The Polish Chef

Dr. Juan Moisés De La Serna
The Polish Chef

The

Polish

Chef

Juan Moisés de la Serna

Translated by Philip Walker

Editorial Tektime

2021

“The Polish Chef”

Written by Juan Moisés De la Serna

Translated by Philip Walker

1st Edition: May 2021

© Juan Moisés De la Serna, 2021

© Tektime Editions, 2021

All rights reserved

Distributed by Tektime

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Prologue

What I am going to write here is exactly as I remember things. The most incredible story that has happened to me, and I have spent over thirty years in the Gendarmerie Nationale (French police), mind. Some people might think that I am exaggerating, but in order not to miss out any details I have based my account on my notebook, which I always carry with me when I am participating in any official police investigation.

Although my current post at Interpol might seem important, especially after receiving two honorary decorations, the Médaille d’Honneur de la Police Nationale (National Police Medal of Honour) and the Croix d’Honneur du Policier Européen (European Police Cross of Honour), despite that my beginnings were not entirely glorious.

Dedicated to my parents

Content

Chapter 1: Memories

Chapter 2: The Flat

Chapter 3: The Hunt

Chapter 4: The Temple

Chapter 5: The Pope’s Visit

Chapter 1: Memories

Kraków

What I am going to write here is exactly as I remember things. The most incredible story that has happened to me, and I have spent over thirty years in the Gendarmerie Nationale (French police), mind. Some people might think that I am exaggerating, but in order not to miss out any details I have based my account on my notebook, which I always carry with me when I am participating in any official police investigation.

Although my current post at Interpol might seem important, especially after receiving two honorary decorations, the Médaille d’Honneur de la Police Nationale (National Police Medal of Honour) and the Croix d’Honneur du Policier Européen (European Police Cross of Honour), despite that my beginnings were not entirely glorious.

I was a student at the École Nationale de Police, one of the best, since at just eighteen years of age I had managed to pass both the physical tests and the entrance exam. Although the easiest thing for me was the foreign language exam.

When the examiner asked me in what language I wished to be assessed, I answered, “You can ask me in English, Spanish or Italian. With a father who is a lecturer in medieval history at the Montaigne University of Bordeaux, passionate about Romance languages derived from Latin and especially interested in the Italo-Romanian and Iberian Romance branches, and a mother who works as an interpreter at the British Consulate in Bordeaux, you will understand that I am sufficiently prepared for a simple interview.”

“What about Arabic and German?” asked the examiner with an obvious expression of surprise.

“I know a little Arabic, but I find writing it difficult, and I have tried German, but the pronunciation is so harsh it grates my throat when I speak it.”

“But you know them?” he asked again, surprised.

“Well, only a few words, but they are not the ones I know the best, which is why I am putting myself forward in one of the other three languages.”

*******

The reader will have to forgive me if sometimes I go round the houses or, as we say in France, “tourner autour du pot”. Well, let me continue the story, once those tests were over I entered the École Nationale de Police, where I was to be trained for a further year and carry out on-the-job training placements while I studied to be a police officer, a first step to becoming an officer of the law.

My work experience was going to be very sedate but as soon as I arrived at the little police station I had been posted to I started to stand out, so much so that in less than a month I was transferred to the Commissariat et Bureaux de Police de Bordeaux (the Bordeaux police headquarters) to “make the most of my potential”, as one of my superiors explained.

So highly was I thought of that soon I was assigned tasks that did not correspond to my status as a trainee, editing missives that had to be sent to police stations in other countries or being present at interrogations of foreigners, among other things.

Moreover, my ability with words meant that I quickly gained a certain level of esteem as a contact with abroad, helping with coordination whenever there was a requirement for the involvement of a foreign police force in the arrest of some member of one of the many mafias, of which without doubt the best known in France is the “Marseille Mafia”.

Occasionally I travelled abroad when they wanted to transfer a prisoner, acting as interpreter for the escort and ensuring there were no administrative problems with the transfer.

On one occasion, they sent me to Kraków, one of the biggest cities in Poland, very close to the borders with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Poland, a country about which I knew little apart from the fact that it had belonged to Eastern Europe, and of course that it had entered the Second World War under the German occupation and been liberated by the Allies; but I had never thought about travelling there to get to know it since I preferred countries lapped by the Mediterranean, in which I enjoyed the summer seasons and knew their language and culture.

There I found myself, arriving at Kraków’s John Paul II airport, looking in all directions, trying to guess what the signs meant. Luckily, in that place I could still get by in English, managing to get a taxi to the hotel where I was staying.

I had been told to be discreet, that it was a top security meeting and that therefore I would receive a message on my mobile phone just one hour in advance telling me where the meeting would be held.

I thought the security measures were excessive for a meeting to plan a simple prisoner transfer. A task that anyone at the station could have done, it fell to me as I was la cinquième roue du carrosse (bottom of the pecking order); the work they assigned me was sometimes interesting and other times less so.

I stayed in a hotel in the outskirts, close to the motorway, so that it would be easier for me to make my way to anywhere in the city, wherever the appointment was. A peculiar hotel with miniscule rooms where everything seemed to be measured to the millimetre, so much so that, if I opened the bathroom door, there were scarcely a few centimetres to the foot of the bed and to the television that was suspended on a shelf near the ceiling.

It was a small room, completely carpeted, which gave it a claustrophobic air, along with the fact that its only window looked onto the rear of the hotel and a big construction site where they were putting up some buildings, the workers beginning their labour at precisely six o’clock every morning.

On top of everything else, the weather was unbearably hot, so much so that I had to leave the door and the window open at night, to allow a little bit of air to circulate so I could sleep.

This was something nobody had warned me about, not even the infallible internet search engine, which assured me that the maximum summer temperature in Poland was nineteen degrees centigrade – “but when will we get to nineteen degrees?” I asked myself each day at dawn, dripping with sweat.

Every morning, the first thing I had to do was take a shower, another one at midday and finally the last one before going to bed. Cold water showers, as though I were in the Canaries in summer.

Since my arrival, the thermometer had not registered below thirty degrees during the day, something that at reception they said was unusual, and they even lent me a fan so that I could endure my stay in that room since with the temperatures not being normal there, the air conditioning they had was just for heating the room in winter.

Time passed and whenever I called France they told me to be patient and that dates were being finalised, but I did nothing but wait, wandering round the city, getting to know the historic sites.

Truth be told, I understood nothing as far as the language was concerned, not even written Polish with words that were clearly missing vowels. I guessed some of their meanings from seeing them so often, like ulica (street) or the very sonorous greeting used at all hours dzien dobry (good day). I was struck by the fact that this greeting is used at any time of day; regardless of whether it is morning or afternoon, or even after dark, they keep using it.

 

Then, I noticed something else that seemed curious to me, wherever I looked, even on some of the street names, there were signs where more and more consonants accumulated, up to five, without vowels in between. How do you pronounce something like that?

Digging into it a bit, I understood why it is one of the most difficult European languages to learn. It has thirty-two letters in its alphabet, twenty-three consonants and nine vowels plus three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter); and then loads of peculiarities related to the use of accents and words, all of which makes it really complicated.

Something I realised almost as soon as I left the hotel is that young people in Poland speak English fluently, so it was not difficult for me to find the places I wanted to visit, helped enormously by the fact that I could get around on the transport system with its trams and buses – very modern, by the way – that linked any point of the city with the Stare Miasto (old quarter).

To enter that area, one has to pass a section of the old city wall that is still standing and that leads to a long shopping street that ends up at the Rynek Glówny (main square), considered one of the biggest medieval squares in Europe.

In it there are two churches, St. Mary’s Basilica and the Church of St. Wojciech, and it is also possible to visit the old Kraków Town Hall Tower, next to which is the Kraków National Art Gallery and a parade of shops under arcades, called Sukiennice, where one can buy typical souvenirs of the country in one of the innumerable shops where there is everything from little mementos made from wood or amber to chess games and elaborately embroidered fabrics. A pleasant place to walk and to shelter from the suffocating heat outside in the middle of the day.

What I did keep up in this far-off and strange land was my custom of eating well, something that had led me to try almost everything in France and, of course, when I travelled abroad I endeavoured to go to well-recommended places to try the typical local food.

I already had experience of eating in restaurants with one, two and even three Michelin stars, following the advice of the Michelin Guide, and although I did not always agree with its verdict, I had been able to feast on the most exquisite dishes.

But for some time now, I have preferred to try the typical food of the place I am visiting, as I consider that it better reflects the character of each nation, explaining it better even than the tourist guides.

So, from the first day, I made an effort to have lunch and dinner in the city of Kraków, having only breakfast – a plentiful buffet - in the hotel restaurant; a good decision, in view of everything that happened as a result.

One of the things that I had read were typical of Kraków were those old taverns with a communist feel that were still around, where the atmosphere was better than the food and where the prices were modest.

The walls of one of these taverns, replete with memories of times gone by, with a marked nostalgia for the golden age of the USSR, made me think about the complexity of the country, situated midway between two of the most important powers in history – Russia and Germany.

I also went to one of the city’s most elegant restaurants, or as they are called here Restauracja, to assess how the refinement of haute cuisine in this country contrasted with the food at the tavern. And all of it at prices that would be unthinkable in France since, though Poland was a member of the European Union, it still had not joined the euro. So, at an exchange rate of one hundred euros to four hundred and fifteen PLN (Poland’s currency), or zloty as they are commonly known, a dinner that costs twenty zloty would not even equate to five euros.

For dinner on the third night, I called in to a small neighbourhood restaurant which I had seen that morning while I was looking round the city. If it hadn’t been because its big sign had caught my eye, I would not even have realised that it was a restaurant.

From the outside, it hardly looked any different to the rest of the buildings so I went in and to my surprise I found a small room, which reminded me greatly of the bistrots (family restaurants) in my country, with just four tables, one of which was occupied by an older woman and a young man.

I sat down and ordered the menu. The waitress said something that might as well have been in Chinese as I did not understand what she was saying, so I chose to order something international that I was sure the chef would know how to make - fillet steak with creamy mushroom sauce - miming to make sure she understood me.

The waitress, after making a strange face, went over to a small hatch in the wall and shouted something. The kitchen must have been on the other side of the wall.

Suddenly, as though it were an echo, what she had shouted was heard again and a few seconds later someone who seemed to be the chef came out and looked at me across the room with a perplexed expression on his face.

I waved my hand in greeting, as though my presence was not obvious; the restaurant seemed to have known better times judging by the decor, which must have been chosen a few decades ago, looking at the faded green colour of the floor tiles in contrast to the brown of the walls, which were more reminiscent of the kitchen of an ordinary house than of a restaurant.

No more than a few minutes after I ordered my dinner, the waitress brought me a small plate of something that looked like sauce, thick and white, and a basket of bread, as well as a jug of water and a glass.

“Thank you very much, but I don’t like to nibble before eating,” I said without much expectation of being understood.

Without batting an eyelid at my comment, she turned round and went to wait on the other customers with whom I shared that strange room.

As she took so long to bring my order, I took a piece of bread and dipped it in the sauce, saying to myself “May God’s will be done.”

Surprisingly, it was very tasty. It was like cheese spread with traces of many flavours of which I was able to identify onion, tomato and even cucumber, all of it chopped up and sprinkled throughout.

Though it had a pleasant taste, it was nothing spectacular, a simple appetiser while I was waiting for my order to come out.

I was going to take out my notebook to go over some tasks that I had not done before my trip when I saw the chef come out with a plate in his hand and, after putting it on the table, he said, “Votre commande, Monsieur (Your order, sir).”

“Oh mon Dieu, your food looks great!” I exclaimed with satisfaction.

“Bon appétit.”

“Merci.”

With that, the chef withdrew and left me with a magnificent fillet steak with creamy mushroom sauce which, although it was a very simple dish to make, really looked delicious.

If I had not gone into the police, I would have liked to have been a food critic. It is not that I have any great talent for it but I know what I like and what I don’t, and that dish was not only a feast for the eyes but also for the nose, giving off an excellent aroma. The most difficult thing remained, and it would have made it perfect, cooking it just right: not too well-cooked, nor too crispy, as we say in France, au point (medium).

I tried it and it really was exquisite, I don’t know if it was the contrast with the flavours of what I had eaten the previous few days or because I was pining for my homeland. Despite the fact that it had only been three days, not having anything to do made the hours seem to pass more slowly and, with the heat, it was impossible to be comfortable or to find any sanctuary from the blazing sun.

I was thoroughly enjoying my meal when the woman at the next table stood up with her plate in her hand and walked towards the kitchen.

It was not necessary to have special powers to know what was said as the tone was raised as soon as she entered the kitchen. I don’t know what happened inside but the woman returned without her plate and sat back down in her place. Shortly, the chef came back with what looked like the same plate and put it down in front of her, while he said a few words to her and gestured towards the young man with whom she was sitting.

With an expression of amazement on her face, she put her hands to her mouth, then removed them straightaway, showing a huge smile. The young man, who had remained impassive throughout the whole scene, took something out of his wallet and showed it to her. She started to cry, but with tears of joy, while she rubbed it over and over again.

I did not understand the situation very well since they were talking among themselves and I could not manage to understand what they were saying, as their language was unintelligible to me.

When I finished my meal I paid and left, but before I could get out the door the chef came over very quickly and accosted me, saying, “Merci pour votre visite dans notre humble maison (Thank you for visiting our humble establishment).”

“Merci à vous, bien sûr, vous avez un bon niveau de français (Thank you, by the way, your French is very good).”

“Thank you, I would have liked to study at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris. I was working towards it – not just in the kitchen, I also studied French – although in the end it wasn’t to be.”

“So that’s how you know how to make good steak with creamy mushroom sauce,” I replied in a condescending tone.

“Of course, it’s not difficult. By the way, I recommend that next time you go out to eat you write down what you want.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked, surprised.

“Agnieszka told me that you had ordered Placki ziemniaczane.”

“Ordered what? What is that anyway?”

“It’s a typical Polish dish made of potato pancakes with tomato sauce and grated cheese on top, accompanied by vegetables and gherkins.”

“Good God! It’s a good job you realised the mistake! By the way, the people on the other table, what happened to them?”

“I see you have a sense of humour,” he commented, winking. “The woman tried to give her plate back, telling me that the cabbage was not cooked properly and that she didn’t want it, all as an excuse to end the tense meal with her son. After calming her down and showing her the condiments I used in the kitchen, I made her go back to her seat.”

“But, what did you say to her? Her manner changed immediately.”

“Nothing, just that it was obvious her son had something important to tell her and she had not let him speak all evening.”

“And what was it? He took something out of his wallet but I couldn’t see it.”

“A photo of a woman, his fiancée. His mother had no idea he had a girlfriend, still less a fiancée, hence her reaction.”

“Wow, well you certainly hit the nail on the head.”

“Well, I find it easy to know other people’s intentions. I can read people like an open book.”

“Ah! Like in the television series The Mentalist.”

“Well, I’m not a psychic if that’s what you mean. I would say I am more like the guy in the series Lie to Me.”

“Seriously? That’s crazy! I mean, I have never seen anyone so sure of their words but if it’s like that, tell me, what am I thinking?”

“It doesn’t work like that, it’s more a case of knowing what a person really wants or feels, like in your case, how do you think I got your dish right otherwise?”

“I don’t know, but it could have been coincidence.”

“Is that what you think?”

“I don’t know what to say,” I replied, confused.

It was quite late to be able to think properly about such a remote and strange possibility; and anyway, as we say in France, du dire au faire, il y a un grand pas (it is one thing to say something and another thing to do it). I thanked him for his honesty and, leaving the premises, I caught a taxi to take me to the hotel to rest.

The following morning, at exactly six o’clock, I received a message on my mobile, which hardly startled me as I was used to getting up at that time thanks to the workers on the building site since that was the time they started work.

The message said “Ten o’clock in the Sheraton Kraków Hotel.” The truth is that, if they wanted to be discreet, they had chosen the worst place, a five-star hotel with a modernist façade situated near the city’s historic old quarter, next to the Wawel Royal Castle on the banks of the River Vistula.

 

As part of what had already become my morning routine, I took a cold shower to get rid of the sweat from the night’s heat, and that was despite going to a nearby establishment every evening to buy a bag of ice which I left open all night to keep the room cool. Ice that the following morning had melted before dawn, a sign of the heat that I had endured.

I finished getting ready, caught the bus that would leave me closest to the hotel where the appointment was, and commenced what I understood to be one of my first missions as a field agent. I liked that more than just waiting without doing anything in that beautiful city.

One thing that surprised me about the public transport was the number of people I saw get on and off, they even took the bus to advance just one stop due to the distances being enormous in a metropolitan area of almost three million people.

When the bus stopped near the River Vistula, I got off and, via a flight of steps, reached a pleasant promenade by the riverbank where on one side of the river stood the Sheraton Kraków Hotel and a little further on the famous Wawel Royal Castle, a fourteenth-century Gothic construction, rebuilt on several occasions, considered the most important historic site in Poland since for centuries its monarchs lived within its walls.

I had only walked a few more metres when I arrived outside the modern building that, while still in keeping with the aesthetics of the area, added a touch of refinement by having a largely glazed façade. A custom, that of having very large windows, that had caught my attention from the beginning.

Wherever one looked, whether at historic buildings or the most modern ones, they all exhibited those enormous windows. At the hotel they told me that it was a custom in the Nordic countries to allow the maximum amount of natural light in, especially important on dark winter’s days when light becomes a highly prized commodity.

This was something that in Mediterranean countries would be unthinkable. In places like Spain they practically hide their windows and balconies with wooden or plastic slatted blinds preventing the slightest ray of sunshine from getting in, and in my native France volets battants bois (folding wooden shutters) are commonplace.

Arriving at the hotel, I made for the lobby and was waiting for someone to meet me when I was approached by a couple of tourists who said, “Didn’t anyone tell you not to stand out?”

“Sorry?” I replied, startled.

“It’s supposed to be a secret meeting, so you should pass unnoticed.”

“And don’t I?”

“How do you think you will, with your red bow tie and that fluff above your lip?”

“What you call fluff is my moustache and I am sorry but I cannot go out without my red bow tie or a red tie, I would feel as though I were naked.”

“Stop being pretentious and follow me!” he said in an authoritative tone.

“I don’t know who you people are or what you want but you have mistaken me for somebody else.”

“Oh please,” said the woman, “you have been calling attention to yourself from the moment you got off the bus, anyone can see that you are French.”

“So what? You look like tourists as well.”

“It’s our disguise, to enable us to be in this hotel and go unnoticed,” explained the man while showing a badge under his shirt.

“You’re police officers?” I asked in surprise.

“Police officers? Didn’t we send you the message this morning? How come you’re here otherwise? We’re from the Polish government security service, the Slulba Bezpieczelstwa.”

Without turning a hair and without really knowing why they seemed so irritated, I took out my notebook where I had written down several names and I said to the woman, “How do you spell stub…or whatever you said it was called?”

The woman pushed me gently towards one of the walls of the lobby and she said to me, almost in a whisper, “My name is Ewa and I have spent years collaborating with the government of your country on security matters, and I can assure you that this is the first time that I have come across anyone as inept as you. Your boss is called Philippe and you have been sent here from the Bordeaux police headquarters. What more do you need?”

“His surname.”

“His what?” asked the woman, taken aback.

“My boss’s surname. I’m sure you know that, in France, Philippe is one of the ten most common names for baby boys. You still haven’t given me any useful information,” I countered while extricating myself from the woman’s grip which was choking me as she was pressing both sides of my bow tie upwards.

“Philippe Domine Le Braun,” she declared while pulling from her handbag a file with what looked like an official stamp, “and you are Olivier Hakim, your father is a Jew with Sephardic ancestry, hence your surname Hakim, which means ‘doctor’ in Hebrew, and your mother is French, a descendant of the House of Lusignan, nobles who became wealthy thanks to the crusades. You are barely eighteen years of age but you have shone at languages, especially the Mediterranean ones, you have a good academic record, some problems handling firearms…”

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