My Earliest Memories of Romania

Born During the Height of Communism

Starving Romanians waiting hours in line in the hopes of getting some bread
Starving Romanians waiting hours in line in the hopes of getting some bread

My story begins in the fall of 1986, in the city of Timisoara, Romania. I was born during a time when seeds of what would become the Romanian Revolution of 1989 were being sown. A time when workers throughout various cities in Romania were mobilizing and beginning to protest Romania’s dictator Ceausescu’s economic policies.

Unrest and discontent were at an all-time high. Romanian’s were sick and tired of living under austerity measures and getting ravaged by the failed systems of communism. Despite the turmoil that was brewing, Ceausescu continued to reduce worker’s wages as if he was deaf to the longing voices of the citizens he was starving and disenfranchising.

1986 saw what were the first of the major protests which would eventually become the spark that lit the powder keg that became the Romanian Revolution. The Revolution kicked off 3 years later in 1989, in my birth city of Timisoara.

As you can clearly see, the unrest, the resistance of communism, and the revolution, all of these things, they all loop back to my birth. I was born as opposition to communism, and as a sign of the change and better times to come.

Of course, I’m only kidding about the statements in my last two sentences. I do, however, take pride in my birth year and city due to the historical significance they play in Romania’s history. Unfortunately, or fortunately, whichever way you want to look at it, my earliest memories of that city, and time period, only extend as far back to the first 5 years of my life.

I only lived in Romania for 5 years because, in 1991, due to the atrocities and religious persecution we endured under the ex-communist regime, my family was granted refugee status to the United States. In the winter of that same year we packed up our belongings, hoped on a plane, and flew to what became my new home for the next 24 years, the land of the free and home of the brave, the USA.

Why are Some Memories More Vivid than Others?

Some Memories are as Vivid as a Crisp Photograph
Some Memories are as Vivid as a Crisp Photograph

I read somewhere once that the more traumatic an experience is, or the more emotions involved in that experience, that the clearer the memories surrounding that experience will remain. Although I don’t consider my first 5 years in Romania traumatic, they must have been full of emotions because I retain, as clear as day, many vivid and colorful memories of those first 5 years of my life.

Another possible reason of why the memories of the first few years of my life living in Romania are so rich could be because of the drastic change I endured in moving to a new land. Meeting different people, observing new infrastructure, experiencing a foreign language, it’s possible all these things were somewhat traumatic events for my young self.

If that’s the case, it could be that my brain went into self-preservation mode and wired all my previous memories deep into my long-term memory banks so that I wouldn’t forget where I came from.

Whatever the reason is that I am able to, to this day, recall as if they happened yesterday, bright and vivid recollections of my childhood, I’m glad that that reason happened. The memories I hold of living in Romania from 1986 to late 1991 are some of my best prized possessions. They are memories I would often visit and relive while growing up in country thousands of miles away from where the memories, such as the time I was scarred for life in Romania, originated.

Earliest  Romanian Memories

Kids Growing up During Communism
Kids Growing up During Communism

During the communist era of Romania, a middle-class virtually didn’t’ exist. You were either poor, like 95% of the population, or you were a wealthy well ranking member of the communist party. My family fell into the former category. In hindsight, this was a positive because my early memories don’t involve meaningless material possessions, and my family didn’t share in the burden of bringing the country to its knees.

I am proud of the fact that my earliest memories aren’t tainted by possessing the latest gadget and toys, or having dreams of grandiosity and wealth. I have memories of growing up as a child in a world that wasn’t yet infected by cellphones and the other intrusive technologies that are so prevalent today.

My early memories consist of things such as, exploring unfamiliar areas, getting dirty, discovering animals, and building deep bonding, meaningful friendships with neighborhood kids.

My childhood memories in Romania are also of a family sticking together through tough living conditions such as, poverty, food shortages, energy rationing, and other painful burdens brought on by communism. My memories also contain the sincere and friendly faces of close family friends who we exchanged support, pleasantries, and warm meals with during a cold time in our histories.

I remember not taking anything for granted, and although not owning much, appreciating everything we did have. I recall the sheer joy and pleasure we would derive from something as simple as being able to savor and eat, what during those times was a rare commodity, a delicious orange or banana.

I remember my mom staying up late into the night baking delicious Romanian pastries to share with carolers from our church who visited every Christmas season and serenaded us with beautiful songs late into the hours of night.

A Time for Television

Tom and Jerry - Romanian Children's Favorite Cartoon
Tom and Jerry – Romanian Children’s Favorite Cartoon

Because we didn’t own a TV, and when we did have a chance to watch one we were restricted to a couple of hours per week, some of my most pleasurable memories include watching the crazy antics of Tom and Jerry.

Romanian parents of the day somehow instinctively knew that kids shouldn’t be raised by televisions and that exposure to them should be limited. This made the times we did get to watch TV exciting and very enjoyable.

Of course, since we were children, our parents were smart enough to limit our TV intake to cartoons only. Watching only cartoons was something we were all too pleased by anyway. The pleasurableness in getting to watch TV was extended by the fact that it was a shared experience among friends and neighbors.

Groups of neighborhood kids would gather at the few homes of the families that owned television sets and sit and delight in the cartoons together. While we sat bunched up on the ground in front of the TV, the younger smaller kids would use the laps of the older bigger kids as chairs and back supports.

It was quite the site to behold, 15 or so kids huddled together, all squirming and pleasurably laughing at the hilarity of the cartoons being displayed on the screen.

Before Tablets and Xboxs, there Were Toy Cars and Broken Mirrors

A Romanian Toy Car
A Romanian Toy Car

As a child in Romania, I didn’t own many plastic toys, but my favorite ones that I did own were my toy cars. They weren’t much, but they were everything I needed. It wasn’t the amount or the sophistication of the toys that mattered, it was the creativity in the way they were played with that counted.

Because child abductions, and ilk of that nature, were virtually non-existent in Romania during that time period, we as children were given liberty to travel and roam freely around our neighborhoods willy-nilly.

This ability to wander freely allowed me to drive my toy cars down dirt tracks and over building railings, to take them on rocky hill climbs, and speed them down steep slopes, to maneuver them around potholes in sidewalks, and to take them on exploration trips through each and every single pipe or tubing I came across. The amount of creativity I was allowed was endless, the world was literally my playground.

Besides my toy cars, my other favorite “toy” I had growing up in Romania was a broken piece of mirror I found one day at a construction site. If exploring the world through the tires of my hot wheel cars brought out my adventurous side, owning a piece of broken mirror brought out my mischievous side.

You see, I discovered at that early age that the sun reflecting off a mirror could be aimed and used as a weapon to temporarily blind unsuspecting victims. I remember wondering around the neighborhood in search of targets (my favorite type being the elderly) to blind.

Once a target was found, usually sitting on a bench or outside on some apartment steps, I would position myself in a hidden place where I could strike from. I’d then angle the mirror to bring up a sun reflection, id then take the reflection and slowly maneuver its beam into the eyes of my victim.

I’d get such joy and delight in watching my prey suddenly and violently thrown their arm into a hover over their face in an attempt to block out the eye scorching ray. Even better was when they would shift to a new spot on the bench, only to have me strike them in their eye again from a different angle.

This whack-an-eye game would often continue for a while until the victim finally gave up and wondered away in a disgruntled and confused manner, swearing under their breath as they left.

I loved my piece of mirror and often spent hours honing my skills with it. I’d test out increasing the ranges and depths of where I could shine its reflection. My experiments also included attempts at increasing the beams intensity.

I feel sorry for the eyeballs of the poor pigeons I used as test targets. I wouldn’t doubt if many of them ended up flying into telephone wires after I was finished with them. My piece of broken mirror was to me what Dennis the Menace’s slingshot was to him.

Sledding in the Summer

The Perfect Type of Hill for Summer Sledding
The Perfect Type of Hill for Summer Sledding

Another favorite pastime I shared with neighborhood kids growing up in Romania was summer sledding. Yes, such a thing is possible, and yes, it was dangerous, thrilling, and most importantly, fun.

Summer sledding works like this; first you find a dirt or gravel mound (the bigger the better). Second, you find or “borrow” a rug or carpet (sometimes trash bags). Third, you climb the mound and then either by yourself, or with a partner, mount the rug like a sled, kick your feet to gain traction, and slide down the hill as if you were sledding down some snow.

Now, I don’t think I need to point out what the dangers in doing this are now do I? But I think I will anyways. First, if you fall off your “sled” you don’t have snow to cushion your fall and slow you down. You’re going to end up with scraped up bloody knees, dirt up your nose, and possibly a missing tooth or two by the time you tumble your way to the bottom.

Second, these hills were often found at construction sites leftover from workers who also discarded various debris into them. A hill a kid was sliding down could contain nails, broken glass, or any another type of unforeseen dangerous object.

We children knew those risks all too very well because it wasn’t a strange occurrence to occasionally see the casualty of a bloodied knee, arm, or face, that would often befall a fellow playmate.

The potential dangers didn’t stop us though. Make of this as you will, but for some reason, the potential risk of danger actually increased the enjoyment and fun we got from doing our summer sledding.

Memories of the Romanian Revolution

A tank in Timisoara's city center during the revolution
A tank in Timisoara’s city center during the revolution

As I noted at the start of this blog post, the Romanian Revolution of 1989 kicked off in my birth city of Timisoara. Although I was only 3 years old in the months leading up to, and during the revolution, I still clearly remember knowing even then that rare political turmoil was afoot. I remember my parents taking me to see the spectacle that was the massive crowd of protesters gathered together in the city center.

I recall hearing the crowd’s chants for change, feeling the anger in their voices, and witnessing their numbers grow as casual passer-byers abandoned their courses and joined in.

I recollect feeling stunned at seeing so many people being able to effortlessly, in unison, alternate between chanting, yelling, and singing. It was fascinating time and my senses were on high alert. You could feel it in the air that something big was coming and that nothing was going to stop it. God Bless Timisoara!

The energy from the protests only grew stronger and spread wider. I remember in the days following the initial protests that everyone’s mannerisms were changed. People were walking with a sense of urgency and a demeanor of do or die, life and death.

I remember seeing adults meet around corner streets, look both ways, whisper to each other, and then vanish as quickly as they appeared. Everyone in Timisoara knew what was coming, of course it wasn’t spoken or broadcasted, but everyone knew the line in the sand had been crossed and it was now time for change.

Once Ceausescu’s regime got word of the protests and unrest taking place in Timisoara, they sent in the military to quash and terminate the brewing revolt. This didn’t settle well with the, up until now peaceful protestors, and violence erupted.

Panic spread across the families throughout Timisoara at the sound of gun fire and the site of tanks patrolling the streets. Some of the firefighting that took place in the city happened right in front of our apartment building in the neighborhood of Calea Lipovei.

I remember my family members all laying down, ear to the ground, as far away from our apartment windows as possible, shades drawn, as bullets literally whizzed by outside.

We remained on the ground in our dark apartment for many hours at a time throughout the few days that fighting took place. Anytime we heard any type of outside noise we would shut off our lights and dive to the floor. The only time I recall being allowed outside once the fighting started was when we heard helicopters fly overhead.

My dad briefly took me outside so we could look upon something neither of us had ever seen. The helicopters were flying so low and close to us that they imprinted in my memory a very vivid recollection of their distinct features and design.

The helicopters were so loud and seemed so out of place to me. They hovered and invaded the very sky I had previously, and pleasantly, viewed thousands of times prior to them occupying it. Looking back at it now, me as a tiny child standing there next to my dad, during a time of war, watching helicopters in awe, knowing they didn’t belong there, seems like the type of scene one could only find in a movie.

After the fighting in Timisoara had ended and it was believed to be safe to return out into the streets my dad took me on an exploratory mission around the city. I remember examining bullet holes we saw in car windshields and in the surrounding buildings.

The city had a quiet and dreary feeling to it, but at the same time, a weird feeling of a rebirth of sorts. The memories of living through, and then walking around and examining the aftermath of the Revolution, are memories that will remain with me for life.

Final Memories

My final memories in Romania consist of my parents taking us kids by train to Bucuresti to catch our flight to the USA. In Bucuresti we stayed cramped in a small family friend’s apartment for a few days while preparations for the move were finalized. In those final days I remember knowing that we were leaving Romania, my beloved home, but I didn’t know the significance of how drastic this change would be.

I didn’t know where I was going but I knew I was leaving my childhood playmates behind. I knew I would no longer see the kids I would have Cornete wars with. I realized I would never again play card games like shaptika with my gypsy friend Stellu. I was sad knowing I was leaving behind everything I knew as a tradeoff for moving to a place I knew nothing about.

What cheered me up however was the optimism my parents displayed and the way they described how life would change for the better in America. My parents ended up being right and I consider them moving us to the USA to be one of the greatest things they ever did for the family. Not because then, or even know, I had issues with Romania, but because Romania ended up going through very tough times even after the Revolution ended.

The opportunities afforded to me in the US are ones I could only have dreamed of had I remained in Romania. However, now, 24 years after leaving, and because of these reasons, I am back in Romania making new memories, meeting new friends, and discovering new experiences. Things that no doubt, will remain with me for life.