by Alex de Cruz 

As something hard struck the soles of my feet, a booming voice demanded, “PASSPORT!” Opening my eyes, I found two huge men in uniforms towering over me. One of them held a short police club he’d used to whack the bottom of my feet.

I was on a train traveling from Olsztyn, a city in Northeast Poland, to the port of Gdansk. The shipyard in that city was the birthplace of the Solidarity Movement, which played an instrumental role in bringing an end to the Communist rule of Poland. My hosts at the University of Olsztyn, where I would be teaching a two-week course, put me on the train at 6:15 in the morning, so I could meet some other visiting Americans already in Gdansk. We planned to spend the day touring the city. 

Since I’d flown into Warsaw only on the previous afternoon, I was still jet-lagged. Although the train had several coach cars, it had only a handful of passengers, and I enjoyed an entire compartment for six people to myself. Fumbling around half asleep while the two officials stared at me, I finally produced my passport. “Ah, Amerykanski,” exclaimed the one examining my passport. 

“Tak,” (yes), I replied, using one of the few Polish words in my vocabulary. My being an American seemed to please them, and I’d soon find out why. 

Combining some English, a little Polish, and simply pointing, they made it clear that my transgression had been stretching out and putting my feet up on the seat opposite me without taking my shoes off. I wanted to shout, These seat cushions are so filthy, I couldn’t get them any dirtier if I tried. But I had the good sense to keep quiet. If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have been more thoughtful. 

I was in no position to protest. I felt like a mouse trapped in a corner by a cat. They could have arrested me and taken me off the train, or just beat the crap out of me, since there were no witnesses in sight. After taking a moment to write something out, one of them handed me a purported ticket for $10.00. Interestingly, he wrote it in U.S. dollars, not Poland’s currency, the zloty, suggesting it was far more likely a bribe than an official fine. 

After meeting the other Americans for breakfast at their hotel, we had a fascinating tour of Gdansk. We even visited the legendary shipyard where a security guard sold us historic photographs, including one of Lech Walesa leading a Solidarity rally. The guard probably made more from selling copies of those photos to tourists than he did from his salary.

My first visit to Poland was in May 1990, less than six months after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, which marked the end of the Soviet domination and Communist rule of Eastern Europe. Over the next decade, I made a dozen trips to Poland, typically for two weeks, to teach short courses, work with Polish faculty developing their own courses, and give lectures. My last trip to Poland was in May 2000. I witnessed Poland’s metamorphosis during that eleven-year time span. The country was transformed economically, politically, and socially, as were the lives of many of the Poles who became my friends. 

I discovered what an adventure Poland would be before even getting there. My first trip involved a flight from Heathrow Airport in London to Warsaw on the Polish airline, LOT. They still allowed smoking in the Heathrow terminal in 1990. When I got to my flight’s glass-enclosed departure lounge, it was like there was a forest fire. Many Poles, especially the men, still smoked and being idle and/or nervous while awaiting the flight they all lit up. I would have gladly worn a gas mask. 

My next surprise was the airplane itself. I couldn’t read any of the written messages on the plane since they were not only in a foreign language, but they didn’t even use the Roman alphabet. After a moment, I realized it was the Cyrillic alphabet, and the language was Russian. I’d never been on a Russian-made aircraft, which didn’t have a very good safety record, but it was too late to do anything about it.

I’d met Wlodek, who was my host on that first trip, when he was visiting the U.S. on a Fulbright grant the previous year. After having lunch with Wlodek’s wife and daughter at their apartment one day, he mentioned elections were being held for local council positions. When we stopped by his polling station, he enthused, “This is a big deal. This is the first fair and democratic election I’ve ever voted in.” He was so thrilled that he took me into the curtained voting booth with him. None of the voting monitors objected, which surprised me. 

Many remnants of the socialist economy remained on my earlier trips, especially during that first visit. I went into a bakery one day to buy some sweet rolls and was astounded at the multi-stage process of making a purchase. After taking a number and waiting my turn, I pointed out the items in the glass case I wanted to a clerk behind the counter. She wrote a chit listing them I took to the cashier and paid. I then took the receipt back to the first person who got the sweet rolls out of the case. She wrapped them in paper, which she neatly tied up with twine before handing the package to me.

In a Warsaw bookstore near the university, I was looking through an economics text printed on newsprint quality paper, when a clerk yanked it from my hands. Pointing her finger in my face, she scolded me, “Nie, Nie (no, no).” I got the message you were not supposed to pick up a book unless you planned to purchase it. Later in the 1990s, customer-friendly bookstores opened that encouraged browsing as expected. 

Warsaw had few restaurants in 1990, since not many Poles could afford to dine out, and there weren’t many tourists yet. I ate one evening at one of Warsaw’s supposedly better restaurants. Every item on the menu was priced in terms of the number of grams ordered. The food itself was mediocre. That meal served as a great example of the emphasis in a socialist economy on quantity, while discounting the importance of quality and satisfying consumers.

On that first trip, I stayed in a guest room in an old building on what would become the Warsaw School of Economics campus. None of the other guest rooms had occupants, making me the only person at night in this large five-story, very dark building. It had an ancient open-cage elevator and elevator shaft. If the creaky old elevator broke down, I’d be trapped in it until morning since there was no alarm system, so I walked up the stairs to my third-floor room. I still remember the eerie echo of my footsteps in that empty building

I ate several dinners at a nearby cafeteria. It didn’t stay open very late so I had to eat early. For the equivalent of about one U.S. dollar, I got a plate with a big mound of mashed potatoes and a ground mystery meat covered with a heavy gravy, plus a mug of tea. I made quite an incongruous sight sitting amongst Polish workmen still wearing their blue work coveralls eating their dinners.  

During Poland’s 1980s economic crisis, grocery shoppers confronted empty shelves and most foodstuffs ended up being rationed because of shortages. An inefficiency agricultural sector plagued Poland, but Polish food commodities were also being shipped to the Soviet Union. A Polish professor I had lunch with in Warsaw commented, “My family ate better than most thanks to my brother who still lives on the little farm where we grew up. A couple of times a month, I drove out there to visit and brought back a car full of food. I even took an ice chest to pack with meat. Quite a few people in Warsaw had relatives in the countryside who were a source of food.” 

While visiting Claudia, an American friend living in a rural town in Eastern Poland in 1992, we went for a walk and passed a small grocery store with a produce stand in front. She saw something that made her eyes light up like she’d won the lottery, and said, “Wow, did you see that beautiful looking lettuce. I haven’t had any fresh greens since I got here three months ago in March. It must be imported from the greenhouses in the Netherlands since it’s too early in the season for local farmers. Wait for me. I want to buy some right now before it’s sold.”
Each year as I went back to Poland, the grocery stores became better stocked not only with higher quality Polish foodstuffs, but also with more Western products. They began to regularly carry imported fruits, such as bananas and oranges, for the first time. Western European supermarkets and other retail chains started opening stores there, which the Poles thronged even if they were just looking in wonder. When I saw him on my 1993 trip, Wlodek took me to Poland’s first Ikea store, which had opened on the outskirts of Warsaw.

At the end of my 1990 trip, I wanted to express my appreciation to my host. I took Wlodek and his wife to a ballet at the Polish National Theatre. The total cost for seats in the orchestra section for the three of us was less than U.S. $12.00, when translated from Polish zloty into U.S. dollars. This ridiculously low price reflected the lingering effects of the subsidies that traditional arts had received under the socialist regime and the strength of the dollar in relation to the Polish zloty.

Between 1991 and 2000, the U.S. State Department funded the work of dozens of U.S. faculty in Poland, including myself, through a series of grants. Their purpose was to help transition Poland from a Soviet satellite with a communist government and a socialist economy to a democracy with a market economy. The Central School of Planning and Statistics in Warsaw had produced socialist bureaucrats. With our assistance, it became the Warsaw School of Economics, teaching Western economics and business management. I also taught and lectured at universities in Krakow, Olsztyn, and Poznan, so I got to see most of the country.

In the early 1990s, I taught using a translator, which was a new experience. I couldn’t be sure what I was saying matched what the students were hearing in Polish. I learned to go over the more arcane economic terminology in my notes with the translator before class. Those trips were definitely not some junket. I typically lectured from 9:00 to 12:00 in the morning, and after a lunch break, from 1:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon. Later, we began to “train the trainers”, a State Department term, by jointly teaching courses with the younger English-speaking Polish faculty.

I tried to learn a little Polish, but quickly discovered it is a very difficult Slavic language to assimilate. I mastered a handful of words and phrases I could pronounce correctly, for which I got effusively complimented. Even if I just said “djien dobry” (good morning), or “dziekiye ci” (thank you), they’d tell me, “Ah wonderful, you speak Polish!” 

As Americans, we were warmly received with a few exceptions. The most outrageous occurred on an evening in 1991, when one of my colleagues was giving a talk on the transition from a socialist to a market economy. In the middle of his presentation, an elderly gentleman stood up, interrupted him, and launched into an angry tirade. The man had probably been an official in the previous Communist government. The young woman, who’d been translating his talk, broke down sobbing. She felt too upset with such rude behavior toward a guest to continue and wouldn’t translate what he’d said.

An official who’d organized the event and also spoke English came to the podium. He was embarrassed and apologetic. My colleague got him to provide an approximate translation of what the old Communist had yelled. “We don’t need any damn, smart-ass Americans coming over here and telling us what to do. Go back to the U.S. and go to hell.” By then the angry Communist had left, the translator composed herself, and he finished his talk.

Many Poles had relatives in the United States. Chicago then had the second largest Polish population of any city after Warsaw. On one of my return flights, I flew from Warsaw to Chicago on LOT. By then, the Polish airline had purchased new Boeing aircraft. The flight was packed with Poles. Many of them probably had relatives in Chicago that they may not have seen in years, if ever. As the plane was landing, some Poles, who may never have flown before, got so excited they stood up and began to get their belongings down from the overhead bins. The flight attendants had a fit. They got most people seated again, but even as the wheels touched down, there were still a few folks standing. Fortunately, the plane made a nice smooth landing.

Polish hospitality was remarkable. On most visits, any other visiting faculty and I were invited to dinner at someone’s home, which was typically just a 600 square foot, socialist-era apartment in a concrete, walkup residual tower.  We’d all crowd into the tiny living-dining room. The evening would begin with Polish appetizers, lots of beer and vodka, followed by an enormous dinner. We learned to save space in our stomachs for not just one, but two desserts. Then one evening after we’d finished the second dessert, our hostess brought out a third dessert dish. 

Since many of the junior faculty and lecturers were poorly paid, our dinner hosts might have spent a substantial portion of their monthly salary on that one extravagant meal. This bothered me, so I always brought a nice gift from the U.S. for the hostess, and the children if there were any.

Some of the best Polish food was the hearty soups served at a cafeteria on the Olsztyn campus. I’d go with a group of Polish faculty for lunch and they got used to me saying, “I’ll have a big bowl of that wonderful soup again.” Older women did the cooking who’d probably inherited the soup recipes from their mothers, passing them down from generation to generation. Besides a very good borsch, they made several other delicious soups. Initially, the Poles found my preference for soup rather than the more expensive meat, poultry, and fish dishes curious, since soup was originally a peasant food, as in most cultures. To feed their families, peasant women learned to perform wonders throwing whatever they had into a pot and slowly simmering it.

Under the socialist regime, most people couldn’t afford a car. Among those who could, the most common automobile was the Trabant manufactured in East Germany, which looked something like a 1950s Fiat. As soon as they could afford one in the 1990s, Poles started buying used West German cars, BMWs and Mercedes being most popular. 

An unfortunate consequence of all these cars was that driving in Poland became very dangerous. Attention to driving laws was lax and most major highways were only two lanes. One publication referred to driving in Poland as Europe’s “death trap”. Poland had the highest number of road deaths in relation to the size of its population of all 27 European Union countries in 2010. Compared to the E.U. average of 69 deaths per million people, the Polish rate was 120 deaths.

One reason for the high number of traffic fatalities was that on two-lane highways in Poland, slower vehicles would drive toward the outer edge of the roadway. This created a narrow alley down the center for faster cars to pass. If cars going in opposite directions pulled out to pass using the center pseudo-lane simultaneously, a head-on collusion could easily result. 

Szczepan was one of the leading faculty with whom we collaborated and became a good friend. He’d taken some racing-driver course and owned a late model BMW. He drove very fast and took risks.

One evening, Szczepan had three passengers in his car, including myself. It was raining, making the road slick and visibility poor. Szczepan pulled out and began to thread the needle of the center pseudo-lane. Being seated in the front passenger seat, I glanced at the speedometer. Szczepan was going 120 kilometers per hour, about 75 mph. We were missing cars and big-rig trucks going the opposite direction by a couple of feet, or less. I couldn’t keep quiet. “Szczepan, please slow down? Going this fast in the center of a two-lane highway in these conditions is crazy. I know I’m uncomfortable, and I’m sure Marie and Jerry in the back seat are too.”

After another one of Szczepan’s wild rides a German colleague told him upon reaching their destination, “Szczepan, I like you and enjoy working with you, but I will never, ever ride in a car you’re driving again.”

Poles were remarkably well educated on the heroic and tragic history of their country. When I started teaching at the university in Olsztyn, a couple of the Polish faculty took me to the nearby site of the Battle of Grunwald that occurred in 1410. Although not history experts, they explained in detail how the combined Polish and Lithuanian armies defeated the Teutonic Knights, a Germanic military order. 

The battle involved tens of thousands of mounted knights and soldiers. As the armies faced each other, the Poles and Lithuanians outwitted their foe. They remained shaded in the trees, while the Teutonic Knights waited in an open field in the hot July sun. The German knights, wearing heavy metal armor and helmets, and their horses grew exhausted from the heat. Only at that point did the Poles and Lithuanians attack. 

On another day, we toured the beautifully restored Malbork Castle, the largest medieval fortress complex in the world. It had served as the headquarters of the Teutonic Knights. Again, there was no need for a tour guide given our well-informed Polish hosts. 

I found Poles to be very proud of their country’s famous men and women, such as Nicolaus Copernicus the astronomer, Frederic Chopin the composer and Marie Curie the scientist. They had a special affection for Pope John Paul II, who helped bring a peaceful end to the Communist rule of his homeland.

Poland suffered from its location between Germany and Russia, two major powers. The country had been invaded numerous times, even by Sweden at one point. Poland ceased to exist as an independent country from 1794 to 1918 with the empires of Austria-Hungary, Germany-Prussia, and Russia occupying the area. Even while occupied, Poles retained their culture and language. Today’s Northeast Poland had been East Prussia until the end of WW II.

Given Germany’s and Russia’s past treatment of Poland, especially during the Second World War, Poles were remarkably willing to let bygones be bygones, particularly with Germany which is now its major trading partner.

By the end of World War II, Warsaw lay in ruins. The Russian Army had been pushing the Germans back across what is now Eastern Poland. With the approach of the Soviet forces, the Polish Resistance emerged to fight the Germans within Warsaw. The Polish Resistance hoped that a liberated Poland would be an independent, democratic nation after the war. When the Russian forces reached the Vistula River on the eastern side of Warsaw, Stalin ordered them to halt their advance. By delaying his army, Stalin gave the German forces time to destroy the Resistance, which would have opposed Poland becoming a Communist satellite of the Soviet Union. 

Warsaw had been known as the “Paris of the East” for its Baroque beauty. By the end of the war, 85 percent of its buildings lay in ruins. In the lobby of the impressive Polish National Theatre, there were photographs of the twisted bare steel girders and few sections of stone wall that remained of its predecessor. The beautiful Old Town area of Warsaw, with its cobble-stone central square, is all a reconstruction.

The tallest and dominant building in Warsaw in the 1990s was referred to as Stalin’s Tower by the Poles. It was an ugly gray monolith that the Soviet dictator had supposedly given as a gift to the people of Poland. A glance at Goggle Earth shows that today modern skyscrapers fill Central Warsaw’s skyline.

To celebrate the completion of one course I taught at Olsztyn with Wojciech, a young Polish lecturer, we took the students to a country inn for dinner. We were seated on one side of a long banquet table. A similar table on the other side of the room was empty when we entered, but about a half hour later a tour-bus full of older German tourists arrived. Some of those Germans may have had ancestors that lived in that region when it had been part of East Prussia. They might even have been very young children living there when the Germans were expelled at the end of World War II.

The situation was uncomfortable. The two groups were seated so we looked directly at each other, with about 20 feet between the tables providing space for Polish folk dancers to perform. We sat like that throughout the dinner service with each group trying to ignore the other. Then Wojciech, who’d had quite a lot to drink by that point, walked over and asked one of the older German women to dance to the folk music playing. She accepted, and that broke the ice. Others soon joined them and the evening ended on a convivial note.    

The enormous changes in the structure of the Polish economy brought considerable upheaval initially. The average rate of exchange in 1990 of 9,500 Polish zloty per U.S. dollar increased to almost 23,000 zloty per dollar in 1994, because of high inflation and a trade imbalance with more imports than exports. My hotel bill in Warsaw that year cost over 20 million zloty. Inflation had its most detrimental impact on Poles living on fixed incomes, such as retirees. In 1995, Poland re-dominated its currency, and 10,000 old zloty became worth one new zloty, so that in 1995 the exchange rate averaged only 2.42 zloty per U.S. dollar. Today, it’s around 4.00 zloty per dollar.

The Polish economy ultimately became very successful. The average standard of living increased by over 50 percent between my first visit in 1990 and my last in 2000. Now almost thirty years later, income per capita has more than tripled compared to the last years of the socialist era. Polish faculty that I knew went from living in those tiny apartments in gray concrete towers to owning spacious new condominiums and houses. They were able to join the middle class.

Poland became a member of NATO in 1999 and of the European Union in 2004. The country has had one of the fastest growing economies in Europe for many years. If I returned to the Poland now, after almost 20 years, I imagine I’d have some difficulty recognizing it as the same country I first visited in 1990. I remain deeply grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed and made a small contribution to the first decade of the metamorphosis that occurred in Poland after 1990.

About the Author:

Alex de Cruz has had a passion for fiction and writing since reading Hemingway as a teenager. Recently, he’s become fascinated with writing flash fiction, short stories, and creative nonfiction. Alex’s work has been published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Bull and Cross, Cafe Lit, Flash Fiction Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, and Scarlet Leaf Review. He has forthcoming stories in Down in the Dirt and Scarlet Leaf Review. He grew up in Santa Cruz, California and now lives in Santa Barbara, after spending forty years living in the Midwest.