Eva Hoffman


Poland I, p. 5

[...] To begin with, there are the inconspicious signs, affixed to shop façades or hotel entrances, announcing foreign currency exchanges. I walk into a makeshift shack bearing such a sign, as well as one announcing the sale of vegetables. Inside, next to the bins of carrots and potatoes, there is a blackboard with official exchange rates listed in chalk. Such is the hold of habit that I'm tempted to look over my shoulder as I accomplish this once-illicit transaction. The money changer, of course, is quite used to this by now; the sums he calmly hands over are grotesque, bombastic, Weimarian. For my $50, I get nearly half a million zlotys. I feel momentarily very rich, but I can see how the heady descent of the currency's value might have given people some discomfiting moments.

'Well, but now it's stable and a man can give a lady real money", the changer says when I ask him about this. "A man could do O.K. for himself now, if only they would leave him alone."

"They? Who're they?"

"Oh, what can I tell you - shady groups. They want to control this business. With guns. Me, I'm an independent. But they're mafiosi, that's all they are, and you may be sure half of them are from the nomenklatura. Or from the militia. Who else has guns around here?" [...]


Poland I, p. 6-7

[...] I meet my friend Renata in an utterly ordinary cafetaria, and order a sandwich and a salad. An old woman has been contemplating the sparse offerings for some time, and as she sees what I order, she mutters, "Some people have enough money in their pockets to fill their bellies"

"See what's going on?" Renata says when we sit down. "This never used to happen here. People didn't envy each other on this pathetic level. What was the point? They knew that nobody had anything much. This is going to become a different country."

Yes, undoubtedly; and for a while it will combine the syndromes of poverty with the pathologies of capitalism. I tell Renata about my own sense of dismay at first impressions. "Melancholy of transition, that's what you're feeling', she informs me. "You're just getting a tiny dose of it, but we've all been through it in spades. Or I should say we're all going through it. I mean, nobody knows what to expect. We have to relearn the whole ball game from the start."

"You don't mean, of course, that things were better before".

"No, of course not. Not better - but they were simpler. Us, them. It was a predictable game. Now we're in an utterly open situation. We don't know how things are going to turn out from day to day. I mean, we don't know what'll happen to our jobs, or who the anchor will be on evening news tomorrow, or whether the local child-care center is going to close. It's all up for grabs, and there's no one to blame. It does incline one into melancholy." [...]


Czechoslovakia, p. 150-151

[...] Until recently, Sofar was a professor of philosophy in that target of dread and mockery, the Marxist-Leninist Institute. But the institute was closed down one month after the changes, and he is the more or less proud owner of a restaurant he bought shortly after that. ... "You see, I'm afraid that it'll happen again", he says, "the same thing that has happened so often. They'll want to blame the Communists, the Jews, the Gypsies."

Sofar doesn't bother to hide his bitterness about the folding of his institute. `It was a great injustice for us", he says unequivocally. "We were fired by the Minister of Education. Well, we were much more liberal than the Minister of Education. But they wanted some credit for the new era."

"I bought this place right away, after I was fired, with two pals. I got six months' salary, and this is what I used it for. We're not making any profit, but maybe we can make enough money so I can be independent. I never want to be dependent anymore. You see", he continues, in a galled tone, "I was in the same situation in 68 - the same situation. I was competent, but I became so'- he brings his thumb and forefinger together - "small. For five years I was in big troubles. I don't want to belong to anything anymore."


Hungary, p. 189

"Your English is good", I compliment him.
"No, not very good, not at all. Sorry!"
"Where did you learn it?" I inquire.
"Of course, my teacher thirty years ago told me I should learn a useful language. Not Russian. But after all, I got married, I had children. Sorry! But eight years ago, I took a course at the Postal Planning Institute. That's where I worked."
"And why did you leave your job?"
"I thought the taxi was a good business. And, after all, I have no big boss. That's good."
"And is the cab a good business?"
"Sorry, it's no business at all. There are too many cabs, the government didn't stop them. There are ten thousand cabs in Budapest. Too many. Maybe you'll find another cab. Maybe!"
"What has the government been doing during the last year?" I inquire. "I do not know. Sorry! Nobody knows. They say they're working hard, and they raise the prices. Not the wages. Sorry!"

some selected photos :