Last Friday, Sohie Kowalska stood in line outside a central Warsaw fish market for five hours. She was hoping to buy carp, the traditional Polish dish for Christmas Eve. But by the time she squeezed into the shop, all supplies had been sold out.
Anna Bogubovich was luckier -- thanks to her 7-month-old daughter, Magda. Instead of standing for hours in the cold outside supermarkets or meat shops, she was able to join special lines for pregnant women, invalids and mothers with babies. By taking a patient Magda along with her, she cut her shopping time by as much as three-quarters.
Christmas in Poland this year is marked by new hopes and new anxieties. For the first time in more than three decades, Poles will be able to hear a live broadcast of midnight mass on Christmas Eve from Warsaw's cathedral. The decision to allow the radio broadcast -- unthinkable a year ago -- is one more sign of how much Poland has changed over the last few months.
But along with the political concessions made by Poland's Communist rulers as a result of last summer's strikes have come growing economic hardships. For most Polish families, Christmas shopping has been fraught with greater frustration and difficulty than ever. It has been a lottery requiring vast reserves of patience, persistance and luck.
Even though Anna Bogubovich was given special treatment, it took her well over an hour to buy her family's special Christmas ration of one pound of meat, two pounds of ham and eight ounces of butter per person. In addition, she spent much of the last week scouring Warsaw for other goods -- and was unable to find such usual Christmas essentials as candy, oranges or nuts.
The shelves of her local supermarket, in a residental suburb of Warsaw, were virtually empty. A section of the story previously reserved for chocolate was stuffed full of glasses and plates. Shoppers without time to stand in line had a choice of dried soup, mustard, pickled tomatoes, bread and beer. There was no dairy products, no flour, no spices, no coffee or tea, no cooking oil.
A great throng of people jostled each other around the meat counter, clutching their yellow ration coupons. At one end of the counter were certified invalids and mothers such as Anna. At the other end was a long line of ordinary shoppers, many of whom had taken off work in order to complete their Christmas shopping.
The second line included many elderly people. In many Polish families, it is the grandparent's job to do the shopping since they have the most time to stand in lines.
Attempting to adjudicate the rival claims of the two lines was a doctor of a children's clinic who had herself been waiting to be served for about four hours. There was a great commotion when unprileged shoppers suspected someone of jumping the line out of turn.
The second line included many elederly people. In many Polish families, it is the grandparents' job to the the shopping since they have the most time to stand in queues.
Attempting to adjudicate the rival claims of the two lines was a doctor from a children's clinic who had herself been waiting to be served for some hours. There was a great commotion when unprivileged shoppers suspected someone of jumping the line out of turn.
A pensioner grumbled loudly: "This is like the war, when we were under German occupation. We had ration cards, then, too. It makes you wonder what we've achieved in the last 35 years."
When a baby in a pram started crying, a harassed shop assistant shouted out:
"Pinch that child so it shuts up."
In the end, Anna managed to buy six pounds of ham and enough butter to tide her family over the Christmas period. "I've never bought this much ham before in my life. But you never know when you might be able to get it again -- so you feel you have to buy as much as you can," she explained.
The remark provides an insight into the psychology of pessimism that has gripped Polish consumers over the last few weeks. Whatever the long-term prospects for Poland, the short-term economic outlook is bleak. Ordinary Poles have reacted by buying up whatever foodstuffs they can lay their hands on and hoarding as much as possible.
Combined with economic mismanagement and harvest failures, this mentality has resulted in even greater shortages than usual.
Back home, Anna showed a visitor a cupboard lined with bags of sugar (virtually impossible to find in Warsaw these days), flour, and a refrigerator full of meat.
The telephone rang. It was her husband calling from work, anxious to know how she got on at the supermarket. Buying food has become the number one topic of conversation among Poles, surpassing even the excitement surrounding the new independent trade union Solidarity and its conflicts with the government.
But perhaps the best reflection of the desperate state of the market is the birth of an entirely new professions. It is known as stacz which, literally translated, means "one who stands." People without the time or energy to stand in line themselves can hire a stacz to do their shopping for them. The fee he charges depends on the length of the line and the value of the goods at the other end.
Money paid to staczes performs much the same function as the price mechanism in a market-type economy. Or, as a prominent Polish economist remarked: "In a cetrally planned economy such as ours, the disparity between supply and demand is represented by the amount of time people have to stand in line."
One of the paradoxes of the Polish economic crisis this Christmas is that, despite the enormous frustration felt by consumers, no one is likely to go hungry. As long as you are prepared to pay a high enough price, or stand out in the cold for long enough, or make use of your connections, food is obtainable.