This was again a non-fiction book, quite a lot of those in my January reading stack. I found it utterly fascinating. Before I focus on the book, let me add a word of explanation – PRL was Polska Republika Ludowa aka People’s Republic of Poland, the socialist form of the country currently simply as Poland or Republic of Poland. I lived in PRL for the first six years of my life, so I don’t remember much other than I lived at some point at Patrice Lumumba street (now called something else of course) and that Aero chocolate and Barbie were a luxury to be bought only in special shops for foreign currency. I don’t remember the protests, Solidarity (even though I am from Gdańsk, for me it was always part of history not the present), food shortages, or empty shelves in shops. I’m sure my family simply did everything to protect me from all this and I had a very happy childhood indeed.
That;s why the idea of this book was so fascinating for me: a couple roughly my age decides to recreate PRL and live in it for a year, to make it more interesting they have a two-year old daughter. They also only lived in PRL in their childhood, so their memories are spotty at best. The decision they make is inspired by their professions. Witold is a journalist and Izabela is an anthropologist. They both throw themselves in the project, spending six month on preparation, collecting old clothes and things from PRL from friends and relatives, finding an apartment that has not been renovated since 1980’s, gathering stories and memories from people. They decide to live in 1981, a year when Solidarity emerged and when martial law was declared as a result.
Finally they move in 2012, abandoning their mobile phones, credit cards, computers, social media.Lack of internet is the first shock, but that relatively quickly passes. Then they work on their appearance, Izabela gets a perm, Witold mustache and a combover. Their clothes are from 1980’s, their daughter stops wearing pampers and starts wearing old school textile diapers instead. Izabela is still on maternity leave, so all chores fall on her, no one heard about gender equality in socialism. She has to manage without all the fancy detergents we have today, using vinegar and baking soda instead. They adjust their diet as per food coupons that were distributed back then, which means a lot of lard and potatoes, not much meat, and no cheese, in 1981 there were cheese shortages, forget olive oil, rucola, french cheese, halloumi and all other food we now perceive as usual. Also citrus fruits were a luxury. Shopping and planning dinners was a daily horror. As their older neighbour told them: Back then one didn’t look for recipe and then went shopping for ingredients. First one had to check what was in the fridge and available in the shops and from there came the recipe.
Another fascinating aspect was personal hygiene, with no choice of shampoo and conditioner other than the basics, no antiperspirants, one brand of cologne (called Brutal, that says something about how male and female social roles were perceived back then) and one brand of perfume. Let’s not forget that shaving legs or armpits was a thing of the future. People showered daily, but you could only use what was available and it wasn’t much. When Izabela gets her period there’s no Always or Tampax, there’s cotton.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, people spend more time together, no one worked themselves to death building socialist paradise, so they had more time. There was no social media and TV was crap and had 2-3 channels to choose from, so meeting people was the most basic form of entertainment. After a year in PRL Izabela and Witold returned to 2012 with relief, but they also learned a few things. As could be expected their daughter was the one that found it the easiest to adapt to both worlds.
I forgot to mention the absolutely awful level of customer service in PRL. To recreate that they would as their friends about the shops with rude assistants and shop just there. PRL customer was not a king, he was a nuisance at best and an enemy at worst.
Fascinating read! (I know I used word fascinating more than I should in this post). I think it should be translated to give people from countries that were never under soviet rule an idea how everyday life looked like and how it eroded the societies. How can one think about fighting for democracy if there’s no food or toilet paper, it was one of many aspect of bringing people down to the basic animal level, with everyday small humiliations. Fifty years of this completely eroded trust in state or in common property in those societies, to reverse this damage will take several generations and lots of people moving to other countries in Europe and coming back with other patterns of behavior.