Two Months in Poland (Winter 86-87)

By William Markiewicz

These new/old impressions which I jotted down at the time may have interest today as they are a glimpse of an epoch which in our quickly changing times already belongs to an irreversible past.


My coming to Poland was also a trip in time as I had left when my beard had hardly begun to grow and now it is white along with what is left of my mane. In one instant I found myself back in my childhood and early youth, though I wasn't familiar with Warsaw where I spent most of my time on this trip, and Krakow, my birthplace, I hardly recognised. It surely had not changed, but too much time had passed since I saw it last.

I was astonished to find that I'd spent my childhood surrounded by so much beauty so unbelievably concentrated in a small space; the "Old City" district. I hadn't remembered that our house was under arcades, that I grew up so near the "Cloth House," the "Florian Gate" ... In Krakow you don't have to search for the landmarks. There, looking at any old building is an aesthetic experience. In this respect it is for me one of the most beautiful cities in the world. A long time ago I felt something similar in Edinburgh, a feeling now too remote to compare with my still fresh impressions of Krakow. But that's enough of superlatives about the Poland of stone, here to stay if History and environmental pollution will spare it. Time to switch to the Poland of flesh and blood and everyday matters.

In each country, the newcomer gets his first impression from the people around him. On the streets you can't tell if the regime is communist or any other. The first thing that strikes the visitor from the West is the sign "Establishment" over every shop, followed by the name of the merchandise for sale, rather than a business name: "Shoes," "Cold Cuts," "Restaurant," "Woolenwear" ... a glimpse at collectivist impersonality. I don't feel competent to assess how well the "Establishments" are stocked; I have never been a very alert or inspired consumer. I don't like to shop and I usually pass display windows without a glance. I didn't notice spectacular lineups at the shops except, for instance, for some special cut of meat, and even these were not long. Deli meats, vegetables, etc. were less refined in aspect than in the West, but everything tasted great to me -- probably some association with the tastes and smells of childhood. Also soil and climate must be the principal factors in this.

Because of the icy winter and my own chronic fatigue at that time, I didn't explore Poland as I wished and as I perhaps still will. Therefore I give my impressions mainly from the confines of four walls.

The radio and TV broadcasts struck me with their high quality, small doses of propaganda and such a freedom of expression that I was literally numbed. First -- the quality: in totalitarian countries, radio and TV are surely less popular than in free countries, but often their overall quality may be superior. In the free enterprise system, media, like everything else must butter up the public in order to survive. In regimes where profit doesn't play a role, in periods of political thaw, culture surely gains. In spots abandoned by propaganda, culture appears because what else could come? One more "plus" for culture: many publications, theatre groups, etc., which in a capitalist system could not afford one single paid worker, under socialism -- with government support -- maintain editors, directors, secretaries, assistant secretaries and file clerks. Rick Salutin, who recently described this phenomena in Poland is "for" because in his opinion, culture freed of financial burdens educates the public to a higher level. Of course the stick has two ends and perhaps it is better when culture is controlled by the public than by some bureaucrat ... Today in Poland, with official propaganda hiding its claws and fangs, TV and radio carry excellent theatrical pieces, documentaries on ancient history, natural history and so on.

Something about freedom of expression: one day there was a TV discussion program featuring high school youth. The topic was the organisation of an upcoming demonstration for Peace. A thoughtful looking boy, perhaps 14 years old, spoke slowly and lengthily and nobody interrupted him. For him, public demonstrations organised from the top had no interest for Poles, and in regimes like the Soviet Union and Poland, the government, anyway, never considered public opinion. I couldn't believe my eyes and ears. Of course he was answered by some "politruk" who wasn't aggressive toward the young speaker and, in any case, convinced nobody. Of course, not everything was so rosy; on the day commemorating Jaruzelski's takeover, there were TV interviews with people from various social spheres. The interviews were openly manipulated. Some of the statements were so abruptly cut off that the sense was twisted to an opposite meaning. I can imagine the faces of some of the poor souls when they heard themselves later. How many friendships and even engagements were broken, how many epithets like "traitor" were thrown? One, whose statement was quoted without cuts was "Prof ... Bradkowski, Party Member." (I don't remember his first name.) He said among other things that: "it can't be required from society that it carry out every government postulate just as it can't be required that the government carries out all of society's postulates." How about this high Party member's open admission that government and society are not exactly on the same side?! ... I experienced many of these surprises. For instance, excellent and entertaining TV programs with ferocious, barely camouflaged political satire. The speakers, the actors, the public, practically winked at each other. At the theatre I saw "8th Day of the Week" by Hlasko, probably impossible to show just a few months before. And all this before Gorbachev's "Glasnost," as I left Poland sometime in January. Even then the young pop singers on TV -- from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany -- seemed mirror images of western pop stars. Perhaps I am not an expert, but from the broadcasts it was hard to realise that these performers grew up under communism.

More about the way propaganda is timidly pushed into the shadows: in newsreels at the cinema showing Jaruzelski's visit to Rome, the reportage starts lyrically in ... Naples. "See Naples and die," the speaker intones grandiloquently, and adds, "But LIVE in Rome." And then they start to show Rome -- leaving Jaruzelski out as long as they can. Monuments, ruins, landscapes, slide by, the buttons on the honour Guards' coats, and finally, very discreetly shown, Jaruzelski descends from the plane. Clearly the producers were afraid of public reaction and sighed with relief when they could show him with the Pope. An encounter between Jaruzelski and the Italian head of State as well as his meeting with the Italian Communist Party leader were rushed through quickly and with no emphasis.

Displayed openly outside the Royal Castle Cathedral in Krakow is a photo of Walesa and the Pope. In St. Stanislaus Church in Warsaw, Father Popieluszko's tomb is heaped with flowers. Solidarity banners cover the fence around the church, though the messages are turned toward the church, not the street.

People on the street and in buses speak freely with strangers. Me, as a visitor, I was more shy about listening than they were about speaking.

Under socialism, as is well known, there is no incentive to work. Wages are skimpy and "equal" no matter what the quality of work. This stagnant and hopeless situation nevertheless has one plus. Just as the lack of profit motive has raised the quality of media, so the above mentioned stagnation raises the quality of social relations. People have more time for meeting each other than in the West. General interests and level of conversation are, for the most part, high. It must be acknowledged that the general cultural level is high in Poland. How many unskilled workers here use words like, for instance 'subconscious'? I was told that because there is no economic future, young people in general remain in school longer, no matter what their chosen profession -- and it is noticeable.

Something about the "parallel economy": capitalism flourishes in Poland -- in the markets. All Poland is trading. When you go to the popular markets like "Janicki," "Skra," etc., from an elevated point you can observe a moving sea of human heads. In the bitterest cold, people stand with all kind of merchandise draped over their clothes, or on the ground at their feet. I wondered how the traders as well as the buyers could find themselves in all this. The lady I was in company with decided to buy a beautiful puppy (It was forbidden to trade in animals at "Skra," but who cared?) As it was below -30C, I put the puppy under my fur jacket. Every minute I was stopped by strangers asking "How much do you want for this puppy?" Warsaw is full of dogs. This passion is part of Polish romanticism and when people have nowhere to invest money they spend it for their pleasure.

As the dollar is very expensive on the black market and almost everybody has someone in the West, the biggest lineups were at "PEWEX." These are the unbelievable outlets for "interior export," a communist invention for getting dollars from the citizen. Here you can buy usually unobtainable goods -- but only for dollars, and nobody asks where they came from. The most ideal situation one can imagine is to make money in the West and spend it in Poland. For the Westerner life is cheap beyond description. Therefore many pensioners of Polish origin return from North America to spend their last years in Poland. For their very modest pension, by our criteria, they live like kings and can be generous to friends and relatives.

The last remark. Nobody bothered about me, though I went as a journalist. I travelled where I wanted, I lived wherever I wanted. I didn't feel any difference between travel in Poland and travel in the West.

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