Romanians Talking about Their Lives before ’89

AUGUST 23

Party instructors would go to factories and schools and would recruit employees or pupils.  Preparations for this day would start two months ahead of time.  The whole show would take place in the Aviatorilor Square, where two tribunes would be set up: to the right, the tribune for Ceauşescu and the Central Committee members and to the left, the tribune for the foreign officials.  The asphalt was marked with chalk, so that you would know where to place yourself.

The convoy would start off in Piaţa Unirii and follow the whole boulevard on foot, until it would get to Piaţa Aviatorilor.  You felt like dying until you got there.  You were not allowed to eat or drink until you finished your march.  Once the marching was over, you could eat and drink.  On the sidewalks, there were barmen or waiters from various restaurants.  They would come with a table, covered with a white tablecloth, with a bottle of gas water, and a two-burner stove or plate-warmer and they’d boil hotdogs in a large, 15-20-kg pot, covered with an aluminum lid.  They’d use a pair of metal pliers to take the hotdogs out and place them on a piece of carton, along with some mustard mixed with water and a bread roll.  Everything was for a fee.  You could buy a “Cico”*, too; it cost 2 lei a bottle.

They’d note you down in a list – to mark that you had taken part in the event.  If you refused to participate, they’d sanction you. The manifestation would start at 8 a.m. and end at 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.  The first ones to march would be the army, then the folks from the sanitary department, then the groups of civilians representing the factories.  Each factory had a patriotic guard, made up of men who, although had been in the army, were permanently trained and informed as to the latest types of armament, so that they don’t lose their touch and be ready in case of war.  Then the pioneers** would follow.  Those that were called over would run with bouquets of flowers over to the tribunes on the right and left.  Then the workers would march in, in distinct groups, according to the factories they worked for.  Each factory would shout several slogans that had been established ahead of time by the inspectors from the Party sector.

The factories were grouped together based on the Bucharest districts, regardless of their field of activity, and the people were trained to form various symbols or texts with their bodies.  The group of girls I was part of wore white sneakers, white socks, kimono-cut dresses, with metal studs, narrower in the upper part of your body and wider in the lower part, which barely covered your behind, and red underwear.  You’d wear two dresses of two different colors.  Once a text was formed using the red dress, you’d squat, put your head down so that they don’t see anything else but the text, you’d pull the studs open and you’d be left in the blue dress.  You’d hold the red one packed tightly in your hand.  The pioneers would sometimes hold white pigeons in their hands that they would let loose.  Workers would get the placards and flags from the factories.  The flags would be mainly be given to the men, who resented them because they had thick ropes and were heavy to carry around. (M.V.)

ACTIVIST       

= A salaried person, in charge with organizing the Party and union activities.  The cultural activist would organize everything that pertained to “culture”: contests, festivals etc.  If, in the ’50s and the ’60s, activists whose “studies” were limited to four years were still around, in the ’80s, most of them had certificates that they’d obtained after going to evening or “non-frequency” classes; some of them were also “Ştefan Gheorghiu” graduates.

I consider the words of one union activist guy – his name was Marghidan – memorable.  After presenting us the inept activities that he was proposing, he once said: “Comrades, it’s not pleasant, but it’s mobilizing.”  (121)

I also went to those party meetings, those gatherings.  They would say that everything was done upon the Comrade’s indication.  Nobody else would assume any further responsibility: “The Comrade said that, the Comrade did this, the Comrade did that”.  If the Comrade said something, the “doggies” below him would make the issue bigger and, by the time it’d get to us, it was amplified … or maybe at times he may have never say anything at all, but these guys would step forward and to something, just to get into the limelight.  Therefore, those doggies were the link between us, the grass root, and the Party’s Central Committee; it was these folks in between that would blow things out of proportion.  Maybe they’d come from up there with a certain task; but by the time it would get to us, they’d have “swollen” it into something else.  Or vice versa, often times, something would have to be transmitted from our level up there, and by the time it’d get there, it’d get bigger and bigger, by word of mouth.  If someone would say, “Well, I exceed the production schedule by 5-10 percent”, by the time it’d get up to the higher level it was 15 or 20 percent.  So all this was the making of these political run-arounds, who’d swell, and swell, and swell things out of proportion, while nobody would assume any responsibility for it. 

The phrase was “The Comrade has said”, and that was it.  They’d go: “Oh, the Comrade said that we should do this or that” and nobody would dear utter a sound, because they were afraid of the Comrade. (25)

I found that even the detested activist species – whether they were UTC*** or PCR**** activists – sometimes had their “antennae” and sensitivities.  The first time I got to learn this lesson was during a UTC meeting (where I was the most insignificant member, jostled in among the “progressive youth” in spite of myself, as early as my high-school years).  A comrade with an opaque glance, who was on the board of the organization in our college, threw me a virulent and unexpected accusation of “cosmopolitism”, thus applying me a label laden with guilt, which was to drag after me for a long time afterwards.

To this day, I still have trouble comprehending the irrevocably pejorative nuance that the word cosmopolitism carried at the time.  Rather, I would say that this word does not exclude the idea of brightness, openness, and many other qualities.  But, back in those times, the person who was unfortunate enough to be thus tagged would be thrown into the camp of the biggest enemies of society.  I still remember my twitch of revolt in that instant, and the haste with which my friend sitting next to me grabbed my arm and whispered: “Be quiet!”

In our terrible poverty, the only cosmopolitan things that one could have accused me of were my readings and my shoes.  The comrade in question had no way of knowing about my books, since he was living in a world that had nothing to do with Poe’s short novels, translated into French by Baudelaire (the height of cosmopolitanism!), which I used to read stealthily, under my desk, during the Marxist Dialectics classes.  As to the invaluable shoes, I would get them from a friend of mine, who had been blessed by the Providence with an aunt who had fled to Paris, whence she would occasionally send her niece modest samples of capitalist welfare, which would end up with me, if the shoes were too small for the addressee.  However, the shoes were not luxurious enough, to draw anyone’s attention.

I wasn’t more cosmopolitan than many of my college mates.  In fact, the man had expressed, in the activist language, his antipathy towards me. (S.C.H.)            

SCHOOL ACTIVITIES

They ranged from raising rabbits, collecting medicinal plants directly from the fields, to collecting snails.  In Şindriliţa it was pleasant, the activities could be likened to pleasant outings.  The funniest activity in Şindriliţa was tending to silkworms, which formed their cocoons all over the place, in the library, etc., as there were no proper conditions for such a thing; but the whole thing had a comical side.  Now, once one ended up in Bucharest [like I did], after I moved to Elementary School no. 20, those guys would take stuff seriously.  They used to tell us things like: “Bring us 5 kilograms of paper, bring us so many kilograms of scrap iron, bring us so many kilograms of medicinal plants…” Where in God’s name could you have picked medicinal plants among the Bucharest blocks of flats?  Now, for linden tree flowers, it worked a little better; one could climb up a tree and pick; that’s why linden trees’ branches in Bucharest looked like they had been torn off every spring.  Also during that period, the government had come up with a genius idea, which had to do with farming each plot and patch of land in Bucharest… that’s why we didn’t have enough to eat in those days, because instead of flowerbeds, we didn’t grow carrots! […] (A.S.)

THE BLOCK ADMINISTRATOR  

Under communism, the blocks of flats developed a specific kind of psychology.  As part of a block of flats, each apartment owner would become a member in a community that operated like a whole.  The block administrator was the one who held the real estate documents for the building and also acted as a link to the “official bodies”.  That is, he was the one that the Militia and the Securitate would ask about every one of us; which is why, during the ’80s, this kind of personage had become quite insolent and domineering.

I remember that one day, as I got back from work, “uncle” Presură, our administrator, waylaid me in the entrance hall of our apartment building: “Just a minute, Ma’am, if I may, I have something to talk to you about”.  He pulled me over to the side a bit, lowered his voice, grabbed my elbow intimately and told me that two comrades from work had come to ask questions about me and my life.  Poor Presură, he was a nice man, limited and full of importance at the same time.  He told me how he and a couple of other neighbours had talked highly of me and how he’d wondered how come there was no husband that could be found in my work environment for a good woman such as myself.  Before I could react in any way, as I was standing there looking at him with my mouth open, “uncle” Presură hastened to suggest a good match – namely, the neighbor living on the seventh floor, a retired Securitate man, with access to the Ministry of Internal Affairs shop, and man attached to house and family values.  I remember that the most difficult part was to get away from the familiarity of the well-meaning administrator in a kind way.  I felt like I was dirty from head to toe.  The hand with which I was holding my bag weighed like a ton all of a sudden; at home, I couldn’t even take a shower, since the tub was full with reserve water.  I went all the way up to my apartment, on the tenth floor, and prepared a smiling face for my young daughter, who was waiting for me. (V.M.)  

 

ELECTIONS  

 

One could not talk about elections, since there was no one to be suggested as a candidate.  You would go to vote as you do now – they’d just put a stamp on your ID.  Ceauşescu was the only name on the list, so… For all other elections – for the mayor, state secretary etc. positions – they would eat up one another, questioning each other as to why that person or that person had turned up a winner.  One year, I was assigned as a supervisor, being also one of the vote counters, down in a constituency in our town hall.  Whenever we would open the votes we’d see them full of scratches, bad words and other such things, addressed to the names that were on the list of candidates; however, none of us there would pretend having seeing anything of the sort, for fear of being otherwise reprimanded by the Party people – the other supervisors.  But even the votes from these voters’ lists had to be counted anyway, because there was a certain number that had to be reported in the end – it had to, even if the actual number of votes was different (I’ve lost count of the times we had to “swell” the numbers up, only because they had to match what was requested “from above”), because they would know that, say, in constituency X, there were 3,500 people on the lists of voters – therefore, you had to count 3,498 in the end, and all of them had to appear like they’d voted Ceauşescu. (O.S.)

Back in those days, I would go to vote in a music high-school.  I would get into the cabin with the voting bulletins, I’d pull the curtain and read the candidates’ names.  They were women; therefore, I would draw a line over their names and write with my ballpoint: Ana Ipătescu and Ecaterina Teodoroiu (5).  It would make me feel so good. (Anonymous)

The voting would take place on a Sunday.  It was set up like that, on Sundays, not far from home, so that you’d be “in the area”, so that they can “catch” one, so that everyone would be covered by some administrative district or another [and no one would be able to say:] Oh, wait, it was on Sunday, but it was at work!  In colleges or high-schools, only the people over 18 would vote.  Teachers would vote at their workplace, students – in their colleges, and the rest of the working people, at their respective jobs.  It wasn’t the only working Sunday, so you had no other way but accepting this one, too.  The craze was that 8 a.m. was the time when the voting was due to end.  You heard me well, the voting ended at 8 in the morning.  It started as early as possible.  Between 6:30 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. there was this endless hysteria in the whole of Bucharest, in every sense of the word…  The voting paper in itself had four columns: the item number, the name, and then “YES” and “NO”.  You were supposed to sign either under “YES” or “NO”.  The Party secretary or the union president or whoever was the authority figure in your institution would hold his/her hand on the “NO” column, therefore you had no choice – you had to sign under “YES”.  Open voting.  Clearly, there was no way you could get round it. You had to attend, you had to sign… (I.H.)

THE GROCERY STORES

You could hardly find anything, and products were very expensive (the ones you did find).  The thing was to “know someone” in the grocery store and thus you’d be able to cater, more or less, for your needs.  In Bucharest, back in those days, they wouldn’t portion the sold goods, but there was a limit to how much you could buy (whenever the store would receive goods).  In the autumn, it was more relaxed, because you could buy a larger amount of products, especially from the fresh vegetable stores.  To be frank, in some ways, I had a better life then, than now.  It is certain that if you were smart and knew how to go about these things – that is, if you knew how to develop “contacts” – you would live well.  However, if you were able to find food products and people would see you come out of a grocery store with a bag full of products, while all the store shelves were empty, they could have gone as far as hit one.  (O.S.)

I remember that around ’82, the first waiting lines for butter started to form, and that they would sell two bars of butter per person, of 200 grams each.  A package would cost 8 lei; then they raised the price to 11 lei.  I know my niece had some acquaintances in the grocery store.  She was 10 years old, and since she was a cute child, she could get three or four bars of butter every time she’d go to the store.  It was so great! (C.V.)

My cousin used to run the Amzei marketplace. Whenever we’d meet, he’d tell me: “Listen, I help everybody, why don’t you look for me, I can’t stand seeing you waiting in a line!” He was my cousin Jorj, with whom I had spent my childhood. But I wouldn’t resort to him, because I thought it was debasing to go through the back door. Radu and I ate together at least a truckload of fish, in its own sauce. We also used to cook it in white sauce, in red sauce… we would “improve” it…

There was a time when Leonida, a traditional grocery store, would routinely sell salted carrots, tomato paste, champagne, and Vietnamese shrimp.  [For a long time] I meant to have a party and serve the above-mentioned products, but never came round to do it. Many people complained… however when you think about it, they would eat fine. I didn’t complain – but Radu and I ate very badly.  When my father lived, he used to call us and tell me: “Drop by and bring me your physician certificate, to wrap up some cheese in it for you; as I see it, you two will go starving”. (121)

FOOD

I remember how, as a child and then as a teenager, I would have to stand in lines for hours on end.  I sensed that something in my existence was drifting away irrevocably and I did not understand why one should get food in such a painful way.  I didn’t understand why people turned stiff and mean when it came to food and why they would push each other so much while standing in those lines.  Sometimes they would throw bad words at each other, or even pick up a fight.  The grocery store sellers would order people about, place them in line, offend them or reprimand them. 

One episode comes to mind: there was a line at the “Zgârţa” store and the seller was scolding the people.  A little girl turned and told her mother than when she grew up, she would like to be like Zgârţa. (6)

It was even more dramatic when, after hours of standing in line, I would still not get to buy anything.  I would tell myself that I would never stand in a line again, yet I’d resume the ordeal, because we had to get food. 

We would run around and stand in lines to get our daily bread.  In the countryside, bread was sold on tickets: half a loaf per person, daily!  You would get your bread and they’d check-mark your ticket, which is why countryside folks would travel to Bucharest [to get bread]. As a result of that, in 1987 or so, the government decided to allow three loaves of bread per person. Nevertheless, those living outside the capital would still come into town with their entire family, would buy bread from several stores and go home loaded with bread.  Sometimes, trains were full of bread bags.

The staple foods, like sugar, oil, flour, and – later on – chicken and eggs were all sold on tickets, on “rations”.  Families with more members were envied because they would get a larger amount of food.  My family had to accept the “ration” because otherwise we wouldn’t have had any food. Cooking oil would be supplied to stores in barrels, therefore it was “bulk oil”. I was very careful when the seller would weigh it for me, because I didn’t like to be cheated.  Sugar and flour would come in packages.     

Bucharesters could not buy bread and food in the countryside, even if they travelled there with work.  Or if you were, for example, from Breaza, you could not buy them in Cîmpina or Sinaia. 

For the rest of the products, you would have to stand in line.  Sometimes, they’d set up product days: for example, on Tuesday you would know that the store would get chicken, on Friday – hog bones.  It was a surprise if the store would get chicken on a Thursday. In such a case, there would be no line waiting outside the store.  Someone would come to our street and would tell people what the shop had received.  Everybody would drop whatever they were doing and would go to the grocery store.  They would sometimes even take time off from work in their factories, to do that.  

Dairy products would be delivered in the morning. The lines would form as early as 3 or 4 a.m.  Since they were not able to stand in a line for an extremely long time, people would place bags or boulders to “mark” their place in the line. Thus you would see long lines of plastic bags, net bags, and boulders with no owners.

But around 1987, one could no longer buy food in Bucharest.  They had started asking for one’s Bucharest ID.  (7) Not even the students were able to buy food. Meat grew ever more scarce, both in Bucharest and elsewhere. The stores would only sell bones that had been well cleaned of meat, that the people would call “Adidas”.  One would be happy to settle for those, too…

At the beginning of the 80s, you could buy fish cans and biscuits without having to stand in line for them. A slogan had been invented: “No meal without fish!”  Towards the end of the 80s, you couldn’t even find the “Eugenia” biscuits, with the spoiled cream inside.  Starting with 1987, you faced the fear and horror that you might starve to death. (**)

For sausage, for example, the lines were 10 to 20 people-long. Nothing like the lines for meat or milk… The “summer salami” (8) that they would sell, we’d wrap it in paper and would hang it out on the balcony. We would do that so that it would dry up – thus turning into “Sibiu salami” (9).  That’s what you would do, you would hang it out in the balcony and if it didn’t go bad, it would dry up!  Sausage was a delicacy.  It was something you could have done without… (I.H., S.R.B.) 

* Local “soft drink” brand, in those days.

** Communist equivalent of the girl/boy scout

*** Uniunea Tineretului Comunist – The Communist Youth Party

**** Partidul Comunist Român – The Romanian Communist Party

(5) Romanian historical figures 

(6) Derisive nickname – it comes from “zgârcit”, meaning “stingy”.

(7) Every Romanian citizen has an ID, which is issued by the town where he/she has a permanent residence.  Therefore if your ID indicated you didn’t live in Bucharest, you could not buy food there. 

(8) A type of local salami – fresh, not dry.

(9) A finer type of salami – but dry.

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