I grew up in provincial Poland just after socialism ended. Here's what it was like.
The sun is slowly setting as I approach the panorama of my hometown covered in the light of dusk. The air is a crisp and frigid -20C. The Polish winter at its best is welcoming me back.
A horizontal line of concrete tower blocks, identically grey and brutal when I lived here are now pastel-coloured, with pale turquoises and powder pinks sharply contrasting with the snow of surrounding fields. The Polnoc II (North II) housing estate, once proud evidence of the town’s expansion and development, is now striving to camouflage its fading fortunes with this blast of colour. This is what the socialist dream looks like a few decades on, I’m thinking, as I enter Suwalki, the place where I grew up and which shaped me like no other.
As the biggest town in north-east Poland, Suwalki lies a long bike rides distance from the border with Lithuania and Kaliningrad. When I was younger, we would drive to Mariampol or Alytus to do our grocery shopping. Now, with the arrival of the Euro zone in Lithuania, Suwalki has became a consumer haven for our neighbours. With its severe climate, Suwalki is said to be the coldest town in Poland. And with its remote location and limited transport links it also feels like one of the most isolated. At barely 70,000 inhabitants it oscillates between a tight, closed community and a place that provides just enough anonymity. The architecture is utilitarian and simple, the majority of buildings are concrete socialist-era towers. I grew up in one of them, a grey suburban block with a view of the forest way off in the distance.
Perhaps we did not have many resources but we never lacked for imagination. In early childhood we would run around the area playing war games or shops, bartering with leaves and stones. In the winter, with snow drifts taller than me, we enjoyed riding on sledges tied to the back of a car pulling us through the countryside roads.
The spatial structure of our estates facilitated integration. Everyone in the blocks knew each other. Even the youngest kids could use the playground alone because there would always be an older child around to look after them.
I remember collective New Year’s parties when everyone would open up their flats and pull their tables out. One neighbour brought food, another alcohol; a DJ living opposite us took care of the music. We, awfully excited about the sudden permission to be loud and to go peeking into each other’s flats, were allowed to play with sparklers, and to sing and dance through the night.
Yet in the early 2000s, a borderline town in eastern Europe was hardly a stimulating place. The Youth Culture House located in the city centre, an inconspicuous building smelling of dust and oil paint, was one of the very few places to use our time creatively. During the unbearably long winter, those hours spent rehearsing a play we were preparing for school or working on scenography, was one of the only things to look forward to. Artistic practice was a meaningful tool to tackle isolation and interact with each other on a deeper level, testing the boundaries of our teen selves.
The dullness and stuffiness of the town pushed us closer to nature. Suwalszczyzna, proudly described as “the green lungs of Poland”, is a picturesque region of virgin forests, clear lakes and verdant hills. I spent most of my summers in countryside houses, admiring the night skies and enjoying bonfires accompanied by crickets. A few years later, nature provided a pristine setting for our rites of passage. We experienced our frantic first kisses in the suburban meadows, followed by forbidden encounters with alcohol fraught with nervous anticipation. Without any bars or clubs to could go to, our teen years were filled with clandestine parties in the gloomy basements of our blocks, secret gatherings in fields or in the summer houses, nervously hiding precious bottles of vodka in our schoolbags.
The thawing of the Cold War and the political changes of the late Nineties made foreign travel possible but still, not many people I knew spent their holiday abroad. Determined to make the most of the opportunities they lacked when they were growing up, my parents seized the chance to travel. An old Fiat packed up with a month’s supply of instant and canned food, a tent, camping stove and sleeping bags were our tools for seeing the world. Road-tripping through various parts of Europe, I was mesmerised by the elegant cities and dramatic landscapes. Seeing it all when I was little felt like a dream that was yet to come true. Our rough-and-ready journey was crammed with unexpected obstacles: France, in the summer of 2000, was particularly rainy and unpleasant. Our car broke down, but we persevered, continuing our journey with faulty wipers and other malfunctions. Every few minutes my dad would open the window to manually wipe the water from the windscreen. When the downpour was unbearable, we were forced to stop underneath one of the highway bridges to wait until it calmed down.
I was too young to remember the revolutionary protests and ecstatic celebrations that marked the end of communism. Growing up in the 90s and 00s, the political changes were a backdrop to the changes taking place in my own adolescent life. I remember summer 2003, early June, with blossoming lilac trees and the air heavy with anticipation. The Polish European Union Referendum was taking place, the door to becoming an official part of Europe, a better Europe as I thought back then. As a primary school pupil, all I understood from the situation was that something significant was about to happen. My parents took me along with them to vote — the utilitarian, blocky building of the referendum commission was just across the road from where we lived, yet so different on that day with Polish flags hanging everywhere and documents piled on a vast table. My dad took me into the booth with him and gave me the pen. “Here, put a cross in the box beside ‘Yes’”, he instructed, pointing to the ballot paper. “It’s about a better future for you, more than for me,” he said. Those words still resonate with me profoundly almost 13 years later.
Coming of age in a place big enough to sustain the interests of an inquisitive teenager for at least a few years, yet too small to satisfy an insatiable hunger for adventure was an experience of joy intertwined with isolation. I witnessed the country growing up along with our generation, shaping its long-desired capitalist identity at the same time that I was finding myself.
Looking back now, I remember the late 90s and 00s as years of constant work in progress. Suwalki, a peculiar town with its pastel post-socialist estates, surrounded by idyllic lakes and forests has regenerated since my childhood years. Coming back and walking through the familiar, yet modernised streets, I can still find the spirit of my adolescence, the memories filled with uncertainty and anticipation.