Life in Poland

Keeping up with the Kowalski’s

Thank you globalization for bringing conspicuous consumption (and Secret brand antiperspirant) to Poland. No longer do we have to envy our neighbors’ green grass, but now we can salivate over their foreign-made SUV’s, garden gazebos and exotic vacations. I should be the last one to criticize. We are a two-car family with both cars shipped from the States, but let’s get back to the subject…conspicuous consumption in Poland.

Keeping up with the Joneses refers to the American phenomenon of shopping to you drop, racking up debt, purchasing status goods all in an effort to raise ones social standing. For what is the pleasure of owning a $500 Coach bag if you cannot post a picture of it on your Facebook page rendering all your friends green with envy? In case you are wondering what a $50o Coach bag looks like, here you are… coach bag

In Poland, Keeping up with the Kowalski’s is just beginning to take on the shape of the American phenomenon. Polish society is in the early stages of forming social status based on material gain. How have they managed to avoid the temptation for so long, you ask, stroking your Coach bag lovingly? Most recently, the Communist rule of the Soviet occupation can be to blame. Polish mentality is scarred (not only) by the Soviet occupation lwalesa2asting from the end of WW2 to 1989. Please send your thanks to Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill and Stalin for selling their ally, Poland, down the river in Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 ( and an extra special thanks to Wałęsa for leading the revolution in Gdańsk in ‘89.

One of the ideals promoted by the Communist government was equality, the promotion of an egalitarian society where everyone lived happily ever after. Ask anyone who’s old enough to remember that time and they will tell you what a happy ever after it is to wait in line 11 hours to buy toilet paper only to find out that you are in the line to buy meat and there isn’t any.

a line to buy something…or nothing


meat shop ready for business in PRL (Polish People’s Republic)


ration coupons for meat kartkinamieso

That reminds me of a joke:

Background: Soviet-occupied governments were referred to as people’s republics as in PRL the Polish People’s Republic.

What is the difference between democracy and people’s democracy?

The same as the difference between a chair and the electric chair.

Here’s another one:

Is it true that they are giving cars away in Red Square in Moscow?

It is true but it’s not in Moscow. It’s in Leningrad and not in Red Square but in Revolution Square. And it isn’t cars, it’s bicycles. And they’re not giving them away. They’re stealing them.

Your salary or how much you paid for something (if you managed to buy something) was not taboo. Everybody was equal…poor, except those who were “more equal” (równiejszy). There were some who had more and having more was a state to be simultaneously coveted and despised. How to get more was a national past time. If you were one of the “equals”, you needed to develop a complicated web of connections that would draw envy from the best undercover agent today. Personal connections with shop assistants, friends and neighbors working in various sectors and relatives from the countryside had to be cultivated in order to collect the things needed for everyday life. How did those connections pay off? So what that you have ration coupons for shoes when there is only ever one pair in your size, distributed before you’ve even heard that shoes were available. One well-placed friend could mean shoes in your size tucked away under the counter waiting for you instead of you waiting for them. You need to paint your apartment but there’s no paint in the stores, no matter how much money you have. One well-placed neighbor who works in the paint factory can “organize” you some, after all everything is owned by society so in fact it is not stealing, is it? The relatives in the countryside were necessary for things such as meat, eggs, milk and other fresh produce. I have to forgive my mother-in-law for piling us up with food to take back to the City. She is convinced we will starve without it.

If you were one the “equalers” either you were a member of the Party and you were a “kombinator” or you were not a member of the Party and you were a “kombinator”. What is a “kombinator”, you ask still stroking your Coach bag lovingly? It is difficult to explain. Misiu says that we don’t have this word in English because we don’t need it, something like the Eskimos having a lot of words for snow. Anyhow, it is a kind of person who is always sly, looking for an opportunity to get ahead, a kind of a fox who knows how to manoeuvre in the system. As a “kombinator” you could have access to better food, medical care, permission to do private business or travel abroad. Having more and being a “kombinator”, Party-member or not, was seen as negative. Having more was viewed with suspicion but at the same time desired.

Fast forward to today when the difficult transition period from Communism to democracy has all but ended and the market is open. How have things changed? During the Communist era people had money, but nothing in the shops to buy. Now whatever you could dream of is available but nobody has any money. Ok that is not true but there definitely are a lot of “have-not’s”. One thing that has remained the same is the idea that your neighbor is a “kombinator”. It is true that many of the folks who arekwas well-established now have their Communist Party past to thank for it (think former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski). For those still in the old mentality Keeping up with the Kowalski’s means steeping in your own envy and wishing not only for success for yourself, but also for life to come along and kick your neighbor swiftly in the arse.

The phenomenon has resulted in some negative elements such as overwhelming debt (personal bankruptcy was impossible by law until just this year), shutting off into gated communities with separate schools, separate hospitals, etc. in exact opposition to the network of society during Communist rule, a Poland A and a Poland B. There are other folks who are living their Polish dream. They have worked hard, some having to overcome their oppression and other younger folks starting almost fresh to build their own success. For them Keeping up with the Kowalski’s means a motivation to work harder, to pull themselves and their families higher up on the social-economic ladder. Yes, there is the “in-your- face” element of showing off but still at a lesser degree than in the West. For many people this phenomenon has been nothing but positive, inspiring some to further their education, go abroad or start their own business all of which are possible to do now without Party restrictions. When they talk about PRL, they just may be talking about the trendy new night club with the same name. I read a research study once about happiness. The findings showed that in fact people who look “up” so to speak are happier than people who look “down” even when those “down-lookers” strive to help those who are under them.

Maybe we could go back to the days when social status was based on lineage. It is said that is good to catch a husband who is rich, handsome and his name ends in “-ski”. Misiu, two out of three ain’t bad.

You Might Also Like

No Comments

    Leave a Reply