Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bread Lines

The abundance and availability of food in the U.S. (and the U.K. for that matter) are two things I take for granted.

Storytelling is one of the only things that will ever help me come close to understanding what it's like to not have these things. I can read all day long about the recent exorbitant cost of napa cabbage in North Korea, or the years-long problem that country has had with a lack of food in general and massive deaths due to malnutrition and starvation, but it's only when the horrors are told through a story that it resonates and has true meaning and value.

(One of the magazines I work on in my professional career is about learning, and a columnist has been writing about why storytelling should be used for not only education but corporate training, too.)

A friend who is from Tbilisi was visiting the U.S. just a few weeks ago. I was asking him what he found most different between a major city in the U.S. and his hometown, the capital of Georgia. The variety and availability of thins to purchase, he said, was most astounding here.

He said he remembered a time when he was a teenager, just before the Soviet Union collapsed, when he had to wait on a bread line for two days straight. "They wrote a number on your hand, and you couldn't leave the line for very long," he said. "I remember my feet," he stomped in place and wrapped his arms around himself, bracing from the memory of cold, "I couldn't feel them! There was a big bakery where we waited. My friend and I used to sneak around to the back of the bakery, and the workers — there was a little hole in the wall, and they would sometimes squeeze through the opening a bit of uncooked dough." He feigned with his hands how they delivered the dough, like feeding a rope through a hole.

When food was particularly scarce, he said, people used to take plain bread and soak it in salt water, then fry it in a pan and pretend it was khachapuri, Georgia's famous cheese bread (imagine something like a cross between a quesedilla and the most lovely white pizza you've ever eaten).

But it's not just that he told me these stories. It was the disgust on his face at the thought of eating bread soaked in salt water then fried. It was the shivering and stomping of feet that he could remember and act out. And for someone like me who has never experienced anything close to a life like this, it is still very hard to imagine, and even harder to be conscientiously thankful that I never did have to go through these hardships.

Maybe in the coming weeks I'll ask my friend, who is back in Georgia now, via email to elaborate more on what his country was like before the Soviet collapse. For instance, we started a really interesting conversation about the wine market out there, wherein I speculated it could be a huge force for the economy if vinters figured out how to export and sell it to Americans, and he explained a number of problems that would prevent that.

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