No Polish Jokes

travelers-tales

By Lance Mason

An unscripted chapter at sea.

I’d looked forward to this day since the previous New Zealand winter, when I bought the boat ticket in Dunedin. Now it was August again, and I found myself at the Antwerp dockyards about to board a small, rust-encrusted Polish Ocean Lines freighter, the Czaszki, for a two-week voyage to Venezuela, the fabled land of Simón Bolívar, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear” (starring Yves Montand), and, in years to come, several Miss Universe winners. It would be our first stop after crossing the Atlantic, and my blood stirred with the thrill and apprehension of the unknown.

From Venezuela, in the coming weeks, my trail would lead to Martinique in the Lesser Antilles, controlled, with a shrug, by the French, and I would island-hop up the Caribbean on the final leg of a two-year journey around the world. Jimmy Carter would be elected President as I motorcycled through Oklahoma, and I would be back at my parents’ home in California before Thanksgiving. Yet, there in the summer of ’76, I was reluctant to leave Belgium, perhaps one of the few people who were in love with it. Cycling champion Eddy Merckx was a native, Ludlum and Forsyth set cunning tales of elegant spies and gunsmiths there, and poets had long lamented the dead of Flanders’ fields. True, Belgium wasn’t the South of France or Ibiza or the Dalmatian Coast. Antwerp, nonetheless, gripped my heart.

It was actually Lieve Goossens, the blonde, lovely-natured, well-assembled daughter of a burgher-like Flemish family, who gripped my heart. I had had the gold-plated good fortune to meet her on a German train from Frankfurt to Brussels, both of us changing for Antwerp. She was returning from holidays in Austria with her little brother and a cousin, but trois Boche in uniform, barely out of high school and drunk, were harassing her in the railcar passageway, making clowns of themselves, as only Germans can. I gave the three soldiers my best Lee Van Cleef scowl, and they slunk away. Lieve made some grateful remark on behalf of herself and her charges, and I polished my resumé with some Shucks-it-wasn’t-much American patois. She smiled almost bashfully, and the next thing I knew, Lieve was mine—and I was hers. She offered, and I gratefully accepted, bed and board at the family manse, and even her father came to like me—well, to dislike me less than he would have disliked the Germans.

Now I was passionately enmeshed with a Flemish girl, but the clock was ticking. The Czaszki would weigh anchor as soon as its Venezuela cargo was loaded and the holds battened. We would sail via the Bay of Biscay, sliding down Europe’s western seaboard. Next stop Lisbon, then the Atlantic crossing. As the song had it, my bags were packed and I was ready to go—and then I saw my cabin.

Chipped layers of stark, white paint covered more layers of white paint on every square centimeter of every surface in the room except the water taps and a foam mattress that was fitted into a bunk under the porthole. To the right of the bunk was a lavatory—toilet, sink, shower stall, shower curtain hanging from overhead pipes. To the left was a built-in desk table and small bookcase. A dingy space, to be sure, but I’d slept in worse—on a steamer out of Pago Pago, in a dosshouse in Delhi, in Mena and Bena’s Bar and Grill in Nepal’s Ghorepani Pass (each a story of its own).

Lieve heaved her shoulders and smiled noncommittally at the base surroundings, as if my accepting such rude appointments downgraded my potential as a lifelong lover. I suppose I felt resentment for that. Not—God forbid—toward Lieve, who had treated me like the Crown Prince of Lichtenstein, but toward Polish Ocean Lines, for disappointing her. I would have traded good shoes for another night ashore with Mademoiselle Goossens, but if I disembarked now and sailing orders arrived, the Czaszki would leave on the next tide. I’d miss the boat, literally, with no transport to Venezuela, Caribbean ports of call, or Florida. Critically, I couldn’t be late into Florida, for another sweetheart was meeting me there.

Irrepressibly lovely Lieve knew about the other date, and I was happy that she knew. This new heartthrob, you see, was a motorcycle, and anything but new. A 1950 ES2 Norton, a 500cc pushrod single, it had surfaced in Wales. I had restored in Wiltshire, rode it through Europe, and then put it on a Dutch freighter in Rotterdam for Jacksonville, where I’d pick her up for the ride home to California.

My luggage was spare—backpack, writing materials, a “personal bible”—but adequate for the voyage to Portugal, then across to South America, to the small port of Guanta, between Caracas to the west and Guyana to the east. My bible was Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the de riguer, consciousness-bending adventure for all 28-year-olds at the time. I still think it’s packed with truth.
Lieve and I said our hefty, grappling goodbyes, the diesels churned, and, in the small hours, the propellers pushed the Czaszki off Antwerp’s docks and toward the open sea. At breakfast, I met the man on whose ship I would spend the next two weeks at sea.

A sketch of the captain is apropos. He was six feet, dark, bony rather than lean, about fifty-five, with black hair full but trimmed, gray at the temples. His white officer’s hat sported a traditional black-patent bill and crusts of gold braid. His hands were long-fingered and thin, his eyes coal-gray and closed to intimacy. Though swarthy, he wore a patchy beard that put the doubt to his virility. He was never seen out of his cabin without his black tunic-like officer’s jacket and tie. I didn’t think so at the time, but today I would be surprised by the fact that he wore no spectacles.

The reader may fairly ask how I came to travel by sea on this leg of my journey, and that deserves some answers, too.

Today the Web lets you book circumnavigations from the seat of your Herman Miller Aeron, but world travel in 1976 still had a great deal of “world” to it. Guidebooks were few and far between simply because where you were going, visitors were few and far between. Knowledge was slow to get out. You just went. What you found when you got there was what was there, not much changed from when nobody went there. Back then, before electrified humanity became media-supersaturated, you could have the very real, very tangible experience of departing from “the known” into “the unknown,” and no one heard from you or knew where you were until you got out.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t easy to roam the untrammeled Fields of Eden—or even the trammeled ones. Many out-of-the-way destinations had restrictive visa regulations and entry requirements. For example, an American couldn’t buy an air ticket from New Zealand (where I was living) to Australia (my next destination) without an Australian entry visa. I had to write a visa-request letter to Australia’s High Commission in Wellington, NZ, and only after I got a visa could I buy a ticket for Australia. Furthermore, I couldn’t even apply for that visa without a ticket to leave Australia; this prevented “dole-bludging loopies” or “stateless wankers” getting into the Lucky Country. So, since my next target was Bali, in Indonesia, I needed a ticket out of Australia to Bali to qualify for the visa to get into Australia. No surprise that Indonesia required an entry visa, so I first had to write to their embassy and apply for one, and had to carry or mail my passport to them for the visa stamp, with a Xerox copy of the famous exit ticket out of Indonesia. To where? Somewhere that required an exit ticket before they would issue an entry visa. Getting the picture?

It was an Alice-in-Wonderland daisy-chain in reverse, and here was the drill if one were living in New Zealand in those days: Break out the National Geographic world map and find one’s farthest destination for which a visa was needed, say Venezuela. Buy an air ticket from Caracas to America (I needed no visa), write the Venezuelan Embassy in Wellington with a visa request and a Xerox of said ticket. Once the visa arrives, buy the tickets into Venezuela and out of the country to be visited before Venezuela. Keep backtracking this way until all the countries are covered between one’s final destination (in my case, the US) and one’s starting point (New Zealand).

It wasn’t all the letter-writing and ticket-copying that was aggravating. That was part of the art of travel, really, of life. It was that all the travel had to be planned in advance. You couldn’t just leave with a backpack and some money in your pocket. All your steps had to be laid down before you left. If you wavered from the designated path and found yourself at some congested border bazaar infested with feverish tourists seeking the road to Mandalay, you risked a red-tape Gordian knot to get through to the back of beyond.

Nonetheless, it was possible to fool “them,” possible to evade the mapped, programmed, and predictable. Accomplishing that often took a lucky mistake, a chance meeting with a gracious person, or a civil war, and I fell into some of these more times than I have fingers and toes. Barging off into the unexpected could be arranged, and sometimes even pre-arranged—especially if you took to the sea. The Czaszki, then, became my simple escape from the semi-Orwellian bureaucracy. I boarded with no entry visa for Venezuela.

Cargo ships carried a maximum of twelve passengers (more required a doctor), and we were nine—a young German family from the Mosel, two German matrons visiting relations, the daughter of the Chief Engineer, and me. Meals onboard were always taken at the same table, with the same tablemates. My dining companions would remain unchanged, three meals a day for two weeks. They were the First Mate, the captain, and the Chief Engineer (who never explained why he didn’t dine with his daughter, and resembled the old Hollywood movie spy, Oskar Homulka).

Our table was square, with four chairs—wooden, straight-backed, no cushions—all fixed on the mess-room deck with small brass fittings, and the tabletop was edged with a polished metal strip. The same lino, the color of dried blood, covered both the table and the flooring of the deck.

Though he treated me with a neutral respect as the days went by, the captain had disapproved of me from the start. My beard-swaddled face and unkempt, Swiss Army Knife-haircut, though boyishly charming to Lieve and her mother, were not “shipshape,” as my father would’ve said. Nor were my tie-dyed and Indian-embroidered hippie shirts, Nepalese topi, New Zealand boots, and multi-patched corduroy walking shorts. Still, we coexisted, the captain and I. He even hoisted a glass of wine on my birthday (September 8, Feast of the Blessed Virgin; most Poles are mackerel-snappers), but I also believe he encouraged unfettered conversation between the First Mate and me, the fallout from which shall be revealed.

The Mate spoke the best English among the ship’s personnel. The captain and the Chief Engineer spoke none, or, if they did, didn’t reveal it. Wojtek the radioman, his dark features theatrical on his long, thin face, spoke “navigator’s English” and wore black Bakelite headphones like Radar in “MASH.” The ship’s call sign, P.A.T.Z., could be heard within earshot of the radio room, night or day, if Wojtek was broadcasting our position or querying sailing orders.

“Papa Alpha Tango Zulu! Papa Alpha Tango Zulu!” Wojtek would shout into the mic, grinning with delight at the outbursts, as if they were expletives of freedom thrown into the face of one’s criminal captors. This was in the depths of the Cold War, with Ford in the White House, Brezhnev and Kosygin in the Kremlin, and Poland controlled from Moscow. The Poles hated the Russians, a hatred that burned not like a candle, but like an acetylene torch, with a pointed, blue-hot fervor. Maybe Wojtek thought using English was the perfect way to insult Poland’s political masters in their chess game with America.

I was blind to politics, clueless. The last two years I’d spent teaching, trout-fishing, and playing rugby in New Zealand, and then backpacking around the world. I no more grasped the truth of “suffering behind the Iron Curtain” than I did the 19th-century reign of King Ludwig of Bavaria or the underlying causes of famine in Africa. Bad news from the dark corners was slow and cryptic, and discomforting to the comfortable. It was easy, and easier, not to know.

I’m not sure that this state of affairs, or these affairs of state, didn’t play a role in the captain’s veiled disdain for me. I was an American on his ship, a citizen of the World’s Policeman. He was a sea captain at the sunset of his career, a native of a country that, deep down, saw itself as an ideological ally of mine at a time when I/we could not or would not free his people from the clutches of The Bear. Thus, I suspect the captain may have prodded the First Mate into asking me “the question.”

After breakfast on the first Sunday onboard, the Chief Engineer and the captain excused themselves from the table, leaving me alone with the Mate. He was a little older than I, with a Northern European look—prominent, rosy lips, a square and dimpled chin, honey-colored curly hair, blonde eyebrows, and Baltic-blue eyes. He aimed those eyes at me now, and you had to cut his accent with a well-oiled chainsaw.

“Ewe haff manny Pollish pipples een Amerikah?”

“Polish people? In America? Yes, we do.”

“Vwy ewe tell joke-ess abot Pollish pipples een ewer khan-tree?”

It was a question with the subtlety of an unexploded artillery round. Disparaging jokes about Poles had joined the wide-spread but polluted flotsam euphemistically called “ethnic humor.” This was the cheap-laugh branch of a social sewer system that delivers, at one end, rock-bottom wages for “foreigners” and, at the other, segregated toilets and public lynchings.

“Jokes? About Polish people?” Could feigning ignorance make the topic go away? “In America?”

One deliberate nod, and the drawn-out reply, “Joke-ess. Yass.”

A nimbler man would have retreated to count casualties. Not me. Oh, no. “These kinds of jokes,” I said, “they have them everywhere. The English make jokes about the Irish. The Thakalis make fun of the Newaris.” I had learned that from Mena and Bena, two Thakali sisters from the Mustangh. “Even in Africa, the Somalis look down on the Sudanese, and the Ethiopians talk rubbish about the Eritreans.” I was mouthing tales from an Eritrean exile living in Denmark whom I’d met in Bali. Or in Jakarta—I’ve forgotten.

The First Mate looked at me as if I were speaking Swahili. I flailed on. “See, in America, these jokes”—What? I’d been gone for two years. What did I know about American ethnic jokes? I was flying by the seat of my burning trousers—”these jokes came out of Pennsylvania, where the steel and coal industries are. A lot of Polish people work in the mines there. New immigrants come in and they start at the bottom, and they can be the butt of jokes at first, yes. That’s the way it’s always been in America. It’s not good, and it shouldn’t be that way, but it’s a human failing.” Did I say that? Maybe.

My diplomacy flowed like wet cement. “And, so, these jokes came out of that, when Poles were working the low-paid jobs and lived apart from other neighborhoods.” I was prattling on like an eight-year-old, and a dumb one, at that. “So, yes, it turned into a lot of Polish jokes. But people respect the Poles in America. Guys like Bronko Nagurski and Carl Yastrzemski, especially in Boston.”

Smiling thinly, the First Mate, whose name might have also been Carl, looked at me with sympathetic dismissal, and spoke again. “Baht vwy Pollish pipes?”

He hadn’t seemed that stupid at first. Maybe if I told him the one about how to tell the bride from the groom at a Polish wedding… Instead, I could only shut up and shrug, no doubt fulfilling the captain’s derisive estimation of me as the complicit and passive persecutor of The Noble Pole. I went back to my cabin to write.

On we sailed. I can’t recall a single bad day on the ocean or with the weather, as though we were crossing a sea jaded by its own tranquility. Boredom threatened the hours, as I tried to find the core of myself, a better understanding of who I was, that two years on the road had not found. I filled those days with broken conversation (sans Polish jokes), my journal, letter-writing, cheese and salami sandwiches and mealy apples (passengers had open access to the mess), and, for a short time, the crew’s weight room. It wasn’t really a room, but a space under a tarp on the poop deck, with barbells, dumbbells, and salt-air rust. After a few days I was making headway with my benchpress, being jollied along by a few able-bodied seaman, when word from the captain arrived, via the First Mate: passengers and crew were not to fraternize. I was not permitted use of the crew’s exercise area.

There may be concerns on luxury liners about distorting the work ethic of serious mariners by exposing them to the vacuous narcissism of tourists, but the Czaszki was never going to be mistaken for a P&O cruise ship. Was I going to lead a mutiny? Were a cartel of white-slaver stowaways looking to shanghai an iron-pumping Yankee drifter? Still, I gave up the weight room.

We were eleven days at sea, three days from port, when my twenty-ninth birthday arrived. The young German father raided the hold, where was stored a very large cache of Moselwein, from the vineyards of his wife’s family. It was my first experience of wine with a true pedigree, and I regret that I treated it like fruit juice, paying the price in the morning. Something else that made a very big impression on me that night was the expression the Poles used when toasting my birthday—”Na zdrowie!” It’s a simple Polish cry meaning “To health,” but it’s eerily similar to the Russian, Na zdorovye! Why did the Poles toast me on my birthday in a phrase so similar to Russian? Was I being “turned,” a Cold War pawn, brainwashed into a sea-going Manchurian Candidate? No. More likely, without knowing it, they were laying groundwork for a day the Berlin Wall would fall.

Following the Polish-joke episode, the First Mate economized on his warmth toward me, but retained a baseline civility and charm. Wojtek the radioman picked up the slack, his English improving daily. I am grotesquely inadequate with languages, and could not have survived in 90% of the places I’ve passed through except for my dumb luck to be born an English-speaker. Now, fortunately, within a day or so of Venezuela, Wojtek got more talkative as his job got busier, clattering away in English at every opportunity.

I remember my excitement, too, though there were no single conversations that articulated the mood or the anxieties or the eagerness with which I then faced the New World. On the fourteenth day we at last glided up to the docks of Guanta. Well, not actually the docks. In the world of small freighters from Iron Curtain countries in 1976, you didn’t necessarily bang up to the wharves and unship your cargo. As we approached Guanta, Wojtek explained that we would join the queue in the channel, drop anchor, and then be “on the roads.”

He said we’d be waiting on the roads for seven days. The ’70s oil boom had arrived and clogged the harbor with imports. Was I worried? No, I was too naïve to be worried. I had a flight to catch to Martinique, but was stone stupid about Venezuela and what I’d be doing there. I had no plans to tour, had spent no time researching or preparing for the visit, knew no one there, and could just as well have been stepping off this freighter onto Planet Venus. In a few years, Jim Jones and Co. would die near here in Guyana; I’d seen Kool-Aid in the ship’s mess. I didn’t feel a sense of loss by having to wait, just of being lost.

Anyway, Wojtek kept me up on the essential ship-based news, and some mainly extraneous but enthralling stuff. For example, the ship had gone to Nigeria the previous year when West African oil exports were also peaking. The Nigerians needed to enlarge their wharf facilities at Lagos, and the steel and concrete on the Czaszki were part of the plan. But the wharves were so small that all of the new shipping had led to massive traffic jams on the roads. Ergo, the conundrum. The materials were onboard for wharf expansion, but the anchor time in the channel was—wait for it, that’s right—360 days. I couldn’t imagine it. The whole kit and caboodle would lounge for twelve months or more in the equatorial sun-set-on-high-beam before they could deliver their freight in Lagos—a colossal waste of time and resources. Finally, some Americans rented barges from nearby ports, the ships offloaded their goods onto the barges, and the freighters and crews sailed for their next ports-of-call.

As combustible rumors flew, we waited, but the captain had to be anxious, with his responsibility toward cargo, crew, and the Communists in the Kremlin. He had to be worried about getting unloaded and moving on. For my part, I bathed in equanimity, for my logistical need had been solved. The Venezuelan capitalist spirit that preceded Hugo “The Mad Colonel” Chavez had also availed me of alternative transport. At high noon, one day hence, for the grand sum of $20 U.S. in used, unmarked bills, I would be picked up by speedboat and delivered to the Customs and Immigration desk in Guanta with the hope of acquiring a tourist visa. If cleared, I would board the bus—un coche de camino velocidad—for Caracas in time for my plane to Fort-de-France, Martinique.

In the meantime, events moved apace. Guanta’s harbormaster was making the rounds of the vessels-in-waiting, extending the diplomatic hand of welcome to the newly arrived. It was soon extended for other purposes, too. At 1:30 PM, after a midday meal of ground beef, chopped onions, paprika, potatoes, and egg noodles, followed by coffee and the captain’s three cigarettes, the harbormaster and his toadies were piped aboard the Czaszki. With his mustache, open white shirt, thinning hair, and half-glasses on a chain, el jefe de puerto reminded one of a recently promoted hotel clerk.

The visiting party scuttled into the lounge off the officers’ mess, the captain and First Mate right behind. I never saw the captain without his black, double-breasted officer’s jacket, hoops of gold at the sleeves, and brass buttons. Yet a closer look picked out a tatty hem and threadbare cuffs, and the fabric at the back was polished with compression and age.

A steward brought coffee and sugared Polish pastries, and a young Latin man translated English into Spanish for the harbormaster. The First Mate translated the English into Polish for the captain, while I eavesdropped easily from nearby in the mess, the voices being loud and slow to aid the translations. After bland introductions and commiserations over delays and the stress of busy harbors, the conversation proceded as follows, the translators receiving no credit in my rendition.

Harbormaster: “This interruption in your duties is a great inconvenience.”

Captain: “Your port is exceedingly busy for its size.”

HM: “Yes, oil exports build our economy, but we hope to accommodate you.”

C: “We’d like to continue our voyage.”

HM: “We try to be flexible when we can.”

C: “Would this be one of those situations?”

HM: “Who can tell? Tomorrow we can discuss the matter further?”

C: “That would be possible. What did you have in mind?”

HM: “Lunch at my office. I will send my launch.”

C: “Of course. What time should I expect your boat?”

HM: “Eleven-thirty. Bring your two executive officers, if that is suitable.” This meant the First Mate and Chief Engineer.

C: “Quite suitable.”

HM, after a delicate pause, during which he chewed the template of his glasses: “One thing. We are a small port under many demands. We are unable to provide lunch for all of our visitors.”

C, after another, most uncomfortable pause, during which he blew smoke at the ceiling and sculpted the ash of his cigarette on a coffee saucer: “Yes?”

HM: “So, forgive me, but” (a very little pause) “I must ask you to pay for lunch.”

Through tendrils of tobacco smoke, the captain studied his guest as a herpetologist studies a lizard. “And how much would that be?”

As if shooting fish in a barrel, the harbormaster said, “$400 U.S. per person.”

The captain knew a shakedown when it smacked him in the face—this was no joke, Polish or otherwise. The Venezuelan, greasy as an oily slick, nibbled a cookie.

Having witnessed this train wreck, I left the ship’s mess before any bloodshed resulted. Since the captain had no dollars for paying bribes, and zlotys wouldn’t do, he’d have had to pass a camel through the eye of a needle to pay $400 for one lunch ashore, much less three. Here I could quote a disquisition on Communism’s central banks hoarding the U.S. dollar, or on Marxist-Leninist central planning versus laissez-faire capitalism, but no matter. By the time I left the ship via the aforementioned speedboat, no détente was flowing between the HM’s office and the bridge of the Czaszki.

I got my visa at Guanta’s immigration desk as easy as buying a movie ticket, and about the same price. Passenger traffic by sea was low, and I suppose the port’s red-tape apparatchiks had had enough for the day. Maybe they weren’t part of the harbormaster’s blackmail racket, or were, but decided I was too small a fish. One of them inspected my passport, murmured a question or two about my ongoing travel dates, and stamped where stamping was needed—thonk, thonk, thonk. Two days later, in the early evening, my bus arrived at Caracas Central Station and I caught another one to the airport. I read, wrote some letters, and edited passages in my journal. I caught the flight to Fort-de-France and Mike, a State Department friend, met me at the airport, looking at me askance for my road-weary appearance: a vagabond’s clothes, black topi, road-worn boots, backpack, and bamboo walking stick.

I spent a month in Martinique with Mike and Carmella, then passed through Haiti on the way to Florida to pick up the Norton. An American had had the bad judgment to die in Port-au-Prince, and now waited in his coffin at the airport to be flown home, his unembalmed body absorbing the tropical heat while exuding decomposition gases into the still air. A low-level official went to investigate the smell and, nearing the coffin, reached for his Bic to light a cigarette. The methane explosion was limited to the immediate area, but it forced a reconsideration of how what was left of the deceased would be repatriated.

Lieve and I wrote for a while. I didn’t forget her, and hope her life blossomed, as it seemed it would. The Norton stayed in my hands for many years, and then, while living and working in New Zealand, I sold it to a fellow named Cyril. On a warm afternoon, shortly after the last time I saw it, I crashed another motorcycle into an oncoming car at high speed—a six-o’clock-news, head-on collision—from which I walked away. The car’s driver was goggle-eyed with fright and surprise, but no more than I. That, too, is another story, one that recent travel has kept me from writing—so far.


Lance Mason was raised by working parents, products of the Great Depression. His first job was in his brother-in-law’s gas station in Oxnard, California. During school vacations, he picked lemons, packed lima beans, laid fiberglass, sold hot-dogs, and spliced cable for the local phone company where his mother worked. He has taught at UCLA, the National University in Natal, Brazil, and Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand. In addition to overseas teaching, Mason has lived, worked, or traveled in more than 60 countries during a dozen trips around the world. His first publication was a piece in Voices of Survival, (Capra Press, 1986), appearing alongside writers as diverse as William. F. Buckley, Jr., Joan Baez, Indira Gandhi, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan. His work has appeared in upstreet, City Works, Sea Spray, The Packing House Review, New Borders, Askew, The Santa Barbara Independent, and Solo Novo, as well as several professional journals. He is nearing completion of his fifth novel, a saga of wealth, power, and perversion in modern China. “No Polish Jokes” won Gold in the Cruise Story Category of the Tenth Annual Solas Awards.

2017-04-24T02:31:59-08:00