The events of the last few weeks, especially as they pertain to panic hoarding, have taken me back to re-living my old anxieties and to my childhood in Cold War Poland, when everything was a daily battle to survive with rations. Including the battle for toilet paper. I lived with it for ten long years.
It was 1975-79, the Cold War Era. I was an elementary school student in a small beach town on the Baltic Coast of Poland. Every day after school, I would meet my auntie at a different store in our neighborhood, depending on what store got what basic provisions that day. And stand and stand in line. Because there were two of us (both my parents worked full time), we could go through the line twice and get twice the daily rations. I’m talking everything, basics like bread, and once in a while “extravagances” like oranges. And toilet paper.
Yes, toilet paper. A rare commodity in Poland during the Cold War.
This went on for years and years.
As a kid, I constantly remember walking into stores where I lived and seeing…absolutely NOTHING, bare, empty shelves. Sometimes it would be days, sometimes weeks before anything showed up again. And then, it was always random and rarely in order of any kind of basic survival necessities. They would get colored markers from China before we got rice.
Growing up, I only had brown toilet paper that resembled really hard, recycled “crepe” paper. And there was never enough of it. Once in a while the local office/paper supply store or pharmacy would get it. And when word got out, people would show up from ALL over – including my grandparents, who lived in a different municipality. And you were only allowed so many rolls per person. And yes, we would hoard it, usually in storage cabinets tucked just below our ceilings in our teeny tiny government issued apartments. Sometimes we would just put a string between all the rolls we were able to score and hang it in our apartment, like a hunting trophy.
Toilet paper. Any restaurant, any hotel or ANY public establishment you went to, if you had to use the rest room, first of all, you would have to pay to do so, and then you would only be rationed the equivalent of 3-6 “squares” – extra pay for more. Sometimes the hand-ripping did not seem fairly apportioned, but what could you do in the moment?
Once in a blue moon, someone would smuggle into Poland “western” toilet paper: white, fluffy, soft, angelic! It was a rare and luxurious commodity to be used sparingly and only by those whose behinds CLEARLY deserved it. I remember even today, 40 years later, how different it smelled and felt, so rarified, pillowy, baby-powder fresh and PERFORATED! Nothing like our vile communist, industrial smelling brown sandpaper that crinkled when you tried to fold it – and it even HURT.
When we finally escaped Poland in the late 70’s and briefly moved to Sweden, I remember as a fourth grader, being excited by the notion that from here on, ALL my toilet paper was going to be fluffy and white – and there would ALWAYS be enough of it at these fancy Western “supermarkets”. And some of it would even have fancy embossments and really weird but cool scents like “pink rose”. Sweden was the equivalent of heaven to me – and we won’t even get into the rest, like those supermarkets, white bread, hot dogs and multiple channels on television.
Fast forward 40 years. I am now a mom living in beautiful San Diego, California, when COVID-19 starts to make its appearance in China. And I can sense the panic from thousands of miles away. It has not even hit the US yet, but the survivor in me knows the signs. And she gets ready….
To be continued…