Our repeated trips to Czechoslovakia are among my strongest childhood memories from the last years of socialism. Long hours of waiting in the endless line of cars at the border. Having to wear three layers of clothing. All brand new. The price tags, of course, had to be taken off. Still, I felt extremely uncomfortable, unwillingly participating in an act of crime. My parents made me and my sister put on all of our new acquisitions before we reached the border – the new shoes, socks, cycling shorts, swimming suits and sports clothes, anything that we could fit on us. And then there was the hassle of stopping in an out-of-the-way car park just before the border – I guess that’s why I have vivid pictures of those small, grey, uninteresting Czechoslovak block towns – where my dad literally took the car to pieces to hide the goods we could not fit on ourselves, like my mum’s crystal glasses, our toys and school equipment. And neither me or my sister will ever forget the mixed feeling of excitement and extreme embarrassment that we felt when the border guards asked my father to open our bags so that they could search inside.
Goods Travelling Around the Block…
…I guess my mum was crazy when she was young. During her university studies she travelled to Trieste, Italy, just to buy a pair of jeans that she could not get anywhere else. I remember she told me she was bringing some Czech or Slovak goods to sell, in order to have money for the jeans – but I don’t remember what these were. It must have been an awesome trip! And the pair of jeans still look great, but no one’s really able to put them on…
…Mickey Mouse T-shirt, a Mickey Mouse dress, a colourful plastic bag with a fashionable lady with her hair flowing in the wind, several tiger-decorated jumpers with bat-sleeves, a digital watch for my dad, Adidas shorts – these were the goods I got from Hungary towards the end of 1980’s. I don’t remember what else but I do remember that I believed myself to be the most beautiful girl in my hometown wearing Mickey Mouse and Tigger!… In a summer camp in the mid 80’s in East Germany, I bought several goods from the Polish kids: stickers of Limahl (just checking the spelling and now listening to “Never Ending Stories” on youtube – oh Jesus!) and Modern Talking; and a pink plastic pen in the shape of the word “love.” – The weird thing is actually that Poland did not have enough bread but you could get a lot of Western trash there…
…Romanians would not cross borders to get themselves the goods they wanted but in most circumstances the goods were travelling via foreign tourist/students/navy or airline crews to the Romanian citizens. So instead of seeing these “foreign” goods in their home habitat (where one would assume plenty), these goods appeared in the Romanian setting as scarce therefore extremely valuable items. I can easily recollect a small list form the wrappings that I, just as any well socialised Romanian kid neatly and skilfully collected:
1. Caola soap – from Hungary
2. Haribo gummy bears – from Germany (either via the black market or via the network of shops targeting foreign tourists visiting Romania)
3. Afrikana chocolate, Triumph bras/bathing suits – Polish tourists
4. Colour TVs, detergents, soaps – USSR, my aunt and uncle worked there for some years as mining engineers but simultaneously ran a prosperous business with these kind of objects. In return they were selling Romanian tracksuits and sports shoes (Rosprint was the brand)
5. Blue Jeans and denim jackets – from foreign students living in student dorms; also a good source for condoms and sometimes even birth control pills…
As for my parents’ generation, their memories go beyond Mickey Mouse belts, cycling shorts and crystal glasses. Shopping tourism became part of the everyday activities for many people in the scarcity economies of the socialist block. In Hungary, the Kadarist regime utilised a ‘standard of living inclined’ policy that supported consumerism and created an eased atmosphere, resulting in a whole range of legal and semi-illegal activities, constituting a parallel sphere to that of state activities. This rather market-oriented second economy contained activities ranging from self-employment, family enterprises, small family plots to bribery, black currency or smuggling. They served to compensate for the shortcomings of the economic system.
As early as the 1970’s people were regularly going on shorter shopping trips to neighbouring Czechoslovakia. “We went for a shorter holiday with the children” – explains L., a 60 year old retired engineer, “usually sometime before the school started and we returned with shoes and clothes for the children, all sorts of school equipment, everything they needed for school.” Part of the story was of course that certain goods could be acquired much cheaper in the neighbouring country. Particularly children clothes, sports equipment, shoes and camping tools were much cheaper and better quality than in Hungary.
However, the socialist states were not exactly supportive of the movement of goods and currencies across their borders. Thus, it was not only the bringing of these materials that was illegal, but also the taking of Hungarian currency to other countries. At least above the state determined limit, which was not much. The Hungarian currency usually had two prices during the socialist period: one for tourists and the other to be used in foreign trade. As it was important to keep these in balance (especially the one used in foreign trade), in order to avoid serious deflation of the currency, which was rather vulnerable in closed-production compared to consumption-driven economies, the state tried to keep maximum control of both. Thus it was strictly determined how much foreign currency as well as how many Forints Hungarian travellers could take with themselves when they travelled abroad. This produced a huge black market for smuggling valuta into and out of the country.
Smuggling also operated on a small-scale, on individual basis. L. explains, “We were usually taking many more Forints with us than was allowed, because the Czechoslovaks exchanged it at a much better rate. Also, when we went to Italy for a month, we knew that the amount we were allowed to take would not have been enough. You know, for Western currencies you were only allowed 3000 Forint per year. So we took 100 dollars. I don’t know where my wife got that many dollars from, probably the black market. So we had to hide it and I was really scared as the border guards went through all my stuff… but they didn’t find it. My wife put it in the top of a jar of coffee, under paper to keep it fresh and then glued the paper back as if the coffee was still untouched. When I heard it afterwards I even got diarrhoea from the stress. You see we used to have this red and green chequered bag, it really stood out from all the rest. We were always the ones whose bag was chosen to be examined at the border.”
Standing in Line
Neither the people I interviewed for this paper nor my parents were unlucky enough to have been caught smuggling, but what happened to the unlucky ones? “They did find the savings book of an old man. He claimed he only went to visit his daughter and was too afraid to leave it in his house. So he was sent back to Hungary and the money was confiscated of course. I don’t know precisely what kind of procedure they started against him or others who were caught. I know that these people could not obtain a new passport, as it was also taken from them on the spot, so they couldn’t leave the country for a certain number of years. Also their yearly valuta amount was restricted for a period.” – recalls K., a friend of my parents.
People developed different strategies to smuggle goods back to Hungary. My interviewees recalled stories that I could also remember from my childhood. Of course with the clothes and shoes it was relatively simple, as one could pull off the price tag and wear them while crossing the border. But the rest of the things like electronics, toys and crystal glasses needed to be carefully hidden. As K. remembers, “I had all these clever places in the car. For example you could take the chairs away, then hide small things below them. Or if the car was fully packed, you could fit things into the small places in between. But that was more risky as sometimes they made you unpack everything from the car. Absolutely everything. And of course you could put stuff among the dirty clothes. They would look through the luggage, but they usually wouldn’t touch the dirty underwear… you were standing in long car lines at the border and could watch the cars in front of you being searched… then your adrenaline level started to slowly rise. But you knew you had to stay cool, to not excite the children or to show your feelings to the guards. When you got to the guards, they would first tell you to get out of the car. Then they asked, ‘Do you have anything to declare?’ Then no matter what your answer was, they started searching the car, the bags, everything.”
Beating the System?
Going beyond these often funny, sometimes rather embarrassing stories that bring together the memories of my generation and my parents’ generation on a past political system, I wonder what they can teach us about resistance? How people in their everyday life reacted to the shortcomings and faults of the former era? What forms resistance took in the “happiest barrack”?
My parents, their friends and those recounting their experiences did not consider this illegal movement of goods as resistance. “We weren’t thinking that we were resisting or anything of the sort. It was simply a way of getting things cheaper for the money that we had to work so hard for. I was working in two jobs and my husband in three. And still each year somehow it was harder to live from our money.” – explained K.. It is often argued, in fact, these second economy activities helped to maintain the deficit-producing state sector, by compensating for its shortcomings. Whilst remaining apolitical and completely individual activities, these practices were still of crucial importance. Not only because they involved most of the population in one-way or another. But because as such, they ultimately developed a subculture, a special milieu in which people learnt to cope with the system. They learnt how to solve their problems individually on a ‘things-will-work-out-somehow’ basis – even if via illegal activities and by circumventing the officials who regulated the system. As such these individual everyday activities of ‘beating the system’ are as important as the more visible mass movements, for slowly bringing about changes in the existing state of things.