Escape to Poland: Journal entries from a constant wanderer

Follow musician Tom Mahnken as he documents his trip to Poznan, Poland in June 2011. He was on an international musical tour in the former communist country with a group of 75- to 90 year-old people who sang Rock and Roll songs.

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"I was told by Poles from Warsaw that the people in Ponzan were particularly odd and unfriendly, so I gave Poland the benefit of the doubt," writes Tom Mahnken. (Photo courtesy F. Alex Johnson)
“I was told by Poles from Warsaw that the people in Ponzan were particularly odd and unfriendly, so I gave Poland the benefit of the doubt,” writes Tom Mahnken. (Photo courtesy F. Alex Johnson)

Editor’s note: Our parent company, Local Voice Media, has employees who work in all different parts of the organization to make our content possible. Some take some pretty interesting trips as well. This story is from Tom Mahnken, our Vice President of Creative Services.  

Yes, I was in glorious former communist Poland. The people of Poznan, a city on the Warta River in the western part of the country, obligingly put on their best “Eastern European” face for us. That is to say, many of them were grim and humorless.

I don’t want you to read this and think I am complaining — the show went very well. The Young@Heart Chorus performed beautifully and to great response, although the audience at the Malta Festival in Poland liked to clap along on beats No. 1 and No. 3, as if all these Rock and Roll songs were some sort of Slavic vodka dance. But they did love the show.

The Kornik Castle is one of many tourist attractions in Ponzan, Poland. (Photo courtesy Tom Mahnken)
The Kornik Castle is one of many tourist attractions in Ponzan, Poland. (Photo courtesy Tom Mahnken)

The rest of the trip was a comedy of errors that began as soon as we got to JFK Airport in New York City. We flew on the glorious Lot Airlines, which was the official Polish Airline.

It worked like this: about 60 people lined up to check in at the Lot Airlines ticket counter. They had three people behind the counter, each of them apparently brand-new to the job. There was also a large man who worked for the airlines and whose job was to stand next to the counter and chew gum. I saw him do this for an hour and a half. Which is how long it took for the first seven people to check in.

There was a rule with Lot Airlines that said once the first seven people checked in, the staff must then take the signs down from the counter and close. We thought they had gone out of business. But then we were told no, we just had to go cue up at a counter on the other side of the airport.

Oh, and we had to move 55 pieces of luggage over there RIGHT NOW.

Fortunately, this gave us the chance to get close to either the front or the back of the check-in line, depending on how fast you could move, which was directly related to how old you were.

According to the Transportation Safety Administration officials, you are not allowed to shout “Run!” in an airport, even if the people you are shouting at have canes and white hair. I guess it was a ‘respect for the elderly’ thing.

Another 90 minutes later and we were checked in, which was enough time to realize that the rest of the people on the flight fell were 10- to 16 year-olds and their chaperones on their way to some really fun summer camp in Poland.

For many of them, this was obviously going to be the first time they had been allowed to stay up past 11 p.m. This did not bode well for a peaceful flight, and none of the cynical 75- to 90-year-olds in our group looked forward it. Imagine our relief when the flight was delayed four hours.

The delay gave us a chance to have a meal in the airport’s Irish Pub, which was remarkably similar to eating a meal in an Irish Pub in an airport. But it was good enough and it passed the time. When we boarded, I was fortunate enough to be seated next to several people I liked in the quiet part of the plane.

While I enjoyed the fact that I could see how much better business class was than steerage, it was bittersweet, knowing that I was not in the rear of the plane with most of the campers and would not, unlike the more elderly members of our group, be kept up all night by the stories they were telling each other about things that were “really awesome.”

I was intrigued by the modern overseas flights back then. Each seat had its own television screen, and you were able to choose from hundreds of movies to watch while you soared above the ocean. Menu choices were plentiful, snacks abound, and free liquor flowed like mountain spring water. How I wish I had been on a modern overseas flight!

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Making the best of things, I reveled in the stern looks of the stewardesses and impatiently awaited to see what movie they would show on the small screen that hung many yards away. It’s always a crap shoot — in the 1990s on an overseas flight, I was subjected to “Dunston Checks In,” the hilarious story of a kid and an orangutan staying in a hotel without grown-up supervision. The return flight promised “Up Close and Personal,” a Robert Redford film that hadn’t gotten good reviews but was surely better than “Dunston.” I couldn’t really say for sure; on the return flight they showed “Dunston Checks In.”

But, I digress.

The film they were going to show was “The Adjustment Bureau,” a modern sci-fi type thriller. It would have suited my needs. Anticipation mounted as the stewardess opened the overhead bin across the aisle from me that held the VCR, and readied the movie while her posterior bumped into my head repeatedly. When she was finally ready to admit that she didn’t know how to work the VCR, her colleague was magnanimous enough to come over and demonstrate that she was not able to work it either.

The scene was played out with a quiet dignity that I could not help but admire, and when they both gave up, quietly closed the overhead bin and walked away, I knew I had been witness to a defining moment in their shared experience of being Polish airline stewardesses.

An Irish Pub in an airport may not be the best meal in the world, but it allowed for the satisfaction and relief of turning down the meal on the Polish National Airline. I’m not sure how they killed the chickens without the passengers hearing, but they made sure to undercook them so as not to expose us to the smell or sensation of a hot meal. Being too full to eat a second dinner made for the best meal I never had.

After dinner I managed to doze off, waking in time to see that someone (perhaps the captain) had gotten the VCR to work and the movie had begun. If there was anything better than a modern sci-fi thriller, it was probably not a documentary about kind-hearted English doctors who perform cataract surgery on poor people in the Himalayas. Like most good films, this one ended with a great twist: the poor sightless villager died during the routine operation. Cue closing credits.

I awoke again just in time to see that “The Adjustment Bureau” was showing, and luckily it was right near the beginning. OK, it was 30 minutes from the end, but it felt like the beginning and when it ended I was pretty sure I had seen enough.

In due time, breakfast was served. I had smelled something that was very similar to bacon and waffles cooking, but in retrospect that might be a popular Polish perfume — it wasn’t our breakfast. We were each given a piece of bread, some cream cheese, a carrot stick, a slice of yellow pepper, and a small packet of jelly.

The flight was less eventful than the circumstances had led me to believe it would be. But there is a comfort in never hearing the engines stop, and we landed safely in Warsaw, which was a two-hour bus trip from our final destination of Poznan.

In Poland, the exchange rate is two Polish hours = six American hours. Luckily, we were able to stop for lunch, and I had the privilege of this exchange:

Tom: This isn’t beef, it’s chicken.
Waiter: No it’s not.
Tom: Beef is white?
Waiter: I’ll be right back.

Boy, is he lucky he never came back. Sadly, I was not able to get the recipe for the juice they served, but I suspected it was one tablespoon of grape jelly for every eight ounces of water.

Arriving at our hotel in Poznan was quite a relief, as we had all been traveling for the past 24 hours. The hotel could not be more diametrically opposed to the aesthetic that the people of Poznan have suffered for years to create; it is clean, pleasant, and efficient. It had a fine breakfast buffet. Good coffee was available. My room was quiet, and the bed was comfortable.

Obviously feeling embarrassed by all of this, they have been smart enough to staff the dining room with a woman whose heavy sighs and withering looks reminded me that I am a pig who is not worthy of being fed to other pigs.

Meanwhile, our technicians went through living hell. The local crews were new to theater, having most recently been employed as professional chair models. Small pieces of duct tape were not available, because we forget to put it in the contract.

The most efficient people on site were the two cleaning ladies. They have beehive hairdos and thick glasses, and were the models for most of the women in Far Side cartoons. They were probably 30 years younger than they looked.

They kept the bathrooms cleaner than any you have ever seen. In fact, they cleaned it each time someone used it. The venue was an exhibition hall about the size of two football fields and they managed to clean the entire place each day in six hours using only a small push broom. These ladies, and the bartender who gave me free Polish Vodka, were my favorites on the trip.

On one of our off days, we first visited a palace in Rogalin that had an excellent art gallery full of late 19th and early 20th century Polish art. Most, if not all of it, was painted by people I had never heard of — but I freely admit that it was one of the most impressive and enjoyable collections I had ever seen.

Special slippers with soft felt soles had to worn inside the castle. (Photo courtesy F. Alex Johnson)
Special slippers with soft felt soles had to worn inside the castle. (Photo courtesy F. Alex Johnson)

On another day, we visited the Kornik Castle. Because it is so old and delicate, all visitors had to wear special slippers with soft felt soles. This was probably the most dangerous situation we have ever willingly submitted the chorus to, akin to asking them to run across a frozen lake.

Many delicate objects, including a piano used by Chopin, were violently assaulted by elderly people trying not to end up on the floor. The castle is supposedly haunted to this day by a ghost of one of the inhabitants. Legend has it this Great White Lady steps out of a painting at midnight, every night, tours the castle and then rides through the gardens on a large black horse. I asked the guide if she had seen the ghost, and she told me “No, because it is very hard to see a ghost.”

The coleslaw here was plentiful and excellent. Really, the best I have ever had. The potatoes were also quite good. I believe they are the national animal. Do you like cured meat? Poland invented the Slim Jim, and they were served with almost every meal.

Poznan itself was not particularly interesting, and there was more of a language barrier than anywhere else I have ever been. Where they place that language barrier tends to shift from day to day, as people who spoke English yesterday were very likely to not recognize you and tell you “no English!” when they saw you the next day.

There was a town square that was ‘typically European’ in Poznan with its pleasing old architecture and cobblestones, but I never felt particularly inspired by the city in general. The cloud of Soviet oppression seemed to hang over things.

It was not a city where people would jaywalk; they diligently waited for the walk signal even when no cars at all were there to be seen. No one you met was in charge, and no one knew who was, but they were always sure things would get accomplished.

I was told by Poles from Warsaw that the people here were particularly odd and unfriendly, so I gave Poland the benefit of the doubt. I spent much less money there than I would have at home, because things are cheap and there was nothing worth buying.

We took this trip close to July 4th so I couldn’t help but think about the good ol’ USA during our travels. It was also a good reminder that growing up under British rule probably wouldn’t have been so bad and that we were terribly lucky that the Soviets — or even the Poles — never got their mitts on us. I must check the historical record to be sure, but it is quite likely that former U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy became the man he was only after a honeymoon in Poznan.

Tom Mahnken is the Vice President of Creative Services at Local Voice Media and has written and produced more than 10,000 ads since he joined the company in 1996. When he’s not working in radio, Mahnken plays bass guitar all over New England with his band Trailer Park and tours the world playing saxophone with the Young@Heart Chorus.

Poznan, Poland in all of its glory. (Photo courtesy F. Alex Johnson)
Poznan, Poland in all of its glory. (Photo courtesy F. Alex Johnson)

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our travel section, email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com