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From the archives: Socialist propaganda and acid-wash jeans, by Jowita Bydlowska Add to ...

A memory from 1989. There we are, a bunch of serious 12-year-olds gathered around Sylwia, who is balancing a slick boom box on her knees, blasting Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O'Connor.

She rewinds. We wait. Next she plays Walls by Jacek Kaczmarski, the Solidarity movement's rebel bard.

Sylwia is one of the few kids in our class who owns a boom box. Her mish-mashed musical preferences are a good reflection of our confused Communist-to-democratic childhood.

1989: That year, a lot changed in Poland. The country was restless, fed up with poor living standards and the Communist design. Red was going out of style.

Sylwia's boom box and Sinead O'Connor were just the beginning, the Western influence steadily trickling in. By 1990, most of us kids owned Lego and had eaten Snickers or Mars bars that were - shockingly - available outside of Pewex, a chain of government-

regulated currency shops that sold Western goods in exchange for foreign money or now-obsolete bank cheques.

Today people ask, "Why did you move to Canada?" Perhaps they hope I will tell them how my parents printed underground newsletters in our basement using ink made of laundry detergent and tempera paint. My parents did no such thing. Our reasons were trivial.

We moved because we were confused. We moved long after people stopped being threatened with imprisonment for refusing to sign false confessions. Long after my father refused to sign.

Up until recently it was only people in Canada who asked me that. Then I joined a Facebook-like Polish social network, nasza-klasa.pl, and my old friends in Poland now ask the same question.

I answer, as always, that we just got too confused, and everyone understands. They, too, lived through those strange socialist-to-capitalist years when nothing was certain. They remember how hopeful ... and suspicious everything seemed: stores filling with stuff; new stores, old attitudes.

Nasza-klasa.pl is for people who went to the same schools in Poland. I joined the group for Class of '91, The Fifth Infantry Division Elementary School. When I signed up, my bizarre Eastern European past flew at me in images of blue polyester uniforms, the Chernobyl reactor, socialist propaganda and acid-wash jeans.

People post old photos. First the super-cool black-and-white of us with our terrified, eight-year-old Bambi eyes and mom-licked hair, behind us a board that read something like, "I vow to study hard for my country," in big, threatening letters.

Then the not-so-cool ones, red suspenders over a purple sweatshirt tucked into high-waist jeans, the boy beside with a ridiculous bleached crewcut known as the Depecher, after Depeche Mode.

On our social network we talk about the old impenetrable kids' television shows about physics, the songs about hygiene, the gloomy paper we read called The World of Youth and our amusing educational upbringing.

For example, profiling - an infamous favourite activity of socialist regimes - that spread even to elementary schools. People talk about being coined "deviant" by the school counsellor and going for repeated investigative sessions.

There are memories of the school principal who changed his political affiliations overnight in 1989, the graffiti on the school wall reading, "Our principal bends whichever way the wind blows." For some reason the graffiti wasn't removed.

Our perspective is different than that of our parents or the kids born in the mid-1980s. What our parents might have remembered as ridiculous and rather scary - communism, socialism - we found hilarious and wacky. We don't remember standing in lineups at 4 a.m. to get toilet paper.

But unlike our younger siblings, my generation recalls Lenin's head in a public square. Unlike our younger siblings, we know milk bars as places where you could get a decent bowl of soup, not as the name of a hipster dance club where you can order a drink called Nuclear Waste that perhaps refers to something called Chernobyl, or something like that.

My little sister was only 3 when major political changes happened in Poland. Her childhood memories are Disney's Little Mermaid and an avalanche of Barbies under the Christmas tree. I can make morbid inside jokes about 1981 martial law with my parents, but not with her.

It may seem like a waste of time to rehash the past. And I'm sure eventually my elementary school group will run out of things to ponder. Our virtual reminiscing has to happen after babies are put to bed and businesses close for the day. We will get busy, bored.

But for now, it's a joy to peek into that unsure, strange time. The website lets me harmonize the past with the present, and make sense out of that which made little sense at all and confused my family enough to leave the lovable, funny old country for good.

Jowita Bydlowska lives in Toronto.

 

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