Letter from Warsaw; No chocolate, little meat, many voices for change
Sunday morning in the Old Square conveys a deceptively tranquil impression of this nation beset by economic crisis and political uncertainty. The strollers' feet make crunchy sounds in the snow, and, since the square allows no cars, nothing but voices or laughter breaks the silence.Skip to next paragraph
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The only vehicle permitted is an ancient cab with a plump, hairy pony and a bewhiskered old driver huddled in leather coat and boots. This Dostoyevskian pair never seem to get a fare. The cabbie wants 600 zlotys (about $20) to drive us back to the hotel, so we walk.
Sundays, the square becomes an art gallery, with scores of students' paintings and sketches leaning against the walls of its old houses.
The warm, vaulted interior of Kamienne Schodki ("Stone Steps") -- Warsaw's only remaining hostelry, which is famed for its only entree, roast duck -- is filled with couples, old and young, talking quietly at little polished-top tables over coffee or tea.
The delicate chime of the gold-faced clock atop the Castle drifts over the rooftops into the square.
The atmosphere seems far removed from the weekday realities of long queues at shops, the lack of almost every consumer item, no matter how basic, and newspaper reports of appalling shortages of farm equipment with spring sowing less than a month away.
The lines at butcher shops are as long as ever. But people are talking less about meat, possibly because imports from east and west are making some small difference. An intricate meat-rationing program is due to begin in April. The biggest queues now are at the candy stores, and the biggest grumble is about the near disappearance of -- chocolate!
Except, that is, from the stores in the big "foreign" hotels, where imported varieties abound -- for hard currency. Most of those buying are Poles.
Many have dollars from families in the United States. But the vast majority do not and chocolate becomes another of those unpleasant, amoral anachronisms of a dual price structure.
Other current shortages, extraordinary in a country so agriculturally rich, are milk and cheese. In cafes and hotels, condensed milk is frequently substituted for fresh. This week, not even the grandiose Intercontinental Hotel could provide native Polish-produced "rokfort."
Powdered detergent has done a disappearing act, though the director of a factory that has met is monthly quota of 12,000 tons since December says the shortage is due to hoarding: "People are buying up any imperishable goods."
Turn to the agricultural news and the full impact of this Polish situation hits home.
The farming crisis has been building for years. Only now, with a more candid government and with editors asserting a new freedom of the press without waiting for the promised legal curbs on censorship, are the facts coming out.
The leading Warsaw daily Zycie Warszawy reported glumly Feb. 24: "The supply of spares for farm machinery has worsened seriously since last spring, when it had seemed it couldn't be worse."
The farmers are waiting for 22,000 tractor crankshafts, but only 8,000 will be available by spring; they need 2 million oil filters, but only 500,000 will be produced in time; 600,000 batteries are required, of which less than half will be available; out of 3 million tires needed, only 1 million will be supplied.