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Chapter Three

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As the Solidarity spirit sadly faded, pretentious materialistic Western attitudes became fashionable. A young painter named Monika, who I had met in 1989, was way ahead of the learning curve. She was the daughter of a director of the Warsaw Metro, then consisting of only two unfinished stations. Because she was fluent in English, her father appointed her to escort me on a tour of the construction going on underground. The backs of her and the project’s foreman can be seen in the photo I took below:

Warsaw Metro 1989

Inside, Monika showed me stacked paintings that were slashed so severely by a knife that the compositions were unrecognizable. “They are paintings made by my ex-boyfriend,” she said. “I destroyed them!” she proudly proclaimed. 

In a journal that I kept during my first visit to Poland in 1989, I wrote a story about Monika. It served as a harbinger of things to come. In 2006, a passage from this journal was published in, “Warsaw Tales,” a book of short stories and poetry written by foreigners. My contribution, “Cultural Exchange,” describes the experience of being conned by the young woman who had escorted me inside the underground that day, into paying for the evening of a band of gypsies in the city’s Old Town (Stare Miasto). What happened afterward was not published. Monika, who was a painter, escorted me by taxi to her painting studio behind a large two-story house in the countryside, far outside of the city center. Inside, she showed me stacked paintings that were severely slashed by a knife. “They are paintings made by my ex-boyfriend. I destroyed them!” she proudly proclaimed. She then tried to plaster me with vodka but I knew my limits and had my guard up. I felt lucky to get out of there alive!

“Cultural Exchange,” from “Warsaw Tales” can be read by clicking here

Later on, without any notice or explanation, my account of real-life events was excised from the book when it was reprinted. When I asked why, its American editor, James Coon, who resided in Warsaw, could not offer a straight answer. Not satisfied with his lack of explanation, I questioned his motives and found myself banished from the foreign writers group that was associated with the book. I asked myself another question: is censorship even practiced by American writers living in post-communist Poland?

In the end, “Warsaw Tales” did not receive very high praise from the only review I found online, from Sarmatian Review at Rice University in 2006, although it did give thumbs-up to a few noteworthy entries:

Probably the best-that is, containing the funniest and/or most acute observations on life-are the stories by James G. Coon: “The Man Upstairs,” “Job Takes a Bath,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “The Carpet Beaters,” as well as Brenda Goodwin’s “A Quiet Night” and Frederick Abrams’ “Cultural Exchange.” (Click here for the full review)

Brenda Goodwin’s contribution was also removed from the revised book, leaving only the praised selections written by the book’s editor.

More than ten years after meeting Monika, I bumped into her at Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art. When I informed her that a solo exhibition of my work had been recently presented there, she haughtily responded: “That’s nothing! My artworks are in galleries in Cologne, Paris and New York!”

That evening by chance I saw her again, this time working as a bartender in a dingy bohemian underground club. Maybe the best artwork she ever had to show was slashed to shreds long ago?

How Poland had quickly changed as I endured such a snobbish put down, but this time coming from a Polish artist trashing her poor country, just as I had heard years before from a bourgeois French art collector.

In the underground cathedral, where hope never fades, one perseveres even if never repaid. Hope springs eternal and the first line of the Warsaw Metro finally opened in 1995. During its last legs of construction, I traveled to independent video-film festivals in other parts of Europe, where my videos were being awarded, which gave me badly needed renewed inspiration.


Even then, the strangest things happened that made me wonder if there was anything I could do that would not be met with more obstruction. I traveled to Warsaw to fly to Lisbon for the presentation of my film that had recently won Grand Prize in Clermont-Ferrand, France. When I arrived at the airport in the morning, I learned that no planes were allowed to depart due to foggy weather. Told to return to the airport the next morning, I took the airport bus back to the city-center where I got pickpocketed by several thugs in front of its final stop at the Marriott Hotel, directly across from the central train station. Both my wallet and passport were stolen.

It was the second time that this happened on the same bus number 175. Just my luck, inside of a gift shop at the Marriot, I read in a local English language tourist guide to beware of bus number 175, the bus to and from the airport.

Twice such thieves also trapped me on trains with long narrow corridors next to enclosed cabins. In both cases, as I entered the train, someone would approach me from the front blocking my passage, while someone else would sandwich me from behind as their hands expertly infiltrated my bags and pockets. The same happened to me once in the touristic Barrio Gothico of Barcelona, though there thieves did their dirty work in full view of the public. Several times I witnessed blonde women become their victims. In one instance I ended up the one who was robbed while warning two blonde women from Rotterdam, who were sitting next to me in an outdoor cafe. A shoulder bag containing my wallet and all money on my person was taken. When I asked the two women if they could help me with some spare change to get home to retrieve my passport so I could report the crime to the police, they refused me, assuming that I was part of a set up. 

From Spain to Poland I learned some intriguing lessons about the dynamics of racial profiling. In Poland I was a pimp, in Barcelona the ringleader of pocket thieves, while I was the one being robbed! Most of the petty street thieves were North Africans and nearly all of them, like me, had dark curly hair. One balmy summer evening while strolling down the famous walk street of the Barrio Gothico known as the Ramblas, I was accosted by a policeman, who frisked me and forced me into a paddy wagon with no windows, where I encountered four other men. One was Italian, one Mexican, two Moroccan. All of us were under suspicion for only one reason: we all had dark curly hair. In Poland my dark curly hair made me a target of light-haired and skin-headed thugs.

From such a costly empirical education, I became acutely aware that the train station pick pockets tended to lurk in Gdansk and Warsaw. I learned the hard way not only to avoid Warsaw airport buses but to never take a taxi from the street that lacked an illuminated phone number on top of its hood. These are known as “radio taxis,” which one can easily call for by telephone. Among the cars without prominently displayed phone numbers was a mafia ring that would frequently quadruple the price on a naive foreigner.


None of this stopped me from continuing to pursue a sense of mission, to live up to the spirit of cultural exchange that had led my strange destiny to Poland. There is no end to the wonders of discovering different cultures, be it food, art, literature, film, music, theatre, traditions and habits of pocket thieves. At the video festivals I attended, I asked other filmmakers of various nationalities, whose short films I liked, to send me copies which I planned to show in Poland. In so doing, I built up a collection and, by train, I toured culture and arts centers around the country, where I presented these films under the title: “Some Films You Will Never Otherwise See.” I showed them twice at “Galeria Entropia” in Wrocław, at the Gdansk Centre for Contemporary Art, Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions (BWA) in Zeilona Góra and a culture venue called Klub Mózg in Bydgoszcz.

Among the films was “Performance Anxiety” by David “Preacher” Ewing, which had won the award for short films by Canal Plus at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. I knew Ewing in Venice, California and he invited me to attend the festival while I was living in Barcelona. Some of the films I presented were humorous, most of them aimed to address a controversial topic. Origins of the filmmakers were from Indonesia, Norway, Sweden, Canada, England, Peru, Holland, Greece, Georgia, France, Poland and the US.

One day, I ran into a former older female student who said to me, ‘Don’t you know? This is a typical Slavic game, that women will play with the feelings of men to provoke jealousy.’

If cultural exchange was my purpose, rather than face the relentless obstacles to sharing my own work, here I was presenting films of others. And yet, it even occurred when I attempted to show a film by a Pole, as it was censored just prior to its screening in the city of Bydgoszcz. Gwałt (Rape), by Marcin Aziukiewicz, won the Bronze award at the 2001 Poznań International Film Festival, which I attended. It is based on a true story of a young woman living in the countryside, who was brutally raped and nearly murdered while hitchhiking to buy a dress in a the nearby town. Warned by her family and fiancé about the dangers of going alone, confirming their worst fears, she was abducted and brutalized by two drunken men. While recovering in the hospital, her fiancé was the last person close to her to drop by, at which time he informed her that the wedding was off. “Do you have any idea what people in town are saying about you?” he asked.

I had heard enough through the grapevine of what people were saying about me. Censorship of that film could not have been more symbolic. I contemplated leaving Poland for good, but no longer knew what to do or where to go. I had been living in the country for five years and had found a stable living arrangement in an apartment building with a rare beautiful bay window view overlooking a park and the moat that once surrounded a medieval city (see the slide show of this here). This was thanks to the good fortune of encountering an elderly landlord named Jerzy, who treated me almost like a part of his family. Such angels made it hard to walk away, as I still envisioned so much opportunity in the rapidly developing country. At the same time, my first website, “The Underground Cathedral,” was being beautifully designed and completed by a brilliantly talented young Polish web developer. Through all of the hardships and struggles, it had become an obsession to participate in the sometimes perversely fascinating rebirth of a country, while so many Poles, including my web developer, were abandoning ship for better lives and better opportunity elsewhere.


Simultaneously, another call to me for the sake of cultural exchange was emerging. Until the end of the communist system, Poles were forced to learn Russian as a second language. The better educated ones sometimes learned French or English and I found this to be particularly true in the arts. On the western side of the country where I resided, it was more common that Poles learned German.

Not only was it imperative to find a means of steady income in this difficult transformative time, but more young Poles were learning English as the economy became westernized, admission to the European Union being only a few years away. Suddenly, I was being pulled in various directions to help Poles learn or improve on their English skills, to aid them in correcting poorly translated texts into English language and to serve as the English narrator of promotional films. There were several reasons for such needs as business continually grew between east and west. Medical tourism was one of the industries that began to grow and there were idyllic health spas that were far less expensive than in nearby Germany.

Requests for my services became frequent. It was a good thing, because I was in desperate need of respite from the wars of cultural exchange. I accepted the opportunities coming my way as a temporary detour, when native English speakers were suddenly in great demand, but in rare supply. I thus became an English tutor, while I aided Polish translators who often required assistance. No matter how fluent Poles were in English, I rarely saw a translation from Polish language into English that was free of commonplace grammatical errors such as improper usage of the articles, a, an and the, which don’t exist in Slavic languages. There were even books of English grammar written by Poles that perpetuated commonly made errors.

I often thought of my favorite childhood TV cartoon show, Rocky and Bullwinkle, about a squirrel and mouse who were always combatting demonic plots of the Russian-like spy duo of Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, from the nation of Pottsylvania:

With relative ease, I was able to attract private students by placing classified ads in a local newspaper. Also, I was hired part-time to teach the workers at the city’s cultural affairs information office in the Market Square, at a business language school and occasionally at private company offices. When tutoring one-on-one, I tailored my vocabulary lessons according to personal needs, be it medical, legal or tourist English. What I enjoyed most of all was working with students who were fluent by exposing to them colloquialisms, idioms, sports slang and essentially anything that one would likely never learn in school. He got bamboozled and lost his shirt, while playing it by ear but no harm no foul. Of course, one of the most popular subjects many students wanted to learn was vulgarisms. Speaking of cultural exchange, of all places, in an LA bookstore during a visit home I found a tiny Polish-English dictionary of Polish obscenities. Oddly, some of the phrases the pocket-sized booklet contains were not known by my students, hence the vulgarisms that they learned were from their own language. Słuchaj głowy, a nie dupy! (Listen to your head, not your ass). Of course, this was invaluable vocabulary for me as well, especially if I ever needed to talk to a burdelmama (madam of a brothel) whenever I needed some advice for my side business!. I taught English conversation for about two years and it was the most uneventful, drama-free, enjoyable time that I spent living in Wrocław.

For once, I felt a tinge of stability, however, even then, the signs were on the wall that I was too blind to see. As I taught English to many people, who were trying to improve their lot in life, I often served as a tool for Poles wishing to leave their country for better opportunities in the West. My doctor, for one, left not only the clinic that he owned, but his family as well, to work in Ireland. He told me that the bureaucratic burdens he faced every day were so overwhelming that it had destroyed his raison d’être as a physician. These words would come back to haunt me a few years down the road.


Perhaps the biggest bonus of all from teaching was that I struck up a relationship with a student, only to discover that I could not even stroll with her in the Market Square without various men, who knew her, making trouble afterward. This had become a pattern as several times I had met women only later to receive threatening phone calls from jealous boyfriends. How did they obtain my phone number, I wondered?

Whatever was served, the empty plate always remained empty.

One day, I ran into an older former female student who said to me, “Don’t you know? This is a typical Slavic game that women play to provoke jealousy with their boyfriends.” Although this was not always the woman’s fault, as I learned all too well, in the minds of many Polish women, intense jealousy proved that their men truly loved them.

Such provocations were not limited to boyfriends and ex-boyfriends. It also became rote that I would receive Christmas invitations to homes of women or to spend New Year’s Eve with them, only to have the football pulled away each time I was about to kick the ball. One female student of mine, who had previously lived in the US for three years, told me that her mother would not allow me to enter her home because I had no plans to marry her. God forbid.

Poles have a tradition of setting an empty plate at the Christmas dinner table in front of an empty chair, its significance being an intended place at the table for someone who has nowhere to go to celebrate the traditionally festive annual family holiday. Several times I received invitations from male friends, for which I was very grateful, but when the invitations came from women, I usually found myself at the 11th hour facing the holiday alone. One time I walked through the snow to the apartment of a family which had invited me and came across a pretty young woman standing alone, outside in the middle of a barren piece of land I was crossing. I asked her if she spoke English, which she did, and she told me that she had just lost her boyfriend, had no family in town and had nowhere to go. I couldn’t invite her to the home of a family I hardly knew myself but she followed me and once I was inside, she knocked on the door. I was rather heartbroken when they refused to let her in. I suppose that the empty plate always remained empty, otherwise it would be an unacceptable break with tradition.

In one rare instance, a woman who had a crooked nose invited me to her home in a small Polish town about two hours away by train, kept her word. She had a party for her friends, son and brother, which I attended. However, her mother, who lived next door, refused to join us due to my presence and that of her best female friend, because she was also an artist. In a small Polish town, we artists are personas non gratis no matter where we are from! Humiliated by the situation, she apologized by explaining to me why her nose was deformed. Her father, also living next door with her mother, was an alcoholic, and once he hit her so hard in the face that he broke it. That did not, obviously, persuade her mother to leave him. Over time such circumstances proved not to be so uncommon. Whenever I was confronted with such a terribly uncomfortable situation, I was reminded of an article from the front page of The International Herald Tribune that was published back in 1998. It is about a billboard campaign in Warsaw that for the first time confronted covert male violence against women that was pervasive in Polish society. As the article explained, a typical pattern of male protectiveness of women was a guise for pathological jealousy that frequently resulted in physical abuse, from which women had no escape. Not only is divorce not allowed according to strict Catholic orthodoxy, but most women could not possibly afford striking out on their own, on top of which they would fear becoming ostracized. According to the article:

Domestic violence is becoming a public issue in Poland, a nation where the sanctity of the family is of almost mythical importance and where most homes are organized along patriarchal lines. An often quoted Polish proverb says, “If a man does not beat his wife, her liver rots.” 

Click here to read the full article: “An Awakening in Poland,” May 9, 1998.

Female liver-rotting must have been a contagious disease, for the only liver-rotting that I was personally aware of, was in the form of male self-abuse caused by excessive drinking. 

Most foreign men I knew of living in Wrocław, who had Polish girlfriends or wives, met them outside of Poland. I came to conjecture that this odd phenomenon was because once away from home, the women were free of overt jealousies and stigmas for being open to foreign men. More and more men from abroad began coming to Poland in search of loyal, traditional wives, an oft-true cliche about Eastern European women, which was hard to come by in the modernized West. Some were also attracted by the fact that Poland was a cheap place to drink and party as an intense late night club scene was blossoming in the larger cities. By the time I had lived in Poland for a few years, the marketing of Eastern European women on the Internet had became an industry, much of it filled with deception, otherwise known as “scamming.” The tricks of “scammers” are easy to suss out once one knows how the con game works, but I have heard numerous stories of unsuspecting individuals who had paid terribly in countless ways. As an article from the Federal Trade Commission succinctly explains:

They profess their love quickly. And they tug at your heartstrings with made-up stories about how they need money — for emergencies, hospital bills, or travel. Why all of the tricks? They’re looking to steal your money.

Click here for the entire article: 

Faking it — scammers’ tricks to steal your heart and money,” July 15, 2015

I came to feel that I existed in a time warp, in comparison to younger foreigners who came to Poland 10 to 20 years later than I did. If they weren’t there partying as participants in a student exchange program, they usually taught their native language, as I did, though with no larger ambition. It was another story for those who were sent abroad as directors of multinational companies stationed in Wrocław. Some came with their wives, while others tied the knot with Polish women, surely whose families were delighted that their daughters were marrying the heads of foreign-owned corporate enterprises. I was an oddball, a Californian artist invited to Poland at a revolutionary moment in history, the glory having long since worn off, my art career having come to a standstill and something had to give.

All I knew was that I needed to make a big change in my life, if I planned on staying and didn’t want to grow old spending more Christmas Eves alone, or being the lost outsider invited to homes of sympathetic friends and their families. 


Something then happened that I had never experienced before: I completely lost the passionate artistic inspiration that had always driven me, as if it were an alien spirit, which had invaded me long ago and had suddenly been exorcised from my soul. I actually found that it was a kind of relief not to have to constantly invent something new and to be at the affect of others deciding my destiny, but where was it all leading me to?

I felt like a foreigner facing xenophobic reactions, this time in my own country. 

My entire sense of purpose having gone up in flames, it seemed that it was finally time to leave. I flew to New York, where I had lived during the mid 1980s, and stayed there for a few days. My plan was to backtrack to everywhere I had lived in the US, sussing out where I might want to land permanently. While there, I visited Ground Zero on the 3rd anniversary of 9/11 and took a number of unsettling photos. Quickly, I recognized that the spirit of Americans had radically changed as well, since the terrible event two years earlier.

American flags flew on nearly every home in Queens, where I briefly stayed. Paranoia was so thick in the air that a long time friend, who invited me to stay with him, locked me out of his apartment. That morning we went to breakfast and he never spoke to me while he was plugged into his ear buds, listening to talk radio nonstop. I might as well have gone to eat by myself. Years later a long time mutual friend confirmed for me that his company for breakfast, in my presence, was extremist right-wing hot-headed conspiracy theorist wingnut, Rush Limbaugh. I was not at all prepared for the immense paranoia that was behind such a rude return home greeting. Afterward, we made plans to meet uptown in the city. I took the wrong train and ended up on the west-side when we agreed to meet on the east-side, or was it the other way around? I couldn’t figure it out then and I will never know now. A new cell phone that I bought that day did not have a charged battery and I could not reach his phone, so I took the A-Train back to Queens. It was dark when I arrived, no light on inside of his apartment window and there was no answer when I tried to call from downstairs on his intercom. Not knowing what to do, I found an electrical outlet inside of the foyer of another nearby apartment building where a doorman sitting downstairs let me inside after I explained my dilemma. I sat on the floor while charging my new phone and finally called my friend, who was inside of his apartment all of the time with no lights on and said that I had deliberately snubbed him, for what reason, Limbaugh-only-knows. Finally, he let me in after I spent half an hour pleading with him. This was my first taste of a post-9/11 reality back home, inventing paranoid conspiracy theories a new disease with no known cure that was on the verge of reaching epidemic proportions.

Welcome home! I felt like a foreigner facing xenophobic reactions, this time in my own country! It must have been the dark curly hair.

Oddly, it seemed that everywhere I went in New York I was being haunted by Poles, for there were scribblings by them on mural-sized posters, reminding the world that they were there. Here are close-ups of the two background slideshow images, which are typical examples. One is a large wall mural at Ground Zero with the names of two Poles written on the hand of the saluting soldier. The name of another Pole from the city of Radom, is written below on the soldier’s uniform. In the other case, someone from the Baltic Sea town of Gydnia wrote, “I am Polish” on a subway poster and it appears that someone else jokingly changed “Polish” to “polished.” I never once saw such territorial graffiti from someone saying that they were from Russia, Ukraine, Zambia or even California, for that matter.


Afterward, I returned to the west coast, saw old friends and family, and tried to make sense out of what to do next. While making up for lost time by devouring delicious greasy tacos that cannot be found abroad, I received an e-mail from a Polish friend named Darek, who said he was planning on opening a Mexican restaurant in Wrocław. We had discussed this a few years before, with the idea of coordinating a three or four person partnership, but the plan never materialized. Darek had rare knowledge of Mexican food that few Poles possessed because he had spent 8 years during adolescence growing up in Texas. Poland was on the verge of becoming a member of the European Union and this gave me the impetus to return, this time with a business venture in mind. The game plan was that the business would become my source of income, while I would continue to pursue my artistic ambitions. In the world of business, I assumed, with a more business-savvy Polish partner by my side, I would not encounter the sort of manipulations that I did in the art world.

It was not long after my return to Poland that Darek decided that opening up a Mexican restaurant was not a great idea. He said he wanted to do something far simpler: to manufacture tortillas to sell in mass throughout Poland. Mexican food was just beginning to become popular and for the first time a few commercial products, such as flour tortillas, canned refried beans and salsa appeared in supermarkets. Most foreign food, other than Italian, was still rare to come by, but sushi bars and Korean restaurants began to pop up, due to the influx of Asians engaging in the building of large business headquarters, such as LG, Toshiba and Toyota.

I searched for companies in the US and Mexico that manufactured tortilla-making machines, but then it dawned on me that the last thing I ever cared to face again was being trapped in a post-communist society with imported equipment that could not be repaired. This is when I turned to another business plan, that had been on my mind for years. As Poland joined the EU, the idea struck me to import wine as import duties became more relaxed. Until then, purchasing quality imported wines was too costly and complicated.

Darek, who had experience running a bakery company, claimed to have all of the contacts and knowledge to make a go of a business in the food and beverage industry. However, I ended up having to do almost everything by myself. From that point, I started searching around Wrocław for a garage or storage space to keep an inventory of wine, only to learn that there were only limited areas of the city where keeping and selling alcohol was legal. Then one day, I met a salesman from Pakistan, who had spent 10 years as the owner of an import business in Warsaw. He said to me, “You are an artist. Why don’t you open a place that sells wine that is also a center for artistic and cultural activities? But don’t try to do it in Warsaw,” he said. “They will eat you alive here! Go back to Wrocław, where costs are lower and opening your business will be much easier.”

Shortly after, I made a return trip to Barcelona, where I picked up a magazine containing an article about the best Spanish wines selling for less than 10 euros. When I returned to Wrocław, I wrote to some of the winemakers, who sent me sample bottles and I hosted wine tasting events to test which wines would be most sellable. Afterward, I organized a return to Spain, this time to visit the winemakers whose wines appeared to be most sellable. I left in advance without Darek, arranged an elaborate itinerary and set everything up for both of us and his wife, who he said would be coming as well. For days I panicked as Darek failed to answer either my phone calls or e-mails. With no idea what to do, on the day of the planned journey, he sent me an e-mail claiming that he had bought a used car in Germany that broke down on the Autobahn when coming home and that he couldn’t make it to Spain.

That spilled the end of my new partnership with the friend, who had persuaded me to return to Poland. Thankfully, with my long time friend, architect Xavier Nieto (see the page about his visit to Wrocław in 2005 by clicking here), I toured remote villages of the Spanish wine country, in search of rare gems to import into Poland. Suddenly, I was on my own, starting a business in a post-communist country. Onwards I traveled, driving through the remote countryside in obscure wine regions of Spain, where I met with wine producers, who were creating award-winning wines sold for remarkably low prices, while relying on state-of-the-art technology. Here is a short film I made for my new business. The subject is my take, from an artist’s perspective, on the process of bottling and packaging wines in the regions of Jumilla and La Mancha:

When I returned again to Wrocław, I hired a young assistant, who had just graduated from the local economics university. With his help, I obtained necessary documents, which required submerging into a labyrinth of bureaucratic office crawling. He insisted that he had the necessary knowledge to start a required Polish limited liabilities company. As I would learn many times both then and down the road, there is no substitute for real-life experience, especially where there was no operative manual to go by in a rebuilding post-communist society. 

Eventually, I managed to obtain business documents formalizing the creation of a Polish corporation, which I named, “Vino-to-Go.” This was ridiculously demanded of anyone starting even a small business, who was not a citizen of an EU country. I began to search for a location for the business, when a knowledgeable Polish businessperson, who organized large social events for Wrocław’s business world, warned me that many of the local landlords tricked tenants into investing heavily in their property. Afterward, they would boot out their tenants and even take over their business model once it was established. A vision of ominous clouds appeared in my head, as had happened years ago, when I read Frank Zappa’s autobiography. Soon enough, I was to discover that the survival tactics I had already learned, had in no way prepared me for the huge can of worms that would inevitably open, upon stubbornly continuing to pursue my odyssey of cultural exchange.

Click here for Chapter Four: Cilanthrophobia