The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"What Do They Do For Fun in Warsaw?"
Holidays in Hell
P.J. O'Rourke (New York: Vintage Books, 1988)
P.J. O'Rourke
[May 1986]

The concrete runway at Warsaw's Miedzynarodowy airport is coming to pieces. From bumpy landing to bumpy take-off, you spend your time in Poland looking at bad concrete. Everything is made of it -- streets, buildings, floors, walls, ceilings, roofs, window frames, lamp posts, statues, benches, plus some of the food, I think. The concrete that hasn't cracked or flaked has crumbled completely. Generations of age and decay seem to be taking place before your eyes.

Yet all this is new. The Poles rebelled against Nazi occupation in 1945, and the Germans, in their German way, dynamited Warsaw house by house. Some stumps of churches and museums survived, but nothing major in the central city is older than Candice Bergen. And the place is dirty with a special kind of Marxist dirt. I've seen it before in Moscow, Rostov and East Berlin. It doesn't reek like the compost heap squalor of Mexico City. It isn't flung all over the place like the exuberant trash of New York. There's no litter. There isn't much to litter with. It's an orderly and uniform kind of dirt, a film of dry grit and slough on everything and an atmosphere lachrymose with diesel stink and lignite-coal smoke.

I got into an airport taxi and the driver came right to the point. "Do you want to change dollars?" The Polish zloty is an animal tranquilizer on the international currency market. Even the official exchange rate is enormous, 163zl to $1. Dinner at the best restaurant in Warsaw costs only 3000zl, a street car ride is 3zl. "I'll give you 500 to 1," said the driver.

"How much is the fare?" I asked.

"Business is business," he said, "the cab ride is free." I handed him ten twenties, made myself rich and tried to go shopping.

I found the three main department stores next to each other on Marszalkowska Street, the main drag. Each store had the look of a small-town five-and-dime a few months after the new mall opened out on the highway. Except they don't have malls here or many highways either. The merchandise in all three was identical. Pants, coats, blouses and jackets were badly stitched and lumpy and cut like Barbie and Ken clothes blown up to life-size. Everything was made of imitation polyester, if there is such a thing. Muddy purples and cheap sky blue predominated -- the kind of colors you see when antinuclear activists try to dress up. The mannequins had hems falling down and collar points awry and lint in their synthetic hair. The only interesting thing I saw were the appliances, and the only interesting things about them was that I couldn't tell the stoves from the washing machines or the washing machines from the refrigerators.

I crossed Marszalkowska Street to a row of small private shops rented from the government. The first shop had a single shirt in the display case. The second had five hair ribbons and a ladies hat from the Jack and Jackie White House era. But in front of the third shop twenty or thirty people were gathered gawking at something in the window. I shoved into the crowd and pushed my way to the front. They were looking at plumbing fixtures.

When I was applying for my Polish visa, I didn't know what to tell the people at the consulate. I couldn't very well say I was doing a story on "Does Thirty Years of Involuntary Marxism Make Folks Nuts or What?" The press officer wanted to see a copy of Rolling Stone, the publication I work for, so I told him I was doing a piece on Polish rock and roll. There actually is such a thing, if anybody cares.

But this fib got me press credentials so I could go to news conferences in Warsaw. At the first press conference I attended, government spokesman Jerzy Urban was refuting some statement on long-term effects of Chernobyl fallout. "False, erroneous news," said Urban, "due to a general psychosis which is being established in the West."

An American reporter asked him, rather gleefully, "How's the blanket collection going?" Poland had volunteered to donate five thousand sleeping bags to New York City's homeless. But so far only five hundred sleeping bags had been found in the country and only one had been donated by a private individual. The American reporter wanted to know if there wasn't something strange about donations to the homeless from a country where so many people wanted to leave home. Everyone in the room, including Jerzy Urban, tittered.

The person next to me whispered, "A classified ad ran in the Warsaw papers, 'Will exchange two-bedroom apartment in Warsaw for sleeping bag in New York.'"

The American reporter quoted Lech Walesa as saying, "If the borders of Poland are ever opened, will the last person out please turn off the lights and close the windows."

Telling the Poles I was writing about rock and roll turned out to be an inspired lie. It let me get official help to go have fun. It gave me not only an excuse but a mandate to be out prowling around at night, checking the dance halls and juke joints and trying to find the wild get-down side of communism. A nation's fun will tell you more about that nation than anything except its jails. And, if I got into enough fun, maybe I'd get into jail too.

Interpress [the government agency that provides services to foreign reporters] hired a translator for me, who I'll call Zofia, a tall and pretty, bespectacled and intense girl -- half head librarian and half fashion model. She spoke five languages. "Will you want to interview many prominent figures in the field of popular music?" she asked, looking bored.

I said, "Zofia, there's only one way to cover this story. We have to get inside it. We have to experience it in the social context. We have to capture the gestalt, get the big picture. We've got to go out and drink too much and boogie."

"Your magazine pays you for this?" she asked.

"Of course they do. I'm behind the Iron Curtain. This is dangerous. No agency in the U.S. government can help me now. I might be grabbed for a spy at any minute. Held incommunicado. Interrogated. Days without sleep. Drugs. Electric shock. A story like this is bound to put me in touch with antisocial elements, people opposed to the government."

Zofia began to giggle. "Everyone in Poland is opposed to the government."

Zofia rounded up two friends, Mark and Tom, both Americans. Tom was a graduate student, studying Slavic languages in Warsaw. Mark was a college professor bumming around Europe on vacation. We drove off in Tom's car and were promptly stopped by the police, who stop you all the time in Poland for no particular reason, like your mother did when you were a kid and trying to get out the back door.

"Let's start with the nightclubs," I said as soon as the cop had given up on us. Zofia raised an eyebrow.

"There's one called Kamieniolomy, 'The Quarry,'" said Tom. The decor was budget Mafia. Because of the name, I guess, the walls were covered with Permastone house siding. There were little strips of disco lights around the dance floor, but they just flashed off and on; they didn't move around the room or change colors or anything.

A bored combo -- one singer, one guitar player and a guy on the electric organ doing the rhythm, bass and drum parts -- played a Ramada Inn lounge arrangement of "I Got You, Babe," lyrics in memorized English:
Ugh gut you to told me height
Bucket jute tuchus god night
A fat lady came out and sang "Feelings," also in English. A dance team gave a disco exhibition more reminiscent of Saturday Night Live than Saturday Night Fever. There was a mild strip act, the stripper winding up in a kind of two-piece bathing suit worn by Baptist ministers' wives, but with sequins. To grasp the true meaning of socialism, imagine a world where everything is designed by the post office, even the sleaze.

The next night we went to a student club, Stodola, "The Barn." (They do have a knack for snappy nomenclature in Poland.) During the winter Stodola is the Student Union for Warsaw Technical University. The dance was held in the gym. The records were American or British with an occasional Abba cut that cleared the dance floor. This night the kids were mostly high-school age. They had dressed up, doing their best to find T-shirts, at least, in bright, free-world colors. Some almost succeeded in looking American in a Michael J. Fox way. The crowd was shy and square acting: The boys danced in groups of boys; girls danced together in pairs. And the dancing was terrible, stiff and clunky.

A few of the boys were sweat-faced and stumbling. "Guess they got into the vodka," I said to Zofia. "At least you don't have the drug problem we do in the West."

"They are not drunk," she said, "they are on heroin." Poles, she explained, were the first to figure out how to extract opiates from poppy straw, the stubble that's left in the field after the poppy harvest. Now kids are doing it all over Europe. It's called "the Polish method."

The third night we went to Remont, Warsaw's only punk club. The kids didn't look very punky; more like it was a party game where everybody had to do a quick impression of Patti Smith.

I couldn't, off hand, think of anything to ask [the manager] Grzegorz. "Does the Polish punk movement have any political significance?" I said and realized I'd put my foot in it. In a Marxist country even a dank and stinky place like Remont needs some kind of official sanction, and Grzegorz must have some kind of official status. He looked miffed.

"I notice a certain regularity in questions from the West," said Grzegorz. "First, you're interested in punks. Usually your stories have two objectives, that punks are opposition to authority, breaking the rules that exist here. Also your articles show that there are no polar bears walking the streets." He gave me a condescending smile. "There are moments when our country is very normal."

"Hopelessly normal," I said. "I notice your punks don't go in much for spiked hair and face tattoos."

"They have some inhibitions," said Grzegorz. "Also we don't have the commercial products to do the hair styles." And then he sighed. "There are contradictions within the Polish punk scene. Remont is the only place they can come to express their rebellion against institutions. The root problem is boredom."

"That's what made my generation rebel in the sixties in America," I said, trying to be nice. "You know, we were bored with commercialism, bored with materialism...."

Grzegorz sighed again. "They're rebelling here from lack of this."

Some of the punks began slam-dancing, or trying to. They were so drunk they kept missing each other. An enormous punk with a knife in his belt and a neck like a thigh began eyeing Zofia, Mark, Tom and me. "One good thing about a socialist system," I said to Zofia, "is the low crime rate."

"There are neighborhoods in Warsaw that I will not even go to," said Zofia.

"At night?"

"In the daytime."

"Is this one of them?

"Now it is."

Remont is as hip as it gets in Poland. "That's enough of that," I said. "Let's do something normal. Let's see what ordinary people do in the evening -- you know, just by way of contrast."

Zofia looked dubious. Tom shrugged. But Mark was all for it. He had one of those over-earnest guidebooks to Europe's nooks and crannies. "There's a wild boar restaurant," he said, flipping through the guide's back pages. "It's supposed to have local color." Zofia looked very dubious.

We found the restaurant, at the corner of two dark streets. It was called Dzik, which means "wild boar." A political argument was raging as we came in.

Zofia translated and said, "There is a wide range of political opinion in Poland, fundamentally it is pro-American."

"The only pro-American country in Europe," said Tom, "except for maybe Czechoslovakia and Hungary."

We sat down and ordered vodka. An ancient bag lady clumped in and began screaming at a woman at the table next to ours. I asked Zofia to translate this, also. "It is a very vivid language," she said.

"Remarkable colloquialisms," said Tom, and he pulled out a notebook and began to scribble. The waitresses leaned against the walls, listening intently to the tirade. The cook came out of the kitchen and listened, too.

The bag lady stumbled out and stumbled back and started over again. This somehow set off a fight between two men who didn't seem to have anything to do with either of the women. They cuffed and wrestled their way across the room until the head waiter reluctantly pried them apart. But one of the men was too drunk to stand up without the support of the fellow who had been slugging him. He fell onto our table, which flipped into the air catapulting vodka and Mark (who'd been leaning his elbows on the dirty place mat) across the room. Nobody made a move to clean up. We changed seats.

The subject on which I was supposed to be reporting was not, as you may have guessed, very interesting. The only thing that seemed to set Polish rock apart from the rest of Europe's colorless pop music was a certain dark and somber tone. I talked to an American exchange student who'd been kicked out of a Krakow Cold Wave band because his guitar playing "wasn't gloomy enough."

Every song, whether it's to be recorded or performed in concert or even sung in the smallest club, must be submitted to the censor board. The censors look for political meaning and sexual innuendo. They may veto a whole song or bowdlerize it line by line. As a result, lyrics tend to be Dylanesque. But, unlike old Minnesota Mud Throat, Poles have a reason to be cryptic. Zbig Holdys, leader of Perfect, which I was told was the best Polish band of the eighties, went too far with the song, "There Is No God." The Commies objected even though they're supposed to be atheists.

There are only about five officially sanctioned places to play in the whole country. I visited one of the best sound studios. It had sixteen tracks. To do a proper final mix the tape had to be taken to West Germany. It's impossible to say how many records the popular groups could sell. There's a shortage of record plastic. But the Poles plug along, keeping up with the trends. The music videos I saw were no worse than MTV's, though many had been shot on 8mm home-movie film. The synthesizer tunes I heard were done on the kind of electric keyboards we used to have at roller rinks, but the results weren't any dippier than the new Prince album.

On the day before I left I took a long walk with Zofia. "I'd like to see the West," she said.

"Can you leave?"

"If you are of a certain level, it can be arranged. But you need an invitation, a job or a sponsor of some kind. Do you think I could find a job in the West?"

"Zofia, you're fluent in what, Polish, English, German, Spanish and Arabic?"

"Yes. But I am only fair in Russian and Latin."

"And you have how many higher degrees?"

"Nearly three now."

"Zofia, you'd have to carry a pistol to keep from being made president of the World Bank. Would you defect?"

"No. It would break my parents' hearts. My father fought in the resistance. He is not a Communist but he belongs to the Peasant's Party, that is allied with the government." Zofia shrugged. "Besides, this is my country. I should see it through."

On the way back to my hotel I finally got arrested. Four large policemen blew their whistles and surrounded me on the plaza in front of the Palace of Culture and Science. They hustled me into a police van. One paged through my passport, while the other three glowered menacingly. I sat in the sweltering van with my legs crossed casually, a faint smile on my lips; I was determined to let no emotion show. I fancied they'd rarely dealt with as cool a customer as I. And I'd composed the first two paragraphs of the New York Times story about my arrest on trumped-up espionage charges before they got it across that I'd been nabbed for jaywalking. I was fined $2.

So I didn't become a prisoner of conscience or see any salt mines or brain washing in Poland -- that would have been too exciting. And I didn't see any Evil Empire -- that would have been too interesting. Communism doesn't really starve or execute that many people. Mostly it just bores them to death. Life behind the Iron Curtain is like living with your parents forever. There are a million do's and dont's. It's a hassle getting the car keys.

Is it worth risking nuclear war and the annihilation of mankind to avoid living like this? Don't ask anybody who just got back from Warsaw.