One of the perks of being an Afropean is the fact that you can travel through 2 continents feeling at home everywhere you go. However being of African heritage, you sometimes need to have a strength of character when travelling to certain parts of Europe. Not because it is different from the other places one has travelled to but because of the many unfounded prejudices that are masquerading as the mainstream. Or as my friend and colleague puts it, rumour is the enemy of travel!
One of the places which is the object of the worst of rumours is Poland. When one, as a African man is travelling to Poland, the prejudices come out like a plant in the spring. You are reminded by people to be careful because the Polish people are racists and unfriendly. That they don’t like foreigners and might likely do stuff to hurt or harm you!
These rumours are always spread by people who have never been there and who heard the rumours from some other rumourmongers! These people scare you into not going anywhere like they have been scared to believe in their own fear and not in their own hope. So you really have to be strong in character to defy these people and just go and find out about the world (in this case, about Poland) yourself.
This year I went to Zielona Gora, Poland for the 14th time in the last 14 years and I can’t wait for the next visit. As an Afropean travelling to places where people don’t speak your language or even are used to seeing people with dark skin, it is easy to confuse people staring as racists. The fact, however, is that most people look at you in fascination. Many are seeing a black person for the first time in real life. Think of a white person coming to a village in Africa. What do we do? We stare, we point, we sing and sometimes we jest. Do these immediately make us racists and mean? No. Do they make the other person uncomfortable? Yes!
In any case, if you are looking for a friendly, cosy and lively Eastern European city to visit, Zielona Gora should be near the top of your list. This is a city of about 150,000 inhabitants, 150 km away from Berlin , Germany. It has many monuments, places to visit. It is not a huge city and therein lies perhaps its biggest charm. The main city centre is relatively small compared to many West European city centres. You can park your car Monday through Friday for very little till 4 pm after which it is free! Saturdays and Sundays are free 24/7! Oh yeah, did I mention that there are less than 7 African-born people living there?
In the summer there is always a little street concert here and there for you to enjoy. This time around we even stumbled on one that was being held behind an hotel surrounded by some residential apartments!. Maybe that is what makes Zielona Gora fascinating for me. I don’t know where in Western Europe a street party could be held behind an hotel with guests and a block of residential apartment. No local council would have it in their heads to grant any permit because people are less tolerant and everything must be regulated etc. In Zielona Gora, people are more relaxed. It is the closest to Africa you can get in Europe, in terms of mentality. You still see some many communist-era building compete for attention with newly built and colourful houses.. People are just chill! Oh, the 2 deejays at the party we stumbled upon (1 male and 1 female) had a combine age of at least 150! But they kept people dancing!
Thirsty or hungry? There is an abundance of cafes and restaurants serving all kinds of cuisines and drinks. The hotel and accommodation rates are extremely affordable. My personal choice when staying in Zielona Gora is to rent an apartment. Not only is an apartment generally cheaper than a hotel, you also have lots of freedom when it comes to mundane things like cooking your own meal, at a time of your choosing, if you so choose! Or not having to wake up at a certain time to eat breakfast with other hotel guests for example. But eating out is always a great experience!
Best of all, the night life! If you are a black person (or an Afropean) and you really want to feel relaxed and have a good night out, Zielona Gora is the place to be. The music might not be to your taste but the atmosphere at the clubs would certainly make up for anything you might miss. And because the crowd is young and curious, you are probably going to be the magnet of all attention the whole night. People are curious, courteous and want to make friends with you. Sometimes you feel like you are a kind of superstar but the main thing is the fun. If you know and love your drinks, welcome to paradise! If you were observant during the day, you would have noticed small statues of Bacchus doing various things and placed in strategic corners of the city centre. At night, you have so much assortment of drinks to chose from. The pity for me is that I don’t drink alcohol but if you do, you are in a very good company and you can drink a lot for a fraction of what you would spend on this side of Europe! If you go there in September, you will really be in for a treat because it is the time of the Zielona Gora wine festival. Zielona Gora is a vintage wine making/brewing city.
All in all, if you are able to get beyond your preconception and misconceptions and you are not one whose first line of defence and attack is your skin colour, this part of Poland is a must visit. People might look at you but understand, like my friend and colleagues said after experiencing Zielona Gora, people are just racially curious as opposed to being hostile. I will be back again next year!