It took me a while to think about a title for this blog entry. My new roommate, Gosia, suggested “Smells of Communism”. Then I thought about writing in Spanish, so I brainstormed another bit. Anyhow, finally I just came to the conclusion that if my main interest is to portray the remaining communist influence in present-day Poland according to my experiences during the past week or so, I should keep the title simple and to the grain. Moreover, exclude prejudices, biased notions, or in between the line meanings, in order to focus on a mere account of my experience on Polish ground.
My impression so far??? Communism is still felt all over!
Although Nazi occupation officially ended in 1945 and according to some sources, in modern day (post-1989) Poland communists have a minimal impact on political and economical life, the truth is that many aspects of Polish society still conform to communist ways of life. As I mentioned before, I have only been here for merely a week, therefore it is not my intention to create false stereotypes or reach conclusions based on partial evidence. I will focus solely on a couple of examples where I consider communism to still be strongly felt in this country.
Nowa Huta is the first.
During a recent visit to Krakow with my friend Kasia, we visited this quarter developed in the 1950’s as a modern industrial town autonomous of Krakow, and a symbol for the birthplace of a new socialist society planned by the Communist Party leaders. Basically, Nowa Huta, which means New Steelwork, was a residential and self-sufficient complex designed for over 30,000 steel workers originally from Polish villages to settle and raise the local steel production. From its founding Nowa Huta was controversial. The erection of a church here was opposed by communist authorities resulting in riots and threats. Its architecture is also of communist-orientation. My friend Kasia showed me how it is possible to observe what your neighbors are doing from every corner as to alert the authorities if any suspicious activity was being held. Also, conforming to communist practice, all buildings were constructed in the same manner. Same color, same height, and the apartments were also furnished in the same way. The avenues were made wide, trees were planted, stores and services were created… All with the intention of founding a self-sufficient communist paradise on earth.
I was interested in visiting Nowa Huta mainly because Kapuscinski wrote about this 1950’s Communist symbol and one of his chronicles actually awarded him an important prize. During our visit there we were able to interview a guy called Pawel, who is born and breed a nowahutian and needless to say, extremely proud of his heritage, which he considers to be very different from the rest of Krakow. He owns a bar in the Nowa Huta Cultural Center.
This excentric cave-looking hole in the wall where Solidarnósc pictures, red stars and antique radios cover the walls. Definetely a one of a kind experience to sip on earl grey tea while listening to Pawel talking about his family´s memories settling in this complex.
It is pretty obvious that communist influence is evident in places like Nowa Huta, although it is also capable of being observed and sensed on a daily basis. Maybe not as evident as before, although definetely still present. The train system for instance is another way of portraying these remains. Travelling as a second class passenger on a Polish train is definetely an experience, sometimes even a nightmare! No seats are guaranteed, therefore on many occasions you must run to ensure you will be spending your trip in a place other than the corridor or a tiny spot next to the toilet. Most trains date back to Communist times and are therefore slow and ancient… although on the bright side, cheap and punctual.
Hospitals are my next example. Today, my sixth day of non-stop coughing, fever, and head cold symptoms forced me to visit a doctor. My roommate Gosia helped me to call a taxi and soon enough I found myself in a waiting room inside a Polish Szpitala (hospital). Well, actually two, because the first one was unable to help me out. Total communist remains once again! No signs of private medical insurance or private hospital rooms. Everything seemed to be shared and equal for all.
After testing my poor Polish skills, I was finally told I had to wait an hour for an English speaking doctor and decided to lay down on a bench. A nurse signaled me to a room with two humble-looking beds where I was able to properly lay down (although according to sources, beds are usually scarce). She brought me a comforter, tucked me in, took my temperature, and soon enough, a Nazi looking doctor, who was actually really nice, came to my aid. He examined me, asked me for my medical card, student card, international insurance, and since I had none, I think they pitied me, and luckily enough I was able to leave with a diagnose of bronchitis (not so lucky) and best of all, a ZERO FEE! Pointless it is to say that this scenario would most likely never happen in Puerto Rico or the US. Do I sense communist remains?
Finally, the BAR MLECZNY (or milk bar) is my last example. These luxury-less cafeterias with bare walls and simple tables used to once upon a communist time serve cheap home cooked dinners for the public. Now they are still great options for students or any person who enjoys eating well and is probably on a budget. Pierogi (Polish dumplings) and a berry yogurt drink was my choice! No English is spoken here anyhow, therefore without the help of a local they are definetely hard to find. Most meals will most likely leave your tummy full and satisfied for several hours!