Growing Up in Lineups
I was born and grew up in communist Poland. In 1980, my country faced a deep economic crisis. The stores became virtually empty, and we had to stay in long lineups for everything. I was a sixth-grade student who had an unusual hobby: waiting hours in long lineups at the butcher’s shop. I loved it because I had a chance to show off my Relaks winter boots that I was very proud to own. Besides, while standing in line, I heard stories that exceeded the expectations of any teenage girl at that time.
I was born in Katowice—the ugliest and most polluted city in Poland. It was the heart of the coal mining industry and the pride of our communist government. Coal dust covered every surface, including our faces, hands, clothes and shoes.
In 1980, Poland underwent a severe economic crisis. Our stores were virtually empty. Only vinegar and dill pickles were readily available. For everything else, we had to wait in long lineups.
I was twelve at the time. Aside from reading, cycling and walking, my favourite pastime was standing in long lineups. It was a strange hobby, I have to admit. I loved lineups because of the conversations I heard. Sometimes the women asked me questions. I was only in grade six, but I felt so grown up. My mother allowed me to go only on Saturdays, but when my Grandmother Maria visited us, I went shopping every day. I waited all year for her to come for a month at Christmas.
Every day except Sunday, I went to the butcher shop with Grandma. That lineup was the longest and most aggressive. To get good quality beef and ham, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. and left the house at 5:00. Temperatures could drop below minus 30. We had no central heating or hot water. There was never enough time in the morning to set a fire in the coal stove to heat water.
After my cold tea and sandwich breakfast, I put on layers of clothing, including three pairs of socks. Then came my boots, one size too large. I was the proud owner of a pair of Relaks boots. I had stood two hours in the lineup on a hot July day to buy them. Yes, winter boots were sold in the summer and summer shoes in winter.
Relaks was the iconic footwear in 1980s Poland. The designer was inspired by Neil Armstrong’s moon boots. Our Relakses came in red, blue, brown and silver, and were made of cheap plastic and rubber. Everybody wore them regardless of age, status or occasion—for work, school and celebrations. Thick and warm, they were especially good for lineups.
Once we got to the store and joined the queue, the conversations started. Small for my age, I hid behind Grandma and pretended to look at people’s boots. The women mainly complained about their marriages. Maybe they were frustrated standing there in the cold while their husbands slept in warm beds. I learned about a homemade liquid for contraception, wives’ duties, husbands’ cheating, painful menstruation, childbirth and other adult matters.
When the women grew too tired, Grandma took over. She was a fantastic storyteller. She told ghost stories until morning broke, the store opened, and people started pushing each other to reach the counter.
After we finished shopping, I rushed to school. Sometimes news from the lineup was so urgent that my classmates and I had to hide in the washroom so I could share my knowledge. Afterwards, I was so tired that I fell asleep during classes.
In the 1990s, when communism had collapsed in Poland, our stores filled up, and the lineups disappeared. I was sad because there was no more fun of waiting for meat and other groceries—not to mention socializing with people. I just entered a store and bought goods. How boring!
When I decided to emigrate, I had to be interviewed at the Canadian Consulate in Warsaw. I was surprised to see a huge lineup in front of it. I learned more about Canada that day than I could have from the best tour guide.
IRENA RODZIEWICZ was born in Poland. As a certified teacher and librarian, Irena worked for 15 years in a school library. In 2010, she moved to Toronto and became a permanent resident of Canada. She enjoys improving her language skills and exploring Toronto’s physical and cultural landscape.