Cristina & Elena
Ohaba – Roumania, June 2023
„"It started well, but went on badly,"Cristina translates from her grandmother as we eat an afternoon snack in the kitchen of Elena's house. Elena, Cristina's grandmother, lives alone in her house. She has many chickens, an old dog and a large fruit and vegetable garden. Most of the food on the table is made from these fruits and vegetables; the aubergine salad, the tomatoes, the omelette…
A few days earlier, after half a night on the train between Budapest and Cluj-Napoca, I arrived at my destination, around 2 a.m. The train journey was somewhat stressful and uncomfortable. Few people travel on this long-distance train during the week. Interrail travellers aren’t to be seen yet, it is still too early in the summer season. Most of the passengers are men. The controller only says "hmm…" and looks at me strangely when he checks the tickets at about 23:30 and realizes I don’t speak Hungarian. We cross all of Hungary and stop at very small stations, which are often run down. I'm glad when considerably more people get on at the Romanian border town.
I've known Cristina for 3 years now and spent some time with her last year. At that time, she was living in a student dormitory, sharing a room with 3 other students. This time she lives in a rented flat with her younger sister. The buildings in the residential area have block numbers. I have to go to block #14. "Welcome to post-communist countries!", Cristina tells me when I ask her about the numbers.
Two days later we traveled from Cluj-Napoca to Brașov to visit her grandmother. I use the time on the train to ask Cristina a few questions. Cristina is 24 and finished her studies last year. She studied programming and computer science, which used to carry a lot of prejudices. "20 years ago, people thought that being a lawyer or a doctor was a safe and privileged profession. And now everyone is all about programming and coding because that's the future. I was in love with Maths, like obsessed with Maths during elementary school, and I thought, why not?". With 24 she already had several jobs: first as a housekeeper and community manager. Later she had more career-building jobs in programming; Remotely with an Irish company, and until a few weeks ago in a tech company in Cluj as a mobile developer. Cristina is ambitious and has a clear idea of what she wants: “I've been neglecting my creativity for a long while, and now I'm trying to kind of rebuild my way of seeing my career. I'm more into digital media stuff and want to go more in this direction.”In her jobs, she never felt discriminated against because of her nationality but while travelling she had many times uncomfortable comments and questions about Roumania, like “ Are you all G-Word or Can you be trusted ?” The bad stereotypes Romania carried for many years internationally are changing. In Erasmus in Dublin, she was happy and no longer ashamed “When I went shopping in special shops with Roumanian and east European food, I was glad to hear Roumanian.” During a visit to Strasbourg of the European Parliament, she felt proud that Roumanian Parliamentarians are trying to educate young generations. Cristina radiates optimism:"I am confident about the future, yes. But you should always be prepared in some way.“
We aren’t far from Brașov anymore, people next to us are slowly getting up, clearing their children's toys, taking off their headphones and putting on their sunglasses. After another 50-minute car ride, tightly packed together, we arrive at Bunica's house in the course of the afternoon. The village runs along a quiet road. In front of many of the houses, there is a bench: "That is the social media of the village, there you get all the gossip", Cristina says. A sign on the big steel gate says "Beware of the dog". In the small front garden sits the dog. He is very old and not as scary as the sign says, I am relieved. The shutters are all pulled down in the house, although it looks very much like rain and thunderstorms outside. But particularly noticeable in the house are the long carpets! Except for the kitchen and the bathroom, the floor is covered with carpets everywhere. Large rectangular carpets and over them narrow colourful and long carpets. A typical feature in Roumanian houses!
Cristina loves traditions. When we arrived at her grandmother's house, she first showed me the blouses and skirts she wears on special days, for Easter for example. The dresses are in a special room in her grandmother's house. The room feels like a relic of the communist era or simply a room that has lived through the decades. There are two pictures of the children in the communist uniform on the wall. In the picture, both children are wearing an orange shirt buttoned to the top with a pin and a thick red tie. They are staring intently at the camera.
In the late afternoon, we all sit together in the living room directly at the house's entrance on the corner couch. Cristina told me a few days earlier that she feels very connected to her grandmother. “I am an ambitious woman because I always wanted to be free. I want to have my own opinions. My grandmother understands this and always encourages me to be proactive about what I want. Like she was in her life, for her, it was not necessarily in her job but among the family. She was the head of the family and very strong. She always influenced my grandfather to make decisions and stand up for the family and kids. My Mum is actually somewhat afraid of her but I am really finding myself in her.” "Bună ziua, Elena” I say before Cristina translates the first question. Elena was born in 1947, the year the Romanian Socialist Republic was created and the first communist dictator was ruling.
At 24, Elena had been working for a long time already; she had started working in the factory at 16 years old learning to be a seamstress. Every day, she commuted on the train to Brașov. From the village, she had to walk 6 kilometers to the nearest train station. “My husband didn’t want to move to Brașov. I was ready to move there alone with the children, commuting and working many shifts was very tiring. ” Sometimes she even worked 3 shifts a day. “When I started working the access to food was sufficient, there were jobs and housing was provided for cheap prices. It was a few years later when I was 26 or 27, when we moved to Brașov that after my husband's shifts at the factory, he would wait in line for 3 hours to get a portion of butter or bread. Sometimes my son or daughter would come so they could take turns. Of course, you shouldn’t lose your place in the queue otherwise you might not get anything. The access to sufficient food got very difficult." For many years Elena was working in the factory and witnessed many acts of the communist regime: “When the dictator came to visit factories, the managers would borrow goods from other factories to brag about how much we could produce. This was not at all the reality since we were borrowing from the factories for one day or two!”. Elena remembers when the dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej died, she and the workers in the factory had to wear a black ribbon, to mourn the past Dictator. “Everyone, was ordered to do so from the factory, the chef was very patriotic” , she insists.
Collectivism is still something that is stuck with her today: “When I was about 17 or 18 years old, my parents did not want to sign the collective agreement. The school administration threatened not to let me continue my class if my parents did not sign.” Laterm eine Wohnung zu kaufen, überzeugte ihr Mann den Verwaltungsbeamten, oder man könnte sagen, er bestach ihn mit Produkten aus dem Dorf: Hühner, Lämmer und andere Lebensmittel, die in der Stadt wirklich selten zu finden waren. “Of course, it was illegal to have animals. You were supposed to declare them.” During the conversation, Cristina asked me: "Can I ask her a question? I would like to know what it was like right after communism." Elena laughs "After communism, everyone became a little entrepreneur! Many travelled to Turkey, bought things that were not available during the communism and sold them in Romania." Turkish influence has probably reached Roumania beyond the objects. On the small 2000s TV in the kitchen, runs a Turkish telenovela with Romanian subtitles.
During a discussion that all the women in the house have in Romanian, I hear the word "Revoluție. I jump in : can you tell us more - how it was? The discussion is about two revolutions against the communist regime during different times. The first one was from the factories of Brașov, which took place in November 1987. “The workers walked six kilometers from the biggest car factory to the Communist Central, hoping to start the revolution.” Brașov hatte viele große Autofabriken. “The 15th of November was the most shocking for me, no one expected the workers to try to start a revolution because everyone was scared of the *Securitate*. My husband was a fireman so he was forced to go and divide the demonstration.
The second one is the revolution that will finally bring the Ceaușescu Dictatorship to an end. “Our TV was not working well so we went to the neighbours, everyone gathered where the TV had the best signal to watch what was going on in the capital. It was difficult to understand at first. On the TV they were saying that terrorists from other countries came into Romania, but actually, there were the Romanians who wanted to take down Ceaușescu. They were repeating - Go down Ceaușescu, go down Ceaușescu. There was a lot of shooting we could see on the TV.” Elena adds: " They should have had a trial, to weigh the good and bad. They were shot directly.” Elena speaks about the dictator and his wife, Elena Ceausescu. They were shot on 25 December 1989. They had a short military trial with the main allegation of genocide. In the Romanian media, it was mentioned that, during the day, 60.000 people were killed but some numbers go to 2 million killed during the 24 years while Ceaușescu ruled. I remember Cristina telling me during a conversation: “It seems Western people don’t know enough about the communist crimes.”
We come to an end of the discussion, outside it is heavily raining for already one hour. “The garden must be completely flooded” I am thinking before I turn to Cristina and say „Letzte Frage für heute: Was verbinden du und deine Großmutter mit Macht? For Elena power means health and financial stability. The time she felt most powerful was actually very recently. During her vacation in Italy, actually her first vacation. She felt powerful and felt freedom because she was able to travel and provide for herself. Before we left on the train with Cristina and her sister, 2 days before, I asked Cristina at the end:“Do you want to add something ?” “Yes, actually I would like people to learn how to think for themselves. Find their own identity… which shouldn't be necessarily related to their country, but about their inner beings”.