Land of absurdities

The most beautiful smell in socialist Poland was the aroma of sweet oranges, remembered by many with great emotion. The reason is very easy to explain – oranges were available only once a year, at Christmas time. Provided that you managed to get them, because in those days buying a desired goods was considered a miracle.

Severe and joyless were those times, but many people recall those days with laughter and fondness, because we existed in the land of absurdities, which could hardly be invented by any western screenwriter. In this field ingenuity of the PRL* government and especially its citizens, who somehow dealt with these absurdities, was extremely huge. Now you simply go to the store and buy whatever you want (if only cash allows it), which is incomparably easier, but quite boring! Now there is a lack of thrills when you went to buy, for example, a TV set (just delivered to the shop) and returned with a washing machine. It was bought simply just because you could buy it, and in the era of the chronic lack of everything it was quite a good reason. By the way – the washing machine was a valid part of the future bride’s expedition. It belongs to the family legend stories, when bought in advance as the maid dowry, for later years was stored somewhere in a corner, covered with a cloth napkin, waiting patiently for the wedding.

Tastes of childhood

Absurdities accompanied the Pole since birth. It is not enough that you could not normally buy diapers and baby clothes (which were available only by an official assignment), the pantyhose were often two times longer than the infant’s legs. No one knows why!

Older children had to do without chocolate, because during the worst economic crisis Poland could not afford to purchase cocoa. Chocolate sweetness was then replaced by false chocolate products (on the photo). For many kids the best taste of the childhood was however orange flavored powder. This had to be, of course, mixed with water, but no one did – it was just licked from the hand, relishing the taste of saliva effervescence. Another “delicacy” was marmalade. – I remember this multi-fruited jam kept in wooden boxes. It was hard and had excellent taste. Produced from fruits of worse quality and fruit waste of all kinds. But even when some factory employees told me what filth (apple worms, mice, flies, wasps) was in there, it did not deter me from gorging myself with it on fresh bread from the village bakery – writes someone in the Internet.

Seems that in the past we were more resistant to germs and bacteria, as evidenced by the huge popularity of water from the street saturator trolley, wittily called “tuberculosis water”. It was the tap water, infused with CO2, and possibly with the addition of lemon or raspberry juice. Amazing is that it was drank from inaccurately rinsed glasses, but it did not stopped us from drinking! (Coca-Cola was not yet available, substituted by Polo Cocta.) On the pictures: street saturator trolley and a poster promoting Polo Cocta.



Oh these purchases! Perhaps the greatest memories are connected with shopping. Because of the chronic lack of goods people had to buy whatever they could after standing in mile-long queues – without a proper diagnosis, what happened to sell! And such “blind purchases” are the source of many family anecdotes. – My aunt once placed a line up without asking if it was worth it, and spent half a day to find out that the allocation was… five condoms. The time was indeed absurd, but you can not deny that it was fun:) – laughs some Internet user.


 Queue for toilet paper

Unfortunately, standing in queues created a lot of tension and conflicts, as evidenced by entries in the so-called “complaints books”, showing less amusing side of PRL. Here is an example of such entry: “Long queues are forming on the street but the staff refuses to run a second booth cashier, even though there are four saleswomen in the shop. Two of them are sitting in the back drinking tea. In addition, the manager insulted me with an entry … ” – at this point the text is cut off, as probably energetic shop manager snatched the notebook to record their arguments in her defense: “WRONG! LIE! As a manager, I declare that there was a big queue in the store due to high supply of attractive goods such as oil, margarine, sugar. Saleswomen do not keep up with the goods denounce. “

Attractive goods such as oil, margarine, sugar… Lemons too. Oh, you could only dream of them. Graciously reining in the 60s the First Secretary of Communist Party Wladyslaw Gomulka felt those adequate amounts of vitamin C was provided by sauerkraut, which he personally liked very much. Guess he did not like tea with lemon! Today it sounds unbelievable. No wonder that the shop staff, with their power over scarce goods often acted imperiously and impolite. And rather rare were such entries as this: “I wish to thank the management for a change of leadership of the former staff at the forefront in our store. The new staff is professional and pleasant. It seems to me as if I was treated like before the war ” – wrote Stanislaw Wisniewski, WW II veteran. 

Reconstruction of the typical shop in 80., exhibition “Roads to freedom”, Gdańsk 

The lack of goods made people buy some products to store them at home, which left many shops with empty shelves. Another quote: – I also remember the piles of notebooks with grey-blue or yellow covers, placed in one of my mother’s cabinets. I had to use them long after the fall of communism. Some trophies were lying around and unused for years and still  in the original packaging. Sometimes you did not know what to do with such a purchase. – I recently bought a melamine breakfast board, produced by PPSBK Prekom in Swinoujscie. There would be no wonder if it was not with the attached information sheet stating “not suitable for contact with foodstuffs. Such humoristic examples could be multiplied many times.

Own production, not quite legal

Inability to purchase the desired product, and even alcohol was sold on the food cards for some time, enabled resourceful Poles to start producing their own, competing effectively in this area with the state and its monopoly. The state controlled the production of legal alcohol. There was a time in the 80s that you could buy alcohol after 1 pm! It was a decision of the standing at the helm of power General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who himself being a teetotaler, did not understand the need for help in releasing stress by consuming a glass of vodka. In this situation it is not surprising that Poles, tired of hard life conditions, were forced into producing their own brew, popularly known as KPN – Koniak Pędzony Nocą (Cognac Distilled at Night). It was prepared according to a recipe easy to remember:  1410 (this is the date of the famous battle of Grunwald). These 1410 means 1 kg of yeast, 4 pounds of sugar and 10 gallons of water. – The only small problem concerned the purchase of a glass coil, because the store staff demanded the name and address of the buyer. I gave them the name of the guy who worked for the UB [security service, much hated by Poles], so I was a pig … – says one of the producers of illicit alcohol. On the photo: home kit for the production of alcohol.

Gastronomic delight

Quenching the thirst with vodka or beer could be possible mostly in restaurants or less elegant “pubs”, often called “mordownia” (a kind of shambles, mord = murder). While losing life there was not possible, you better didn’t enter this place with a lady. But to this day many men sentimentally recall those crowded pubs, which were reigned by the barmaid, a woman coping well with the crowd of drunken consumers. It was obligatory to buy a glass of vodka with a snack – usually a herring or a piece of cheese impaled on a toothpick. Giving this appetizer barmaid usually asked: – Herring for consumption or on duty? Of course, fish or cheese (dry as a chip, of course) on duty was not fit to eat and served only for a case of inspection. Traditional order was “binoculars and jellyfish” that is, two fifty and jelly (on the photo).

Beer for commoners was served on the open air (videoclip)

It was also affordable in some better restaurants but it often depended on the waiter’s good humor. One can only guess at what could appease such a bad mood. However, there were miracles in some restaurants, which was recorded in the compulsory contributions and complaints book: “For the first time in Poland I was served in restaurant in a proper way, it means that I got beer before dinner, main dish all hot and fresh, lightly iced vodka, tea at the end of meals, and the bill is not overestimated. I am full of admiration for such personnel – KW “.

Visiting bars in socialist Poland has become a source of many anecdotes and jokes. The biggest hit among food jokes is political and concerns “pierogi ruskie” (Ruski = Russian). The joke is as follows:

  • A cook’s voice from the window: “Who ordered ruskie?”
  • A voice from the audience: “No one ordered, came uninvited …”

                      Post-socialist milk bar, Cracow

All alike

A car was an object of great desire. The offer was not large – warsaw, syrenka (mermaid) and fiats, from foreign models available were German trabant and wartburg. Fiats were produced under license from Italy’s Fiat, in two versions: Fiat 125p (big) and Fiat 126p (small), affectionately called “maluch” (toddler). Its advantage was that the driver could wipe all windows with a cloth, including the back one, without moving from his seat. Such a “car” was meant to be the flagship family car in the era of Edward Gierek (70s). And it was!  Despite its incredible narrowness Poles were able to fit inside quite a lot of luggage needed for the holidays: a tent, mattress, stove, sleeping bags, and clothes for two weeks and – when the family was going abroad – some goods for exchange. They never rode with empty hands as there was always something you could buy or sell for gold or U.S. dollars. On the pic: Fiat 126 p, “soapdish”.

Despite these and other disadvantages, socialist Poland had one big “advantage” – all people lived more or less in the same conditions, which eliminated the phenomenon of jealousy. “Absurdities of PRL? The first thing that comes to mind is »Bieszczady«. I don’t mean mountains – I mean furniture [called Bieszczady], which stood in almost every Polish apartment. Paul had it on the third floor, Aneta from the first and Tom from the ground floor. Moreover, Paul had the same kitchen furniture and the same washing machine “Polar”. Saying “feeling right at home” had its literal meaning.


 Typical “furniture wall” 

Life in PRL could be a subject of a long tales – information above provides only a cursory insight into the characteristics of those times and of that nonsensical system. Its absurdities were already ridiculed in the comedies that were not the usual comedies but the tools to fight with the system in which the power was decisive for the smallest things. Here’s just one tiny example: – Board of Education politely asks to prescribe whether the central heating smokers employed in schools may receive milk? In the case they can, please explain if the milk should be consumed on the spot.

Those who do not know these realities, can not understand the weaknesses of the older Poles, which have always been forced to circumvent the senseless rules and combining, on the other, the better side, had to learn resourcefulness since childhood.

Satirical comedy “I don’t like Monday”

Currently the absurdities of PRL are described in rich literature, and even human memory stores hundreds of anecdotes and sentimental nostalgic memories that obscure the wickedness of the system. The further away from communism, that these memories are less severe, there is even a kind of fashion of PRL. But perhaps no one in their right mind would like to return to those times.

Renata Głuszek

* PRL – Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa (Polish People’s Republic)

Make life in PRL by Big Cyc

Photo: Wikipedia, public domain, Renata Głuszek



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