3. The Transition
Had all the states in the world become communist, the progress of the human race would have stopped. However, there was another world out there and one day this world came knocking at our door. When the brutal race between the East and the West was over, there was no doubt which economy is more efficient. In 1989, the year of the Transition, I was seventeen years old and half-way through my high school.
Things started to change quickly. Of course, the first changes were improvements on food and clothing. People were euphoric because finally they could buy what they wanted. We were allowed to get and keep (!) passports, and the countries of the West opened the borders for us very quickly. When I started high school, a trip to Cracow, some fifty kilometres off my birthplace, was a major undertaking. Three and a half years later I was on the bus going to Belgium to spend my holiday with a Belgian friend. And I didn’t even need a visa.
However, the euphoria soon subsided and hard reality started hitting us again and again. The rate of inflation kept going up, and so did prices in the newly-opened shops. We were used to inflation, which was actually less severe than the inflation of the 1980s. We knew how to cope with it and at least there was work. Well, was there?
The inefficiency of the communist factory would make any American or Western manager jump out of the top-floor window. The two big factories in my hometown – one producing cotton materials and the other diesel engines – employed several thousand people, which meant that approximately three quarters of the local population depended on them. The factories provided jobs and kindergartens. They also ran health centres and canteens. But they were mismanaged and at the beginning of the 1990s they started to fall apart.
The government did everything to make things worse. There were attempts at privatisation, which actually ended in a massive, semi-legal take-over of national property. Who did the take-over? Frequently, it was the managers – former Party members – who bought the companies for peanuts and immediately sold them to Western companies. Some companies were sucked dry of money and left to collapse. What mattered most to people was that they lost the last bit of protection and learnt what it means to be unemployed.
I think it was hard for the generations born in the 1940s and 1950s, i.e. the generations to whom my parents belonged. They didn’t have the comfort of their parents who were already retired, and they didn’t have the courage and flexibility of their children (or we could say: the boldness and stupidity of the inexperienced). You couldn’t cook your newly-gained freedom in the pot and serve dinner, could you? So these people built a very thick wall, trying to protect themselves and their families. They were hostile to any novelty and by shielding the new, they chose a quiet and undisturbed vegetation.
With unemployment peaking at 25%, the generation of our parents re-embraced the post-communist parties and let the new government make a couple of steps back. When people such as Miller and Kwaśniewski gained power, Poland started meandering. Before, we had had at least some sense of direction, development and unity. Post-communists grasped the mood of the vulnerable and the disappointed, and played the whole thing skilfully, creating the mechanism which keeps the generations and social groups apart. They achieved it in two wicked steps: first, they provided those willing to retire early with the so-called ‘bridge pensions’, and second, they created separate systems of taxation, health insurance and pensions for farmers. To spell it out clearly: farmers pay far less tax than people working in the industry and services. Their health insurance is heavily subsidised and their contribution to the pensions system is negligible. In practice it meant that the young were forced to finance the stability of the old.
When the transition happened, I was completely unprepared for it. My mental set-up was for stability and submission, not for change and challenge. Yet, stability was gone and change was chasing us with all the force of a Shinkansen train. The situation would have been very hard for me but for a rare and useful skill I had: I knew English and I liked teaching it (I still do).
4. The roller-coaster of the 1990s
The 1990s were a wild time, yet I felt happy, because finally I was free to learn English. People established bookshops and sold everything – this is when I bought my copy of Thomson and Martinet’s grammar. I also acquired Murphy’s English Grammar in Use. I discovered Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and I have loved it ever since. But freedom was not only about buying books.
The cage in which we had existed for so long was now open. You could travel to Austria or Belgium without a visa and this is what I did. I spent weeks in Belgium, staying with my pen-pal and his family. This was one of my formative experiences; I saw with my own eyes that people may and do live differently.
However, the greatest freedom was the freedom to think. We could talk about anything, we could watch films which were forbidden no more, we could embrace life with a tight hug. This was difficult for many of us, as our skills of adaptation had been suppressed. To give you an idea what what it was like, I will tell you a story.
In 1992, after one year at a newly-established private college in Bielsko-Biała, I was admitted to Teacher Training College at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Entrance exams were so difficult that only two or three students were those who graduated from high school in 1992; the others were people who spent a year somewhere polishing their English and getting ready for the ordeal of surpassing nearly twenty people competing to get a place. How brutal, how Darwinian.
The College was a new invention, we were the second class admitted, so it had to work out the rules and ways of teaching, particularly the ways of teaching how to teach. For that purpose, the College hired English-speaking teacher trainers. The first person we met was an energetic fifty-something Oxford graduate who had spent half of her life teaching English all over the world. She had several children and she was an extremely eccentric teacher with a passion to change the world. She had this peculiar talent which all the British possess: she felt superior and knowledgeable, and she was completely uninterested in learning about the local people and their habits. Maybe this is the right mix if you want to change the world (or at least a fraction of it).
Sandy – this was her name – decided that the best way to make us into teachers was to line us up along the pool and then kick each person in the butt. What a series of splashes that was! She established a Saturday School where students taught for free. She organised a field trip for pupils from her Saturday School. In her classes, she ripped our heads open and remodelled our brains with her bare hands. She made us come to her on Friday evening with our lesson plans for Saturday and she did not care how we were going to get back to our places. She juggled many eggs and, surprisingly, it worked.
Do you get the picture? There are those reserved and stiff twenty-year-olds and there is the teacher trainer who wants them to shine. Inevitably, there were many clashes. The director of the College, a strict, academic lady with distaste for any form of humanity with intelligence lower than hers, hated her innovative teacher trainer. Polish teacher trainers were partly in awe, but secretly hated this woman for her wild inventions. We, the students, were caught between Sandy the Hammer and Staff the Anvil. And, unsurprisingly, we were brutally reforged.
Yet, I think these were happy times. Our teachers, regardless of their approach to English and the ways of teaching it, enjoyed this freshly-gained freedom with us. Now I understand that they were as happy as we were to gloat over English, to gorge on books and dictionaries and films and whatever stuff that was their favourite poison. In a way, we studied simultaneously; they learnt something on a Monday and immediately passed it on to us on a Tuesday. They were eager to experiment with us and on us. They were passionate to explore all things English. So, we marched together discovering the new, emerging, post-communist reality.