Poland 1990

Roadtrip to Lodz – My Summer in Poland after the Fall of the Berlin Wall – June 26th, 1990


This is the third installment in my recounting my summer in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

June 26th, 1990 – 5:30pm

Dear Journal,

As I’m sure you can tell, I am writing to you on a train.  This is much more difficult than the U.S. Air flights from Richmond to New York.

My experiences are so rich here that I must write in you regularly.  Yesterday I met Jim, who will be running the Garment/Textile project I will be working on for the summer.

(Sidebar: When Poland opened its economy to the rest of Europe – and the world – it became apparent that the quality of its textiles and garments following the Russian occupation and closed market would not be competitive with the rest of the free market.  The goal of this project was to identify other industries/sectors for the city of Lodz, keeping in mind that, due to the nature of the textile industry, most workers were women.)

He seems like he’ll be a good manager.  He’s bright and pretty laid back.  He seems well-organized and explains himself well.  He puts questions out for discussion but still retains some control over the conversation.

Last night at dinner I got really charged up over this whole project.  It just seems so perfect.

It’s 10:30pm, and I am ready to go to bed, but I must make an effort to write in you.

I couldn’t sleep very well last night because I was afraid I would oversleep.  It gets light at about 3 a.m., so I was awake at 4 a.m. and at least one other time before my alarm went off at 6:15.

It got up very quickly because I knew I had not given myself a lot of time to get ready.  I was supposed to meet Jim at 7am at the train station to go tho Lodz (pronounced Woodj or maybe Wodj).

I wore my flat patent leathers in preparation for walking and a long-sleeved dress in preparation for cold weather.  I wore a blazer to look somewhat professional and a belt to give it some style.

I didn’t take a shower because we have no hot water (A reminder of the Russian occupation, hot water is turned off for two weeks each summer to maintain the pipes! We took turns showering at each other’s homes, and I took some showers at a the Holiday Inn – built in 1989, where I would go to get full body massages for $9!) and because I did not leave myself enough time.

I didn’t have a briefcase since it disappeared from the OMNI hotel when I was working in Virginia – one of the things I do not have to take care of.  So I put my papers in a cardboard portfolio.

Mike (one of our Polish guides) tells me I can buy a synthetic briefcase on a store on Marchewkowa for about $9 – a lot of money by Polish standards.

At 6:45 I set off walking.  I was very paranoid about my purse – putting on my New York attitude in preparation for the dangers I had been warned about at the train station.  The walk was a little difficult – even in flat heels – because of the bumpy cobblestones.

I arrived a little after 7 at the Polish car being raffled off and, wearing my new glasses, easily spotted Jim in the middle of the very slow-moving line.

He waved me over and explained that he still did not have any money.  Then he asked me to hold his place so that he could locate a girl named Helen who was joining the team and would know whether we could buy tickets on the train.  (It was now 7:15, and our train was at 7:20.)

Jim quickly found Helen and confirmed that we could pay on board the train which left promptly at 7:20.

The seats on the train were very dirty but could be pulled out like beds – as the lady in our coach showed us.  So Helen and I slept most of the way.  (See photo of our first class accommodation.  A friend who just returned from Warsaw tells me that the train interior does not look much different from today, though they run more frequently and faster.)  

We arrived in Lodz at 9, and I discovered that the weather was no warmer outside.  The grey damp coolness reminded me of my 1987 trip to Europe.

Helen and I left Jim to wait while we set off for food, bathroom and tickets.

(more to come)

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Big Computer, Small Car… My Summer in Warsaw after the Fall of the Berlin Wall – June 25, 1990


This is the second installment of my account of my time in Eastern Europe the summer after the fall of the Berlin wall.  This was less of a travel experience than an opportunity to experience a short-lived and fascinating period in history.

June 25, 1990, just after midnight

Dear Journal,

Poland is great.  I have been having so much fun that I have not been able to write in you, and these first impressions are some of the most important to note – before I become acclimated.

Anyway, we landed almost on time, at 9:10, and I, having been too hyper to sleep, started to feel the time change (7 hours).  It was rainy in Warsaw – and cold.  The temperature was in the 50s or 60s.  (I already find myself stressing the penultimate syllable of words – as if speaking in Polish – when I speak or think.)

I waited for people to get off the plane because I knew that it would take me time to get the Compaq on the wheels. (The Compaq is a heavy and cumbersome “luggable” computer – this is a portable as things got in 1990.  You’ll see later that, after lugging it on and off the plan and through the streets of Warsaw, it self-destructed as soon as I plugged it in to a Polish outlet.  Ugh.  And so few computers available.  We all had to share.)  I am regretting having brought the Compaq more and more every day.

Once I had the computer on the wheels, I realized that I had to go down a flight of stairs to get off the plane.  (The stewardess was speaking to me in Polish.  Perhaps I look Polish.)  She (actually another one) helped me get it down the stairs and then a man I had met on he plane helped me get it onto the bus.

This is all very boring.  On to more interesting facts.  The Polish people were somewhat impatient and, in fact, pushy at the airport.  I was cut in line trying to show my passport.  They crowded around the baggage belt (as do Americans) so that I could hardly see my bags.  And they pushed in front of me in line for Customs.

This, together with the fact that I was trying to locate the representative from the Stephan Batory put me almost last in line to get through Customs.

Customs took a long time because instead of filling out forms on the plane, people declared their purchases to the customs agent.

Feeling abandoned by the Batory Foundation, I made some friends in line.  These people offered to drive me home – although they explained they would have to make a special trip because their car was too small.

But when I finally got through customs, Alexandra and her father, Pan Jasienski, were waiting for me with a big sign with key name.  When Alexandra told me who she was, I was worried that the Batory Foundation night be there as well.  But she told me that the story Foundation had called and asked her to meet me. They were worried about my welfare.

We drove home in a very small car.  We had to put one of the boxes in the hood.  Then I met Mrs. Jasienski (see photo of her holding my Polish-English dictionary; I spoke no Polish, and she spoke no English), who made me breakfast.  When I asked for water, Alexandra explained that it was not a custom in Poland to drink water.  I had warm milk instead.

Today, Alexandra told me that Mrs. Jasienski bought 2 bottles of milk for me.  Just after that, Diana McDonald warned me that Polish milk is often not pasteurized.  But I’ve heard that Consumption is a romantic way to die.

After breakfast we looked at a book which showed parts of Warsaw as they looked after the war and today.  Much as been rebuilt.  And the Russians donated a large Socialist Realist building which the Poles seem to hate and one of my colleagues calls a copy of the Empire State Building.

Then we went for a walk so that I could change money, buy water and maybe get a manicure.  I changed money at 9,965 zlotys to the dollar.

(more to come)

Taking Flight… My Summer in Warsaw after the Fall of the Berlin Wall – June 23, 1990


This evening as I was organizing my closet, I came across my journal from the summer of 1990 (yes, 21 years ago).  Now, this might serve as interesting reading just because of the passage of time, but in this case, it was particularly noteworthy, because it journaled my summer in Poland as part of a team with Jeffrey Sachs just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, i.e., when Poland was trying to become a market economy.  A pivotal period of history.  Well, I couldn’t put it down, and an hour later, I find myself sharing it with you.  I hope you find this window into the Poland of 1990 as intriguing as I did.

June 23rd, 1990 at 6:45am

Dear Journal,

I know I should sleep, but I am too excited…

I love to fly!  I don’t love sitting here, but I love what flying represents.  I had been looking forward to the takeoff of this flight with such anticipation.  Taking off is so definitive.  It means that you are leaving one place and going to another.  And while you are doing so, you are restricted to being alone with yourself and thinking about what you are doing.  It is forced down time – to read or write or watch a movie or meet people or listen to music or just think.  (Do you remember those days – no electronic/mobile communication devices – just books and in-flight movies and portable tape players) And you can’t turn back.  You can’t change your mind.  And there are a limited number of daily tasks you can attend to while you are flying.

This flight is so significant.  It is a turning point, and it represents freedom.

Traveling like this simplifies my life.  There are a finite number of things I can deal with, and the cut off for whether I put something on my to do list is much higher.

My main task for the next two months is to experience and also to be focused – to read Polish literature, Polish history, Polish maps, Polish dictionaries – because the more I know about Poland and Polish culture and language, the richer my experience.

My goal is not to save money or get staffed on a consulting engagement – but to experience life.

In two hours I will find myself at the Warsaw airport where I will be met by a representative of the Stephan Batory Foundation.

I will collect my baggage and go with him to the home of Pani Jasienski – Michal Jasienski’s mother. (Michal was a tutor in my college dorm.)

I may have a phone, (note the word “may”)  but I will not be able to work my way down the list of people I need to call to prepare for my time at Wharton.  My life will be simple.  My wardrobe is simple – despite the weight of my bag – cut down to a minimum.

Of course the flight over is more than symbolic.  It is the beginning of the journey.

Starting at the baggage check, you meet people who speak only Polish.

Then  you encounter the stewardesses and either they reprimand you for carrying too many large carry-ons or they help you store it away.  In this case, they helped me.

And of course, flying is full of class distinctions.

Which brings me to another issus – the cost of the flight.  The cost of this flight – had I paid for it (rather than using frequent flier points) – would have been at least $800.  How much does it cost a Pole?  Where would a Pole get that kind of money?  That’s like 8 months rent.  That’s like $60,000 to me.  Do they offer it cheaper when bought in Poland or when bought by a Pole?  How does purchasing power parity work?

I’m happy…

(More to come.  This is just the preface to the beginning.)