I grew up in a small town in communist, Romania, near the Ukrainian border, in the 1980s. This period was the most oppressive, with extreme austerity measures. I remember the blackouts were frequent and the streets were mostly dark at night. We didn't have running water in our home, so it would bathe at family members would lived in apartment buildings. However, they received huddle water only a few times a week.
My most vivid memories are of endless lines. We lived in a state of constant scarcity. People had ration cards, but the shelves and stores were empty. On the rare occasion the store receives something exotic, like oranges, lines would form in the early hours and people pushed and shoved their way once the store opened. Barter and favor systems were widely use and corruption was part of everyday life. A pack of cigarettes bought you a lot of goodwill.
My family was lucky because we lived next to the town's bread factory. My grandmother, along with most of the neighbors had developed friendships with factory workers in order to obtain fresh bread. Alcohol was a preferred currency. The process of obtaining the bread was often humiliating. I remember my grandmother had to crawl through a hole in the fence next to the factory dumpster and search for a stashed bag of bread.
It was a constant state of fear, also. Anyone could be an informant. Even close family members. So people were cautious, secretive. My mother was an English teacher and had some connections abroad. She also encouraged her students to correspond with their counterparts in the West through a pen pal program. I believe her actions were seen as a threat. And so, we had a colonel of Securitate (state police) appointed to us.
I will never forget when we heard loud, incessant banging on our door late one night. I was around six years old. The colonel demanded to be let in and speak with my mother. I was terrified. I remember asking my grandmother what was going on. She tried to reassure me, but I could tell her that she was also scared. My mother later told us that the colonel tried to entrap her by getting her to speak ill of the government.
Then in 1989, we heard about the start of the revolution on Radio Free Europe. My mother went to Bucharest, the capital, to protest, and my brother went to see family. In the evening, my grandmother and I listened to the latest news.
One day, as I was playing by myself on the deserted street, a car suddenly sped by with a cutout flag flying on its roof. Someone in the car was shouting through a megaphone short updates about the revolution. I heard commotion coming from the center of town, so I headed there. The police station was overwhelmed by protestors. Pieces of paper were thrown from the windows. Police officers were running away. The car kept blaring fragments of information as it zoomed by. A convoy personnel carriers arrived to the scene and soldiers streamed out. There was tension between the army and the protestors. Ole, ole, ole came from the car as it sped by. Ceausescu was caught. A few days later, I watched him and his life executed on national TV.
After the revolution, my brother was among the first to study in Netherlands for a year. I visited him with my mother during our summer break. This was my first trip out of the country and I was so excited. As we traveled by train, I anxiously awaited the moment when we crossed the border. I think I expected something imposing, impenetrable. Something that lived up to the commanding image the border had in my imagination. The train line ended in a country that had a train station serving the East, and one serving the West. I was mesmerized as I entered a Western station. Behind us where the old, decrepit trains, and now we traveled in what seemed great luxury.
On our return back to Romania, the doors of a train unexpectedly closed separating me from my mother. I remember I was in consolable. The train conductor had to sit with me while we traveled across Germany. Through drawings I understood he wanted me to give my address. Even though I was extremely shy, I wrote the address of where we visited. A part of me didn't want to go back to Romania.
However, we weren't in Romania long before we received a surprise invitation from my brothers pen pal in the United States. This opportunity seemed out of reach yet, despite all odds, we were granted visitor visas and were allowed to leave.