I wanted to write my memories of growing up in communist Romania for quite a while now. Since I have been living in the UK, time and time again I witnessed how little is known about my home country and its people.
The general media depictions of Romanians tend to be less than favourable. The most popular outlets mainly portray us as destitute, uneducated, countryside people travelling along in carts while all women wear a headscarf, or as pickpockets and beggars. My writing will challenge this distorted view, bringing forward childhood memories we can all relate to and the magic of an age unspoiled by the political context.
Photo: Winter in historical Cismigiu Park, Bucharest 2010,
as no photos of winter in Timisoara 1986, in my childhood, available.
The snowflakes were swirling gently into the light of the street lamps, like glittery particles making the heart of the winter night alive. Our flat faced this corner where one long road, crossing the neighbourhood nearly from one side to the other, met another narrow street, leading towards the industrial estate and the end of the tramlines. We lived on the Stars Street, and that is an approximate translation, as in Romanian we would have another, more poetic word to name the same type of celestial bodies.
Sitting at the square brown table, facing the windows in the main room of the flat, with one of the brown fabric blinds lifted in front of me revealing the partly snowed balcony, my eyes on the snowfall whirling graciously under our faint streetlights – in front of this scenery I wrote my first poem.
It was New Year’s Eve and we watched the television until late at night. Our communist channel broadcasted the most loved show of the year, if not actually the only one: a few hours of traditional music and dancing, a big batch of comedy sketches, all about family and friends and holiday preparations, and a powder of quite romantic Romanian pop music – “all our roads, will they ever meet? our roads, our love, our happiness”. I watched it with my grandparents; we skipped the president’s speech, burnt the hand-held firecrackers which every household in the country was stashed with for the winter holidays, had some cookies, and probably a hot drink – likely to be hot cocoa milk for the nearly 9 years old I was at the time.
And the poem grew inside me like a firefly born out of a single sparkle of light in a concoction of dreaminess, emotion and images all coming together.
My first poem talked about the joy of New Year’s Eve, a time out of time, when nothing felt restricted or impossible or unreachable. I wrote it in the soft light of my desk lamp, the black and white television screen humming in the background. All was quiet, despite the jingle of festive bells which seem to faintly linger in a corner of memory, and I jumped out of my reverie with excitement to show my grandparents the words shaped on paper.
“Mum, I could not live without writing” – I told my mother later that year. She treasures my declaration of faith to this day, to her it holds the same meaning as her choice for my name. As it happened, she loved reading poetry and she knew the name of her future daughter long before she had even met my father – Catalina, the princess in the romantic epic poem by classical Romanian writer. The fair maid falls in love with the Evening Star, an immortal soul, who would need to descend into human shape to be with her.
One could suspect that mum raised me up to be a poet, educating into me her ideals and wishes, which is probably true to a certain extent. She most certainly put the first books in my hands, and she tells me how my first word was a baby-talk version of Cenusareasa (Cinderella in Romanian). I don’t know how or if it was the same one, but an image takes contours in my mind: a dark majestic castle raises as you open the pages, right in the middle of the book, and pupils dilate to envelop the wonder of the cut-out publishing technique. Mother says I had such a jewel of a book at a very early age, about 10 months old, and they wouldn’t leave it with me while I was just crawling about and exploring without an adult tight by my side. It would have been a shame for me to rip it apart, hence they would “hide” it on top of the wardrobe, out of reach and sight. Apparently, that didn’t work forever. One day I reached my hands up toward the magical object and cried ushasha, with such persistence that they realised it was my first word, it was the name of the book, and there was only one way to make me stop crying.
Once upon a time, there was a little fire horse who travelled the galaxy, met all the different planets, made friends, shared impressions with comets and meteors, the sun and the moon. Might not be much, but it is what I remember out of my favourite children’s book in my toddler days. The designated reader for bedtime stories, granddad (on my mother’s side) dutifully accomplished his role most evenings, with tiredness occasionally pushing him into sleep before his little granddaughter would care to rub her eyes and yawn. Apparently, he sometimes tried to shorten a chapter in hope he would be off the hook sooner. However, it turned out to always be an unsuccessful attempt: I already knew every thread of the story to the strand, so he had no escape from the voracious listener.
“But grandad, you haven’t read about when he runs into the little meteor!” I complained.
“Pumpkin, if you know it so well why do you make me read it to you all over again?” he replied, with a grin of resignation.
My grandad had a great sense of humour, at times mischievous, and a huge soft spot for me, the first of his grandchildren and, as it went, his favourite.
My life started with my grandparents nearby. We shared a flat with them in the small town of Deta, in the south of Banat region, Western Romania. I was born while father still studied Theology in another University city and only saw us during his breaks for the first 2 years. He and mother kept a very romantic and possibly passionate correspondence going. The stash of letters lay somewhere hidden in the multiple wardrobes and drawers of their house. I have seen it once or twice, and was completely forbidden to open any of them. While I understand and want to respect their privacy, my love for stories and especially for my family history will one day be stronger. I will lay claim on inheriting those letters.
When father graduated and was allocated a parish (which comes for life in most cases for Romanian Orthodox priests, together with the building attached to the church), we moved in the village of Voiteg. Later, at the age of 8, I went to live with granddad and grandma in the city flat, in Timisoara, the heart of our land. That flat, on the first floor at the end of Stars Street, with two rooms, a kitchen, bathroom, pantry, cupboard and hallway, typical living space in the communist apartment buildings, was home for me for about 15 years, longer than anywhere else I ever lived. It was here where I wrote my first poem, where I smashed my brains with physics and mathematics during High School, and where I hosted all my parties later on, as a University student.
Strangely though, and not without reason, my magical childhood ground remains in the countryside, in my parents’ house, which I had always longed for from the moment I left it for a city life.