More toilet paper than you could dream of

Last week I did a piece on the fall of the Berlin Wall. This week I thought I would reproduce a talk given by Martin Krygier analysing the changes in Poland. I know it’s a bit facile but I like it anyway:

A couple of months ago, that is now, segue to 2009, I returned from Warsaw where I teach a few weeks each year which I’ve been doing for some years. I’ve become used to it. Though it’s special to me, it’s basically just another European capital. A bit shabbier than many, but also with some lovely renovations and innovations. It all seemed pretty normal to me after the time…now. But because I was there during the 20th anniversary of June 4th and those elections, I tried to work out just what had been achieved and how much I had to forget, to remember what had been achieved. Among other things, I reread, as one does, my old articles, I discovered how much I’d forgotten. In particular what I had to make some effort to recall was just how much had had to change to seem so ordinary. No queues, food and goods of all sorts, colours, shapes, sizes. Restaurants in every language and every quality rather than one language an no quality. More than two sorts of car—in fact every sort. Radio taxis…this is a term of art in Polish. Taxis you could ring for. Because the only way to get a taxi in Poland used to be to find the stop, wherever the stop was. You couldn’t hail a cab, you had to seek out the stops where the taxis stood, unmoving, until you found and came to them. they would certainly not come to you.

There was more toilet paper than you could dream of. There were bookstores in which you could actually touch and choose the books rather than point at a distance and plead with surly and rather heavy intermediaries. So many books now, and magazines from all over the world. Huge shopping malls, advertisements… I remember when I was taking the train out of Poland in ’85, I’d fallen asleep and I woke up and I just saw a hoarding, an ordinary western hoarding advertising—I don’t know what—could be toothpaste, whatever. It was the colour of it just hit me, and then I realised I was in the west.

All this: advertisements, some gaudy, some classy, quite a lot gaudy, quite a lot not classy—all this jostling for your attention, bustling energy, taught, not slack. If you don’t like it, leave. If you miss it, return. Pretty simple, really, but it hadn’t been simple once.

…So ordinary had all this seemed to me, that had it not been this year, where I had to sort of try to remember how things had been, I wouldn’t have remembered, and I wouldn’t have been shocked. And I failed to register the historical novelty of it all until I went to visit Michnik. And I asked him, particularly given the hate-filled nature of Polish politics, which I’ll conclude, and a lot of hate of Michnik in the process, I asked him how he summed up Poland’s past 20 years. He said, ‘It’s a miracle. Independent for 20 years, no president executed, no war looming; free, democratic, unprecedentedly prosperous—in NATO, in Europe; comings, goings, open to everyone, to everywhere. Who could have imagined any of this 20 years before or, in Poland’s case, 200 years before?


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