I laughed several weeks ago when Joel at Far Outliers wrote about his experiences studying in communist Romania (“Romania, 1984: Toilet Paper Tales“). Scholarship never seemed more like roughing it (certainly from my perspective). Slavenka Drakulic offers similar thoughts on economics and bathrooms as they reflect the current prosperity in east-central Europe (“Bathroom Tales“).

… Nowadays, what I’m especially glad to have – and Stasiuk doesn’t mention this product at all – is my stack of fine toilet paper. Rolls and rolls of it, I still hamster them as if they are going to disappear from the supermarket shelf at any moment, as they use to do. Old habits die hard! It’s soft, very soft, and comes in various pastel colours such as light blue, pink, and orange; some come with a floral pattern, one has small people skiing (for use in winter, I suppose), and another has funny animals to encourage children to use it. In the supermarket across the street, I recently bought the latest hit, a lightly perfumed toilet paper from Italy. But I decided that it was too much, even for a collector. Besides, its scent clashes with the toilet-cleaning tablet, the air-freshener, the scent of the softener…

Does anybody in eastern Europe today remember that toilet paper was a luxury not so long ago? I guess my generation is the last to do so, and when we are gone it will be entirely forgotten. People born after 1985 will say in bewilderment: There was no toilet paper? But that’s impossible! How could you live without it? Indeed, how could we?

… t’s not only our Communist past that still imprisons us in the collective pronoun, but also our dream to get out of that prison. We nurtured a collective dream of escaping from everyday life. We dreamt about a different normality. But what kind?

The short answer would be that we expected nothing less than paradise. Why paradise? And how could anybody’s normality turn into paradise? Simply because, compared with what we had – or rather, didn’t have – what the others (meaning western Europeans) had was in such abundance that it seemed to us exactly like paradise. [Emphasis mine]
Was normality (I mean paradise, Europe) as we imagined and desired it, simply a mistake? Yes and no. We are learning the hard way that such normality – that is, a comfortable life – doesn’t come automatically, and above all, doesn’t come cheap.

Now we are experiencing that normality has another dimension, a tedious, small-scale struggle that each of us faces. Far from pink toilets, the colour of normality is grey. This is bad news. And there is no end to the struggle, be it for Zoe’s bathroom, for justice, for more freedom – or against corruption, manipulation, or fear. The good news, however, is there is a new chance of winning the struggle. It’s time to understand that it’s up to each of us individually to take it up. We can’t blame anybody any longer, for the simple reason that each person can make a change. Or, at least, can try to.

Comfort, abundance, luxuries? Is that the best that “Europe” can offer after fifty-six years? At least Drakulic can admit that the appeal of the West lay not in its ideas, but its things.