Bigos. Flaki. Czerwony barszcz, with or without uszka. Kapusniak. Pyzy, placek and kiszka.
I'm pretty good with languages, particularly on my favorite conversational topics of food, kitchens and cooks. My pronunciation might be embarrassingly bad, but I can say "please," ask after individual ingredients, order, appreciate and offer thanks with a modicum of confidence in German, Russian, French and Vietnamese. In Spanish, I can do a little more. At Indian restaurants, I confine myself solely to the words on the page, but at least I know the difference between my bhaji and my bhajia, my dum aloo and my aloo paratha, so I'm not going to accidentally order fried shoes or a back rub from the cook's grandmother.
But sitting in our booth in this quiet dining room, with the waiter standing over me and my eyes bouncing like pinballs all over the page, I am at a loss. Bitki, placek zbojnicki, schabowy and golonka? It's like I've fallen into some strange, expurgated chapter of Alice in Wonderland — the one where Alice finds herself, in dusty pinafore dress and polished little shoes, forced to sit down in a lost restaurant in the middle of nowhere, to order using words that don't even look like any known language. The Mad Hatter's tea party writ even weirder.
There was a table set in a corner by the door, and the March Hare and the Hatter and a Dormouse were having dinner at it, with plates of zeberka, platters of golonka, steaming golabki and little glasses of vodka that smelled of rubbing alcohol. The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: "No room! No room!" they cried out when they saw Alice coming. "There's plenty of room!" said Alice indignantly, and she sat down at one end of the table, opened the menu placed before her and tilted her head, concerned.
"Have some wine," the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
"I thought you were having vodka," Laura said in an encouraging tone.
"I am," said me, then turned to the waiter, who hadn't budged an inch. "Two beers, two shots."
"I have to drive," Laura reminded me.
"Two beers, one shot. What do you have behind the bar?"
And then, again, a stream of unintelligible syllables, sharp vowels, far too many consonants. I nod at some random point in the list, trying to seem knowledgeable, agree wholeheartedly when the server asks if I would just like him to bring me a glass of vodka that he likes, and then sit back. We end up with two big bottles of Zywiec, a powerful pilsner decorated with pictures of dancing Poles in native dress with silly hats and crowns and trees, and a glass of something that smells like paint thinner from a foot away and drinks like a sip of rubbing alcohol. My eyes water and, for just a moment, the room goes all blurry.
"Have you guessed the riddle yet," the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
"No, I give up," Alice replied: "What's the answer?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," said the Hatter.
"Nor I," said the March Hare.
When the waiter returns, I do my best. I mangle the pronunciation of the few dishes I recognize (pierogis, of course, and Polish schnitzel and herring with sour cream), do the rest with points and grunts. At least according to the menu descriptions, everything is made with potatoes in some form or other. Potato dumplings and potato pancakes and mashed potatoes and boiled potatoes. That which isn't made with potatoes is made out of pork. Many things are made with both. When I'm done, Laura and I have no idea how much we've ordered. We have very little idea of what we've ordered.
"Tell us a story!" said the March Hare, lifting his stained muzzle from his bowl of beetroot soup.
"Yes, please do!" pleaded Alice, her head still muzzy and her eyes still wet from her second shot of potato vodka.
"And be quick about it," added the Hatter, "or you'll be asleep again before it's done."
Once upon a time there was a man named Lester and a woman named Maria. They fell in love, married and frequented a hotel in Krakow called Cracovia. And then, a quarter-century later (last fall), Lester and Maria Rodzen opened a restaurant in Westminster — a fine-dining Polish restaurant with singing and dancing on the weekends, black linen tablecloths and crepe-paper streamers in the back room, a restaurant that would remind them of their time in Krakow, that would recall the flavors and the smells of the place, with pictures of the city on the walls and Polish music on the radio. They named it Cracovia, brought in their son and daughter to work the floor while Maria cooked, and filled the menu with critic-confounding dishes with names like vicious tongue-twisters.