Author: Simina Bãdicã
REPORT. Magazine for Arts and Civil Society in Eastern- and Central Europe, July 2008

Translation from English: Ingrid Krauß

This text is taking from the catalogue \“Social Cooking Romania\”, published by: Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst, 2007, ISBN 978-3-938515-11-2 (German/Romanian), which appeared on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name in the NGBK (Dec. 2007/Jan. 2008)

Simina Bãdicã is a researcher and curator for the Romanian Peasant Museum in Bucharest where she is in charge of the archive of Communist objects and artefacts. She is also a PhD student in History at Central European University, Budapest with a research topic related to photographs documenting Socialist reality in Romania.

NGBK - Neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst e.V


There was a lot of queuing in 1980s Romania: long, tiring, humiliating, maddening, in the cold, in the rain, sometimes with no outcome. Officially, there was no queue in Socialist Romania...

“I do not think there is in this world a more brutal system of humiliating man than ‘the queue’”(Boris Buzilă)

“At the queue there was great cheerfulness. Yes, whistling, curses, jokes. Everybody talked to each other.” (interview with D.V.)

There was a lot of queuing in 1980s Romania: long, tiring, humiliating, maddening, in the cold, in the rain, sometimes with no outcome. Officially, there was no queue in Socialist Romania. However, when Romanians remember the 1980s, the queue is omnipresent. Everyday life in 1980s Romania, especially in the urban space, revolves around queuing narrated as a contradictory phenomenon, both humiliating and heroic, boring and thrilling, a matter of life and death.
The focus of this article is on the social interaction that queuing encompasses. Try to imagine: in a society that forbids any group action, any gathering outside of the state control, there is the queue. Every day tens and hundreds of people gather in compact groups, usually behind shops and blocks of flats, and start waiting together, debating, discussing, socializing and organizing. The queue is one of the rare examples in Romania’s last Socialist decade of community organization outside of and even against state control. My argument is that Romanian society in the \'80s was not completely numb and that the queue, humiliating everyday reality, can also be narrated as a space of (inter)action and – why not – solidarity.
Solidarity is a concept widely used in analysing the former Socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. Arguments about solidarity are, however, contradictory. One of the most influential theories states that within these societies, different types of solidarity were among the first victims of the regime. David Kideckel claims it strongly as the basis of his study The Solitude of Collectivism. Romanian Villagers to the Revolution and Beyond.

“The title of this book reflects on one of the basic contradictions of life in many socialist communities: the socialist system, though ostensibly designed to create new persons motivated by the needs of groups and society as a whole, in fact created people who were of necessity self-centred, distrustful and apathetic to the very core of their beings.” (Kideckel: XIII)

Such considerations seem to ignore the fact that solidarity was, at certain times, absolutely necessary for surviving in a Socialist regime, especially one such as Romania in the 1980s with resources practically vanishing from sight. The solidarity I am referring to is not the moral-philosophical (Kantian) one; I am using the sociological meaning of solidarity: “The classical form of solidarity refers to the cooperation of concerned people with the goal of improvement of their own fate.” (Bierhoff:133)
The queue is such a space where cooperation was absolutely necessary in order to acquire the desired product. The queue is based on a simple principle. Sociologist Leon Mann calls it the principle of “distributive justice”: priority in obtaining the desired commodity is dependent on the amount of time and effort invested. However, the Romanian queue seems to function by some other rules. This is the story of a queue for meat, narrated by D.V., now retired, at that time an accountant for the Oncology Institute in Bucharest.
“One of my colleagues who came from the neighbourhood, when she came in the morning, stopped at the butcher\'s, kept a place there, came to the institute, signed the register, we gathered two or three women, went there to register to the queue too and then we took shifts. One of us stayed one hour, she came back, then… At three o’clock when the programme was finished, we all went there. And by five, five thirty, the meat truck came.”
S.B.: “So these queues started in the morning…”
D.V.: “From morning to evening. And of course, there were lots of people who did the same thing. If I went there and I had 20 or 30 persons ahead of me, by five o’clock it was double, they kept coming from work and so on. And I would also telephone him [her husband] and say I am at the butcher\'s. And then he appeared at six, seven and we stayed there, they started giving… And he would take too and this meant that for that month we had enough. So once a month we made this effort but this meant that we arrived home at half past nine, ten in the evening.”

The Romanian queue had lists, places were “kept” in line for others, some “skipped” the queue and tried to get directly to the seller. Thus, by necessity, a group of people who knew “how to queue” appeared and declared themselves “representatives of the queue”; some called them the “ad hoc police”.

“There were some queue-supervisors. People that had learned how queuing goes (cum se face coada) and they kept discipline. So, if the queue supervisor happened to be at the beginning of the queue and he sacrificed himself, it was a very ordered queue. So this guy came in the evening, around eleven, put his little chair there, brought a book, something, a neighbour to talk to. He slept during the day and stayed the night there. And everybody who passed by there talked to him; he would let them go from time to time. There was a list, of course.
There were also queues with sudden overturns of situation. There was a list, but when the merchandise came, when the car appeared behind that guy, a big crowd gathered and if they were more in numbers and stronger than those on the list, the queue was overturned, there was a small fight, reorganization and that was that.” (Interview with R.C.)

Another widely spread method of queuing organization was the unofficial rations. The members of the queue, in collaboration with the vendor, established a fix amount of merchandise each person queuing could buy: one pack of butter per person, one kilo of meat, one kilo of oranges. If you wanted more, you could queue several times or bring along other members of the family, especially children. Children and old people became an important asset in the household economy. These are the memories of a child of the 1980s.

“Many times, instead of playing in the parks by our blocks of flats, we had to play near the stores because the car with products could arrive any time. When this thing happened, we would run to our houses and let our parents know, mainly the mothers. As most of us lived in blocks of flats, it was easier to shout from below that the car had arrived and thus we announced to all the neighbours. Within a maximum of five minutes, everybody was there, their bags in their hands, ready to run towards the store, where we got there before them and “saved a place for them in the line.” (The 80s in Bucharest: 102)

In the 1980s the queue became a privileged space, officially non-existent, where the need for public action and representation could fulfil itself. However, the queuing community was as ephemeral and changing as the queue itself. Who talks to whom and about what in the queue? Is the queue a space of interaction where the broader society rules are bypassed or, on the contrary, carefully respected? Those who were children then remember the queue as a sort of peasant evening gathering (şezătoare) where people would tell stories, discuss politics, in a word socialize. “For the most part, I liked very much to queue, especially with my grandfather, who would stand in the line telling stories to other old men, boasting about all sorts of adventures in his youth …. There was a real contest of wonderfully embellished stories.” (The 80s in Bucharest: 102)

Even the older people remember: “At the queue there was big cheerfulness. Yes, whistling, curses, jokes. Everybody was talking.” (Interview with D.V.) Others refused to be part of the queuing community: “The people around, especially since most of them were retired, talked only about troubles and scarcity and …generally, it was much better not to listen. It happened to me once, while I was standing in a queue for butter, that I experienced how a man in front of me started to swear: ‘To hell with Ceauşescu and everything, and…’ I don\'t know what else. Suddenly two men came up to him and took him away.” (The 80s in Bucharest: 106)
In the 1980s acquiring food became a social event where neighbours and strangers started conversations, told their life stories, waited together trying to make the passage of time bearable or even pleasant. The organizing of this social event was left entirely in the hands of ordinary citizens. The authorities would quietly observe and infiltrate the queues but only intervened in case of open dissent (a very rare phenomenon, however). The historian E. P. Thompson studied the food riots in 19th century England. His considerations on the social function of the market can easily be applied to the Romanian queue of the 1980s:
“The market remained a social as well as an economic nexus. It was the place where one-hundred-and-one social and personal transactions went on; where news was passed, rumour and gossip flew around, politics were (if at all) discussed in the inns and wine-shops round the market square. The market was the place where the people, because they were numerous, felt for a moment that they were strong.