Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Is Poland a safe country?

I came across this meme as I was scrolling my Facebook newsfeed.


Translation: 

In Poland annually 30,000 women are raped, 700,000 experience physical violence, 190,000 sexual violence, 150 of those die, that's 3 women per week. Dear Refugees, don't come here. It's not safe.

So is Poland safe? I guess the answer partly depends on your definition of safe. What's your definition of safe? Mine is evolving. 

Once I was hired to help out a family from Brazil, transferred to Poland for work. We met in a cafe where they would not hang their coats on the coat rack nor would they lighten their death grips on their bags. They said in Brazil they often chained their bags to the table. I told them that they should be careful with their coats and bags, but we were the only folks in the cafe, and they could chill a bit. They somehow understood what I said as meaning that Poland was a crime-free zone. After settling into their new home, they bought their kids bikes which they left in front of their building. Those bikes were promptly stolen. According to them, I was to blame because I had told them Poland was safe. I meant that you can drink your coffee without clutching your bag and you probably won't get murdered, not you can leave your bikes unattended or your front door unlocked. We had a different definition of safe. 

Back to the meme, I don't know how accurate these figures are or how they compare to other countries. If you live in Poland and have never experienced any sort of violence, you may think they couldn't be true. I suspect they are. 

Violence occurs in my country too. I'm not saying Poland bad, America good. In America, you can just walk around your whole life, experiencing no serious violence, until the day you get shot perhaps by a criminal, perhaps by accident, perhaps by a police officer. We have a lot of guns. The possibilities are endless. I'm quite confident (but still superstitious, knock on wood) that I won't get shot here in Poland. If I do, it will be by a hunter while I'm cycling through the woods, not some crime of passion, robbery, or random act of violence. No consolation for me, 'cause I'd be dead.

I'm safety-conscious. I took all those extra classes at university such as "Safety on Campus" which involved brainstorming sessions of how not to get raped and "Self defense for Women" which involved learning how to properly kick an attacker in the crotch. As a university freshman, I had to park my car in Lot D located behind an old paint factory, overlooking a cliff with not a single light in sight. For that privilege, I had to pay 300 bucks per semester. I always had my keys ready, not only to quickly open the car door, but also to jam into my attackers eyes, just as I had learned in class. 

I learned that rapists waited for women in dark places. Rapists were sketchy guys who put drugs in your unattended drink at a party. The description of a rapist was so clear, it should be obvious who's a rapist and who isn't. It didn't occur to me then that it could be any stranger I met, sketchy or not, dark alley or not, spiked drink or not. It never occurred to me it could be someone I knew. I never wondered why male students weren't invited to attend the "Safety on Campus" classes. That was about 20 years ago. It's probably different now. Or not, based on the news headlines, but perhaps news reporting is just better now, not the number of rapes has increased. Let's hope.

Let me be clear. I have never been raped. You can keep reading.

Everything I learned in those classes may have been true, may still be true, but that information didn't protect me from the ticket inspector on the train who locked us in a compartment, beat me, and attempted to rape me. That was my third day in Poland and not a very nice welcome. He looked like a guy doing his job, not sketchy at all. It was daylight, no alleys in sight. I try to treat it as an aberration. I bear no ill will towards Polish men nor Polish train ticket inspectors except that one. I do bear some ill will to the police officers who didn't take the police report despite witnesses and an imprint of the ticket inspector's hand on my face. (Edit: The police wrote something down. I was not asked to sign it. They didn't want my ID. I was never contacted again.)

After that I had quite a few unusual experiences of complete strangers poking, stroking, or otherwise touching me in inappropriate ways. None of them progressed as far as the train inspector. One man stopped on the street, said hello, tipped his hat, and then clobbered me on top of my head with his umbrella. It turned out that he was the downstairs neighbor of my now sister-in-law and was schizophrenic. I had to forgive and forget, but I saw stars. Another man followed me home like a puppy declaring his love for me in a whisper under his breath. I later learned that he was a patient of the local psychiatric hospital, let out for a walk.

Hmm what else? I was spit on but that was by accident. A man stole my shoe from my foot and then punched me in the nose. He was probably insane so not to be blamed, and I did get in a few shots of my own as well as getting my shoe back. I can blame the bystanders who didn't help me even as I asked for it. Oh well.

The funniest incident, now that it is in the past, involves a neighbor. I had just come back home from a run. I met my family heading out the door to pick up a pizza. They exited. I closed the door, kicked off my shoes, and ran upstairs to the bathroom, you know, to pee. While preparing to pee, I heard the door open and what I thought was my husband yell something to me. I yelled back from the bathroom in English that I was on the toilet. I was home alone, right? I didn't close the bathroom door. Do you? I heard footsteps on the stairs. No worries, just my husband, right? I was busy inspecting the hole I had made in the toe of my new fancy smancy running socks. I was just turning my head to say to my husband - look what happened to my new socks - when I discovered the man standing in the doorway of my bathroom was not my husband. I immediately jumped up from the toilet pulling up my underwear and running pants in one go. Then I inexplicably put the toilet seat down and flushed. This man had seen me on the toilet from the top of the stairs, walked the six steps to the opened bathroom door, took two steps into the bathroom, and I flushed the fucking toilet. What a well-mannered victim I am.

I knew this man. He was our neighbor from two houses down. He was a farmer and he farmed our land for us. That doesn't mean we saw him often, or really talked to him, just that we were acquainted. I was also acquainted with his son who used to sneak into my kitchen and tap me on the shoulder to scare me. He went to prison for attempted murder of his mother. He hit her in the back of the head with a board after an argument. His prison stay was the calmest 4 years of my village life. He's not any problem now though (knock on wood). He lives back with the mother he tried to kill, but apparently he now suffers from agoraphobia or another similar affliction and stays indoors almost all day.

Back to my bathroom, so my neighbor, a farmer in his 60s, continued his walk into my bathroom asking where my husband was because he needed to talk to him. I, the most polite victim in the world, informed him that he had just left and that I would tell him to call. The neighbor continued his approach, commented that he wished his kobitka wore trousers like mine. Then he licked his lips as I stepped back and finally hit my legs on the bathtub. The buck stopped there at the tub. No more bathroom after the tub, and at that moment I thought to myself - I am not gonna get raped by my sexual deviant neighbor in my own bathroom. No fucking way. 

I plowed through him, got out of the bathroom, and told him to leave. He exited the bathroom and then entered our bedroom and commented on the changes we had made to the house. He did a round through the whole upstairs. It was at this point I noticed he was wearing rubber boots covered in manure (a.k.a. horse shit) that he had tracked all over my bedroom. Keeping things in perspective, I realize that floors covered in horse shit are nothing compared to the potential of being physically and sexually accosted, but still, I had just cleaned.

I walked down the stairs, opened the door, and told him to leave. Here's the kicker. I could have left. I wasn't held hostage in my own home. I could have walked out the door, left him there, and gone to the un-rapey neighbor across the street. He came down the stairs, proceeded to the kitchen and declared his intention to wait. I closed the door, went to the kitchen, took a knife in my hand and sarcastically asked, "Maybe tea?" I called my husband and told him what had happened in English. He told me to leave and that he was on the way. I stayed. I waited in silence while my neighbor proceeded to say disgustingly inappropriate things to me. Me, holding my knife contemplating the depth of the blade versus the puffiness of his jacket. He with his tea, which I made, while clutching my knife. Would my knife go all the way through, I wondered. If I had to defend myself, would I actually hit skin? Killing a neighbor probably wouldn't make me too popular here in our village of 500 people, but then again he was a sexual deviant, maybe my popularity would rise. And anyhow, Crazy Bolek killed two people, and he just went to the special hospital, and everybody started to call him Crazy Bolek. I could live with the shame of the moniker Crazy Chris if it came down to it. I mean it would be self-defense, right? My plans of murder in self-defense almost became plain, old regular murder as my sexual deviant farmer neighbor, noticing that his boots were covered in shit, scraped the shit off on the leg of my kitchen table. At that moment my husband came home sparing the neighbor's life. My husband threw him out and yelled over his shoulder to leave the manure, he would clean it. So nothing happened, right? But it felt like something happened.

The second kicker is that this guy was shocked that my husband threw him out. He couldn't believe that he had frightened me. He was flirting. Flirting? Flirting. Fuck. He...was...flirting. He's still a farmer and most certainly still a sexual deviant. He no longer farms our land and sold the plot directly adjacent to ours. We never see him. We always lock the door now.

Some men in our village beat their women. Some men in the city beat their women, too. This is certainly not exclusive to Poland. Then you get the women who beat their men, and the parents who beat their children. I can only speak of what I know, what's happened to me, and the fact that I made it through the American portion of my life without incident, while the Polish portion sounds like the screenplay for a black humor comedy.

Here in the City, I am very conscious of the terrible stories of domestic violence where the neighbors claim not to have heard a thing, so when I heard our new neighbor sobbing uncontrollably in their bathroom (the only wall we have in common) and screaming for her partner to leave her alone, I decided to pay attention. Ok, I decided to eavesdrop, but it was eavesdropping for a cause. As it turned out, her partner was not beating her and as we learned over the next couple of months may have been the kindest, most understanding guy a girl could have. What did I hear that eased my mind? "Kicia, you don't have to work there if you don't want to. You can march in there tomorrow and quit. Don't cry. We'll be alright." To which she responded, "How can you say that?! You don't understand! You don't understand! Nothing! You understand nothing! I can't do it! I can't go there!" To which he responded with a lot of calm and kind words with a lot of Kicias and Koteks thrown in. These episodes were weekly and the lack of them is how we figured out that those folks had moved out.

That was our next door neighbor upstairs, but the neighbors downstairs had a much more serious incident. It involved a loud argument from apartment 2, threats, sounds of things breaking, and for our friend in apartment 1, the final straw was the scream of "Stop beating me!" Our friend tried to intervene while this lady continued to scream and in the end he broke down their door like in some 1970s cop show only to discover that they were fighting, some things were broken, but that guy wasn't hitting her. He hadn't laid a finger on her. Her dishes were all broken. And what was the result? They were furious with my friend for butting in. Now they have a new baby and everything is cacy. 

Knowing that I am sensitive to train violence, my husband stepped forward in a situation between a man and a woman outside the Wars carriage as we were traveling to Kraków. An older man was molesting an older woman. I don't know how else to describe it. They were struggling. She was yelling at him to leave her alone and stop touching her. He was grabbing her arm and had one hand deep inside her bra. My chivalrous Misiu asked the lady if she needed help to which we found out this was her husband trying to give her a hundred zloty that she didn't want to take. He was attempting to put it in her bra. People are strange.

The latest incident in my village that I know about happened in autumn in public in the middle of the night. The screaming woke people up. It was settled with a couple of other neighbors beating the culprit and not calling the police because the wife and mother would then have been called to task for returning from a party at 1:00 a.m. with a 4-year-old in tow.  Just go to the village shop and listen to some of the men. I know men drinking at the shop are not the best sample of men, but still. The way they talk about their women, dziwka, szmata, kurwa. If any of those ladies heard Stara they'd think it was a romantic gesture. Ask any one of those guys if they beat their women and you'll get the reply - it happens on occasion...and it doesn't end with their women. It naturally extends to their children. Because how else can you shut up that whore bitch of a wife who keeps complaining that you sold the public benefit coal for cash which you drank and now there's no money and the house is cold? True story.

So you are probably wondering about Crazy Bolek. I first heard about Crazy Bolek because after going to the Big House (not really, just to the Crazy House), his family put his house up for sale. Crazy Bolek was permitted to come home for holidays under the care of his family, but they declined for obvious reasons as you will read. Crazy Bolek's house is the last house on the right on Leśna Street which is two streets over parallel to my street. Our house is the last house on the right on our street. We soon began getting visits from people insisting our house was for sale. The Polish people can vouch for me when I tell you that this is an example of a real conversation I had with a complete stranger who stopped by my house.

Random stranger: How much is it going for?
Me: Excuse me? What?
Random stranger: The house. How much?
Me: This house?
Random stranger: Is this your house?
Me: Yes.
Random stranger: How much?
Me: To buy it?
Random stranger: Yes, lady, to buy it.
Me: It's not for sale.
Random stranger: Yes, it is for sale. I asked at the shop.
Me: No, it's not for sale. You're mistaken.
Random stranger: No, you're mistaken. It's for sale. How much would you take for it?
Me: As much money as I would need to buy the same house in the City.
Random stranger: Jesus lady. You're crazy. Nobody will pay that much for this house. You'll never sell it.
Me: BECAUSE IT'S NOT FOR SALE!

I paid a visit to the shop owner after that to discover that it was Crazy Bolek's house for sale and not some conspiracy to drive me out of the village. And then I heard how Bolek became Crazy Bolek. Crazy Bolek lived with his girlfriend and elderly father. One day, his girlfriend committed suicide by hanging herself upstairs in their house. It was a sad event, I'm sure, but the suicide rate in our local area is rather high so not suspicious. Some months later, Crazy Bolek's father bled to death after an unfortunate incident with a straight razor while Bolek was shaving him. It quickly came out that Bolek was the culprit. He also admitted to having strangled his girlfriend and to hanging her to make it look like a suicide. He was sent away, and forever became known as Crazy Bolek in our village.

Signing off,
Crazy Chris, don't underestimate me ;)