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Chapter 7


From Solidarność to Samoobsługa

The amended lease Tokarczuk offered afforded me breathing room but my renovation budget was already badly depleted and there was still no way that I could install an expensive ventilation system, though as I slowly learned Polish ways, I found doable methods to serve microwave burritos and eventually a very limited menu of Mexican food, without worrying about the sanitation department closing down my business.

In survival mode, I did not lease a business car and instead took taxis, when necessary. The city is small enough to walk to many places, the tramway system is very efficient and taxi rides were very inexpensive. Nor could I afford new furniture, so I spent weekends going to outdoor flea markets, where I found old, worn out antique chairs and tables that I would bring back bit by bit in taxis, drag them inside of the tower on my own, then sand them down and apply fresh lacquer.

By then, my business plan had been torn to shreds, but I continued to rely on the artist in me to conjure up workarounds, with memories of past experiences that taught me survival skills in a redeveloping country. Those memories fueled my adamance to plow ahead.

One such circumstance was when I was invited back to Poland for the second time, in 1991, to exhibit my photography in a large seven-room office space that was just about to be converted into a new art gallery. I was promised that if I returned a few months later, the walls would be painted and a new lighting system would be installed but when I arrived, I was stunned to discover that no renovation had been done. There was not even electricity. Nor could I find anyone who knew how to print images larger than snapshot size from the 35 mm slides I brought with me. Hence, I organized a “candlelight postcard” exhibition that instantly evoked an Old World elegance inside of what otherwise during daylight looked like rundown office space.

On the day that Jerzy Ryba invited me to Poland in the spring of 1989, he said that one of the requirements was to do an artistic project, while in his country. He gave me no clue concerning what materials I would have at my disposal, where I would be able to do the work and it sounded like a rather formidable task, given that he planned for me to spend at least first half of my 45 day visit traveling from town to town. The photo essay I showed in the aforementioned exhibition began in Poland, a camera being one way to be creative, while on the move. While traveling, I saw two words appear no matter where I visited. One, Solidarność (Solidarity) was always the same ubiquitous crude, painterly graphic, in red color on white, that includes the red and white Polish flag.

Another, Społem, is the name of the Polish communist entity that was engaged in virtually all production and distribution of consumer products. It was the ultimate consumer monopoly in communist times, only the quality and variety of food, drink and consumer goods was for the most part abysmal. The word, which means something akin to “unity and togetherness,” was always presented in the same modernist graphic. It was reproduced as decals on shop windows, on restaurant china, silverware and as neon signs.

I found an irony in the fact that Solidarity was also a symbol of unification, which was opposed to what Społem stood for. While traveling, on sheets of typing paper I drew both words but switched their iconographic graphics, so that Społem was represented by the crude painterly Solidarność graphic and Solidarność became a slick modernist logo. In the further name of unification, I synthesized the two logos into a single word: Społemność.

Th Społemność graphic became the front side of the “candlelight postcard installation. The three ink drawings were framed and also shown on one wall of the exhibition.

I repeated the exhibition twice later on, in Belgium and in Spain, at night without gallery lights turned on and by handing lit candles to visitors. The shows were accompanied by a written short story describing why this was so. The purpose of the exhibition abroad was to help awaken people in the West to the depressing conditions I found in Poland, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Empire.

Upon my third visit to Poland, in 1996, as a free enterprise economy began to take shape, I also began to notice a change in the spirit of the people. Solidarity was already pretty much a lost notion. On the wall of a cafeteria above where food was served was a large sign which said: Samoobsługa. Someone explained that the word means, “self-service.” At that instant, I realized that the project Ryba had asked of me to create in his country was still unfinished years later. It became an alliteration word game by coincidence, in a language I did not know, beyond a few words. On another piece of typing paper, I drew the fourth graphic in red ink, synthesizing the seemingly contradictory words, “Self-Service” with “Solidarity.”

A little less than one decade later, I was in solidarity with myself, unable to form any semblance of a union with my landlord, in whom I had placed such lofty expectations. Instead, nonstop I had to resort to seeking creative solutions out of dire need to keep a dream alive.

For my new business, I hired a furniture maker to construct wood platforms, at a very low cost, upon which I placed colorful pillows, as a means of providing comfortable Moroccan-style sofa seating and bought some old wooden tables, which I restored myself, from a warehouse that sold used furniture from closed down restaurants.

At that point, Jacob, who had taken over for my former architect to finish obtaining construction permits, also had to convince her to cooperate, for if enough already hadn’t caused me lost sleep, she threatened to sabotage my business before it ever saw la luz del día.

When eleven months had transpired, God knows how I still hadn’t become one of the neighborhood drunkards. I had finally planned to open for the holidays, New Year’s Eve the by far most lucrative night of the year. Jacob had found an architect, who was required to sign off on the final construction permit. Inexplicably, he disappeared with vital documents. The reason later given was that he had fallen into a drunken stupor. The depressing passage I had read in Tokarcuk’s book had continued to come back to haunt me.

Whatever I did, more booby traps were awaiting and, incredibly, it took just over one year to open my business, which meant that surely Tokarczuk received the kickback written into her sales agreement, on top of the rent I paid monthly, plus a new electrical system, plumbing and beautiful, uniquely handcrafted windows installed on all three floors of the building.

By then, the woman I had hoped to plan a future with, which was the main reason I chose to remain in Poland, was long gone. She gave up on me, while I had nearly lost my mind fighting windmills to get the final permit to open the door to customers.

I can’t help but find myself drawing a disturbingly ironic link to what I have witnessed happening many years later in the United States, one that back then I would have never thought of. Profiting from failure of others is the bane of unregulated vulture capitalism. I cannot help but draw a parallel to the exploitative business practices of a businessman from my country, whose entire career as a several times bankrupted real estate speculator led him to be bailed out by Russian oligarchs. He failed in his quest to build a tower in Moscow but instead received help to become president, upon making dirty deals with them back home.

Funny thing, Poles have a verb for this, that was popularized during communist times, kombinować (pronounced, kom-be-no-vahch). Without a doubt in my mind, this has everything to do with Trump’s fondness for doing business with Russians. Poles say that kombinować is a word that cannot be translated into another language. Wiktionary describes it as: “to try to resolve a problem [in] unusual ways.” Reddit says it means “contrived intrigues, shady business.” A website, called Polandian, adroitly coins it, “a catch-all term for a range of activities involving the circumnavigation of laws, rules or normal procedures.”

Those who lived through the communist era had to learn such survival skills and in the new climate of free enterprise, with an old Stalinist bureaucracy still lurking in the shadows, kombinować perfectly exemplified the combining of underhanded western business scheming with old communist slights of hand.

When I hear people belittle the Russiagate scandal as another hoax, it is all too transparent to me that it represents a dangerously disruptive form of kombinować, that has infiltrated our democratic institutions and has spread like a cancer.

More and more Western men saw great opportunities in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, many who arrived long after I had, when multinational corporations were establishing headquarters throughout Wrocław. Though hardly known by most people in the West, the city quickly became recognized as a strategic spot geographically between East and West, situated about halfway between Berlin and Warsaw. The new influx of western businessmen lived and worked in brand new buildings and sometimes they held trainings or private parties inside of a medieval tower, which by then I had transformed into a serious restaurant. If they didn’t move abroad with their wives, several I knew married Polish women, who worked for them.

As the saying goes, you can tell a pioneer because he’s the one with arrows sticking out of his back, it was often another story for lone wolves like myself, who had no such protections of powerful, established companies or institutions based in western countries. Hypermarkets born in France, Germany, Sweden and the UK were popping up everywhere on the outskirts of Polish cities. Down the street from Baszta, a large new office building sprung up and among its new tenants was Google and a headquarter of UPS. For most foreigners, who were relocated to Poland to work in such enterprises, consulates and embassies, it was a completely different experience, of living and working in bubbles that were largely cushioned from a dark Polish reality that I faced every single day and tried in my small way to brighten up with a little bit of la luz.

I also personally knew of a few pioneers, who succeeded wildly, my Danish friend among them, but they started out just when Poland was liberated and there was no competition yet. It took a lot of guts and foresight to gamble back then, but it was a rare moment in time, when one could have started selling any widget and made a mint.

There is another Polish term that applies, one which became synthesized into a funny hybrid of Polish and English language during the communist era: zasadzka (pronounced, zah-sahd-skuh). The first time I heard this word, it was when in 1989 a Polish friend introduced me in a private nightclub to a young woman, who couldn’t speak a word in English, except for when out of thin air she said to me,

“Life is brutal and full of zasadzkas.”

Zasadzka literally means, ambush or trap. The suffix of the letter “s” at the end of the word connotates the plural form, as in English, but in Polish the plural is: zasadzki.

There is also a corollary to this phrase: Life is brutal and full of zasadzkas, and sometimes kopas w dupas (a kick in the ass).

This, quite obviously, is what Tokarczuk felt when growing up, as she spoke of the utter hopelessness of:

It was impossible even to dream of escape. I was convinced as a teenager that I would have to spend the rest of my life in this trap.”

Nor by any means was this toxic spirit specific to Poland. The book, Red Notice, by Bill Browder, details how he made a fortune in Russia, after the USSR collapsed, when virtually no one else imagined it would be possible, only to be falsely accused of tax evasion and robbed of everything. His Russian tax advisor, who planned to reveal who was behind the institutionalized high crimes, was also falsely accused, imprisoned and slowly tortured to death.

The outcome was the Magnitsky Act, that was passed during the Obama presidency, which imposed economic sanctions on Russia, also because Putin had invaded Crimea. Sergei Magnitsky was Browder’s slowly slowly institutionally murdered tax advisor.

The longer term impact is that Putin helped get Trump elected president and Trump, in turn, followed Putin’s footsteps in his attempt to slowly demolish democratic institutions, that are the foundation of the United States Constitution. The abuses of power he repeatedly employed  amounted to a one-two punch, of engaging in kombinować tactics and putting people in various zasadzkas. It’s no wonder why Trump is so fond, as well, of Duda!

As I learned the hard way, whereas Poland had become an EU member, it remained far removed from establishing more acceptable western norms, though hype in the West more closely reflected illusory impressions of what those found, who lived and worked in neoliberal corporate and institutional bubbles.

In 2014, Obama visited Warsaw, as the country celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first free election since 1945, which was at the very moment that I first visited in 1989. He gave a speech and remarked that Ukraine could learn from Poland’s “success” story. I had read a book published in 2001 by an American woman, who lived in Ukraine, in which she said that a most dangerous business for a westerner would be to open and operate a restaurant, as they were easy targets for inspectors to enter and make bogus accusations of illegal activities. When I read this, I thought to myself, “In what way had Poland evolved?”

Inspected beer (Piwo, in Polish)

Several times inspectors had entered my restaurant and made false accusations, of everything from beer for sale that they suspected, without just cause, had been watered down, to selling wine that they claimed was illegally imported.

The inspectors said that someone had called them up, obviously with subversive intent. They were honest enough to admit, after testing a sample of the beer, that it had not been tampered with but the wine inspectors were not so kind. One winter evening, when I was home suffering from a cold, they entered and discovered a couple of bottles were missing long, narrow tax stamps known as “banderoles,” that are glued to the top of alcohol bottles, which become broken when the bottles are opened. Polish wine importers had to purchase the banderoles, which had no adhesive, and they had to apply glue themselves to their back sides. A new wine importer had used the wrong glue and the banderoles began to fall off. I was summoned to a customs office and given a stark choice: either pay a hefty fine or I could fight in court, which would only lead to a much more grave penalty, if not prison.

Such were the ways things were done in the land of kombinować, that Trump helped import to the United States, in the spirit of Making America Great Again. There’s nothing like living in a society, where due process doesn’t exist, except for the privileged few.

Ridiculous rumors had spread after I performed years before for the media festival, that I covertly operated a prostitution ring. Someone said they had heard that I was a member of the CIA. All of this for sharing with Poles the most wonderful cultural advantages I could, not only from the West but domestically. To the exact contrary of watering down beer, I sold an award-winning Polish brand produced by a small brewery, that few restaurants or bars in Poland carried, because the big commercial breweries, some of them, which had been bought by western conglomerates, offered free glasses, furniture, ash trays and so forth to bars and restaurants, in some cases even bribing their managers with money.

Often it was asked if the reason I was in Poland was for its women, for many western men had by then discovered Slavic beauties, who, as the stereotype goes, were anticipated to be the sort of traditional housewives that had become rare in the age of American feminism, who also just so happened to look like supermodels. In fact, my love life had gone to hell as well, for I became an easy to target in a culture, where Slavic men were extremely jealous of their women. One older Polish woman said to me that it was a game Slavic women often played, to flirt with a man to provoke jealousy with their boyfriend or husband. Several times my life was threatened after taking the bait hook, line and sinker. Once this happened to me and two other American men I knew, in three separate instances, all on the same evening, simply for talking to a woman in a public venue. In two of the instances, it was the women, who approached us.

God forbid one of them also so happened to be an alcohol inspector. On the other hand, at least two birds could have been killed with one stone.

If it weren’t for urgent family help and the most terrible irony of all, my sister’s death, I would not have lasted more than six months, let alone five years. This had driven my father to a point of near hysteria. My one sibling, my sister, had died of cancer three years after I leased Baszta. It had become so dangerous for me to leave to see her, when she was deteriorating as badly as Baszta’s roof, that my father told me not to abandon my business.

It was at that moment, when I knew that big changes were essential, if I were be able, somehow, to continue.,

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