What are you looking at?

Sometimes it’s inevitable that you attract attention to yourself. You’re in a town of 40 000 Poles. Czech is common “other language” because you’re right on the border. But when you and three other English teachers go into a bar, most of the place is staring at you.

This staring got quite unnerving for the first few months. Even in a city as big as Toronto, this kind of thing just isn’t done. Well, sure it happens on the subway all the time, but if you notice the starer, she suddenly notices a very interesting ad on the subway wall. The façade of public privacy doesn’t have the same priority here in Poland. Maybe it’s the fact that this country has 8 million more people than Canada living in an area 3/10 the size. Whatever the reason, a Pole won’t shift her gaze if you return hers. This cultural trait can provoke reactions ranging from frustration to full-out paranoia.

My early strategies for dealing with the staring were varied. Sometimes, I would try to speak quietly, with the hopes of blending in. This would backfire for two reason. If we were out with our teacher-friend, Patrick, his booming voice makes it hard to keep a low profile. But even if Patrick wasn’t around, I’d still get stares. Sometimes, no matter how hard I’d try, something on my forehead read, “Not from around here.” Other times, I’d try to ignore the starers. But I knew they were watching. I could feel their eyes on me and hence the aforementioned paranoia. Finally, I resorted in waving and saying ’hello.’ My plan was to shock the starer with a response, so they’d know that I knew that they were looking too hard. All this strategy got was a stone-faced response (except for kids, they wave back).

But now, the stares have either stopped or they’ve just receded into the background. Whatever the case, I’ve found that the local gazing inhibition seems to be contagious. One night, I was sitting on a bench in the main square waiting to meet with the gang, and these two young men walked by me. Of course they took a long look at me as they passed. I, unflinchingly, looked right back. Later that night, I was actually introduced to one of them at the bar. The guy said, “Hey, I saw you in the square.” To which I replied, “Hey, yeah, me too.”

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