The Beauty of Sopot

On the main street in Sopot, called Boharterow Monte Cassino, a man steps up to a trash can and, oblivious to the late-afternoon walkers in this pedestrian mall, unzips his pants and pees into it. He is one of several men staggering around town, red-faced and filthy, nearing the end of another alcoholic day. A man and a woman step into the light, his arm around her neck, but he is not embracing her; he is holding his fist in front of her face and threatening to hit her. As they come closer, swaying and stumbling with each step, I can see the bruises and scabs on her face. As they pass, mumbling incoherently, he tightens his grip and she quickens her step to lessen his pull.

I have come to see the faded glory of this Polish seaside resort, to stay at the Grand Hotel, where I recall a lunch in 1988, more than a dozen years ago, a lunch during which waiters in tuxedoes pushed rickety art deco carts and served on chipped china hot from an electrical plate warmer, a lunch with my mother when we looked out at the Baltic sea and talked about how amber is formed from petrified tree resin.

Just before the intersection of Monte Cassino and Powstalcow Warszawy, there is a cluster of makeshift stalls, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, gyros and other fast food. Among them is a “sex shop” that claims to sell “peeps.” The door is open, so I step inside, where a woman waits behind a small counter. She is about forty years old, costumed in a tiny black bra and thong panties, her smile made clown-like by lipstick applied a half-inch beyond her natural lip line. She smiles the smile of an entrepreneur who hasn’t had a customer in a while.

“So what can I get here?” I ask her in English, for in Sopot one is supposed to be a tourist.

She smiles again and outlines the deal. “For twenty-five zlotys you can have a nice strip tease show. If you want to touch, the price is up. You can have massage, maybe French style. Each level,” and here she marks out steps with her hand, “price goes up.”

Meanwhile, another costumed woman has stepped out from behind the curtains to show herself. She is beautiful, probably twenty-five years old at most. She looks like Uma Thurman stepping off the screen from Pulp Fiction. Her body is full, her breasts as ripe as the fruit for sale two booths down the way. She smiles with a perfect set of white teeth. Her hair is bobbed, almost in the style you might have expected to see in Sopot’s heyday in the 1920s. The spangles and glitter on her brassiere add to the glamorous effect and support her perfect breasts like a gaudy easel, decorated with amber. Although they could hardly afford her, the image of her performing oral sex on one of the bums I have just passed sticks in my mind and makes me wonder if she ever permits herself to say, “No, not with you.”

I listen attentively, then thank them, hinting at a return visit. They both smile. The younger one adjusts her thong, nods, and says “Do Wizenia,” until we meet again.

I walk back to the not-so-Grand Hotel, past the faded glory of dozens of houses, with their mix of art nouveau, art deco, and dacha, here and there signs of new prosperity, a house on Powstalcow Warszawy gutted and being turned into condominiums, the planned restoration of its original style displayed on a billboard advertising availability.

The hotel lobby has been cluttered with signs and inappropriate furniture, the reception desk area paneled in cheap plastic-looking dark mahogany, and the receptionist plays solitare on the computer. Even “Rhapsody in Blue” on the sound system cannot restore the beauty of this place.

Down the hall are a solarium, beauty parlor, and massage room, which seem like safe alternatives to the tawdriness of Monte Cassino. “Will the massage be from a man or woman?” I ask the pretty young attendant. “A man,” she says, “Pan Ryszard.”

An hour later, I shake Pan Ryszard’s hand, his arm tanned and sinewy as he reaches out. My masseur is a handsome young man no older than thirty, tall and beefy, with solid tanned legs emanating from baggy cotton knit shorts. His T-shirt reveals a wide thick torso and oddly wide flat hips that seem to correspond to his large head. “I am Ryszard,” he says, a smile making its way cautiously across his broad face, complementing his high forehead, helping to offset his absurdly large horn-rimmed glasses, and revealing that the left incisor in a perfectly fine set of teeth has been pulled. The hole there gives him a goofiness that is otherwise absent in his looks and completely missing from his voice, which is soft and musical, filled with mmm’s and ahh’s, as he asks why I am in Poland, what I do, why is it I am so interested in this country.

It takes only seconds to take off your clothes and size up the person who is about to touch your body in soothing ways. I remove mine, and he tells me to lie first on my back, then he covers me with a white cotton cloth, heavy like a bedspread. He lifts the part over my left leg and begins with a foot, kneading softly, deeply, after applying a dab of faintly lilac-scented massage cream. He re-covers the leg, then moves to the other, chatting softly about Hel, the town at the tip of the Hel Peninsula I visited yesterday.”

“Oh I like it. It was very interesting,” I assure him.

“Hmm, if you spell it with two ‘l’s you will know what I think of it,” he says in Polish. “They have dziky running loose there.”

I misunderstand and tell him I saw a drunk staggering down the street there, but no people who seemed crazy.

“Not crazy people,” he corrects. “Pigs, wild pigs. And you can only live there for two months of the year. The other ten are cold and the wind is terrible. You should just see what you think of it in October!”

“It was the last place in Poland to surrender to the Nazis in 1939,” he notes. “And it was also the last place in Poland to be liberated from the Nazis in 1945, six days after Germany surrendered. There were sixty thousand German soldiers there.”

He slides his hands across my abdomen, pressing each in a different direction, then follows the muscle line to my chest, where he pulls so hard it temporarily wakes me from my trance. I want to say “ouch.”

He tells me there is much to see in Gdansk, that things are looking up for the whole area. He and his wife both give massages, he says. “How long will you be here?”

I am on my stomach now, and Ryszard is employing a magic technique that involves rubbing his hands together rapidly and applying the hot palms to the base of my spine. “Good?” he asks. “Wonderful,” I grunt. The cotton cover is now only over my legs and the movement of his hands on my back is so pleasurable I can barely answer. I want to drift away.

“Do you travel a lot?” he asks, breaking the mood.

“As much as I can,” I answer.

“I would like to travel,” he says sadly. “I would like so much to visit Chicago, just to go to an NBA game. That would be great.”

“Perhaps you will,” I encourage him. “I never flew in an airplane until I was almost thirty. If you could go anywhere, what would be your first choice?” I ask, wondering if his answer will be Egypt, as mine was at this age.

“Egypt,” he says, “the oldest, the most interesting. But travel is so expensive.” He moves his hands to my neck, where the deep pressing and kneading send new waves of relaxation through me.

I lie still for a minute or two, covered with the white cloth, when he abruptly announces that the hour is up. Then I sit naked on the table as he washes his hands in the nearby sink. He glances over discretely and then explains, “Your lower back is very tight, like knots in your muscles. Very tight. Not good.”

“And what do you recommend for this?”

“A massage every day for three days,” he replies, his brow wrinkled with concern.

At home in Nowe Miasto Lubawskie, I regale my friend Adam with the story of the prostitutes. “Were they Russian or Polish?” he asks. But I could not tell from their voices and did not ask. “Were they mafia controlled?” But I cannot tell, except to assume that where there is sex for sale, there is gangsterism. “Who are their customers, Germans?” But I saw no customers. Adam decides that “men who live off women’s bodies should be forced to prostitute themselves. That would cure them.”

“I went to a meeting with the ‘burghermeister’ of Olsztyn province,” Adam tells me. “I found out that Nowe Miasto Lubawskie has the highest birth rate in the province. I never would have imagined.” And at the same time, he jokes, “it also has the distinction of being the area with the most pigs per farm. Who would have imagined such statistics exist?”

“More pigs than in hell?” I ask.

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