Sunday, December 6, 2009

1989-2009: Poland on $10 a day

Twenty years ago today I was in Poland for the second time, taking advantage of the end of classes at my exchange program to take a trip lasting more than three days. I'd been to Krakow earlier in the fall and, like so many other visitors, was captivated by city's medieval charms, the intensity of its Catholicism, and the J.R.R. Tolkien-like flavor of Wawel castle, where Poland's kinds and queens rest in elaborate tombs.

I'd been to Auschwitz on my previous visit, but on this one I had time to wander Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter, which was then literally in ruins. For reasons that still aren't entirely clear to me, the entire neighborhood appeared to have been left exactly as it was in 1945: blocks of gutted, bombed-out, or abandoned buildings whose occupants had been sent to the Auschwitz's ovens when the Nazis liquidated neighborhood. I returned a few years later to report on the neighborhood's rebirth for the Christian Science Monitor; Schindler's List had just come out and there were already bus tours for the tourists. I gather the place is thriving today.

The Nowa Huta steelworks -- Stalin's questionable gift to the Polish people -- were still working full tilt in those days, smothering Krakow in toxic pollutants. Friends told me not to go out at night because that's when the most dangerous emissions took place; pregnant women were allegedly told to leave the city until after birth. My landlady advised me not to brush my teeth with the tap water as it was known to corrode metal. Rain was so acidic it was melting away the statutes and gargoyles adorning the city's buildings. If you wanted to see what the U.S. would have been like without the Clean Air Act, Communist Eastern Europe provided a lot of sobering scenes.

As a penniless student, Poland had an additional attraction in those days. Dollars could be exchanged for an absurd quantity of Polish zloty, giving one the spending power of a millionaire, so long as what you were buying was priced in zloty. Hotels required hard currency, but if you could rent a bed in someone's home, everything else might as well have been free. I spent my 21st birthday with four friends at Krakow's most famous restaurant, Wierzynek. I had Chateaubriand, sauteed mushrooms, beetroot soup, pastries, imported Czech beer, ice cream and tea, was served by a wait staff of four, and paid a bill for the equivalent of $2.50, tip included. (We ate there three more times that week.) And while I stocked up on Christmas gifts and albums (vinyl and cassettes in those days), there were some things you just couldn't buy: toilet paper, fresh fruits, meat at the butcher's. When these things appeared, people stood in long lines to get them, and horded huge stashes. Every apartment I saw had an entire closet filled with toilet paper rolls.

Aside from the restaurant, we were hardly splurging, but rather living like adult travelers on a budget. But I calculated that I was spending a typical Poles' monthly wage every two to three days. A Polish friend with a good sense of irony related his favorite line from Trading Places. Eddie Murphy has just been given a $5 bill by Dan Aykroyd and he says "Gee, Thanks. Now I can go to the cinema....alone." At the time, $5 represented several days' wages in Poland.

On my last day in Poland, my travelling companions and I went out to Nowa Huta, where Stalin had built a centrally-planned city around the enormous steel works. There was a huge statue of Lenin in the middle of the suburban town. Students had tried to attack it the previous night and had been driven away by police with water cannons. Lenin was flecked with paint stains and broken bottles were strewn at his enormous feet. The square was covered in ice from the water cannons.

We were to leave Poland on December 8, but we weren't going straight back to Hungary. Instead, we planned to get the most out of our 24-hour Czechoslovak transit visas. There was a revolution underway in Prague, and we would see it happen.

For more on the 1989-2009 series -- including the opening of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and visits to Ceausescu's Romania and inflation-plagued Yugoslavia -- click here.

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