I never thought I’d live to see empty supermarket shelves in the UK; or having to queue up to even enter the store.

When the coronavirus was prompting the first wave of panic-buying I went to my big Sainsburys in the evening to get a few things and was quite shocked by what I found. As I walked rather forlornly up and down aisle after aisle of bare grey shelves, I said with a smile to a man who was coming up the other way (carrying a similarly empty basket), “I think we left it too late!” He smiled back as he replied, “but we’re not going to starve, are we!”. I managed to find a few things: not really the items I was looking for, but it was enough: it was more than enough.

I was reminded of a trip I made to a communist-era Prague in the 80s. I went into a shop to buy some food and they had one kind of bread and one kind of cheese and also some tomatoes. I sat outside on a bench, thrilled to find myself on the other side of the infamous ‘Iron Curtain’, and to see that people there were just people like anywhere, and I tucked into one of the most delicious loaves of bread I’d ever tasted (rye flour, with caraway seeds) and the cheese was lovely and the tomatoes were big and juicy. It was a true feast. Years later, I told that story to a Polish friend who remarked “you were lucky to get cheese and tomatoes”! In her childhood, forming queues to get into shops that might be largely empty was completely normal.

I went out early the other morning to buy bread (I’d learnt my lesson!). On the way down to our Sainsburys Local I saw that the door of the Cornish Pasty shop was open with a sign proclaiming ‘Free’. The owner had put up a little table with loaves of bread that had reached their sell-by date and I’ve never been so happy to be given something for free. On closer examination I saw that it was Eastern European rye bread, and I had just on the way there been thinking of that time in Prague: a true moment of serendipity, or call it what you will. I ate it that evening with cheese, and it made a great meal.

It seems somehow apt that this pandemic should coincide with the season of Lent, a time associated with fasting. Although I’m not very good at fasting, I like the concept of the famine before the feast which is still taken especially seriously in the Eastern Church, and during Advent as well as Lent. At both periods I always try to abstain from alcohol but never wholly successfully! This time around, we were just a few days into Lent when our youngest son had a sporting success (in the days when spectator sport, and indeed sport itself, was another of those things we just took for granted), so Yim Soon and I had a glass of wine to celebrate. It just seemed the right thing to do. But the following weekend we decided to open another bottle, partly as we had quite a few in stock. And now it’s confession time (it’s Lent, after all): Yim Soon, having followed closely the early coronavirus developments in her native Korea, was way ahead of the game when it came to stockpiling. Back in February she raided our local Aldi for toilet paper, pasta, a wide selection of hand wash and sanitiser products, and…red wine! (“darling, don’t you think you’re over-reacting a bit!”). If anyone complains  to me that they can’t find hand-wash in the shops I say, “sorry, it’s all under a bed in our house”! But with Yim Soon getting ill, the remainder of the emergency wine supply has gone untouched and it looks like we’ll make it to the end of Lent in a state of imposed fasting. And it won’t do us any harm at all.

I suppose we’ll open a bottle when we get to Easter, but that, I suspect, will be a subdued affair this year. Yet, in the midst of these anxious and extraordinary times, just to be able to look out at the Spring colours in the garden and to see the trees coming into bud again, to be given a loaf of bread by a stranger, to simply be alive: this is something worthy of a feast.

Eddie Gilmore

Author Eddie Gilmore

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