“Begin the Begin”– R.E.M.

The mayor (wojt in Polish) of Lipnica is a real go-getter.  He has more connections than Big Blue, and we have an enormous new school with a sports hall (which is still under construction, though almost completed) to prove it.  One of the things Pan Wojt has scored is a membership in the Congress of Local Authorities in the Council of Europe.  Combine this with the fact that he’s heavily involved in regional and national politics, and you realize why I was surprised to see him in his office three consecutive days last week.

This was originally written for Entropy, a ‘zine I “published” while in the Peace Corps. The trip itself was in June of 1997.

Last year the Pan Wojt took the then-first class from the liceum to observe a council of Europe meeting.  Thirty four students plus a few teachers – she found funds for the whole thing.  [Sam], a Poland X PCV here in Lipnica, organized most every thing that time.  So, deciding that he wants this year’s first class to have the same opportunity, Pan Wojt told me he wanted me to organize a trip to Strasbourg, France for the fifty-four students of said class.  This meeting is on 3 June.  He told me in early May.  I panicked, as well I should have, thank you very much.

My main priority was to get accommodations in Strasbourg for these kids.  I was later told not to worry about getting the bus – someone else took care of that, thankfully.  So I talked to [Sam], he gave me the fax number of the place they stayed at last year, I sent a fax with all the information, and began waiting.  A day passes – nothing.  Another day – still nothing.  Since I had other things to do, I promptly stopped thinking about accommodation and moved onto the next hurdle: to get an official invitation for these students to observe a plenary session of the C of E.  I originally wrote under the mayor’s name (dumb move number one), and so I had to wait three days before I could send the fax because he had to sign the dumb thing.  (Of course it didn’t occur to me to write a “I’m writing on behalf of” letter.)  This was where things started getting weird: After I finally got the mayor to sign the thing, I received a fax in response to my fax before I actually sent it!  I asked if someone else sent a fax, but no one admitted to it.  “Someone’s playing with my mind somewhere,” I thought.  By this time, a week had passed since I had sent the fax to the hotel asking for reservations.  On 13 May I walked into the town hall that afternoon to find a letter from France: “En response á votre demande d’hébergement, j’ai le regret de vous informer que nos résidences universitaires sont completes pour la période que vous sollicitez.”  In case your French is worse than mine, I’ll translate: “In response to your request for accommodation, I regret to inform you that we have no vacancy for the period you requested . . .”  Or something like that.  A more succinct translation: “You’re screwed.”  The date on the letter was, “7 Mai 1997.”  Instead of sending a fax, they sucked up a week of my time to tell me, “Sorry, can’t help you.”  So I typed up a quick fax to the public relations officer in the C of E asking for help with accommodations.  Once again, I received a response before I sent the fax. I’ve no idea how this happened – twice.  Eventually I got a list of hotels, and much to my surprise, found vacancies with my second attempt.

Then the mayor said, “Oh, and we’re spending a couple of days in Vienna too, so we’re going to need rooms there as well.”  It was 15 May.  We were to leave on 31 May.  I love this job.  I called my friend in Vienna and basically said, “I know we haven’t seen each other in almost three years, but I desperately need your help.”  She called around, found some rooms for me, and sent a fax, scribbling at the bottom, “I advise you get these rooms today because they might be gone tomorrow.” That was Wednesday.  I didn’t actually get the fax until Thursday, “tomorrow.” Immediately I headed off to talk to the mayor.  “Nie ma go,” said his secretary.  “When will he be back?” “Tomorrow.” I decided to play it safe and send a fax making temporary reservations.  “I’m making reservations for reservations,” I was tempted to write, but I came up with something a little more professional.  To make a long story short (too late, I know), I did get reservations in both places.  But that’s just half of it.
Next I had to get the deposit paid.  I found out who would be handling this and asked him how he wanted to pay.  He decided the best way would be to make a direct bank-to-bank transfer.  So I asked each hotel for its bank account number and such.  And they sent me something in French and German.  So I sent them another fax saying, “I know it’s a pain, but English, please.”  So they sent me more information in French and German.  I finally got the correct information out of them.  By that time it was 21 May.  A week to go.  I figured out how much the rooms would be changed the sums to złoty, and presented Janusz with a nice summary of the banks, their numbers, the account numbers, and the sums to be paid to each.  The next day – a Thursday – I went to see if they’d made the transfer yet.  “No, we can’t.” “Why?” “The mayor is out of town.” “So?” “So he has to sign for this.” “When will he be back?” “Monday.”  (Of course at this time I was thinking, “The whole damn village shuts down when the mayor leaves, doesn’t it?”)  “No one else can do it?” “Well, maybe the secretary.” “Can you ask her?” “No.”  “Why?” “Because she’s in Nowy Sacz.” “When will she be back?” “Saturday.” “Oh, I see.”

Finally, they paid the deposit and like a fool I thought to myself that my worries were over.  Wednesday, three days before we left, a curious notion came into my head.  “I wonder who has the money to pay the remainder of the bills at the hostels,” I thought.  I asked around.  No one had it.  No one knew we needed it.  I worked like a madman trying to get something taken care of Wednesday, because Thursday was Corpus Christi (I told you – we get a break for some religious holiday about every six weeks or so.) and no one was sure if the gmina would be open on Friday.  It was open, though, and I did finally get the money, about eighteen hours before we were to leave.

And that was just the beginning . . .

The Trip Itself

I made it out Friday 31 May to catch the bus at six.  Almost all the students were there, but no bus.  We stood, waiting, and I began thinking, “I don’t know how many times I’ve told these people in Vienna and Strasbourg, ‘I can assure you that we will be there,’ and what if the bus doesn’t show up?  What if they make a liar out of me?” I remembered that the bus company wanted full payment before the trip.  “What if they decide not to send the bus, citing this as a reason?” It finally showed up, thirty or forty minutes late – I can’t remember exactly.  We loaded everything on and we were off.  We made it through the first border without much trouble, and we were whizzing through Slovakia.  It was here that the first change occurred.  [Bob] told me the problem: “The drivers can only drive eight hours each – sixteen hours total.  If we go to Budapest, it will be too far for them to drive to Vienna, so we’re just going to Vienna first.” Fine by me, I thought.  We slowed down our pace a little and arrived around seven thirty.

Somewhere in the middle of Slovakia – a beautiful country with mountains which shoot up to sharp peaks suddenly – [Bob] told me, “If you don’t have enough money for the accommodations, you can use some of the money [Wilbur] got from the students.” It was like he slapped me.  “What is that money for, if not for the accommodations?” I asked him.  “For museums and such,” he responded.  Suddenly the money trouble returned.  I got out the information concerning our bank payments, hoping that Janusz had indeed paid the whole sum.  At first I thought he had – the amount was correct.  Then I noticed it was in shillings.  “We’re in deep *&$#,” I thought to myself.  Before continuing, I’ll explain how I arrived at the stupid assumption that this money was for accommodation: Talking to the mayor, I told him how much it would cost and he responded, “[Wilbur] has 100 zloty from each student,” he said.  Therefore, as we had been talking about the cost of the hostels, I assumed – first mistake but not the first time – that this money was that.

We arrived, and the decisive moment approached with nauseating speed.  I began talking to the receptionist, hoping that we could talk her into letting us pay by bank deposit.  “So you want to leave without paying and without giving any security that you will pay,” she said ever so sweetly.  I offered my credit card as security.  She smiled and virtually whispered, “We don’t take credit cards.” Of course not.  I went back and told [Bob] and [Wilbur].  “And that’s for one night, right?” asked [Wilbur].  “What?” “We’re just staying here tonight, right?” “No, tonight and tomorrow night.” It turned out that the mayor told [Wilbur] that we could sleep on the bus the second night while we drove to Strasbourg.  He only told me, “You’ll be in Vienna 31 May and 1 June, so you’ll need rooms there too . . .” I talked to the receptionist on [Wilbur]’s urging.  “Maybe we can cancel tomorrow’s reservations – and that would mean we need less money.” I thought, “Yeah, they’ll love that.” They would have – we simply would have had to pay the full sum regardless of whether we stayed or not.  What else would you expect?  It was what I expected, but I was hoping for some miracle.  Finally, we just coughed up the money and that was that.  For the time being.

Vienna is a great city, but tremendously expensive.  I had dinner with Astrid that first night and a simple meal – pasta and a beer – cost 240 shillings.  That would have been about 70 zloty if she hadn’t graciously paid.  A hot dog cost me 10 zloty.  It was beyond outrageous.  Astrid told me before I came, “I warn you, Vienna is very expensive.” I had no idea she how expensive she meant.

The next day we visited a couple of places in Vienna.  First we went to a historic Polish church in Vienna so the everyone could go to mass, then we went to the emperor’s summer palace.  Of course the emperor had to have two – a summer and a winter palace.  I wonder why not waste more money on spring and fall palaces, as well as one for those hot Indian summers and another for the unexpected return of winter that comes every few Aprils.  After all, how can one expect an emperor to live in only two palaces?  Surely there were more people who could have gone hungry to provide him with three or four more palaces.  Whatever the reason, the poor emperor had only two palaces in Vienna and we visited his humble summer one.  We walked around the grounds (didn’t actually go in – that was too expensive).  Afterward we were going to walk to the center of town, but some of the teachers and students felt it was too far and decided to go back to the hostel.  Those of us who went had a nice enough time, but I can’t speak for those who went back to the hostel.

The next morning we headed to Strasbourg and made it about two hours before we stopped.  I thought it was a toilet stop.  “The bus broke down again,” I heard one teacher tell another.  The drivers had worked on it a little while we were in Vienna, but obviously hadn’t fixed the problem.  So we spent five hours in a parking lot somewhere in Austria waiting for the drivers to fix the problem.  I called Strasbourg and told them that we might not get there until early in the morning.  I read, wrote, read, rested, walked, talked, read, wrote.  It was hellish.

On a side note, I think the Kiss tour buses parked beside us for a little while.  I saw a bunch of guys milling around and several of them had key-chains with Kiss ID cards, the sort that one wears to have unrestricted freedom backstage.  I didn’t see any of the actual band members, nor did I try.  I’ve think they’re a bit silly, though I didn’t always.  (I once got in trouble for listening to my neighbor’s Kiss record – forbidden music when you’re six.  There were all those stories that “Kiss” was an acronym for “Knights In Satan’s Service” and that listening to them would melt your brain or something along those lines.)

We finally made it to Strasbourg around 3:00 a.m. and got everyone checked in and in their rooms by 4:00.  Then we got up at 8:30 for breakfast and the big event: the Council of Europe.  After breakfast we got our lazy selves on the road and walked to the center of town, arriving at 12:45.  We decided to leave for the Council of Europe at 1:45, giving us forty-five minutes to walk there.  We met at 1:45 and got under way at 2:05.  After walking for an eternity we made it to the Council of Europe compound itself.  I was in the front so I headed straight to the visitors’ center.  [Wilbur] took most of the group to the place they’d gone last year.  After we went off to find them, we were ten minutes late.  I was concerned that the discussion itself began at 3:00 and that by being late we would be interrupting.  That concern was for naught.  As was my concern about dressing nicely.  Before leaving I asked all the students to bring something nice to wear for that day.  When [Bob] heard this, he laughed.  “We didn’t last year and it was no problem.” I explained that it was a major international governing body that we were going to observe, not a carnival.  “We need to look nice,” I said.  When we got there, I noticed that no other groups were dressed up – nothing to worry about.  Still, we looked sharp, except for a few (notably [Wilbur] and his running pants).

We watched a video about the Council of Europe, then headed up to the debating chamber to observe.  I must admit that I was terribly excited about it all.  We were about to watch a cooperative of over forty countries working together to solve problems of mutual concern.  I knew we wouldn’t watch any ground-breaking decisions – such things take months or even years to accomplish.  Still, I was eager to watch it all.  Then one of the students asked me, “How long do we have to stay here?” and another said, “This is so boring.” Of course.  I had forgotten what I would have been like at that age.  “Do we have to stay here long?  This is so boring!”

The debating chamber was circular, very similar to the interior of the United Nations in New York.  There were joined desks arranged in arcs with the main table and podium at the top of the circle.  Around the outside of the room were the translators’ booths, eight of them in all: English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Norwegian, Turkish, and Greek.  Of course I put on my headphones and turned the dial directly to the languages I’d never head before, then turned it to English so as to actually understand what was going on.

We watched a session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, of which our mayor is a member.  The topic under consideration dealt with locally elected officials being removed from office in Turkey without due judiciary process.  We were there long enough to hear a summary of a report about the problem and a representative from Turkey speak about the issue.

So how long did we stay there?  I had worked frantically for four weeks to plan this, and the local government was paying several thousand zloty for this trip.  I worried about it constantly for those four weeks, and got absolutely no sleep the night before we left because of all the things I was fretting about.  I thought we would stay for longer than twenty minutes, but that was it.  I must admit that I was both disappointed and unastonished.  Not even the teachers were interested in it.

After the Council meeting we took the kids out to eat and then for a guided boat tour of the city.  As we sat in the boat, I realized that the English portion of the tour was difficult enough that most students wouldn’t understand it but simple enough that I could translate it.  So I began giving a rough translation.  And then it suddenly got more difficult.  I struggled for a few minutes, then got the one of the best students and just told him in very simplified English what the guide said and he told the rest of the students in Polish.  Such was my one and only attempt at translating.

The return trip was blissfully uneventful.  We left at 12:00 p.m. Wednesday and arrived home in Lipnica 9:00 a.m. Thursday.  We stopped in Germany to look at a famous church which I’d never heard of.  It was very small, more like a chapel, and the outside and inside walls were covered with small paintings depicting the history of the world (from a German perspective, I assume).  Each picture had a black angel with a very dark halo.  What I found amazing was not the paintings themselves, but the fact that the ones on the outside were still intact, free from the slightest bit of vandalism.  I do not know if they post a guard there in the evenings, but I saw nothing suggesting that.

Looking back on it now, I’m not sure whether I think the trip was a success or not.  I guess the fact that we made it there and back without loosing anyone or anything makes it somewhat of a success.  Still, the lack of organization (which several students noticed and mentioned to me) made the whole thing rather stressful and chaotic – we wasted a lot of time.  I’ve learned a lot in the past five weeks, and I think next year’s trip (if it does indeed occur) will be much better.  Thankfully, that’s at least a year away…

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