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.
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.”
“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.
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 Kipkoech. Pat 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.