September brought with it the much anticipated browning leaves and shortening nights, and also a long-reserved but still unprepared-for trip to Poland. This was set in motion because two of Ms. Plants Polish friends - one living in the UK, the other over in Poland - were going to get hitched. The plan was for a flight to Wroclaw on Friday, followed by a party on Saturday and the wedding on Sunday. On Monday, there would be another party to 'use up the remaining food', and then everyone went their separate ways.
Thinking on our feet, we decided to extend the holiday to the following weekend. This afforded us some quality time together, and also allowed us to travel further afield to see what the rest of Poland had to offer. In particular, I wanted to take the opportunity to see the crumbling camps at Auschwitz and the Oskar Schindler museum.
Our flight over was pretty straightforward. Myself and Ms. Plants were joined by a some friends and relatives of the couple on the flight, and when we arrived at Wroclaw airport, we milled about quietly in the arrivals area thumbing through tourist maps and guides, and waiting for our pre-arranged transport to arrive.
Marko's english was pretty good. A friend of the groom, he had been drafted in to ferry us to the hotel we were all staying in. He led us to a large van, emblazoned with kart racing insignia which looked as if it was normally used to transfer racing vehicles to and from courses. This was the first warning that scary times were ahead. He took our cases and slung them randomly in the back to slosh around on the journey and then beckoned us to either sit with him in the front or go in the seats behind. He slid open the side door to reveal a long leather effect seat against a hard wooden back, and through the lights of the darkened car park we could discern no seat belts anywhere. This was our second warning.
Starting off quickly and maintaining the pace wherever he could, Marko sped out of the airport and onto the motorway, away from Wroclaw. What we had assumed would be a 10 minute journey was now lengthening into the distance and away from any major city. I am still unaware whether there is a defined speed limit on Polands' high-speed roads or we just got lucky and didn't cross with the police, as I occasionally chanced myself away from the shivering huddle on the back seat and peered at the speedo, which rarely went below 120km. It was raining and dark, and quite often Marko would overtake and switch lanes, often while chatting and texting on his mobile.
Some way past an hour later, we turned off the motorway and into the narrower, windier country roads that connected the blurry details that I assume were towns and villages of rural Poland. Mercifully we slowed as we entered the small town of Międzybórz, now dead in silence in the middle of the night.
Fortunately the hotel was still open and the sleepy receptionist checked us in, making politely sure that we did not look through the frosted glass doors in the lobby, for that is where the wedding reception was taking place and she absolutely did not want for anyone to see it until the day.
Considering the sleepy rural nature of the town (that we saw through the midnight gloom), the hotel was pretty modern, and stuck out among the dirt roads and communist-era blocks of flats situated around. We found this was because the old one had recently burned to the ground. Our room was roomy, and everything seemed to work as it should, so we got a bit of late night food (a 'traditional' mix of meats and processed cheeses) and then called it a night.
Come the morning, we were glad of a late start. The party was to begin around 2-ish, and, according to the flustered bride who came to see how we were doing, finish sometime in the morning. No problem, I thought. I'm no party animal but most of these things continue into the wee hours. Just slink away when you reach the crossing between a desire to leave and having been there long enough not to be offensive by leaving. It's a delicate balance with a band of nearly all unknown people, but it should be a cinch.
So in the morning I used my new pants to go for a jog through the next town and back onto the main road. It was a nice, quiet circular route that could have done with being a little longer, but considering it's all unknown territory I made do. We all met in the breakfast area and once filled we split down gender lines; the women to go get themselves glammed up, and the men milling about looking at what the town had to offer. Międzybórz is a pleasant, quiet town but, given that we were expecting to be in the centre of Wroclaw at this point, was a bit disappointing. A main road ran through the middle of it and a small open air market allowed me to buy some jogging pants which I had forgotten to bring with me. This was the highlight of the tour.
By midday we were ready. The women had been thoroughly blow dried and styled to the point of being unrecognizable, and we had blown the moths from our suits and adorned them. It was time to go.
Quite unsure how I had managed to get there, since I only passingly knew both bride and groom, I realized the privilege afforded to us. With maybe a dozen people huddled into the main room, the bride and groom came together for the first time since the night before. The grooms' mother gave a speech which, although in Polish we could see through her tears was a heartfelt and selfless giving away of her son. Knelt silently, they accepted the blessings of the priest and stared into each others eyes as we vied with the official photographer for the best photo. Then it was on to the church.
Eventually the convoy made it through the winding roads and back to the hotel, where the staff had been hard at work getting everything just right. We took a breather in our room and then headed off downstairs to the super secret dining area, to a sight in white. Perfectly presented tables filled the half the floorspace, with a band setting up it's instruments in the other; an intimidating dance floor situated between them and us.
We each filed in excitedly; though I was a little nervous - the hundred or so guests were largely strangers and didn't speak much English and my abilities to make smalltalk around a table to unknowns is poor at best - but I was concentrating on my rumbling stomach. We had been promised a feast like no other, and what we were about to receive certainly was.
With the bride and groom and the close family at the head table, and the various children of the group subdued and sat quietly, the first course came around. A chicken noodle broth. Though tasty, it was not an indication of what was to come. The dishes were efficiently cleared away and then the onslaught began. Our rumbling stomachs took in the hunks of chicken and balls of pork and stuffing, and the small amounts of vegetables on the side. As soon as one central plate of meat had been emptied, it was replaced by another one, steaming and full with new and exciting entries we had not yet tried. Fillets of battered something, giant burger-type patties and breasts of chicken. With the exception of some small bowls of root vegetables here and there, it was all meat. And it kept coming.
Hunger had turned to bloating when the drinks came. The iced water and wine available so far was joined by several large plastic bottles of carbonated juices, and an array of shot glasses were placed on the table wherever they would fit. Fancy, ribbon-sealed bottles of vodka appeared between the meat, and the eyes of all the guests began to sparkle.
Now at this point I feel the need to point out that I don't drink alcohol. Just never liked the stuff, it always tastes of off-vinegar to me regardless of whether it's cheap supermarket beer or expensive plonk. So when it became obvious that I had not filled my glass, the eyes of the people around us started to glance over disapprovingly. Then we all had to stand up.
A toast was happening. The band moved from their song schedule to a happy birthday-style ditty, and those guests who knew the words began to shout them out, whoomphing the last word out at the end of each bar to emphasise the point of the song. At the end, everyone took a shot of vodka from their glass. I pretended to drink from my empty shot, but some furrowed brows were pointed my way. I was letting the side down.
Taking the opportunity while most of the people around us got up for a dance, I filled my shot glass for the next round with water, and decided to wing it from that. I still got some suspicious looks in the dozen or so other toasts that night, but at least the pitchforks had been put away.
And still the food came. Eating had become something you felt obliged to do just to make room on the table. But just as you managed to take the last bit of food from one plate, it would be replaced by another, seemingly endless slaughter of local farm animals beyond the double doors. Every five or six servings of main course was delimited by a plate of cakes - square blocks of diabetes of all different colours and flavours awaiting your digestive system. Sure they would have been yummy had it not been for the full-frontal assault leading up to them. And after that - more meat yet still came and the whole cycle started again.
By midnight, the tablecloths had been lost under a pile of party hats, half-eaten cakes and huge platefuls of uneaten meat products, and the tables were largely devoid of guests. Everyone was on the dance floor save for the elderly and the comatose, trying their best to shutter down their monster indulgences and prove to everyone else that they could mix it and get down with the kids. First the bride and groom got up and, bulging waistlines put aside for one moment the bride hoisted up her dress to reveal a pair of sneakers to colourfully match the grooms'. The band notched up the tempo and they wowed the audience with an energetic dance routine we later discovered they had only a couple of hours in between everything else to prepare for. After that and a slower first dance to a Polish variant of Careless Whisper, and the majority got up and joined them. Myself and the missus got up once or twice for a dance, but we were both feeling more than a little queasy, and the grooms' teenage friends - who had probably been up and drinking since 7am - were putting us to shame.
By the time the games had ended and the sweaty contestants had retired back to whichever chairs were nearest, I was out of it; the food was beginning to take the expected effect and the endless energy exhibited by my Polish brethren was starting to get to me. I made my excuses and crept quietly upstairs (as if anyone else in the hotel could sleep with the noise), with a ringing in my ears for company that would not leave me until sometime the next morning. The lass, unimpressed with my early finish, stayed on for an hour or so and then crept into bed. Things finally went silent around 4am.
And it was all to do again the next day.