Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

A Western Kid Living in Communist Poland

In this HN thread I commented on how the story about the People’s Republic of Donetsk reminded me of my days in communist Poland.

User bernardom prompted me to tell this story, so here it goes (I’ve slept on it and I don’t think it will do any harm, even though all the participants are alive (and well)).

I got my driving license in 1986. My dad and his wife were looking to buy a new car and were going to trade in their old Citroen 2CV. So I matched the offer they were getting on their trade-in and I got my first car. The 2CV (named after it’s fairly anemic engine with according to the French tax office ‘2 tax horse power’) is probably best described to people that have never been in one as an extermely cleverly designed tent on wheels. It’s about as spartan as a car can get, compared to the 2CV a Mini is luxurious.

I worked in Amsterdam west at the time and of course I would slowly expand my confidence driving to work every day and back. The car was so slow to accelerate that I did not feel comfortable on the highways so I stuck to city traffic and b-roads. This meant that longer trips were out of the question but given how crappy a driver I was in those days that’s probably a good idea. Two weeks later my good luck ran out. It was the first real frost that year, November 1986 (COBOL was going strong, I was an applications programmer for a dutch bank back then) and when I accelerated away from a traffic light just past central station in Amsterdam a Volvo in oncoming traffic skidded, carreened down a slope into one of those old style cast iron road dividers. Two metric tons of Swedish steel impacted the divider, which probably weighed no more than 80 kilos or so, accelerating it to projectile speeds.

What saved my life was probably playing a lot of pingpong. Reflexes took over and I ducked down just as the barrier swept through the car, without slowing it down much. The whole top of the car was gone, it was an instant convertible. I pretty cooly steered the car to the side of the road, started shaking like crazy and waited for the police to arrive, who asked ‘where the body was’. I realized I had been very lucky.

The wreckage was towed to my house in east Amsterdam and my mom broke down spontaneously when she saw the wreck. It was quite incredible that I walked away from that without a scratch.

But I learned a valuable lesson: not all accidents are your fault, and if you drive a tent on wheels you could very well end up as roadkill when someone else messes up. So I started looking for something a bit more sturdy. My mom had had a long time boyfriend, a man named Hans. Hans was super cool, an arts dealer in Amsterdam, fancy house on Herengracht and a super nice car, a Citroen DS.

If you’ve never seen one, prepare to be amazed, it was designed in 1955 and is by my standards still one of the most advanced cars ever to be produced. It also still looks good today:

I started hunting for one through the various DS specialist garages in Amsterdam (it is still quite a popular classic in NL today) and found one right around the corner, light blue with a white roof, built in 1973 and with ‘only’ a few hundred thousand kilometers on it. For 3750 dutch guilders it was mine, rust and hydraulic leaks and all.

Now, here was a real car! I had absolutely no problem taking it on the highway and so I decided to tour the highways near Amsterdam.

As I was about to enter the Coentunnel I noticed two pedestrians hitchhiking right at the mouth of the tunnel entrance. A very dangerous spot to put it mildly. Being my usual helpful self I stopped the car, bundled them into the backseat and drove them to the other side where I exlained to them that that was a very bad idea. The hitchhikers, two girls from Poland explained that they didn’t know much about the Netherlands, but that they were walking to a place called Egmond. From where I picked them up to Egmond was at least another day worth of walking so I offered to drive them there.

We talked a bit more, I figured out they were quite hungry and offered to get them some food. This they declined. Then I told them I was hungry and had to get some food. They agreed to come along and we stopped in Alkmaar to eat. Maybe they would eat a bit after all. After both had polished off double helpings of everything we continued on our trek to Egmond.

On arrival in Egmond we said goodbye, I gave them my phone number in Amsterdam in case they got themselves in trouble and went back home. About a week later they called me. Could they please come to Amsterdam? In Egmond they’d been pretty much enslaved by a flower bulb grower, who made them work day and deep into the night for very little money, and who would then charge them for everything (food, lodging) to get it almost all back. Modern slavery (yes, we Dutch are nice people, and if you think that such things are a thing of the past now then think again, this sort of thing still happens all the time). I went back there, picked them up and they moved into my house in Amsterdam.

Calling it a house is a bit much. Today you’d probably call it a hacker space. It was a 60 square meter partition of an industrial building. No shower, just a small sink, an electrical stove and tons of computing gear, a pingpong table, a couch and a single mattrass on the floor.

I gave them the bed, made mine on the couch and for the next week or so we talked day in day out about what life was like in Poland and what it was like in the Netherlands.

When they left they gave me their addresses in Poland and invited me over.

For months that invitation burned a hole in my pocket. I was totally enamoured with one of the girls, and made up my mind to go and visit Poland. This was a lot easier said than done.

I got my first taste of what Poland would be like when I entered the Polish embassy in the Hague. A line of about 50 people. Before I got to the head of the line the office closed and I had to go back another time. This time I took care to arrive early. I applied for a visa and filled in a stack of forms. For months my visa application was held up. More and more information was required. What did my grandparents do during the war? How much money did I have? Did I have family? Sisters, brothers, everything! At some point it occured to me they knew more about me than my mom did.

But finally, after months of filing ever more papers I got the call, I could come and give them my passport. Then they would stamp it after the office had closed and then a few days after that I could go and pick it up again.

And so it happened. I rolled into Poland somewhere in the early hours of morning August 1987. Lines of tens of people in front of non-descript shops had already formed. People waiting for the bakeries to open to get bread. Be early and you might have a chance. Initially I did not comprehend what the lines were for, my mind had been totally conditioned to ‘want something, go out and buy it’. The whole idea of shortage was something that I was not familiar with. At that time, The solidarity movement was clashing headlong with the Polish communist government and there was quite a bit of tension in the air. I was received warmly in Poznan, spent about a month there and then went back to the Netherlands. What struck me most about Poland is how serious the people my age there were. And how tremendously strong the friendships. These were in many ways the most interesting times you could have possibly picked to be behind the iron curtain, I got to observe the whole underground movement from the point of view of a spoiled western kid, retrospectively one of the formative moments in my life. Solidarity was quite something, the streets were abuzz with it. The Polish secret police (the UB or MBP) was quite active and if you didn’t know someone personally you could not trust them. This caused the Polish people to form tremendously strong friendship bonds, a thing that is probably a lot less strong today in absense of such formidable enemies. The police in Poland was tremendously corrupt at the time, a nice example of power out of control.

For months my newfound girlfriend and me corresponded by good old snail mail. We got married, lived together in Amsterdam for some years and then moved to Poznan, Poland together.

This created a problem because I could not legally work in Poland. So I applied for a work permit, and this is one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had. It wasn’t so much that such permits did not exist, it was that applications were so rare that almost nobody knew how the whole process worked. It took many months, ever more interviews (my Polish at that time being next to non existant), and lots and lots of forms. Ever more forms. The most frequent question was why on earth I would want to live in Poland when everybody that could was trying to get out.

Finally I got it, after I had all but given up. I still have it in Amsterdam in a suitcase somewhere, I should probably scan it and put it in here when I’m back there. Somewhere along the way a Texaco gas station opened in the middle of Poznan.

Imagine a background of gray highrises, no colour anywhere, all the cars gray and the ancient diesels of buses belching smoke. And in the middle of that an island of bright red, a tiny patch of the west invading on all that gray, a harbinger of what was to come. A friend of mine said this: “If the future is going to be so full of bright colours I don’t know if I can stand it.”.

Right now I’m living in Romania (Bucharest to be precise) and it’s funny how I can trace back almost everything major that happened in my life to that point where I stopped the car.

So, that’s the story of the Hitchhikers, the flowerbulbs and the ancient Citroen.

Thanks G. for changing my life, for the better in all respects.

edit: and thanks I. for correcting my broken memory!