I just found these old pictures I took when wandering around my lovely Warsaw a couple of years ago. This was a boarded up shop in the centre of town, somewhere off ul. Chmielna. I don’t know if this is some kind of tasteful graffiti or if it was actually an advertisement for contact lenses (but if I wore contacts I wouldn’t go to this place, even as a last resort!). Either way, I like it. It’s so DIY and untouched by the airbrush-wielding hand of Western commercialism.
I never noticed that a lot of Soho pubs have all these old photographs of past West End stars plastered on the walls. My friend and I had a few pints in the French House on Dean Street and the Two Brewers in Covent Garden today, and at first I didn’t take much notice of the photos because they just seemed like the tacky décor you get in “American” diners. But on second glance, they’re fascinating, even haunting. There were quite a few pictures of body builders from c. 1920/30 at the French House. My friend pointed out that their physique was very different from the rippling, veiny bodies of the ones you see today. They were smaller, smoother, more natural-looking.
I generally find old photographs alluring. I like to think that people have always been people, despite the living conditions and social expectations of different eras, but when you look at old photos, people look so different–and I don’t mean just the clothes they’re wearing. There’s something different about their faces, their eyes.
Sitting here on a secluded bench outside the Faculty of Music because it’s the quietest place I could find. Despite popular belief and comparison to London, Cambridge is not as peaceful as one might want it to be after a long day of having your mind occupied solely with reality. Completely engrossed in Neal Cassady’s letters to Kerouac, my back against a pristine pillow which I conspicuously carried from my hotel room and down the street, I become aware of a delicate sound like the first few drops of summer rain before a downpour. But I look up into the sky and it’s blue with heavenly pink and white whipped marshmallows roasting in the setting sun.
The sound persists.
I look around me. Around my bench island is a sea of woodchips and dead pine needles, and nothing stirs among them. I stretch my legs [bare feet, cold toes] and notice a wasp (bee?) on the edge of the bench, busily and unselfconsciously carving out a haphazard path as it eats away the dried top layer of the wood.I watch it for a few minutes, not daring to move lest I disturb it.
It seems I’m not the only creature in Cambridge with strange solitary habits.
In Poland, the false consciousness and commodity fetishism that the developed world is more than too familiar with, is beginning to take root. This country, with its rich and varied history of victory and victimisation, power and subordination, today sits in ambivalence. Poland is like England was in the seventies, a British friend of mine keeps telling me, and I guess in some ways that’s true. People in Poland are rediscovering capitalism, on a much bigger scale than ever before. As I write this, I am sitting in a shopping mall cafe, sipping the Starbucks equivalent of a Freshly Brewed coffee—the cheapest coffee on the menu—and I still feel ripped off. Why? Because a) it’s Poland, and the old mentality still tells me things are supposed to be cheap, and b) I didn’t even get a glass cup! As I sit here, I am surrounded by an array of extremely elegant shops, a couple of notches higher than what you’d find on a London high street (and this mall is not Selfridges- it’s more like Brent Cross). In front of me is a Pollini shoe shop, behind me Longchamp, Versace and Escada. It’s 10 AM on a Tuesday. A girl my age walks out of Calvin Klein with a massive shopping bag.
The average monthly salary in Poland is around 800 zloty (£150). In Warsaw, the starting salary for a young professional in media, events, PR etc. is 2,000 zlotys (£500) per month. Rent costs from 800 to 1,500 per month if you’re living in a studio or one-bed near the city centre. Transport is dirt cheap compared to London, but food costs about the same, if not more, unless you’re shopping at Lidl. So what continues to baffle me is how people, especially young people, can afford to omit the usual high street brands and buy the stuff they have, look the way they do, and still have a life.
What’s even more baffling is that in the UK I feel more comfortable in my own skin than I do in Poland. I can wear whatever I want and make choices based on personal preference, and I know thta my individuality is really a reflection of my economic and social freedom. Yes, this might come as a shock to some of you, but in Poland, the power of the herd reigns superior.
Polish women try hard to look as attractive and fashionable as they possibly can, and by fashionable I mean that nouveau-riche, glossy kind of way. There isn’t much variety, there isn’t much style, there’s only the uniform. The idea is to look like you’ve come straight out of the fashion spreads of Vogue, Elle, or Twoj Styl. Unless you’re really strong-minded, there isn’t much room for manoeuvre.
The same kind of financial superiority lords over the roads too. Those who can afford SUV’s think it’s their god-given right to drive above the speed limit and overtake at their leisure.
The scary thing is that, having lived here since July, I have found myself planning how to compete for commodity status to fit into Polish society. It’s harder than it seems not to give in to this ridiculous, irrational urge to consume. I wonder for how long and to what extent capitalism is going to seduce Poland.