Apr/May 2004 spotlight

The News from America

by Ana Doina

From a very young age, I learned I was not to repeat outside my house what was said inside. Considering I had two houses, my mom's and my dad's, each with slightly different ideologies and political affiliations, this rule at times produced unintended consequences. I didn't trust anyone, my parents included.

I must have been in third grade when word came home from school that I'd made a "subversive and counterrevolutionary" remark. Yep, there I was, nine years old and already an enemy of the people, a contra-revolutionary. I don't remember it, and even at the time I didn't have any recollection of the alleged incident. Apparently, while talking to some kids in school, I'd scoffed at the credentials of our beloved leader. I said that the (then) president of our beautiful Romania, the man in charge of the revolution, was stupid and uneducated, with only four years of schooling (the mandatory state-sponsored years of schooling available at the time of his youth) and as such, not a good example to promote education. Was I repeating something I'd heard? I later realized the leader's schooling or lack of it was common knowledge and rich substance for many popular, albeit secret jokes.

That alleged remark created a huge turmoil for my entire family. All my parents, step-parents, brothers, housekeepers had to go to school to be questioned about what was going on in the house. My mother and stepfather had "sessions" at work, were admonished and threatened, accused of being unfit parents for the kind of citizen the new world needed. I was scared to death by the whole affair. It was one of those times when as a child I realized how vulnerable my parents were, how unable to protect me and them against the rest of the world they were, how crazy and absurd the world was.

It was the early sixties. We all lived in fear; the slightest suspicion of disloyalty to the revolution, of wavering on the arduous road to communism, could end someone's career, even life. There were separate and different sets of rules for inside and outside of the house. Developing a keen "nose"—the ability to discern who was trustworthy of one's thoughts—was a survival skill. We turned what should have been public—political opinions, attitudes, thoughts, social participation—into a different kind of private life, one more secretive, clandestine, illegal, illegitimate, anguished and stressful, all the while feeling impotent and cowardly for doing so.

And then the sixties happened. Yes, they happened to Romania, too, but through a back door of sorts, via tv news and government propaganda.

My generation grew up watching news from America on tv. Inside that little window box in our houses, Americans were staging anti-war demonstrations, civil unrest. We dreamed America, loved America, believed nothing compared to America. We weren't told a lot of what was going on in the US, but in the mid 60's we were told about the political assassinations, the civil unrest and antiwar demonstrations because knowledge of them served the politics of the communist regime. Our leaders wanted us to see the "inhumane face of capitalism," the class struggle, the imperialist tendencies people were fighting against and to which there was only one solution, of course: communism, just the way we had it.

Our leaders wanted Vietnam to become a communist nation. In a sense, and by extension, Romanians were the enemies of the U.S., and our government took advantage of the civil unrest in America, of the anti-war movement, to show us how rotten and phony that "capitalist democracy," (which we were to believe was an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms), truly was. They wanted us to see how free speech was being treated when it didn't follow the imperialist political agenda. But what we saw instead was what we could never dream do. Americans were fighting tear gas and still standing after the fight, but against us stood the entire Russian army. The marches, the speeches, the street fights we saw on tv were for us much more than we could have even dreamed. What we saw, we thought, was the very image and embodiment of freedom. Beneath the Iron Curtain, during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, America appeared on tv asserting its right to fight against what was "wrong" within. Its youth was savvy enough to identify it, courageous enough to point it out, and had the necessary framework to address it, while we were reprimanded for even thinking that something could be wrong in our "perfect society."

Propaganda, in the long run at least, never works the way its promoters intend it. For our politicos news from America turned out to be a dangerous double-edged sword. Revolution in any shape or form is contagious, and in some ways life had become less bleak while watching the students fight, while feeling that breath of freedom from America, however faint it came through the evening news. If nothing else, our way of thinking changed, and our love for America only grew.

We had very conflicted feelings about Vietnam, and the official explanation of that war was never clear or sufficient. We knew what awaited the Vietnamese should the so called "people's power" be successful, but for America to be caught in a war, an invading war, did not match with the image we wanted to see. The "better" informed amongst us, the more cynical ones, had a very simple and easy explanation for Vietnam. It was a Russian-American war. It was the Russians whom the Americans were fighting in Vietnam. It was a struggle between the two world powers. Many of us rooted for America. Liking the Russians was inconceivable. After all, we had hated them for centuries, and now we lived under their fist.

In the summer of 1968 I was at an age when the childhood games of weddings and motherhood, of teachers and school, started to lose their luster, and there was the little tinge of an unsettling feeling that everything was changing, a premonition that dolls and their houses were too small for what was to come. The mysterious changes within myself could never quite be quieted down. There is a yearning for something unknown and unnamable in prepubescent and adolescent girls, a wish to fly, to blossom in ways the body and the world will not allow, and I was feeling it.

I was reading a lot that summer; many French, English and American books were being translated after years of censuring anything that came from the West. Huxley, Gide, Sartre, Hemingway, Saroyan, Steinback, Virginia Wolf, Zola, Hesse, Boris Vian, a hodgepodge of authors and books, many too complicated to understand at my very young age, but my older brother was reading and moreso his best friend, a guy I had a bit of a crush on, and sibling rivalry being what it is, anything my brother could do, I could do, too. To my brother's continuous despair, I was always spying and eavesdropping on him and his friends, trying to find out what it was like to be a teenager. Rouge and powder and high heels were not for make believe anymore; they held a different meaning, and so did a boy's gaze, a word said in passing, a simple touch of hands.

My father's family had gone through a difficult time during that year. They had to move from their beautiful apartment to a new one in a different part of the town. Most houses in Romania were state-owned at the time, after having been "nationalized" during the "first phase" of the revolution, which meant that anyone who owned more than one house had to give all of them up for "the people" while still remaining as locatar (inhabitant), paying a maintenance fee to the municipality. That also meant that if "the people" needed the house one lived in, one was just moved into a different house, no questions asked, no questions answered.

For years after the war, Bucharest, the capital city, as well as other cities in the country, went through several housing crises. Many families were piled up together in one house, sharing bathrooms and kitchens, hallways and living rooms. A space ration was calculated by the government for each family, depending on the number of people, age and occupation, and living rooms or dining rooms were turned into bedrooms.

After they got married, my parents moved into a beautiful apartment that used to belong to my mother's uncle but was later nationalized. That was the house my brother and I were born in, the house I still visualize when I think of home. It was a large apartment we shared with another family with twin boys. It was in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in town, a neighborhood of old linden tree-lined streets, forested parks, beautiful boulevards, statues, stone mansions, luxuriant gardens, museums. I knew all the kids on all the streets around my house, and everyone knew me, or they knew my parents. Everyone knew my story too, which meant I didn't have to explain why I only came to visit there some weekends or vacations, and why I don't want to call "the lady" who was my father's wife, mother.

But my father had to move. Someone more powerful than he, someone whose wishes and political status were weightier, someone who was more important to society and needed to live closer to the center of town, had to take over our apartment. Father tried, even lost his job over it, but the decision had been made. He had to leave, vacate the apartment, move to the new developments at the outskirts of town, and on to a new job.

The new neighborhood had just been constructed. The city was growing; many farms and villages at the outskirts were being swallowed by the planned urban systematization in an effort and rush to make a nineteenth century town into a twentieth century metropolis, and a communist one at that: one which could fit everyone in, give each the space ratio a citizen of a world in the making needed. Newly erected buildings, gray, identical in shape and size, made of concrete and steel, were built close together in concentric circles around schools.

My father, his new wife, and my oldest brother occupied a "three rooms with a balcony," not counting the kitchen, all by themselves. The twin boys and their family, with whom we had shared the other apartment, moved next door. My father would say it was a better place, but we knew that not even he believed it. It wasn't the new place, it was the loss of the old place that bothered us all. The unpredictable way it had happened, the humiliation and powerlessness we felt having to just pack our bags on short notice and with no reason given.

So there I was that summer, visiting my father for one month in his new home. The whole business of visiting my father and brother was a funny concept. Visiting meant going from one side of the town to the other, living in two houses in the same city, calling my mother each night to take messages from my friends, seeing my father for a few hours after work, seeing my little brother every other weekend, fighting constantly with my older brother and learning to hate my new, second stepmother. One can easily get confused with such a lifestyle.

One very early morning a strange combination of voices outside our bedroom door awakened my brother and me. It was right before sunrise, still dark, and from the dining room we could clearly hear the voices—mother, father and stepmother talking. Worried. My mother and father could never have an amiable conversation, much less at such an early time in the morning! I couldn't believe my eyes when I walked into the dining room and saw them agreeing about something. About what was not yet clear to me, but whatever it was, they were in agreement. There they were, my mom with a packed suitcase, my stepmother frantically packing a suitcase for my brother, and my father restlessly pacing the room.

Half an hour later we were in a taxi, driving to the train station. The city was slowly waking up. It had rained during the night before. Water puddles and the black wet pavement shone pink and blue, mirroring the sunrise; buses and trams were just then starting their daily rounds; workers with brown bags and the day's newspaper greeted each other while boarding the trolleys or crossing the streets on their way to work; peasants with bundles and boxes of fresh produce were pushing barrels or leading horse buggies through traffic. The chaos of early summer morning traffic in my town was always fascinating, and every corner of that world looked familiar and friendly and peaceful.

I had no idea what was happening. I didn't even care. Whatever it was, it had brought my parents together as nothing in the past had. I was so happy to see mother and father together, talking, agreeing. Hanging onto both their hands at the same time was a new experience, something I had craved for all my childhood. All four of us together as if nobody else ever existed between us! It felt strange and miraculous at the same time. Even my brother, the grouch, seemed happy.

Only on the train did I wake up to reality, after watching my father's silhouette became smaller and smaller, waving to us from the station's aisle. Mother explained that we were going to spend the rest of the summer vacation with some distant relatives in a village in the middle of the country, far from the capital city. There were many kids and women on the train. The atmosphere was strange, tense. Everyone seemed worried and even frightened. My brother struck a conversation with another boy about the same age. I was still analyzing how it felt to have been a whole family for a few minutes when the words Russians and border and war and soldiers interrupted my revery and I started paying attention to what was being said around me.

The Russians were coming. We had to run away from the city, hide somewhere in the mountains until... until what? The Russians were coming. They'd already invaded the Czechs, and now it was our turn. Since we hadn't wanted to participate in the invasion, we hadn't respected the military treaty, we had rebelled, now they were coming. There was going to be war, just like in the movies, with bombs, ruins and orphans, and my father was left behind, waving to the train. I was going to live in the country, lost in the middle of nowhere, with no running water, no friends, no phone, no new or old neighborhood, with a stinking, fly-infested backhouse, for God knew how long.

After a month I was back home and school had started. Somehow war had been avoided. I was too young to care about politics and negotiations. I was just happy to be back to the visiting schedule, to hating my stepmother, and to falling in love with my brother's best friend.

At first nothing seemed to have changed. If anything, more capitalist movies, celebrities and foreign dignitaries visited Romania. We were enjoying the western world's good graces, and life seemed to open up a bit; we had daring theatre shows, more books got translated, many new buildings were built—some with a more modern architecture. The entire Black Sea littoral was modernized. Even traveling to foreign countries, western in particular, became possible, something unheard of for most of the citizens living in the eastern block.

We still watched the news from America. King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, and that was hard to understand, but the civil unrest was not stopped. The crowds were bigger, the demonstrations more numerous. With the news from America came folk songs, literature and movies, too. Jane Fonda: now that was one great actress. I saw all her movies right there at the neighborhood movie theatre, and Love Story? Saw it about ten times, and cried my eyes out each time. Oh, and the moon, the moon, the walk on the moon! There were no limits. Old ideas, old belief systems, old customs had to go, and to a teenager, anything older than a decade is old enough that it should go. Miniskirts came, long unbraided hair, emancipation, antiestablishment, demystification of the power structures, hippies. We had it all, or at least we tried.

Can you imagine a teenage girl in communist Romania singing—with all her heart and bad pronunciation—Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan songs? All those English words she knew not the meaning of, having them translated for her by friends? Yep, the subversive contra-revolutionary-turned-hippie. I and countless others like me, teenage girls and boys yearned for freedom: that elusive concept I don't think any of us could have clearly defined, but which included the right to say whatever we felt like saying without being afraid that we or someone in our family would be thrown in jail.

But there was tension and fear in the upper political strata and nervousness on the streets. Russia was not happy, and although not invading yet, it had plenty of economic blackmailing power for which the newly found European friends were not willing or able to compensate. In time we had to buy our peace, our winter fuel, our export/import economy, by giving up the fewer and fewer democratic or autonomous rights we had, but the regime was good at promoting a rebellious image for a while, no matter how many Russian soldiers were amassed at the border, ready to cross it at a moment notice.

I was entering eighth grade, thinking I would select English as my second foreign language in High School the following year, but Russian became mandatory instead.

One by one, "Capitalist" movies, books, theater, magazines, and songs were eliminated from the cultural life, while slogans about the great wonderful, wise and true friend of Romanians, the big and generous Soviet Union, took over billboards on buildings and slipped into our vocabulary. Food was becoming scarce too, every day the lines for sugar, oil or meat were longer and longer. We did keep that particularly Romanian sense of humor, embittered and self-deprecating through it all, but we couldn't fool ourselves for long. We all felt a "tightening" of sorts.

I was preoccupied with fashion, miniskirts, bellbottom pants, blue jeans, parties, boys, and the high school entrance exam. At fourteen every kid in Romania gets his identity papers: a small passport-like booklet with a picture, address, signature, and stamps. Every change of address had to be reported, and the ID had to be updated even for longer visits in a different town or stays in a temporary "domicile." Every change of name, marital status, number of children, everything ended up being recorded on the ID, which had to be carried around and ready for "presentation" when asked for by any official. Many policemen were famed for requesting the ID of a pretty girl crossing their paths just to start a conversation. If one was found not carrying one's ID, the consequences ranged from fines to prison.

My friends and I practiced our signatures for that ID for months. It was a rite of passage of sorts, entering a new stage in our lives. We were trying extravagant ways to sign our names, so they would look unique and inimitable. I had the most unique signature indeed, so unique the officer who was working on my ID booklet wanted to cancel it, saying my signature was not Romanian writing. My last name started with "C," so I drew an elongated lower part of that letter and wrote the rest of my name downwards. It looked like three icicles hanging from a surrealist crescent. The officer couldn't believe his eyes, and he was ready to rip the ID apart, but I had my mother with me, and she was not only the wife of a well-known journalist, she was a journalist herself, and she made a sly comment about abusing power, so the officer let us go, signature and all.

That same evening I went to the theater with a bunch of friends. It was a beautiful autumn night, and four of us decided to walk back home. Laughing and talking about the actors and the play, we strolled through the streets and didn't pay much attention to what was happening around us, when four policemen, armed with rifles, pistols and batons stopped us. The town police. They asked for ID's. I was afraid and lied about my age. I said I was only 13, two months shy of fourteen. The others gave their ID's.

The policemen looked at each and every page while we stood in the street afraid, not knowing why we had been stopped. And then one of the policemen took one of the boys by his shoulder-length hair and said, "Why do you want to look like a girl? See, in your picture here you have a nice crew cut. I'll have to cut your hair to make sure you look the same as this ID's picture." And right then and there, in the middle of the street, he produced a large scissor and started cutting the boy's hair.

At the same time, another policemen was asking the other boy about his bellbottom pants. "Are you wearing skirts from the knees down?" And he cut his pants. The other two policemen were questioning Lili and me. Where were we from, where had we spent the night (it was not even 10 o'clock), where did we live, did we go to school? Lili was shaking. I could hear the fear in her voice. She was from a different part of the country, a far away village somewhere close to the Russian border, and was living in Bucharest with an aunt, taking advantage of the better schooling an urban setting offered. At best, hers was a semi-legal "domicile."

Knowing Lili's situation, I was trying to distract the policemen's attention from her ID, trying to convince them we were just coming home from the theatre, and our parents—better yet, our school teachers—knew where we were. Suddenly, the policeman that seemed to be in charge of the unit turned to me, after finishing with the haircuts, and said, "You didn't have enough fabric for that dress? Or are you trying to expose yourself for other purposes? Look at her, thirteen and already a night bird!" He grabbed my blue velvet dress by the hem next to the seam and with one yank split the whole dress, all the way to my armpit. My best dress!

In less than 15 minutes, our beautiful summer evening had been destroyed. The boys' hair was horribly shorn, their pants cut, my dress torn, and Lili had been slapped in her face for screaming hysterically upon seeing my dress ripped. I was wearing a jacket over my dress so that only the upper part of my body was not now exposed. I looked at the policeman and asked him, "Do you think I look more decent now?" That was what made Lili scream. She was afraid the man was going to kill me, but instead he turned around and struck her, and then he and his subordinates disappeared. Only then we noticed that across the street was the American embassy, and someone was at the window with a camera. I still think that's what saved us from more harm. Once the policemen realized there were witnesses, they disappeared.

We didn't want to take a bus, but we also didn't feel like walking since we were likely to run into someone we knew and have to explain what had happened. We hid in a park until it got late and we were able to calm ourselves somewhat, stop crying, give up the thought of finding and killing those policemen. I wrapped my sweater around my waist, covering my hips and my thigh, and we went home when the streets were deserted.

The next day we had to face our lives and realize that our signature on the ID card meant a lot more than just a way to be unique. There was nothing we could do. No revolution, no protest, nothing. The Russians were at the borders.

For months Lili and I would sit together, endlessly talking about "the incident." We became more attuned to what was going on around us. We found out one of her neighbors had been taken to prison and then died. He was a born again Christian. We felt the whole stinking machine was devouring us in its bowels only because the adults around us were too busy, too tired and too sold out by all the stupid peace treaties and the almighty ideology. We felt the people in charge were screwed up, brain dead, the most fucked up crooks on the face of the earth. But we had to keep our mouths shut.

Right after the incident, my mother counseled forgetfulness. "Forget it," she said. "It doesn't matter. Nothing happened." She had the dress fixed by our tailor, and I kept wearing it, but I wore a longer overcoat whenever I was outside.

Much later I understood the politics beneath the incident. There had been signs of unrest within the student populations. Some of the youth organizations were trying to gain academic freedom and political power. In colleges, freedom of religion was suddenly an issue, some sort of strife over Christmas break was brewing in the Universities, and those in power were afraid of a larger scale demonstration like the ones in Paris and in America. This whole "fashion police" business became a diversionary tactic to keep us young ones bottled up in a self-preoccupying anger, centered on personal rather than societal grievances.

Never had Romania experienced such a large young generation. The baby boomers were a European occurrence too, and we were them. Well-educated, non-religious, well-fed, unemployed and unemployable while still in school, with months and months of free time on our hands. We didn't have money, but we didn't need it either. Our parents provided for us. We read, devoured books—all kinds of books, but mostly western literature and philosophy. The entire French Revolution and all its philosophy and literature mixed in our heads with Toffler and Marcuse. We were also reading Marx and Engels and realized how few, if any, of their ideas were in fact applied in the real life workings of a "socialist" country. What was actually happening was that the working class, victorious after the revolution, produced offspring who belonged among the common variety young aristocratic revolutionaries of the 19th Century, rather than within the working class. There were huge cultural and ideological gaps between many parents and their children. Since no one was allowed to have any private property, economically we were pretty much leveled. Although there were some economic differences, they were never substantial, and between us kids, immersed in the equalitarian ideals, it didn't matter much who had what, so poor and affluent kids mixed together. Everyone was becoming an "intellectual," even if his/her background was "proletarian."

After the small student unrest in Bucharest, which was never publicized and of which very few even in town had even heard, the political powers realized where "these kids" were heading and got very scared. It became apparent that even if the young were ready to build a leftist, democratic, humanitarian, equalitarian society, they had very different ideas of how to do it, and they were much more articulate and better educated than the average proletarian politician. The "building blocks" were a lot more important to daily life, and to keep control over this particular architecture of our society, those in power realized "things" had to change.

Radical measures and strategies followed. One of the first strategies was to keep us preoccupied with personal grievances like fashion statements—skirts and hair. We argued that the ethnic tradition in Romania was for men to have shoulder-length and facial hair, plus our ideological forefathers, Marx, Engels, even Romanian revolutionaries all had long hair and beards, but it didn't matter. Their strategy worked. It became a cat and mouse game. We became more preoccupied with personal freedom while the social rights were slowly and gradually taken away. The news of the day was who had her skirt ripped off, who had his head shorn, rather than what other addendum to the code of law made one more civil liberty obsolete, while the country was increasingly being governed by presidential decree.

Then there was the feared Securitatea, which now recruited from amongst the students and intellectuals, offering huge sums of money and privileges in return for denunciations, thus creating a class of intelligent thugs ready to sell their mother naked for a good price. These measures, although secret, were smartly leaked to the public; rumors became our way of familiarizing ourselves with the acts of our government. Examples too—interrogations, beatings, deportation to hard labor camps we'd heard about but were not supposed to know of, to speak of. Distrust became the way of life. Many of us distrusted our own parents, some for good reason.

This strangling of rights and liberties was at first unnoticed, since few bothered to check what was going on with obscure laws and decrees. Also, there was a bit of a give and take. A few categories of craftsmen were allowed to have their own small "family" business, so people felt like they could own something. New apartment buildings went up, and those who wanted were now able to buy their own home. Even a car could be purchased after months of waiting for one, although the price was prohibitive. Life seemed easier economically. There was food on the market, movies on tv, a trip to the mountains, vacations at the Black Sea, concerts, so who cared about the rest? Who cared that there was an effort to organize even the kindergarten children in political organizations and feed them communist propaganda, that the high schools and universities became militarized with the introduction of mandatory military courses and exercises. And anyway, it didn't work; no one took it seriously.

So then the government invented the compulsory draft for boys—a year in the army at the end of high school, even for those who went on to college—and for girls a weekly training day during school in college, with uniform, pledge, rifle and all. Once drafted and trained in the military, one could be conscripted at any time, without prior notice, and if one were not to show up, marshal law would follow. Period. Rebellion from there on was stopped by conscription.

For a few years after, all those who had been identified as organizers of the student uprising were "dealt" with one way or another. Some were bought into the Securitatea, some were expelled, some disappeared. A friend of mine caught carrying a banner proclaiming freedom of thought and expression was saved from prison and beatings by his last name, which he shared with his illustrious and revolutionary 19th century ancestors. But nevertheless he was forced into exile in Paris where he had relatives. This became another way to get rid of the unwanted revolutionaries in our midst. If they couldn't be bought or silenced by way of beating and prisons, they were exported, invited to leave, sent to their relatives outside the country. This solution applied to those whose relatives made it too dangerous to just eliminate the traitor. After all, image was still important.

To escape interrogation and beatings, some of the students swam over the Danube to Yugoslavia, carrying huge sacks filled with watermelons to protect them from the border patrol's bullets. Postcards were coming from Vienna, unsigned: "I am alive, tell my mom." Good thing we knew each other's handwriting. I had to tell a mother in a grocery store while waiting on line for bread and chatting about the weather, "By the way, Alex wrote from Vienna. He's OK." She turned pale, but she continued the previous conversation as if she hadn't even heard me. If not for her paleness and the tremor of her hands, I could have thought she didn't care about the news. That night coming home from school, I found her waiting for me at the bus station. She made sure we were alone before she asked for more news and for the postcard.

News from America was no longer shown on tv unless a treaty or a major international event was taking place. We still kept dreaming of the Americans and their liberties, though. By now, very few American movies were brought into the country, mostly silly comedies or sweet romances; even fewer American books were being translated. American music was banned from radio stations. But we managed. There was a black market where Pink Floyd sang The Wall, magazines and books still found their way into the country somehow, and later, with the invention of the vcr, even movies. We grew up, went to parties, dressed lavishly, spent a lot on clothes and jewelry, read a lot. The country was increasingly mismanaged "by decree," but no one could say a thing for fear of being demoted at work or thrown in jail. Food was now scarce, fuel was always a problem. We lived in cold houses, traveled in broken-down, overcrowded buses and trains. Our fields were taken over by an irrational industrial development policy which turned a grain-rich country into a barren land while polluting our air and waters and wasting our natural resources. Small merchants were accused of all kinds of economic crimes, thrown in jail, their businesses confiscated. Illicit "riches" became a feared accusation, and could be made against anyone who owned more than what the government thought appropriate.

We survived, laughed, made jokes, used the bathroom for secret conversations while the water was filling up the tub so the words would not be understood through wired walls, kept the telephone under big feather-filled pillows so the microphone inside the receiver could not register the talking in the room—even if it was just small talk. Ultimately we developed a syncopated language and a cryptic vocabulary.

Forbidden were ancestral traditions. Wearing a bridal gown as a bride was against communist moral and ethics. So was going to church or temple, or even claiming a religious identity. If caught, not only the transgressor's career was over, but that of his or her immediate relatives too. Forbidden were words we'd been using for generations, traditional words that defined the very language we spoke, Missis, Missus, Miss, Madam, Sir, gentlemen, Mister—they had to all be replaced with "comrade." Not being able to find food in what was once one of the food producing countries of Europe, living in cold houses, not having milk for newborn children because of political manipulation and mismanagement, was now the reality we took for granted, just as "granted" as we took the Russians at the border and the big, bad atomic bomb.

I used to think we were a clinically neurotic society, trying to compensate for the abnormalities in our world by escaping to other worlds. For some it was drinking, for many it was friendship, art, adultery, promiscuity, you name it. We didn't have access to hallucinatory drugs; they could have been some salvation. One of the ways we were trying to compensate, particularly the young, well-educated teenagers and adults, was bravado. Standing up in some way to the nonsense. Usually speaking out in a crowd or at a party, disregarding the possible snitch amongst us, trying to have insinuating texts published or read publicly. Very mild and veiled stuff, but boy, what an irresponsible bravado! It had to be done wisely, or else one would be destroyed by the first such act. Those who tried were heroes for a day. Fear, bone-marrow sucking fear was always part of it. Whether being brave or just witnessing someone being brave, we were all in danger.

I never planned to leave Romania until I did. Given the options of prison or mental ward, it was the only sane choice. I wasn't anybody famous, but then again, nor were the other political prisoners or patients in the mental hospital. I knew I was being watched closely. I had already been interrogated a couple of times, asked to join the secret police or else, and reminded by a figure of authority about my Jewish grandfather. "Why don't you leave?" he asked. Why didn't I? I had never considered myself Jewish. I still believed democracy was possible even in a Balkan context. I did not know any other language but Romanian, and I had a passion to write. Why wasn't I leaving?

When one was asked by a Securitatae agent why one was not leaving the country, one was actually being put on notice. There was a going joke at the time about a Party meeting on how too improve the failing economy by farming and exporting more of the great Romanian variety of bees. One participant at the meeting asks how much the government is getting from Israel per capita on the Jews emigrating to Israel. By comparison, it would have been a far more lucrative business to export the Jews. So there I was, ready to be exported. I, who never considered myself Jewish, I, who as a child thought of myself as the direct descendent of the Daco-Romans and of the heroic voievozi.

All the young outspoken people were crushed or silenced if they chose to remain outspoken. There were many methods. Interrogation was only the mildest of them, sort of a muscle-flexing stage. I myself went through three interrogations in one year before I decided to leave. These were not my first experiences with interrogation, either. They were becoming increasingly violent. I was watched, listened to on the phone, friends were told not to stay friends with me, my letters were opened, my drawers were searched. This was a general state of affairs for many us. It was what we took for granted. One expected his phone to be monitored, one expected to have his letters opened, one expected to have a neighbor or a brother tattletale on the political sins of the family, one expected and suspected his family to be the enemy. But we survived, not even considering our life miserable, since it was the only one we knew. We talked a lot, complained, swore, joked. Some, after being interrogated, stopped being so openly and publicly outspoken. Of those who could, many left the country—almost an entire generation fled Romania.

At a party once I spoke while in the wrong crowd. The general whining was going on, the passive complaining about the state of the "things," and I said, "Let's go out and demonstrate. Let's go out in the city's main square and ask for 'things,' ask for change." It was a party, not a political arena. I wasn't at the podium, and there was no blueprint for a revolution. It was said as a bitterly ironic statement, not an as an instigation to civil unrest, but what followed was one more interrogation. I was lucky. Not only was I well-connected in the country, I also had a lot of friends in public relation places in Paris, so they didn't beat me up as they did other "long-tongued" individuals and "contra-revolutionaries." At that interrogation I was told that my passport would be ready in a couple of months. And indeed it was. One of the guys who interrogated me was a friend of my father's. I went to school with his children, and my mother use to play canasta with his wife. Maybe that kept me from physical harm, too. By the way, his own children left for Paris a year later.

There is a lesson from all this I hope to be able to teach my own children. Something learned only after I left Romania. For many months after I came to America, I was bewildered and furious with the things Americans take for granted; talking about anything, anywhere and at any time, to the point that it seems disrespectful; expecting to have and to be allowed to assume the world around them, no questions asked; pornography, flag burning, impudent talk, the arrogance and insolence of freedom. I questioned it all at first, but I've learned better. There are things that have to be taken for granted. The right to the human condition is to be taken for granted. No one should have to fight for it. The right to freedom, to one's own opinions, are to be taken for granted, because nobody should be allowed to take these rights away. These rights just are. Inherent to humans. I know for many parts of the world these rights are utopian. I know my old reality still exists in many places, but it shouldn't.

One of the hardest habits to give up after coming to the U.S. was the habit of looking for signs of deceiving/deceptive speech, attitudes, gestures, in everyday contact with regular folks. My mind, used to working on a few levels at once, could not be convinced that the data it had to deal with on these shores didn't have to be interpreted in several ways to extract the hidden meaning, the danger, the conspiracy. Getting rid of fear was hard. I just knew I would be followed and under observation as long as I was going to be in Europe, and even here in America for a while. That's why I refused to give interviews to Radio Free Europe or get involved with Amnesty International when I was asked. I had to protect the ones left behind, parents, brothers. I still believe I was under observation for a while after leaving Romania, but I can't ever be sure.

Once I left I could not stay in touch with most of my friends and family. It would have been a "black spot" on their records to have a relative, a friend, in a capitalist country. My cousins erased me from their family and public records, sending secret apologies and final farewells. Friends never answered letters, never called my parents for news.

It took me years to understand social and political normalcy, to adjust to it, and those long ominous shadows from the past still visit me now and again.

I had to laugh one day when, after fifteen years of being in the good ol' Garden State, eight years after the fall of the people's republics in Eastern Europe, listening to a friend telling a Romanian political joke on the phone, I froze. I had to go through an elaborate thought process to realize that 1) I was in America as a U.S. citizen, and 2) Romania was no longer a dictatorship. My first impulse had been to quickly interrupt the friend telling the joke, to stop him before he could get to the punchline. The joke was an old one, one we used to whisper to one another in the past. Never would we dare say such a joke on the phone where spying ears were always listening. In a split second, panic, realization of true context, wonderment at the residual fear and pain, shame, feelings of inadequacy, surprise and humor at the whole situation passed rapidly through my mind, but nonetheless, my hands were shaking and my knees stayed weak for a good few minutes afterwards.

I was living in America now, not the America of my youthful dreams and imagination, not even the America of the tv news snippets I used to watch in the sixties. That America, I had found out, if it had ever existed as I had thought of it, didn't exist any longer. Now the news in America was much more complex. It was welfare and prisons, racial discrimination and crime, pork and lobbyist, budget crisis and elections, free speech and flag burning, gay marriages and interracial adoptions, antiabortion demonstrations and redistricting, bussing and home schooling, technological revolution and the internet, cloning and health care. I was reading about America's past, the one I thought I had known from tv: the Jim Crow laws, McCarthyism, black-listed artists, Vietnam atrocities, poverty—things that were never shown on our tv's back then.

But for the teenage girl whose dress had been ripped off of her on the street on account of government policy, whose poems had been banned from the school's magazine because they contained the words "a world hermetically shut," who after one interrogation by the Securitatea knew she had to watch what she said and to whom she spoke about "the powers," those old tv images of Americans on the streets, in campuses, shouting what they thought of their government, what they believed in, what they wanted, for that teenage girl, that was the image of freedom if ever there was any. For her, America had avenues and ways to change what was wrong, while Romania had only dead ends and Russians at the border.


Previous Piece Next Piece