Let me start by roughly translating the title: The moon from Pewex. About luxury in PRL. This is basically what the book is about, the author tries to define what was considered a luxury in Polish People’s Republic (PRL). I was looking forward to that read, as I lived the first six years of my life in PRL (before it collapsed) and have memories of going to Pewex to buy something like Aero chocolate. I do not remember food shortages, arrests, the general feeling of paranoia, but I do remember that buying Aero was something special, in my five years old brain that was something I considered a luxury. So I was looking forward to see what other people considered as a luxury and not only I wasn’t disappointed, I was actually surprised because Boćkowska treated the topic a lot more broadly than I expected.
She starts by describing what luxury meant in Gdynia (it’s a city next to Gdańsk and together with Sopot they form a Tricity agglomeration now) a city that was one of the most open to the world back then thanks to its harbour and large population of seamen. This chapter made me laugh out loud more than once, the things that people were not allowed to have in PRL and the smuggling creativity of sailors is astounding. In some cases they would smuggle 20 tonnes of coffee, in other 300 watches, not to mention crazy amounts of textiles and all the chain transactions on the way, where they would take something from PRL, sell it in Russia to buy something else, sell that in turn in China to buy somethign they’d smuggle back to PRL. I do also remember from my childhood that sailors were always considered rich and if someone had a seaman in the family they were considered very lucky and a useful acquaintance. What I like a lot is that Boćkowska spoke to many of those people and it is fascinating how they remember this time, how only in retrospect and in comparison to how others lived they realize they were actually rich and the fact that they could afford to fly to Warsaw to get famous Blikle doughnuts (I remember those too) for a party was a luxury.
From this entertaining first chapter full of anecdotes and typical soviet state absurdities she moves on to describe how aristocracy fared under the new regime. This is turn by 180 degrees, the chapter is blood chilling, starting with people being thrown out of their houses after the war for being landowners and enemies of the nation, throughout the whole PRL and being the enemy class that was constantly persecuted and permanently in poverty but fighting to keep the dignity and memories of the past. For them the luxury was a porcelain cup kept from the family dining service, or the tradition of learning languages, or keeping the form and always dining in the dining room, even if there was barely anything to eat. I do think that another luxury was also the wide family network and the support it was providing in those horrible times. One thing aristocracy never lost were those family ties, but a thing they lost and missed dearly, especially the older generation was losing their land in the country and being forced to move to apartments in the city. It seems odd at the beginning, but when one thinks about it Polish aristocracy was a class of landowners that was settled in the country, visiting the cities but not living in them permanently.
The next chapter describes by contrast the luxury of the socialist ruling class and it is a stark contrast. We’re moving from a class used to luxury to people who often had no education but suddenly had money and power. Everything becomes louder and flashier. From this Boćkowska moves to miners, who similar to sailors were considered to be a special class, as the coal was extremely important to economy back then. Because of that they were allowed more, were earning more and felt more important. Until they were in Silesia that is, she describes a fascinating story that one miner told her, when they were becoming more and more arrogant and full of themselves, because of how rich they felt, the manager of the mine took them all for a trip to Warsaw’s five-star hotel where they could barely afford anything, which forced them to put their ‘big money’ in a completely different context.
The next three chapters show more aspects of luxury, but I think this ‘putting things in context’ aspect of this book is the most important. It shows how our needs change based on what we have, how our perception of success and luxury is completely relative to what’s around us. For me living n one bedroom apartment in London, being able to afford vacation, occasional dinner out and going to theatre is something I take for granted, but if I made different decisions in my life I would probably consider this a luxury. I am very happy that this book made me look more carefully at what we consider luxury and why this not something else. For some people luxury means things, for others it’s freedom of thought and speech, for others it is having time for oneself, for yet others it is having readily available food and water in the tap. Very cliché I know, but it doesn’t make it untrue.
Unfortunately for now this book is available only in Polish, I do hope it gets translated one day.
What do you consider a luxury?
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska