Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Banning the smelly passenger

The front-page lead in today's Metro reminded me of an unpleasant tram journey a few weeks ago. It was a warm spring day about 10am; I boarded a new, low-floor Swing tram at Wilanowska, heading into town. The tram was quite full, only a few seats left, towards the rear. I sat down. Immediately, a hideous stench assailed my nostrils. It smelt like someone had left a bag of sweat- and urine-soaked rags mixed in with rotting pigs' entrails under a seat. "Fu, panie!"

I looked round to see other passengers also looking round to identify the source of the disgusting odour, subconsciously ticking off fellow travellers who did not match the stereotype of a brudas. One by one, people started drifting towards the front of the tram. The rear third of the Swing was all but empty - save for a filthy-looking woman of around 60, dressed in several layers of thick and grimy clothing sitting on the bench seat at the very back of the tram. She reeked.

Some people got off the tram to catch the next one, others either put up with the crush in the front of the tram (as did I, being in a hurry to get to the office) or - in the case of three people who seemed oblivious to the stench - carried on within nose-shot of the offending person.

The article, Pojadą tylko umyci ('Only The Washed Will Ride') says that in Warsaw alone, each winter's day over 20 such incidents occur which result in the tram or bus driver having to ask the foetid person off. In summer, it's only eight.

Gdańsk's public transport authority surveyed its passengers as to what annoy them the most about its service. Delayed buses? Traffic jams? Breakdowns? Not a bit of it. A staggering 91.6% said it was the przykry (annoying/obnoxious/sad) smell of fellow passengers. In comparison, a mere 21% said they were irritated by people drinking alcohol on the bus.

Already, Gdańsk, along with Łódz, Wrocław and Olsztyn's public transport authorities have regulations banning people of 'dirty and scruffy appearance' or who's dirty appearance disgusts'. Warsaw introduced a similar ban in January; Lublin will follow suit next week.

The target of these bans is mainly the homeless; often people who've not bathed in many days.

Is this right? Vulnerable people - who in many cases are suffering from mental problems, for whom public transport is a refuge from the weather, may have hygiene issues, but can they be denied the right to ride a tram or bus if they are in possession of a valid ticket?

Metro asked Poland's human rights ombudsman and former chairman of the Constitutional Tribunal, Andrzej Zoll, whether restricting a person on account of their smell is not in breach of the Constitution. "Grossly offensive odour limits the rights of other persons, so I would allow such bans," he replied. Former justice minister, Prof. Zbigniew Ćwiąkalski, concurred; "A carrier can introduce such limitations."

Good to see common sense prevailing.

Times have moved on. Poland's general standards of person hygiene have improved hugely over the past two decades, thanks to the FMCG companies that have raised the game in terms of how frequently society should use their products. The last time I read an article in the Polish media about passenger odours, around 2001, those complaining of them were labelled perfumowani gogusiowie by the more robust online commentators ('perfumed ponces' would be a good translation).

When the bulk of Oxford's colleges were being built during the 16th Century, the student residents were not equipped with bathing facilities, as term-time was only ten weeks long, and so too short a period to expect students to bathe. Even in the middle of the last century, bathing and hair-washing (with shampoo) was a weekly endeavour for Britain's middle classes, as John Betjeman's Middlesex (1954) attests:
"Hiding hair which Friday nightly/Delicately drowns in Drene"
Today, daily showering or bathing has become the norm (in cities anyway). Polish men are not ashamed to use deodorant or aftershave, and the general background odour on daytime public transport is no different than in London. Which makes sharing a tram journey with a evil-smelling homeless person all the more memorable. The question of how society should cope with such people, who evidently has deep-rooted and manifold problems is a deeper one.

Coming back to my olfactorially-challenging  journey; no one seemed keen to inform the driver; we all knew that this would result in a delay of several minutes while the malodorous passenger was shown off the tram. And so we all just put up with it. At least as far as Pl. Zbawiciela.

[Supplementary, Friday 17 May: This morning I was on an early bus into town, the 709 which left Karczunkowska bus stop at 05:38. The smell of unwashed armpits and last night's vodka was far more noticeable than on my usual buses, which leave Jeziorki around eight am.]

This time last year:
Inside Filtry - Warsaw's waterworks (Museum Night 2011)

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's Museum Night 2010

This time four years ago:
On transcendence

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