We either don’t realize it, dismiss it without a second thought, or outright choose to disregard the fact that we’ve just learned something new.
Zigzagging across Switzerland,
I just learned something new.
Travel reveals, uncovers, informs.
Had I not been traveling in Switzerland, just walking about Zürich, its largest city, perhaps I never would have learned about Freitag.
Freitag – which means “Friday” in German – was established 20 years ago. It is a multimillion-dollar company. It is an environmentally friendly company. It makes money by recycling used truck tarp and turning them into stylish but functional handbags. Freitag’s bags are as ubiquitous as Swiss cheese and wristwatches. The company is pretty high-profile. And yet, I had never heard of it.
How was that even possible?
Great view from the top of Freitag store in Zürich
A high-profile, multimillion-dollar
company with global reach, and playing a big role to save the planet, more than two decades old, with its products everywhere, and I didn’t even know it existed? A blow to the self-worth of any journalist who prides himself on being in the know.
As we walked about the city together, a Swiss friend pointed to the store and we entered. It’s an interesting store to begin with, built from old metal shipping containers stacked on top of each other to form several floors of retail space and a watchtower. Visitors are encouraged to climb to the top for a spectacular view of Zürich. Many just come to go to the top of the tower, not to shop, and that’s okay, a store clerk said.
He bagged this one in Bern, Switzerland
On every floor, the walls are lined with the bags, of all shapes, sizes and colors. My friend tried to explain Freitag’s concept, but then the store clerk took over. Basically, dirty, used truck tarp that would likely end up in landfills find new life as handbags. Freitag – the brainchild of Markus and Daniel Freitag – also uses discarded seatbelts and bicycle inner tubes in its products.
Based in Zurich, the company employs more than 150 workers, produces more than 400,000 products each year, and has stores in Berlin, Cologne, Davos, Hamburg, New York, Tokyo, Vienna, Lausanne, and Zurich. It also has more than 450 retail partners worldwide and an online store based in Zürich. Freitag was established and is still headquartered in Zürich.
An old tarp is no old bag
This “new” Swiss sensation does a big part toward saving the planet by recycling 440 tons of truck tarps per year, (that’s equivalent to a 68-mile-long line queue of transport trucks); 35,000 bicycle inner tubes and 288,000 car seatbelts.
And yet, I had never heard of it?
Since learning of its history and its existence, not a single day has gone by without noticing the bags on the streets in Switzerland. They are unmistakable. And they are everywhere and evidently hugely popular – at least in Switzerland – where they are a source of hometown pride.
I don’t know everything, of course, even if I’d like to think I do. I keep up on current events and can give you a summary of world events. And while I have no real interest in brand names or keeping up with the latest fashions, I have two eyes and notice things. Sorry Freitag – for 20 years you went unnoticed. Was it you or was it me?
Coffeehouses and Freitag seem to go shoulder to shoulder. Photo courtesy of Yannis Claude.
But now I can’t take two steps just about anywhere in Switzerland – and perhaps the world, as the bags and assorted products have gone global – without bumping into someone with a Freitag bag. The bags are popular among people of all ages, but largely young and hip men and women who sling them over their shoulders.
Packing them in
I love environmentally conscious companies. I’m more likely to spend my money with them. Thanks to travel, every day I learn that I have so much more to learn. It could be about something that took me 20 years to learn or something that occurred today. But learning every day is a blessing, even if it’s something seemingly insignificant or unimportant as the existence of a bag made from tarp.
Many Polish people have only seen black people on television or in movies or in other media they are fed. Here, a billboard in Gdansk, Poland. I was actually once asked on the street if I am Jamie Foxx
I have traveled to a lot of places around the world and I know that even in an interconnected world made smaller by mass communication, transportation and technological advances, in this the 21st Century there are people on Earth who have never laid eyes on a black person. I accept that I remain “exotic” in many corners of the world. The reaction I get from those persons who are coming in contact with a black person seemingly for the first time ranges from smiles to frowns. Sometimes there’s lighthearted laughter, sometimes visible anger. No matter, all stare, some quietly while others go one step further and make racist comments or gestures. As a person who has been privilege to travel the globe, I can accurately and confidently report that racism is alive and well just about everywhere in the world, thanks in large part to those very same communication and technological advances that have been the engines of the global economy.
In South America, with large numbers of people of African descent, I still got stares, mainly because people could tell I was a foreigner and they were simply curious about me and where I had come from. In Asia, the stares came because I was the exotic one, not them. I was indirectly the cause of a bicycle pileup in Beijing, China, because dozens of Chinese cyclist transporting all sorts of goods were riding their bikes and simultaneously staring at me. The result, a huge crash involving several bicycles. In some countries and towns more than others, the stares were epic. Some acted as if they had seen a ghost or an alien. Others dared to approach to chat and ask questions – some of those questions very telling about the individuals themselves, mainly about their lack of education. They were also very telling in general about television and mass media having done a very good job at exporting racial stereotypes to places where masses of people had never seen a black person – at least not in real life. On a constant basis as I travel, I hear and try to dispel generalizations about whole groups of people conceived in Hollywood for overseas consumption. Some are open to hear. Others are unapproachable.
When I came to Europe – and I have been to Europe many times – I never expected to draw stares. It’s simply something that has never happened in places such as London, Paris, Rome and many other cities where they are accustomed to seeing people from other ethnic groups and nationalities. In such cities, people are long over being surprised when they see a black person – or a person of any other ethnicity, for that matter – on the street or on public transport. Most of Europe is enlightened. That’s not the case in Poland.
There is beauty in diversity
Poland, Poland, Poland. What can I say about Poland? What I can say is that I generally like the country and the people I’ve met along the way. They are travelers and are among a new breed of Poles who embrace and relish ethnic differences. In Poland I now count so many of them among my friends. They are truly the coolest. But they are a minority in a country that not so long ago was closed off to the rest of the world. The communist kept Poland shuttered and sheltered. Travel was almost an impossibility. And visits by foreign tourists was unheard of. Then communism fell and the gates were flung open, and Poles began to travel – and the world began to discover Poland – and while there are black people in Poland, they are very few. You can go for days, sometimes weeks, without seeing a black person in some of Poland’s largest cities. And it is in these cities that Poles seem in shock – stunned, really – by people they come across who are not white or don’t look anything like them.
I must say I have never experienced anything like what I have been experiencing in Poland for the past 6 months. If you are black and you walk the streets of Warsaw – the capital, Poland’s largest metropolis – the stares are so intense they would burn a hole through your brain if they packed such powers. Poland trumps any place I’ve ever been. It wins the staring contest hands down. Not even China has anything on Poland in this regard. If you look different in Poland, you will be stared at from the moment you leave your home to the moment you return. But in Poland, not all stares are alike or mean the same. Here are the main types of stares I’ve identified”
THE “WHAT THE F*&^%$#@! IS IT!?”: This most of intense stare is usually from elderly people. They’ve lived long lives in a historically closed country and are beginning to see black people, some for the very first time. Their facial expression is one of pure fright. They look startled and barely blink, eyes wide open, their brains churning a mile a minute with so many thoughts, the first of which is very likely “WHAT THE HELL?!” No matter how you stare back, they will not look away. They are in a trance. Or maybe just in shock. Makes me want to go “BOO!” to force them out of it, but that would be mean. They are scared enough. I can just imagine the first thing they do when they get home is to report the sighting of what they believe was a black person to a spouse or closes kin or neighbor.
THE “I HATE YOU JUST BECAUSE”: Oh, let’s not kid ourselves. Poland has its share of racists, hooligans, neo-Nazis, skinheads. Call them what you will. I’ve crossed paths with a few of them, but none of them have been gutsy enough to take it to the level of violence. But their brand of stare breathes fire. It’s one that says “I don’t like you…What are you doing in my country?” with a few racial epithets thrown in for good measure. The thing about these types: They are big cowards. They will only act in groups, which means if they are alone, they are not interested in a fair fight. They’d rather beat the crap out of people they outnumber. Alone, all they can muster are nasty stares.
Of all of this type I’ve come across in Poland, the one that has stuck with me is a guy on the metro. He was a big guy, more than 6-feet tall and beefy, but flabby. As soon as I boarded the train he locked his pale blue eyes on me. His stare was filled with such hate, he never once diverted his eyes away from me. Sometimes you feel someone’s staring at you and you look in that direction and sure enough. It was the same with this guy. At first I decided to ignore him, as I do so many of these starers. But then I felt his stares had shifted into high gear and an attempt to intimidate. And so I made the decision to look him directly in the eye with equal disdain. And when I did that, guess what? The mad hater looked away. Still, he from time to time would glance at me, and each time I caught him staring, he’d look away.
World-class cities act like it: In places such as Budapest and Krakow, who cares if you’re pink, black or blue. Some things are given much more thought, like whether to have your picnic in the park or on the living room floor.
When he brushed past me to leave the train, he gave me one last dirty look. And as the train rolled away, from the platform he telegraphed another mean look. Yeah, whatever, fool!
THE “IS IT TRUE WHAT THEY SAY?”: This from women and men who have sex on the brain. They believe the hype and think all black men have big you know whats. They inevitably are caught shifting their stares from above the waist to below. They usually sport a mild smile, as if to say “I’m cool with you, I’m interested down with it”. To them you are nothing more than a sexual fantasy. And given the right circumstance, you are perhaps their best hope of experiencing something possibly monumental. Seriously. You would not believe to what lengths some will go. Recently, one woman at a Starbucks tried just about everything to grab my attention and when I showed no interest – sorry, definitely not my type – she walked over to my table and bent over to expose her assets. Oh-kay, got my attention, now what? As she left down a set of stairs with her chuckling girlfriend, she gave one last look with a big smile. Yeah, sister twister, you’re just the sort of girl I would take home to mother. Move along.
THE “ARE YOU JAY-Z?”: Yep, I’m Jay-Z riding a public bus in Poland with you, because I abhor my limo. This stare comes mainly from children, and teenagers to 20-somethings who think you are either a Hip Hop star, an NBA player, or just someone they’ve seen on television, in the movies or on MTV. Their stares usually looks like a mix of constipation and puzzlement, a struggle to recall where they may have seen you before. And don’t start speaking English. Then they will be completely convinced they saw you on BET – late-night.
Okay, so I get that I am the oddball in Poland and as my Polish friends like to gently put it, “exotic” in a land of fair-skinned society still emerging as a player in Europe. And I understand that if I visit a small village I am guaranteed to draw curious stares. That I get. But that these stares happen in Warsaw, Poland’s capital and largest city, full of well-educated and well-traveled professionals, is beyond me. And it’s not just Warsaw. Many of Poland’s other large cities, same thing, with the exception of Krakow, which seems comfortable with cultural and ethnic diversity perhaps because it’s a city that draws tourists by the millions and it’s teeming with university students from all parts, including from abroad.
It’s fascinating to me that if I go just across the border into say Berlin, Germany, the staring ceases. It just doesn’t happen there. My most recent trip to Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Austria; Bratislava, Slovakia; and Prague, Czech Republic, made this fact clear: Poland may be a member of the European Union, but it is anything but world-class in its behavior. I am told by my Polish friends that in Poland, staring is considered rude. But people still do it. They do it because they are not comfortable with people who look different. How do I know this with such certainty? Because not long ago, I was walking in the center of Warsaw and getting the usual stares. Then I caught up with a woman walking ahead of me. Suddenly, it was as if I did not exist. Everybody was staring at the woman, who was white and Polish. Nobody now seemed to notice the black guy next to her. The woman was getting all the unwanted attention because she was a “little person”, and stood barely 4 feet tall. Her height difference was apparently more jarring than my ethnic difference. That was the moment I realized that for the vast majority of Poles, the stares are less about racial differences, and more about people who simply are physically different… I think.
Arrived Berlin. First full day in this historic, activist, amazing city with the good energy. Coffee time with Alisa and Louise.
I arrived in London and stayed long enough to make a bad decision.
Hungry and in a hurry, I bought a sugary, calorie-laden, chocolate-covered, chocolate-filled donut so pricey it made my jaw drop. Not that I eat donuts much. I don’t, but $4 for a donut and another $4 for a hot chocolate just seemed a bit overpriced, even if it was branded Krispy Kreme, the American donut chain with a cultish following of raving fans. Unbeknownst to me, Krispy Kreme has gone global.
I don’t know what possessed me to belly up to the counter at Krispy Kreme in of all places London Town. I had never ventured into a Krispy Kreme in the United States, ever, so why now in expensive London where I’d surely be paying three times as much?
With every bite, that donut oozed warm, liquid deep dark chocolate. I felt as if I was committing a sin – on several levels – and that everyone around was fixed with glaring eyes on the chocolate running down my fingers. I could hear the voice of a friend from a long time ago, Dennis Dean of Los Angeles, calling out from afar his signature admonishment: “What are you doing!?”
But eat and drink I did and I rather enjoyed the hot chocolate. I took the last bite and gulp when I noticed the time. I dashed off to my gate at Terminal 5 in Heathrow International Airport, excited about what was next: Berlin.
There was a time I wanted to live in London. But that idea has long lost luster. For my money, Berlin is the place to be.
I love Berlin. I really do. I want to experience Berlin as a local. I want to be a part of it. Live it and breathe it. A job in Berlin, anyone? 🙂
The first time I came to Berlin was as a fellow with the German Marshall Fund. Germany was in the middle of a historic election. By the end of the politically charged day, Angela Merkel had become Germany’s first woman chancellor. It was an election that understandably received great international coverage. That was almost seven years ago. The physical chemist is still chancellor.
On that first trip to Berlin, I was able to meet and interview many Germans on both sides of the divide known as the Berlin Wall. Largely removed after the fall of the Soviet Union, today sections of the wall have been left standing as a reminder of what was. In some areas where the wall stood, rusting steel bars have been placed to mark where the wall used to stand and as a memorial to the German lives lost trying to escape East Berlin. One section of the wall, known as the East Side Gallery, has been painted over with large murals by a variety of artists. And in some areas, there’s simply no wall, just the footprints.
As a lover of history, I immediately fell for Berlin. But more than that, there’s a certain vibe to the city that draws me here. Berlin is certainly not a very beautiful city in the caliber of Paris or Rome, but the people – artists, activists, all manner of bohemian – give the city a real edge that I – and thousands who flock here every year – like.
Only two cities in the world make me smile from ear to ear from the moment I land in them: New York and Berlin. I maintain that New York is the greatest city on Earth. It really is. Even Some Berliners who know both cities say that. But Berlin has that certain something. It’s also an inexpensive city compared to other German cities, such as Cologne or Munich.
Did I mention I want to live in Berlin? Angela, are you listening? 🙂
Still, there are many more places in the world yet to explore and likely have what Berlin has and more. That’s the beauty of travel. The possibilities. The promise. And yes, the wrong food decisions.