“Hey, we were here first!”, I heard from the other side of the street as I sat down in front of the door of the tiny currency exchange office to wait until it would open. I looked up and saw a bald middle-aged man in sunglasses. He was pointing to the senior in a loose shirt chewing on a toothpick and a young woman holding a bicycle in shorts and a black T-shirt that said “sexy”. I was completely confused as they weren’t even close to the door and I had thought that they were just hanging around… Apparently, I was wrong.
They came over and I stood up as quickly as a child caught red-handed. I had broken the holy rules of the queue! The man looked up at me, as I was a bit taller, and explained in Spanish that my turn would be after the woman’s. Having seen me accept that, he turned to her shaking his head and said, “She doesn’t know how we queue here”.
By here he meant Cuba, one of the few communist countries left after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I decided to visit this Caribbean island mostly to check out the newest salsa moves; thought that it would also be interesting to see how people lived in a different system, but wasn’t expecting much more than that. Little did I know that this ten-and-a-half-hour flight on a plane with “La Habana” proudly written in the front had taken me back to my parents’ youth – the times when only one point of view was allowed, when people called each other through payphones and when shops didn’t have enough goods to fill up the shelves. After so many years of just hearing what life in the Polish People’s Republic (short in Polish: PRL) was like, I was standing in one of the ubiquitous queues just like my parents and grandparents did.
Usually when I’m waiting, I’m busy on my phone. Here, my phone had no connection and WiFi was accessible only in parks with a special card, so I watched the queue build up. It was like observing a social event unfold. New guests were arriving and greeting those present, while others just showed up, remembered their spot and went away to run some other errands before it would be their turn.
“¿La última?”, a young, handsome man asked who was the last one in line as he approached the growing group. Given an answer, he jumped off his bike and engaged in a chat about the family’s health and how it’s impossible to save any money when one doesn’t even have enough to make it to the next month.
I watched them and felt like a time-traveler. In a way, having collected experiences so typical for the everyday life in Poland some decades ago brought me closer to my own roots, to my own culture and to my own family. I was no longer one of the lucky kids that would treat their parents’ stories like phantasy books and ask in disbelief: “So you mean that there were empty shelves in Carrefour?”. I was now the one going to a shop that lacked goods as basic as water, and having to queue for what felt like forever for a box of cookies. I was the one walking down the street and seeing (almost) completely empty stores and, a couple of meters further, huge lines that made me wonder what stock had just arrived. I was the one eating cheese that my host had gotten on the black market, because it was the only way to get it that day.
One of the bored-looking exchange office workers wearing the black-and-white short uniforms opened the door, and the seemingly chaotic group entered in the exact order of arrival. Soon, I exchanged my money and continued my time-travel to collect even more experiences I could share with my parents later to all of which they would react the same way:
“Yeah, just like in the PRL.”