Strategies for survival

Katarzyna Wojnarowska

‘May you be a pensioner’, said an older man to a younger one. Doesn’t this sound a little like a curse? It should sound so, especially in the country where the lowest amount of the regular social allowance for those who are completely incapable of work is PLN 418 a month and the allowance is taxed; the lowest rate of invalidity pension is about PLN 600 a month. What kind of imagination and sensitivity has the government that condemns their neighbours to live in such conditions? How can you survive a month with this amount of money? It occurs that millions of our relatives, neighbours and acquaintances make this miracle.

Several ordinary stories

Alina, 59, a childless widow, retired 5 years ago. She has serious problems with her back and heart. After an accident, which did not seem to be serious at first, she came down with a rare bone disease - Sudeck’s atrophy. Bones lose calcium, like in osteoporosis, but the process is more acute. The doctor said that if the condition of her leg did not improve the leg would be amputated. Alina was lucky but since that time she has rarely left her flat. She has an allowance of PLN 690 a month. The same ritual occurs every month. A square-ruled exercise book, a ball pen and a shopping list. 170 for medicines, 200 for the rent (for one room flat, heated with a stove), ca. 70 for electricity and 85 for the telephone bill - she cannot save any money on her telephone calls because they are her only way to contact her family and acquaintances. ‘I watch television because I want to follow the news. Nobody can stump me about issues concerning politics and culture. I watch all documentaries because the films are only reruns. I do not want to become obsolete, a stay-at-home; I do not want to flag. I worked with people all my life. I ran a restaurant; I dealt with accountancy. Sometimes I wanted to be alone, away from noise and din. People always needed me. My presence was indispensable. I was very tired. Now I have peace but I miss those old crazy days.’ Ewa, 48, lives with paresis of legs after a car accident she had in 1979. Her allowance is PLN 788. Ewa lives with her parents in a flat in a housing cooperative. Her parents worry that when they die their daughter will not have enough money to keep the flat. The rent, together with the administrative costs and renovation fund, amounts to PLN 390. The flat has 40 square metres: two small rooms, a bathroom adjusted to meet the needs of a disabled person, a kitchen with furniture produced in the late Gierek’s period. The flat has been painted in beige because dirt does not stick to beige for a long time. Ewa’s parents receive their pensions from the budget, which means small rates, altogether PLN 1,770. ‘We do not add our daughter’s pension to our family budget since her medicines cost PLN 590. Actually, our pensions cover the bills and food. This year food price has gone up 10-40 %. The worst thing is that the price of bread goes up constantly and bread is the basic food for families of modest means’, says Wiesia, Ewa’s mother, a retired municipal clerk. ‘Believe me. The most difficult thing is to cope with the thought that you managed when you worked and nowadays poverty draws you down like the whirlpool sucks a drowned body down, and nothing can be done...’, complains Stefan, Ewa’s father, who used to work in a heat and power plant. ‘We limit our expenses every year and tighten our belt but you come to the point where you have little room for manoeuvre... Social help? You must be joking... We cannot get anything since our per capita income is too high to receive social help. And we realise that there are poorer people than us. A woman with three small kids and a drunken husband lives next door. Once a week I give them something, most frequently mushrooms or some home made preserves...Halinka, 65, has a pension of PLN 1,120. A week ago her breast was amputated - a malicious tumour. How malicious the tumour is will be known in a week. Halinka lives in a historic tenement. She managed to make a tiny bathroom and a kitchen from one large room (39 square metres) in the 1960s when the tenement was renovated for the last time. Her rent is PLN 123. The only source of heating in her flat was a tile stove, which stopped working in 1986. You cannot install electrical coils inside it since the old overloaded fuses will blow. Therefore, she uses a gas stove to heat her almost 40 sq metre flat. In winter the temperature in her flat is only 13 degrees Celsius. In spring, before the walls absorb warmth, it is up to 16 degrees. ‘But in hot summers it is pleasantly cool here’, Halinka says jokingly. But her bathroom is in a very bad condition. The water outlet under the bath is out of order. After taking a bath she must use a bowl to pour dirty water out of the bath, otherwise the flat can be flooded. Now Halinka takes a bath at her friend’s house. The walls of her flat are filled with copies and posters of Polish classical painters: Matejko, Malczewski and Kossak. A large portrait of John Paul II; artificial red roses with drops of dew are beneath it. A picture of the Black-eyed Gypsy Mother of God over the bed. In order to make appointments with doctors avoiding queues she must go first to private medical centres (she pays PLN 100 per appointment). She learns what she should be told in hospitals: to use marigold ointment so that the stitches will not be painful; to move her aching forearm so that the lymph does not collect...’am a tough person’, she told the nurse who in one move tore the dressing off the fresh post-surgical wound. ‘The routine kills people in people...’, she sighs. ‘The problem with Halinka is that she belongs to those who hold up their heads and not for anything do they admit they are poor. She used to work as a nursery school teacher. She got married very early but she was not happy in her marriage. ‘So she chose to be single’ her friend recollects. ‘I have never met anyone who bears one’s fate with such dignity. And in such a charming way. But she must have had a hard life. Now she must live on her pension. She must buy medicines, which are expensive, even those that are refunded. I collected money among our friends. Halinka was moved and cried but she accepted our support. For the first time in her life...

Rules to survive

‘The most important commandment of a pensioner is the sentence ‘it must be profitable’, Alina laughs. ‘It pays to buy cheap. It pays to go to supermarkets. I know what people say about the discounts; in what the supermarkets soak meat and charcuterie so that the food looks fresh... I do not believe this. In the supermarket Auchan there was a scandal with bad charcuterie. Now they keep the quality like no other... For example, you buy a hen and you can make four meals for a single (she laughs). You add potatoes, salads only in summer and autumn. In winter you use sauce powder... ‘My neighbours say that you can eat canned food even three months after its expiry date. Once we bought 50 chicken pâtés because they cost 0.89 zloty each. Man, you cannot eat it in a short time... The older the canned food was the saltier it was but you can deceive your stomach using ketchup’, says Stefan, opening his fridge. ‘Cottage cheese and melted cheese, ‘mortadela’ sausage enough for tomorrow’s breakfast. Tomatoes are still too expensive but we have jam... I buy food only when it is on special offers or sold out. After some time you know when and where you can buy cheap’, Stefan explains. ‘My wife walks with difficulty so I am a ‘runner’. I leave home in the morning and make the second round in the evening since some prices are reduced then. I go to the greengrocer’s before 6 p.m. when you can buy fruit for half price. Drunkards wait at the waste heap. Such a stallholder need not even bother; they take the waste and go downtown. Then they sell lemons to buy beer... I tell such a drunkard,’ Rascal, you should have given the food to your child... These kids are so pale since they do not eat vitamins. But a drunkard thinks what to pour into his throat; that’s the way he is and that’s that.


Ewa: - A month in the country. In the bosom of nature, in calmness. I can watch forests and birds for hours... I have not felt wind on my face for a long time. I like listening to ordinary people. Only they can tell stories. I am thinking - a small house overlooking a green garden and long hot days and breeze in the evening while drinking tea...And to enjoy this summer to the full, for your whole life... Stefan: - Hmm... Some place Ewa could go to after we pass away. So that I could close my eyes in peace... Some open rehabilitation centre... For me? I do not know... I know one place when you can catch plenty of fish. If my pension went up I could have enough money to buy a bus ticket... Alina: - A lot of books. If I have a good book I am not alone... And I can eat chicken over and over again.

"Niedziela" 29/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: