The longest lines in Warsaw these days are not for food, but for visas to Western countries.

In addition to Poland's economic and social problems -- and because of them -- there is now a serious brain drain. One estimate is that 100,000 Poles have left the country this year. It is not so much a matter of numbers, but rather the kinds of people who are leaving. The majority are young and well educated -- for example, doctors and electronic engineers. It was so bad in Warsaw, my interpreter said, "I can no longer find a dentist I trust."

Some Poles don't want to wait for a visa to leave. There has been a rash of hijackings. The problem has become serious enough that military patrols now ride shotgun on domestic flights. Any potential weapon, such as a pipe tool, is confiscated and returned when the plane lands at its destination.

When Poland liberalized its passport policy last year, some wag said it was done so the authorities wouldn't have so many mouths to feed.

In spite of the long lines, constant fear of further deprivations and possible strife, the Poles have not lost a sense of humor. In Gdansk, for example, I implored my English-speaking floor maid not to put any starch in my shirts. She giggled and said, "You needn't worry, there is no starch in all of Poland."

Gallows humor abounds. The Russians are the butt of much of it. In its mildest form it goes like this: "Mrs. Kowalik, there is no more water." "What did you say?" "I said, Mrs. Kowalik, there is no more water." "I didn't know the Russians were that thirsty."

In its most bitter form, contemporary Polish humor goes like this: "Question: If Germans and Russians invade our country at the same time, whom do we shoot first?" "Answer: The Germans." "Question: Why?" "Answer: Duty before pleasure."

Gdansk (nee Danzig) on the Baltic Coast is where Solidarity, the trade union cum political movement, got its start during a shipyard workers' protest in August 1980. Today, Solidarity boasts 10 million members, nearly a third of Poland's population. It is to Gdansk that Solidarity returned in recent weeks to hold two separate sessions of its first congress. I attended some of the second and, by all descriptions, the milder of the two sessions.

The first thing that struck me was the similarity between this congress and an American political gathering. There are the grafitti, the slogans, the buttons, the T-shirts and posters and a philatelic booth with a special cancellation stamp to mark the occasion.

Take the grafitti, much more evident in Gdansk, by the way, than in Warsaw or Krakow. The first of them that stares at you from a wall on the way into town from the Gdansk airport says: "The foolish secret police paint over these signs. They are afraid of the truth and their own shadow." And next to it is a warning giving the license number of a secret police car.

Take the buttons. Each delegation to the congress brought its own and traded them much as scouts trade badges at jamborees. Nondelegate collectors swarmed outside the meeting hall exchanging buttons. Hawkers sold new, freshly minted ones (as well as posters and hats). The most popular and expensive new button ($3) when I was there is one in Solidarity's white and red colors that says, in English becuase it rhymes: "Soviet tanks. No tanks."

Inside Olivia hall at Gdansk -- a huge sports stadium -- the delegates to the Solidarity congress continued to discover the democratic process and it was sometimes painful and sometimes tedious. Thus, under the notion that in a democracy every person has the right to speak, one day 105 delegates demanded the floor for their five minutes each, plus another two for rebuttal. Most attempts to gag them and get on with it failed.

For most delegates, whose average age is 30, there has been no experience with democracy in their lifetime. What they do believe, apparantly, is that everthing done over the last 30 years has been wrong. One Polish intellectual, who did not want to quoted, said: "We brought up the younger generation on ridiculous propaganda -- by teaching them an official ideology not acceptable to an intelligent individual."

Now there is concern that Solidarity will be taken over by the "radicals" who will impose their "statistically majority" on the movement. A very respected theologian, the Rev. Josef Tischner, used a newspaper interview to instruct the audience on what democracy is and is not, especially the concept that the majority must respect the views of the minority. He hammered away at the potential tyrany of the "statistical majority" this way: "There are problems that cannot be solved in a democratic way because they are not democratic problems. If Copernicus wanted to decide in a democratic way if his theory were true, we would probably still live according to the Ptolemaic theory."

Nonetheless, at the Gdansk meeting there was exhibited, from time to time, an impatience with the fledgling democratic process. One person who showed impatience was Lech Walesa, the charismatic leader of Solidarity.

Walesa is smaller than I had imagined. He speaks in a rapid manner. And if he shaved his now celebrated mustache, few persons would recognize him.

There are gravely mixed feeling about Walesa, who before August 1980 was an unemployed electrician and today is a world figure. Many Solidarity leaders do not like him and would try to throw him over were it not for his celebrity. They may still try. Others admire him. I asked Maciej Szumowski, the daring editor of the party newspaper in Krakow, whether he thought Walesa had contempt for democracy. "No, Walesa understands democracy in an intuitive way," Szumowski said, "But he has to use charisma to manage varying groups with clearcut differences. He has incredible political instinct in dramatic and difficult situations."

The view of Walesa from the other side, the Communist Party side, is both flattering and a bit contemptous. Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski, for example, says Walesa "very quickly turned out to be a very clever polician . . . A moderate politcian." However, Rakowski thinks Walesa looks "at things superficially."

"He will sit down with the prime minister and in a few minutes will tell him how to run the country and the world."

Rakowski also thinks that Walesa has dictatorial tendencies.

On Walesa's part, it is clear that the man history coughed up at an odd moment in a Baltic city absolutely relishes his role on the center stage.

When I left the United States in the last days of September, I had the impression that Poland was on a kind of war footing and, indeed, there was even a chance Russian tanks would greet me. But Poland is calmer and I anticipated, and the presence of the military is muted.

Nonetheless, a harsh winter could mean catastrophe.

Curiously enough, both Walesa and Rakowski -- worthy opponents -- look to God for help.

Walesa said: "God helped us with our good harvest: I hope he will help us to avoid a harsh winter."

Rakowski said: "Of course, we shall need the support of the trade unions. If we don't get their support the country will go downhill. Then we'll have to turn to God."

Rakowski was asked teasingly what if God turned out to be a member of Solidarity and he replied: "Then i hope he's a moderate."

Rakowski said: "Of course, we shall need the support of the trade unions. If we don't get their support the country will go downhill. Then we'll have to turn to God."

Rakowski was asked teasingly what if God turned out to be a member of Solidarity and he replied: "Then I hope he's a moderate."

It is extremely difficult for someone coming here for the first time and for a very short stay and without a measure from the past to begin to understand the profound change Poland has undergone over the last 13 months. I realized it when we were passing a small church in a village and saw soldiers leaving mass. Our companion, Jaga Gromadzka, a biologist and Solidarity member, said that she could still not believe it, could not believe seeing soldiers at church. Until August 1980, they were forbidden to attend church.

And the future? Bronislaw Geremek, a medieval historian, a founder of Solidarity and close associate of Walesa, says: "all the hopes of Polish society rest in this movement."

When Jaga Gromadzka was asked what she most hoped for Poland, this bright and intense mother of three said: "To see somthing nice in the future."