Late during the previous night my husband and I had arrived in Lodz, Poland. We had been tired and were happy to find a small hotel on the outskirts of the city. We slept soundly and were now ready to find coffee and something to eat. The excitement to go and explore this, the city of my birth, ran high.
It was a dreary day, emphasizing the dreariness of the buildings. The streets looked to be in great disrepair and appeared as a grey reflection of the cement block buildings lining both sides of each street.
But, nothing was able to curb my enthusiasm to walk along streets, where I know I had walked on my mother’s hand so many years ago.
We had exchanged only one of our U.S. Travelers’ cheques at the railway station into slotys, knowing that there was a better exchange rate available at a proper bank. It was enough to pay for the hotel and our upcoming breakfast. We walked along several streets searching for a restaurant and found a small café that sported six tall tables. Two young women stood at one of the tables drinking what appeared to be coffee.
Our little Berlitz dictionary was of great help because we soon realized it would be very difficult to find someone who spoke either German or English, these being the only two languages in which we were fluent.
We ordered two coffees and two pastries, were told to go stand at one of the tables and we would be served. Timing the waitress, we stood a total of seven minutes before our order arrived. By this time we were the only two guests in this fine establishment. It was not the most tasty breakfast we had ever had, but being hungry, tired of standing and anxious to start exploring, we quickly drank our coffee and ate the two dry buns.
Across the street we saw a more inviting looking hotel than the one in which we had stayed the previous night. It was definitely a pre-war building with very little updating since that time. The room was clean with two narrow single beds and a small adjoining bathroom. We dropped our backpacks in one corner, washed our hands and ran down the three flights of stairs.
As we rounded a corner, we came upon a large roundabout with a crumbling waterless fountain at its centre. I remarked to my husband this must surely be the “Green Ring” where I had gone shopping with my mother. He was incredulous that I would remember the place and the name after 45-plus years.
It was time to cash a few more of our Travelers‘ cheques. We asked the cabdriver to take us to a bank where such a service was available. My husband opted to remain with the cabdriver while I hurried into the bank. A long queue stood waiting for the one and only visible teller behind a long counter topped with opaque glass. In orderly Canadian fashion, I stood at the end of the line that seemed to be moving reasonably quickly.
At last my turn came and armed with my Berlitz, made my request known. The teller motioned to a young man who then escorted me into a door at the rear of this large room. There I found another queue, made up of some of the people I recognized from the previous queue. This line moved a little slower than the one before. When my turn came, I once more stated my request. Another young man with a serious face motioned for me to follow him. I entered another room at the end of which I faced one more queue. This one consisted of only three people. I hopefully approached this teller handing over my papers when being told to enter one more door. There was a lineup of chairs along one wall. It seemed there was only one little old lady in front of me.
I smiled at her as I observed she was dressed all in black. She did not have the grim expression on her face I had by now seen on every one of the people I encountered in this place. She returned my smile and murmured a few words in Polish. I told her I did not understand Polish but spoke only English and German. Her face lit up and she whispered to me in halting, old-fashioned German that she had now been sitting here for 45 minutes. She held a well-used bank book in her gnarled hands. I asked if it always took this long to take money out of her account. She sighed: yes, and she really wanted to do a few things besides going to the bank that afternoon.
We chatted amiably in low tones while I kept looking to the numerous people sitting at desks behind a long counter shuffling papers and once in a while picking up a pen, scribbling something on one sheet or another.
Knowing that my husband was sitting outside the building in a cab whose timer was running, I often looked at my watch and knew it was well over one hour since I left him there.
My Canadian-learned patience was coming to an end. I put on my most authoritative persona and approached the person closest to the counter and demanded in a raised voice that someone come and look after my request to have a few Travelers’ cheques cashed. She immediately turned and entered a small office summoning a woman, who came out while I repeated my words in a voice that could be heard all over the room. Everyone lifted their heads away from those all-important tasks and stared at me. Undaunted, I demanded to see someone in charge. The woman bowed several times deferentially and scuttled away, immediately reappearing with another woman who repeated the bowing and apologized profusely in broken English. She then motioned for me to follow her to a desk where an even more-important looking woman stood the moment we entered. She too apologized in English and within minutes produced the amount of sloty my Travelers’ cheques were worth.
As she was handing the money to me, my husband appeared in the doorway, having become worried and wondering what was taking me so long. Once more bowing deferentially and apologizing profusely, the two women all but scraped the floor. Having accomplished my task, we promptly left the place.
My husband and I, when discussing the incident, came to the conclusion that the only way to approach the kind of ideology these people represented, is with an air of greater authority than the one in charge. The little old Polish lady who sat demurely on her chair probably sat another 45 minutes before someone would stoop to looking after her. So much for a system that has proven itself to be defunct and thereupon crumbled into the dust of time.
(Christa Stegemann is a Saltair resident and frequent traveller/adventurer).