I do not wish to imply anything about myself by
this story. I wrote it to document one of the abnormal events of everyday
life under communism (hence the pinky colour of the background).
At that time, what today seems abnormal and reads funny (or is no longer
believable) seemed so ordinary that it could be easily forgotten.
Fortunately, I used to carefully preserve documents of this kind, hoping
that some day time will come to make use of them. It seems the time
"The West" was a colloquial name used in Poland to denote countries that were not in the Soviet area of dominance. This collection of countries actually included the geographical South and South-East, like Italy or Greece, and even some of the East, e.g. Israel or Japan or Australia.
For each official travel to the "West" in the 1970s, to attend a conference or a school, or for any other purpose, Polish scientists received "money allowance", which was, independently of the destination and of the duration of the stay abroad, the equivalent of 10 US dollars in the currency of the country of destination. Needless to say, this was miserably inadequate to meet the challenges of ordinary life in the "West". More senior scientists could use their private money, earned in the "West" during earlier travels (and, in later years, this included myself), but those going there for the first time, with no extra money, faced horror. This happened to me in June 1976, when I went to Italy to attend a 2-week course at the Enrico Fermi School in Varenna.
I was naive enough to describe my hardship in the official report that I had to submit to the Polish Academy of Sciences after I returned. I did not expect that my report would change anything. My secret plan was that the report would stay in the archives of the Academy, to be used by future historians as a source of information on communism. I assumed that nobody would care to read it instantly. I was wrong. Somebody did read it.
For those readers who understand Polish, here is the report in full. To quickly come to the most interesting part, begin reading at paragraph 2 of page 2.
For those who don't, here is the abstract. After describing the importance of the Fermi School and the scientific aspects of my participation in the course, I complained about the horrors of having to make do with 10 dollars during 2 weeks. This is humiliating, I said, and allows for survival at the economic level of a beggar. My meals and lodging were paid for by the Italian Physical Society, so in principle I did not need any more money, except for small amounts to pay the airport fee and to buy the tickets from the airport to town and back. But, here I translate the key sentences:
"However, a person who must scrupulously avoid all occasions on which he might have to spend any money, does not come to a party given by the course's director for the participants -- in fear of having to pay the bill, does not participate in the excursion in which everybody else takes part, and cannot afford to have lunch on the departure day, when the hotel allowance came to an end -- of course attracts the attention of the company because this style of behaviour is not proper for a citizen of a civilized country. Unfortunately, we have no other choice. Nobody will demand of the Academy to give us foreign money for free, but it is difficult to understand, why it is forbidden to us to exchange some of our own money to a foreign currency."
This was another peculiarity of communism. Since the communist economies
were, by design, carefully isolated from the non-communist markets, nobody knew
the real value of the communist currencies. So, to simplify matters, money
exchanges were generally forbidden, and allowed only under most unusual
circumstances. In a way, this was reasonable. Independently of the
adopted rate of exchange, read out from the stars in every case, the Polish
government used to find itself at a loss -- nobody in the world wanted to take
Polish money; it was just useless outside the country. There was, of course,
the black market that had its own rate of exchange, much above any official
one, but the official communist theory said that there was no black market (in
fact, the theory had it that in communism there is no market at all), so it
would be a shame to adopt the black market rate as the official one.
This isolation from the world had some funny consequences. The salaries and prices in Poland, and all other communist countries, formed a system quite independent of the salaries and prices in the "West". "Western" prices converted to Polish zlotys seemed exorbitant, which was gladly used by the communist propaganda to say: see, comrades, life in the West is terribly expensive, quite unlike here. Communism is better than capitalism! But, conversely, the Polish salaries converted, for example, to dollars looked like a handout to a beggar. This, in turn, was gleefully used by the citizens to say: see what misery we live in. In truth, the proportion between prices and salaries was such that life was affordable, although far below luxury level. However, a direct comparison could give quite astonishing results. For example, in 1989 I was a lecturer at the University of Colorado at Boulder for one semester, and received a salary of an assistant professor for 5 months, 15 000 dollars altogether. I used the (then) official rate of exchange to calculate how long I would have to keep working in Poland to earn just as much. The result was shocking to myself -- it was 75 years.
OK, this was a side-remark. In the last paragraph of my report I complained about the behaviour of the administration workers at the offices of the Academy. My documents had been sent back and forth several times between those offices and my Institute, which caused that the theoretical deadline to apply for the Italian visa had passed. This was obviously a fault of those ladies, so, it would be appropriate for them to try to save the project. Instead, I said, they vigorously tried to persuade me to give up on this travel. I had to take the matter into my own hands, and 8 days were enough to get the visa. Two weeks before the travel it turned out that my passport expired, and the person responsible for it did not take care about extending its validity on time. (Well, another explanation is needed here -- we were not allowed to keep our passports at home. They were stored in a safe house in the offices of the Academy and handed over to us only just before the travel. We had to give them back to the Academy within a few days after return.)
After someone at the Polish Academy read my first report, the answer came to me in the form of a handwritten note, signed by our director. I do not blame him, he just had to hand down to me the decision of someone who was higher up in the chain of command. The note (in Polish) can be viewed here , and it says the following:
Dept. III [of the Academy] urgently(*) asks for a new report from Italy
-- with an elaborate factual part
--- without the remaining part
(*) Necessary condition for the approval of the next travel.
21 July 76"
Any resistance would not have made sense. In the worst scenarios I might have been refused any foreign travel for a long time, fired from my post, even brought to court and perhaps sentenced to jail (for the abuse of dignity of the "Polish People's Republic" or something like that), while the original report would not make it to the public anyway. So I wrote a dull, purely factual report, with a list of titles of lectures included just to make it longer. Here it is, for completeness, but it is not really worth reading, so I do not give the English translation.
But petty punishments came anyway. Half a year later, I was about to go to another school in Erice (Sicily), this time as a lecturer. One other person from my Institute was going there, too, but he had no role to play, he just wanted to be there ("there" means Sicily rather than the lecture room). The Academy decided that it would pay for the airline ticket of only one of us, and the director of our Institute decided that the awardee would be the other guy. In this case I see no justification for this decision. Fortunately, I could afford to pay for the airline ticket myself, and I did.
The lady-officers at the Academy remembered my report and did not
hesitate to show off their unfriendliness on several later occasions. But this
did not bother me. According to a popular belief, which is entirely credible,
they all held double positions -- one at the Academy and one at the "Security
Service", i.e. the communist secret police. I guess my contempt for them was
often visible. This did not make my life easier, of course -- I had to face all
possible problems myself, and could not count on any help from their side. But
in the end, we scientists won in this silent war. The monster-women just
disappeared from sight when communism fell in 1989, the elaborate bureaucratic
structure that employed them, a permanent perfect parasite, went into a sleep
mode, and for nearly 20 years now I did not have to talk to them any single
time; I do not even remember when the last time was. And, by the way, even while
they still ruled, I went everywhere I wanted, they did not manage to ruin any
of my travel plans, although they were close to it a few times.
This unpleasant adventure had one positive educational element in it. It is probably hard to imagine for anyone how it feels to have to make do with no money. By this, I do not mean to have money in your pocket or account, and be unwilling to spend it. I mean to be physically isolated from access to any money at all. A simple walk through the city streets becomes a trek through a minefield, with booby traps at every step. The story told below is meant to be an illustration.
My situation was this: the Polish currency had no value outside Poland, No shop, no hotel, no bank would accept it. For the 2 weeks I was given the equivalent of 10 dollars, which was 6500 Italian lire at that time, to spend as I wished. Additionally, I had a train ticket for the ride from Milan to Varenna and back, plus 15 000 lire to pay for one night in a hotel in Milan. But I had to get a bill from the hotel, and to return the remnant of the 15 000 to the Polish Academy after going back to Warsaw, so this money was not usable for anything else. The bus from the Malpensa airport to the city was 1700 lire, and I had to save another 1700 for the return journey. My budget was thus reduced to 3100 (less than 5 dollars) already on the first day.
The horror started at the bus terminal in Milan. There was a travel office there that offered hotel reservations. I approached them and said: "Can you please recommend a hotel to me? -- I can pay only 10 000 lire." I lied, but I knew what would happen next. The man put a busy look on his face, shuffled a few papers in front of him, then smiled and said: "I found one for you. Although it costs 11 000 lire, you will be glad, it is a good one." I knew he could find a cheaper offer if he tried, but... after all I lied, too. "OK" said I "where is it?" "A car will take you there -- here is the driver."
This was the first moment of panic: "Jesus, will I have to pay for the car ride? I cannot even ask -- they will find it to be a stupid question, independently of what the answer is!" Fortunately, there were other guests in the car, so I felt safer. I thought I would just walk away and leave them with the problem.
The ride was for free, and the real rate for the room was 13 000 lire. Never mind, this was still within my limit. But when a hotel boy wanted to carry my suitcase to the room, I nervously grabbed it back. I had no money to give him a tip!
One of the persons in the car was a nice-looking joyful girl from England, of about my age, named Christine (I still remember her family name and have her address in my pocket notebook of that year, but we live in an era of personal data protection). She wanted a company at a dinner and asked me to join her. I told her about my situation and hoped this would be an excuse, but then she insisted on inviting me. I suppose what she really wanted was to be shielded from the attempts by Italian boys to pick her up, and she expected I would be, from this point of view, a safe companion (I was -- even though she was definitely worth an attempt). We made a deal that I would invite her to a dinner when she visits Warsaw, and we exchanged addresses, but the visit never happened. After the dinner at an outdoor pizzeria we walked back to the hotel and never met again.
The dinner allowed me to spare the sandwiches brought from Poland. This was a perennial Polish habit: wherever we went, we carried with us some bread or rolls, some dried sausage, some teabags, and an electric water-heater -- all of this in order to save the always-too-precious foreign currencies. The plug of the heater often did not fit into foreign sockets, and in some countries breaking through the security barriers was difficult. (Congratulations to the British -- theirs was the most difficult to break through! -- but I won, without doing any damage to it.) Occasionally, the self-made transformers caused shortcuts. I remember, some years later in West Berlin, my hotel was drowning in darkness for 3 hours, while the personnel searched for the array of fuses. Nobody knew where it was because it happened for the first time since the hotel was built that a fuse burnt.
Turning back to Milan. The hotel was clean, comfortable, nice indeed, but I was afraid to turn on the air conditioning on a hot night, fearing there would be an extra fee for that. The refrigerator was full of delicious drinks -- I only used it to keep my sandwiches fresh. Next morning, somebody knocked on my door. This was a waiter with a tray on his hands. On the tray was... Well, whoever visited Italy can imagine; the Italians are world champions in delightful foods. The waiter asked gently: "Is it for you, the breakfast?" I assumed this was a calculated temptation and said "No, this is not for me". Now I think I might have been wrong. After all it is a standard that a room rate at a hotel includes a breakfast, but, being a novice in the travels to the "West", I had not known this by then.
On the next day, I had a few hours to get around Milan. The tram tickets were 50 lire apiece, so I could afford a couple of rides, but no museum ticket, no drink, no snack. Fortunately, entry to the famous cathedral was for free.
During the school in Varenna, all my expenses were covered by the hosts, so on the next weekend I could even afford, out of my remnant 3000 lire, to buy a bus ticket to Perledo, where a trail to Monte Grigna Settentrionale (2409 meters) had its head. This was a magnificent hike, with a beautiful view from the top on Lake Como and the surrounding Alps.
On the last day of my stay in Italy I had a full day to get around Milan again. By then, all my usable money and all sandwiches were gone, so that day was an exercise in starving. After an early-morning breakfast in my guesthouse in Varenna, the next meal was late in the evening on the plane to Warsaw.
This was a one-time experience. Most of the next journeys to the "West" were connected with earning some modest amounts of foreign currency; a pocket money from the hosts of a conference, a honorarium or stipend in the case of some longer stay. Since about 1972 it was legal in Poland to keep such officially earned foreign money in a special bank account and to take it abroad for the next journey. I was always careful to bring back more than I had at the start.