Been There, Done That… Krakow, Poland

I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world—for both business and pleasure, not that those are mutually exclusive. This blog is about my unique experiences around the globe. It is not intended as a paean to the wonders of the locales themselves, as there already exist volumes that more than do justice to the magnificence of virtually every corner of this earth.  Here, I simply recount small, personal moments of surprise, embarrassment, stupidity, excitement, fear, heroics, and other stuff like that.

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Krakow, Poland…February 1996. I don’t handle cold weather very well. Poor circulation is undoubtedly to blame. That, and the fact that I never seem to have (or remember to bring) the proper cold weather gear, made my client’s desire to “take some air” on a brutally cold February night on the Eastern Front a real pain in the ass.

I was in Krakow with one of my client counterparts from British Petroleum. Michel, a Belgian with a heavy French accent and a ready wit, was the Marketing Manager for BP Europe—a position akin to herding cats, given the European mindset that our country’s problems and needs are different from all the others. For that reason, it was important to periodically visit with the local country managers and discuss their particular issues.

BP Europe was just one piece in my agency’s BP Global portfolio, but it was a crucial piece and Michel was, in turn, an important client contact. Exactly why he cared to put himself through the trials and tribulations of “herding cats” was a mystery to me, as I had it on good authority that Michel was quite wealthy, owing to his family’s success in various Northern European business ventures. A refined and charming bachelor with a penchant for collecting and restoring vintage automobiles, Michel was a delightful travelling companion and, on this particular night when the thermometer was falling precipitously toward single digits, was far better ward-robed for taking some air than was I. Put simply, Michel was dressed like a Russian Cossack, whereas I looked like I belonged in a Miami Vice episode with Crockett and Tubbs.

I had spent the previous day in Warsaw, visiting with a couple of local advertising agencies to assess the potential for a strategic partnership on behalf of a different client, while trying not to get thoroughly ripped off by the gangsters who ran the taxi cab business there. I had been forewarned that Warsaw taxi drivers were notorious for vastly overcharging unsuspecting passengers from the West. Criminals in cabs, one associate characterized them. “It’s a mugging basically—a little more civilized perhaps in that you get a seat, but…just make sure the thug driving doesn’t forget to put the flag down on the meter.”

Stepping into the taxi on my arrival in Warsaw, my driver did look a bit thuggish, but she seemed nice enough. She gave me a large, waxy, moon faced smile, grunted approvingly when I gave her my hotel destination and, thankfully, put the flag down. I did not want any trouble with this woman, who looked like she could more than hold her own in a bar full of drunken dockworkers.

As the taxi proceeded through Warsaw’s streets, we came upon some sort of protest march. Not huge or unruly, maybe a hundred Poles carrying placards, but somehow fitting for my arrival in Poland, I thought, as it conjured visions of Lech Walesa’s much publicized Solidarity marches of the ‘80s. Old Lech went on to become Poland’s President in the early ‘90s…not bad for a former shipyard worker, turned trade union activist. Noting my cab driver’s seeming approval of the street protest as we passed it, I couldn’t help wondering if she might eventually go the Lech route and become the Golda Meir of Poland one day.

My meetings in Warsaw were not particularly fruitful, but it was always fun to meet with fledgling Mad Men in developing markets—some working out of the back bedroom of their residence.  Reminded me of my first “job” in advertising (I was still in college at the time) as a free-lance writer for a mom-and-pop agency that operated out of a one-bedroom condominium apartment in Newark, New Jersey. Everyone has to start somewhere.

The next afternoon, I took the train from Warsaw to Krakow, where I would meet Michel and BP’s local Polish operative. Taking trains in this part of the world was always a little dicey for me, as I feared misinterpretation of signage. I didn’t want to end up in Chernobyl.

Unlike my hotel in Warsaw, which was glass-fronted and reasonably westernized, my overnight residence in Krakow had a decidedly Soviet bloc/no frills look on the outside, which more than carried over to my room.  Narrow, not very deep, and lit by a single overhead light that gave the room a Stalag 17 feel, it was, in a word, basic. Make that two words: depressingly basic! Thankfully, my stay would be for just one night—a night I expected to mostly spend in a nice restaurant in Krakow’s main market square. I looked forward to it…until, that is, I met Michel in the hotel lobby and he announced his desire to “take some air.”

The walk from the hotel to the restaurant was probably in the neighborhood of a half-mile. Not enough for frostbite to take hold, but more than enough for a reduction of my body temperature to the point where my teeth chattered and my internal organs screamed for relief, even as I put on my best “client face” to converse with Michel as if we were strolling languidly along Miami’s chromatically neon South Beach. By the time, we arrived at the restaurant—a beautiful stone structure that had the look of a medieval castle and, I would soon discover, a heating system to match, I was thoroughly chilled and shaking.

Dinner that night was a long and brutal affair, as I found my concentration on the finer points of the Polish oil business overwhelmed by my discovery that the restaurant’s men’s room was apparently positioned alongside the furnace, making it truly the best seat in the house. I could have quite enjoyed a rather extended stay there, but being the “agency guy” I had to keep my frozen butt at the dinner table, even if my mind was in the loo.

Despite it all, I managed to get on quite well with BP Poland’s country manager. He even offered to give me a ride back to the hotel. Had I been a true “company man” and/or had he not been driving a motorcycle (yes, really), I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Besides, Michel had apparently finally “taken enough air” and ordered a taxi for our return trip to the Gulag.

 T H E  E N D

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