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Lamppost Notices: Clues to a Continent

As I traveled from city to city I kept my eye on lampposts and jotted down the sorts of things that private citizens were offering or looking for through the flyers, handwritten advertisements, and other notices they had posted.

These turned out to reveal unusual insights into how people's preoccupations change - and how their lives change - as you journey from East to West.

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In Minsk the signs were about the basics: a family trying to swap a state-owned apartment in one part of town for a similar-size place in another district; a telephone number to ring if you had any gold, silver, or other valuables to sell; and a plea I saw photocopied all over town, by a mother seeking information "from anybody who saw how my son drowned in the canal on 6/6/98." She had left her phone number on little tongues of paper at the bottom of her appeal for people to tear off. Nobody had.

In Warsaw the message was very different. There, the lampposts, bus shelters, and walls were plastered with advertisements for English lessons, makeup classes, weight-loss systems, and courses on computer graphics. The appetite for all the attributes of modern European style could hardly have been clearer.

And a little farther west, but still in Poland, protesters had stuck up crudely printed posters proclaiming: "NO to the freeway through St. Anne's Hill."

This is not the sort of thing you would see in Belarus or in Russia. For a start, preserving the environment is not a high priority for many people there, the way it is in Europe. But, more interesting, the poster was evidence of ordinary people spontaneously organizing themselves to resist a decision by the authorities.

That sort of action - the ABCs of a Western-style civil society - is still virtually unheard of in Minsk or Moscow.

And what sort of services do the lampposts in my district of Paris offer? Very Parisian ones: painting and drawing classes, relaxation therapy, massage sessions. And for the pooch who needs pampering but is too chichi to be seen at the neighborhood grooming salon: toilettage a domicile.

It is hard to imagine many takers for that in Minsk.

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