Alina Popescu, Writer

Memories from Communism Part I – The Queues

Memories from Communism Part I – The Queues
May 17
22:09 2017

As it’s Wednesday, I am sure you were expecting a post on Research & Inspiration for authors. This is a bit of a different take on the topic. My sharing memories from communism will work as research on communist regimes, dictatorships, and any other type of dysfunctional societies.

If you’re wondering what brought this on, well, it’s the large number of young college students and protesters flying communist flags, or anarcho-communist flags, or those quoting the Communist Manifesto as a way of empowering themselves. Before we start, I want to tell you that, for me, it’s as bad as quoting Hitler. And if you’re wondering why, before you start reading this, go do a google search on how many millions of people have died in communist regimes. Or how, or why. I was seven and a half when the Revolution overthrew the communist regime and dictatorship in Romania. The fact that I have such vivid memories of how bad it was should definitely tell you something.

Memories from Communism – The Queues

Queues were an integral part of Communist Romania. If you saw a queue, you stood in line and waited to get to the front of the line and get your ration of whatever it was they were selling. Most times, at the point you took your place and queued for what seemed like forever, you had no clue what you were going to buy. It didn’t matter, if you were lucky enough for them to still have some when your turn came, you’d buy it, because you needed everything.

I remember my mom would use one chicken to cook soup and a second course with some sort of roast. One chicken for two adults and one child. The neck, wings, and back, along with the heart and liver would go into the soup, the legs and breasts would make up our second course. And the soup would last us for two meals, ideally. We only had chicken on weekends when it got really bad.

I also remember we only had oranges at Christmas. Bananas too, but as I kid I disliked them. Maybe because you had to buy them green then line them up on top of our bookshelves and wait for them to be ripe enough to eat. If you wanted an orange during summer, tough!

We had ration cards for everything – bread (and you couldn’t buy too much of it), oil, sugar, flour. If you ran out of it, or something happened to it, like you dropped it on the stairs and it spilled, tough luck! You had to wait until the following month.

So with such limited choices of food and everything else (even toilet paper at times), if you saw a freaking queue, you joined in and hoped there was enough of what they were selling for you to grab some.

There were spontaneous queues and there were the regular queues – yogurt, milk, meat, bread – these would come in regularly and people would wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to queue for their food. They had to get it all done and get to work on time. Because being late might have caused you problems. And not working, unless you were a stay at home mom (which was rare), was illegal.

The Nightmare Queue for Salami

When I was about five, I was coming home from kindergarten with my dad. He usually picked me up at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, when his shift ended, then we’d take the bus home. As we were walking from the bus station to our building, an acquaintance told him they’d brought salami to the grocery store. My dad didn’t have his ration card with him, so he left me there to queue and ran home.

I can walk from where that shop was to my apartment and back in about ten minutes. It’s even less if you hurry. To five year old me, though, it felt like an eternity. My heart was beating like crazy, my hands were trembling, and I was terrified. Terrified that I’d get to the counter before my dad arrived and then we wouldn’t be able to get any salami anymore because they’d send me all the way to the back of the line.

The store smelled of salami. So much so that despite my fear, I was practically drooling. I kept looking over my shoulder, hoping my dad would come in and join me. When my dad finally made it, there were only two people in front of me. I’d never felt so relieved in my entire life. Or maybe once, that time after he’d forgotten to pick me up from ballet lessons, but that’s another story. My dad praised me for queuing there, like I’d done something special.

We got to the counter, we got our allotted piece of salami, and my dad asked the saleswoman to cut me a slice. He handed it to me and I took exactly one bite. Then my dad asked me to put it back in the bag. “What if a child sees you and wants some, but their mommy didn’t get here on time to buy salami?” I didn’t argue, of course. I know now that maybe a third of the people living in the neighborhood would have been able to buy some of that stupid, shitty salami! And before you ask why I say it was shitty, it’s because it was. To me, it was heaven. But it was stuffed with shitty things, to make more of it. Soy was the least bland of the ingredients added.

And yes, that is why soy took so long to become a thing in Romania. Most of our meat products, scarce as they were, were stuffed with soy and other replacements.

Money to Spend and Nothing to Buy

We weren’t poor or struggling. My dad was an engineer and worked in an oil refinery and my mom was in-house legal council for a research facility. There was just nothing to buy! I remember seeing that Robin Williams movie where he plays a Russian man who seeks political asylum in the USA and he faints when he sees an entire isle of colorful toilet paper. It does not surprise me. We barely had the normal, shitty, gray one that felt scratchy when you used it.

It was quite common, having the money, but nothing to buy with it. If you had relatives in the countryside, you might get some chicken eggs, maybe some fresh veggies. Cows weren’t that common. The state-owned Colectiv (Collective would work as a translation) managed all lands, all livestock, all dairy production. Former farmers and people living in the countryside were forced to work for the Colectiv in exchange for shitty pay. But if they had a big enough garden, they could keep some chickens and geese and ducks. Maybe even grow some corn in the back, some melons in between the corn.

That is why everyone had some money when a random queue popped up. We had nothing to spend it on. So we queued in hope of getting something good.


Next week, I will share another set of memories from communism. If you’d like to know about something specific, let me know in the comments – I am thinking the family unit and what that meant for both men and women. Or maybe LGBT rights (no, they did not exist). Or maybe heat and hot water, which were as scarce as food. Or TV and what we could see in between propaganda shows. Or what it meant to be a writer. Or how my step-father was questioned because he dared play the piano (sign of bourgeois mentality). Or maybe how we were brainwashed from kindergarten to obey the great dictators, and see them as our mother and father?

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Alina Popescu

Alina Popescu

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