What I Saw in the Romanian Revolution — VIII. The Lines
Revolutions aren’t about guns and political dogma. They are about bread and milk.
We read reports about torture. We knew troublemakers disappeared. But few actually saw these horrible injustices. Instead, we saw the things we were meant to see. A crime-free society. Methodical security. Streets free of graffiti and litter. Trains running on time. An orderly population dutifully marching to every state-sanctioned command. Sure, evil was there. But one rarely witnessed it firsthand.
What was seen, and what couldn’t be hidden however, were the lines.
The long lines.
Lines were everywhere. Lines formed for just about everything. There were lines for bread. Lines for milk. Lines for eggs. Lines for meat. Lines for gasoline. On occasion, a shopkeeper would suddenly appear in front of the store, post an announcement, and a line would immediately begin forming. Some people jumped in line having no idea what they were buying at that moment. They simply lined up because something new was about to be delivered and this was an opportunity to get it fresh.
Supermarkets and chain stores were non-existent. Shops sold food products separately. Romanians bought their bread at a bakery. They bought meat from a butcher. They bought milk and eggs at a market. Cars lined up a petrol stations. Purchasing basic food staples required making a separate trip to multiple stores. And once there, lines formed for just about everything [SEE FOOTNOTE 1].
Once upon a time, there had been no lines.
Year earlier, food was abundant. But as economic conditions in Romania worsened, a well-fed nation was transformed from “the bread basket of Eastern Europe” into a “basket case,” according to one popular aphorism. Harsh austerity measures inflicted on the Romanian people during the later half of the 1980’s, combined with the exorbitant costs of Ceausescu’s acutely expensive mega-reconstruction projects — including his prized pet project called Casa Republicii (translation — “House of the Republic”) — took food staples off store shelves and diluted the daily diets of most Romanians [SEE FOOTNOTE 2].
Items that were taken for granted became scarce. And so, the lines began forming.
With each passing month and year, the lines grew longer. By 1989, lines had become a way of daily life in Romania.
But standing in line brought no guarantees nor certainty of acquisition. The best quality goods were scooped up early. The least-desirable products trickled from the shelves and freezers and went last. Sometimes, products would completely run out by the time those in the back of the line had finally made it inside the door.
And so people did what they had to in order to survive. A thriving Black Market began. Shop clerks were offered bribes, which they gladly accepted. A state economy designed to instill equality instead created “haves” and “have nots.” Romanians with access to Western currency could reserve the freshest products for themselves without ever having to wait in line. A few American dollars ensured that fresh pork shank would be available upon arrival. A barter system developed. The oddest of trinkets were sometimes exchanged for sugar, or flour, or fresh eggs [SEE FOOTNOTE 3].
No one regarded this as corruption. Quite simply, this was the way things were done. Everyone accepted the system for what it was, as bad as it was, perhaps because there was absolutely nothing they could do about it.
Survival of the fittest meant those who suffered most were the poorest and weakest. Romanians who lacked dollars or instruments of barter, as well as those who couldn’t make it to the front of the line, often missed out on the goods. Unable to bribe shopkeepers, they had no other option other than standing in line and taking their chances.
Increasingly, that meant arriving before the others and lining up early — often before the shops even opened. Stores posted hand-written notices on the front door, informing buyers of the next delivery time. These notices triggered lines prior to opening. Each morning, the milk trucks loaded up early at government-run dairies and made their delivery rounds throughout the city. The same for eggs, meat, butter, cheese, and other basics.
Sometimes the trucks didn’t come at all. Hundreds of people could be kept waiting for hours only to leave empty-handed because there wasn’t enough production that day, or there was a mix-up with the delivery schedule. One by one, the consequence of those missed deliveries and hundreds of disappointments was a stewing sense of outrage.
As things worsened, they began to line up earlier and earlier. If milk was scheduled for delivery at 6 am, that line would sometimes circle around the block by 5:45. Sometimes, the lines started forming as early as 5 am. Ordinary people stood in those lines, earlier and earlier waiting in the dark unlit streets, hoping for the milk truck to arrive that morning.
And those who waited in line rarely were in the best of health. They were often old and frail. Elderly women, their heads wrapped up in scarves and their bodies bundled in wool sweaters lined up in the cold. They stood in silence in those dark unlit streets each morning. And they dutifully waited.
And some days were much more difficult than others, made tougher by the elements. Sometimes, it rained. There were mornings when it snowed. Temperatures plunged well below freezing, occasionally into the single-digits. The cold winds blew and whistled through the dark concrete streets. On those cold and dark days, the lines were the most miserable. They waited and waited standing upon a layer of permafrost, ice covered by snow that hadn’t been shoveled in weeks. They stood on the sidewalks huddled together, shivering from the winter cold, their bodies pressed against one another, forming a human wall against the bitter wind.
And they hoped and prayed that on that particular day at that particular shop at the correctly posted time, the delivery truck would actually come and by the time they finally made it into the door there would be something left.
Something left to buy and take back home to a waiting family.
FOOTNOTE 1: Not everything readily available was desirable. Once, I entered a fish market. The store was stocked with boxes of what appeared to be frozen crawfish imported from Vietnam. Romania had apparently made a trade agreement with Vietnam to export domestic products in exchange for Vietnamese seafood. Trouble was, the imported crawfish tasted so bad, no one bought them. So, hundreds of boxes of frozen crawfish simply wasted away in refrigerators. Even Romanians who had difficulty finding seafood wouldn’t touch them.
FOOTNOTE 2: Casa Republicii was later renamed “Palace of the Parliament” following the Revolution in December 1989. It’s the world’s largest office building and the most expensive administrative structure ever built. Construction took more than ten years. Ceausescu demanded that absolutely everything inside the building — including steal beams, stones, marble, wooden floors, rugs, chandeliers, draperies, glass, and every last detail — originate within Romania. To make room this this massive structure in central Bucharest the homes of more than 30,000 citizens (including my wife’s family) were demolished. Those displaced were relocated into government bloc housing that dominates the Bucharest skyline to this day.
FOOTNOTE 3: Prior to the Revolution, ordinary Romanians were forbidden from using Western currencies. However dollars, pounds, and euros were commonly exchanged on the Black Market. Most Romanians who acquired foreign currency had relatives living in the West. Others worked in tourist trades and came into contact with Westerners regularly, which were highly-coveted positions because they provided opportunities to acquire far more valuable foreign currency.