Maurice and the Iron Matron
There is NO SEX in this story. If you were looking for sex, please don't vote on the lack of it.
This is my holiday story - more a holiday preparation story, really. It was written quickly. Mistakes in alphabet (you'll see when you read it) probably aren't mistakes, unless they are.
I don't hit you over the head with the humor. I left it fairly subtle, I want to tug a smile from your face while keeping you entertained.
I hope you enjoy. Merry Christmas (or time off from work, if that's more appropriate), and Happy New Year!
One time, back in 2003, I had to go to Poland for work. Don't get me wrong, I was excited as all hell, having never traveled internationally for work, and I was really, really looking forward to it.
I worked for a large communications-infrastructure vendor at the time, and I was going to oversee the first round of off-shoring. Yeah, it meant American jobs were going away, but the division I worked for was huge, overbloated, and a fair target for downsizing. I was young(er) and anxious to earn my spurs.
I had to go with Robert, a failed Project Manager type, who was cerebral to the extreme, but clueless as hell about personal interaction. Robert was a balding, 6-foot-three redhead, and he gave the impression he could bend spoons with his will alone — at thirty feet. Robert was something of a clothes-horse, liking expensive silk shirts and designer slacks, always with a stylish hat and jacket or overcoat. He figured he'd learn Polish quickly, since he knew Russian. Robert was destined to embarrass the hell out of me this trip, but hey ... he at least could be understood by the Polish. It was probably a shame that the Polish, only a decade free of Communism, hated the sound of Russian, a language that to them sounded like it was spoken by a backwards peasant.
With us also was Paul, a young — and I mean really young, like 24 years old — dude who had actually been there before, and had found a cab driver to keep. Paul was newly wed, and an upcoming young star in the test group for this division we were in. Paul was young, and of Turkish descent, living in Chicago all his life. He was physically small, but wiry-tough, and had visible scars from his street-youth upbringing.
And then, there was Maurice. Maurice had come to our company from the world's largest long-distance operator. When the Government broke them up he changed industries, only one step ahead of the axe-man when he jumped. Within our large company, his career had been one long ablation, a continuous shedding of responsibility, and not by his choice. At first, he'd been the test manager for a large test group in our Satellite Communications group, and to his surprise, had been universally hated. When most of us were moved to Terrestrial Communications, Maurice managed to keep control of a core of the younger engineers who hadn't had the savvy or the connections to get transferred away from his truly-awful management style. Each time the company reorganized after that had seen more of his headcount plead to anyone they could to get out of his group, and Maurice absolutely hated that this happened to him.
That his misfortune was his fault could never have occurred to him.
You see, Maurice was Lebanese, from Beirut, and back in the bad days of the Early Seventies, he'd had his ankle and knee damaged by a mortar shell — he was used to facing adversity. When it healed, his leg was more-or-less fused solid. Maurice was Catholic, and thus was driven from Beirut back in the day. Montreal was where the French-speaking Lebanese went, and Catholics were the majority. Years later, when he'd finally made it to Montreal, it'd been far too late to surgically repair his damaged leg.
Maurice was stubborn, though, and had left Montreal, had managed a gas station in Tennessee, of all places, for a while. I guess he perfected his management technique there. Anyway, he'd returned to marry an Arab princess in Montreal, and, Maurice could not allow himself to fail in her eyes.
The merest thought of being diminished in her eyes would have killed Maurice. She was his queen, his angel, his status symbol, and as long as he maintained her in an ever-increasing standard of living, his manhood was sacrosanct. Losing responsibility at every turn killed Maurice, and he depended on status — but telling his wife what was happening to his career could never be allowed — he would have stepped in front of a train, first.
Too bad he kept losing people from his team, though, huh? That was Maurice. I guess he saw this trip as expiation on two levels — a chance to get more resources that reported to him, and a chance to do some shopping, shopping for high-quality display goods that he could give his wife for Christmas.
Display goods? Yeah, things that showed Maurice's wealth, things his pretty wife could serve tea in, so that she never need know that he wasn't doing all that great in his career. The other wives would tell their husbands, and the husbands would gnash their teeth and bemoan the fact that Maurice was a better provider than they were.
Oh, hell, where was I? Yeah, it was a long flight. We got to O'Hare in Chicago, and it was dark, mid-December, and the snow was falling, lightly. LOT Polish airlines had had major weather in Warsaw that morning, and the flight from Warsawa was going to be late, we were told. About thirteen hours late.
Robert, the experienced and oh-so-superior world traveler, had us get in line with Air France, and, I will admit, mere hours later, we were in the Air France L'Affairs (Business) Lounge, drinking Fischer D'Alsace (decent ale) and eating hazelnuts, waiting for our Business Class 777 seats to take us to Paris Orly, where we'd hook back up with LOT Polish to take us to Krakow.
"God," I said, "it sucks that we don't have visas for the Czech Republic."
"Why," asked Robert, world traveler. "Czech beer?"
"Yeah," I said, distracted for a moment. Pilsner Urquell and Budvar were made in Czech, in Pilzn, and I'd loved to have gone. "But my Mother-in-Law likes that white pottery with the blue dots..."
"Really?" Maurice sat up, his hooked beak of a nose quivering, the planes of his Arabic face looking soulful, his dark eyes showing some animation.
"Yeah," I said, "I guess I'd like to get some Christmas ornaments. But it's too bad ... I think Bohemian crystal's probably a little out of reach for this trip."
Maurice didn't say anything, but his nose still twitched.
Robert dominated the conversation for a while, while we waited for Paul, and then the plane, trying to show his superior French skills off to me.
It was a long flight. Lots of wine, crackers, cheese, nuts, and pâté, I remember that much. Oh, and some Cognac, and ... yeah, it was Air France. Business Class. Nice.
I finally slept, I think I was too stuffed and inebriated to stay awake, and I woke up hot, out of sorts, and in Paris. We had to change terminals, for intra-Europe flights ... Those busses were loud, cold, and smelled of Diesel. I'll remember the Rasta dude fighting with the African Prince (Kenyan, I think), sparring verbally in English, the whole shuttle ride from one terminal to another. All I remember of Orly itself was how absolutely dirty the outside of the airport structures were — even if it were winter, it was dingy.
I wanted to sleep on the bus, but ... it wasn't happening.
A few hours later, having negotiated the vast expanse of the Connections D'Europe terminal (heckifiknow what it's really called, probably something glamorous, like "Terminal D"), we were sitting next to a ragtag collection of ... ragged people, a few business men, one or two high-society Parisiennes, and the honest working people of Europe. All ready to ... eventually ... fly to Krakow. All that was missing were suitcases held together with rope, and a little less high-quality makeup, and it could have been the airport in Scranton. Except, of course, for the Gendarmes with the Fabrique-Nationale 5.56mm Paratrooper II automatic weapons. You just don't see that in the US, or at least not outside of New York or Boston.
They just didn't seem like they wanted to talk shop, or discuss suppressing-fire techniques with me, you know?
Ah, that flight ended, too, and we were in Krakow, at the Robert Paul II airport. Let me tell you, the Polish Border Guard (or whatever the hell they're called) still had their Communist-era woolen uniforms (they were warm, I guess) and the hats with the red band ... and they spoke not at all when they took your passport, and swiped it through the barcode reader. I got one who looked up at me that first visit, and he smiled this chilling little smile, a compression of the lips, really, and I felt my answering smile waver a little. I got through without being handcuffed or worse.
Once through the swinging doors, I felt like I'd stepped into Eastern Europe — a riot of a crowd, in darkly-wrapped layers of clothing, greeted us, anxiously searching for their loved one to return. Old faces, male faces behind bushy moustaches and beards, women's faces craggy and aged from care, young and smooth faces, hopefully looking for their brother, or cousin, or whomever, a wall of people behind the double-stainless-steel-bar fence, all looking at me, wondering who the rich, sleek American was.
I found the cab driver easily enough, in the middle of the crowd, right in front of the swinging frosted-glass doors, that parted to reveal the crowd kept at bay five meters from the doors, that parted to reveal the cabbie — silvery grey hair, flattish on top, not too wide of shoulder, but well-fed. Sleek, like us.
He had a sign with the name of our company on it, and I, being the first through those swinging doors with the frosted glass headed straight for him.
"Hi," he said, "I'm Andrzej."
I thought he had a bubble on his tongue when he said his name, but nodded. As the others came through the doors, carrying their luggage, he gave us all a big, booming welcome. It sounded like he said "Jenn Dough-bray!" (which later I learned was "Dzien Dobry!").
Andrzej wore a black-leather vest over his good woolen shirt, and his Levi's blue jeans. Never mind that it was about 12 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and a good three feet of fresh snow (remember the plane that was delayed from Warsawa?), Andrzej was dressed to impress — to impress his fellow Polish Cabbie, if no-one else.
Nonetheless, his big smile and warm welcome won us over, and quickly he had us loaded into his (illegally-parked) Mercedes diesel wagon — which car I would come to appreciate — and promptly had an argument with the policeman telling him to move the car. I had to laugh — the cabbie seemed injured that the cop would try to harm his livelihood, and the cop seemed apologetic. I gave the young traffic cop an apologetic smile, and he returned it — a genuine, open, friendly smile, and let Andrzej go without any more hassle.
"Of course," Andrzej said, as we all buckled. He made no move toward his own seatbelt, and said something in Polish. "That's what we say, 'Of Course', when we have guests who come from countries where they buckle."
Robert and Paul and I exchanged glances, wondering if we were about to die. Paul had had this guy as a driver before, I knew, but the look on his face now ... Maurice stared resolutely out the front passenger window, and didn't say a word.
"Call me Andrew," Andrzej — Andrew — said, then. "I lived in North Carolina and Chicago for about ten years," he continued, "and I remember most of the American idiom, but my speech, here, in Poland, might sound a little strange. I only hear American idiom when I get the rich American tourists, who come to the Old Country, to find their roots."
He delivered that perfectly matter-of-factly, and I kind of had the sense that he was amused by it all. I was beginning to like this cab driver, all bluff and swagger, but a fairly intelligent guy, I thought, underneath it all, who knew his place in life, and was pretty happy with it.
I have this theory: major highways are beautified. They do this so the guest, whisked from the airport to the center of the city, will think the best of the country they are driven through. Only clean concrete, or painted surfaces, lush and green, with brilliant signage and impeccable road surfaces are to greet the newcomer on his way from the airport to the city. Once in the city, or the countryside, I guess the opportunity is lost. But that first impression ... priceless.
Andrew took us down back roads, instead. Dirty, grimy, with broken concrete power poles, dingy signage, rusty streaks in the road where the sewers backed up from too much foliage blocking them; ramshackle houses with mismatched construction and architecture, and overgrown flora — trees and gardens and lawns — all bearing the dirty snow. We took the back way.
"Looks like Pennsylvania," I said to Robert, and he grunted an agreement.
Paul laughed. "Southern Illinois," he said authoritatively, and Maurice ignored us.
Andrew drove on the narrow, snowy roads with casual familiarity, and more than a little speed. I was pretty relaxed, actually, recognizing a fellow driver of comparable ability. Maurice seemed ... apprehensive. Robert and Paul were just oblivious.
"Fucking traffic cameras," Andrew said, a few minutes later, while we waited at a stoplight, in an obviously-more-urban area. "They'll take your license if you get caught by that one," and he pointed up at a camera on top of a traffic-light crossbar.
We nodded sagely. Poland, it seemed, had the same kind of bullshit we had at home.
I loved watching the road signs, the billboards, the shop signs, the apartment signs, and the street signs. Very quickly, we had left the road named Olszanicka ("ol shan NEETS ka") and then were on the Krolowej Jadwega ("crawl-OH-vay yad-VAY-ga"), and now we were passing a large field to the left, obviously a city park next to the Wisła (Vistula) River. Andrew kept me entertained correcting Robert's pronunciation, and every so often, I'd catch Maurice's soulful brown eyes, reflected while staring out the window.
"What the hell is wrong with him?" I remember thinking. I let it go, kinda excited still, at age 38, to see the streetcars in the road, and look at the people in the train through the windows.
Pretty soon, we turned on the Strasewskiego, next to a band of woods that Andrew explained was where the old city wall was, back in the Dark Ages, and it was right about then that the sense of age in Europe really hit me. This city really was a city during the Dark Ages ... and I absorbed that thought for a minute or two, while Andrew drove — pretty offensively, as if his front bumper were a snowplow and the people only an impediment to his travel — through the Planty, the greensward where the wall had been, to our hotel.
The freaking hotel was standing when Copernicus — the dude with the telescope who first realized the Sun was the center of the Solar System — yeah, that dude — had stayed in it on his way to the King's Court back in, like, 1501 AD.
We checked in, and I got this great old — but drafty — room on the third floor. I loved this hotel, all dark wood and hand-plastered lathe, every thing about it screamed 'age'. It was warm, and golden in the interior light, and the twelve-degree cold outside was kept at bay by the foot-thick walls.
Maurice met me in the bar an hour later, all phlegmatic and dour, soul-weary. He wanted to talk about work — and I wanted to hear nothing at all about it. "It can freaking wait, Maurice," I told him, and he nodded.
"What do you think about the chances for shopping?" he asked, and I laughed.
"Pretty good, I think..." and the discussion morphed into appreciation for the beer we were served, something I absolutely adore (beer!).
"It's Żywiec," I was told by the snooty bartender. I even liked the snootiness of the bartender, this place affected me so, and the beer was superlative.
"Shoo-VEE-etz?" I said, trying hard.
"Zhiv-EE-its" he said.
"Another," I said, draining my glass.
Maurice just stared despondently at the wall.
The next day sucked, of course, while I tried to accommodate myself to the change in timezones. A blur — an honest one, not bought cheaply by hangover — of faces and names, and I met some people I liked, and some I didn't, and didn't make too bad an ass of myself, I think, before our Polish guests.
Funny, that. Here they were, trying to impress me with how competent they were, how able to meet my needs, and I was only trying to keep them from thinking I was an ass.
Maurice sat, lugubriously, moping through the whole dog-and-pony show.
The building we were in was this castle on top of a hill. The Jagellonian University was there, in one of the buildings, and we were there, in another. In the basement was a Serbian restaurant, and the smells of heavy food permeated the building, making my mouth water at the oddest moments.
The coffee maker was this giant automated expresso press, and was about the only thing Maurice seemed excited about all trip. Even this, though, could only hold his attention for a moment. With a sneer, he declined steamed milk for his expresso, drinking it as if it were coffee.
During the day's meetings, Maurice quickly moved to establish his dominance in the testing arena, and tried to command obedience from those who would be his minions. What he got instead was a bunch of uneasy glances traded amongst his hosts ... I was there for part of that, and even I felt uneasy.
The site's most senior guy had me and Robert off in another meeting, soon after that. I was mostly interested in letting him show the place off to us, pretty much convinced already that Poland's best-and-brightest were here, and they were going to work for us. I let Jarek, the guy in charge, tell us about the view over the Wisła, and then he said something curious.
"It was built by the Nazis in World War Two," said Jarek, "a sort of an officer's retreat." He had this odd note in his voice. "The outbuilding was a large garage, suitable for dozens of automobiles, and a petrol station. Downstairs, where we have the labs, were bunkbeds, a dormitory. Upstairs were a large number of small rooms, with beds and enough plumbing for a wash basin." He paused meaningfully, until he saw I got it.
"What?" Robert asked, lost.
"It was an officer's whorehouse," I told him, and Jarek laughed easily along with me at Robert's expression.
It was dark outside, and I was grateful for the heavy wool tweed jacket I wore over my Hensley, the castle was drafty. Jarek came to us and asked us if he could have the receptionist call a cab for us — the infamous '404 Taxi', but we declined. I spent a moment figuring out the phone system — three 0's got an outside line, then I needed the city code ... but I got it, and soon Andrew was on his way.
Maurice didn't look thrilled when he met us at the front entryway, to wait for Andrew. "What's wrong?" I asked him.
He gave me this soulful victimized look. "This was a waste of time," he said. "These people aren't interested in helping. They want to just take over."
I kept my observation — that Maurice came in search of minions, mindless robots that would do his bidding utterly — to myself.
"Well, at least we'll have a good time tonight," I said. "We'll eat downtown in the Rynek Główny, the old city market, and then go shopping for Christmas stuff."
Maurice looked up at me then, an odd look in his eye. "Okay," he said, and actually sounded hopeful.
I just shook my head at his material focus.
"Dzien dobry," I said to Andrew as he came to the door.
"Dobry wieczór," he corrected, while holding the door for us.
"Huh?" I asked.
He pointed at the deep winter night, stars brilliant against the velvet backdrop, and swirled his finger around. "It's after dark," he explained. "So, wieczór." It had to have been all of five degrees Fahrenheit at 6:15 in the evening.
"Got it," I lied.
The short trip to the car was memorable, as the snow squeaked under our feet. My first intake of cold air froze the insides of my nostrils. We trapped a lot of cold air in our coats and such, and the warmth of the car was swept away as we went through a kind of Chinese fire-drill, getting the four passengers into the Mercedes wagon.
"Brr," Paul said, and there was a hint of his teeth chattering, Chicagoan that he was. Wuss was more like it, in my opinion. I was from Arizona, and I was really cold.
"Only a moment," Andrew said, while he turned the heat to full-blast, and then we sat a moment more while he did something up by the steering wheel. "Here," he said, as he passed a paper cup back to Robert, "I have only two cups, so you'll have to share."
Robert sniffed it suspiciously, but shrugged. "It's not warm," he said, and passed it to Maurice. From up front came a coughing and a sputter from Paul, and Robert squeaked, "But it has a burn..."
Maurice watched Robert, his cold eyes glittering, and I knew right then that Maurice despised Robert. Deliberately, Maurice took a deep sip, and swallowed, twice. "Nice," he said. "Cherries. More?" and he handed the cup back to Andrew.
"Good shit," Paul said, and then Andrew handed me Paul's cup while he poured more for Maurice.
"Grain spirits and cherries," Andrew said. "I picked the cherries myself," and I believed him.
"I can't feel my lips," I muttered, half to myself, while the warmth spread through my belly. "I'll take more, too, Andrzej."
"Okay," he said, and he took a really healthy swig from the quart flask he had. Moments later, the drinks poured, we were rolling down the mountain, the twisty road covered in ice and snow, and Andrew flinging the Mercedes around the turns with skill and verve. It's possible I misread alcohol-loosened abandon for skill and verve, but I don't think so.
All anyone said about the trip down the hill was from Paul. "Man, I'd hate it if this were my driveway."
"Where to, my friends?" Andrew asked.
"I wanna find some crystal," Maurice told him.
"Tree ornaments?" Andrew looked for confirmation.
"No," Maurice answered, impatient. "Glasses, stemware, bowls, that sort of thing."
"Ah," Andrew said. "We'll start with the market, where it's inexpensive."
The market was also outdoors, and in the center of Old Krakow. Apparently, you needed a special permit to drive within the perimeter of the Planty, and another to get close to the Rynek Główny, the old market square. Andrew had the one, being a cab driver, and not the other, so we parked and walked.
Cold, yes indeed it was, and plumes of steam were sent lazily forth as you breathed. Everyone, it seemed, in Poland walked, and us soft Americans were huffing harder than Andrew as we walked up the hill from where we parked to the square. The city here looked, if not modern, at least post-industrial, and there were glamour shops and boutiques — a Harley-Davidson dealership, even — along the way. The square itself, in the winter dark, was dark stone flags, and a huge-seeming expanse to a long two-storey building, with heated shops in the perimeter, and along the hollow center was the world's coldest flea market.
Well, it seemed as if it were the world's coldest flea market.
My impression was of tons of inexpensive carved wooden things — flutes, cups, chess sets; some inexpensive metal things — flashy swords for kid's costumes, mostly — national costume for rich Americans to take home for their kids to dress up in once, for pictures for Grandma, I guess, and hand-cut crystal glassware. I guess there was a ton of shops selling amber jewelry and various cloths, also, but that had none of my interest (and amber is from the northern Baltic coast, hundreds of miles to the north).
None of it was good enough for Maurice. He sneered at everything, though he had the good grace to do it quietly. I bought a set of six hand-carved glass tumblers, with that star-pattern in the center. I use them for bourbon even today.
I was kind of numb on the outside, from the cold, and kind of numb on the inside, from the cherry liquor. Notice, I didn't say 'cherry liqueur'. No, I said 'cherry liquor', and meant just that, that stuff was 180-proof or better. Whatever, I felt I was smiling a lot, and getting a lot of smiles from the vendors in return.
There wasn't a whole lot of new stuff to see, after the first five stores or so, since the merchandise was pretty much the same in each. I got a little bored, and started inspecting the architecture: I guess I was impressed with the large cut stonework there; those blocks they built the place out of were huge. I was sort-of-relieved when soon, at 7:00, they were shutting the place down.
"I want to go to a better place," Maurice said.
Well, okay, and it seemed Andrew knew one. We had to be back near where we were by 9:00 for supper with our hosts from the Castle, and I guess the Hotel Copernicus would let us in at any hour, so all was cool. Andrew drove us down to a place at the northwest corner of Kasimierz, the Jewish Quarter (and I only knew the geography, where this place was, on a later visit — in summer, thank God — when I was walking to a pub down that way).
"This is a state-run shop," Andrew was saying, but Maurice was not listening.
"What," I asked, "this is supervised by der Kommissar?"
"Yes," Andrew confirmed it, and my not-quite-joke kind of fell flat.
"Oh," I said.
Well, they had stuff in there. Fine stuff, too — china, crystal, silver. Maurice took one step in, and I swear his nostrils flared. I was behind him, and could not see his face, but every line of his body screamed that his nostrils had just flared, it was visible from the movement of his shoulders, if you know what I mean?
The proprietress swept forward from the back of the shop, her two female assistants — younger, and attractive — in tow. The lady was very hard-looking, as if she'd survived years of Communism and the subsequent freedom of her country by sheer will power. That she kept her position in a state-run apparatus said that she was hardnosed, and her sniff for Andrew when he came in was entirely predictable to me.