''Life here, well, it's remarkable,'' the elderly woman said. Standing on the ice-packed streets of Bucharest, she chuckled at her cleverness in innocently conveying to the foreigner that perhaps all was not well in Romania, despite official statements that the country is pulling out of its financial crisis.
Her hesitancy to talk was an indication of the power wielded by President Nicolae Ceausescu's police state. Romanians are required to report any contact with foreigners within 24 hours.
It doesn't take much for the visitor to observe what the woman was talking about. Official optimism is belied by what one sees in the streets.
As darkness falls by midafternoon these snowy wintry days, the lines begin to form for scarce commodities - from gasoline to meat, grapes, and eggs.
Few street lights work - and then only at half power, due to the country's energy crisis. A prolonged drought has shut down hydroelectric plants, and Romania lacks the hard currency to buy fuel oil. Mr. Ceausescu has decreed that power and all energy consumption be cut by 50 percent.
In the gloom, people lined up to buy broken eggs being handed out in paper cups.
Not far away, at 5 p.m., another line of 150 people stood waiting for the announced 6 p.m. sale of meat. Inside the butcher shop, the counter was bare except for bags of frozen vegetables. Salesclerks were wearing fur hats to ward off the cold.
Around the corner, two lines of people spread from the back of a van selling freezer-burned chickens.
Only cooking oil and sugar are rationed in Bucharest, but nearly all other staples are hard to find. In other parts of the country, they are all rationed. Lines for gasoline are common.
But Romania has made progress on reducing its foreign debt. In the last three years, the debt has been cut from $11 billion to the current $9.1 billion. In a liquidity crisis, Romania was forced to reschedule some $2.4 billion of its debt since 1981, but no rescheduling is foreseen for 1984.
Mircea Raceanu, the North America specialist at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, ''Romania can be cited as an example for what we have achieved'' in paying off its debt to the West.
But Western diplomats in Bucharest say it has all come about through slashes in imports at the expense of the Romanian consumer, who saw his or her real income decrease by as much as 8 percent in 1982.
Romanian officials maintain that production went up 5 percent in 1983, but Western analysts say they have seen nothing to prove it.
Reflecting successive bad harvests, agricultural output is barely mentioned, except to note that it has been neglected in the past and that a new program is to double the amount of land under irrigation by 1990.
Romanian officials like to talk about the country's planned increases for 1984: 6.7 percent for industrial production, 8.9 percent for agriculture, and 13 percent for exports. They say the trade surplus will rise so that 25 percent of Romania's foreign debt can be repaid.
A Western economic analyst said he cannot see how these increases can be achieved.
''I don't know how production can go up when you have a lack of imports and raw materials, lack of power, and a rigid, centralized communist system that produces mismanagement,'' he said.
He noted that the $1.5 billion trade surplus in 1982 and the $1.8 billion surplus in 1983 were due solely to cuts in imports, not increases in exports.
The most noticeable shortage these days is electricity. Romania depends on its hydroelectric plants for some 20 percent of its power. But the prolonged drought in the Balkans has cut off that source.
The country used to produce and export oil but has now become a net importer, paying world prices for Soviet oil.
Some 40 percent of Romania's electric power comes from gas- and oil-fueled generating plants, the rest from coal. Romania is working to become self-sufficient in power, and is building two nuclear plants near the Black Sea port of Constanta.
Using a kind of ''newspeak,'' Leonard Cazan, a deputy director of the State Planning Commission, announced that consumption of electricity will now ''become normal.'' What he means is that consumption is being cut to the level the country will eventually produce for itself.
Western observers wonder how further cutbacks can be accomplished, since most households are already down to one 40-watt bulb, the largest size now available for sale.
''It simply means people in four-room apartments will have to light one room at night,'' Mr. Cazan explained.
According to a foreign student, it is not that simple. She said she was freezing in her dormitory room and had to bolt the door to ward off Romanian students who demanded that she turn off her heater and light.
Factories are also under a complex set of new rules that determine the amount of power they can use. If they exceed that limit, like other consumers they will be subject to cutoffs from the power grid.
Working hours have been changed to take advantage of daylight, and there was talk of scheduling Sunday classes at schools.
Even deluxe hotels have been affected. Only one bank of elevators is used and half the lightbulbs in the rooms have been removed.
The average person, who makes 2,500 lei (about $180) a month, trudges along the streets, his head down. In the past year, food prices have increased 35 percent. But there are no protests. Security is tight here. Police and armed soldiers dot every street corner.
A black market flourishes and the lei, officially set at 13.6 per dollar, goes for up to five times that amount on the street.
The most popular black-market item is Kent cigarettes, the first Western brand to reach Romania after World War II. A carton that costs $14 at the official stores goes for up to 1,000 lei ($74) on the black market.
A taxi driver asked for the cigarettes as his payment after taking me around to the back of the hotel to be let off. He turned down any other brand and threw the pack I gave him into the glove compartment with several others.
They were his hedge against the future.