Daily Archives: 18 August 2007

Romania, 1984: Toilet Paper Tales

During our Fulbright orientation session for Romania in 1983, we had been warned about the difficulty of finding many of the basic consumer commodities to which we had become accustomed. In order to cope with the absence of fresh green vegetables during the long winter, we arrived with several kilograms of alfalfa seeds, which made Romanian customs officials suspicious but allowed us (and others) to eat fresh sprouts all winter. In order to make sure we had enough toilet paper to last the year, we ordered a box of 100 rolls of Scott tissue in the first of our three orders to Peter Justesen that the U.S. Embassy allowed us during our time there. We split that order with two other Fulbright households in Bucharest and we never ran short.

It wasn’t that our bums were too delicate for the coarse Romanian toilet paper. It’s just that the latter was rarely available. We always kept a sharp lookout for queues of shoppers on the streets in our long walks between our apartment and the University of Bucharest in the city center. We would join any queue at least long enough to find out what they were waiting to buy. Paper products appeared very rarely and were usually sold right from the sidewalk, with a quota of, say, six rolls of paper and two packs of napkins (serviettes) per person. Everyone carried an expandable shopping bag (pungă) or two, but some would carry rope as well, so that two people could thread it through their ten or twelve rolls and carry it between them on the way home. Or one person could wear a lei or bandolier of toilet paper rolls and still have two hands free to carry other goods.

Public toilets were never stocked with paper. Instead, you paid a small fee to the attendant at the entrance, and received in return a few inadequate squares of paper to use. It was safest to carry your own supply. As in France and Italy, public urinals (vespasiene) were named for Emperor Vespasian, who reinstituted Nero’s Vectigal Urinae. I remember entering one public toilet downtown where one of the urinals was clogged and overflowing, and someone had helpfully placed a perforated plastic waste basket underneath to collect rechannel the overflow.

Of course, few Romanians in 1984 could order paper products from abroad. They had to make do by other means. The most amusing alternative I encountered was in the house of a retired schoolteacher in Rădăuţi, Bucovina. He was a kinsman of the Romanian American Fulbrighter in our group. Next to his toilet was a small basket with scraps of used student papers he had once collected and graded. I’m sure he thought of his students every time he used their papers.

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