Steve Mays – Malmo, Sweden – Spring 2010

Steve Mays [MA Student in 2010]

Status:  Steve completed his Masters in Sociology in Spring 2011.  At the time of his posts, he was traveling to Poland as part of his thesis work which began by joining other MU students during a special program of exchange between Marshall University and Malmö University in Sweden.

Bio:  Steve received his B.A. from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ohio University. Prior to enrollment in Marshall University’s sociology program in 2008, Steve worked for 30 years in industry and commercial construction. During the 1980s as a member of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union he became interested in the Polish trade union, Solidarność, and the Polish Solidarity Movement. He is currently working on a thesis pertaining to this social movement. His academic interests include teaching sociology, sociological theory, social movements, Eastern Europe and its interaction with the former Soviet Union. His personal interests include dogs, cats, travel, and building/remodeling projects.


March 17, 2010

Malmo, Sweden

OK, some observations from Sweden … When in Sweden do not buy milk just by looking for a picture of a cow on the carton (verses a goat!). There are several kinds of milk here and I don’t mean just different percentages of fat. Plain milk is möljk. I bought flimöljkbecause it had such a happy looking cow on the box! When I opened the carton next morning and poured some flimöljk on my cornflakes, I realized I had a major problem…the stuff that came out was sort of like soured yogurt! It was entirely unappealing to me and I have a taste for sour foods…I actually enjoyed pickled red cabbage and carrots last week in Poland, but, I will have to admit, flimöljk was a bit beyond my sourness limit! I later learned that several such versions of this product exist…apparently they range from a sort of mild “liquid yogurt” to a sort of “super-sour-buttermilk.” These are said to have originated on Swedish farms as a means of preserving the raw milk.

Ok, doing laundry in Sweden … You must have Swedish contacts for this! Laundromats, I am told, are virtually nonexistent. Apartment houses usually have one set of commercial washer/dryer units for tenants but these are allotted use to families only on certain days and at a specified time. Additionally, the power is turned off after the scheduled usage times. Thus, last night I ended up with a load of washed clothing but ran out of time for dryer use…the power simply kicked off at 9:00 pm (21:00 hours as Sweden uses the 24 hour time system, not AM/PM). My only alternative was to drape the wet clothes over chairs, tables, etc. in my room and wait for them to air dry. Hope I can borrow an iron somewhere or else I’ll have to try to establish “the wrinkled look” as a new fashion statement!


March 15, 2010

Malmo, Sweden

I’m writing you from the library at Malmo…just arrived here yesterday and all is going great!  The keyboard is a little different here…gotta make room for Ö, Ä, €, ¤, £ and Å. I will have some great tales to tell from Poland (and hopefully from Malmo too.) I was able to get into not only the office of Solidarność, for an interview with the local director, but also into the old Gdanska shipyard (former Lenin Shipyard) where the movement all began. By luck or chance (or, perhaps by direction of the Black Madonna!) I happened to meet this girl who was doing a film on Solidarity…making a student documentary. She was Polish but was attending college in England so she spoke both languages perfectly. She had made a contact with an old guy who had started to work at the Gdansk Yard in 1970….he was 67 years old…just like the old guy I’ve been talking to in Ironton who worked at Allied Chemical…to these old guys, the plant was their life and the fellow workers their family. Anyway….he got us right inside the yard…right into the main office…right to the dock where a ship was being built ! (the yard is only operating at about 20% former capacity.) We spent the entire day there and through this guy I got an oral history of the movement right at the sites where it all happened…yes, it was living history! Altogether I did 5 interviews, explored the old Soviet-built apartment neighborhoods (still right under the smokestacks of an old coal-fired powerplant with no pollution control…it was a “gift” to Gdansk from “Uncle Joe Stalin”), walked across 20 ft. wide pedestrian bridges (where 70,000 workers crossed over the train tracks each day to get to the 5 different shipyards) and took lots of pictures that (hopefully!) capture a little of what the old Sovietized Eastern Bloc was like. So…yes…I can’t wait to show you guys these pictures!

I took a long (accidental!) commuter train ride around Gdansk when I first arrived. After the flight time of almost 24 hours I was rather disoriented but on my “accidental tour” I saw what I thought to be several shanty towns around the outskirts of the city and even up the steep hillsides that flank the western edge of the city. These looked like the squatters towns outside of Juarez, Mexico where the in-migrating factory workers live…little sheds, shacks, lean-tos, made of scrap wood, sheet metal, and assorted odds and ends…one difference…no people! A hillside of little fenced-in shacks with not one soul in sight.

Later that week I started asking about these…even took a looooong walk on foot one day to get some pictures of ’em. It turns out that these were little private gardens and the “shacks” were tool storage sheds for the gardens. But these were not at all “picturesque European flower gardens”…these ramshackle hillside conglomerations of recycled industrial materials, home-made, and protected by woven brush fences and sagging barbed wire were the individual vegetable garden plots that fed the people of Gdansk during the worst years of Poland’s economic crisis. All of my informants have described to me the hardships of those years…especially ’81 – ’83 during martial law. Stores were often empty…literally empty. You could at times buy only tea and macaroni and Trybuna Luda (sort of the Polish Pravda) which was said to be a great newspaper…great for starting fires and for use as toilet paper!

In order to survive, people bought and sold garden produce, fruits, and berries from these little plots on the “blackmarket.” As everything bought and sold in The Peoples’ Republic of Poland at that time was subject to a high mark-up tax (sometimes as high as 25%) as income for the State, the operators of these little cash-market gardens were, technically, committing a crime…but the state ignored this “crime”…it probably would have been difficult to prosecute for tax fraud a little Polish grandma selling jars of strawberry jam on the side of the street! I saw several old-timers last week still selling jam, honey, and home-canned fruit on the sidewalks of Gdansk. I was told that in the ’80s those garden shacks also were used as hen houses, rabbit hutches, dovecots, and occasionally as a shed for a milk goat or two.

It is not unusual to see in rural Appalachia this sort of “mini-farming” as a hobby, for fun, or as a throwback to more traditional times. However, it is the social and historical context of these Gdansk gardens that make them so striking. They extend up the hillsides of a town that produced at one time 30 – 40 huge ocean-going ships per yard per year (and assorted smaller vessels) and with 5 such yards in operation…let’s see…that’s 200 or more ships per year. They lie across the railroad tracks from one of the largest industrial works ever built in the world…the Gdansk Shipyards are immense. Yet, this town was dependent on little hillside gardens and chicken houses as its supplemental food source. One of my informants, who spent a lifetime building ships in Gdansk, put it this way:   “We were building ships for free for the Soviet Union…we built them in Gdansk, the Russians put their name on them, and sold them to Albania, to Brazil, and all over the world…they made good money on our ships…and we couldn’t even buy basic groceries on a regular basis…that’s one reason Solidarność was so successful…The worse it got, the more the people stuck together…but we knew our transition had to be an evolution, not a revolution…Walesa’s plan was for peaceful resistance, peaceful change…there was no other way…”

These little gardens (Pavel jokingly called them “Polish Dachas”), I believe, were part of the process… a peaceful means of survival and a sort of daily protest in their own right…a source of “power of the powerless”, as Vaclav Havel put it. I don’t know if the gardens produce very much anymore…they were partially covered with snow this time of year and they looked rather brushy and in places overgrown. But I have pictures of them and the story about them that will now be preserved and will make it back to Appalachia…I told that old Gdansk ship yard worker some stories from Ironton, Ohio too (with a little language assistance!) and we had our picture taken together in front of a big Solidarność banner….he was delighted that someone wanted to record his stories…that they had come all the way from Aren’ton, Ohio just to do that! It really made him happy to share with me his stories and I was fascinated by them as well!