When I was a journalism student way back when, one of the cliches of the magazine game was "everyone loves a good 'list' story." Just browse the magazine section and you'll see it's true. "Five Time-saving Ways to Charge Your Phone!" or "10 Recipes That Will Make You Live Forever" - you know the kind.
Well, in a tearful homage to my old COMMS professors, I present for your blog-reading consideration: "Five Ways to Tell You're Living in a Post-Communist Country."
NOTE: I have no idea if these are five ways to tell if you're living in a post-communist country. Are they true in Russia or the Czech Republic? Maybe. Maybe not. They're true here in Poland, but "Five Things That May or May Not Have Anything to Do With the Fact that Poland Was Once a Communist Country But Are True In My Experience Nonetheless" isn't a very compelling list title. That's Headline Writing 101, friend.
1. Quality control
Ahem, a story: On my second day here, I passed a small bakery tucked into a corner on my walk to work. During my lunch hour (which, by the way, it's not a celebrated practice here - they call it "lancz," a Polish-ized version of "lunch" to highlight its foreign-ness), I swung back by the bakery and bought a variety sampling of bread. I. was. in. heaven! This was the best bread I'd ever had. Ever. I thought, surely, that I had stumbled across some lost carb-kingdom, an El Dorado of bread baking artistry. The crust was perfect, the inside soft and warm, and the flavors so perfectly robust. Seriously - good, good bread. Bread's one of those foods that's so underappreciated until you get a perfect specimen and - BAM! - appreciated.
The next day, I strode back to my hidden bakery, confident in the culinary perfection I was to shortly enjoy for the second blissful time. I picked up a new sampling, with some of my favorites from the day before and a few new varieties. Biting into the first roll, my first thought was that I had gotten lost and gone to the wrong bakery. No way this was the same place. The crust was overdone, the roll was dry, and it was horribly oversalted. By roll four, I knew I was sunk. How could one bakery go from best bread I'd ever had to barely edible, over-salted cardboard in 24 hours? I could tell a similar story about a "milk bar" that serves traditional Polish food. One day awesome, next day barely passible. No, not just a bread problem.
The answer? Quality control. Well, plus branding, I guess. And franchising. Ok, so three things that are necessary evils in American capitalism that just weren't present in Poland during its Soviet era and haven't quite caught on yet. If I buy a hamburger at McDonalds in Atlanta or Warsaw, I know what I'm getting. It's not particularly great, but it's consistently not particularly great. I know what I'm getting! Just give me my crappy burger and I'll be on my way.
Over the past couple months, I've realized that if I buy some foodstuff from a Polish firm, sometimes it's perfect, sometimes it's trash. Like flipping a coin. Quality control would even out the experience and, in the process, potentially eliminates the chance of perfection, but it also cuts out the possibility of cardboard bread. So either I know I'm getting mediocrity or I'm gambling on getting perfection. I don't know which one's preferable - that's something for philosophers to work out. For now, I've almost perfected my extensive notebook of knowing what bakery has good bread on which days. It's not foolproof ( which a probably chipped tooth on a pretzel roll will attest ) , but it's all I've got absent quality control.
2. You are a number.
Walk into a post office to buy a 60 cent stamp? Take a number.
Hit up that bakery for your bread perfection/cardboard-depending-on-the-day? Take a number.
Go to the SIMPlus mobile phone carrier to see why they're ripping your prepaid account off? Take a number.
Want to use the bathroom at Starbucks? Take a number. (No, seriously. They stamp a works-once code onto your receipt that you have to key into an NSA-headquarters keypad to open the bathroom).
You get the idea. I'm not a person, I'm a number. And this number has to wait. And wait. And wait. Still waiting ...
Polish people are serious about their security. Every day when I go into work, I have to be buzzed through three doors. When I go back to the apartment complex I'm staying in, I have to buzz myself in past two doors, and then unlock the actual door. And, if I want to use the bathroom at Starbucks, well, see #2.
You'd kind of think that a non-profit that provides free counseling to battered women would have a more "open door" policy. From the street, you have to call through a "domofon" (which means "home-a-phone" - kind of clever, despite being annoying in practice). The receptionist doesn't ask you who you are, you automatically get buzzed into the stairwell. And then, at the top of the stairs (the only way to get to the office - there's no Polish equivalent of the ADA), you have to ring the doorbell to be buzzed in again.
Why all this security? I have no idea. Everywhere you go has it, though. Domofons and private security guards. I'm pretty sure 90% of the Polish economy is fueled by private security firms. What's that? It's not? Well, sorry. I could be forgiven for thinking so. You'd think "Ochrona" (security) was the most popular brand in Poland, given how many shirts are emblazened with the word.
I get it. Capitalism is a tricky regime. In the US, after all, we have Coors Field, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and "Coca-Cola" red neon lighting more surface area than the sun. But you CAN take it a little to far. Yes, even further than the Chick-fil-a Bowl or the Pepsi Halftime Show.
Here, every event has like fifteen sponsors whose logos take up the bulk of most ads. Any new album advertised in the subway has a list of sponsors running along the banner. JT's 20/20 Experience was brought to me by music retailers Empik, Traffic Club, and TV Station TVN4. The local movie complex has numbers over the individual theaters, but each theater is also sponsored. When I saw Iron Man 3 (yes - still seeing movies in Poland, thank you), I watched it in "Sala 4/Sony."
Maybe it's great advertising? For me, having already thought I was inundated with ads BEFORE corporations sponsored the movie theater I was sitting in, it seems a tad much and starts to fade into the background. But hey, maybe it works here? On an unrelated note, I do need a new Walkman ...
5. There is no number five. Gotcha! Communism!
Seriously, remember that complaint I had to lodge against my wireless service provider? It was because they sold me a 1GB mobile data plan, but only gave me 75% of that before cutting me off for the month. I knew 'cause I kept track. They didn't think I would notice. I noticed.
Turns out "1GB a month" in post-communism speak means, "1/30 of a GB each day for a month, and if you go over that 1/30th in a given day, we take the rest out of other days, counting backwards from the end of the month." Over-complicated? Yep. Needlessly tricky? Yep. A rip-off? You bet. So, I promised you five things in this list, you get four. You used up your other 1/5 somewhere along the way. Sorry, have a nice day. And take a number on your way out.