Some Notes on the Experiences of Traveling
3: Capitalism, part two

In the first half of this essay (see Capitalism, part one) I remarked on store hours in Germany. After some reflection on this, I do recognize the similarity to the Blue Laws that used to be prevalent in the States, keeping the Sabbath holy by prohibiting work, legally or otherwise. Granted, I don't actually remember such laws in action, although they were fairly prevalent in Georgia. I might have been too young, but it's also a distinct possibility I just don't remember. I have curious gaps in my childhood memories and I also hit my head a lot as a kid. Perhaps the two are related.

Despite the similarity, I don't think it's a Blue Law sort of thing for Germany. Why do I think this? Well, since they have more relaxed attitudes on other things. You can see nudity on Germany television (lots more than you can on NYPD Blue). Alcohol is much more widely available than in the States (remember beer in Burger King?). Prostitution is legal, although unregulated (I think they can get health insurance). So I don't think it's a morality issue. It's a lifestyle choice.

But enough about Germany (for now). I prefer to cast my eye on Poland, plucky doormat of invading armies throughout Europe's messy history. We spent most of our time in a town called Poznan, in western Poland. Poznan has a population of about 700,000 so it's pretty good sized. Pretty urbanized, and also interestingly Westernized. Lots of Marlboro signs.

We were in Poznan for about a week, more or less, and much of the rest of the group spent their time visiting public schools and having conferences with folks. I, on the other hand, was able to spend a fair amount of my time walking around, sight-seeing and exploring the city. I spent this time in the company of Joe, husband of the other professor on the trip.

On the second day, my umbrella pretty much up and died on me. Sad, really (but not so sad that I wouldn't replace it). So I decided to buy a new one, as soon as we passed by a place that looked like they might sell them. We'd been walking around, when we spotted a place. Umbrellas in the window, as well as books and some clothing. "Looks good," I said, so we open the door...

And step into a grocery store. For a minute I thought we'd gone in the wrong door. Nowhere in the window display had I seen food. And yet, there it was, all through out the store. Fresh fruit, alcohol, bread, canned goods, and three people in white smocks stocking the aisles. We looked around for a little bit before spotting an unobtrusive looking staircase in the back. Two old ladies came down it, not looking at all like they worked there, so we headed for the stairs. On the second floor they were selling all those things displayed in the front window. I found an umbrella I liked, and we left.

This was not the last time we encountered such odd mixings of products. Another store we went into was selling music on the first floor. Tapes, CDs, some posters. Again, stairs up. On the second floor they sold books. "Ah ha," I thought, "It's a Borders-MediaPlay kind of setup." But the stairs went up another level. On that floor were big bins of shoes. All kinds of shoes, but mostly Spice Girl kind of shoes (big, klunky platforms, which are widely prevalent throughout all of Europe).

You don't usually see this sort of odd product mixing in the States. Rarely do you enter a hardware store, and while you're there, pick up a gallon of milk and some bananas. At least not where I shop. The lines are fairly distinct. You do see some mixing, in department stores, discount stores, and really big grocery stores, but usually one store carries items related in some way.

This unusual blending got me to thinking that capitalist thought is still fairly new to Poland. The people there are pretty poor (relatively speaking) and in an attempt to innovate, they'll sell anything that looks like it might do well. "We sell books and tapes and music, but my uncle can get us a good deal on Doc Martins!" "What an idea!" Business-types, I believe, call this "thinking outside the box." Or so my sources from Dilbert tell me.

Another example: there's a large department store in Poznan (I forget the name), but it's an interesting building. It's a seven story tower, with circular stairs going up the center (Stand at the top, and you beg for a water balloon. But I digress). It's divided up traditionally like department stores (jewelry on the ground floor, women's fashions on the next, men's on the next, etc.) Inside you go...and on every floor, spaced about every fifteen feet stands a salesclerk. They're all about sixteen years old, boys and girls, and they're all wearing jeans and t-shirts. But they've got badges on, so you know they're saleclerks. As you walk around and browse the goods, they watch you like a hawk, but if you look at them, they won't make eye contact. The end result is disconcerting, to say the least. Very PKD.

I don't believe this is the sort of thing calculated to make people feel comfortable shopping. Call me crazy, but being given the evil eye by the cast of Dawson's Creek doesn't make me want to spend my zlotys. In contrast, outside this store is a line of open-air stalls. The stalls are run by locals from outside of town, and they're selling things like sheepskin blankets, big wool sweaters, and leather mittens lined with fur. At every single stall, as Joe and I walked by, the proprietor would call out to us, asking us to come buy something. This is also a case of the department store clerks getting paid no matter what, but the street merchants not making any money unless they can get customers. The irony is, if the department store people don't get customers, eventually they won't get paid either.

I guess they're still working on it. But I think they'll manage. Then Poland can be invaded yet again, this time by armies of tourists, waving their credit cards and ATM cards. A much better fate, I'd say.

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