Time Lines

Patrycja Rozwora

That Sunday, in the morning hours of the autumn sun I found myself queuing with many others. Taught to fulfill our civic duty, we all came here to vote for the new Polish parliament. That day I felt more Polish than usual, closer to my country which I left more than six years ago. The past four years of power by Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, hereafter PIS), however progressive in terms of distributing the national income and tax laws, created a powerful and dangerous national-Catholic doctrine where anyone outside the Polish-Catholic-Heterosexual category was suppressed and destroyed[1]. Today, I once again had the chance to tick a box next to a name that, in theory, would represent me in the parliament and, hopefully, change the course of things.

Being used to the efficiency and order of The Netherlands, the long line stretching from the second half of Prinses Irenestraat up to the doors of Amsterdam International Community School shocked me a little. Do I really have to spend my free Sunday queuing? Nevertheless, I put myself at the end of the line and waited.

As, for lack of something better to do, I automatically grabbed my phone, attempting to scroll through my newsfeed and I suddenly realised that I could hear and understand everything that was being said around me. The random worlds and scattered conversations in my mother tongue attracted my attention; I was curious about the thoughts and feelings of my fellow country people. I put the phone back in my pocket and started to listen.  

Not far behind me a voice lamented:

“To be honest with you, when I stand here and look at all of this, I have to think back to the queues in komuna[2]. What a disorganisation! Look at all those kids, forced to wait, bored to death. So many people and just one small voting point. Typical Poland!” 

I imagined a response,

“Since I live in this country I never had to wait for anything. Everything comes easily and with no effort. I swear, the moment I take part in something organised by our country I see how much we still need to learn. Efficiency is just not our strong side.”

Why do we always compare ourselves and strive so hard to get closer to the West? I think the inferiority complex began in 2004, when the first slot of the ‘former East’ joined the European Union. The ‘New Europe’ - the former socialistic countries that had ‘successfully’ beaten communism, were ready to catch up with the West. I remember that around that time, the slogan “a normal European country” become a favorite of the Polish government. I guess the normality can be understood by how quickly and easily (compared with the other post-soviet countries) Poland assimilated with neoliberalism[3]. Within the last decade, the brick facades of Warsaw had transformed into a landscape of glass skyscrapers.

What did the reality of queuing in komuna look like?[4] 

“Good to see you, neighbor, how have you been?”

“Well, exhausted. I arrived here around five in the morning, right after my night shift. Anka agreed to change with me around nine, after she brought the kids to school. Hopefully, I will get some sleep then. My older boy finishes at four, he promised to change with his mother once he is done with school. Hopefully, we will get better food this time.”

“Oh yes, you are lucky to have a family!” Handing a small metal hip-flask, “Please take a sip, it will keep us warmer.”

“Thank you neighbour. What about a chess game?” 

My stream of thought was interrupted by an overheard remark of a child. “Dad, why are we actually waiting in this line, why do we even vote for Poland if we live here?” Curiously awaiting the answer, I eventually heard the father say, “No matter where you live, you will always remain Polish, it is our civic duty to vote. We have to finally stop those morons who are trying to destroy our democracy.” 

At some point I started to feel my legs. I looked back at my phone, which indicated it was one pm. It felt as if during this last hour, the line barely moved. How much longer do I need to wait?

Elegantly dressed people started joining the line; women in dark dresses and over-the-knee-boots, men in jackets and pumps. It took me a while to connect the dots. Right next to the voting point stood a massive Catholic Church. Very likely a big part of the queuing people decided to connect their weekly Sunday duty with the elections.

Is it true that Polish people are conditioned to believe in and stay close to their Church? Under State Socialism, in fear of losing authority, the communists suppressed the institution of the Church, aiming for secularisation of the state. Nevertheless, the Polish Catholic Church played an enormous role in opposing the Soviet regime. It gave people stability and a place to unite, out of the government’s sight. Members of the labor union Solidarność[5]regularly used the safe walls of the church to plan strikes and discuss new strategies of fighting for freedom. When I look at the Church today, the agenda quite significantly varies from the one thirty years ago. In the course of the transformation, the Church came to help the neglected and suffering working class. Instead of, as intended, winning over the neoliberals, the Church transformed into a populist, modernity-hating, fanatical organization. Clearly, the open hate, directed at women, people with non-normative sexual or gender identities, people of other beliefs or generally anyone who opposes the preaching of Church, isn’t enough to dismiss its position in the Polish society.[6]

I overheard a woman in the line, speaking on her phone:

“I told you mom, watch less TV and inform yourself better. I don’t want to listen to your ridiculous talk, please choose wisely and don’t get fooled by the bribery, like the rest of the country.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, in the course of a brutal and abrupt process of class-making society, the Polish started to divide between those who made it through the transformation and those who didn’t. People with a previously stable job and housing situation had to face mass layoffs, unemployment and hyperinflation. Their anger and frustration transformed into hate towards everything that connects to the idea of the modern West.[7]

“In all other European countries you can vote by post or online. Voting that way would encourage more people to take part in the elections making it easier and more accessible. But why think about solutions, right?”

I turned in the direction of the voice and spontaneously answered,

“I agree, but on the other hand, look around. Can you feel the strong national collectivity? Random strangers chatting with each other, people holding places for one another, taking turns in getting coffee or going to the toilet, friendly adults entertaining the bored kids. Where else do you see it, these days?”

The last time I visited her, my grandmother shared yet another story about waiting in line, this time for a bar of soap. She stood there from the early morning, around six hours. The moment she reached the shop, the salesgirl put out a sign “lunch” at the inside of the window and closed the curtains. Without anything to bring back home, my grandmother burst into tears of anger and frustration and left the queue.

Today, striving for individual fulfillment and success in a world driven by power and competition doesn’t leave much time to notice the other and act outside of one’s individual benefit. Every time I see her, my grandmother emphasises that despite all the waiting and terrible bureaucracy, people had relatively more time under State Socialism. That resulted in developing closer relations with one another[8]. She once told me,

“You know, poverty and struggle unites people. The common misery mobilised us to stick together and when the moment was right, to revolt.”

1 Piotr Ikonowicz, ‘Prezes I Faszyzm’, Krytyka Polityczna, 11 November 2019.
2 Colloquial term used to describe the living environment under communism.
3 Agata Pyzik, Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West, 2014, pages 13-14. Alresford: Zero Books.
4 Bruce O’Neill, The Space of Boredom: Homelessness in the Slowing Global Order, 2017, pages 26-27. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
5 Solidarność was the first independent and legal labor union formed in 1980. The union fought predominantly for the rights of workers but once getting more freedom in organizing and speaking up, they also fought for the emancipation of Poland from the Soviet regime. 
6 Agata Pyzik, Poor but Sexy: Culture Clashes in Europe East and West, 2014, pages 31-32. Alresford: Zero Books.
7 See previous, pages 14-19.
8 Kristen Ghodsee, Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism, 2017, pages 101-110. Durham: Duke University Press.

cover by Kateryna Kruhlyk