Wine, a former president, and Pittsburgh

In a very early post, I mentioned one of my favorite jobs ever:  when I was hired by FAKT Newspaper, a daily out of Warsaw, Poland, to tag along with former Polish President Lech Walesa as he visited important US dignataries.  First, there was Hillary Clinton.  Then a few other members of Congress, a couple of high level diplomats, even a visit to the State Department.  There was George W. Bush.  And I was there, front and center, as the official photographer.  IT WAS SO COOL.

But, there was another visit, one that still gives me chills to this day.

We visited the head of the Polish community in Pittsburgh, PA.  To be exact, the entire entourage was invited to drinks and light food.

The house of the leader of the Polish community was beautiful, an old stone city-center mansion right in downtown.  And it was a casual affair — though of course, when it’s a former head of state, nothing is totally casual.

“Would you like a glass of wine?”

The host held the bottle of very nice Merlot right over my empty glass.

“No, I never drink when I shoot, Sir,” I replied, my standard answer.

And, in any other environment, that would have been the end of it.  A basic gesture of hospitality made, and polite refusal given.  It’s happened a 1,000 times to me.

“This is not right,” said our host, “this is not acceptable!”

WTF?  Really?  He was MAD.  He was ANGRY.  Because I wouldn’t drink?

“In a Polish house, when you come to visit,” our host said, loudly, to the entire room, including the former president, “and you are offered wine, it is considered RUDE to refuse it.”  He smiled, in fairnmess, only half joking — or so it seemed to me.

I could just envision an international incident in the making.  What did I know about Polish customs, especially as they pertained to visiting heads of state?  I caved.  Plus, I LIKE Merlot.

All I know is the glass was never empty after that.  Now, I’m Irish and Itallian, mix.  So, my genes are naturally predisposed to drink. Don’t be offended, it’s true.  And that glass — and it was BIG — was never empty.

“OK,” said Thomas (Tomek is his Polish spelling, I believe), “it’s time to do the photo.”

I stood up.  I was going to have the entire family in the candle lit dining room, around the table.  A warm, intimate moment.

I was drunk.  The room swayed.

Now, I take everything on manual.  I hate automatic.  Flash, camera, everything set to manual.  That means major calculations in my head — part of it is experience, part of it knowledge of photography and light, but I can “read” a room in 3 seconds and get the photo right, better than any computer in my camera.

I put the camera on automatic.  Brain, it was currently a little fuzzy.  I took the photo.  I prayed.

The next morning, I got up to look at the images.  I only had a few — it was supposed to be a quick thing, not a major photo shoot — and I had no idea what I had.

The photo was perfect.  Beautiful.  I sent it off to FAKT.

I thanked God.

So, I’ve revised my rule, immediately after that incident.  No wine, ever.  I don’t care if it causes a major nuclear war, it’s not happening.  Fast forward to the RICH PEOPLE.

The Rich People paid for the National Book Festival, Laura Bush’s pet project on the grounds of the Capitol Mall.  They hired me — these benefactors — to follow them around for the entire week taking pictures of the festival, their visits with the President, Laura, at the Library of Congress — everywhere.  And the first kick off was a reception — an intimate reception — at the Mandarin Oriental, Washington, DC.  It wasn’t so much a reception as a wine tasting.

“This vintage is the only one to ever receive 100 / 100 by Wine Spector Magazne,” said the host.  “It is absolutely perfect, and goes for several thousand a bottle, there are only a few bottles in existance.”

He passed out tastes.  He came over to me.  “Would you like a taste?”

Lech Walesa flashed through my head.  My swearing off booze flashed through my head.

“Absolutely.” I said.

It was the best wine I ever tasted.  It was the best anything I ever tasted.  There is a REASON things cost several thousand a bottle.

I wrapped up the event, went back to the room.  I ordered a glass of house chablis.  It tasted like snot.

Such is life.  I need to be rich.