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Chapter 8

 

A New Kitchen and the Neighbor’s Celebratory Gift

Poland was growing by leaps and bounds, while I lived there. It was the only European country not to go into the red in 2008, as the US was soon to elect its first minority race president, who inherited the economic crash. I was trying to obtain a bank loan, when attempting to make a major upgrade in my business, by installing a new kitchen, but it was denied because the Polish banks became ultra conservative, which is largely why the country remained relatively economically stable.

That year, Tokarczuk won the biggest award for fiction in Poland, the Nike Award, from the owners of one of the country’s most widely read newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza. The money she received was worth far more than enough to restore the tower’s roof. At that time, she finally agreed to extend the contract to ten years duration, on the premise that I would make further investments in her property, including a serious kitchen that I had in mind. She also hiked up the rent by about twenty percent.

The city of Wrocław has a historical buildings department, which had recently demanded of Tokarczuk to make a full restoration of the roof. By then it had sprung leaks several times, minor patch repairs becoming useless, and she finally agreed, in turn, to take care of it, which would be possible with the aid of government funding that was available for restoration of historical landmarks. Further, at the city’s demand, she agreed to hire an architect to design a new entrance through the medieval wall, where one had once existed, enabling direct easy access to Baszta’s door.

Unable to receive a bank loan, I did my part with all of the inheritance from my sister’s will and built an entirely new kitchen. My mother cried, for my parents were rightly incapable of comprehending why I had not thrown in the towel. They visualized what I had received from my deceased sister as good as being flushed down the toilet, with their only surviving child, still so far away.

There were reasons that I had stubbornly refused to give up, one being that I had been approached by several potential investors, all who had said the same thing: that the five year lease was too short to make a return on one’s investment. With the new ten year lease, not only was I convinced that I would be able to land an investor, but I quickly lured one of the most wealthy businessmen in Poland, who owned a wine import business in Krakow. He wanted to transform my business into his sales outlet on the western side of the country. His vision was for it to become both a high end restaurant and wine shop, similar to one that he was soon to open in the heart of Warsaw.

He sent his architects to Wroclaw, who devised a plan. The investment he proposed was about equal to what Tokarczuk had paid for the building.

This required her cooperation, while her new architect had drawn new plans to open up the hole in the wall. However, I had to pull teeth to obtain them from Zygadło, who had become her manager and was dragging his feet, while she was globe trotting. Eventually I found out why. She had fired the architect. As a result, the department of historical buildings refused to even look at the new plans.

New entrance drawing by architect, Krzysztof Kobielski, who was fired, 2008

Why was my own landlord refusing to cooperate, many people asked? It was in her own best interest to care for the maintenance of her property and to see my business succeed.

The one and only explanation I could muster was that the Polish businessman, who wrote for Poland Monthly, was right all along. God only knows how many times I recalled my first, by then long gone manager, frantically shrieking that Tokarczuk was just using me to restore her newly purchased real estate and then would toss me out.

It took five months to install the new kitchen, while the business was closed down but this time she refused to temporarily reduce the monthly rent payments. I figured that with my wealthy new partner coming on board, the short term costs would be worth the gambit.

During that time I had a staff to pay, including an expensive new head chef. By the time the new kitchen was ready and new permits were obtained to reopen, Tokarczuk had done absolutely nothing to make the new passage through the wall or restore the roof.

The new kitchen design was the last work of my father’s life. He was a retired international restaurant designer. Among his enormous body of achievements, he designed the restaurants for the original Disneyland and Disneyland Paris, for hotels around the world, for the 1968 Mexican Olympics and the first big hotels on the Strip in Las Vegas. He was also known for being engaged in what is known as “Googie” architectural design, which typified a space age design style of the late 1950s and early ‘60s, which particularly flourished in southern California, in the form of restaurants commonly called “Coffee Shops.” One of his best known restaurants is Norms. The one seen here, located in West Hollywood, became designated a historical landmark, when there was a virulent public outcry about attempts to have the building torn down.

From day one, my father was deeply skeptical of my business succeeding and he could not have been more right, but for some of the wrong reasons, for he had no idea of the enormity of the impediments that I faced in a redeveloping semi-post-communist country. On the phone he once lectured me concerning keeping track of every broken wine glass. The cost of replacing broken drinking glasses was a drop in the bucket compared to the cost to my burgeoning business of ever growing cracks in the ancient roof tiles.

One way to alleviate breaking wine glasses is to drive away customers and soon I was to have even less worries about that. Just when I reopened, with a new kitchen, the manager of the office building next door erected a tall corrugated metal fence blocking the entrance to the courtyard through his parking lot, which remained the only halfway reasonable access to the tower’s door. Talk about a royal zasadzka!…

There was a brand new kitchen but no new roof, no new entry through the wall and now no entry at all anywhere near the building!

When I first saw this, in utter disbelief, I reflected on the fact that I nearly got on a train from Wrocław to Berlin back in late 1989, on the euphoric day that the wall was torn down. The only reason that I didn’t was that the train was completely full, with passengers packed like sardines standing in the aisles.

Three decades later, I reflect on the panic of my Danish friend about losing the rights that Poles fought so hard for, that culminated in the nonviolent revolution, that I had witnessed firsthand. Without question, the incredible repression I had been subjected to upon leasing Baszta was about old communist practices and attitudes that gave rise to the regressive trajectory of where my friend feared that the country appeared to be once again headed.

A Polish lawyer I met at my restaurant said to me, “The new freedom means that now people can place fences around their personal property.” This became the beauty of tearing down the Berlin Wall. Now individuals can have one of their very own.

Was this the freedom Poles had fought so long and hard for?

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