Ever since they first started teaching us geography back in 2nd grade, I've been fascinated with other countries and other cultures. I'm old enough to remember the map of Africa changing just as I was doing a paper on what at the time was Tanganika, and was Tanzania by the time the paper was handed in. Mostly I remember big parts of the world that we were taught nothing about except that they were communist. For most of my childhood, between Germany and Japan it was mostly a sea of red about which we learned nothing more than they were commies, and bad people and we shouldn't trust them. In my childhood naivete it never occurred to me that there were real people just like me, growing up doing all the normal human things that people do. To me it was just one monolithic commie government doing bad things.
So ever since the Iron curtain was finally drawn back, I've became intrigued about what life was really like. My first indication was on a visit to Estonia in 1997. I was excited to find out that we would be staying in the official state apartment for "the Estonian equivalent of Al Gore" who I assumed was the Vice President. This is hardly Observatory Circle. It was a 3-bedroom flat with a meager kitchen and scary bathroom in a decrepit cinder block apartment building which would probably have been condemned if it had been in Washington DC. I remember going to the grocery store and seeing almost nothing on the shelves – and this was five years after Estonia's singing revolution had brought down the Soviet regime and replaced it with a parliamentary democracy.I was told that compared to communist times, the choices were vast.
This week, as I'm touring Poland, I'm loving hearing the stories of what life was like here. Alexsandra, from Informedia-Poland, my hostess, tour guide and the organizer of the PR Congress at which I am speaking, remembers queuing up at 11 am in order to buy sausage that might have come in at 3 pm in the afternoon. Of greater interest to me is her mother, who is my age. So while I was learning to ignore her country, and doing the usual kid-growing-up-stuff that kids do, her mother was living under communism, doing the usual kid stuff in Krakow. Later on, when she married and had children, she got sick of the poor quality clothes that were the only choice in local stores, so she started making clothes for the family. She bought the linen and died it herself. She was wearing one of her outfits one day when a woman from Germany saw her and asked her where she got the outfit. She said she made it. The woman asked her whether she would like to design an entire line of fashion for her boutique in Germany, and soon became one of the leading fashion designers in Poland. She now designs stunning jewelry that could easily be worn by the wife of a Presidential Candidate.
We took a walk past Alexsandra's grandmother's house, in old town Warsaw. She got out just before it was destroyed during World War II and moved the family to Krakow just before the bombs started falling. Almost all of Warsaw was leveled during World War II but you'd never know it. The entire Old Town, is a completely remanufactured historical district. They rebuilt every building, brick by brick, mostly taken from old buildings in other cities that hadn't been as hard hit.
Today Warsaw is a lot like Boston. Bustling with huge shopping malls, hotels, conference centers and a few skyscrapers. Like Boston it has a bit of an inferiority complex – I keep hearing from people that its SO much better than it was before "during the time of communism" but still not as good as _____ fill in the blank – London, Paris, etc. It's actually great. If you have ever worried about the strength of the human spirit, just take a look at Warsaw. From a flattened, ruined city, to Soviet satellite, to capitalist capital in just a bit longer than my lifetime.
And lest you thought I'd write an entire blog post without mentioning social media or measurement, here's my thought of the day: Traditional PR is to Social Media/Web 2.0 what Communism is to Poland today. The communist thought they could control things, really really wanted to control things, but ultimately failed. Today Poland has thousands of new magazines, newspapers and broadcast outlets. There are 1080 people from Poland on Twitter and thousands on Facebook. Once again, it proves that the human need to connect, create and communicate is an irresistible force. And yes, Poland has malls that look like every other mall in Orlando, Dubai or Istanbul, and yes, they have a McDonalds and a KFC and a Subway, but they also have a wonderful salad bar that combines flavors in a uniquely Polish way.
And, ironically, the one of the biggest debates at the congress was the same one currently going on in Global Neighborhoods – where does Social Media belong? Marketing or PR ?
Lesson of the day, as my father would say, it's all about "People. Human beings with a wide range of choice. Unpredictable, cantankerous, capricious, motivated by innumerable conflicting interests, and conflicting desires." Guess what, they were there all along, behind that curtain and underneath that big red swath of the world, and now they've come out to play. More pix are here