The chartered van made its way up a narrow winding road. With the slow climb, its engine sputtered and seemed to momentarily stall on this heavily wooded slope.
All around us there were miles and miles of trees – many of which have stood in Karkonosze National Park for centuries. On a hike, I paused and tried to imagine the centuries of history they’ve witnessed. If only these tall, proud trees could speak.
A stream of beauty
Despite the daily shot of trekkers who come to soak in its beauty and discover the 721-year-old Chojnik Castle (built in 1292), Karkonosze is an amazingly peaceful place. It’s Poland’s slice of heaven. One of many, really. It’s about a 10 kilometer run to its neighbor, the Czech Republic.
As we ambled up and neared our hilly destination – Chojnik Hotel – the houses that dot the ondulating landscape were fewer and farther apart. When we finally arrived at the hotel and the driver shut off the 16-passenger van’s engine, the silence was so evident, so extreme, it would become the subject of conversation and much discussion among hotel guests for much of my stay.
Having spent much time in cities, perhaps made the silence even more pronounced. It was so quiet that during my 5-day lodging I was taken quite aback when I heard in the distance the footsteps and click-clack of Nordic walking poles of a lone hiker coming up the road.
At least one hotel guest complained it was so quiet she could not sleep, her frayed nerves accustomed to the racket that comes with living in a noisy city. For me, this silence was pure delight. After spending months in city after city across Europe, it was a joy to hear, gasp, heavens, absolutely nothing.
I had come to Chojnik by happenstance, invited to take part in a nearly-weeklong English immersion program. I was joined by several native English speakers and several Polish people seeking to brush up on their English. Poles were paired with native English speakers and they conversed on a variety of topics.
We had set out from Wrocław, the largest city in western Poland. It is located on the Oder River.
Mateusz, the man with the plan
And now here were, housed at the Chojnik, which we all agreed was the perfect guest house. A few months ago the hotel and restaurnant reopened under new ownership and management. It has been completely remodeled, inside and out.
Mateusz Szymon, a 26-year-old interior designer and architectural student, breathed new life into the hotel when his family took it over seven months ago.
Serenity: The Chojnik grounds
“It’s hard work,” he said recently, seated in the restaurant. “It’s not a good option when you live in a place where you work. You are always working.”
The Chojnik is a labor of love. It’s also a great getaway from everyday madness of the city. With it’s private ski slope complete with lift; fish pond, and acres of natural trails, it’s definitely a place of peace. I certainly found it there.
Street beggars have existed since the dawn of civilization.
As sure as currency exchange houses will try to take you for a fool, anyone who travels is bound sooner or later to be accosted by a street beggar. I don’t believe any country is free of the panhandlers. At least no country I’ve ever visited. And I’ve seen many.
Begging is prohibited in some places, but the beggars find creative and inconspicuous ways to beg. To remain under the radar of the authorities, some try to blend into the larger population and stop you on the street, as a sweet grandmotherly type did to me recently in Warsaw. She did not fit the mold of a street beggar, just a little old lady on her way.
I’ve seen just about every approach. The begging tactics out there are as varied as the number of beggars. Some will use the direct approach and simply ask you for some spare change. One guy once asked me for a penny, knowing that as soon as I reached into my pocket I would come up with more than a penny. He was successful at getting passersby to give him money, after all, who can’t spare a penny? But I’ve had people ask me for outrageous sums, often accompanied by a sob story, such as needing to get to the other side of the world to visit an ailing mother. One guy on the metro platform in Miami asked me for “$50 or whatever” I could afford to help him get to South Carolina to see his dying mother. I gave the guy a couple of dollars not knowing if his story was true or not, but it was $2 I could afford to give away. The very next evening, the same young guy asked me for $50 and the same story of his nearly departed mother. I reminded him that I had given him money the night before. “Oh,” he said. “Thanks” and move on to others. The very next day, same guy approaches me. I said “You’re kidding, right?” He did not remember me. And for weeks I saw the same guy telling people the same story. He was a young guy, about 22 years old, obviously running a game.
I remembered him when last week another a beggar in Warsaw asked me for 50 zlotys. That’s more than $16 by today’s exchange rate, or more than 12 euro. He had first tried to ask for money in Polish and when I told him I did not speak the language, he asked in English if I was American, and banking on the generosity and supposed wealth of all Americans, he upped the amount he wanted, from 5 to 50 zlotys. I’ve been in Poland long enough to tell the difference between 5 and 50, even without fluency in the language.
Over years of travel, I have had some interesting encounters with street beggars. Sometimes I give. Sometimes I just say no. It all depends on my mood and the beggar’s vibe or energy.
Sometimes I am happy that I said no to certain persons, such as a woman who was so verbally nasty after I said no to her demand that I give her a dollar. After I said “Sorry, I can’t help you,” she shouted directly to my face: “YOU BET YOUR SORRY!!”
In Warsaw, Poland, a woman on her knees, praying that her begging will pay off?
Beggars don’t all necessarily want money. Some will ask for a cigarette or that you buy them food (which I am more apt to do than give money), while others just want to bum a cigarette. The first person who used the line “why lie…I need a beer” was likely very successful because it was funny. It just doesn’t have the same impact it once had. New approaches often lose their punch with time and as they gain widespread usage around the world. Some adult beggars use their children to beg. I found this to be the case across much of South America. I didn’t like the way some of these mostly women forced their children to help them beg for money. To me it seemed abusive. In the state of Oregon in the United States, I once saw a young woman sitting on the sidewalk with a newborn baby, asking for money in front a downtown bank. It was in the city of Portland, and many – myself included – were concerned for the welfare of the child and tried to tell the young woman about various social services available to her. That only made her angry. She wanted money. She did not want to hear about anything else. “If you’re not going to give me money, please leave me alone,” she told me, quite indignant after I said I could try to help her get proper help. Others who tried were treated with equal disdain by the young woman. Who knows if that child was even hers, but fact it she showed no interest in getting off the street. Cash was her only interest.
Sometimes children themselves are the beggars. And some of them can be downright aggressive – probably facing the wrath of a parent or other adult should they not return with a fair amount of cash. Once in Harare, Zimbabwe, I gave some loose change to a child beggar. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by more than a half-dozen other kids tugging at me and demanding money as well. One young girl who was about 7 or 8 years old grabbed and latched on to my left arm and refused to let go. I raised my arm and lifted her off the ground and she still would not release my arm. A local merchant, noticing what was happening, came out of his store and began to shove the kids away from me while screaming at them in their native language. I learned my lesson: If you’re going to give money to children on the street, make sure you know if there are any others around or be prepared for a full assault. Even handing out candy or pencils to children can create a mob scene.
Some beggars are truly in need while others are nothing more than truly skilled at convincing strangers to hand over their loose change. They know how to spin a tale or make you laugh and win you over in short order. But recently, I have noticed an approach in Europe that I have not seen anywhere else – not to say it isn’t happening anywhere else – just I haven’t seen it. That’s the beggar on his knees, arms stretched in front of him usually holding a cup. A slight variation on this is someone knelt in prayer.
On my recent trip to Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, I saw several beggars in this most humiliating of positions. Someone assuming this position sends a message that they are at your feet, low, not worthy. I find it dehumanizing and while it’s the least aggressive form of begging, it troubles me to see another human being assume that position.
In Prague, I dropped a few coins into the cup of one of these on-bended-knees beggars and he didn’t even rise to acknowledge. He didn’t even move. Not that I expected anything from him. It just struck me as curious.
My bottom line when it comes to street beggars is to give if I feel the person is sincerely in need. Of course, no way of telling if that is truly the case. But it leaves me with the feeling I’ve done something to help someone and when it’s all said and done, that’s all that really matters.
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.