Communist Poland, 1984. The old bus was crowded as it lumbered along the pot-holed road between towns on the way to the mountains. We stood in front next to the driver. The seats were filled with old babkas from nearby villages, dressed in worn skirts and drab head scarves. The babkas were peasant grandmothers on their way to town to visit relatives or to attempt to shop. Some coal miners, already blackened with the dirt and soot of previous days, were on their way to work. My cousin Henry and I had left Pszcyna an hour before, and were on our way to Strumien. We were on a mission to find beer.
It was always somebody’s birthday there, or close enough to it. With large, extended families living within a stone’s throw of each other (and sometimes even next door), there was no shortage of reasons to host a party. My cousins were mostly young adults and I had just graduated from college. I was visiting the old world before I had to join the working world. The party organizing committee had held a meeting, and Henry and I had been given the task of finding beer for the party.
Locating and buying any particular consumer good in a communist country in those days was typically a complex and time-consuming process. If you knew the right somebody, maybe you could make a deal quickly. If you didn’t, you might end up standing in line for hours. More often than not, after waiting in line for hours, you might come up empty. We had already checked at several stores in Pszczyna for beer and couldn’t find any. Henry suggested going to another town to look.
The stores were a complete joke, by western standards. But of course the Poles weren’t laughing. One time we went to Katowice, which is a big city in the industrial heartland of Poland. We went in store after store and the only thing we could find to buy were carved wooden souvenirs. Jewelry boxes, walking sticks, chess sets, decorative plates. These were carved by people from the Tatra Mountains. Anything a tourist might be inclined to buy (and there weren’t many tourists then), was produced in the hope of obtaining hard currency. Ordinary consumer goods were almost nonexistent.
However, if you were lucky enough to have US dollars or other western currencies, you could shop in small specialty stores. Before being allowed into the store, you had to show that you had dollars to spend. In these stores, western consumer electronics were available, and there were no lines. When the headphones broke for my Sony Walkman, I bought a replacement pair and a music cassette tape in one of those stores. My cousins were envious of the fact that I could walk into that store and buy something.
Even seemingly simple items were usually unavailable. One day on a previous trip, I was bored.
“Can we play football?” I asked. Soccer to Americans, football to the rest of the world.
“No. We have no ball,” my cousin Peter replied.
“Why not? You mean none of you have a football?” I was incredulous. As a typical American guy I think I had at least half a dozen sports balls of various shapes and sizes in the garage back home.
“No. There hasn’t been a football for sale around here for years,” said Peter. “You can only get a ball if you are a member of the club.”
It was explained to me later that the town had a football club for boys, but only a few were allowed or considered good enough to join. In the centrally planned economy, some deskbound bureaucrat clearly had misjudged the demand for balls.
The consumer goods that were sometimes available were incredibly shoddy too. Some people were proud of their color televisions. The problem was, they were available in either red or green. By this I mean this picture! The picture on some TVs was primarily red. The picture on some other TVs was primarily green. I never saw a TV picture even approximating the right color scheme. Forget about watching the Wonderful World of Disney in Living Color.
The shows were mind-numbingly boring too. There was three hour coverage of a military parade, including long-winded speeches by Communist Party functionaries. They had in-depth reporting and interviews with farmers about the harvest and farm equipment manufacturers with their new tractors. The news shows consisted of socialist propaganda delivered unemotionally by comatose news anchors. I think there was only one channel.
Since it was so tough to get ordinary things people living in western capitalist democracies take for granted, we often sent a package to my relatives. My grandmother suffered from headaches, and a bottle of aspirin from America helped ease the pain. The package went by sea and took several weeks to get to Poland. Then the package would be mired in the Polish post office for an unknown and variable amount of time before being delivered.
Sometimes the contents would be pilfered. The postal workers obviously could see that it came from the US, and the outside of the package included a manifest of the contents. Don’t want the evil capitalists to sneak subversive literature into the socialist paradise. One time my cousin asked for a pair of Levi jeans, which were very popular at the time. We bought a pair and sent it in a package with a bunch of other stuff. Somebody at the post office stole the Levis and substituted them with an inferior East European pair of pants. A pair of pants were indeed delivered, just not the right ones.
We got to Strumien and finally found some beer to buy. With a case in each of our arms, we caught the next bus back to Pszczyna and joined the party.
The Communists were finally thrown out of power during the history changing year of 1989. Times were tough in the 1990s as the country changed from a rigid planned economy to a free-wheeling market economy. However, in less than 20 years things had tremendously improved. People were optimistic and motivated to work for their future. The new generation shook off the old burdens and surged ahead. Political and economic freedom made all the difference.
A couple of years ago I walked around the medieval main square in Pszczyna. During the Communist era, the only places open were a milk bar, a small book store, and an ice cream stand (lodi!). The buildings were falling apart in disrepair. Now there were new stores, restaurants, and bars everywhere. The buildings were renovated and many were freshly painted. The square was packed with shoppers buying fashionable clothes, toys, and electronics. The TVs in the store windows had all the right colors. Young people lounged in the outdoor cafes smoking, drinking coffee, laughing, and discussing the latest computer games. Tourists stood in line to tour the castle palace called the Museum Zankowe.
And in the middle of the square, a small group of teenaged boys were practicing their juggling tricks and passes to each other with a new football.