Theo had started college and he was taking European social history and was stuck on an assignment he had, then he thought "hang on a minute, grandad can help me with this." He rushed to see him and told Grandad he had to write about life behind the Iron Curtain, "Grandad, you lived behind the Iron Curtain for a number of years, can you tell me about it?" "Of course Theo, let me get my photo album and let me tell you about life behind the Iron Curtain.
"Right, here we go, here is my photo album," said Grandad. Grandad went on to tell Theo, he had lived behind the Iron Curtain, between 1970 and 1980 in Poland, Theo knew where Poland was and it's major towns, from his recent classes at college. "Oh whoa Grandad, have you ridden on all of these vehicles and planes?" Asked Theo. "Yes Theo, my favourites are the bendy bus, the bus, the tram and steam trains, all which I travelled on, during my 10 years in Poland, mind you, there was never any heating on them. There was as much ice inside the vehicle, then there was on the outside. It used to get as cold as -25c / -30c and me and the stairs at railway station in Katowice had an ongoing competition, me trying not to slip and the stairs making sure I did." Replied Grandad. They both giggled and Theo said he was very jealous of Grandad having travelled on so many old types of transport on a daily basis.
" One of the things we took for granted in the west during that time, was that we could choose who we wanted to vote for in an election, there was no pressure to vote for anyone, we picked who we wanted. The first part of my time in Poland I lived in the south, in a town called Katowice, which was and still is renowned for it's coal production. It was one of the progressive towns of it's time, however one day I was discussing politics, with my girlfriend of the time and her uni friends. I explained our system to them and my girlfriend replied that they had the same system, that they could vote for who they wanted, when I pointed out there was only one party, they replied, but yes, we can select the candidate we want. It showed me the difference between the west and east at the time." "So Grandad, were they allowed not to vote?" Asked Theo. "No Theo everyone had to vote," replied Grandad.
" One of the things I always carried in my pocket, was a piece of string, I never went out without it. the day I forgot it, was the day I regretted leaving it behind. Toilet paper was always in short supply, so if you saw a queue outside a supermarket / shop and you saw it was a queue for toilet rolls, you waited in the queue and bought as many rolls as you could. Once purchased you slide them on your piece of string, then tie a knot and then sling them over your shoulder and take them home. You were treated like a conquering hero, when you came home with toilet rolls." Theo asked, " so do you still carry string in your pocket?" Grandad thought for a moment, giggled and replied, "No, i think there is enough toilet rolls in the shops now."
" A friend's mother made a living by repairing ladies tights, when you think now in the U.K. you can buy 3 pairs for a pound, in Poland they were scarce and very expensive when they were available. So my friend's mum, used to run a little shop and did nothing all day but repair tights. Again it feels odd in our society today and was strange when i used to come home and there was an abundance of tights in every shop. Every single price in the shops was governed and controlled by the government."
"Grabbing a taxi is easy, but then in Poland at the beginning it was a nightmare, as it was often the taxi driver who decided where he went to.They used to pull onto the taxi rank and tell people where they were planning to go. If you were lucky enough to be going in the same direction, you got in and away you went. My first experience of trying to get a taxi in Warsaw, was a nightmare, 6 taxis pulled up, but I couldn’t get in because they were going in a different direction. "
Then I remembered what my friend had said, lean in and wave 5 dollars at them and you will get them to go anywhere. So, when the next taxi came, I let him see the dollar bill in my hand and before you could say “taxi” he was out of his driver’s door and I was sitting in the back of his taxi, telling him where I was going. Sometimes it got quite embarrassing, as a number of taxi drivers would recognise me in a queue and stop next to me and I would get in. " "Whoa Grandad that sounds like a scene from an old black and white film", said Theo. "Cheeky, I am not that old", replied Grandad and then they both burst out laughing.
My friend told me once "The biggest problem we have every day here, is getting enough food. Entering a shop, you will see empty shelves, what drives us crazy is the lack of sugar, we are one of the biggest sugar beet producers in the world, yet you can’t find it in shops. It is being shipped to the Soviet Union." For me it sounded odd, that something as ordinary as sugar was not regularly available. He went onto to say that it was actually very rare to find supplies in the shops. He went onto say "Since, I can remember, so many things have been rationed, meat, cooking oil, soap, washing powder, cigarettes, coffee, chocolate and petrol and it all goes to the Soviet Union.
Petrol is rationed here and is really expensive and yet in the Soviet Union it is extremely cheap and never rationed. Now we have vegetarian Monday, so you can’t buy meat anywhere, meant to be good for our health, when in fact it is all about hiding the fact, we have very little meat. Can you imagine you and your sisters not having proper chocolate?" "Oh no Grandad that would not be right", replied Theo.
The reality of living during a communist era, was a constant everyday struggle to get the most basic food products. Which you had to queue for a very long time, very often you were buying products not because you wanted them, but because they were available. Some of these products are probably still laying around today
Also you couldn’t buy or rent a flat, like you can so easily do today, you had to apply for and wait maybe decades. If you were lucky enough to be related to or knew the right person, the best person to know was a party official, they you could jump up the list. This however had its drawback, as this could earn you the envy of others of this relationship. Party members had many perks, better housing, more money, no food rationing, better variety of fresh food, their own hospitals, more material goods and access to all departments. They were the most hated people in the country and yet most people wanted to know them and use their power.
Some thing, we so take for granted, is the telephone, in the 1970’s most people had a phone in the UK. In Poland, the phone line was beyond the reach of the ordinary man and his family. My girlfriend's parents had a telephone and I will never forget the constant stream of people coming to them to use their phone. As these people were phoning family members abroad, when the state allowed international calls. Apart from obviously paying for the calls, it provided her parents with a constant stream of German chocolate and coffee. Can you imagine that Theo, no mobile, no phone in the house, no internet and even worse no gaming. Theo shivered and said "don't joke about such things, I mean no gaming, unheard of Grandad." Replied Theo.
The Polish United Workers' Party put enormous effort into maintaining 100% employment, even if it was only completely inefficient. This is why I knew many, who would have nothing to do at work for weeks and would instead just pretend that they were working. Friends, who worked in factories and the docks and I got to know them well. They worked on the evening shift, clock on at 10 in the evening, get a coffee, cha, until around mid-night. Once they knew there was nothing to unload, or any work in the warehouses, then the rest of the shift they either played cards or drank, until the end of the shift. "You mean that they got paid to go to work and do nothing, that's crazy Grandad."
Without appropriate resources, domestic producers came up with "something-like" products. Chocolate-like product used vegetable oil instead of cocoa, thank god, I never smoked, because who knows what was the substitute of quality tobacco in cigarettes like Sporty and the most popular car of the period, the Syrena, could, with no offence to its quality, be classified as a car-like product.
Obtaining a passport, to travel to the west, was another matter completely. If, for some reason the authorities decided you shouldn’t have a passport, then quite simply you didn’t get one. In most cases they decided not to issue a passport, it was very rare to get a passport. There were some exceptions, sportsmen, scientists and some others, but even then, any suspicious person would not be issued a passport. Once your travel was over, you could not hold onto your passport. After no more than two weeks of arriving back in Poland, you were obliged to return your passport to the nearest police station. Everyone was amazed I had a passport, that I did not have to hand back and that I didn’t have an identity card.
The first encounter i had, with the buses of the time was beyond amazing. The bus when it finally arrived, was nothing like I had seen before, it looked like something out of the 1940-1950’s it was blue and cream and sounded like an old tractor. Once the bus stopped, a crowd surrounded it, my girlfriend grabbed my hand and we pushed towards it. To this day I never saw how once the driver opened the door how she managed to get up the stairs and had grabbed two seats. She was like a ferret, elbows everywhere, I was probably at least thirty people behind her and fought like mad to get on the bus, she just laughed when I finally managed to sit beside her. After 2 hours, we finally arrived at the village, the journey had been quite an adventure, it was obvious the driver didn’t know the route and the bus seem to lurch from right to left all the way. There was no heating and ice formed on the windows inside, but it was such fun.
"Theo, you are a very good skier, but let me tell you about my first experience and please no laughing until the end", said Grandad. Theo nodded and then Grandad said, " I had my boots on and I had just about got the hang of walking with two blocks of concrete on my feet, when suddenly there was the ski lift and OMG people had their skis on and skied up to the ski lift, which was to me a garden bench with a pole sticking out of the top linked to a high wire, they then stood there and waited for the bench to come around and scoop them up. After what seemed like an eternity, we managed to get my skis on and it was decided that I should go up with my new friend, which was a good idea, as he was twice my size. Somehow and I still don’t know how, we managed to get into position and the chair came around and off we went. As we went up the mountain I started to relax and look at the view.
Mind you my relaxed state soon ended when I could see what was coming next, at the top as the chair slowed down, you had to stand up and ski to the right where the start of the ski runs started. What happened next still haunts me, we arrived at the top, we stood up, ok so far, we moved off, still ok, now the problems started, nobody told me how to steer these skis, My friend smiled and headed right, I had fear written all over my face and headed left. That would have been ok, except it was the back yard of the restaurant, I ploughed through some barrels and ended up with my skis stuck in some beer crates. They both giggled and Theo asked Grandad if that was true, Grandad nodded and told him it was 100% true.
Unification was total, in every house you would find exactly the same set of furniture, not similar, exactly the same. Clothes were produced in central factories, there was some choice and different styles, but overall the people on the streets all wore the same stuff, just like a uniform. Every day people offered to buy the clothes off my back, just because of the colour and style. Today we nearly all have a computer in our homes and don’t think twice about it. Can you imagine a situation where this was not allowed? Back then it was typewriters, but you couldn’t just go and buy one, you needed a licence to have one. Every time I went back to the U.K., it was a shocked, seeing so much colour and variety.
"Can you imagine your mum and dad finishing work at 3, then having to go to the supermarket and queue for everything?" Said Grandad, Theo shook his head. "Not just once, but every single day, so let's say you want the ingredients for a cheese sandwich, you would have to queue in three different queues, one for bread, one for cheese and one for butter. You would get your place in the longest queue, then move to the middle queue, get your place and then finally stand in the shortest queue, which usually was for the bread. So finally you have your bread, you move back to your place in the middle queue, which usually was for cheese and wait and hopefully get your cheese. Then finally you go back to your place in the last queue, hoping that they have not sold out of butter, which they usually did." continued Grandad.
As I said this was not for one day, but every single day. We take supermarkets for granted, but when I used to go back to the U.K. after a long stay in Poland, the supermarkets in the U.K. used to blow my mind, after months of not seeing hardly any food in a supermarket, visiting a local Tesco really did blow my mind. What took a few days to get used to, every time I went to Tesco, was the amount of food, no queues and that I could buy as much as i wanted.
" Theo, you love cars, can you imagine paying for a car and waiting 7 years for delivery, that's what it was like in the 70's and 80's. Also you had to pay the full price, up front and might have to wait more than 7 years. So even in that period, in villages, the horse and cart was still very popular and in some cases the only transport a family had. There was a very thriving second hand market and the majority of the sales were in U.S. dollars even though it was illegal to have dollars. The prices of the second hand cars were up to 5 times the price of a new car, the big difference was you could have a car now. I actually drove a car in Poland, I called it the lawnmower, because it had a lawn mower engine, put it this way, sometimes you didn't want to outrun a snail lol."
I used to travel to and from Poland, by train and ferry, travelling through Poland, East & West Germany, France or Holland by train then ferry to the U.K. The border crossing was very scary the first time I crossed it, search lights, guards with guns, passport control and customs twice. They really searched the train, top to bottom for people and smuggled goods.
" The car at the top right, was the workhorse of all taxis, it was built like a tank and drive like one. Saying that, it was great fun to be a passenger in the back, it was huge, it was as big as a living room." "Really Grandad?" Asked Theo, "well maybe not that big." Replied Grandad and they both giggled.
A great friend of mine went to an electrical shop early in the morning to buy a television, he was there all day and in the evening I went to see his television, only to find out he had bought a washing machine. By the time he got to the counter, they had sold all the televisions, but had washing machines, so he bought one. I asked him why and he replied "well, it was there and you buy what is there, otherwise someone else will." Days later I heard he had swapped his washing machine for a television, such is the power of bartering.
When Grandad had finished telling Theo about his time behind the Iron Curtain he said, "you are really cool Grandad and my hero." Grandad giggled and said "thank you Theo, now I think it's time to write your assignment." With that Theo went to his room and wrote his assignment, Grandad had given him such a lot of real facts, it made writing it a joy. A week later Theo hurried to see Grandad, he wanted to tell Grandad, how everyone loved his assignment and that he had got an "A" for his assignment. No one had a Grandad like Theo and he was very pleased to have Grandad as his Grandad then he thought about it and decided everyone's Grandad was a hero, one way or another. Theo was grateful he lived in today's society and never had to endure what people did in the East, until the Berlin wall came down.