Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I used to beg grandpa to take me to the mill on the horse drawn wagon. The 250 year old grist mill was at the end of the village main road by the river Proava. A village was a cluster of homes separated by high fences on either side of a main road. Fields of wheat, corn, and vegetable gardens circled the village. The miller turned wheat into flour and corn into cornmeal. It fascinated me how two large stones powered by water could accomplish such a feat, especially since I knew how hard it was to shuck dry corn off the cob by hand. Often our hands would bleed and there were no band aids, bandages, or lotions to soothe the pain. The grist mill had a romantic, medieval quality about it, and it was shaded by hundred year old trees surrounding it. The grinding noise was quite soothing and I used to nap on the ground while we waited our turn. The horses would poop around us and nobody bothered to clean it all day. By dusk, some workers would shovel the dung into a mix of mud for garden fertilizer. Villagers wasted nothing since there was no such thing as a co-op to buy fertilizer. Ashes from the stove mixed in with dirt grew a beautiful vegetable garden. The only concession to chemicals made was the DDT sprayed generously on everything. I felt lucky when I moved to the U.S. and I could eat tasty vegetables free of the peculiar DDT smell. The worst pest was the Colorado beetle, a beige colored insect that had hitched a ride on an American plane that landed on Romanian soil. It was not very choosy and it devoured everything in its path. DDT was the only chemical able to control it. Without DDT, we would have had a hard time growing enough food and many people would have starved to death.

My earliest memory of motorized trips was the rickety bus going to my grandparents' village, 9 km away from my parents' home. It took over an hour to go five miles and it was not the heavy traffic, it was the bumpy, deep pot holes, unpaved roads which forced the driver to go very slowly. I could see the road running beneath the bus through the hole in the floor. The smell of exhaust fumes was powerful and nauseating. I always got motion sickness but I embraced it because I wanted mobility freedom. Buses were our transportation if we wanted to go anywhere far, otherwise we walked. We were never bussed to school, we walked from day one. Cars were out of the question as only the ruling elite could afford to buy Russian made Zils or German made Mercedes, Opels or Trabant. Trabant, an East German car, could only go about 40 miles per hour, used a special mix of fuel, and its body was made solely from plastic. The communist Germans from the Eastern Block must have had a cruel sense of humor naming the car Trabant, "rocket" in Russian, since it could not run much faster than a lawn mower. There were also Czech made Skodas. All cars cost twice as much as an apartment and there was a 10 year waiting list. The working poor in the Utopian communist society could not possibly afford any car. The ruling elites, on the other hand, could order any western car they wished, and the favorite was Mercedes from Daimler-Benz. If you owned a Mercedes, even a 20 year old one, you had arrived among the ruling elite. Russians added to their arsenal of parvenus a dacha, a country house, where they could relax on weekends. Since gas was very expensive, even if a person was able to somehow buy a car, it stayed parked on the side of the street all the time, as gas was close to $10 a gallon. The fact that thieves stole tires, windshield wipers, hubcaps, and rear view mirrors, made it even more expensive to own a car. Obtaining a driver's license was very costly, close to $2,000 and each driver had to attend driving school for six months and pass the draconian driving test as well as the written. Slalom on a muddy track usually did most drivers in and prevented them to pass the course.

Trains came later, as I became a teenager and started to commute to school every morning. I would wake up at 4 a.m. to catch the 5:30 commuter train to Bucharest, 60km away. It was not much faster than the bus since it stopped at every village to pick up day workers who manned the many factories dotting the landscape. Most refused to work on the farms as it was back breaking labor with very little pay or benefits. At least the factories offered them a once a year paid vacation to a spa where they could treat their injuries through massage and sulfur baths at the expense of the communist party. Since room was limited, their turns came once every ten years or so. Nobody complained because it was pointless to complain to the wolf that the sheep are eaten when the wolf is eating them. Party elites took bi-annual vacations to beautiful sea resorts, mountain lodges, hunting resorts, skiing, and London, Paris, and Italy. The rest of the population could only dream. Besides no ordinary citizens were allowed to hold passports or obtain visas to travel anywhere. It was a forbidden fruit - the communist elites did not want citizens to see how much better other countries lived and how much freedom they had.

On school trips the parents scraped and saved enough money together and hired an old bus by the day. This was a luxury that people could only afford once a year.

A few citizens owned motorcycles - it was very hard to obtain a license. The rules were archaic, draconian, and people did not like following them. It reminded me of the Neapolitans in Naples, Italy, who, when the law was passed to mandate seat belts, they not only refused to wear them, but went as far as printing white t-shirts with black seat belts painted across. Accidents were frequent and many people were killed by inexperienced drivers or drivers who did not follow basic rules. There were daily funerals of people who had been killed in traffic accidents. And then, there were the jay walkers who took their lives into their own hands. Parking was at such a premium that everybody parked anywhere, even on sidewalks. Parking garages were non-existent.

The cheapest way of transportation were bicycles. My grandpa rode his bicycle to work every day, wind, snow, rain, or shine for forty years! Bicycling by necessity had kept him really healthy.

The communist mode of transportation for workers was the cattle truck. Large trucks with open cargo area could handle 40 people standing, stuck like sardines. The ride was free and provided by the union. One of our neighbors, Costel, had died as a result of a ride to work in such a truck. He lost his balance and fell off when the truck hit a pot hole really hard.

Flying was the stuff of dreams and only communist elites had the power, prestige, money, permission, and visas to ever board a plane to leave the country. Most people never left the area where they were born, lived and died in the same town or village. It was not just a matter of personal choice, it was forced on them by the constant control that the government exercised on their ability to move to another job, apartment, or school. The upside was that families stayed closer and kept the traditions intact, few people were estranged from their loved ones.

No comments:

Post a Comment