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Poland -- December 10, 1997
On a recent icy night deep in the heart of northern Mazuria -- Poland's "Land of a Thousand Lakes" -- I sidled up to a roaring bonfire and sat down for the first time in fifteen hours. Weary and famished, I had spent the day working with six trainers (three Poles, two Americans, and one Brit) from Team Builders International, an American-owned outdoor-training organization -- a sort of Polish Outward Bound. Our mission had been to instill the ethos of teamwork in seventy young Polish employees from the Warsaw office of a telecommunications company; our method was to conduct a variety of group exercises.
Now, at the end of the grueling day, the seven of us huddled around a blazing fire, twenty feet from the shore of Lake Mikolajki. We began dishing up heaping bowls of bigos, the hearty meat-based Polish stew that burbled in a blackened cauldron over the fire. The bigos had a sweet taste that offset some rather tough strips of meat. Curious, I asked what it was, exactly, that I was eating. Immediately, John -- the corpulent American who owned Team Builders -- belched and said, "Don't ask!"
A rebuke was soon to come, I thought, from Leschek, a Polish trainer in his forties who was clearly fed up with Americans. Chiseled from a ten-year stint in the Polish army, Leschek's muscular physique perfectly complemented his characteristic Slavic features: soaring cheek bones, shovel-flat nose, and almond-shaped blue eyes. With a tremendous spoonful of bigos poised before his mouth, Leschek spoke gruffly. "Relax! You Americans so concerned about food you eat. Meat is meat. Nothing is wasted here."
The intensity of Leschek's words reminded me of an exercise we had conducted earlier in the day. Just after noon I had watched ten of the young Poles work together to figure out how to balance themselves, all at once, for five seconds on a log supported at its middle by a brick. There was a catch: under one end of the log was an egg. Cracking the egg would spell failure for the team.
Three of the more vocal male group members were the first to formulate possible solutions, but others soon began quietly to get involved. After fifteen minutes of deliberation an attempt at balancing the whole team was made -- but one of the women slipped and the log crushed the egg. Everbody stood and stared. The three leaders quickly began to rally the group for a second try, but after two more unsuccessful attempts there were three wasted eggs oozing their contents into the dirt. As the three leaders scratched their heads and muttered excuses ("It can't be done, Marek is too fat!"), a particularly dejected-looking Pole delicately scooped up the remains of the eggs, walked slowly into the woods, and gently laid the mess on a patch of grass, as though it were a priceless gem or a holy relic. Returning from the woods, he turned to me, his hands smeared with yolk. "My parents spent half their lives waiting in line for fucking bread scraps," he said. "Do you think this is easy? Waste disgusts."
If this were America, I thought, there would probably be dozens of eggs splattered on the ground. People would be scrambling to find more to keep the exercise going.
The strong smell of vodka snapped me back into the present. I tried to ease the tension prompted by my initial question by asking, in my best creaky witch voice, "So what's in this boiling cauldron, my pretties? Eye of newt and toe of frog? Wool of bat and tongue of dog?"
Leschek's eyes bored right through me. "Look behind you," he replied with a jerk of his head.
A mangy, rat-like dog had emerged from the bushes and was standing ten yards from the fire. Quivering in the orange light, the dog -- its hair completely shorn except for a few clumps on its head -- hungrily eyed Leschek's steaming bowl of bigos. Reluctantly, Leschek tossed a chunk of meat toward the sinewy cur, who snapped it viciously out of the air. As the animal slinked back into the darkness a multitude of yellow eyes now peered out intently from the thicket.
Dog stew? He must be joking, I thought. The meat in my mouth began to taste a bit gamey. Was Leschek pulling my leg? In a country where waste was tantamount to religious heresy, where food remained scarce in many rural areas, and where packs of wild dogs roamed freely, anything was possible.
Ryan Nally is an editor at Atlantic Unbound.
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