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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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This town gets very little to no respect. It’s the city that most Poles will tell you holds nothing special. It’s not even worth a visit some will go so far to say, and the naysayers includes residents.

I came to Bydgoszcz by way of  Tleń, a small village where my friends Anna and Michal. own and operate a guesthouse. Tleń, with only 260 inhabitants, is 36 miles – or 58 kilometers – north of Bydgoszcz.  I had been holding fast in Gdansk when I got a call from Michal to invite me to Tleń, with its rivers and lakes in the Tochula Forest, Poland’s vast wooded area.

If you love nature and being outdoors, you will love  Tleń and its surrounding areas. At every turn there are lakes, rivers, meadows with ducks and swans and all sorts of other wildlife. This is rural country, to be sure, where you come to unwind.

On their way to shop for supplies in the big town, Bydgoszcz, I joined Michal and Anna. It would be a chance for me to see what all were telling me was not worth seeing. It would also be an opportunity to reconnect with another friend, Kamil, a history teacher who lives in Bydgoszcz. As soon as we arrived in Bydgoszcz, Kamil and I took off to do some sightseeing while Anna and Michal shopped and took care of other business. True, when I first arrived in Bydgoszcz, nothing immediately impressed me, but walking around the old town, a few things did.

There was the river that runs through the city, the manicured green spaces to enjoy an afternoon, the public art and cultural centers, and of course the bounty of churches that date back centuries. St. Martin & St. Nicholas Cathedral’s interior is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. The city’s oldest. St. Martin & St. Nicholas was built in the 15th Century in the so-called Vistulan Gothic style, with every inch of wall and ceiling painted in bright shades of red, purple and pink. I love the interior of this church!

Bydgoszcz is a great launch pad for the surrounding cities and villages and countryside, all reached by car or bus within minutes. Or come for the shopping. Right near the old markets, there are some great modern shopping malls.

Inside the colorful St. Martin & St. Nicholas Cathedral

Inside the colorful St. Martin & St. Nicholas Cathedral

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Buenos Aires: Why The Long Face?

The sun on Argentina's flag: Is that a smile?

When I saw Prague several years ago, instantly I knew I liked the city. There was no doubt. I can say the same about Rome, Cape Town and many other places in the world I have been fortunate enough to visit. After  more than a week in Buenos Aires, I’m still not sure what to make of South America’s second most populous city –  only Sao Paolo, Brazil, is larger. 

There’s much to like, even love about Buenos Aires, but cities are about the people in them as much as they are about what’s in them and what they offer. Paris is full of beautiful things but don’t visitors always say that sadly it’s also full of Parisians? The people of Paris get very low marks when it comes to friendliness and helpfulness to outsiders. It’s as if Parisians would rather see all these millions of tourists disappear. Never mind that these visitors from all over the world pump billions of dollars into the French economy and have made Paris the number one tourist destination for decades.

Parisians, rightly or wrongly, get a bad rap. Some of it may be deserved. I did not enjoy my first trip to Paris because of negative experiences with the Parisians I had turned to for help with directions. Most of them were shockingly rude. Amazingly, several of them made their living selling stuff to tourists. Could they even imagine what just a weeklong world boycott of Paris would do to their bottom line?

Urban Gaucho: in the Recoleta neighborhood

And yet, on my last trip to Paris some three years later, just about every Parisian I met couldn’t have been nicer and extremely helpful. I kept asking myself what had changed. Had there been some tourist board campaign to tell Parisians to straighten up and fly right? Had Parisians themselves seen the light? Had they decided to turn a new leaf after much international bashing?

Suddenly Paris was filled not only with nice things but nice people and that made for a nicer experience. This is the rub I’m having with Buenos Aires. I like the city. I’m not too sure about the people.

It’s not that the people of Buenos Aires are rude or unhelpful. Stop anyone on the street and they will help get you on your way. They will even offer a smile afterward, or a no-need-to-thank-me-it’s-my-pleasure. They definitely show themselves to be friendly. My problem with the people of Buenos Aires is how cold and unfriendly they appear en mass. Nobody smiles. Everyone seems to look at each other with suspicion. They don’t seem happy. Ride the buses or the trains and the only long face you don’t see is that of a child at play. Of course, go to a bar or a disco and there are plenty of jubilant people there, mostly under the influence of beer. But I’m not talking about the people celebrating something in the Palermo party district or alcohol-induced giddiness. I’m talking about the regular Joe going about his day. I understand that going to work for some may not be reason enough to smile or even appear to be happy to be alive, but I can’t help but to think “why all the sad faces?”

Then I wonder is it something in this city’s DNA or the country’s troubled political history? The years of ruthless military dictatorships? The scars of the economic collapse and deadly protests a decade ago? Are these otherwise nice folks just simply physically and emotionally exhausted?

Okay, I know, I know. Buenos Aires is a big city – a huge one – and people in big cities with big problems need a reason to smile. Living in a city is challenging. Just getting around on overcrowded trains and buses in the summer heat is enough to make a person want to scream.  Yet, I’ve been to dozens of cities, some as large or larger than Buenos Aires, and the people didn’t  look like downtrodden huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They were light, talkative, shared a smile upon eye contact.

In some way, I understand that in a city – one that has its share of petty street crime – you want to wear your don’t-mess-with-me, or leave-me-alone face. Coming from a city like New York, I completely understand. But at the end of the day New Yorkers are at least entertaining and laugh at themselves. Sooner or later, something or someone around you will give you good reason to smile, even laugh.

Now, as I said before, the people of Buenos Aires aren’t necessarily unfriendly. They just seem that way until you engage them in conversation. Then, you sort of like them.

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