As I trudged up the hill away from my dormitory in Prešov, Slovakia, I noticed something odd on the train tracks below the viaduct. There were unusual bits of some yellow substance strewn at random intervals all over the place. After a minute, I recognised them as banana peels. I thought to myself how bizarre a sight, especially since I hadn't seen bananas for sale once in the city since I’d arrived the previous September. Why now? And why so many banana peels? Had passengers thrown them out the windows of the trains as they passed through the city? I was at a loss to explain it.
Later in the day, after I’d finished teaching at the local high school, I went to the shops in town. I found that bananas had indeed come to Prešov, but how? Yes, the communist era had officially ended nearly four years before, but there were many remnants of the command economy still in place. Notably, the system of distribution of goods had not fully been privatised. Even though I had lived in the country for seven months, I still held to many of the notions about the free movement of goods and services most Americans take for granted. Hence my confusion over the bananas.
Within less than a day, all the bananas in Prešov had disappeared, despite their exorbitant price in every shop I visited. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had already begun to grasp the principle of supply and demand, even in a distorted market like Slovakia. When a scarce item came onto the market and especially one as obviously desirable as bananas, people bought them up regardless of price. And further, I noticed people buying them in quantities I had never seen before then. Instead of a bunch or two, as one would see in western supermarkets, I saw little old ladies with ten or more bunches stuffed into their baskets and satchels. Didn’t they know the bananas would spoil before they had a chance to eat them all?
Then I remembered what I’d seen on the train tracks. The little old ladies - and anyone else who had hoarded the bananas - ate them up with reckless abandon. In a country where ‘capitalist consumption’ was still looked upon with suspicion, there was an awful lot of consumption going on. In a country whose ruling ideology had forced people to live for the sake of their comrades, I witnessed what appeared to be more callous disregard than brotherly love.
I fully admit I knew little about economics or political philosophy at the time. When I left the United States to go teach English in Slovakia, I held the typical views of the majority of liberal arts university graduates, which is to say vaguely leftwing, but not educated. I entered the country with the notion that communism or socialism had been improperly applied. When I left the country the following year, full of observations of daily life in a former dictatorship, my basic politics hadn't changed much yet, but I had primed my mind with the seeds of how my worldview was to change over the coming decades.
Today, nearly 20 years after I left Slovakia, I still think about the ways my experiences have coloured who I’ve become in the intervening years. While most of my high school and university peers have held to the same ideas with which they were brought up, my views changed because I removed myself from my familiar surroundings. I had no choice but to observe in order to try to grasp the strange habits of the people in a country I called home for a time.
In the end, what I learnt was to exercise my ability to think independently, without regard for the popularity of my conclusions. In other words, I grew up.