Posts Tagged With: gdansk poland

POLAND: Stop Staring At Me!

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

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

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: Nobody cares if you're pink, black or blue in places such as Budapest and Krakow.

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.

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Friends And Strangers On A Train

At the Mamas & Papas Hostel in Gdansk, Poland, in the Hendrix room, a.k.a, Purple Haze. A long stopover here.

At the Mamas & Papas Hostel in Gdansk, Poland, in the Hendrix room, a.k.a, Purple Haze. A long stopover here.

ON A TRAIN FROM TLEN TO GDANSK, SOME THOUGHTS: Travel to places where people don’t speak your language of course creates challenges. The language barrier traps you in a maze of confusion and constant struggle to understand what’s going on around you. It isn’t something that can’t be overcome, but if you let it, it will do a job on the good energy you need to continue on your merry way. I was waiting for a train – this train that I am now on – that was more than 15 minutes late. Then came an announcement over the loudspeakers affixed above the station platform. It was a woman’s voice – a soothing voice – albeit going on for an eternity about something of some urgency. I don’t speak Polish, but based on the reactions of the people around me, I instantly knew something was up that had to do with my train. In the land of language barriers, where ears are rendered useless, eyes do the listening. I was at the train stop that serves the tiny village of  Tleń – population 260 – on my way back to Gdansk.

With Michal at the “gate to Hell” in Bory Tucholskie National Park. The large boulder was dragged to the area by advancing glacier during the Ice Age. And yes, my layers of clothing was not working for him so he gave me the winter coat off his back!

With Michal of Tlen, Poland, in Bory Tucholskie National Park. The  guy gave me the coat off his back . What, my layered look wasn’t working for you all? 🙂

It was a very cold Saturday morning, and everything coming from that woman’s mouth would determine if I would spend another night in Tleń or be on my way. Soothing as her voice sounded, it was hardly soothing enough to ease my growing anxiety sparked by the people on the station platform appearing to go into mild panic. As I stood there in the freezing cold, I watched some of them swarm around a weather-beaten train schedule that had clearly seen better days on the support beam from which it hanged. Others nervously checked the time on their watches or cell phones, frantically sent text messages, or made phone calls.  I scanned the people in sight for a  friendly face, one not so apparently consumed with worry, in a quick search for someone who seemed likely to speak English – usually someone in their mid-20’s to mid-30’s or early 40’s. I approached a young couple and half-apologetically asked if they spoke English. In a unison that couples and twins often muster, they said “A little.” Poles are kind of funny when it comes to the question “Do you speak English?” In the relatively short time I’ve been in the country, I’ve noticed that regardless of the person’s ability to speak English, most will say  “a little”, perhaps to save face should their command of English falter. In the case of the young couple, “a little” could not have been a more on target self-assessment. They struggled with every word and in very broken English they managed to say the train was late, a  “duh!” fact I and everybody standing on the station platform already knew. My rephrased question was whether there would be a train at all and if so, when?.  “It’s late,” the young woman sheepishly said. Double duh! Aha! Okay. But do you know when it will come? The two turned to each other and in Polish began to confer as if world peace was at stake. I stood and watched as they tried to come up with the right English words to explain the situation to the American who speaks no Polish. She then said “wait” as he made a phone call. He spoke a few words in Polish to the person on the other end of the line and handed me his sleek new iPhone. On the other end, a woman with a much better command of English explained that the train was delayed by mechanical trouble and that there would be another update as to its arrival. She said it would likely be along in approximately 20 minutes, but an announcement would be made to update us. Sweet. A language hurdle cleared by Apple Inc. Steve Jobs – rest his soul – again saves the journey. I thanked the woman on the phone and the couple for going the extra mile. In Polish I said “Thanks”, which made them smile. Thirty-minutes later, here comes the train, even if there was no heads up announcement. Did I mention that Poland has the most painfully slow and worst train systems of all the places I’ve seen in Europe? In places like Tleń,well outside of big cities, the difficulty to find someone who speaks English increases. So your eyes take over where your ears are of no use. When the train is not doing what the posted schedule says it’s going to do, watch how others react to any official announcements made entirely in Polish – or any other foreign language you don’t speak, for that matter – and you quickly realize you don’t need to know the language to know you better act and fast.


Main train station, getting to know you.

I am leaving Tlen, the village in north Poland where 260 people live. To say Tlen is a small town is the ultimate understatement. It’s the smallest town I’ve ever visited in Europe. I am on my way back to Gdansk, just over an hour away. I am sharing the compartment with a young Polish woman who has been really helpful with the “a little” English she speaks. At the train station the ticket office was closed and so I had to buy a ticket on the train. The conductor spoke no English, and I of course can only say “good afternoon” and “Thank you” and “yes” and “no” and the “F word” in Polish. Yes, I need to add a few more words to my vocabulary. So the young, blond woman has so far acted as my interpreter and my bodyguard. She helped me buy my train ticket, interpreting for me and the conductor. Then when some guy opened the compartment to our cabin and asked “Are you English?” and “Do you have some money for me?”, the young woman said a few choice words to him that included the “F word” and “Thank you.” That much I understood. The guy shut the door and left. And my defender returned to reading her book. That’s the one thing about traveling in some places. People come to your help and sometimes when necessary, to your defense. They see it as their duty to help. The good in people comes through. For instance, I am now the proud owner of a winter coat. I didn’t pack one because I thought I could just wear layers of clothing and be warm enough. But all along the way in Poland, friends and strangers kept offering to get me a coat, even as I stated and restated that I was plenty warm with what I was wearing, and even as the temperatures dipped way below freezing. My layered look apparently didn’t look warm enough for winter, and so the offers for a winter coat. And so now I have one, thanks to Michal and Ana. Ana, who drove me to the train station, brought it to me as a gift. “If you’re going to stay in Poland you need a winter coat” she said. Cool. People can be generous and so cool and come to your aid even if you don’t think you need it. I had the situation under control – I think – with the train panhandler, but the young woman had the language knowledge and finesse to tell that guy to piss off. He got the message quick. As I am now in Gdansk, where I will be spending the  month of January and part of February working at the Mamas & Papas Hostel, I left Tlen content to have so many friends across Poland: Michal, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Kamila, Karolina, Kamil, Kasia, Ada, Mama, Papa, Mateusz, Martyna, Allan, Kasper, Monika, and the feisty young blond woman on the train. Her name is…Mystery.

Down by the riverside in Gdansk, Poland, my new home for at least another month

Down by the riverside in Gdansk, Poland, my new home for at least another month



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First Hitchhike Ever In Europe: Warsaw To Gdansk

On the road again...

The morning started with snowflakes dancing in the frozen air. It wasn’t the kind of day anyone in his or her right mind would pick to stand on a busy intersection with a weather-wilting cardboard sign to thumb a ride from a passing stranger. Earlier this year I had hitchhiked rides across South America – mainly in Argentina – but then it was summer and the weather was better. Nevertheless, I decided to cement my “roughing it” traveler cred – as in credibility – by attempting to hitch a ride from Warsaw to Gdansk, Poland. By car, the trip usually takes about 5 hours. I hoped to complete the journey close to that time. It wasn’t to be.

The night before, I had slept in the Praga section of Warsaw. It would take a tram, a subway train and a bus to reach the ideal spot at the edge of town to hitchhike north. That trip took more than an hour. Once at the spot, I was entered a McDonald’s to gather my thoughts and strategy. Should I wave my cardboard sign? Should I dance? Should I flash smiles or appear serious? Should I wave? Or should I just stick out my thumb and hope that was enough to have someone stop? I tried all those for the more than two hours I was standing there (the dancing was more to keep warm). My fingers and toes frozen solid, I decided to seek refuge in the McDonald’s. After I thawed out, it was back on, but this time I shifted to a new location  closer to the McDonald’s. Within minutes, an older gentleman pulled up, rolled his window down and said he was going in the direction of Gdansk, but only as far as his hometown Mława, a town in the north-central part of Poland, and scene of a reported massacre of thousands of Jews between 1939 and 1945 at the hands of German soldiers and Polish sympathizers. 

He said his name was Andre and that he was a carpenter and part-time shoe salesman. His car was full of shoe boxes right to the roof. The Audi was so loaded with shoe boxes that I could not get my backpack in the backseat. So Andre got out and help me shove it into the trunk where he had more boxes. At first the trunk wouldn’t close, so we had to give the backpack a few more shoves to make it fit, crushing some shoe boxes – and shoes – in the process. Then we were off. During the more than two-hour trip between Warsaw and Mława, Andre and I tried to communicate, with very little success. He spoke no English and I spoke no Polish. And the only other language he spoke “a little” was German. So for most of the trip we traveled in silence. But he was a nice old guy, about 65 years old. When he stopped at a gas station to buy some windshield washer fluid, he surprised me with a cup of coffee. He said – or at least what I understood him to say – is that I looked cold standing on the road.

As we traveled, he pointed things such as restaurants and sites along the way. And how many more kilometers were left to travel. Once we made it to Mława, he dropped me off at a gas station on the road, we shook hands and he smiled and said goodbye. I thanked him and went inside to use the restroom. Soon as I emerged, I walked up to a man pumping gas and asked if he was heading north to Gdansk. He said he said he was going in that direction to Elblag, about one and a half hours south of Gdansk. He gladly offered to give me a ride. It would take another 2 plus hours to get from Mlawa to Elblag.

My new ride turned out to be a 44-year-old regional judge from Elblag. He commutes between Warsaw and Elblag twice a week to teach law at the University of Warsaw, he said. He was a travel enthusiast who spoke some English. His name was Roman.

Roman spent a great part of the trip on cell phone talking to his secretary and others. When he was not on the phone, he was sort of quiet, perhaps because of his limited English and my lack of Polish. He managed enough English to say that he had traveled all over Europe and to parts of Asia. He said of all the countries visited, Italy was his favorite.

As we drove I knew it would be dark soon. I was thinking what I would do to reach Gdansk at night. Hitchhiking at night is not impossible, but not ideal. It just makes things tougher. But as we entered Elblag, Roman said he would drive me to the train station because it was dark and not good to be out on the road trying to thumb a ride. He didn’t give me an option as he pulled into the train station and bought me a train ticket to complete the rest of the journey to Gdansk. I was super surprised he would do that and of course thanked him. “No, it’s my pleasure” was his response. I was blown away by the generosity of the people I met out on the road, including a man who bought me a metro ticket in Warsaw because the machine would not take my credit card.

Hitchhiking, inherently a risky thing to do, actually can go the other way and show the goodness of people.


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