Poland. For almost two months, I’ve been hesitant to tell the world what I am now about to tell the world. No, it’s not some deep, dark secret. Sorry to disappoint. But it’s something I’ve largely kept to myself and shared only with a small circle of family and friends and a few acquaintances along the way. If you love sweet, happy stories filled with tender moments then perhaps you should stop reading now. This is not a sappy tale. It is a story of a day gone awry. A day full of euphoria that ended with a monumental kick to the face and some serious heart-pounding. It’s also a cautionary tale of a clash of cultures, one day in Poland, one day early last October. Ready?
For reasons I will later explain, I am back in
It was a beautiful autumn day in Krakow, unusually warm for the time of year. So warm that neighbors opened windows to let a slight autumn breeze clear the stale air out of their homes. It was a day to hang laundry out on balconies to take advantage of the bright sun. It was a day made for a walk in the park with an ice cream cone in hand. Essentially, it was a summer day.
I was staying with a couple of friends of friends in Kazimierz, the historic Old Jewish Quarter that was one of Europe’s largest Jewish ghettos prior to World War II when German Nazis marched in and marched out thousands of Jews in this community. They were taken to Birkenau and Auschwitz concentration camps. That is, the ones who were not gunned down on the spot. Auschwitz-Birkenau took in people by the millions from all over Europe. They were subjected to unspeakable cruelty and gassed or hanged or shot in cold blood. When I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau it left me with a chill in much the same way when I landed at Elmina Castle in Ghana, where millions of Africans were held, tortured into submission and placed on ships to be taken to the “new world” as slaves. Never again, the world sometimes cries, but as history has recently shown, “never again” sometimes are empty words.
Kazimierz today is a place rich with history. It maintains many of those historic sites where man’s inhumanity to man played out. But plenty of shops and restaurants and bars and even nightclubs now occupy some of those buildings that were spared from the destruction the Nazis dealt to other cities across Europe, including Warsaw. The Germans considered Krakow to be historically a German city and so did not indiscriminately rain bombs on the city and rig buildings left still standing with explosives to erase their history. So today much of Krakow’s centuries old buildings still stand, having survived World War II. It’s a beautiful city, Krakow, and on this beautiful day I set out to explore it beyond the usual touristic haunts.
My host suggested several places: an old church in an old neighborhood just across the Vistula River. A walk along a park lined with nice, grand houses in a neighborhood that is just below a mysterious mound. From Krakus Mound, which is located high above Krakow, you can see the whole city, a spectacular 360-degree view. The mound, which dates back to the 8th Century, has puzzled archaeologists for years. They can only speculate about its purpose. At first it was thought it contained the remains of King Krakus, founder of Kraków, the ruler of the tribe of Lechitians, (Poles). But it was dug up and it turned out not to be a burial site at all. Instead, what they found inside was a full-grown tree. The tree, for whatever reason, was buried under the mound, and again, nobody knows why. It is the oldest mound in the city. There are several others, but they are not as grand and don’t offer as amazing a view as this one. Krakus mound is lushly green all around but on the top – which is not visible from below – is bald – just dirt with a marker at its center.
So I spent this day walking along the banks of the Vistula River, toward the bridge that would take me deep into neighborhoods tourist buses simply do not venture. I was exhilarated and a bit tired from all the walking, but glad I had found the neighborhood, the church, the park and a few more treasures along the way. And as that bright sun was ready to set, I decided to head back home. On my way back, I noticed a directional sign that pointed to the Schindler’s Factory Museum. According to the sign, it was only a few meters away. My feet were burning from all that walking, but I decided to go to the museum anyway. Another unscheduled detour that could lead to more discovery and adventure. Cool.
As I walked down the nearly empty street listening to music on my iPod, I suddenly had company: two tough, half-drunk-looking guys. One of them – a shorter, more muscular one, held a bottle of Zubr, a Polish beer. He walked right up to me left side. The taller, bigger guy remained a step behind, with a goofy smile. Both had approached from behind.
The shorter guy next to me was saying sometime in Polish and whatever it was, he was clearly saying it with anger. After I repeatedly told him I did not speak or understand the language, he pointed to the bottled beer – amber in color – and then made a gesture to his neck. I didn’t understand. I thought he was stroking his skin. Ah, was he trying to convey sometime about my skin color?. The gesture in the United States means “stop” or “quit”. At that point, he said a few more words with an even more serious look and at that time I quit smiling and firmly told him that I don’t speak Polish. When I quickened my pace and I tried to put my earphones back in my ears, he grabbed my arm very aggressively and I pulled away. His friend behind shoved me with what felt like a closed fist and I went flying forward. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, I immediately went into gain the upper hand mode: I came around full force with a kick to the face of the shorter guy and he dropped the beer and fell to the sidewalk clutching his face and screaming. The bigger guy behind me tried to come at me – it was like a linebacker coming at an unprotected quarterback. Wasn’t a fair fight even with him alone, as he outweighed me by at least 100 pounds. I picked up the broken bottle and shouting as loud as I could, I said “COME ON! COME ON! TRY IT!” I was hoping to attack as much attention as possible, perhaps people would come to their windows. With his friend on ground, his hand over his eye, Big Guy instead rushed over to his friend, snatched him up and they rushed across the street pass an old woman who stopped to see what the noise was all about. As they ran passed her, she said something to them but they kept going. A bit dazed and my heart pumping, I tried to figure out in which direction to go. I was in a strange neighborhood and worried that these guys lived in the neighborhood and would return with reinforcements. I thought it was best to continue on my way to Schindler’s Factory, as it was closer than trying to make it back across the bridge.
On top of Krakus Mound and on top of the world…but later this day….
As I ran to the museum I saw five people outside a store who were speaking English. I told them what happened and they said their tour guide was inside the store and they were going to Schindler’s Factory and I should wait and go with them. The guide, a Polish woman, emerged from the store and we told her what happened. She then told me the area is not safe – something confirmed later by others – and that she would never come down there alone. I was surprised about this given the museum is a big draw for tourists. Granted, arrive at the museum in large tour groups, or directly on guided tours. The tour guide advised I take a taxi back. There were many taxis waiting right outside the museum. Since I was no longer in the mood for a museum, I decided to leave and walked back to the bridge with a Polish man who had emerged from the museum. Once I made it to the bridge over the Vistula River, I knew I’d be safe. My injuries were rather minor compared to that one guy, I’m sure. But the lasting injury for me is to my psyche. Every time some guy approaches me on the street to beg for money or wanted to speak to me – usually to get money – I get jumpy. It happened just a few days ago in Warsaw as I was walking in the center of town and three men were standing near a doorway. One of them spotted me and immediately came at me speaking in French. I know he was trying to ask for money. I kept my fast pace and told he I didn’t understand anything he was saying. “Thank you” he said, and returned to his friends.
A bridge over the Vistula River in Krakow
In the year-plus I’ve so far been traveling, even across reportedly dangerous South America, it was the first time I’ve ever been met with an assault and had to defend myself. Yet, I hesitated sharing this story with the masses because the truth is the people of Poland have been amazing. They are super nice, helpful, giving. At least that’s been my experience. This one incident could have happened anywhere. And still, today I’m left unsure whether this incident was just a big misunderstanding. People in Poland now tell me that the gesture to the neck the guy made means “let’s get drunk” or “I’m drunk” or “let’s go drink” or something to that effect.
So was he trying to communicate to me that he either wanted me to buy him a beer or wanting to go drink with him? And since refusing to drink with someone in Poland is considered rude and disrespectful in some quarters, did he feel disrespected when after his drink gesture I appeared to try to ignore him and tune him out by going back to my music? And his grabbing my arm was a way to convey that my behavior was unacceptable? And his friend punching me in the back really a reaction to him thinking that I was being aggressive with his friend? Did this all escalate because of our inability to communicate? Did they assume that I knew what the neck gesture meant? Questions, questions, questions. I don’t have the answers. All I know is that on that beautiful autumn day in Krakow, the game changed. And with it, I changed. I returned to Poland – after traveling south to Austria and Slovakia – to do an interview and write an article for the English-language Warsaw Voice. I also had to return because I had left a backpack behind. But returning to Poland has confirmed that it’s a great country full of wonderful people – and yes, there are a few bad apples – but don’t we have those everywhere?