English translation of article from Z magazine published in October 2004.

Successful Polish

Z magazine has quite a few sellers from Eastern Europe. Two Polish ex-salesmen who ended up well tell their story.

Text: Lydia Heida
Photo: Marie Thorin

Treated Like A Parasite

Monika (30 years old) — I had just become pregnant when I came to Amsterdam with my boyfriend at the time and a bunch of other friends, now nine years ago. I wanted to go on holiday one more time before serious life as a mother started. I was also very curious about The Netherlands. I had heard that squatting was allowed here and that as a punk you could just walk down the street without people annoying you.

The intention was to be back in Poland before the birth. I had nothing here at all, I was not even insured for medical expenses and my child’s father actually wanted to go his own way. But it turned out differently. I got a room in a squat, where nice people lived. And in Vrankrijk squat bar, a benefit was organized to collect money for the midwife. Yet I was very much in doubt whether I wanted to stay here. A month before the birth I even got on the tram to go home. But I realised I had nothing to return to. My mom was mad at me for not being married. I couldn’t see myself at school with that big belly anymore. So I got off after one stop, determined to fight for a better future here.

The first year that I lived here was very difficult. I went to the pizzeria during the day to eat the pieces that people left on their plates and I collected leftover vegetables from the market or empty bottles to exchange at the supermarket. I got bread from the nuns in the Warmoesstraat.

My friends made money by juggling in the street. But I couldn’t come because of the baby. I didn’t have a babysitter and you can ask housemates to babysit once or twice, then it will stop. That’s why I started selling the homeless newspaper, with the baby in a carrier on my stomach. Some people thought that was shocking, but most were very nice. The homeless newspaper only just existed then and I think the first three years were the best to sell the newspaper.

I myself only sold the newspaper for a short time. One day, in the middle of winter, a man bought a newspaper from me. He wanted to pay with a hundred guilders and I didn’t realize it was a trap. I had been out on the street all day, in the cold, with the baby pressed against me and sold well. The people had been very generous because they saw how difficult it was for me. When giving the change, the man obviously saw how much money was in my pouch. He waited for me and when I picked up my bike to go home, he suddenly jumped out. With a knife in his hand. He pressed it against the baby’s throat and forced me to give up my money. I came home crying and thought “I’ll never do this again”. I got so scared.

But yes, I had to earn money anyway. I knew they had a project at Circus Elleboog, “Youth at Risk”, where you could learn all kinds of things. Acrobatics, Playing the Clown, Magic and Juggling. I went there twice a week. I could take a shower there and there were sandwiches at midday. That way I saved money again. I found a home at Circus Elleboog. As an illegal you are far from your roots, and in society here I felt like a stranger, a parasite. Even though people understand you, they can’t really feel what it’s like to be in your shoes.

Once I got the hang of juggling, I started doing fire shows with friends on the street. It felt better to give fire shows as an artist on the street, even though you were still dealing with drunk people and other annoying types. But now I was doing something artistic, something that I had trained for. Such a thing is also nice to see for tourists. And that’s good for the city too.

I didn’t have that feeling when I sold the homeless newspaper. I constantly felt a distance from people. I stood there thinking “I am homeless and in a shit situation”. I think people hardly read the magazine. Often I only got a tip. Then you are like a beggar. “Homeless newspaper, two guilders”. I didn’t speak any Dutch then. Always smiling. I liked that by the way, to wish people a cheerful good morning. For them it is also more fun to hear something nice when they enter a store. And whether you sell a bit of fun also depends on how you present yourself. That may sound very commercial, but that’s how it is.

We always attracted audiences very easily with the fire shows. These were good times. But then the problems started. Law enforcement. Agents always turned up halfway through our show. On those big bikes. Broem broem. Just like the fire was very high. “Do you have a permit?” They showed no respect for our juggling skills and treated us the same way they treat a homeless person sleeping in the street. Like a parasite. A few people were also expelled from the country. I was very afraid of that, because I really wanted to stay here. So we always stopped right when they came. To avoid other questions: “Do you speak Dutch? Do you have a passport with you?”. As a group we made a little money, just enough for the day, but not enough to save. So it was never possible to save. So it was never possible to buy a permit. It cost fifty guilders or something. At a certain point the risk became too great to be arrested and we stopped. From time to time we still gave shows at tekno parties, where I often played music. I still do, for Radio Patapoe.

When we were no longer able to perform on the street, I started training to become a Meiso shiatsu therapist. Two friends of mine paid for the first three months. I was very happy with that. After a few months I started treating people so that I could pay for the school myself. And after two years I graduated. Now I give massages and workshops.

I had to quit Circus Elleboog this year, because I was getting too old to participate. Everyone comes and goes there, but I’ve stayed there the longest. Eight years in total. Now I have started my own circus in the squat where I live. Two people give workshops in acrobatics and juggling and I organise everything.

When I look at it like that, it was hard times but it did make me stronger. And I have experienced many beautiful things here. Learned so much too. I can now speak English and reasonable Dutch. I met a lot of people who came from all over and each had their own story. In comparison, life in Poland would have been so grey. Not that interesting at all.

I still feel that anything could happen here in the future. I always keep the door open for new things. And this is now my home. I grew up here.