Bydgoszcz, Poland
Bydgoszcz, Poland

Tomorrow, Poland will host the IAAF World Cross Country Championships for a third time, the second in four years in the city of Bydgoszcz.  But in 1987 the Polish capital of Warsaw held the honor, and I attended as a radio and newspaper reporter from Boston.

Since it would be my first visit to Poland, I also brought along my mother from St. Louis, as she was a native Pole whose extended family still lived in the homeland. And though Perestroika had begun to unravel the Soviet apparatus to the east under Gorbachev, Poland remained locked in the long winter of Soviet domination, a full two years before spring revolutions would loosen the Communist grip once and for all.

The following is just one memory from my first trip to the a country long savaged by war, then demeaned by its outcome.

MARCH 1987

Mom in Warsaw 1987
Mom in Warsaw 1987

Warsaw, Poland — As we walked the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town into Market Square, the dank gray wind knifed through our coats to the bone.  Though wandering as a tourist, I was also searching for blank audio cassettes for my interviews with athletes at the world cross country championships later that weekend at the Hippodrome. I stopped at a number of stores during the day, but had yet to find one which carried audio products.

Finally, on the way back to my Uncle Xavier’s apartment we stopped at a dollars only shop which traded exclusively in U.S. currency, and whose windows and shelves were crammed with swollen meats, delicious cheeses, and things very few people in the country had money to buy.  To average Poles these stores were more like museums, and the long queues seen throughout town at other shops were absent here.  You couldn’t help but notice the looks of longing people carried as they passed along the sidewalk out front.

We picked up beer, vodka (of course) and preparations for dinner. As we emerged with our arms full of packages I noticed a storefront with a Sony sign above it nearby, and asked if I might check to see if they had blank cassettes.

I had to hand it to the Poles in charge.  I mean, they had no economy to speak of, so the last thing you’d want is to have nothing for the people to do all day.  So what better solution than to devise a system to extend the bounds of interpersonal relationships on a grand scale, all by standing in queues all day for life’s staples?

The line at this store stretched nearly to the door, and as I inched forward the brilliance of the snail’s pace system became evident.  Behind the counter stood a man whose job it was to take the orders.  Mind you, directly in front of him were display cases holding the products the store carried, including the cassettes I was looking for.   But when I came to the head of the line, looked down at the cassettes, held up two fingers and pointed, the clerk merely said, ‘tak’ (‘yes’), and began filling out a form long hand in triplicate.  When he finished he handed all three copies to me and with a glance directed me to the adjacent room where another queue had formed.

Once more I waited, tapping my toe, sighing occasionally, until I found myself before another man behind a desk. This broad-faced fellow took all three copies of my order and my payment.  Progress.  He then stamped each receipt with a separate mark, gave me my change along with the three stamped receipts.  Now what? Cassettes?  No.  Back to the first line, I was instructed, which was again snaking to the door.

The dull blue walls of the place began to yellow.  Finally, after having waited out this communist shopping water torture, lamenting it and a hundred other of life’s inequities with my fellow queue-mates, I re-handed the stamped sheets to the first clerk.  He placed one in a pile to his left, another in a pile to his right, and stamped the third before reaching to the stack of cassettes in the case and handing me my merchandise and the stamped receipt.  How charming, I thought.  But more importantly, how utterly time consuming.  They say there is no unemployment in Poland.  No wonder.  They have three adults doing one kid’s job.

I reeled out of the store thinking, “What an incredibly dumb system this is.  Or brilliant, depending on one’s goals.”

Directly in front of the Sony store sat a sidewalk kiosk selling cigarettes, candy and (I thought) newspapers.  My Uncle Xavier was standing beside the car waiting for me, and I shouted over, “I’m going to pick up a copy of the International Herald and I’ll just be a minute.”

Uncle Xavier, "My nephew, the optimist."
Uncle Xavier, “My nephew, the optimist.”

“My nephew the optimist,” he called back in his high pitched, accented English, breaking into an amused chuckle.  “Hah.  We weesh.  Information is restricted, my fine young nephew.  There are no western newspapers here.  You forget where you are.”

It had simply slipped my mind.  We take access to news for granted in the West to a degree that it doesn’t occur that this simple freedom could be withheld.

Communism as it existed on a day-to-day basis was never more elementally exhibited, and I immediately reconsidered the other so-called inalienable rights we so easily take with us each day back home as naturally as a newspaper or a handkerchief, but which did not seem to exist here.  Even calling them freedoms seemed bizarre.  They do so seem self-evident.

Back at the car my cousin Ignaci told me that Xerox and other copying machines were also illegal, because underground newspapers could be duplicated with them.  And when Marshall Law was imposed in 1981 following the rise of the Solidarity union, it was decreed that anyone owning a typewriter must register it with the government.  Talk about a body politic united in its cause.  The donkey and elephant boys back home in Washington D.C. wish they could construct such a unifying platform.


With NYRR Pat Owens at `87 World Cross Country
With NYRR’s Pat Owens at `87 World Cross Country

At that year’s World Cross Country championships Kenya’s John Ngugi won the second of his five World Cross titles in a tight battle with countryman Paul KipkoechPat Porter led the U.S. squad in seventh position.  Annette Sergent of France bested Liz Lynch of Scotland and Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway for the women’s individual gold, while Lynn Jennings in fourth and Lesley Lehane in fifth led the U.S. to the women’s team title.  The rise of the east African women had yet to emerge.

I spent another week traveling to Lesko to the south, the place of my mother’s birth, then onto Lublin, Poland where my parents had met and married in a matter of eleven days in February 1945 as the war neared its conclusion. That’s a story in itself, as you can imagine.

Though much has changed since 1987, including the World Cross Country Championships, there’s no reason to believe we live in any safer a world today.  Probably the world has always been much the same, only the places of safety and fear changing with the political times.  Soviet control of Poland ended with the anti-Communist Solidarity trade union movement’s victory in the 1989 parliamentary election and the presidential election the following year.  Through the 1990s, Poland became a reform leader and achieved rapid economic growth. It joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

Today, its economy performs relatively well in many areas according to the Heritage Foundation. Barriers to free trade are quite low, and commercial operations are aided by regulations that support open-market policies. With a transparent and favorable business climate further supported by political stability, Poland has created a dynamic environment for an entrepreneurial class. Its economy is the only one in Europe that has expanded every year over the past two decades, and it has shown a 4.3% average GDP growth rate over the last five years.  Probably just as hard to find audio cassettes, though, as it was in 1987.



  1. Hi Toni. I’m so glad to find this entry of your blog! My 4th grader’s class are learning about family heritage, immigrants, and Ellis Island. One of the assignments includes an interview with a person or family members of a person who immigrated to America. My son’s teacher approved our request to write about “Bisia”. We were fortunate to meet Bisia, because our family lives in St. Louis on Flora Pl. My son was just a baby so he doesn’t remember but I do. She had such a warm, vibrant personality, and a fascinating life story.
    My MIL Michele, and SIL Cynthia introduced us to Bisia. I only knew her as Bisia, not enough to do an internet search. Cynthia lived near Bisia and helped her on several occasions and so we immediately called her. She sent us an interview from YouTube and a brief article from Saint Louis Post Dispatch. We were working from those resources until I had the thought to try a new search using more variations of her name. Well, it is then we found your writing. So glad to now have more pieces to the puzzle, like her birth city and when your father and mother met/married.
    My son’s assignment requires him to speak in first person and act in front of the class. Well, Bisia is a woman and so he wasn’t keen on that until I told him he could wear daddy’s Lieutenant uniform shirt and hat and speak in first person as Bisia’s husband Isham. He was then okay with the idea. Plus, as coincidence would happen, his class is also reading a book called, “Letters from Rifka” by Karen Hesse. The main character travels to Antwerp, before sailing to America. So to find out here on your blog that Bisia sailed out of Antwerp is exciting news because it connects to what the class is reading/learning. Anything to make learning more fun and connected for my son is vital because he is experiencing much difficulty at present due to a learning disability. We are working together diligently to keep our son engaged in learning. It helps to be a little inspired ourselves. We have lots of good information, and the challenge now is limiting it to one page, for a 3minute speech, in first person, for a 4th grade audience, and narrated by our son with a learning disability. Oh the adventure of having children, never a dull moment!
    Kind Regards, Paulette Duffe

    1. Paulette,

      Sorry for the delay in replying. Your story is inspirational. And just so you know, I have written an entire book about how Mom and Pop met and married in Poland during the latter stages of WW2. I have an agent marketing the manuscript at present. And if it ever finds its way into print I will certainly send a copy your way. All the best in your teaching. Bisia taught girls and young women for 40 years and found the experience as rewarding as anything she’d done.

      Thanks for reaching out. Toni

  2. I remember two things, mainly, from my trip to Warsaw in 1987 with the Canadian team. First, shopping there totally disappointing. Secondly, though our hotel was clearly giving us the best food they had, it was the worst I had ever eaten on any running trip. We didn’t starve but the food was boring; dinner always consisted of a plain slab of cooked meat, boiled potatoes, canned vegetables, and some kind of sugary cake for dessert. The blackberry juice that was our standard beverage was the best part!

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