Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum
I went for a walk in Amsterdam with a German friend of mine. In the De Balie quarter we came across a sort of classicistic arcade attached to the typical seventeenth century architecture. The arch bore the following words, engraved in a beautiful font: Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum, which translates as follows: a sensible man does not pee against the wind. We stood there stunned by this slogan above our heads. My friend commented that had this arch been built in Germany it would most certainly have been adorned by a quote from Goethe, some wise aphorism. I was sure that in Poland it would be engraved with a quotation from the Pope. But this was an example of sheer Dutch pragmatism.
We agreed that we both seem to belong to nations that are familiar with peeing against the wind.
Road Traffic, Amsterdam style
I observed a strange scene from my window. A policeman encouraged a docile group of Japanese tourists to cross the road at a red light. There were no cars in sight at all. The disorientated Japanese followed his advice and ran across the street obediently, though without much confidence. An hour later the queen was on her way to a nearby church and her limousine had to stop at the same crossing. The limousine happened to block the tram rails eliciting an angry hoot from the impatient tram driver.
The statue of a prostitute was unveiled on a sunny Sunday afternoon right by the Oude Kerk church. The small bronze figure of a woman leaning on a street lamp is meant to remind people of this profession, allegedly the oldest, yet embarrassing and ignored. It is also to remind them of female slavery, sexual abuse, the demonisation of sex and the downplaying of the problem. However, the ceremony itself was cheerful. A brass band played and there were crowds of prostitutes of both genders as well as representatives of their trade unions. There were also families with children, some busybodies like myself and a few tourists. Leaflets on safe sex were handed out, some in the form of children’s fairytales. Right by the church there was a special contraption where one could learn how to put on a condom.
Finally, as the brass band, adding splendour to the occasion, was marching around the church it came across a couple of newlyweds coming out of Oude Kerk following their wedding ceremony. The band spontaneously treated the newlyweds to a concert playing with the same ardour with which it performed for the sex workers. For a moment the two processions joined and merged with one another.
The Animal Protection Party
In the 2006 elections the Dutch Animal Protection Party gained two seats in parliament, in the first such case in the history of world democracies. Thanks to these two seats the party was able to pass a law banning people from rearing animals for fur. I wonder if my great grandchildren will ever have a chance to vote for such a party in Poland. Supposing in a hundred years there is still such a thing as Poland and such a thing as elections.
My dreadlocks are very popular here, especially with blacks. Every now and then someone stops me with a smile asking if I’m married to an African. I explain with a smile that dreadlocks are not really a Rastafarian or African invention. I bring up the term Polish tangle which is well documented in reports by travellers who visited our country in the seventeenth century. At that time the tangle was a widespread phenomenon, known all over Europe as plica polonica and generally associated with Poland. In a certain sense we can be proud to have introduced this hairstyle to Europe. Plica polonica should be added to the list of our inventions, alongside crude oil, pierogi and vodka.
A foreigner who has been struggling to learn Polish congratulated me on the attention our country devotes to animals, especially dogs. I did not understand what he meant.
So he explained very carefully that he noticed these special traffic signs on Polish roads saying Piesi [piesi in Polish means pedestrians; pies, plural psy, means dogs] and that he had never seen such a thing anywhere else in the world. At the same time nowhere will you find so many stray dogs running around. He thought it was extremely nice and humane to warn drivers to look out for dogs; after all, so many of the poor animals end up under wheels of cars every day. Until then he thought we were not particularly sensitive to the rights of animals and even irresponsible with regard to domestic animals. He illustrated this with the example of feral cats he observed from the window of his student residence every day and of chained dogs in Polish villages, something that in his country is regarded as a crime. That is why he really appreciated this small breakthrough in our mentality and the fact that we had placed such traffic signs on our roads. It was with the utmost regret that I had to explain to him that he had misunderstood the sign.
Once, feeling hungry as I was walking down the pedestrian district in Zielona Góra, I stopped two men and asked them where one could get an inexpensive vegetarian meal around here. I had had enough of pierogi that we plant-eaters are force-fed in most establishments. It took them some time to consider my expectations; obviously, I was demanding too much.
– Inexpensive – said the first.
– Vegetarian – repeated the other, scratching his beard.
Finally they looked at each other and the first one said:
– The nearest place might be in Berlin.
Translation: Julia Sherwood
This article was originally published in Polish in the Polityka on 15, September 2009.