Leif Andersson arrived in Poland as part of a touring Swedish ice hockey team visiting Katowice. Aged just 18 years old his story is typical of many foreigners you’ll find in Poland: he made friends, fell in love with the country, and ended up living in Sopot for the next four years. Nothing too unusual about that, so you may think. Think again. That was in 1976, a time when seemingly only a lunatic would choose to live behind the Iron Curtain. We met Leif Andersson to speak about his time in Cold War Poland and about August 1980 in particular.
‘I never really had any hassles, the strikes weren’t really something I paid much attention too, so it’s strange now to think you were part of history in the making. You could notice a heavy atmosphere, but in all honesty I didn’t have any complaints. I’ve always felt positively about Poland, I don’t like looking for negatives. Sure there were queues and it must have been hard for people, but for me it was a challenge and life experience. As a westerner I’d be stopped on the street by the authorities regularly, but thankfully the people I knew really looked after me’.
Taken in by a local family Andersson trained with the local ice hockey team for the next few years at Oliwa ice rink. To this day he keeps in touch with some of his old teammates and looks back to the past with fondness. ‘We’d go to a disco called Alga, just upstairs from where the 24hr store is at the bottom of Sopot’s ul. Monte Cassino. In those days it was the hottest place in town, and there’d be long queues to get in. We’d be dancing to Boney M until 2am, and then onto smaller bars and private parties. There was a nightlife, you just had to find it. Sometimes we’d drink in Fantom (cleared to make way for the new development on Monte Cassino), and what was for many years Wieloryb was in those days Madras pizzeria. Good quality beer was rare. I remember to find Zywiec you’d have to drink in the bar of Sopot’s Grand Hotel, but people would be afraid to talk in there - there were rumours the tables were bugged. Occasionally we’d flag down one of the taxis, those old Warszawa cars, and drive to Gdynia to pick up 30 bottles of Zywiec.’
Andersson returned to Sweden in 1980 to work as a fireman, which also sees him fly off to aid missions with the UN. He started returning to Poland in the early 90s, by which time changes were in full swing. ‘Back in the old days streets like Długa looked the same, only there was nothing on them. Today I really notice a difference at Gdańsk’s Dominican Fair. You used to be able to pick up quality antiques there, now it’s all plastic and Ronaldo shirts. I remember once a consignment of beer arrived from Southern Poland – that was a real treat for us at the time.’
His job has taken him across the world, though he has always felt drawn back to Poland, and modern travel now allows him to live here between shifts as a fireman in Sweden and UN postings. ‘Of all the countries I’ve been to Poland is the best. In the West everything is in the fast lane. Here the changes have been big, but the eastern mentality and warmth of the people remain the same.’