Encounters with the Archbureaucrat, Part Seven

“The occupation of a bureaucrat may be very
necessary; it was not long, however, before I
had made up my mind (later my conclusions
were verified) that bureaucrats are parasites.”
—Czesław Miłosz, Native Realm

“This is a country that has lost control of its bureaucracy,” observes our dinner guest, Robert Jones, visiting Poland for the first time from York, England. “And until it regains control, all other reform will be in vain.”

He pauses for another bite of Michelle’s garlic bread, another sip of Bulgarian red wine. “Reminds me of my experience in Brazil. I spent two years at the university there in a three-member department: myself, another native-speaker, and the chairman. During my first year, the chairman spent most of his time trying to get the department upgraded to an institute. The foreigners did most of the teaching, while he went from one office to another trying to get his institute. We got monthly progress reports, usually over dinner at a small restaurant. I kept wondering how a three-member institute would function, but I was young and this was his country, so I asked no questions.

“Finally, after long and complicated delays, all necessary documents were signed, by the director of the humanities faculty, by the university rector, by the local politicians, even by the president of the country, and we had out Institute of English Studies. My native-speaking friend and I were summoned to a victory celebration, where, after the toasts and the speeches, we offered a modest proposal: ‘Now that we are officially an Institute, might the Institute do something?’

“‘Like what?’ asked our puzzled director.

“We suggested a small conference for the secondary level English teachers, co-sponsored perhaps by the British Council, to help them with methodologies and materials. The director adopted our idea as his own, took it and us to the university rector for approval. After listening politely for half an hour, and finally agreeing to support the conference ‘in principle,’ the rector shook his head sadly and asked our director, ‘Why do you wish to make things difficult? The Institute of Portuguese Studies has flourished for twenty-five years without doing a thing.’”

Yes, I admit, Poland is often an adventure on the other side of the looking glass. “I used to be put off by Kafka’s surrealism,” colleague Tom Samet once remarked, paraphrasing, I think, Philip Roth; “but since coming to Poland, I have come to consider him the most pedestrian of realists.”

I pass the observation along to Jones, who laughs the nervous laugh of one lost in the Twilight Zone.

Jones is right: if nineteenth century capitalism taught us that owners are selfish oafs who give not a damn about the safety of their workers or the general public; care not at all about product quality, the environment, or national welfare; are interested exclusively in maximum profits on minimal risk and investment, then twentieth century socialism teaches us that workers are selfish oafs who give not a damn about their own safety or the public’s; care not at all about product quality, customer service, or the environment; and will, given the opportunity, work as little as possible, steal all they can carry in two hands, and complain about being overworked. The Worker’s Paradise amounts finally to Poland, 1990: sloth triumphant, and not a country you would care to live in.

Łódź street scenes, 1990

The day after our dinner, I am off with Michelle to match wills against the arch-bureaucrat herself. Our missions are not complicated: pick up the month’s pay at the rector’s office and, while there, pay the telephone bill; then stop by the train station and buy a pair of round-trip tickets to Hungary, where Steve Horowicz has invited me to talk about Bob Dylan and America during the Sixties, and maybe bring along a few copies of A Generation in Motion for his students. But nothing is simple, because bureaucrats, having infiltrated into even the most mundane corners of public and private life, are alive and thriving even in New Poland.

Collecting pay at the Rektorat, for example, Michelle and I wait half an hour in line at the fourth floor cashier’s desk, watching people check their names against a computer-generated master list, receive their money—cash, counted out one bill at a time, and in front of everyone in the room—and sign a receipt. When our turn comes, Michelle collects but my name is nowhere on the pay list. Do I really teach at the University? “Yes, I do. I am a docent professor at the Institute of English Philology. Here is my legitymacja.” “Ah, a docent professor… your pay would be at the first floor cashier’s window. So sorry.”

We walk downstairs to the first floor cashier’s window (I remember this room now; it was here, not upstairs, that I last collected my pay), wait again in line, check the computer print-out, and yes, there is my name. The clerk opens a brown envelope, 10,000 and 20,000 notes to a total of 850,000 złotych are counted into my hand, and I sign a receipt. I ask about the phone bill.

“Phone bill would be in the other building, room 104. I will draw you a map,” says the helpful bureaucrat.

Out the front door of the main building, around the corner onto a side street, in the back door of a second building, down a hall, to office 104, knock, knock, knock. The opening door reveals six major-league bureaucrats sipping tea around a pair of desks. One rummages through a stack of envelopes, finds my phone bill: 15,000 złotych for January, 60,000 for February. On a small slip of paper she writes 75,000 złotych, I, II 1900. “Take this to the cashier’s window on the first floor,” she tells me, “and when you’re done there, bring the receipt back here so we can record your payment.”

Łódź street scenes, 1990

Returning to the window where thirty minutes earlier I received my 850,000, I wait again in a short line to speak with the cashier… only to be told “next door, you must take this next door first.”

Slamming the door to the cashier’s office on the first floor of the main building of the Rektorat just a little, I walk next door, where I wait my turn at the usual gray counter. After ten minutes, I present my little slip of paper and the bureaucrat fills out a receipt for 75,000 złotych. “Take this receipt to the cashier’s window next door, pay the bill, and get it stamped,” she directs. I notice a little window conveniently set in the wall between her office and the cashier’s office next door: perhaps she could pass the receipt and my 75,000 złotych through that window, because I have already been to the cashier office twice today and I’m getting a little grumpy. But this is not possible.

Slamming the door to this office just a little bit harder, and grumbling aloud about withholding and direct deposit, I return for the third time to the cashier’s window, wait once more, pay my money, get my receipt stamped… whereupon I return again to the office in the other building, wait again, have one of the bureaucrats not busy drinking tea inspect my receipt and record that Pichaske has paid his phone bill for the months of January and February 1990.

Then I head downtown for lunch.

(I have lied here: actually, I lost patience somewhere around the second—or was it the third?—trip to the cashier’s window. Michelle got the damned phone bill paid. I headed downtown in search of train tickets).

Tickets to Budapest involve an even more frustrating encounter with Polish bureaucracy. Remembering that golden day in the fall when I just walked in and bought two tickets to Berlin, I make a half-hearted attempt at Fabryczna Station. No such luck this time: “Tickets to Berlin, Prague, and Budapest are sold only at Kaliska Station.” I’ve lost an hour waiting in line, but this is useful information, and off I go on a number 12 tram to Kaliska Station and wait another half hour in line, only to be told, “Tickets to Berlin, Budapest, and Prague are not sold at these windows. There is another building down the street. You will recognize it when you see it.”

I do. It’s the building where the line snakes clear out the door and onto the street. Very long. Very slow. Very futile. Two hours after arriving, I am told, “You are a foreigner. Go to the Orbis agency on Piotrkowska Street.”

“No tickets here for Budapest?”

“Not for you. You got to the Orbis agency.”

“On Piotrkowska.”

Back to Piotrkowska, to the Orbis agency, and, finally, no ticket.

“We can sell you a ticket to Budapest for thirty days from now.”

“I need to go in eighteen days.”

Nie ma.”

I search my calendar for another open weekend. “How about 32 days?”


“Could you pick up that little telephone on your desk and find out?”


Forgetting the number one axiom of life in Poland (“No never means no; yes never means for certain yes”), I express my displeasure in a string of English expletives the general thrust of which should be evident enough to even the stupidest, laziest, most incompetent of bureaucrats. I do not slam the door, but I am plenty steamed… until another plan occurs to me: plane instead of train. As a state employee, I can buy airplane tickets in Polish currency, at Polish rates… and airplane tickets inside the East Bloc are dirt cheap. Allen Weltzien flies Gdańsk to Warsaw for four bucks. It’s time to assert my rights.

At the Orbis Air Office, another line, another clerk, but, wonder of wonders, after half an hour of talking, I have reservations for two, round-trip, Warsaw-Budapest-Warsaw, days of my choice, 120,000 złotych ($12) each. “I will purchase the tickets now,” I announce.

“That line over there, sir,” a clerk tells me.

Another line, another wait, and a computer prints out my tickets… at a price approximately ten times the price quoted at the other counter. “This is the incorrect price,” I tell the clerk.

“This is the foreigner’s price,” she tells me.

“I pay Polish prices,” I reply, producing a stack of papers. “I have documents.”

“No. These documents allow you to pay for your tickets in Polish currency, but you must still pay the foreigners’ price, not the Polish price.”

“Other foreigners have flown to conferences at Polish prices.”

“It’s different when the University itself purchases the tickets for the professors,” she tells me. “But that takes a document from the Rektorat…”

I tear the tickets in half, unleash another blizzard of expletives, and head for a private bureau specializing in bus tours. Another line, of course, and another run-around. “Book your tour in our office on Piotrkowska Street.”

To Piotrkowska Street, again. And again, no tickets for eighteen days hence. “How about later this month?”




“May? June?”

“In June nobody travels to Budapest, so there are no tours. Sorry.”

Hell, I quit. It’s supper time. “What did you do today in Poland, Dave?”

“I collected my pay and paid my phone bill.”

Of course there are tours, and of course there are tickets, and of course appropriate people in the airline bureaucracy could have read my papers—secured, I need not say, only after long hours waiting in various university and governmental bureaucracies—and sold me airline tickets to Budapest at Polish prices, payable in Polish currency. The receipt for my phone bill could easily have passed through the window designed specifically for that purpose… and all disbursements at the University could easily be handled in one central bureau. But the bureaucrats, intent on making more jobs for more people in more places, or less work for themselves in their own bureaus, or waiting for a bribe, or just being ornery, chose not to. Bartleby triumphant, they would prefer not to, and by golly, they do not have to. The most important, omnipresent, critical service industries in Poland choose not to function unless bribed.

Or threatened with bodily harm, a bad idea even for an American.

Well, the train ticket saga continues, although not on this particular day. It is a story of continuing bureaucratic intricacies, and one worth telling.

Soon after this adventure, while killing time in Warszawa Centralna waiting to catch the Telimena to Łódź, I note the line at International Trains is surprisingly short, and having nothing better to do, I wait for a turn at the window and pull the arm of the old slot machine one more time: does the clerk maybe have a round-trip ticket to Budapest for two weeks hence?

“What train would you like, sir?”

I mention the 5:00 p.m., and yes, this clerk has just such a ticket.

“Do you have two such tickets?”

“I have only one ticket.”

“I will take that ticket, thank you very much,” I tell the clerk, pay her $4, and damned if I don’t have my ticket and reservation for Budapest, simple as asking at the right time and place.

Trouble is, I have only one ticket, and after another week searching in both Łódź and Warsaw, I still have only one ticket.

Thursday before departure, I suggest to Michelle, “I will go up early to Warsaw and check all the stations, all the windows. If I can get another ticket, I will phone you, and you can pack your bag and come up. If I can’t get another ticket, I will go alone, do my thing, and get back to Łódź as quickly as I can.”

Which I do. I leave Łódź at 6:00 a.m., arrive in Centralna two hours later, wait in a very long queue, ask one more time about a ticket to Budapest, hear one more time, “nie ma.” Since it is not yet ten and I have the day to kill, I ask myself, “Trains stop in Warsaw East; maybe they sell tickets there.”

Warszawa Wschodnia it is. Ignoring signs posted at the International Trains window which read very clearly “No more tickets for any trains departing today to Berlin, Budapest, or Prague,” I wait in a short line and ask the clerk about tickets to Budapest. By way of answer, she merely points to the sign.

Returning to Centralna, I meet another American also headed for Budapest. We exchange tales, and the reply she received was slightly different from the one I got earlier this very morning at this very station.

She was told, “Perhaps. Come back after 12:00.”

By the time we arrive at the head of the line, that deadline has passed, and what do you think? The clerk has tickets to Budapest on tonight’s train.

“Do you have seats on the 5:00?” I ask.

“No, only 11:00.”

“Do you have two tickets for the 11:00 train?”

She does not.

“Could I trade this ticket and reservation on the 5:00 for one on the 11:00, and then buy one additional ticket for my wife?’

“I have only one seat on the 11:00 train,” the clerk says firmly.

“I will take that ticket, thank you very much,” I tell her, put down my $4. In three minutes I have my second round-trip ticket, with reservation.

“I have another ticket,” I tell Michelle on the phone, “but it’s on the 11:00. You come up here immediately, and we’ll talk to the conductor about letting me use my ticket for the 11:00 on the 5:00. Maybe we can work things out. If we can’t, we’ll travel separately and meet in Budapest.”

When the 5:00 pulls into Centralna, Michelle rushes to claim her seat and, after what I hope is not a kiss good-bye, I join the small knot of Poles negotiating with the conductor further back of the train. “Nie ma, nie ma, nie ma,” he keeps repeating. No room, no room, no room. I flash my American passport with two U.S. greenbacks inside. “Get aboard quickly,” he commands. I jump through the door just as the train pulls out.

With both Michelle and me aboard!

Hey, Shellsers, we have pulled this thing off! Michelle, honey, it’s me, your Davey, I am here with you! Shell, I’m coming! I start working my way up the train, one car to the next, to break the good news.

But the door between cars is locked. Worse, I encounter another conductor, who of course wants to see my ticket, which I show him, and my reservation, which I also show him, and of course it is for the 11:00.

“Your colleague said I could ride this train.”

Nie, nie. You will have to get off at the next station, then wait a few hours until your train comes through. You get off in Częstochowa.”

Well, I am not getting off in Częstochowa, you can bet the mortgage to your house on that. I drop back a few cars on the speeding train, run into the first conductor. He is all smiles. “Come with me,” he indicates.

I follow him into an absolutely empty compartment, eight unoccupied second-class seats. I give him two dollars, he writes me a reservation ticket, smiles, wishes me a good journey. Four hours later at the Czech border, I finally make contact with Michelle, leading her back to my empty second-class compartment. By 10:30 we’re sprawled across the seats, snoozing peacefully.

By 6:30 the next morning, we are in Hungary. Together.