Over the last 15 years I have been in many queues. I queued for a table at one of Melbourne's brunch cafes, for a chance to taste best croissants in the world, or to go to the women's toilet after a concert or comedy show.
When I found myself queuing for essentials at my local grocery store, with barely half the things on my shopping list available, I was transported back in the time of queuing for staples in communist Romania.
The queues I had experienced so far in Australia have been light-hearted, respectful, you-go-ahead, no-you-go kind of affairs. Queues of sharing, of curiosity, of plenty. That's not the kind of queue I've experienced in the past few weeks, since the pandemic panic buying started.
The person in front of me ordered eight chicken fillets and the man behind me gasped.
At first the emptied shelves of toilet paper, pasta and rice sort of amused me. I stayed amused until I found myself shopping in a tense atmosphere one morning. This was not a queue for croissants, buzzed by the anticipation of flaky pastry. The person in front of me ordered eight chicken fillets and the man behind me gasped. He had his eyes on the fillets too. Was there going to be enough when his turn came? I decided I didn’t need chicken fillets after all, but I did feel some of his panic transfer to me. For the first time since living in Australia, I wondered if I was wrong not to fill our pantry with whatever I could find. While I could still find it.
In Romania queuing for food and worrying about sourcing food was an integral part of life. Sometimes you didn’t even know what you were queuing for. It almost didn’t matter. In a time of such scarcity, coffee would do just fine, even if you went looking for meat.
Everyone had a next door neighbour who had a cousin whose sister worked at the local ‘alimentara’, the local grocery store. Connections were everything. Without them dinner could be canned peas.
Word would travel that a store was about to get a delivery of one thing or another. From then on, everyone would plan how to get their hands on a tin or two. Sometimes my mum would wake up at 5am to get a spot in the queue, then come back to get me ready for school, then go back in the queue when the store would open. Sometimes we’d miss out. Sometimes our neighbour would share some of what they managed to buy with us, or would invite us for a meal.
Sometimes my mum would wake up at 5am to get a spot in the queue, then come back to get me ready for school, then go back in the queue when the store would open.
You had a chance to get something if you got in the queue early enough, but sometimes you didn’t. Your best bet was to know someone who could put some cheese ‘aside’ for you.
You could also hire someone to stay in the queue for you. Maybe not exactly give them a paycheck, but incentivise them in some way. You paid for the products, they queued, you shared the goods. Retirees with plenty of time on their hands were best placed to fill that need.
Queuing for essentials in Australia has been eerie and brought its own kind of emotional toil. The supermarkets that only a few weeks ago had everything you could wish for, now spanned rows and rows of empty shelves. In communist times, sourcing food and clothing was almost its own kind of job, constantly on everyone’s mind, entering every conversation.
Overnight, the conversations between friends here, on social media, are peppered with tips on where to find food staples, when you stand the best chance to find what you’re looking for. Thankfully, there is also that pleasant, banding together fuzzinness of sharing tips and food.
We took a while to take the pandemic seriously, but if there was one place where panic spread early, it was in the queues. Never mind we’re being told we have enough food to feed the whole of Australia. ‘What if we don’t…’ seems to be what we’re all thinking.
Communist Romania was not low on food or clothes, but Romanians were.
Communist Romania was not low on food or clothes, but Romanians were. A huge amount of everything produced in the country was exported. We fought, schemed and came together over what was left. But there just wasn’t enough to go around.
Here the scarcity is created by our fear, our need for security, our desire to know we have enough, just in case…With home delivery, take-aways and groceries still open, running out of things to buy doesn’t seem like the real enemy, but perhaps the only one we know how to respond to.
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