One time-tested method of determining the level any nation has reached is the "toilet paper test." At its most primitive, there isn't any (or maybe not even anything we recognize, such as the "Turkish toilets" of the Balkans). Then comes the newspapers, with their unfortunate propensity to stop up anything; this requires the use of little baskets for depositing...well, anything that won't flush. At length a nation moves to the famous wax paper of the French railroads (now vanished, perhaps about the time the French bullet-trains became the envy of the world--and for the same reason: prestige was at stake--but perhaps at the time they decided to give in to Anglo-Saxon prudishness and eliminate the pissoirs along the main avenues). By these standards, the Czech Republic has made major strides in recent years: the toilet paper available isn't fluffy soft, but it works and it's usually where you need it. Poland isn't quite up to Czech standards, but it, too, is a lot better than it was twenty years ago.
We were in Cracow this weekend. A marvelous place: crowded, dirty, a bit dangerous, but also alive with music, dancing, exotic restaurants, tourists, shops; one could say, the atmosphere of the Village in New York with coal dust.
In theory, we should have had a miserable time. We were hours late on the slow two-lane main highway, hadn't eaten, couldn't get our money changed to buy any food...and it began to rain. But we had a ball. Cracow is that kind of city. We just rearranged all our plans and went for it.
Our first big adjustment was the money. At 22,870 or so zlotys to the dollar, you end up with a lot of cash for a hundred bucks. It takes 2000 to get into a public toilet, sometimes 3000, and we had to remind ourselves that it was only a dime. As the students returned from their lunches in the various restaurants and discovered the Sukiennice, the ancient cloth hall in the center of the square, they went wild. I'd told them about it, but they really didn't trust anything a professor would recommend, and so they were really happy when it turned out to be better than described. They'd never seen so much jewelry, native costumes, or little colored boxes at one time--and how magnificiently they were displayed. We didn't get to do much shopping for ourselves--our job was to make sure that the students had a good time, and they certainly did that--spending a 170,000 for a chess set, 240,000 for a wool sweater, until they could hardly carry everything. I went up to a fellow who laid out some modern coins and medals on a folding table; after I asked if he had any medieval coins, we had a nice chat in our improvised combination of German, Czech, and Polish about the coins he had and the rulers who had minted them; finally, I bought a nice little silver coin from 1550 and a bronze one of Augustus the Strong (1754) for ten dollars. I didn't give Jackie any more than 3000 zlotys for an emergency, so that limited her possibilities, but she had a good time helping students.
The seven students we had supper with thoroughly enjoyed the combination of Tunisan and Polish dishes offered, but were staggered at the bill--1,270,000 zlotys. And how to figure who owed what? From experience, I knew not to try myself. Instead, I passed the bill around for everyone to identify their items and to give that amount plus a tip to one of the students, who was to see that in the end we had collected enough. As the students passed in their 5000 and 1000 zloty notes, the table began to look like the end phase of a monopoly game. Even the waitress broke down in giggles. And when we finally gave her about 1,500,000, she counted only far enough to estimate that there was enough there.
In the end, we couldn't cash back all that was left. As one Czech money changer said, "we have no use for that toilet paper."
Note: Poland has since gone through a currency reform