Childhood: made in concrete

Galati by the Danube - courtesy of Wikipedia

Galati by the Danube – courtesy of Wikipedia

I grew up in a concrete environment. During communist Romania, blocks of flats emerged from the ground and spread across cities like mushrooms after a fresh rain, with no architectural purpose other than squeezing people in. Glued one next to the other and separated by thin walls, we could hear our neighbours putting a glass on the table. Because some families had been forcedly relocated from the countryside to the cities, they brought along their rabbits and hens and kept them on the balconies. Being woken up by a rooster was not such uncommon business.

To pass the time, we, kids of the blocks, would take care of the kittens and puppies that were systematically taken away from their mothers and thrown by well-intentioned neighbours in the huge collective garbage bins. Yes, Romania has a big collection of stray dogs and cats. These were the most exotic animals we had, and we bathed them and fed them in our apartments while our parents were our for work, named them, buried them and cried for weeks when they eventually died from poisoning or smashed by a car, as it was often the case.galati romania
Instead of having a playground, my generation played hide and seek among garages. We also discovered that the concrete was actually perfect for rollerblading: Romania thus gave rise to a generation of rollerbladers. All day every day during holidays we would skate along the Danube border (on the uneven asphalt of what we called ‘Faleza’). Chunks of it were close to collapsing into the water, making the ride all the more exciting.

Part of the holiday fun was robbing the few communal trees of their fruits. We used to think they were everybody’s trees because no one truly owned the small patches of land in front of the blocks where they were growing. Still, some people took possession resolutely, as often in life, considering that if they were occupying a flat on the ground floor and the patch was right in front of their window, it had to be theirs.

And they put a fence, and so did all the other inhabitants of other ground floors who had a window to the land. Some planted a tree or the tree might have been there before and all of a sudden the fence proved it belonged to someone. The improvised “land owners” sometimes even started cultivating vegetables and so whenever we accidentally dropped a ball in “their” courtyard, the item was either confiscated or claimed back with a lot of struggle and tough negotiation.

I didn’t have any relatives at the countryside like most of my friends. So when the city trees had ripe fruits, I was curious to climb and do the picking. I would then eat the fruits dirty and dusty as I found them, something which, had my mum known, would have caused her a panic attack. I was never convinced that I was committing the act of stealing, since the tree itself might have been confused as to the identity of its owner.

Since apart from rollerblading and fruit picking there was not much for the kids to do in my hometown Galati, we also took to playing tennis or rather squash. Most of the times, this meant banging a ball against the block’s wall. A wall behind which there was usually a family life trying to go on quietly. Not once were we cursed, chased, thrown water or tomatoes at for making noise and instructed metaphorically to go somewhere else. Which we did. To practise the same activity on walls that were a bit further down the alley, where people were not our direct neighbours.

Or else we were spending whole summers just gathered around a small camping table and playing cards. We were quite a number so we constantly swapped teams: the winners would sit down and continue to play with the new team and so on. I remember that once someone threw such a big plastic bag filled with water that it bent the wooden table that was positioned between me and my best friend quite badly when it landed. Water splashed on our faces with sudden violence and we remained blank faced, cards in the hand and just looking into each other’s eyes for long seconds, incredulous at to what had just happened. Then we laughed, of course. Analysing the damages thereafter, we concluded that, had that huge bag, most likely thrown from the 3rd floor, landed on one of our lovely heads, we might not have finished college after all.

We did a lot of asphalt drawing in the kindergarten, too. That’s when my parents realized that they needed to orientate me towards something different than the arts. We also did rope skipping. But my all-time favourite “game” was throwing myself from the block’s stairs onto the bars on which carpets were normally dashed. I was getting quite good at these improvised even bars. No wonder we have a country full of talented gymnasts. This went on daily until one of my neighbours spread Vaseline on the bars and I was forced to take up other sports. Try as I might (and I did), it is not easy to remove Vaseline from metal. My revenge was as cold as the water I threw on him one evening as he was going to work.

Yes, we were loud, we were eating sunflower seeds and we were spitting the husk on the ground and leaving hips of dirt wherever we camped. But there was hardly any entertainment for us in the concrete covered town we were living in. Those were the highlights of our holidays.

Maybe that’s why I have come to appreciate nature so much, that’s why I crave for boundless fields. At least no one tries to take possession of the trees that grow in the part of the city I now live in and put them behind fences. They bloom freely, defying the concrete that surrounds them.

Woluwé - unmistakably after rain

Woluwé – unmistakably after rain

My Name is Silvia and I’m an Immigrant

immigration

I am one of the hundreds of million of people who moved from one country to another. At twenty, I willingly left Romania and reluctantly landed in Belgium. Back then, I was just travelling somewhere else, having no idea that immigration would stick with me. Now that I have been living in Belgium for ten years and only went back to Romania twice for few days all in all, I know that immigration is my new ID.

So one September day in 2002 I took a plane to this misty country I knew I would hate. Because I would have gladly gone elsewhere, but my sister was living in Belgium, so it was a “logical” choice. Because I was leaving all my friends behind and at twenty, that’s all you care about. I also hated the weather intensely, I hated the city (Liège), I hated the people’s over-politeness – Belgians have a thing for repeating “Hello, how are you, what can I do for you, good-bye and have a good day” on every occasion. Very disturbing when you come from a country where this is not seen as a priority. I hated their patience: the little old lady counting the Euro cents to pay her bill in a crowded supermarket would have probably been publicly crucified in Romania. I also hated that I did not understand everything that people were telling me, even though I had studied French at school. Later on I would understand that there is French French, Belgian French, Liège French, etc. This explained my struggle.

I hated that, during my studies at the university and right from the beginning of my stay in Belgium I would be an “exceptional case”. Since Romania set up conditions that were impossible for me to fulfill so as to legally study abroad, I left as a tourist, I was accepted at the University of Liège, but had no authorization to stay for more than 3 months in Belgium. I therefore started a regularization process under the article “9.3 of the aliens’ legislation. (According to this article, there may be an exception to the principle that the application for residence should start in the country of origin).” I was the alien, the article and the exception. The process took one year and a half, during which I was not considered a “legal” resident.

“Exceptionally”, I also managed to go to Germany with the Erasmus programme: “normally” I did not have that right. There were a number of other things that I could not really do, like stay in Belgium after my studies, unless I had a job, for which I needed a working permit which was mission impossible to get.

Hateful times. A lot changes when you live in a different country, especially if you’re used to mum putting the plate in front of you while you watch TV, like I was: you start from scratch, you have no papers and you freak out whenever you drive and you see a Police motorcycle in your rearview mirror. You suffer from nostalgia (acutely, if you also lack light): you miss the mountains, the seaside, having a normal conversation in your own language, you even miss the stray dogs. You lose the notion of “home” and you feel, rightfully, that you will never fully integrate into the new country. There will always be words and jokes that you will not understand. How could you? You did not even watch the same cartoons as the others when you were a kid and you have overall different reference points and ways of having fun. You feel that you don’t say exactly what you mean in a different language. You have an accent, so you know that you will always have to answer the question “Where do you come from?”. But when you decide that you’re not going back, you learn to look in front of you, in time. Learning to be an immigrant is a continual process.

You also learn to wear a label. Accept it or not, being an immigrant is one. You discover that labels exist everywhere in the world (which you do not know if you never get out of your country) and that you just have to live with them, because so many other people do. I was at least associated with prostitution in the “eastern countries”, “Dracula”, and Nadia Comanici. My mother even had right to a remark such as “I know your gipsy music and I like it very much” coming from someone who wanted to make a good impression and prove that he knew something about Romania. It’s still a mystery how the guy survived my mother’s look.

Labels aside, go abroad and see how little some people actually know about your country. I was asked if we had electricity (Romania being somewhere on a different continent, in a different century and we, blood-sucking Romanians who all perform on the uneven bars being somehow fallen from a tree). The best line I got for introducing myself as a Romanian came from one of my most beloved university teachers. “Nobody is perfect”, he replied.

You learn how powerful the notion of luck is. And how this saves you, white Caucasian, from having your papers checked by the Police one day when you simply step off the bus. Two of the travelers are requested to make proof that they are Belgian residents. They are dark-skinned, so it’s not their lucky day. They are visible immigrants, while I do not bear that mark. But that day, I was the illegal one. Today, I am a Belgian citizen.

What I also learned, while living in a foreign country was that I did not want to live in my own. Yes, guilty as charge! I was therefore also pointed with the finger by some compatriots who accused me of not contributing to my country’s development, of being a deserter, bla, bla, bla. Have martyrs ever been rewarded while they were actually alive? Along with bullshit of this kind, brace yourself to hear some of the most surrealistic remarks that have ever toured the Planet when you ditch your homeland. Also, when you live elsewhere (the exact place is of no real importance), your friends and family at home will always think that you are richer, happier and luckier than they are. Don’t try to convince them otherwise: it is a strong belief.

Looking back, I would have certainly not learned so much, about myself, about others, about life, had I not done the “big move”. I now know how to balance my sense of in-betweenness, because I understand that this experience makes me the person I am today. I’m not sure I got the best of both worlds, but I have knowledge of them. And while I am both Romanian and Belgian, I am also none of them, really. I am an immigrant. And I’m getting better at it every day.