Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from First Snow)
PART ONE: Car Ride
The first snow also meant that New Year’s eve would soon arrive. In Poland, this holiday is named after St. Sylvester because it is also his “name day,” and Sylwester is as much or even more of an “event” as it is here in Canada. With the new prosperity that was flowing into the country and a burgeoning middle-class – and a young middle-class at that – festivities continued to morph and grow.
So it was that Sylwester’s approach also brought an invitation from Magda to join her and her husband, Ryszard, and some of their friends for a celebration in the Polish countryside. Magda and her husband represented the direction the country was moving: Magda was a professor and her husband was a business-development manager for a German multinational that was expanding into the new Polish markets. Their friends were of the same socio-economic strata as well.
While we were excited to accept the invitation and join the ranks of this young literati in their pursuit of the new year, key was that Ben was invited too.
Our destination was Gmina Łosice and a thirteenth-century hamlet on the eastern edge of Masovia, the same province that held Warsaw. After two and half years, we had seen much of Poland, but Łosice was not particularly an “attraction” that was on the list of things to see. However, if you’re ever there, it does have a few points of interest, among them a nineteenth-century Jewish cemetery which contains a large collection of Jewish headstones that have survived so many historic atrocities; an old convent, now a hospital, visually dominant in the midst of the town centre; a few pieces of neo-gothic architecture; and, most poignant of all, a monument to the children of the Zamojszczyzna who died as a result of the 1943 Nazi raids that plundered the land, executed many citizens including thousands of children, and sent many others to camps in a bid to gain Lebensraum, or “living space.”
Our New Year’s eve tickets included stay in a large pension that would also provide a festive dinner and champagne, followed by an evening of “music and dance” which was code for “disco polo.” And no, that isn’t a made-up thing though many might wish it were all a figment our imaginations. Disco polo was instead a very real and unique, odd, and good-only-in-small-doses musical genre that combined the European disco of the day with Polish folk forms and which, in 1996, was nearing its peak of popularity. Disco polo aside, the evening promised to be a lovely opportunity to experience a Polish rite of passage in the company of good friends.
The catch was that Łosice rested 120 km from Warsaw which meant we’d be driving there with Magda, Ryszard, Aida … and Ben.
Ah, another first – Ben gets a car trip.
None of us really knew what to expect with Ben in the car, but we all knew enough of Ben to guess it was going to be interesting. Two hours in the car with a dog that hadn’t demonstrated that he could sit still more than five minutes was akin to feeding a 6 year old a bag of chocolate and then taking them to a Catholic mass.
The drive to Łosice winded through small towns and stretches of snow covered forests. While Warsawians love the forests and the opportunity to bathe in their cleansing verdure, stick a terrier-cross puppy in the back of a small Renault, and the trip was anything but cleansing. Ben spent most of the time walking back and forth across our legs as he paced from window to window and emitting the most bizarre sounds I’ve ever heard from a dog.
It started with a whine then modulated into something that sounded more like that of a confused rooster unsure whether to crow the approach of morning or the arrival of a fox. His vocalization verged somewhere between excitement and pure panic. A comforting pet of his fur would soothe him for a few minutes until he’d erupt with a start and break back into whine. We were probably no more than 10 minutes into the trip when everyone in the car was already asking “Are we there yet?” Half an hour after this, we were all wishing we were deaf and weighing the morality of snipping a dog’s vocal chords.
Ryszard continued to drive but at this point you could feel him start to add a bit more gas as he turned these Polish country roads into his version of the autobahn.
Five more minutes and wondering how this could possibly last another hour, Ben upped the ante and provided he was not to be underestimated in his ability to command a stage: his legs suddenly stiffened as he dug his claws into my thighs and, then, putting his head between my thighs in some mixed up version of the “crash position,” he heaved twice and then tossed his (dog) cookies and everything else that was in his stomach.
Ryszard from the driver’s seat asked under his breath: “What was that?” and you could hear him cringe as he said it.
“Umm … Ben just threw up all over Dale,” replied Andrea.
I’m sure I turned some version of green and white myself and after we rounded the next bend, Ryszard pulled over. I sat there, holding Ben while the others got out and Andrea came around and opened my door to take Ben and appraise the situation. While Ben went off to mark some trees, Ryszard looked at my legs and then into his car of which he had a fastidious love, then closed his eyes and in that instant, Ben lost a fan.
Magda and Andrea used a dog blanket and bottles of water and whatever else they could find to clean up the mess and I found a change of pants in my bag. And Ben? He was as happy as can be on the side of the road, sniffing new smells and walking again on terra firma.
Cleaned up, refreshed, and ready, we all got back in the car, making the decision that, for the remained of the trip, Ben would sit up front on Andrea’s lap with the window down a crack … and we were once again off.
The second half of the trip was ultimately without event and Ben quieted by degrees choosing to instead sniff at the fresh breeze; we stopped a few more times to exercise Ben and keep him ‘grounded,’ and we arrived at the pension an hour before dinner, all a little frayed and needing a drink.
So much for Ben’s first car trip.
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – A New Year (part two)