Wearing Adibas & Fuma: Memories from Growing Up in 1990s Poland
small, Wearing Adibas & Fuma:
Memories from Growing Up
in 1990s Poland, Knock-off shoes were often sold from car roofs, 1992, Warszawa. photo: Krzysztof Wojciechowski / Forum , bazar_1992_forum.jpg
Growing up in the 1990s in the middle of the newly collapsed Eastern Bloc was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything else.
Have you ever wondered how it felt to be born and raised somewhere between Perestroika, Solidarność, the Velvet Revolution and the other history-changing factors of the revolutions of 1989?
I could see things around me changing unbelievably quickly, as people were forced to switch from no free market to an entirely free-market system in no time at all. The very structure of society was shaking, turbulently finding its new order. I saw my city, Warsaw, turning from a depressing, grey bloc of concrete into a colourful, vibrant European capital in less than a decade. Above all, I saw the building of a capitalist economic system from the very beginning.
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The latter was a painstaking process, marked with recurring social crises and plenty of inequalities – but also with some unbelievably funny glitches, the results of which affected all Polish '80s and '90s kids. To give you a sense of how perplexing the post-soviet childhood truly was, Culture.pl’s under-30 team has prepared a list of our most inexplicable memories.
Land of knock-offs
At the turn of the 1980s, Poland suffered from a prostrating economic crisis, which eventually became one of the key factors behind the political transformation. The dark side of it was that the Polish economy was completely detached from the global market, and the purchasing power of Polish currency was dramatically low throughout most of the 1990s. This is why most people couldn’t afford authentic products from global brands and knock-offs quickly flooded popular bazaars. A few of the most spectacular examples are:
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'Contra' on Pegasus, photo: Dagmara Smolna
This console was a replica of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. You could run some of the Nintendo games on it, such as Contra – a game every Pole born between 1980 and 1992 struggled through and knows by heart.
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The biggest bazaar in '90s Warsaw, the 10th-Anniversary Stadium; 1990; Warsaw; photo: Andrzej Iwańczuk / Reporter
Sport shoes and accessories quickly reached the top of Polish wish lists. Buying a $100 pair of Air Jordans was out of the question (the average salary was equal to around $35 in 1990). Canny entrepreneurs from the former Eastern Bloc, however, organised mass production of cheap knock-offs in China and then sold them to Western chic-hungry Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians and so on. These ‘almost correct’ brand names or ‘slightly’ changed logos remain the subject of jokes still today. 'Adibas', 'Fuma', 'Nkie' or 'Reebook' were passed down through history as trademarks of the era of the transformation.
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Reproduction of the Just 5's poster, photo: Dagmara Smolna
Making replicas of things went as far as creating knock-off bands, with Just 5 being the most famous example. In the days of the Backstreet Boys' peak popularity – when they were too busy harvesting big money from the rich Western markets to come to Poland – the very first post-1989 Polish boy band was created. Any resemblance to real persons living or dead was (obviously) purely coincidental. Even the mind-boggling resemblance between Nick Carter and Bartek Wrona, Just 5’s leader vocalist and teen idol…
It's the primary school nightmare every 90s kid in Poland remembers: Every few weeks, the school nurse would enter the classroom and order compulsory fluoridation. All the kids would be escorted to the toilets in a column and forced to brush their teeth with sickeningly repulsive fluoride-boosted toothpaste. The vile taste would linger in the mouth for hours, making kids do all the tricks known to humankind to escape it.
Carpet-beating thingies instead of playgrounds
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Trzepak – the carpet-beating thingy and the kids doing most common tricks on it, photo: Piotr Mecik / Forum
Trzepak ('TSCHEH-pak') – that thing on which people hang rugs to beat the dust out of them – was the centre of social activities nationwide. How come? Regular playgrounds were in dire condition in the early 1990s, and carpet hangers turned out to be a perfect substitute. You could do flips on the lower bar, or climb to the top and slide down while pretending to be a fire fighter. You could use it as a football goal (football pitches were in no better condition than regular playgrounds) or a volleyball net. It was also the base for all kinds of hide-and-seek or paper chase games and a common meeting point for all the kids on the block.
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Kid fashion victims
In the era of deepening social stratification, school uniforms were introduced. Everybody was forced to wear the same uniform, made of slick, slightly swishing synthetic fabric. It made you boil when it was hot and sweat when it was cold, and you had to wear a sweater underneath. The unluckiest kids were clad in shoes called ‘juniorki’ (Polish for 'juniors') – an open-toed abomination which (unfortunately) would fit over a prolonged period of time, despite children's fast-growing feet.
Transformation-era TV shows
Even though there was initially no Cartoon Network in Polish, there was a broad range of TV shows for kids on the telly… quite strange shows, to be honest. Just like the almost no-budget Aliens from Mathplanet (better known as Pi & Sigma, after the main protagonists’ names), a sci-fi programme aiming to teach maths to children. The difficulty of the maths riddles, as well as the complexities of the plot, dialogues and costumes were a bit too high-level for elementary school students, but nowadays would come in handy if you were looking for psychedelic visuals to spice up a techno party.
Some toys known abroad, such as pogs or koosh balls, were successfully imported to Poland, but on top of that, there were many toys specific to countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Marbles, for example. They were… glass balls… with a coloured twisted thingy inside. And that’s it. There was no game that you could play with them, but still, around 95% of girls collected and swapped them for no obvious reason. At least they did no harm to anybody – unlike Riki Tiki (known elsewhere as clackers), which must have been the invention of some sadist from beyond the Iron Curtain.
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These were two quite heavy balls attached to a ring. You’d put the ring on one of your fingers and try to make the balls swing and rattle, banging into each other below and above your hand, by making an up-and-down motion. Any time you made a false move, one of the balls would hit you very hard on the wrist or finger. The fact that Riki Tiki were banned from the US market in the 1970s after causing numerous injuries speaks for itself. Nothing, however, compares to the satisfaction you felt when you finally mastered playing with this ‘toy’.
Sweets or sours?
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'Turbo' chewing gum, photo: Krystyna Batkiewicz / Reporter
There was something obviously wrong with most sweets. Like Turbo chewing gum: it was as hard as concrete, couldn't make bubbles and tasted rather awful – but for the sole fact that there was a sticker with a photo of a luxury car inside the package, it was one of the top selling things in the 90s overall. The same applied to Donald Duck chewing gum (probably using Donald’s likeness with no permission from the Walt Disney Company itself).
Another widespread sweet-eating habit was to eat fizzy powders instead of dissolving them in water. The most popular of them was Vibovit, sold mostly in pharmacies and treated as a dietary supplement, but there were also less obvious choices. Oranżadka fizzy powder (Polish for 'little orangeade') and Center Shock chewing gum were the sourest things on planet Earth and made your face twist into a hellish grimace the moment you put them into your mouth.
Did we forget anything? If you grew up elsewhere, what was your childhood like? Let us know in the comments!