During my last dinner with Gina we talked about meeting up in Paris in 2020. You might think that Covid19 upset our plans, but it was much worse than that. Covid would have just been a delay, a year or a decade. A few months after I left Warsaw Gina was diagnosed with cancer. Seven months later she was gone.
Gina and I attended the same high school, but as she was three years younger than me, so we didn’t actually know each other. I was rather confused as to who she was when she friended me on Facebook. A quick check of her other friends showed me that she was from Canton, Texas. At the time I was sorting out my personal effects in preparation to become a nomad. My Canton High yearbooks were laying on the living room floor ready to be packed away. I found Gina’s photo and remembered her. At least I remembered her smile.
Later when I posted on Facebook that I was going to be passing through Eastern Europe, Gina contacted me and invited me to come by Warsaw for a visit. I thought, “Yeah sure,” like that is going to happen. I was way too used to how folks make all sorts of plans and never follow through. Later when my finances went south and I had to change all my plans, a long stay in Eastern Europe sounded good to me. I don’t remember the name of the small town in Poland I had selected was, but Gina convinced me that I had to come to Warsaw.
I had been in Warsaw for several days before Gina and I got together. Partly because I was so tired from the flights, and partly because I really held no great eagerness to meat I woman I didn’t actually know. Sunday, April 14, 2019, was the day our friendship began.
I walked across town taking lots of photos, winding my way over to near the church were Gina was attending Palm Sunday services. Despite the fact we had never met before, we were able to pick our fellow American at the corner. We went for a walk before going to a pub for beer and soup. I just ordered what she ordered. It was all very good. After dinner we went for another walk. We walked and talked, about our lives in Canton and afterwards.
Both of us had felt like outsiders in that town. She had moved there from Arkansas and I had moved there from Georgia at an age where we missed our old friends and were slow to make new ones. We had both been glad to get out. Me ending up at sea, and she ending up in Poland, eventually meeting on a street corner, which had seen so much horrible history, only to become the beautiful and safe place where we walked.
After I mentioned that I loved borscht, Gina took me to the restaurant, Radio Cafe. We sat at a table with the owner, who was a dear friend of hers and her late husbands.It was quite late by the time we left. Gina walked me across the downtown area and bought me a ticket on the tram to make sure I took the tram and didn’t walk home. Along the way she made detours so that I could see the various buildings lit up by night. She gave me a lot of advice about living in a city though I pointed out that I had lived in large cities most of my life. She was so used to people from Canton visiting.
In that half day, I had gone from being ambivalent about meeting Gina, to eagerly looking forward to our next meeting. I was so glad that I hadn’t gone to that small Polish town. I had so much fun talking to Gina, that I only took one photo that afternoon and night.
The next day Notre Dame Cathedral burned. Gina and I were devastated. We both loved Paris so much. “When it is rebuilt, we will go see it together!” We said, as we texted back and forth that day.
We texted back and forth over the days while I was enjoying myself, just living, with a bit of playing tourist thrown in. She gave me ideas of what I should be doing, some of which I couldn’t do because of budget. She was pretty intuitive and realized that I was constrained, and began searching out free things for me to do, like wine tastings.
It was nearly a week later when we got together again. While my schedule was wide open, Gina’s schedule was a normal work week. On that Saturday I headed out early to meet Gina at Być Może, a small cafe and bakery, about seven kilometers from the apartment I was renting. I hadn’t intentionally found a place on the other side of the city from her. But I think it worked out well so that she didn’t feel like I was in her back pocket all the time.
At the cafe, Gina had fun introducing me to some of her favorite Polish foods. The food was good, but the company was even better. After our meal, we went walking again, with Gina playing tour guide, telling me all about the city’s past, present, and future. We hopped on and off of buses just for the fun of it, hoping that I wouldn’t get caught without a ticket. I promised Gina, that I would either get a pass or carry some tickets with me in the future. I kept my promise. There were few photos taken when I was with Gina, because talking with her was far more interesting than making a record of the scenery.
At one point in our wanderings, we stopped for a beer. While we were seated at an outdoor table a visibly mentally disturbed man was making a commotion in the street. She was worried how it would reflect on her adopted home town. I assured her, that he was the only homeless person I had seen in a week. I pointed out that when I walked the few blocks in Honolulu between my condo and friend’s I passed five or six homeless encampments, with several disruptive people screaming at imaginary things.
Gina and I didn’t just meet, have a meal, and go our separate ways. We meet, ate lightly, went walking, stopped to eat again, and went walking again. On this day it was quite late, when Gina got tired and hopped on the tram back to her side of town. I wasn’t too far from my apartment, so I walked home. I had walked 14 miles that day. Gina was with me for at least 10 miles. Later in deference to Gina, I reset my tracker to kilometers so that I could tell her our distance in terms she was more familiar with. After so many years living in Warsaw, she was far more European than American.
She invited me to Easter dinner and to church services the next day, but though I would have loved to hang out with her, I feel that since I reject religion, I shouldn’t appropriate others religious celebrations. I spent the day walking around, making note of things to ask her about when we next met. Walking was free, and besides I was falling in love with Warsaw.
I really wasn’t expecting to see Gina until the next Saturday. Gina was a working woman who seemed to really enjoy her job. In retrospect it is surprising how much time she carved out for me over the three months I was there. She kept me advised of when she was out of town on business or visiting her late husbands grave. I wish you could have seen her when she spoke of Marek. Her faces was so sad, despite her smile, but her eyes lit up with so much love, though he had been gone for five years.
I was surprised to get a text for her on a Friday as I was walking down next to the river. She was going to go shopping at the Carrefour near my apartment. She asked me if I wanted to meet her there and she would teach me about Polish grocery shopping. I had time to go home for a short rest before, catching up with her there, and she taught me how to use the weighing and labeling system the store uses. She thought it was pretty funny that I had been so intimidated by it. She was able to laugh at my foibles without hurting my feelings.
She took me all over the store and showed me her favorite foods. I was able to show her some of the things I had found myself, some of which she hadn’t tried before. Right now sitting in my Apartment in Mexico, I am craving something Gina got me to eat, which I fell in love with: Pork pate on whole grain bread, with horseradish and bilberry jam. I also miss being able to to buy beef tartar, ready to be prepared with egg yokes, white onions, and cornichons.
The next night I walked across town to meet up with Gina and her friend Agata Zielińska, for dinner at the Granada Bar. Agata joined us on one of our rambles splitting our dinner between two different restaurants and finally ending up in a bar. Gina and I had enough to drink at the restaurants so we only had spiced hot water, while Agata had a real cocktail .
After leaving Agata and Gina, I walked home rather than taking the tram. I wish I had taken the tram, because I was too tired to meet up with Gina the next day. I wasted a day. I had no idea that my days with her were going to be so few in number.
The next Friday was Constitution Day. It was a very important day for Gina. She loved Poland, she spoke to me about the first years she live there, when the streets were still just rivers of mud. She looked around the modern city we were in and spoke with pride of the strides that Poland has taken since shaking off communism.
She invited me to meet her at the Raczyński Palace, where I would be able to she the Constitution and witness the celebration ceremony. As we got to the case with the Constitution we spoke to her friend, Anna, who was one of the experts speaking to people about the Constitution display, we arranged for her to meet us at the restaurant when she was done. The Pod Samsonem restaurant is a traditional Jewish restaurant, though it is not kosher. We only had time to get to our table and look over the menu before Gina’s friend joined us for a very nice meal.
Besides Paris Gina and I shared a love of Warsaw’s Favorite Son, Chopin. We had both visited his grave in Pairs at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. We made plans to go there together in 2020. The day I went all over Warsaw to see the Chopin sites, Gina wasn’t able to go with me, but she encouraged me to stop at one of the Milk bars to eat while I was out. I am glad that I did.
When we met up again, it was for a Saturday lunch at Restauracja Polska Różana located at Chocimska 7, 00-791 Warszawa. I was very touched that Gina took me there. She hadn’t been there since her husband had passed away. She told me that she felt comfortable going with me. She had so many friends, I wonder if my being a comparative stranger made it easier to be there without her Marek. They still remembered her. Later from reading their obituaries I realized that Gina and Marek were pretty important people.
As usual, after our main meal, we went for long enough of a walk to be able to stage part two. We went to my favorite place in Warsaw, Mônsieur Léon’s at Sulkiewicza 5, 00-758 Warszawa, since I had loved the wine there. From there we went to get hot chocolate. I had told Gina about a Chocolate Bar I had gone to without her, and she was determined that I should have the ‘good stuff.’ You would have thought that with all the sweets we had at lunch we wouldn’t want chocolate, but we did.
We walked and talked until quite late when Gina took me to a restaurant she liked for a very late dinner. We had thick hardy polish soups and I had beer. We had walked and eaten another day away, so we got on our respective trams and headed to opposite sides of the city. Now that I think back we spent so much time talking story, and talking so long and fast, maybe we knew that time was short for Gina. Or maybe we just knew that we were both old ladies with long stories and little time left for either of us.
The next Saturday was raining, so we passed on meeting up, since walking was so much a part of our times together. Luckily the rain broke the next day and we were able to meet downtown so Gina could introduce me to her favorite food truck. Filled with some very good Philly Cheese steaks we went a-walking. Our day that day wasn’t as long, since Gina needed to get some things done. If I remember rightly it was for the foundation her husband had been such a big part of.
Gina had already sent me off to one wine tasting on my own so I was glad that on the next Saturday we were able to go to one together, and I had the pleasure of introducing her to the new friends I had made at the other first one. I wish I had gotten a photo of Gina at the event, but she did get one of my toasting her at a distance.
You would have thought that after attending a wine tasting, we would have been off of wine, but when it was all over we hopped on the tram since we both wanted to go to Mônsieur Léon, for the wonderful wine, bread, and french butter. Again it was late when I got back to my apartment, my mind filled with good conversation and my belly full of good wine and food.
Our next Saturday walk and eat fest took us to Gina’s favorite Milk Bar. She helped me order, soup, cutlet and beets. The way the place works is that you order and pay for your food at the cashier. Then you take the receipt to a window of the kitchen and wait for them to make it. Gina told me pay for my soup and main meal separately, so that I could eat my soup first then go get my hot main course. After the milk bar and a good long walk to walk it off, we went to get a waffle which turned out to be the only bad food I had in Warsaw. The waffle was so bad that we took it as an excuse to go to a bar and drink some stout, while talking story.
On the next Saturday, Gina took the tram over to my neighborhood since I wanted to try an Italian restaurant, which I often walked pass on my way to and from town. We had an amazing meal. It was fun eating out at the sidewalk tables. After dinner we walked up the street to my favorite ice cream place. It was a lot of fun showing Gina a part of her city she was unfamiliar with. We walked around the area until it was time for her to go home, I continued my walk, well satisfied with the food and company. Looking forward to doing it again. As it turned out we went back to the same place twice more together. I went another two times alone.
One day when I was out walking alone, I came on a fence, with placards displaying photos of Warsaw over the years. I found the ones which covered the years of change brought on by the Solidarity, to be very touching. When I spoke to Gina about it she said that she had been there when history was being made. When she spoke of Lech Waleska her face glowed. We made plans to go to Gdańsk together and see all the sights of Poland’s modern revolution.
Gina had to go out of town, so I didn’t see her the next weekend. She was so worried about me being alone, I had to remind her that I had pretty much traveled the world alone since I was seventeen. The this first chance we got, (a Wednesday!) we got together for what should have been a late lunch, but which turned out to be more like dinner, after we got bad service at one place and walked over to the wonderful Italian joint. I had been there a couple of times on my own, so when returned I made sure we had at table with my waitress.
My time in Poland was drawing to and end so we got together as much as we could, not holding to weekends as we did before. On Monday we met up with yet another friend of Gina’s, Pnina, to go out to have pirogies. I liked the place so well, that Gina and I met up for lunch there again two days later.
The rest of the time I was in Warsaw, we saw as much of each other as we could. We went my favorite places one more time each. Only a few photos were taken, as we had much to talk about. We were making plans for Paris and Zagreb, talking budgets and how to wedge it all in. The night before I flew out we got together with Agata, and had dinner at the Italian joint again.
A dozen Saturdays, a handful of Sundays, even fewer Fridays, two Wednesdays and one Monday, do not sound like much but the hours were long and the talk deep and fast. We knew that we had formed a friendship for a life time. December 8, 2019, Gina told me the news … it was rough, but I kept hoping she would pull through.
When Agata told me that Gina had died, I thought, “I will never go to Gdańsk, Krakow, and I won’t go again to Warsaw or Paris.” Writing this post in memory of my friend; looking at the photos; and skimming the blog posts; rereading our texts messages, I realized I will go to Gdańsk, I will go to Krakow. I will return to Warsaw and Paris. I will walk the streets and feel Gina next to me, laughing and sharing. Gina was a very sharing person. Not only did she share her beloved Warsaw and its food with me, she shared her memories, her hopes, her future, and most importantly her friends.
For more about Gina in my posts click here.
For Gina’s obituary:
For Marek’s Obituary: