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For Poles, Shopping Is Now A Language Lesson

April 16, 1992

WARSAW, Poland (AP) _ Consider the perils of dyeing your hair following French instructions, fighting an ant infestation with instructions in Arabic or ending up with a can of squid rings in garlic sauce by accident.

Scrutinizing packages has become a national pastime for Poles newly confronted by a dazzling array of imported products. The problem: only a few are labeled in Polish.

Nearly 2 1/2 years into Eastern Europe’s most dramatic economic reforms, Poles can choose from a well-packaged plethora of goods that could hardly have been imagined during the 1980s, when leaky vinegar bottles - labeled in Polish, to be sure - were virtually all that was piled high.

But there is already resentment that even routine marketing trips resemble a ″Let’s go shopping″ lesson in a foreign language class.

Some Poles are responding with the first hints of a ″Buy Polish″ drive, others simply with confusion.

″When the Polish market has been swamped by imported products, the consumer is to a great extent incapacitated,″ said Andrzej Nowak of the Department of Economic Strategies.

″I don’t know foreign languages so it’s hard to know what anything is,″ sighed Iwona Pruszkawska, a young mother trying to decipher German yogurt flavors from the pictures.

Prime Minister Jan Olszewski’s economic plan proposes requiring all foreign-made food, medicine and cosmetics to have Polish-language packaging and other goods to at least have Polish instructions attached. The import barrier is designed as much to protect Poland’s struggling manufacturers as its consumers.

But Poles may not want to risk stripping shops of their new-found plenty by forcing Western manufacturers to repackage or withdraw. Parliament Deputy Marek Dabrowski, a former vice finance minister, called the idea ″crazy.″

Pending a decision, Polish consumers will be struggling over the varieties of Swedish ″tonkfisk″ (tuna fish) - strimlorolja, bitariolja or bitar i vatten - or English tea: passionfruit, black currant, mango or banana.

″Sometimes I take the risk, not knowing exactly what is in it,″ said shopper Beata Winter.

But the results can be unpleasant. Imagine taking a swig of what looks like a refreshing lemonade, only to get a mouthful of a sickly sweet syrup meant to be diluted seven times over.

They can also be dangerous. A child was hospitalized with severe stomach problems when his father fed him Canadian diet bars thinking they were a health-food snack, said Maciej Kopacki, whose new Luxus supermarket stocks 3,500 products, about 50 percent imports.

″We ourselves sometimes don’t know what we are selling. Sometimes even the suppliers don’t know,″ said Kopacki.

The fabled indifference of store clerks, who have decades of practice saying ″Nie ma,″ or ″There is none,″ doesn’t help.

Some packages speak the international language of ″super,″ ″extra″ and ″maxi,″ but few manufacturers are promoting in Polish.

Kellogg’s promises a healthy start in a Polish pamphlet - except for ″Coco Pops,″ which apparently defied the translators. An anti-plaque dental rinse comes with a flyer describing this post-Communist affliction.

With advertising so novel, the effect is dramatic. One mother says her 7- year-old daughter pesters her to buy a widely promoted American sanitary napkin, without the faintest idea what it is, and recently advised her on an imported stain remover.

On the other hand, savvy Polish manufacturers have been disguising their products’ origins.

Torun Pacific, which makes corn flakes in northwestern Poland, decided on English-language packaging two years ago knowing customers would assume the cereal was an import.

Now, the Polish-American joint venture has decided to put more Polish on its package.

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