Beans and Potatoes

The potatoes stayed still on the plate, together with the untouched beans. Steam had been coming out of them, but by now they were no longer
so hot. Paula stared at them, completely
immobile, for so long, her mother asked:
“What’s wrong with the potatoes.”
“I don’t like them”.

In fact she did not dislike them; it was the beans that were more of a problem. Paula thought they were tasteless and paper-like, but even she would not say such a harsh thing to the cooks. And she was not allowed to put more salt on them. Not that her ten years of age would have granted her the ability to think of such possibility.
“What do you mean, you don’t like them!” roared Grandma. “If we had had them during the war! That’s when we had truly needed them, no one would even think of saying they didn’t like them then. That was proper hunger.”
“More hunger in the post-war, there was”, said Mum. “We were more hungry after the war than during the war itself.”
“Have I ever told you about this man”, continued Grandma, “who was caught eating potato peelings from a bin? From a bin!”
Mum and Grandma interchanged stories from the war once more , about how there was not a single fat person in the city, about the ration cards and the food black market. In the meantime, Paula thought: “if the potato peelings were all right for that guy, why are they not good enough for us now, why do we have to peel them?”
“May there not be another one”, said Mum. That was her ending phrase.
All the way, Paula’s food remained untouched.
“Come on, please eat”, said Grandma, now addressing Paula. “Do it for the starving children in Africa, who have nothing to eat”.

The scene described so far repeated itself pretty regularly well into Paula’s teens. In fact, it would be repeated every time there were potatoes with beans for lunch in Paula’s home, so the whole business of starvation during war, and even more so during post-war, of people having to eat potato peelings from bins, of rationing and black markets, was properly ingrained in Paula’s brain for the rest of her life.

There was another event, however, in Paula’s early life, that left a similar print, even though it only happened once. It was in school. Every year, the nuns in charge of the girls brought a missionary to the all-girl school where Paula spent the first ten of her education. This missionary would spend about an hour speaking to each class in the school. Every year the stories would be similar. Children having to walk bare foot all day, also having to walk for hours and hours in order to go to their school, which consisted of a bare building with no benches if they were lucky, or some benches under the trees if they were not, and which happened to be at the other side of the jungle. Parents who could not afford to send their children to school, but who, thanks to the miracles performed by missionaries like the one talking to them now, now they could. Then at the end of the talk, the missionary would ask for small donations. Of course children Paula’s age were not allowed to carry money around with them in those days. So they would ask their parents for money that evening and they would bring some coins the following day, for the nuns to give to these missionaries.
One year, the nun in charge of Paula’s class had a brilliant idea, and said a brilliant phrase that would stay ingravited in Paula’s head for the rest of her youth. The nun observed that some of the girls gave quite big amounts of money for their age. She thanked them but scorned them for doing this only when moved by the missionary’s stories. “From now and in a few days, you will forget all about those poor children. You thought a lot about them yesterday, and will probably think about them today. But you will have forgotten by tomorrow. We should not forget. We should think about those children every day.”
It was far more a rebellious determination, the desire to simply prove that old witch wrong, than pious feeling, what made Paula decide to “think about those children every day”.

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