In the truck, Klaus offered congratulations: “Waidmannsheil.” It is a German expression, and essentially it means “hunter’s salute.”
“Waidmannsdank,” I said, which roughly means “a hunter thanks you.”
I was learning.
At the campfire that night when we celebrated the hunt (my stag, a fox, four roe does, five pigs), I received a medal. I also got to say a few words. I thanked the hunt master, Arek, and the beaters for their hard work. I thanked RUAG and Norma for their hospitality. Lastly, I thanked a Frenchman for graciously loaning me a German rifle so I could shoot Swedish ammo at a Polish stag. I think something was lost in translation.
Torb the CEO made several toasts every night. He seemed to view the responsibility of making sure everyone had a good time as part of his job description. “C’mon, drink!” he urged. “I’m gonna get to bed early tonight,” I protested. It didn’t work. So not wanting to be perceived as a Puritan, I stopped protesting.
I liked toasts with bison grass vodka, a spirit born in eastern Poland. Legend has it that for centuries bison roamed the fields of Poland, browsing in fields of zubrowka (pronounced “zu-bruf-ka,” near as I can tell), an herb. Bison grass vodka is made with the pungent grass, and in the past, high society celebrated hunting success with it, in the belief that it would yield grand power. From what I saw, society there still does, though I wouldn’t call it high, only gracious and full of life. The brand we drank was made by Zubrowka, or ZU, and it was tasty, a bit sweet, with hints of vanilla and almond. Legend also has it that every bottle contains a blade of the grass, though I never saw one, probably because I never got to a bottle before it was opened.
To accompany dinner each night there was French wine, specially ordered by Thierry, of course. I’ll do the best I can with three I liked, but I’m sure I’ll butcher these vintages: There was a 2005 Chateau D’Angles, which was particularly good; a 2011 Gerard Bertrand Grand Terrior; and a Calmel & Jjoseph Vieux Carignon Terrior La Clape Syrah, or something like that.
There also was Zywiec beer, from the brewery in Zywiec, Poland, which began operation in 1856. It’s a pale lager, and it went down good when I was thirsty. Many of the men liked their scotch, in this case Dalwhinnie, a 15-year-old single-malt. I’ve never much cared for scotch. I explained that I liked bourbon instead. Turns out that was a good segue, for between scotch drinkers in Europe and bourbon drinkers in America there is plenty of common ground.
Like anti-hunters, for instance. The Swedes have plenty to say about the subject, and I listened intently one night as Anders, Gunnar and Torb filled me in on anti-hunting groups in their country. I wasn’t surprised. Whether it’s America or Africa or Europe, the story is the same: Some folks don’t like the idea of killing their food, so they insist no one should do it. That’s no laughing matter.
The objective all along was big boars, except we didn’t see any. The hunt masters speculated that since the corn was still standing across the region, the biggest pigs likely were holed up in the middle of fields getting their fills before the Poles harvested the crop.
But on the last stand of the last night that all changed.
As darkness descended, I could hear the beaters yell and shout. I could hear dogs yip and occasionally bark, but no game moved. I stood there thinking about the hunt, how my time in Europe was coming to an end. I hadn’t shot a big old boar—heck, I hadn’t even seen one. But I’d had a blast, made new friends. I shot some pigs, a beautiful stag …
Then the dogs lit up, and I saw why: They were on the heels of a big, nasty old black boar. It was the kind you dream about seeing, about shooting. It looked like Frankenstein’s monster. It was beautiful. And it was running rather lazily toward our line.
But I couldn’t shoot. For one, the beast was wearing dogs. More importantly, it dashed between Yann and me, about 50 yards to my right. A shot in that direction would endanger my buddy. As the boar cleared the line between us, I watched and mouthed, “C’mon, Yann, shoot that sucker.”
And he did. Blam, blam, blam—he emptied his Blaser. I heard the echo of each shot end abruptly as the bullets slammed hairy hide.
Hunters, beaters, dogs—we all gathered around Yann and a great beast the size of a bear. And the king of the last hunt stood beaming amid grins and back-slaps, shaking hands with anyone and everyone who sought to congratulate him.