Upon my arrival in Warsaw in 1998 I was housed at the hotel Marriott for a few days and could walk to the Embassy which was just a few minutes away. Then I was moved into my Staff Quarter with a Pack-up kit, everyone in the Foreign Service knows them, it was a kit which allowed you to have a somewhat normal life until your belongings arrived. In other words you were camping, the famous kit had 2 of everything, 2 forks and 2 knives, 2 plates and 2 cups and 2 sheets and 2 towels and so on. You had to account for all of it upon reception, it came in big trunks and do an inventory when you returned the kit. It was the Property of the Crown, I can just imagine how upset Her Majesty would be if somewhat misplaced a knife or a plastic plate.
I had been warned by my colleagues not to bring any works of art or anything of too great value because Polish Customs was very strict and demanded photos of any item of value and a full declaration on the day you received your shipment of personal belongings. On the appointed day, at 8am arrives at the house a drunk Polish Custom official. He was so drunk that has I was shaking his hands and welcoming him he passed out flat on the floor of my living room. I was so shocked at first I thought he had died on me. I was in a panic, I frantically called the Office and told them I was sure the Custom Official was dead in my living room. Not to panic I was told, we will send a driver to your house to help you out. What? what am I to do in the meantime? Just sit tight someone will come, do not worry. The staff at the Embassy knew something I did not obviously.
The Embassy was in Central Warsaw about 35 minutes away if there was no traffic, in those days Warsaw had no highway, there had been no need of it since before 1990 the only people with cars where all senior Government Officials or Senior Military Officers. So the streets saw no traffic at all, all streets were simple neighbourhood streets or great broad avenues in the centre of the City for military parades, Communist Party thinking here at work.
After an hour, a driver from the Embassy finally arrived, examined the situation and told me not to worry, the Customs Official was passed out not dead and surely someone would come and collect him at 4pm, it was 09:00am at this point. I pleaded with our Embassy employee not to leave me with this guy and could he not drive him back to the Customs Department. NO not my problem, I was getting quite upset and said well fine then I will complain officially to the Protocol Office of the Foreign Ministry about this incident. I was told not to do anything of the sort, this would only create greater problems for me and everyone concerned. The driver finally agreed to help me get the fellow off the floor and into the car and he drove him back to his Office in town. However before our Customs Officer left he came to, he looked a little more sober, he took all the paperworks stamped it all and signed it hurriedly and left. I was concerned because in his state would he remember what to do with the paperwork.
Quiet enquiries were made and I was assured that it was all being taken care off and by the way, the Chief of Customs was sorry for his man’s behaviour but let’s not talk about it anymore.
When my car arrived from Jordan about one month later, in a sealed container, it had travelled from Jordan by land up on a flat bed truck through Syria then Turkey then through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and finally Poland.
I had to go to the Customs clearing house on the other side of town. The courtyard where my car was still locked inside the container on a flat bed truck was a sea of dark sticky mud. I was driven to the side of the truck and was able to step on solid ground and watched with some concern as they opened the container, the car was fine if a bit dusty. As it was being lowered pushed down a rickety ramp about 2 meters to the ground the mechanic almost flipped it. Once on the ground we found out the battery was dead. What to do, simple my driver said we will simply used the battery of the Embassy car we came in and start you car, once the motor is running you do not need the battery to return to the Embassy with the car. I did not know you could drive a car without a battery but sure enough this is what happened, the trick was not to stop anywhere for anything. But the Embassy was about 20Km from the Customs Clearing House, we are in the City we will have to stop for red lights and people. Not to worry I was told, it is very easy just follow me and do not stop no matter what. So I followed the Embassy staff car closely and we did not stop anywhere. We had a very good driver and a clever fellow to boot, he knew that the traffic was light and we had diplomatic plates so we could take some liberties, we were not driving very fast since it was all inner city streets. We made it back without a hitch.
Hotel on Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem street)
Another lesson I learned that day was that living under Communism makes you resourceful and street smart. My driver had a lot of experience and it paid to watch and learn. I would learn a lot from Polish people in the years to come.