|TRAVELLING PEOPLE, TRAVELLING OBJECTS, TRAVELLING IDEAS
|The interdisciplinary research project on shopping tourism was launched two years ago by Central and East-European academics. The participants from Romania, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have concluded their research and are now in the process of finalizing their contributions to the book we hope to publish next year on Consumption, Shopping Tourism, and Informal Trade in Socialism.
This research had originally been conceived as a new form of cross-cultural sociological investigation which refuses to impose, for the sake of comparability, a standardized set of questions on the differentially structured objects of its study, that is, on the actors, sites, and national legal-institutional frameworks of consumption, travel, and shopping in the countries in which research was to be conducted. The coordinators of the project thus insisted that each participant find that issue and angle from which to approach the common points of interest which he or she believes to be most promising or fascinating.
There was another important aspect to our common work, an aspect rarely mentioned in the objectivising descriptions of research procedures, although no less crucial when it is a social history and ethnography of ourselves that is being pursued. I mean the researchers' age and personal experiences. In the present case the project had been initiated by people in their forties, while most of the participants turned out to be younger by a decade or two. This implied that they had no first-hand experience of the 1950s and 60s and were inclined to accept the standard view on the drab and monolithic uniformity of everyday life in socialist countries, on the one hand, and the enthusiastic images of Western welfare societies, on the other, as these were presented in the ideological rhetoric of politicians and journalists after the demise of state socialism in Eastern Europe. While we insisted, relying on our childhood memories as well as contemporary diaries and other sources, on the diversity of life styles and survival strategies in the 1950s through the mid-60s and kept quoting data on the similar consumption habits of most European societies in the period of post-war reconstruction, the generation of our students at first listened to us incredulously and then questioned and reformulated the set of our initial assumptions. They broadened the scope of research in order to include the study of consumption patterns and the development of consumerism in Eastern Europe and they tried, in extremely revealing case studies, to come to grips with the many-faceted phenomena they had encountered.
1. Popular resistance?
One of the core assumptions of the project had been suggested by the studies on working class youth subcultures conducted in the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Was not shopping tourism after all a form of everyday popular resistance to the state-imposed regulation of everyday life, the ingenious circumvention of constraints and prohibitions which amounted to a form of political protest and then came to play a major role in the implosion of state socialism at the end of the 1980s? While this was clearly the case with the circulation and across the border smuggling of samizdat or Western published literature (studied by our Czech colleague, Jirina Smejkalova), the same interpretation badly fitted the aspirations and practices of East European consumers, shoppers and traders. What we have found, rather, were strategies of adaptation to the ever-changing circumstances, the exploration and exploitation of every gap and leak in an evidently dysfunctional system of central economic planning and state-controlled commerce. Thus, sooner or later, the inevitable question had to be asked whether these "heroic acts of resistance" could flourish due to the ingenuity of their perpetrators or, rather, they took place thanks to the leniency of the political powerholders who have realized the economic advantages and beneficient social effects of closing an eye to the activities of petty traders in the shadow economy.
Confronting these questions, first it must be remembered that, official ideology notwithstanding, the populations in the Central and East European socialist (or democratic or people's) republics were by no means homogeneous. Consequently, shopping tourism had a different meaning and function in the lives of the different socioeconomic strata. For the socialist "middle class" of professionals it served status-seeking conspicuous consumption, the creation and maintenance of social distinctions, for the enterprising lower middle or working class smugglers it opened up the possibility of accumulating some capital, while the majority of the population rarely travelled at all and (except if they lived in an area near the national borders) but eagerly bought the cheap goods the shopping tourists and blackmarketeers offered on the markets. Moreover, the function and political weight of shopping tourism seems to have been different in the countries concerned.
The Serbian, Croatian, and Slovenian members of our team all argued that, in former Yugoslavia, the permissive attitude of the authorities concerning smugglers and private imports was clearly part of the highly effective political self-legitimation of the system. Let me quote at some length from the paper on middle class shopping tourism by Djurdja Milanovic from Zagreb:
Could we say that some shopping tourists' consumption practices were subversive to the socialist system? When we speak about former Yugoslavia from the sixties through eighties, [...] we can hardly speak about transgressive consumption practices, Used to being told what their need were, with a void inside in need of filling, knowing who they should be but not who they were, the shopping tourists were easy and uncritical prey to Western advertising which presented irresistible and highly desirable lifestyles. For them, unused to risk or competition, consumption was the only way to enter the world of Western values.[...] So, the politics of style was never really a counter politics, although in the big cities, with the latest fashions on the backs of smart people it had some elements of an elegant guerilla fighting a system in which the dress code was officially pretty immobile. Feeling strong enough, the system itself did not oppose these harmless little subversions. (Shopping Tourism: A Consumerist Manifesto)
In Poland, the shortage of supply compared to the buying power of the population had driven many people into the informal economy which, by the late eighties spanned the whole continent with its network of semi-legal Polish traders. The Hungarian economic reform policy opted for another solution to the same problem: it drastically curbed buying power and simultaneously increased marked supply thus encouraging/forcing all who could to supplement their official incomes by exploiting themselves, by working an extra 6-8 hours a day in the expanding "second economy" in order to acquire the desired luxury goods, and later, in the 1980s, simply to preserve the living standard they used to take for granted a decade earlier. Finally, from among the countries included in our investigation, Romania in the 1970s and 80s seems to have represented the classical Stalinist formula of economic autarchy: it restricted both supply and demand and almost completely blocked access to alternative channels for the acquisition of consumer goods, ie. travel or small-scale private production and trade. To illustrate this other extreme, clearly the opposite of the Yugoslav case, let me quote from Liviu Chelcea's paper on Romania:
The 1980s in Romania were a period of generalised shortage, remembered as a dark period of recent history. The state imposed strict regulations on the quantity of food to be consumed. In 1981, food rationing was introduced for basic goods such as bread, oil , sugar and meat. [...] In addition, from January 1982 on, the state limited the electric power distributed to the population, urging them not to use "refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and other household appliances." These measures which aimed at reducing demand were accompanied by mass media and public advertisement denunciations of case involving the wasre or "overconsumption" of electric power or water. [...] In the late 1980s the Romanian government released a program of "scientific diet", allegedly to ensure that the population consume "less calories and healthier food". [...] The lack of goods pushed people to search for them, to mover over long distances, to spend long periods in queues or to use their social relations and privileges for getting consumer goods. It is thanks to shopping tourism that, although stores in Romania were empty, many people had much more things than what could be seen on the shelves of the shops. (The Socialist Culture of Shortage: Strategies, goods and consumers in a Romanian village in the 1980s)
2. A typology of tourists and their shopping
Our research was planned to focus on tourism among East European socialist states and the tourist flows between Eastern and Western Europe, particularly Austria since, firstly, it was for most East Europeans the nearest country on the other side of the Iron Curtain, secondly, because for a long time Austrians (and, somewhat later, Germans) tended to represent the foreign tourist in this part of the world and, finally, because it is in relation to Austria that the particular terms of touristic economic exchange and its cultural consequences were most clearly visible.
To put it simply: tourist shopping belongs to one of two types. It may represent a form of leisure activity or a rational economic transaction. As to the first, it may be recalled that as early as in 1844 the first pleasure excursion organised by Thomas Cook already included in the package a guide to recommended shops abroad. Catering for the tourists' appetite for shopping is an ever expanding international branch of industry. For the more irrepressible the tourists' uncanny sense of irreality becomes due to the lack of any practical or personal ties to the places they visit and the people they meet, the more salient shopping and eating in restaurants become as the only occasions where the familiar patterns of relating to the environment, of accomplishing something work and thus help dispel the anxiety of meaninglessness or boredom.
But tourist shopping is of a fundamentally different kind when it simply represents rational economic action. Everybody is, as a matter of course, happy to avail themselves of the cheaper drinks, cigarettes, or perfumes offered duty-free on airports or ferry-boats, and they will not miss buying those items abroad which are known to be significantly cheaper than in their respective home countries. The same ecomic rationality was, and still is, manifested by Austrian and German citizens who regularly cross the border to the East in order to buy huge quantities of cheap food and cheap highly skilled labour, ie. the professional services of dentists, optometricians, etc.
But all this rarely develops into that extensive and systematic exploitation of the differential pricing of goods in the neighbouring countries for which Eastern European tourists were known. The enormous scale of this activity is explicable by several factors. First, state subsidies were differently allocated in each centrally planned national economy, and second, there were chronic shortages of some types of goods in one country while the same were easily available in another across the border.
International literature on tourism has rarely paid attention to tourism from and to socialist countries. The prevailing talk of a socialist bloc or, as the advertisement of our conference formulates it, of "the former socialist union of states", took no notice of the borders which divided them, of the obstacles to travelling from one East European country to another, which began very slowly to disappear only in the 1960s. The motivations and activities of Yugoslav tourists in Hungary, Hungarians in Czechoslovakia, etc. have rarely been given a thought - even though the bulk of shopping tourism in this region from the mid-60s up to the early 80s and, in certain cases, even today is constituted by their movements and transactions. The customs authorities of the concerned countries tried in vain to curb private imports. When, for instance, the prices of several items of everyday consumption were cut by 20-40 % in Czechoslovakia in January 1964, the mass migration of Hungarians across the border to shop in Czechoslovakia forced the Hungarian National Bank to intervene and argue for customs restrictions in the interests of the national currency; the media became filled with reports on and denunciations of people who smuggled, hoarded and privately sold Czech products, say rubber boots. (The study by D·niel S·rdi discusses the recent history of shopping tourism between Hungary and Slovakia, whole Tibor Dessewffy in his "Travellers and Speculators" analyses the criminalizing of shopping tourists in the media.)
Private imports from Western Europe were on a much smaller scale, yet the papers kept on talking of despicable persons who use the opportunity to travel as a tourist to the West every third year not for visiting museums or enjoying scenic beauties. Instead, they would cross the border to Austria, stay just a day or two and spend all their money on pocket radios, fancy watches, ball-point pens, nylon stockings, fashionable scarves, sunglasses or raincoats.
Whatever strong language the media used, however high the imposed fines were, private imports, the practices of the suitcase economy kept steadily growing and, by the 1980s, led to the institution of semi-formal marketplaces, either adjoining markets or on the outskirts of towns. The names these markets were given by the population are highly revealing. In Hungary, first they were called Polish markets in acknowledgement of the fact that most traders came from that country. Then they came to be referred to as the Comecon markets, reflecting the ironic recognition that they represented but the former practice of private trading on a large scale, i.e., a practice which systematically exploited and, thereby, corrected all the faults of a bureaucratically organized trade among the countries of the Council of Mutual Economic Aid. (In this respect, our team profited much from the research on informal marketplaces by the Hungarian economic sociologist, Endre Sik.) Finally, in the 1990s they began to be called Chinese markets, indicating both the predominance of Chinese traders and goods and the diminishing differences in the price-levels in former socialist countries.
However, the old forms of across the border trade have not disappeared completely. They still flourish, for example, on the Eastern borders of Hungary where new actors have entered the scene: traders from Turkey, the Ukraine, the Baltic states and other former Soviet republics. The authorities tolerate them since the growing number of impoverished people cannot afford to shop anywhere else but in these markets still offering low quality but cheap goods. Surveys and interviews by sociologists and ethnographers have yielded valuable information on the composition of the goods offered, on the scale of trade and the actors involved. In general, Ukrainian and Romanian traders sell low quality but very cheap clothes, tools, glassware and household appliances, while their Polish and Turkish competitors specialize in more expensive and better quality fashion articles. Researchers found that the area from which Hungarian markets attract grey economy trade more or less overlaps with that delineated by medieval trade routes. Due to the repeated economic crises of the 1990s, many workers in state-owned factories in the Ukraine received no wages for months or received them too late, in a meanwhile devalued currency. For them the only chance of survival was to steal products from the factories and sell them on a market across the border. Several of those who used to engage in this kind of trade have by now accumulated enough capital to expand their business and become almost regular merchants, relying on a wide social and commercial network. Most of them are men aged 30-35. Petty trading as a survival strategy remained a low prestige, low profit activity, engaged in mainly by women from rural areas.
If the majority of the actors on these poor people's markets disregard all possible customs and tax regulations, the trade activities along Hungary's southern border broke both national laws and the international embargo on commerce with Yugoslavia during the recent war. While before the war Hungarian towns in the border region had been busily constructing supermarkets to cater for Yugoslav shopping tourists, legal business was suddenly shut down and all those who used to make a living from this trade became unemployed. Many of them switched to exporting illegally petrol and weapons to Yugoslavia.
The literature is full of general observations on the liminoid situation of the tourist as such but little work been done yet on tourists from a socialist country in the West or the Western tourists in Eastern Europe, except the occasional newspaper report on the absurd or, at best, pitiful behaviour of the rare "Eastern" tourist in the West - stories about Soviet sailors snatching dozens of plastic bags in a Hamburg supermarket, about a Polish tourist who cannot make his prospective customers understand that for some reason he wants to sell them a box of Nivea cream at the street corner in Rome, or about the catching of a Hungarian shoplifter in Vienna's Mariahilferstrasse.
Yet, the phenomenology of the East European tourist in the West is worth studying. When for some Eastern Europeans restrictions of travel to the West have become less severe, the more well-to-do decided to pay approximately three months' salary for a passport, the necessary visas and (legally or illegally bought) hard currency. When they finally crossed the border, they received a shock. They had to realize that the average monthly income in their home countries was way below the minimum welfare aid the inhabitants of the visited country were entitled to. They would never be able to share in the typical tourist pursuits and experience. Travelling proper demanded that they live on canned food brought with themselves, hunt for bargains or free of charge services, pay boring visits to distant relatives or the friends of friends in hope of a good meal and, perhaps, free accomodation for a night or two, and face up to the derisive smiles of the waiters if they dared enter a cheap restaurant and order only an hors d'ouvre. Having patiently endured these ordeals, most of them felt the need to justify the hardships suffered both to themselves and to those back home by showing forth the trophies of the journey: photos of the sights seen and some desired rare object bought with the money saved from their shoestring budget. (One member of our team, Zoltn Gayer studied precisely these photos by tourists - all shot to demonstrate their having been present in a different world and their having pretended to belong there.) Since travel in the West was such a privilege, jobs with the prospect of business travels were highly coveted. Long distance truck drivers or air-hostesses became the heroes and heroines of popular imagination (see Ferenc Hammer's paper on gasoline-scented Sindbads).
No less interesting is the experience of the West European tourist in a socialist country. The working or lower middle-class tourist to Eastern Europe could, until recently, expect to be treated as a coveted guest whose affluence was the object of general envy and who would be encouraged by hotel managers, tour organisers and other personnel to play the colonial master to the amazingly obliging natives. (This popular colonial discourse and its burgeoning steretypes are analysed by Juzsef Brcz in his book Leisure Migration. Pergamon Press, 1997.)
3. Tourists or illegal traders?
Sooner or later the question must be asked whether our talk of shopping tourism is not lumping together completely different phenomena, ie. tourists buying souvenirs and illegal traders? The answer to this wholly justified question must be twofold. Firstly, although "tourist" is a legal category applied to foreigners whose economic activities are supposed to be restricted to consumption, many tourists from socialist countries used to engage in some form of trade in order to cover the expenses of their stay abroad. Secondly, foreign trade being a state monopoly in socialist countries, all those who wanted to conduct business abroad on whatever scale had to pretend to be mere tourists. Apart from petty trade with meagre returns which nevertheless helped to balance one's household budget and maintain or enhance one's living standard, profitable business meant trading in goods the export of which was prohibited, e.g. works of high or folk art and antiquities from Eastern Europe to the West, COCOM-listed strategic goods like high powered computers from NATO countries to the East (the latter case is of particular interest, since the privately imported computer parts were mostly bought up and assembled by state-owned enterprises).
Secondly, the roles of the illegal trader and the tourist were not mutually exclusive. It often depended on the chances a situation offered or denied which of these roles were assumed. One Romanian colleague analysed a valuable and unique document: the memoirs of a retired blackmarketeer, published in 1991. He describes in detail his business trip to Yugoslavia soon after the Romanian revolution in 1989. Since Romanians had been rarely allowed to travel to their Western neighbours, their ideas on Yugoslavia as an earthly paradise were formed on the basis of their impressions of the thousands of affluent-looking Yugoslav tourists who used to sell all kinds of fancy goods on Romanian blackmarkets in the 1970s and 80s. Our blackmarketeer's route led from Kladovo through Nis, Leskovac and Vranje to Skpej and then from Krusevac through Kraljevo to Sarajevo and finally to Mostar and Dubrovnik. He was pushed ever farther to the West by the harsh competition not only of other Romanians but also of Bulgarian and Russian traders in the border area. Since business was bad, he looks more and more around, discovers "the picturesque landscape". The farther away he gets from Romania, the more often his trip begins to feel like a boy scouts' excursion and almost unnoticeably slips into speaking of himself not as a blackmarketeer but as a tourist. The experience of Dubrovnik makes him rapturous: "Here we, the blackmarketeers, trained to pursue profit, have forgotten about everything, about business, about how expensive life in this area wa, and felt like in heaven. Now, we said to ourselves, we can call ourselves tourists at last." (Quoted from Lived Experience and Inherited Meanings: The case of a Romanian blackmarketeer by Alexandru Vri)
Although most of the issues I have touched upon so far concern economies, goods, and forms of trade, the central question our research wanted to address was of another kind. What we had set out to investigate were invisible imports, the circulation of images and stereotypes, of ideas and know-how, and "the process of socially organised daydreaming" (Urry, 1990) in order to understand "the bottomless appetite...for things Western" (Appadurai, 1990), the socialization into consumerism, the local identities formed relying on the symbols offered by Western goods. (The quoted examples may have sufficed to indicate that, in many instances, Western is a purely relative term, just like in geography.) Without a clear sense of these processes one can namely hardly comprehend the smooth ease with which people in our region tended to accept after 1989 the late capitalist forms of advertising and self-fashioning.
With the exception of the earlier mentioned Romanian case, consumption as such has never been criticized so relentlessly in the socialist countries' press as, say, in Western media and intellectual discourse during the 1960s. On the contrary, official propaganda insisted ever since the early 1950s (Malenkov's program) that after heavy industry had been already firmly established, it was now time to develop light industry, ie. the production of consumption goods. Orators on festive occasions celebrated social progress measuring it by reference to the rise in living standards and the growth of consumption. The need for economic reforms set a cautious modernising strategy and conscious efforts at consumer education on the agenda in the 1960s. Among others, the international fairs organised in socialist countries presented the world standard with which domestic production was expected and urged to catch up. Visits to these fairs became highly popular forms of window shopping, virtual shopping sprees, teaching people discrimination as to the quality, functional requirements, and aesthetic design of objects of everyday consumptions. (Fairy Sales, a study by D·vid Kitzinger and OttÛ Gecser on the history and transformations of the Budapest International Fairs demonstrates the phases and the results of this process.)
Travelling ideas and travelling objects tend to undergo characteristic changes in the course of their migration. They gain new significance by being filled with locally attributed meanings. It is in this form that they can become relevant props for the redefinition of local group identities. In order to take roots, global phenomena have to be "indigenized" (Appadurai) first. The outcome of this creative transformation is generally referred to as the hybridization of meanings. The best-known example is offered, perhaps, by beat music which tended to have the same subversive meanings in Eastern Europe even though the crowds of fans seldom understood a word of the songs they were so enthusiastic about. They felt the novelty and inspiration of the music and filled it with all their emotions of rebellion, aggression, and sentimental emotionalism. The imported forms encouraged and helped the expression of what had been already there but could not find an adequate channel of articulation.
A similar process could be observed in the 1980s with the spread of the culture of computer hackers and program crackers who then created their own networks and forms of expression, particularly in Yugoslavia and Hungary. PÈter VÈssey's paper describes the youth cultural formation that has developed around the users and remodellers of Commodore 64 computer game programs, their verbal and visual language, their cracker parties (organised in communal "Houses of Culture") and the like.
A highly complex case of refashioning, or reinventing, the meaning of a fashion object has been examined by Marton Oblath. His paper on how one came to have a bespoke Chanel suit in Hungary in the 1960s and on the sort of meanings such a suit could acquire in the eyes of its wearer and her social circle aptly summarizes and shows in their interconnections the points I have tried to highlight in this short report.