Denaturant backup or the things we do “just in case”

The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 heralded terrifying events. Everyone was afraid that it would be the first and last nuclear war. My sister and I must have been sick then, because mom couldn’t leave the house when everyone was buying up flour, groats, and sugar in the stores. In case of the third world war, we were left without any supplies…

There are things we don’t like to do, but sometimes – forced by circumstances or not fully realised fears – we do them, albeit reluctantly. That was the case with stocking up for fear of a pandemic. I procrastinated, telling everyone not to panic, but in the end, fearing I’d be the only one with an empty pantry, I gave in and went to the Vietnamese store for two bags of rice. I stopped by the Turkish shop for an extra kilogram of tea. In the hypermarket, besides pasta, I managed to buy an electric coffee maker and two large packs of coffee.

We always have plenty of soap at home, but I was missing hand sanitizer. It seemed that buying a jug with five litres of denatured alcohol from the construction store would solve the problem, but the smell of this agent is so unpleasant that I still have nearly a full container of it. One could anticipate this odour, but in fear of viruses or bacteria, one is ready to bathe in denatured alcohol. Or so it seemed initially.

Since I closely follow the international situation, I had been expecting a Russian invasion of Ukraine since the fall of 2021. I’m one hundred percent from the Congress Poland region and my genetic code instantly triggers certain warning signals. In short, when the Russians talk about peace and friendship, it’s time to stock up on provisions. I began preparations early, ignoring the naysayers. Besides canned goods, I bought a spirit stove for the unfortunate denatured alcohol and another one that could even run on pine cones.
During the coronavirus pandemic, it was necessary to introduce sales limits to ensure relative availability of food products, and especially those enabling disinfection and maintaining hygiene. In the photo: a store in Gdańsk, 12 March 2020. Photo by Łukasz Dejnarowicz / Forum
Of course, when the real war started, all these supplies were immediately sent to Ukraine. I was only left with those five litres of denatured alcohol, and I still don’t know what to do with it.

A package of DDT

My father, after wartime experiences, hated pests. They must have tormented him terribly during the German occupation. He even claimed that Americans won the war thanks to DDT. In his stories, it was the most terrifying weapon against enemies and pests. And at the same time, the most wonderful one, bringing relief and victory.

Germany didn’t have DDT. So they had to lose the war decisively.

  When the world faced the threat of a new war, my father was in America. The Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 heralded terrifying events. The global outlook wasn’t exactly rosy, as everyone feared it would be the first and last nuclear war.

We, my sister and I with our mother, were then near Warsaw. I think we were even sick, as mom couldn’t leave the house when everyone was buying up flour, groats, and sugar from the stores. In the event of that third world war, we were left without any provisions.

There, far away from us in America, the father sat, designing skyscrapers and fearing that we would be attacked by an invasion of various pests and microbes. He decided that in this war, his children would not suffer from pests. No vermin had the right to bite us and infect us with a contagious disease. So he bought a package of DDT and sent it as quickly as possible to our country, before a global front line could separate us. That’s how we got this wonderful agent, and thanks to it, we had a chance to survive this war.

Many years later, after the death of the father, in the attic of the parents’ apartment, I found a deeply hidden package of DDT. It had been there for over 40 years – a box of hope for survival in the harshest wartime conditions.

On the other hand, my wife’s grandmother kept food supplies in a sofa bed. It later turned out that they were lying next to Azotox, the Polish equivalent of DDT. Azotox had been there for years because such a measure should be as close as possible in case of war danger. People who survived the occupation nightmare were afraid of two things: hunger and disease-spreading insects.
Concentrate of an insecticidal product, containing 50% DDT, circa 1960. Photo by Xanthis – picture of an old DDT powder container, CC0, Wikimedia.
The Communist Poland also tainted me, but in a different way. I can’t stand various opportunistic purchases.

Buy a gold signet ring

About once a year on the street, a certain man, a foreigner, accosts me. Every time he says he has car troubles and doesn’t know which way to go to get to Slovakia. I politely answer, pointing in the right direction. The man doesn’t know how to thank me, so he tries to give me some perfumes or cologne, or maybe just a box with something inside. I don’t engage in this game. I don’t even take it in my hand because I know that later I will have a problem returning this box. Because if I take it, there will be another box and some “special offer” price. I politely decline, bow, the man is astonished because I say that “I helped from the heart.” He still tries to stop me, but he is surprised and helpless.

In the 90s, men often accosted me, who first in a well-practised way bent down in front of me, only to inform me a moment later that they found a very valuable gold ring, signet, or – less frequently – a diamond ring at my feet. Of course, sharing the news of this wonderful find, they also proposed very favourable resale conditions. The circumstances allowed me to give them various answers, which greatly varied and made the game more attractive. So, from my side, there were statements like “you’re very lucky” and “congratulations,” to “I can’t rob you” or “you should go to a specialist with that, it looks like an antique to me.” The rule is: with such a man, one must not only avoid taking out a wallet but even think about reaching for money.

However, there were and still are other “special offers” that are harder to decline.

In the 90s, various direct sales companies emerged. Some were even well-known Western ones; others were smaller. Their popularity often stemmed from the fact that the regular market in Poland was only beginning to reemerge. People were hunting for various products, but they were also looking for different employment opportunities. Cosmetics, organic and non-organic cleaning agents, weight loss products, electronic devices, household items, and many other things were on sale.
A similar mechanism was at play with the sale of OFE pension insurances and life insurances. Usually, in this system, someone familiar or a cousin became an insurer or a peddler and tried to sell their product within a family and friends circle. And it usually ended within that circle.

It somewhat resembled the actions of people who, during the times of Communist Poland, went on exotic trips and upon their return sold various souvenirs to all acquaintances. You bought it so as not to upset them because most often the attractiveness of these items was – as they say – mediocre. You didn’t decline because maybe in the future you would need something, and then that acquaintance would be nasty and refuse.

With the advent of the internet, this type of sales exists in various forms on specialised trading platforms, which now serve as electronic bazaars. Initially, I was sceptical of these forms of purchasing, saying – probably like most people – that I prefer to evaluate a product “organoleptically.” To touch, to see its true colour. But as time went on, and quickly, I reconciled with this form of buyer-seller relationship. And often, it is the best solution. For instance, once I needed an old book for work. I ordered it online. The cost was lower than photocopying. And I also saved the time I would have spent in the library.

Freeloading policeman

We also save on... travels. And not only time. Once, in the 80s, I went “hitchhiking” to Lublin. It was a minibus. At the front sat the driver and a ticket inspector, though he probably had nothing to inspect other than an invoice folder because we “hitchhikers” occupied the entire back of the vehicle. For a short distance, even a policeman rode as a passenger, but he was freeloading as he didn’t pay for the ride, and nobody had the courage to point it out. So there we were, driving, and at some point, a brand new, shiny, beautiful bus from the intercity coach service passed us. Absolutely great. And the ticket inspector, seeing this, said to the driver: “Look, such ones run to Zamość!”

I have trouble getting used to transportation apps. For someone who used to hitchhike a lot around Poland, transitioning to a version where waving down a ride on the road is replaced by digital app contact isn’t easy. I liked taxi corporations, had my favourite drivers, but now that’s becoming a thing of the past. It’s getting harder to order a taxi. More and more often, I first hear it will be in twenty minutes, and then that it might not come at all, with the question: will I still wait? Well, I won’t.
In 1969, minibus taxis were introduced in Warsaw. They stood at certain stands, had a set route, you bought a ticket from the driver and waited until all seats were filled. Then you could go. If there were no better options, if you’d been waiting forever at a taxi stand, you took such a minibus. The Warsaw City Taxi Company later withdrew from this solution, rather quietly at that, so it’s not clear if it was a success or a flop.

But travelling, and especially its planning, is also a special art of “stocking up” today. So, we buy tickets well in advance to get the most favourable price – that is, the lowest price. Then we book accommodations, following a similar strategy. Not everything has to match our intentions, as plans change influenced by offers. In the end, there are additional services and unforeseen costs from earlier favourable purchases. They often offset attractive savings, but we still feel that at least we got a good deal on one thing.

A few years ago, when going to a concert, I booked accommodations several months in advance. There were no concert tickets yet, but I already had a place to sleep. And then, at the last minute, I remembered that I didn’t have those tickets. Fortunately, I managed to get them in the nick of time.

– Grzegorz Sieczkowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Residents outside a supermarket in Warsaw during the pandemic, March 12, 2020. People rushed en masse to shop for supplies as the coronavirus spreads. Photo: PAP/Leszek Szymanski
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