Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from Part One: Car Ride)
Arrived at the pension, we unloaded the car and Magda made arrangements with the owners to throw in a load of vomit covered laundry. We then took the dogs for a quick walk before heading upstairs to our rooms to get ready for the evening.
The pension, with polished timbers throughout, had a nice, almost alpine feel to it. We walked through the dining room whose long banquet tables were festively set with linens and candles for 30-40 people – there were clearly many more coming to the dinner than would be staying in the inn itself, so we hurried along.
Upstairs? Hmm, let’s just say it had a lot less architectural detail than the dining room below. It was like someone had thrown up paper thin walls in the large attic to partition off a half-dozen sparse rooms with creaky beds. Andrea and I threw down our bags and gave a knowing shrug to one another. Okay, so the main attraction upstairs was not the rooms; it was, however, the other dogs belonging to the innkeepers. Now I knew why there was no problem bringing Ben to the party.
There was a golden retriever (yes, a great irony), two mid-sized mutts, and a wirehaired dachshund. Ben was in heaven and immediately dashed off to greet the other dogs who were at first a bit standoffish when this stranger charged at them. Once tempers quieted and the requisite sniffs and courtesies were exchanged, the dogs relaxed into the company of Ben and Aida and before long they were in full play.
Ben was not surprisingly still in the beginnings of his socialization with other dogs. Most days we met other dogs in the park; most tolerated the enthusiastic greeting of this high-strung terrier. Some, however, snarled back explaining that it was more appropriate that a puppy approached his elders with deference and caution. And, during the course of our few months together, Ben had met a handful of other puppies in the park with which he’d intermittently play. His favourite was a little black spaniel cross named “Freddy” whose owner spoke quite good English having living for a period in New York City and, hence, the name. When Ben and Freddy met, they’d immediately start chasing each other around the park until one would invariably win out by landing on the other which would turn into a wrestle before they started again. It was a great thing to watch, this carefree play, but it would only last another three or four months before Ben became almost exclusively a people-dog.
In the pension, Ben tried playing with all the dogs but only two of them were game: the dachshund and one of the mutts. The older dogs, their patience for puppy games having faded years ago, tolerated Ben at best and carefully watched their brothers. After a few repeat attempts and a yelp that brought the worried feet of the innkeeper and Andrea to Ben’s side, the dogs worked it out and Ben learned a few more social skills.
The innkeeper’s wife took an almost immediate liking to Ben, treating him to attention, snacks, and even letting Ben take home a toy that he’d end up “claiming” his own during the ensuing evening. When the dogs weren’t stealing each other’s toys and growling, they were launching into their version of Greco-Roman wrestling as they tried to pin each other with their mouths and paws. Eventually, one dog would end up on its back with teeth to the neck and then submissively yield before breaking and starting over again.
And so Ben got riled up and we got dressed up.
Dinner was fun, albeit traditional in most respects. Case in point, the meal started with flaki. Arguably the national dish of Poland, this tripe soup didn’t leave many on the fence with respect to whether it deserved this title. You’ll know by now that I love food – but when it came to flaki and the furry strips of white that floated like cilia in the strongly flavoured beef broth, the only way I could get it down was by holding my breath and swallowing the tripe whole. And the only thing that improved the whole experience was washing down each mouthful with a swig or two of beer. Tripe remains one of the few things I detest but there are great many Poles who share my disdain for the traditional but truly nasty dish. Pickled herring followed and before you give me your sympathy, let me say that I actually love the stuff, but I can imagine that for many, the first two dishes would have had left many Canadians excusing themselves from the table. Next up leniwe pierogi z serem which translates as “lazy pierogi with cheese.” What the heck is a lazy pierogi other than the way I feel when I eat too many of the tasty morsels? It’s effectively the dough of the pierogi (though sometimes just egg noodles are used), cut into strips and fried in butter and sometimes with ham, onions, or sauerkraut. The most popular version, however, would be with bits of ham or bacon and topped with Polish cottage cheese. I distinguish this from North American cottage cheese because the Polish version generally comes without much of the whey and thus has more in common with an Italian ricotta. As I said, the meal was traditional and so it continued with “kotlet schabowy” (a Polish version of schnitzel made with pork) served with a carrot slaw and mashed potatoes. There was also a fruit compote of forest berries served somewhere in there as well. And no, people don’t leave a Polish table hungry, unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case I hope you like extra servings of boiled potatoes and cheese. To end, the dinner was served with the very traditional and especially traditional on Sylwester, makowiec: a rolled poppy seed cake said to bring prosperity to the New Year and all those who eat it.
Between courses, Andrea and I took turns of looking in on Ben who remained enthralled with the little dachshund, “Oskar,” with whom he rough-housed most of the night. And between visits upstairs, there were shots of Zubrowka from the bottle that moved up and down the men of the table.
By eleven, with everyone stuffed and a few more who were wobbly too, the lights went down and the multicoloured disco lights emerged … and the diso polo with it. Many in the room worked with the deejay to limit this and to put on less “poppy” music that resonated with their bourgeois tastes: including the rock of Edyta Bartosiewicz, who had opened for Brian Adams earlier in the summer, and frequent segues into German techno for others in the room.
The night went long with much laughter and only a pause a midnight to share in champagne, Polish kisses (one on each cheek), hugs and lots more vodka. Slowly, people began to leave the party but most made it to the end and it was nearly 3:00 am when the lights and music were turned off to the drunken boos of those who would have preferred it to continue. Those staying elsewhere stumbled out the front door into the wintery night while the rest of us made our way upstairs to our rooms where Ben was still going strong.
I took him for a walk out back as he sniffed the world and as watched the snow begin to fall, I wondered at how many more New Years Ben and I would share.
I was happy …
and exhausted … so we climbed back up to our room, bid our good nights, and crashed on the creaky bed for a long sleep that we desperately needed.
And this would be the point that most stories would end … except those with nine-month old terrier crosses as the protagonist.
We – and by “we” I mean everyone – woke with a start when Ben leaped off the bed and started barking at the wall. At this point it was probably 4:00am and the world was tired, but here was Ben parking into the infinitety of the wallpaper.
“Cicho,” whispered Andrea, sternly.
Ben stopped, turned, leaped back onto the foot of the bed, and lay down, staring at the wall, his ears pricked and his body tense.
I swear it was probably two minutes later, just as soon as I had fallen back into my drunken sleep, that Ben stood up on the bed and, while jerking forward, started barking his high-pitched bark again.
“Cicho bądź,” shouted Andrea, as I rolled over and pulled my Chiclet of pillow over my head.
Again he stopped – and Magda knocked on the door and came in. I groaned and shrugged; she sat on the edge of the bed, she sat and whispered to Ben while we all petted Ben and tried to calm him.
Ben quieted … and Magda left.
Sleep … finally.
And, then, again, he started. Again … and again.
“Zamknij się!” came shouts through the wall. And yes, there were curses in Polish too which I won’t repeat.
I grabbed Ben and pulled him to my chest and tried to hold him, hoping he’d fall asleep there but again, he jumped off and this time whined and whimpered at the wall.
And then I heard it …
… the scratching.
Andrea heard it too.
All three of us stared at the wall.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Mice!” I cursed. And listening, we could hear them in several walls all scurrying about, beset on driving Ben and his hyper sensitive ears mad.
And so the night continued into morning, into dusk and until, even more exhausted, still inebriated and now hungover too, we rolled into morning and into breakfast.
I crammed into me as much scrambled egg and kiełbasa as I could without throwing it back up, which wasn’t ultimately that much, so I focused on coffee and thinking of death.
After breakfast, we packed up the car and attempted a bit of a walk through the quiet streets of Łosice hoping the winter air would freshen us all for the drive home that none of us wanted with the mouse killer.
Along the way, I threw the ball for Ben, hoping the exercise would further exhaust him and prepare him for drive home.
We did get to see the old convent from the streets and visited the monument to the children of the Zamojszczyzna which is when Magda shared with us the story of this Nazi atrocity.
It was nearing noon, but after a short discussion, we all agreed that none of us had the energy for anything more, so we headed back to the car, loaded in the dogs, and prepared for what we assumed would be hell part two … or three, if you also counted a night of mice.
I have to admit – I don’t remember much of the drive home. I zonked out in the back seat but, from what I heard, Ben generally sat on Andrea’s lap upfront, panted out the window, and otherwise proved to be an uneventful passenger.
A few hours later, Ryszard pulled up to our apartment and with a relatively quick exchange of thank you’s and Szczesliwego Nowego Roku, we parted as Ryszard glared at Ben.
Ben did his business, we grabbed our bags, and, exhausted, the three of us trundled up to our apartment where we all immediately fell fast asleep. This included Ben who had likewise been up for nearly 36 hours solid. Andrea and I woke the next morning after nearly 15 hours of sleep. What of Ben, you ask? Ben slept nearly another full day.
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – Pennies from Heaven