I would like to know what "which gradually became the only thing we knew" means in the following sentences:

On the first morning of camp they woke us early, storming into the hut and blowing a whistle, leaving us just enough time to brush our teeth in the washrooms and have some milk soup and tea in the canteen. In the coming weeks, I realised the canteen always smelled of cabbage and grease no matter what we were having, as if the entire building had been soaked in a concoction of the two shortly before our arrival. Every day we’d queue for something we didn’t really want, which gradually became the only thing we knew.

After breakfast we were given our uniforms, a pair of green shorts and a green shirt, the same for boys and girls. They were made of stiff, rough cotton that felt like canvas on my skin. The morning sun was cool on our thighs and arms as we left the hut to assemble once again in front of the main building. The comrade leader’s eyes hovered over us with petty satisfaction.

In this novel which is set in the 1980's in Poland under the socialist regime, where homosexuality was socially unacceptable, the protagonist Ludwik (a university graduate) left Poland in 1981 to live in the United States of America. And he remembers what it was like back then in Poland, where he went to the agricultural camp (which was mandatory for college graduation). At the camp, all students including him would queue for something, which "which gradually became the only thing we knew."

In this part, I wonder what became the only thing they knew. (Would that be "queuing"? Or "something we didn't really want?") And I am confused as to what this phrase means, so I would like to ask for your help.

I am an English learner from South Korea, so thank you for your patience in advance as I may not know obvious things. I would very much appreciate your help. :)

2 Answers 2


The entire passage from "I realised the canteen always smelled of cabbage and grease ..." until the end of the paragraph suggests that the food at the camp wasn't very tasty. The author starts building up towards this that the canteen always smelled the same, regardless of the food that was being served there. In other words, when queuing up, the smell from the canteen does not help them guess what will be served there; the cooks somehow manage to make every meal smell the same. (Since this camp is mandatory, the organisers probably try to keep costs down by being cheap ingredients. In addition, the people preparing the food might not be professional cooks.)

The unattractiveness of the food is then stressed by describing it as "something we didn’t really want". The students at the camp have this experience day after day: eating food they don't really want. It is a repeating pattern that "gradually became the only thing we knew"; in other words, the only thing they know about the food is that it is something they didn't really want.

  • Dear Tsundoku, thank you so much for the explanation. Then, may I take it that "which gradually became the only thing we knew" modifies the students' dislike towards the food, rather than the food itself? I am confused because this "which" seems quite loose and doesn't seem to modify any specific noun other than "something," which refers to the food. Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 7:50
  • 1
    I think it's more likely that the last phrase refers back to *the food being something they didn't really want" rather than the food itself. I doubt that the food itself has that sort of power over their minds. But I admit it looks a bit ambiguous.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 9:23

It means they accepted the food provided as the only option; not happy, but content. If someone lived without something (technology, candy, etc.), then that would be all they knew. You can't miss something if you don't know it exists. In this case, they forgot food could taste good. It is what it is.

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