Long lines that are formed every morning for almost everything Poles need in everyday life create a world that seems to belong to photographs of Europe after World War II.
For six months now, Poles have had to wait in lines, armed with ration cards that entitle a citizen to monthly rations of two pounds of flour, one pound of cereal, five pounds of meat products, three-quarters of a pound of rice and so on.
But rationing, which the government introduced to combat food shortages, has become a somewhat theoretical matter. It does not mean one can count on using the coupons, and the monthly card expires on the tenth of the next month.
Things have gotten worse in the past four weeks and the country now seems to be following the rule: "Buy whatever is available even if you don't need it. You can later exchange it for something else."
Rumors of a currency devaluation have fueled such buying, produced a run on savings accounts and made people buy everything -- even tea -- as an investment. According to a study made by Warsaw's Academy of Economics, the shops should be empty by October, when the crisis should hit rock bottom.
After the relative scarcities of Moscow, one is stunned by the harsh privations of Warsaw. Moscow shops offer sufficient quantities of bread, fish, rice, milk, butter, coffee, canned goods and so on, but Warsaw food shops seem to be drowning in huge quantities of tea and little else.
Lots and lots of tea from China, Turkey, India and other places is everywhere. Stacked neatly, these differently colored tea cans and packages from a distance create an illusion that there is more to be had.
WHILE MOSCOW still has restaurants with caviar, vodka and at least a few hot dishes, finding a place for a business meal in Warsaw these days is a nightmare. Last week food scarcities hit the elite Forum Intercontinental Hotel, which is patronized mainly by foreigners.
"There is no food," Forum's maitre d'hotel explained sheepishly. "Only for hotel guests and no one else."
A Polish colleague and I went to several other restaurants. "Niema," there isn't any, was the answer. Finally we stumbled upon Shanghai, the city's sole Chinese restaurant.
"Now," the waitress began, somewhat embarrassed to explain the menu. "There isn't any meat or fish but we are using sausage instead. It's good, very good." So we had sweet and sour Polish sausage and Polish sausage Szechuan style.
IN THE LOPSIDED logic of food scarcities, Hanna Rulewska has come to like food lines. On her way to work, the sight of lines along Marszalkowska Street makes her feel optimistic.
"The trouble is when there are no lines, because that means there's nothing in the shops," she explained.
By afternoon, lines are gone, as is food from the shops. So working women -- and they constitute over 50 percent of Poland's labor force -- are allowed to take a couple of hours off in the morning to shop. What this does to labor productivity is another matter. Occasionally entire offices are suddenly emptied when word reaches someone about the appearance of meat in the neighborhood.
One day last week, Rulewska began her routine shopping tour with a call on the only store where she is entitled to buy sugar. Niema.
"Not a tragedy," Rulewska said, "I have some sugar stored inside my piano."
After seven city blocks of brisk walking she strolled through a meat shop, making a despairing wave toward some sickly looking sausage on sale. Then on to a private market five blocks away. There was no meat there either, but Rulewska was cheered by a long line for feta cheese. It was sold out before she reached the head of the line.
"I haven't seen cheese in three months," she said.
At a vegetable stand -- and here the line was shorter -- Rulewska bought four small chili peppers at 70 cents apiece. Fruits and vegetables at the private market were of better quality, but cost roughly double the price charged in state shops. A pound of apples was $1. Meat, when available, is much more expensive than in state shops. A pound of pork costs $7.
For a resident of Moscow, even these prices seemed reasonable, since a pound of apples, say, at the private Soviet market runs about $4. The average wage in Poland and the Soviet Union is said to be roughly the same, just under $200 a month.
[In the United States a pound of apples costs between 59 and 89 cents depending on the place and the season.]
Rulewska's 2 1/2-hour shopping tour was crowned with success when she came to a store selling chicken, Krakow sausage and bread.
"Bread has not been on sale for a week, although it is not rationed," she said.
IT SEEMS IN the nature of a crisis such as this that there should occur moments of madcap comedy. While we were waiting in the line for chickens and sausage, a stentorian voice from somewhere behind us suggested loudly that a way to improve the Polish economy is to drill two holes in one-zloty coins and sell them as buttons. Everybody smiles. There was disagreement whether such buttons should cost two or four zlotys.
Later, there was commotion up at the head of the slow-moving line. The sales clerks just wanted to make sure that a young child accompanying an elderly lady actually belonged to her. As in other socialist countries, mothers of children under 5 and invalids get preferential treatment and are entitled to go to the head of the line.
A shopper behind me said, "I have lived in Poland for 63 years and have never before realized that every second Pole is an invalid."
The remark was followed by an outburst of laughter that made people in the bread line crane their heads in unison.
"Aye, aye," said the old lady in a white jacket whose job behind the counter was to glue cut-out coupons from ration cards onto white sheets of paper. "Last week we had three ladies come here at different times with the same child."
But Rulewska said the air of good humor may be deceptive, particularly if scarcities such as these are here to stay.
"We are tired, very tired of it all, and this is still summer, a nice and warm summer at that. I am afraid when I think of winter."
EVERYBODY HERE agreed that shortages of food in Warsaw and other urban centers have become alarming over the past four weeks. A visit to Marki, a tiny town near here, showed a different picture. Marki stores were empty as well, but gardens and orchards at the edge of town seemed to provide sufficient food for its residents.
There is also an impression here that Poles have become a nation of hoarders and black marketeers or at least that they have found a way to produce food through networks of village relatives and friends.
"Show me a hungry Pole," quipped one Western ambassador.
The faces of people in long lines for lard, bread, sugar, cigarettes and vodka, items that are staples for the poor, suggest, however, a national struggle for survival. Moreover, medical authorities have reported a sharp rise in the length of time it takes infants to recover from illnesses, another indication of deficient diet.
And yet there is a measure of stoicism or resignation or whatever one can call this peculiar endurance of a people still intoxicated with the heady feeling of freedom that suggests, at least for the time being, continued readiness for sacrifices.
A young Pole summed it up this way: "Freedom does not come cheap, and we are ready to pay for it."