Wednesday, 19 August 2009

1989: Cheap Holidays in Other People's Misery

"I want to see some history/'Cause now I've got a reasonable economy". In the remarkably prescient 1977 ditty, Holidays in the Sun, Johnny Rotten of Britain's premier punk rock quartet* the Sex Pistols sang about how he wanted to go over the Berlin Wall for his vacation rather than merely 'asking for sunshine'. The song was the sound track to every one of my visits to Poland and points east of the Iron Curtain from 1977 to 1989, when the Wall finally fell.

Our holiday in August 1989 was unforgettable; we were witnessing history and having a ball with a pound buying over 11,000 (old) zlotys on the black market. As DINKYs (Dual Income No Kids Yet), we were well off while Poland economically was on its knees. Above: Fresh veg and flower sellers, ul. Filtrowa, August 1989.

Look at the prices (click on photo to enlarge); there's nothing here costing more than 1 zł 10 gr (25p) in new money. Look at the the display, the irrational mix of brands. Look on, you jaded Western sophisticates, and laugh. Yet this was the cutting edge of Polish retail just 20 years ago.

Bear in mind that the average monthly salary in 1989 was 206,754 old złotys (20.68 PLN). At the exchange rates of the day (see yesterday's post), that worked out at $34 (or around £19 with $1.75 to the pound in 1989). Nineteen quid a month. (To give you an idea of the price of a tin of deodorant displayed here in relation to the salary of an average Polish worker 20 years ago, the equivalent today would be 187 zł. Nearly £40. Or £90 in purchasing power parity terms.

No malls. No galerie. No hypermarkets. No online shopping. No 24-hour convenience stores. Just queues outside the state-run Społem groceries.

And then the miracle happened. The state allowed private enterprise to buy goods and sell them on to the public at a profit. Enterprising Poles would drive to West Berlin or Vienna and buy whatever they thought consumers in Warsaw, Poznań or Kraków needed but couldn't get, and would sell them from blankets spread out on pavements. Of course a kilo of bananas cost a week's wages, but then that, in real world terms - not Mickey Mouse Marxist economic terms - is what a kilo of bananas cost to produce, ship across the Atlantic, and deliver at a profit to the consumer. Wages caught up, but the shock therapy, introduced by Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz on 1 January 1990, had many losers; the effects are being felt to this day.

Above: Poland in 1989 was not a retail therapy holiday destination.

This time last year:
Steam in the mountains

This time two years ago:
New housing development springs up
Beyond Warsaw's exurbs by bike

Mud yields to paving stone on ul. Kórnicka
Starlings on the wire

*Moni takes issue with me on this one, she claims it's The Clash.


Chrisoz said...

I've got to agree with you and not Moni. The Clash were, in my opinion, a rock band that dabbled in punk, reggae, ska and rap too - infact, they were almost making 'pop' music at one point. The Pistols were punk rock through and through.

Both were great though; don't you think?

Anonymous said...

I forgot it was so bad as this!

Mietek B.

Michael Dembinski said...

Mietek - Collective amnesia, mate. When I talk to people around at that time, they say exactly the same thing!

ChrisOz - The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks... is one of the seminal rock albums of all time ever. Steve Jones and Paul Cook could play. (Jones played the bass parts that Sid Vicious couldn't). Johnny Rotten had such an original style, such pure, righteous anger, such a unique way with words, such vocal delivery - the energy with which it was all played - few come close. Every track a classic; the album holds together as an album.

The greatness of The Clash was less concentrated. Each album has a handful of excellent tracks, padded out by filler material 'to give the fans value for money'. My picks - Complete Control, Safe European Home,Clash City Rockers, White Man in Hammersmith Palais, Jail Guitar Doors. Clash songs tended to build up to an anthemic finale, Sex Pistols songs were anthemic all along.