Tuesday, April 6, 2010

If You Grew Up During Communism

A popular Polish comedian, Drozda, visited America in the 80's. When he returned to Poland he shared some of what he had learned about that admired and idealized country and its citizens in his comedy acts. For example, he explained that Americans are very stupid: they go to the store and pay for light bulbs when every single elevator had light bulbs in it!

This is quite hilarious because of how true it is. In Poland most elevators simply didn't have light bulbs in them. If they did, they were encased in a little cage to try to keep people from stealing them.

For the same reason, to this day, in many public bathrooms the toilet paper sits outside the stalls next to the woman you pay for the privilege of using the toilet. You take as much as you think you'll need and the rest stays under the watchful eye of the bathroom lady; because why on earth would they leave it in the stalls where anybody could (and anybody did) just stick it in their coat and walk away? (this restroom set up is much less commonly seen than when we first came to Poland 10 years ago, mostly only in old train and bus stations and farmers' markets etc., and all gas stations have better bathrooms than in American gas stations.)

If you grew up during communism you would have a very different mentality than you do currently. Take what you can get whenever and however you can get it. That may be stretching it a little, but not much.

Greg's parents came to visit a few months ago and brought a nice paper coffee bag. I assumed it had their coffee in it and was surprised when they left it behind. I then found out that it was full of home dried mushrooms they had brought for us (they spend hours every week in the forest in the fall collecting mushrooms in a wicker basket, just as you imagine Europeans would). But there was something about that bag. . .

The writing on it was all in English and seemed so familiar. Then I remembered where I'd seen it before. When my in-laws came to visit us in Provo 12 years ago they did a lot of things I did not understand. One of these was this: when we went shopping they were excited to see a selection of coffee and a grinder where you could choose, grind and bag your own coffee. They ground some and put the bag in the cart and then. . . picked up a stack of the empty paper bags and put them in my mother-in-law's purse.

That was 12 years ago and here sat one of those bags on my window sill. Craziness, I tell you. At the time I was a little shocked. To tell the truth, Greg isn't all that excited about me sharing this story but really, I totally get it now. They were free, right? There was no sign saying not to take them or anything. And they would definitely come in handy, so why not take some? (And come in handy they did, as illustrated above.)

There is nothing embarrassing about it, really. When you spend decades in survival mode you just do things like that. As a matter of fact, it was this same mentality that brought Greg the best blessing he's ever enjoyed.

The independent, hitchhiking 18 year old Greg and his best friend were in Vienna in the city square. There they met two missionaries, one of whom happened to be Polish, who were offering a free book. A free book. For free. Did they want one? Of course they wanted one!! Greg and Kuba gave their contact information so missionaries in Poland could get in touch with them when they returned home, and then the missionaries asked if they had any friends that might want one of these free books, too. Greg couldn't think of anyone who wouldn't want a free book so he gave them the names and numbers of every friend and acquaintance he had on hand.

We all know how that ended. Not only was Greg's life completely transformed, but so was the life of a girl he hardly knew at the time (but had her info with him), who is now the head of the translation team for the church in Poland.

So although the system caused people to put themselves before others and take what wasn't theirs (because they almost had to), it also created a curiosity and well, not greed, certainly, but awareness of what is around to be had that had some amazing effects. What's a few "stolen" paper bags when compared with a life and generations to follow blessed for eternity?

18 comments:

Barbaloot said...

That's interesting---something I never knew. It seems kind of like the generation here that grew up during the depression. Always very careful about hiding their money and things like that.

Liz said...

Such a perfectly written illustration of the Polish People. Tell Greg not to worry about you sharing this story. It shows his parents' respect for their possessions. I can imagine taking an extra helping of bags - but to have them 12 years later? Amazing.

Karen E. said...

Great story! They don't seem to like to give anything away for free in France either. The toilet paper isn't kept under lock and key, but paper napkins usually are and you have to buy your own grocery bags. But I actually think that's a good idea.

MelancholySmile said...

What an awesome story! And while that mentality may seem extreme, I remember all too well being a kid and going to any-- I mean ANY-- event that had refreshments. Because hey! Free food! In a household that was always balanced on the knife's edge financially, we were not allowed to get into the cupboards or refrigerator without asking first. Otherwise, there wouldn't be food for meals. So things like free samples at the store, friends houses {snacks for the taking!} church events and weddings were simply excuses to pocket a few goodies. :)

Annette Lyon said...

I love learning about this kind of thing! Thanks for the insight. :)

Alison Wonderland said...

Awesome. No really, I love it. I just love the idea of a whole country with a completely different mentality. It may not be an especially good mentality (although I can think of a lot worse) but just completely alien to what we're used to. I like things that are a little bit different.

Jenn K said...

This brings me back to a college Sociology class on "Social Norms" and basically learning to be more open minded and understanding of the way people do things. I will always think of your story when looking at a free Book of Mormon, too. Such a great way to look at it.

dp said...

I remember my father complaining about his co-workers ethic when working at a Government job. Specifically the bulk theft of light bulbs and toilet paper. My dad never has done well with "social norms". For example, he would conserve power when free power was a perk of his job at the power department (it would be wasteful), he travels the speed limit (it's the law), and he joined the Mormon church, left it, but still abides by all it's standards (even without god it's a better way to live). What a weirdo.

I'm just like him. Except for the church thing, I still like that.

Beeswax said...

so, when i am in a public bathroom and finish my business and reach for the paper, only to find it completely gone, roll and all, i should blame the communists?

what? that wasn't the moral of the story?

L.T. Elliot said...

I'm all kinds of teary over this story, Lis. I'm so glad your husband wanted that free book and that he wanted that free book for his friends. What a blessing indeed. And look how that coffee bag came full circle. To me, it shows me that your family knows how to value something--something that we americans would have tossed a long time ago.

Kazzy said...

Very cool things to think about. A culture creates a mindset.

AndyPandyJackaDandy said...

Fascinating. It reminded me of my grandma's pantry--FULL of grocery bags and "used" styrofoam goodies (washed) and other sundry items stocked for years and years. I used to think it was creepy, but I totally stockpile plastic bags now.

The light bulb thing reminds me of India. Get what you can where you can when you can--preferably when nobody's watching, but often even if they are. I get it AND I appreciate not feeling compelled to do it.

Lara said...

Coolest story ever.

I shouldn't be so surprised, but Poland sounds exactly like Romania...right down to the light bulb cages and the TP lady in the public bathrooms. :)

Sylwia said...

awesome stories! thank you for sharing!

Melissa Bastow said...

I almost stole toddler toothpaste from Walmart once. But I can't really blame that on communism, since it was me who handed it to the baby in the carseat who immediately dropped it under his butt. It made me feel horrible though. I even feel guilty taking stuff from the sample ladies at the grocery store. I guess that means I was lucky enough to grow up having everything I needed and enough toilet paper that I routinely threw it at the neighbor's house. I'm SO GLAD I grew up here. I would never be able to manage stealing light bulbs.

Melanie J said...

Oh, my gosh. I love that conversion story.

And I absolutely love these slices of life outside the US that you share. Please keep them coming!

Erin said...

Awww, what a sweet story!

Were the mushrooms delicious? :)

Heidi Ashworth said...

This made me cry. Sniff. I have only lived in two other states in America from where I was born and raised (but only if you count So. Cal as a different state from No Cal--which I do)but it was such a blessing to me to see the different ways people live, how they think, their traditions, etc. It really expands your ways of thinking. One reason why House Hunters International is currently my fave show.