Live from the Homefront – from Bolivia to Poland as Susannah recalls other times of hardship, resourcefulness and bare cupboards

by Susannah Grant

posted on April 17, 2020

Author is sitting in a wheelchair on the pavement in Sucre, Bolivia
Negotiating tricky pavements in Sucre, Bolivia aged 20

As you can see from the picture above, being confined to four wheels and overcoming life´s obstacles has never prevented me from living every day to the full as I refused to interrupt my trip from Lima to Rio aged 19 following an unfortunate thrombosis in Bolivia.

This week, having bumped myself down the stairs to the kitchen, one by one, I headed straight to the pantry on crutches to see what the chocolate status was…..it would appear that the cocoa monsters in my family have furtively devoured almost all our rations while I was freewheeling about unaware upstairs. Husband will be doing the supermarket run from now and bearing in mind he is a virgin supermarket shopper, we could very well up with white cooking chocolate by mistake.

In the meantime, we will have to eke out our current food supplies for another week. I remember my grandmother talking about World World II rationing that actually was endured for 14 years until 1954 in the UK. Interestingly, tea was considered too valuable a contributor to the average Briton´s wellbeing so it was exempt. A bit like chocolate in our house.  

Tea was the equivalent of zoom or hangout during WWII and it provided a common bond for civilian people of all classes during air raids spent in cramped bomb shelters or soldiers of all ranks in the trenches.  Churchill reputedly claimed that tea was a more important weapon than ammunition. Tea consumption was also encouraged to reduce reliance on alcohol. Mmm – I can´t see myself substituting a double brandy with a cup of Earl Grey after a hard day battling with the kids’ algebra.

A generous ration of tea was allowed during WWII

Tea´s perceived value in boosting morale was not confined to Britain, the Royal Air Force dropped 75,000 tea bombs in a single night over the occupied Netherlands. Each contained 1 oz (28g) bags of tea from the Dutch East Indies and was marked “The Netherlands will rise again. Chins up.” Perhaps I could persuade the Spanish Air Force to arrange a few edifying Lindt bar drone drops over my house for medicinal purposes.

Enjoying a restorative cuppa during WWII

Rationing was also implemented in Poland during the end of the Cold War, from 1981-1989 and has been going on in Cuba since 1962. In fact it has become even more strenuous there since May 2019 due to the loss of aid from Venezuela and other countries. I was inter-railing round Eastern Europe in 1992 and I remember in the suburbs of Warsaw, where I was staying, the local shops were still quite bereft of any fresh food and that all the dry goods were placed behind the counter. This required customers to request them by name…which was quite a tall order for me considering the word for water “woda” bears an uncanny resemblance to vodka, “wodka”. Well that´s my excuse for getting mixed up anyway.

A typical Polish shop in the late 1980´s

The Poles were no less creative during shortages than many other nations, and were soon brewing substitute coffee made from roasted barley, rye, chicory and beetroot which would probably cost you a fortune nowadays in a chic bar in Chamberí.

Resourcefulness or “ser resolutivo”, which means “make do and mend” were the key skills adopted during WWII as was thrift (ahorro) when supplies of all types were scarce. Both are now the watchwords of 21st century sustainability culture and certainly experiencing a revival during Coronavirus as we try to make do with whatever we have at home. Shalini, our treasurer, reports that, in a bid to reduce the vast quantities of milk her household have been consuming she is rationing her husband´s delicious Indian milk puddings.  

Rice Kheer, a delicious Indian version of Arroz con leche, infused with cardamom, saffron, almonds, raisins and other nuts and dried fruits

Finally, a heroic, uplifting story from Captain Tom, the WWII veteran who pledged to walk 100 lengths of his garden two weeks before his 100th birthday to raise money for the UK´s National Health Service. His initial aim was to raise £1,000 (€1,147) but he captured the hearts of donors around the world from Cincinnati to Cologne and has now raised over £17mn (€19,5 mn)!!

Another patriotic feat for his country as Captain Tom, 99, raises epic funds for the UK Health Service and related charities

So perhaps we should take our cue from Captain Tom´s approach to life, “Tomorrow you will find that everything will be much better than today, even if today was all right. That´s the way I´ve always looked at things. Tomorrow will be a good day”.

Here I am outside my communist-era Airbnb in Warsaw and hopping off the tram in Cracow aged 23.