Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Workers of the World...Snarl!!!

Poland is an interesting country in that there is an entirely old and new way of doing things. The youth and people up to their mid-40s experienced either no "communism" or, in the case of people my age, the end of communism as they were entering into adulthood.

However a huge portion of the population lived through a devastating war followed by 45 years of communism as it came to be implemented and practiced in Eastern European countries. Stalin may have said that trying to make the Poles into communists was like trying to saddle a cow, but the cow was in fact saddled, and for some time. 20 years on saddle marks remain.

For instance there is the interesting habit of lining up "queing" in former Eastern Bloc countries including Poland, which involves not lining up at all but simply walking in front of the dutiful Canadian dolt (me) who has been patiently waiting in the line which I have apparently conjured up in my mind. Apparently this trait comes from enduring many years where you had to wait in line for bread and everything else. At Wawel Castle waiting to buy tickets, countless seniors just barged in front of me, got theors, asked all sort of questions and left. One guy even invited in a number of friends to join while I stood there behind unsure whether to say something or just continue to smile. What was I to do? Tell the old guys to push off? I tried that once in Hungary in a train ticket line up to no effect. So I didn't say anything; if I had the old men would have all said something I couldn't understand in Polish, rolled their eyes and continued to butt in anyway.

Most notably this clash of cultures in terms of behavior under communism and the new reality comes to the fore when one experiences "customer service".

Restaurants are often described by Poles or other Eastern Europeans in terms of "bad communistic service" or "good service".

"Bad communistic service" is where the servers either ignore you for hours chatting with each other for hours or glare at you if you try and make eye contact. You eventually have no other choice but to get up, gather the menu yourself then walk back to the table, read the menu then walk the distance back into the restaurant, up to the bar and place your order (1 small beer please) with the surly wait staff who roll their eyes, huff and then say: "Yah, yah, ok, ok..." as if if one was an unreasonable nut who had just dashed in from the street, demanding ice cream immediately, instead of having sat patiently outside on the patio in their full view for well over 30 minutes.

There is also, I think, a new "mid-level of service" where they ignore you, glare at you and snarl when you order, but then smile very sweetly and thank you in a faux Swedish accent when they bring you the bill in order to try and elicit a tip.

The real "old guard" of customer service however are the civil servants whose bread and butter comes from working for the public purse. All are leftovers from the days of communism when, apparently, you couldn't get fired even if you tried. I understand it: if everyone is equal, why the hell should I treat you super nicely? No one treats me that way? We're all in the same boat and so it goes.

Many older Poles are in fact quite disenchanted with the novelties of free market capitalism, especially with the recession, and are worried about their pensions, the right to a job and a steady paycheque.

But in any event, retro "communistic" customer service practices can be experienced anytime in the many museums in the country. The huff and rolled eyes are interspersed with the necessity that they answer an important personal cell phone call(the ring tone "Living La Vida Loca")

Nowhere else was the service style so poignantly played out as in the Pawiak Prison Museum.

Now Pawiak Prison is a horrible place the Gestapo and SS used as their torture, imprisonment and interrogation centre throughout the 6 terrifying years of German occupation. 100,000 Poles passed through its gates before being murdered, tortured to death or sent on to concentration camps.

As one of the most moving testaments to the horrors the Polish nation endured under the Nazis it was with profound respect that C and I (and many others) go to Pawiak.

Unfortunately the old man and woman who run the joint had a different idea. First we angered the staff by going on a Friday, but this is not a Jewish museum: ultra Pole. No Shabat considerations it was just close to the weekend.

We arrived at the museum which closes at 5:00 pm at 3:52 pm after walking what seemed to be for an hour crossing tram lines, highways and scary apartment blocks.

Pawiak is not a big museum: some glass cases with clothing and personal articles from inmates; photos of the many dead and tortured; art from an inmate reflecting day to day life in the women's quarter and then a story about the tree monument that sits in the yard. Finally there are the actual cells where people were kept.

Yet as we toured the museum the old guy and old woman, followed us from room to room, rolled their eyes and then locked up every exhibit we had been the moment we stepped out, just to demonstrate that there was no coming back for a second look.

I missed half of everything and when I tried to go and review one exhibit I found it dark and my entry barred by Mister Chuckles (a name I soon gave to all "communistic style employees") muttering something at me, keys in hand.

Somehow the couple managed to flush us out to the entrance like hunted partridges.

An eager tourist stood outside peering through the now locked bar door. He asked if he could come in. Snarl "Proseh"..."nye, nye, nye...CLOSED". It was 4:27 pm.

We then realized the couple had turned all the lights out in the main display area and were busy shutting down the rest of them. C inquired as to whether we could see the rest of the exhibit and the woman pointed at her watch. "Frinch minutes, Frinch minutes" signing 5 fingers. C and I checked the time: 20 minutes before 5 pm.

Seeing that we intended to perhaps force them to turn back on the lights, the lady resorted to an old Stalinist trick: "the bribe". She grabbed some cheap and awful post cards featuring the torture cells and stuffed them in our hands: "Gift...gift"

I think I sounded like John Cleese: "Well, I guess we should go then. Thank you, thank you very much. Jenkooyeh, Jenkooyeh" and then we were pushed out on to the stairs with our trinket bribes and the iron door locked soundly behind us.


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