My Own Private People’s Republic of Poland: Interview: (fragments)

On 22 January, after living in the People’s Republic of Poland for six months, Witold Szabłowski went online and saw an e-mail in which someone threatened to denounce him and his wife for child abuse. There were no bananas in the communist times, so we explained our daughter, that we would not eat bananas, recalls Szabłowski. How was it to go back and live in those times? Here is the interview with Witold Szabłowski, a writer and journalist who stayed in Lublin as part of the citybooks project.

How did you come up with the idea to live in the People’s Republic of Poland for six months?
– I wanted to try the assumed identity journalism that is so popular in the USA or Germany but not really known in Poland. I had tried it before, working for Tesco in Great Britain for two weeks, but I had a feeling that I didn’t get to the core of the matter. (…)

How did you prepare for this time travel?
– We had to gather clothes, toys, pots from those times. We got them from our friends. It appeared that a lot of people still have stuff accumulated in their attics. The shops were empty, so when there was a delivery people bought more that they needed just in case. One of my friends from the university’s parents inherited their parents’ house filled with stuff from the communist times. We looked through them and I found some great stuff, like a razor made in the German Democratic Republic. It took us one year to gather all things we needed. And we were quite meticulous. Even all of our underwear was from those times.

The experiment commenced on the 22 July?
– We moved into a rented flat on 15 July, but it took us a while to unpack, redecorate the kitchen, disconnect the Internet. That’s why we commenced our life in the People’s Republic of Poland on this important, also for Lublin day.

How did your neighbours react to your experiment?
– We rented a flat in Ursynów, the part called the Falklands by the people who live there. We decided not to inform the neighbours that it is a deliberate thing. I grew my moustache, my wife got a perm and we commenced with our new life. When we went into a shop they automatically treated us as potential shoplifters. I often noticed I was being observed by security people. It had never happened to me when I was dressed in “capitalistic” clothes. My wife had similar experiences.

Did you get any positive reactions?
– People reacted enthusiastically to my yellow Fiat 126 from 1985. We heard lots of
sentimental stories from our neighbours. “Oh, you have the Fiat, I met my wife when I
was driving the same one.” I discovered that lots of people have a strong need to talk
about the communist times. For many of them those were the times of their youth, after
all.

Did it take a lot of effort to cook a dinner?
– All questions concerning food and eating we consulted with an expert, Błażej Brzostek, who wrote a book about food and eating habits in the People’s Republic of Poland. He made us a list of products that were similar in quality to those available at that time. It appears that you can still buy products imitating chocolate today. We bought cheap kinds of sausage, fried it for dinner instead of preparing real meat. We organized some regular deliveries from the farms, what was common practice in those times. After a while it seemed we were eating better food than in in capitalism. (…)

Was it difficult to live without the Interned for half a year?
– It was difficult workwise, but I think that all the things I wrote at that time were of better quality because, instead of relying on what I could google, I had to call an expert, find a book in a library, visit the archives. (...)

Was it just fun or something more?
– Our project was some sort of fun. It’s obvious a family of three cannot reconstruct the life in the communist regime when everyone around us is living in capitalism. The aim of the project was to describe capitalism. We went 30 years back in time to get a new perspective.

Instead of what?
– Instead of the vision of brave people from Solidarność fighting bad communists. Or the perspective present in Polish absurd comedies from that time; those were fun times, everyone was having a lough all the time. None of those perspectives wee look at our history from is really true.

What do we ignore?
– 35 million of people who lived their lives differently then. But they were no heroes, they had nothing to laugh about. They lived, went shopping, had kids, went to work. (…)

The text was published in the Magazine of Dziennik Wschodni.