One old lady’s quest for a fish sandwich

LSB and I were out walking in Charlottenburg this weekend, when we happened upon an old woman sitting on her Zimmerframe.

It’s not an unusual sight in this part of town, known primarily for its elderly population and the leafy neighborhoods they frequent.

We would have walked right by her, without a second glance, except that she gestured at us to come over and handed me a handwritten note, wrapped in a five-euro note.

In case this sounds implausible here is a picture:

IMG-20170731-WA0011(1)

The note says: “Please buy me half a smoked fish in a sandwich (salted fish) No salad! ROGACKI.”

I haven’t eaten fish in a decade but I do know Rogacki. The family-run fish shop, located on the Wilmersdorfer Straße shopping street, has been there since 1932. It’s an institution and you can smell it a mile away.

The old lady was wearing a breathing apparatus underneath her clothing. “Fish.. Warm.. No lunch,” she said in between gasps, then smiled sweetly in anticipation.

I nodded, as if processing a routine request.

“What on earth..?”said LSB as we made our way to Rogacki. “Why do things like this always happen to you?”

I can only assume I was born with the kind of face that invites old ladies’ requests to buy fish sandwiches (Smoked. No salad).

We knew there was something wrong as soon as we turned onto Wilmersdorfer Straße.

For one, it didn’t smell fishy.

The lights were out.

The shutters boarded up.

“No!” we cried theatrically. “WHY?”

It was an hour past closing time.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one cannot return empty-handed to an old woman gasping for breath and in need of a fish sandwich.

But that’s what we had to do.

She looked up in happy expectation as we returned, presumably relieved we hadn’t made off with her fiver and carefully crafted note.

“Closed,” I said, gesturing wildly, before remembering she wasn’t deaf.

“Closed?” she said, rasping. “Oh!”

She looked crestfallen. I asked her if I could get her anything else instead.

She didn’t understand.

“Polish,” she said. “Little German.” (It explained the spelling of Rogacki.)

I offered her the fiver back. But she was not ready to give up.

“Penny,” she said.

“Yes!” I replied. Penny is a supermarket nearby.

“No Penny.”

She held up two fingers and moved her arm around.

“Warm fish..” she said.

I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I looked over at LSB but he looked just as confused as I did.

We had no choice but to try again.

“Me” (she pointed at herself) “Wait here,” she said and stroked my arm in appreciation.

We set off again.

“I have no idea what she was trying to say,” I said to LSB.

“Maybe there’s a fish place two doors down from Penny?” he suggested.

There wasn’t but we did pass a bakery.

I peered desperately into the glass display, my crazed expression attracting the attention of a young cashier.

“Do you have any smoked fish?” I asked. “You see, a lady gave me a note and…”

Her look, a combination of complete incomprehension and mild contempt, caused me to trail away.

Then, suddenly,  among the salami rolls and cheese and tomato baguettes, beckoning like a jewel, I discovered it.

One half of a roll, with a piece of smoked salmon slapped upon it.

I pointed at it enthusiastically.

“Could you heat this up for me?” I said. “Please?”

“For here or takeaway?”

“Oh, definitely takeaway!” I said, picturing the old lady gasping for breath as her stomach grumbled.

It wasn’t salted. It wasn’t smoked. But it would have to do.

She placed it in a bag, which was pleasingly warm to touch. It cost €1.50.

We returned to the old lady.

“Ah!” she said, beaming. “Warm?”

I nodded.

She smiled widely, as I tucked €3.50 worth of coins into the handwritten note, and handed it back to her.

We made to leave.

“Wait!” she said, and with an enormous effort, heaved around to reach into the basket of her Zimmerframe.

She handed me a sweet in a purple wrapper. Devastated, she looked at LSB.

“We’ll share!” I said, again gesturing with excessive enthusiasm.

She took a deep breath and smiled.

“Schönen Tag noch!”

“You have a good day too!” we said and walked away, relieved, yet bewildered.

How long, I wondered, had she been sitting on her Zimmerframe, waiting for a fish sandwich? And does she do it every day?

 

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The place that out-Catholics Ireland

As soon as the “Berlin-Warsaw Express” chugged across the border, the Virgin Marys began to appear. Some of them stood scarecrow-like and alone in their shrines at the edge of wheat fields, while others guarded the entrances to farm houses. Rosy-cheeked and smiling demurely beneath their blue shawls, they reminded me of home.

It was the first indication that I was on my way to a country with the potential to out-Catholic Ireland.

While the Virgin Mary may be rural Poland’s icon of choice, the late Pope John II reigns supreme in Warsaw. The former pontiff is carved into statues, pasted onto posters and a favourite among street artists, who sell paintings of his face alongside still-lifes of fruit bowls and flowers.priest

The adulation isn’t limited to the capital either. Last year, the Daily Mail reported that a businessman in the southern city of Czestochowa had erected a 45-foot statue of John Paul II, whom he believes intervened to save his son from drowning.

LSB and I soon got used to meeting some version of John Paul II at every street corner. We even began greeting him with a “Howeyeah JPII.” But it didn’t take long for us to realise that he’s not the only Roman Catholic actively revered in Warsaw.

In hindsight, I should have known better than to meander towards a park bench occupied by a life-size bronze statue reading a book. In my defence though, it reminded me of the Patrick Kavanagh statue by the canal in Dublin, a place where I have never been accosted.

LSB and I were basking in the sunshine beside the statue when we were approached by an elderly lady, who stood before us, staring. I smiled at her and she began speaking in Polish.

Warsaw skyline -- view from the Palace of Science and Culture

Warsaw skyline — view from the Palace of Science and Culture

“Erm… No… Polski,” I responded apologetically.

She gestured excitedly at the statue. I shrugged my shoulders as politely as I could.

She talked some more, then motioned at us to stay put while she went away.

A few moments later, she came back with an elderly man.

He had a pleasant tanned and wrinkled face and was wearing a Nike sweatshirt.

“English?” he said and we nodded enthusiastically. “I have… um. little English,” he said, laughing.

“This man,” he said, pointing at the statue. “Jan Twardowski. He… um…” he cupped his hands around his neck to indicate a collar and the word came to him. “Priest. Yes. Priest!”

“Oh!” I said. “Thank you! I didn’t know who he was.”
“Yes!” he said, delighted. “Priest… important priest… and also poet!”
“Priest,” the lady repeated, delighted. “Yes, priest!”
“Ah,” I said. “What a beautiful place for him!”
“Yes, yes, beautiful!” they agreed.

They left happily.

A few moments later, another party comprising two women and a man in a wheelchair arrived and stopped in front of us. They stayed there for quite some time and I began to shift uncomfortably in my seat.

Though there were several vacant benches elsewhere, I thought they were perhaps trying to covet our spot. “Would you like to…?” I said, motioning to get up.

“No, no,” the lady pushing the wheelchair said, waving her hand.
Suddenly I noticed a presence to my left. When I turned I discovered a third woman on her knees by my feet, praying.

This, I thought, is one step away from Pope-shaped perogies.