Capitalism smells definitely better than communist Poland

At a time when we used little of a new thing, the desired scent was one of novelty…

At the end of the 1970s I was working as a messenger. More precisely as a senior caretaker because I was in the highest classification group among the lowest paid – thanks to the fact that, having previously worked in a hospital in an operating theatre, I had reached the position of a senior stretcher-bearer. But I don’t want to write about the twists and turns of my professional career, but about a particular story. Namely, one Monday I was at work waiting to find out where I would be sent with letters and other deliveries. It was a beautiful October day and my lower superior, Ms. Lusia, was talking to my higher superior, Ms. Maria, about her feelings about her and her husband’s Sunday out-of-town trips.

– O, Ms. Maria we put our car seats out – Ms. Lusia was speechifying. – O, Ms. Maria, and then we felt it. The way it smelled. It smelled, o Ms. Maria, such a novelty of these car seats.

I won’t go on about Ms. Lusia’s relationship with nature but about her essential impression, if not a discovery. For Ms. Lusia expressed what millions of Poles felt. And they felt the new with their noses. It’s worth asking: why did they feel it in this way, with this particular sense? Because the majority had little that was new. It was usually due to market shortages but also because items, ideally, were or at least were supposed to last longer. And having broken down, they didn’t go to waste nor were they replaced, the old ones were repaired, mended, remade and when they reached the point of uselessness, the parts that could be anyhow re-used, were salvaged. It was an era of pre-ecologism combined with pre-recycling, which, unlike today’s pro-ecologic era with developed recycling definitely produced less waste, at least in households.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Therefore, Ms. Lusia’s remark that it smelled new, was a perfectly normal situation. The smell of nature was, as a matter of fact, something trivially natural and common, as opposed to what was new. It’s also worth remembering that in those days dirt and stench were common phenomena. The best example of which were trains with their particular stale odor, which penetrated deep into the passengers’ cloths so that after the journey they stank – produced a smell that could only be removed only by washing. The stench of the toilets was even worse but these places are a different story. One was simply afraid to enter them. Polish communist gastronomy had a special “scent” too, it was a combination of tobacco smoke, mixed up with alcohol and chaser-type food breaking through.

The aroma of cigarettes was practically everywhere. What most distinguishes the Polish People’s Republic from the beginnings of democratic Poland in terms of scent is tobacco smoke. Back then it would be smoked without restraint, with no regard for non-smokers (I shall beat my breast, begging for forgiveness). Those who inhaled the smells provided by the smokers, much appreciated the aroma of pipe tobacco unless they didn’t spend a few hours with pipe smokes in a closed room. It was pretty much the same with the smell of alcohol – it was no surprise that you could smell it from someone who had been drinking.
December 1986. Pre-Christmas train trips. Passengers even squeezed through the windows to get on the train at all. And they rode for hours in the stench of the train. Photo: PAP / CAF – Krzysztof Sitek
But let’s get back to pleasant and healthy fragrances. One of them was the smell of a parcel from abroad, given that we understand foreign countries as the countries of the “rotten” West. Well, the packages had a nice and very pleasant aroma, which today we know was simply the smell of fabric softener. In the People’s Republic of Poland, powders usually had no smell, i.e. it was the smell of the chemicals used in production. There were some aromas, but few and rather flimsy. Sometimes soaps were also thrown into the package, which then went to the wardrobes to fill furniture and clothes with their scent. Our soaps, if they had a smell, were gray soap – that is, none. Or a bad smell.

Commonly available perfumes were used. Ladies most often opted for “Być może” [“Perhaps”] or “Pani Walewska” [“Mrs. Walewska”]. Today we would say that these were the biggest trading hits. There were also a lot of different perfumes that could be bought at Ruch kiosks and drugstores, they did not have such sophisticated names and did not stick in the collective memory. Of course, the ladies tried to supplement this modest offer with purchases in second-hand shops, Internal Export Company shops, when traveling abroad, as well as in Moda Polska stores, which admittedly sold the best of the Polish clothing industry, but also imported perfumes. For some time, Domy Towarowe Centrum [Central Shopping Centre] also sold fragrances from the so-called second payment area, i.e. simply bought in the West.

Of such “foreign” fragrances, “Masumi” perfumes were particularly popular with young women. Imagine a private party. Crowded, dark, loud, only smell of cigarette smoke and “Masumi”. How easy it was to get confused! “Bourjois” or “Blasé” from the Internal Export Company shops were definitely a substitute for feminine luxury. And the real luxury of “Soir de Paris” and “Chanel no. 5”, of course for foreign currency (read: dollars).

Men had their traditional Eaux-de-Cologne: “Przemysławka”, “Prastara” [“Archi-Ancient”] and water with the sophisticated name “Woda [Water] Eau de Cologne”. There was also “Woda Polarna”, but I guess that was too ominous. The first two were the best known. “Przemysławka” survived the political changes and is now becoming fashionable among young alternative men. “Prastara” in a bottle in a wicker basket was discontinued several years ago, which is a pity, because some fragrances are also cultural heritage. In Kraków, a group of scientists is currently conducting research on how to preserve and store fragrances so that what smelled in the past and present can be passed on to posterity – then you can have the fullest idea of history. For me, it’s a rocking idea and I hope this project will bring great results.

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In the era of Edward Gierek [1970-80], three new men's fragrances appeared: “Wars”, “Consul” and “Brutal”. The two former had different variations, and “Brutal” became a favorite gift from ladies to gentlemen. It was also zealously bought by men in their 40s. A synonym of luxury and the Western world was ”Old spice”, glorified in communist crime stories. The domestic “Płyn ogórkowy po goleniu” [“Cucumber Aftershave Lotion”] was deservedly considered the best remedy for the purposes for which it was produced. In contrast to “Woda brzozowa” [“Birch water”], available in the assortment of every Ruch kiosk, which enjoyed the reputation of an alcoholic beverage rather than a sophisticated cosmetic (which it was not, after all). I once spotted a man, after buying birch water, bang the neck of the bottle against a nearby wall, and a moment later he was able to drink this undoubtedly aromatic liquid in one gulp.

After the introduction of alcohol cards, some addicts drank “Autovidol”. I didn’t believe it until I got on the tram and smelled the windshield washer fluid. It turned out that the half-conscious man had vomited it.

Master of fragrant ceremonies

During martial law, due to the Western embargo, many fragrances disappeared, because their production used components from abroad, for which you had to pay with real, hard currency, not Monoply-like slips of the National Bank of Poland. Polish companies began to make cosmetics at that time. One of them – I remember it well – made everything lemon-scented, and since it was one of the largest, we were forced (at least in Warsaw) to wash our clothes with lemon.

Over time, there appeared, even small drugstores, not to say perfumeries, where these Polish diaspora perfumes were sold. Most of them were cheaper substitutes for fashionable foreign fragrances. Once, in search of a deodorant (because they were the biggest problem at that time), I came across a cosmetic boutique in Lubin. And I was speechless. A man with the look and beauty of a hairdresser from Italian films was selling. Women of all ages crowded around him. They all held out their hands to him, and he - the master of ceremonies - held a bottle of secret potion in his hands. He would pick a hand and sprinkle the liquid on its wrist. But how it sprinkled! He made several circles in the air with the bottle and then, with one decisive gesture, dropped a drop onto the skin. Then he rubbed it, saying something like “Ah, what a beautiful hand” or “What delicate fingers”. And he didn’t repeat himself. Sometimes he would kiss. I knew I had no chance of buying deodorant. Here it was not only about the smell, although it was also important, but about the mood. An interest that was so lacking back then.
Warsaw, 1969. Cosmetics shop in the newly opened Pollena beauty salon at 10, Moniuszko St. Photo: PAP / Jakub Grelowski
So I decided to withdraw. And I was surprised. The guy left some water for the grandmothers to sniff, then quickly got to me.
– What would like?
– A deodorant.
– That’s great. I also have some great men’s fragrances. Which ones do you like? – with men he was businesslike. I left with a deodorant and nice water, leaving behind me a swarming crowd of women with a guy who charmed them with scents. Everything was back to normal. A real master in his profession.

The fires of Moscow

My father once bought a Soviet alarm clock. In the evening he took it out of the box and wound it, a normal thing with an alarm clock. But at night my parents couldn’t sleep, they were awakened by a strange, strong and unpleasant smell. They wandered around the night, searching and smelling what they could. It turned out to be the glue from the alarm clock box. They had to put the box out of the window and throw it away in the morning.

This discovery gave us an idea. Well, at that time, bitches were not sterilized, the cages of the houses were open, so during the estrus period of our little dog, beaus of various sizes came to the door, who marked the corridor on our floor with their biological material. Washing with chlorine and substances of that kind did not help. And then a brilliant idea was born in our heads. My mother had several bottles of Soviet perfume, which she received as a gift from friends who went on trips to the USSR. She did not use them because they had an intense and vulgar smell. In fact, a stench (in the Soviet Union, an intense smell – such, or as if mixed with disinfectant liquid – could be felt in every room; even their candies were heavily perfumed).

We decided to use this secret weapon of ours. And from that moment, as soon as our bitch started to attract the interest of canine bachelors, we sprinkled the Soviet “o-thye-kowon” in the corridor. The “Fires of Moscow” were the first to go, hell yeah! The effect was wonderful, the dogs lost their orientation instantly, and a human could lose it too. The neighbors shook their heads a little at first, but they preferred a clean cage, so their resistance was quickly broken. Soviet perfumes turned out to be efficient, although later we had to make one intervention purchase at the “Natasha” store in Aleje Jerozolimskie.

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I liked the smell of the communist kiosk the most. It was a mixture of cheap tobacco, cheap cosmetics, paper, and ink. I miss the smell of newspapers that seem to disappear forever. I have always read things I don’t like because I think they’re the most interesting and creative. And I liked to buy a newspaper, cigarettes with matches. Then in some “Kurier” or another “Sztandar” [communist magazines] I could take a quiz from which I found out that I was a potential criminal because I was in favor of abolishing the death penalty and mitigating court sentences. And now even bookstores don't smell like books, because they have everything in them, and I have to order the book I’m looking for online anyway.

But capitalism smells definitely better than communist Poland. Shops smell, people smell. The trains don’t smell anymore, public toilets smell (here the biggest revolution took place). And perhaps that is why COVID-19 was such a shock in this aromatic world. So were its symptoms and the pandemic-related requirement to decontaminate everything.

As for the symptoms, I remember my wife slipping earl gray tea under my nose.
– Smell it, it must have weathered”.
– Indeed. And my new hand sanitizer seems to have weathered since previously it smelled like a rotting mop.

Once, a friend and I left work and it so happened that we went together in the same direction. And since both she and I had some time for our meetings, we visited various shops along the way. We disinfected our hands at each entrance.

– Look, that good, strong spirit.
– But the smell could be nicer.
– It’s terrible, hands are so sticky after it.
– They overdosed on the perfume! (this is at the drugstore).
– It smells like denatured alcohol.

In the film “Miś” [“Teddy Bear, 1980”] – which is not only about the Polish People’s Republic, but also about us in general – there are two gentlemen who come to Ryszard Ochódzki, the main character, for advice. These gentlemen with a stroke of their nose make it clear that something stinks, that is, it is dodgy and this matter is not worth touching. Such a smell, or better a stench, no smell. It’s an art to smell stinky things, that odorless stench. But this skill comes only with age.

– Grzegorz Sieczkowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Warsaw, April 1974. Café “Adria” at 8, Moniuszko St. Photo: PAP / Bogdan Różyc
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