Poland Dispatch: Catching Up With Capitalism

Yesterday was an exciting day. We left the village and drove to the ‘big city’ of Pila (pee-wa) which isn’t really a big city – it just has some taller buildings in it. It’s big only if you’re normally used to dealing with small buildings and windmills.
Sadly, most of the buildings in Pila were built during the years of Soviet occupation, so they look like crap. A reminder to all of you college kids and professors who think communism rocks: It doesn’t! Communism sucks! They made ugly gray buildings that don’t hold up. Marx is a big loser!
I got a lecture on the days when folks were assigned ration cards. Since the folks out here fell under the ‘agricultural’ category they were not rationed any meat. Even people who were only growing fruit or vegetables. If you had a kid, you got four pounds of meat per month. Four whole pounds. Rock on, commies! No wonder why it caught on like wildfire.
Everyone I know here looks back on those days with a mix of anger and amusement at how awful it was. That’s because they actually experienced it, unlike some enlightened, Che-loving, 20-year old from Berkeley who has all the answers.
But their nightmare ended a little more than a decade ago and now they’re getting the hang of it. In the village they still have what the average spoiled American might consider unacceptable business practices. Like not heating the store. Hi, I’m completely freezing and looking for an ottoman. May I see what you have in stock?
My wife explains it as the aftereffect of growing up under the Soviet system and the level of poverty that came with it. It’s no different than the economic environment that left my Depression-era grandmother forever hoarding mayonnaise and reusing tea bags. It’s simply habit, and a hard one to break – even if breaking it might make better business sense. Now I know why the restaurant we had lunch in didn’t have any lights on.
The Green Party folks would love the conservation aspect. I can imagine the thrill they’d feel as they walked into a dark (saving electricity) restaurant that was barely heated (saving gas) and ordered some food handled with bare (reduced plastic glove waste) hands and a non-refrigerated (lower freon emissions) beer. Nirvana they would exclaim as they shivered in the shadows and washed down their e.coli with tepid lager. The only thing that might possibly bother them is that everything is meat, next to meat, stuffed with meat or in a meat sauce. As long as they weren’t vegetarians they’d have found their slice of luddite paradise. Come to think of it – the Unabomber was Ted Kaczynski. Interesting.
Not that the conservation mentality is bad, mind you. It’s actually refreshing to see a culture that’s not inherently wasteful. It’s nice that instead of stuffing your single loaf of bread into a plastic bag they look at you, wondering why you haven’t just taken the bread from the counter. I can imagine the shock if they ever ordered coffee in a New York deli. They’d get coffee, a plastic stirrer, sugars they didn’t ask for, creamer they didn’t ask for, an extra cup with a thermal barrier to protect their hands – and it would be stuffed with napkins into a paper bag.
I’m sure there’s a middle ground somewhere that would let them cater to their post-Soviet scars and the customer at the same time. I’m all for saving electricity, paper, yadda, yadda, but it’s a little creepy when you walk into a dark restaurant. And I’m assuming the wax paper napkins are designed to keep you from using them, thereby saving a dollar a month. Personally, I’d like to be able to leave the bedroom and go to the bathroom without someone turning the lights off. Give me that, and I promise I won’t buy an SUV. Though on these roads and with this weather an SUV makes a hell of a lot more sense than it does for some suburban American soccer mom. Has Jody from Boise ever tried to sip hot tea while her brother-in-law navigated a half-cobblestone/half-dirt road in a dilapidated 4 cylinder Polish rust-bomb? I think nie.
Prices here are dirt cheap. The downside is that there’s not a lot to buy. Or rather, if you think the prices are dirt cheap then you wouldn’t be interested in buying anything because it means you can afford nicer things. For example I saw a sweater. It was called ‘Kaptan – Lambswool.’ At only $40 I’m thinking I’ve found a bargain! Turns out ‘Kaptan – Lambswool’ is 70% Cotton and 30% Acrylic. I know what you’re thinking: Where’s the frickin’ lambswool? Apparently it’s in the name of the product.
A few products caught my eye. There’s a total Diesel rip-off brand called ‘House’ for a sixth the price and a third the quality. House was nothing compared to ‘Red Indian’ Shoes. Can you imagine the anti-you rallies you’d suffer if you tried to sell ‘Red Indian’ shoes in Michigan? I can. And it would be hilarious. The tagline for Red Indian is ‘The symbol of braves [sic]’ which makes about as much sense as the name Red Indian.
Other labels that I noticed were ‘Poolman’ and ‘Blend of America.’ Bad news for the Poolman folks: cleaning a pool, though potentially lucrative, isn’t necessarily something you’d brag about. Who knows, they may have found a niche market for any pool cleaning professionals who make it to rural Poland. They can buy a Poolman sweater and advertise their trade while at the same time letting folks laugh at the inexplicably large, utterly pointless flap that spans the chest.
At the awkwardly named women’s store ‘Troll’ I saw a shirt that said ‘Hot women in the middle of the road is just how I like it’ with a silhouette that looked like a cross between Morrissey and Grace Jones. This is exactly why I never wear shirts with Japanese symbols on them: I don’t know what they might be saying. I don’t want to parade around with Meat Demon Ninja: Love Clause Active. I’ve noticed a lot of absurd English phrases, but the hot women one took the cake. The ‘In life we belive [sic]’ shirt wins for spelling, I believe.
The elite U.S. Army force has their own hygiene product line apparently. ‘Delta Force’ deodorant was on sale, and not too far down the shelf was ‘Bond’ shaving cream. The shaving cream tried everything it could to say ‘James Bond’ without the legal troubles of actually doing so. There was a man’s silhouette, a picture of a Ferrari, and for some reason it said ‘Speedmaster.’ All that was lacking was an ‘Albert R. Broccoli Presents Shaving Foam’ on the cap.
A store full of zany chemicals for weightlifting freaks was called ‘Arnold Shop.’ I asked if it was named after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and they answered in the affirmative – and as if I were a lunatic for asking. Come on! The answer seemed too obvious which is why I asked in the first place.
Groceries for about 6 folks ran us about $50. Stuff is so cheap I’m tempted to get on the PA system and announce Skittles for everyone. On me! Please love America! Yet when a kid came up to me in the parkingowy lot asking for money, I played the dumb tourist card and pretended not to understand.
Bad news for Home Depot shareholders: There’s already a Home Depot here. It’s called ‘Nomi’ and it looks just like Home Depot except for the name being ‘Nomi’ instead of ‘Home Depot.’ Same colors. Same layout. Orange aprons on somewhat cheerful staff. Everything. I had already decided to purchase the $10 drill bit kit because it was such an amazing bargain but I was overruled by the wife because I don’t even have a drill here. Yet. The best part is your shopping experience at Nomi is not hindered by darkness or cold. The lights and the heat are on.
What finally convinced me that they’ve got a knack for capitalism is that they understand one of the fundamentals: identify what people want and make it available to them. This point was driven home when I passed the Bicycles/Fireworks store. They’re learning quickly folks. It’s no wonder the Germans and French are getting all cranky and trying to change the European Union rules on them.