Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski and family members are visiting Poland on a heritage trip. His second dispatch follows.
A word of advice to travelers when booking a rental car abroad: Be sure to contact a local AAA office before departure to secure an international driver's license.
Trust me, it’s worth the small effort and minimal cost ($15).
Said document was the first thing the Polish roadway police asked for after catching me making an inadvertent illegal left turn in the scenic mountain resort town of Zakopane.
I, my mother and my sister had all done the proper thing and procured international licenses before flying to Poland, but I left mine behind in the hotel room after a four-hour drive from Krakow into the stunning, snow-capped Tatra Mountains.
I took the advice of an otherwise helpful representative at the Krakow location where I picked up my four-door, automatic station wagon. When I offered it up at the rental desk, he waved it off.
(The car rental company is a well-known brand, but I shall altruistically decline to name it.)
"It’s not necessary. The state license is enough," he said in fluent, flawless English.
In hindsight, I suppose the agent meant "not necessary for rental purposes," but at the time I thought he meant that I didn't need it to drive in Poland.
Back to Zakopane.
Our good luck, weather-wise, was running out after check-in at our hotel. Dark clouds rolled in over the Tatras and blocked out the brilliant sunshine we had enjoyed all week in Poland.
Eager to experience the breathtaking alpine panorama from the summit of Kasprowy Wierch before it disappeared, I sped us from our chic, chalet-style apartment at Aparthotel Bellamonte to the gondola station just outside town.
But unbeknownst to us, the mountain lift had been shut down. As I tooled around the serpentine parking lot, it gradually dawned on me that the place was deserted -- apart from the aforementioned police.
The police were having lunch just out of sight, in a patrol car parked around a bend. As they munched on zapiekanki, the popular (and delicious) Polish version of French-bread pizza, the three officers had front-row seats for my four-wheeled felony.
I pulled to a stop. One officer put down his meal and walked to my car.
Politely, he requested my documents, first in Polish and then in English when I nervously informed him, "Nie mowie po Polsku."
"No international driver’s license?" he asked, shaking his head sadly as he leafed through my papers.
"Ah, New York," he noted, now nodding and somewhat impressed, as he saw my U.S. license. "You know you just broke the law, right?"
Apologizing, grimacing, shrugging and then pleading ignorance, I threw myself on his mercy. From the passenger and back seats, my mother and sister wildly waved the international licenses they’d pulled from their handbags.
"One moment," he said, gesturing to another officer in the patrol car.
The second policeman, who turned out to be in charge, walked over and conferred in Polish with his colleague as he thumbed through what few documents I had.
"This is not enough," he told me, holding up my New York State license.
I braced for the inevitable dressing down and hefty fine.
"Wait … this is a Polish name," the officer suddenly said, turning from grim to grin in a flash.
"Yes! Yes!" my sister and I exclaimed in unison. "Tak! Polski! I am his Mamusia!" my mother nearly shouted, excitedly wielding most of what little Polish she possesses from the backseat.
"You are on vacation?" the policeman asked.
"Yes! Yes! Visiting family! In Mielec. You know Mielec?" we chirped, sensing the tide was about to turn.
They conferred again.
"Okay," the first officer said, handing over my papers and motioning me to drive off.
I couldn’t believe my luck. "You’re letting me go?" I asked, just double-checking to avoid compounding my crime.
"Yes, but be more careful," the policeman said. "And carry your international license."
Thanking them profusely in Polish -- "Bardzo, bardzo dziekuje!" -- I slowly pulled away.
We celebrated our good fortune that night at a traditional Gorale inn, where the kielbasa was roasted and the clientele was toasted -- on vodka and beer. (The Gorale are mountain people in Poland.)
We sang the praises of local police to our tipsy tablemates, who turned out to be military personnel: Tatra Mountain airmen and a Polish Air Force pilot just back from two tours of duty in Iraq.
They, too, gave us a hearty welcome in a mix of broken English and somewhat slurred Polish.
I became fast friends with airman Wieslaw, who was eager to practice his English and improve my Polish. He insisted we have dinner soon -- and even stay a night, if we wished -- at his home.
For their part, my very married sister was lightheartedly courted and Mom was asked to dance, which she did, whirling about to a frenzied folk tune by a costumed, four-man highlander band.
This time, we had license … to have fun. And to feel quite at home.