Poznań. One of the oldest cities in Poland. College town. Central/Eastern European hub for several multi-national companies, including the one I currently work for. I have two direct reports in Poznan, and a number of colleagues I work with on a regular basis.
So I was here for two intense days of business before starting my vacation. Meeting, planning, meeting some more. Making the most of my limited time here.
It was also time for building stronger relationships with our Poznań peeps. I was given a modest budget to take my team and our colleagues to dinner. The favorable exchange rate with the Polish Zloty makes this attractive - a fine meal with excellent Polish beer at a quarter of what it would cost in the US (i.e. a $200 meal in the US would cost $50 in Poznan).
This was our second, and last, night in town. I'm tired, a bit jet-lagged, full from the generous portions and hearty food of the preceding two days, but happy to be out with these people for the evening. The experience was confirming what my remote dealings had so far hinted at: Polish people - at least these Polish people - are wonderful. Energetic, curious, hard-working, warm and talkative, a real pleasure to work with and even more fun when it comes to sharing good food and drink.
Those were my thoughts as dinner wound down and we finished taking our group photos and I assumed it was about time for getting back to our hotel, packing up and getting some sleep before the next day's trip to Berlin to begin our vacation.
But, you know, the evening couldn't end just like that. Dinner and goodbye, time for bed and see you again someday? No. I was tired but happy and enjoying the company of those around me. It was still early and, really, I was pretty well packed for Berlin already. We all agreed that we had to cap the successful trip with a drink. Sipping some sort of digestive would have been advisable. But in Poznan an after dinner drink at the end of a busy work week was going to mean one thing: shots of vodka.
After an aborted attempt to wedge ourselves into the teenage crowd at Czupito, a Spanish-themed storefront that sells a long list of shots for the equivalent of a dollar each, whose atmosphere was so charged by hormones, sugar and loud music that even the youngest and hippest in our group just couldn't get comfortable, we moved on to its more mature cousin, a tapas restaurant called Pika Pika, and this is where things proceeded to slip gloriously out of control.
Someone ordered a round. I think there were seven or eight of us at this point, and we shared a warm "Na zdrowie!" and knocked them back.
This was good vodka, and it went down smooth. "Might work as a digestive after all", I thought to myself, assuming we would now be wrapping it up and going back to the hotel for bed. It was around 11PM, after all.
No sooner had I thought this another round appeared.
"Whoa!" I said.
"Oh no!" said Marissa.
"Oh yes!" said everyone else.
With this second shot, Marissa was done. A brief dizzy spell was all it took for our kind Polish hosts - my stint as boss-man was over at this point and we were now guests - to accept her refusal and get her a glass of water. Me? Well, it was up to me to carry the load from here on out.
A new round arrived, and then another, and another, throughout the night. The frequency slowed over time, but they kept coming nonetheless.
My memories from the rest of the night are scattered. They appear to me randomly, in fragments. Here are a few, in no particular order:
- After each shot, an American colleague - we'll call him Dave - who was in town for different reasons but had gotten caught up in our vortex nonetheless, would state loudly, "That was the last one. Seriously, I am not doing another one!" But as the next round arrived there he was, picking up his shot glass and bracing himself for impact. This went on all night.
- Meeting a young musician studying to be a choral conductor, who was enamored of my wife, claiming loudly that she looked like Audrey Hepburn (I agree) and lamenting that he would never have a love like the one the two of us obviously shared. When we emphatically reminded him that he was only 21 he replied, with a dramatic sadness straight from a John Hughes movie had John Hughes ever made a movie in Poland. "It will never happen." We are now Facebook friends.
- Watching another American co-worker, one I knew as a very straightforward, let's-get-down-to-business type, transform into "counselor of mentally unstable and very drunk Polish youth" as he increasingly huddled with, cajoled, calmed and chastised that guy - every late, late bar scene has one - who was obviously out of control and probably a little dangerous. He - my coworker - would disappear later that evening, to some concern, but I saw him back in the office a few weeks later so I assume nothing terrible happened.
- Sometime after what I think was the seventh or eighth shot, "Dave" came up to me and said, "You look sober. Are you sober? How are you able to look sober?" "I was raised in Utah," I said, leaving it at that.
- Not long after, I saw that one of the Polish women on my team was looking kind of sad or worried. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, "I am not even a little bit drunk, and everyone else is. Is there something wrong with me?" looking at me earnestly. "Absolutely not. You are perfect," somebody, it might have even been me, said cheerfully.
It went on like this for hours: Take a shot, talk, laugh, learn a Polish phrase only to forget it minutes later. Talk to strangers. Talk to each other about things we would never talk about in the office. Everything was holding together remarkably well, right up until that 10th shot.
The moment after I tipped that 10th one back, I knew that I was done. I had now crossed the line, and a shroud of drunkenness enveloped me in a dangerously comfy hug.
"Okay, Dave, I am officially drunk now," I declared, though Dave was across the room and even more drunk than I.
Fortunately, everyone else was also at their limit and we - those of us who hadn't mysteriously disappeared into the night already - agreed it was time to go. We gathered what remained of our group together and walked up Półwiejska street towards our impatient beds.
It was almost four in the morning.
During one of our many stops - it was four in the morning and we were drunk, so you might imagine this was not fast moving group - I inexplicably slipped back into boss mode and started talking with the Polish woman on my team about our plans for the coming year and blah, blah, blah. She politely but firmly stopped me, leaned in close and said,
"Do you think maybe it is not such a good idea to talk business now, what with all of the vodka?"
"Of course," I said, embarrassed that this woman young enough to be my daughter had to tell me, in a third language, to just enjoy myself. "You are a smart one," I told her, "and I am really drunk."
"I am still not!", she replied, this time with a big smile. Then she gathered us together for a group selfie.
But right she was. Sometimes you just have to let yourself enjoy life and the people around you, particularly those you work with and, really, know so little about. Maybe not frequently and with such gusto - if I never drink that much vodka again in my life I will not mind - but sometimes, every once in a while, you just have to let things get a little out of control.