of nowhere, his tenants conspired against him and stopped paying rent. He locked them out of their kiosks and hired private guards to protect his property. The tenants picketed with signs outside, it became front page and TV news and he became branded a slimy traitor to his country, who had exploited poor Poles trying to start up small businesses.

Polish friends of mine, who had heard or read the news, couldn’t understand why I was his friend and warned me to stay away from him. All I knew was that he had generously helped me transport new furniture to my first apartment and invited me to spend holiday dinners with his family, when I had nowhere else to go. I met my Danish friend through him as well.

Eventually, he discovered that his own lawyer had conspired against him. The lawyer’s wife had rented one of the kiosks, helped organize the tenants against him and he found out that his lawyer was also representing them. When he reported the gross conflict of interest to the court, the standoff ended and the tenants slowly paid back withheld rents. At that point, he filed a criminal complaint against his lawyer, insisted I do the same against the festival director and volunteered to write up the complaint for me.

At the hearing, the festival director claimed that the festival’s possession of the copyright to my artwork was for only the duration of his festival, but he had only paid me one-third of what he had agreed to before I made the journey from Barcelona to Wrocław. The prosecutor did nothing to force him to pay me what I was owed. The amount we had agreed to was equal to around one thousand US dollars, which he claimed was the most the festival had ever paid to any artist.

I had no illusions about coming to a poor, redeveloping country with a monetary incentive. Rather, my inspiration was the great respect and admiration I had developed for the artists I came to know, who had sponsored and supported my first visit in 1989, and who had played a vital role in the country’s liberation. All I had bargained for was to cover the transportation costs to and from Poland.

My friend also lost the case. He learned that his lawyer was a friend of the prosecutor, both of them leftovers from the old Communist Party. So helps explain the Law and Justice Party’s success years later.

The locals, who were engaged in a network of nepotism, were no less hostile to Poles, who had left and come back home after communism ended, than they were to foreigners, who were invited back to the home of their cultural heritage. In fact, even Poles, who moved to Wrocław from other parts of the country sometimes encountered a provincialism as anachronistic as if Wrocław was still a feudal city protected by moats, tall brick walls and haunted guard towers.

It is a long story in and of itself why I stayed in Poland and decided to segue from my multimedia art career to restoring a historical building and opening a wine bar and arts center inside. Not only had I twice staged shows at Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art, which exhibits top contemporary artists from around the world, but both there and for the media festival in Wrocław I had performed a live version of a musical film I created, while living both in Spain and Poland, that had recently won video festival awards in France, Spain and Italy.

I had plans to travel with a group of musicians to repeat the performance in other countries, but despite two successful shows, in Wrocław and Warsaw, every step I took I faced acts of attempted sabotage. My spirits were in tatters, when a woman came into my life, who I fell for and I decided to make a major life changing decision, to do something presumably more stable to build a future with her in Poland, because she said she couldn’t leave her mother behind, who lived alone in a small town.

For this reason, instead of moving on, I seriously considered the proposal of a Polish friend, who had spent his teenage years in Texas, to establish a Mexican restaurant in Wrocław. Both of us loved the food and had talked frequently of the awful food passing for Mexican in Poland. Things didn’t pan out between us but as Poland had just entered the European Union at that time and wine import tariffs were reduced, I decided to instead open a wine bar on my own and serve a simple side menu of burritos, present art exhibitions and other cultural events.

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray,” said Robert Burns, or as John Lennon so aptly put it, “Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.”

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