I am waiting at the state-owned jewelry store and I am 26th in line.m These opening words from Tadeusz Konwicki's 1977 novel "The Polish Complex" describe an elementary feature of everyday life in Poland, waiting in queue. So basic is the experence of lining up that Konwicki chose a queue as the setting for his entire novel. In the course of the narrative, people join the queue while others leave and return later; Old acquaintances are renewed, people swap yarns and air their gripes. IT is Christmas Eve and a light snow falls.
Konwicki's novel touched a spot so sensitive to Polish leaders that the book was rejected by the censor and appeared only later in a samizdat version. Its publication by the underground press was a landmark for the organized opposition to the regime, and intellectual circles in the country were electrified by the appearance of a full-length novel produced in secret.
For Poles, the queue symbolizes the national despair that underlaid the recent upheavals referred to now as "The Polish August." "We Poles are born to wait," said a passenger sharing a rail compartment with me while we sat stranded in a railyard for five hours.
Westerners cannot fully appreciate what it is to live in a society that ties up its citizens with perpetual waiting. True, they wait in line at the bank and at the checkout line in the supermarket. They even endure long hours in queues for Picasso and King Tut. Yet, these cases are rare. Except for the gas lines during the summer of 1979, Americans have never endured the frustration of long lines for basic commodities and services. To them the idea of a whole novel set in a queue seems artifical and contrived, but to Polish readers the line at the jewelry store in Konwicki's tale is a microcosm of Polish life.
Thus, after four weks in Poland, I took my place in a queue in Krakow unprepared by the cultural conditioning that game my fellow placeholders stoic patience. My struggle to keep my cool and the utter incredulity I suffered as I watched the painfully slow progress of the line may help explain the national malaise that afflicts Poland.
Knowing that an important office like Orbis, the national travel agency, would be crowded at any hour, I arrived there at 7:30 a.m., 30 minutes before the doors opened, to purchase a train ticket to West Germany. I joined a queue of roughly 50 people standing on the sidewalk before the door. By 8 a.m. when the doors opened, the queue had more than doubled. Inside, two rows of clerks' windows faced each other about 15 feet apart -- roughly 20 altogether. The crowd poured in and hapharzardly jammed the space between the rows of windows. The lines snaked around, and all evidence of order was quickly lost. Every new arrival had to ask several people before finding the end of any queue. I reckoned that I was 10th in aline to a window selling tickets for travel abroad.
Standing 10th in line to buy a ticket seemed not too formidable, even though I had waited 45 minutes to achieve this not very enviable position -- or so I thought until I noticed how much paper work was entailed in issuing a single rail ticket. I distracted myself by studying the others in the queue. A great majority were Poles, even those queuing for tickets abroad. A wide range of ages; no special social class. A few nuns. Scattered among them were some foreigners -- East Gemans. Scandinavians, French, a Canadian or two. I was the only American, so far as I could tell.
A true stoic would not have concerned himself with estimates of how long it would take him to reached the head of the line, but I gave in to impatient curiosity and calculated that a 50-minute wait stood before me. It was nearly 9 a.m. when only one person stood between me and the ticket window. Then the woman in front of me stepped up to the window and presented the clerk with a stack of 10 identity cards. My heart sank as I realized that she meant to buy tickets for a group of 10 travelers. Like in my childhood days when I played the game of Chutes and Ladders I had been bumped from number two to number 11 in one capricious move.
My gorge began to rise, and I recited poetry in hope of containing my frustration. Don't watch the clerk processing the tickets, I told myself (I was at the edge of the counter now); it will only aggravate you. i watched instead how the Poles bore the tedium of the long wait. Some read, some chatted, but most merely wore long-suffering looks and stared her and here. How they managed to remain civil to one another, how they could keep from making a ruckus was beyond my comprehension.
If only the reality of the travel agency queue had imitated the spicy fiction of Konwicki's jewelry shop queue i might have found it more bearable, the language barrier notwithstanding. But, alas, the real queue was a line-up of deadened souls, a shabby crowd of demoralized citizens.
I sought refuge in a novel i had brought with me, but a thumping sound arrested my attention. It was the clerk stamping tickets. Each ticket comprised three pieces of paper, each requiring at least one rubber stamp. Thump.m The clerk recorded information on each part of the ticket and the sub-parts of the total fare -- the passage, seat reservation, and sleeping berth -- were recorded in long-hand on separate ledgers. When all these parts of the individual tickets were finally prepared they were each asembled in a sleeve, stapled together and stamped. Thump, thump! . . . Thump, thump! . . . Thump, thump!m
The whole process finished, the clerk wrote a list of the names and identification numbers of all 10 ticket holders. The fares were paid and finally the position at the head of the line became mine. It was 9:45 and I had been waiting two hours and 15 minutes.
Writing my ticket took the clerk only a few minutes. I was handed a slip of paper and directed to the cashier's window where I was required to pay for the ticket in United States dollars. The queue there was a mere 10-minute wait, easy to bear with the end so near at hand. The cashier issued me a receipt so that I could claim my highly prized ticket from the first clerk. i took the receipt back tot he window where the clerk was holding my ticket, but the chair behind the counter was empty. It was the coffee break.
Of all the time I spent waiting in the travel bureau that morning, the most difficult was the final 20 minutes while I waited for the clerk to return so i could exchange my receipt for my ticket. Yet, the worst was still to come.
The clerk returned, took my receipt, and handed me my ready ticket with the following explanation:
"This is your ticket from the Polish-East German border to West Germany. To purchase the Polish part of your ticket from Krakow to the border you may stand in line at window number 3, 7, or 12, or you may purchase it at the train station."
She wore a sardonic smile, but her eyes were sympathetic. Her overall expression seemed to say, "You thought you were through waiting in queues but you were wrong, poor thing."
Back in the US a few weeks later I read about the strikes in the Baltic parts and remembered my exasperating morning waiting in line to buy my ticket to the West. I realized how utterly demoralizing it must be to experience this regularly. It was clear to me then how the labor unrest that was spreading from the shipyards in the north to the factories in the heartland and beyond to the coal fields of Silesia expressed a deep despair felt by most Poles: a despair that the social machinery of the country has become so clogged that improvements in social conditions seem blocked; a despair born of a complete loss of belief in the whole of afficialdom.
For, nationwide, Poles must wait in such queues to buy their meat and vegetables; they wait at the stationery shop and the taxi stand. Moreover, the waiting is not confined to purchasing goods but extends to dealing with the bureaucracy, too; the queues meander out from the windows at the post office and at city hall. When they are not physically standing in line, most Poles are on one waiting list or another to buy a house or a car, or to obtain permission for this or that.
There is a coda to the story of the day i bought my train ticket in Krakow.That evening when i went to the train station to buy the Polish part of my ticket, I found the station teeming with people. The wait in line was 55 minutes, and when i reached the window the clerk denied there was any morning train to the border crossing despite the printed timetable. Only a severe browbeating by an English-speaking Polish friend of mine persuaded the clerk to check with her supervisor, after which, miraculously, she told me a ticket on the morning train.