I left Romania in July 1990 and by way of Warsaw and Budapest, on July 20 I landed at JFK in New York. I was 29 years old, had $300 in my purse, a bag of clothes, and two phone numbers - none of people I knew or lived in NY. I could speak English quite well – thanks to my mom’s foresight! What I did not know was where I was going to sleep that night, what I was going to do the following day…I had no idea how I was going to start my new life half way across the globe from where I grew up, in a place foreign but which I felt was going to become my new home. What I had was the fierce trust that things were going to work out. I did not know how, where, or why, but I KNEW I was going to be OK. Maybe naive, maybe stupid, but certainly confident, that day I threw myself into a new adventure. One that I never regretted even for the briefest of moments and I am happy to say, continues to this very day.
My first interaction with the US authorities was at the Immigration Office at the airport, where I told them I was asking for political asylum. They told me: “It is Friday afternoon, can you come back on Monday morning?” I said, I need a place to stay overnight, I had nobody to help me – to which they answered: “Lady, we did not ask you to come here now, did we?” Yep, that’s when I went to a pay phone and started reading directions on how to place a call in this new country – while foiling a thieve's attempt to steal the only bag of clothing I brought with me!
Being that nothing was set up for me when I arrived here, you may wonder why I left my former life behind – the safety of my known environment, the support of my mom (my dad had passed away a few years before), the companionship of my friends, the effervescent cultural life that I have been enjoying all along. It was simply a matter of trust: I left because I lost hope that we could start building right away a progressive society. And it took me a couple of months to finally realize that what we naively thought was the “popular revolution” of December 1989 was nothing else but a set up by those in power to seize power again under a different regime. They understood that the current situation was unsustainable and decided to be proactive to maintain their official positions. I think it was March when the exhilaration started to dissipate and I finally started to understand what was really going on.
Two events have been critical to my decision. First off, the May 20 general elections in which we voted for President and members of the Parliament; they were the first elections held after the overthrow of the Communist regime six months earlier and the first free elections held in the country since 1937. That ended up with former communist leaders being elected to run the country for the next few years as the National Salvation Front. I will never forget this old philosopher who said in anticipation of the election results that “each country has the democracy it deserves” – because we sure got that in 1989. The second event was the violent clash that took place in Bucharest in June between the revolutionary protesters and the miners from the Jiu region. The protesters maintained that no former communists should hold position of power in the new government, effectively asking for a new election. Tired of the unrest, the National Salvation Front leader and president of the country summoned the miners to the capital to bring an end the on-going protests.
The seven months between the “revolution” and my departure changed me from someone who had no desire to leave my country (I had former opportunities that I did not follow through) into someone who could not conceive living there any longer.
I have to admit that I loved many things about my life there and many of those, my friends in particular, still hold a spot filled with love and significance in my heart. The vibrant culture scene of Bucharest, even in the communist years, had always offered much to enjoy. Looking back, I acknowledge that my sanity during my life there has been sustained without doubt, more than anything else, by the philosophic discussions and even the day-to-day camaraderie I shared with my dear friends.
But on the other hand, during the communist years I had been deeply marked by having lived with fear of persecution – my father had been a political prisoner and did time in prison and in a copper mine, in fear for my mom’s freedom – she worked illegally at home to be able to care for me, with fear that every time I opened our mouths regarding anything against the government my parents’ and my own freedom were jeopardized. As I child, it was drilled into me by my parents that talking outside of our home about what I heard the adults talking could result with them ending in prison. I cannot even imagine how they started trusting me as a child to listen to them talking about anything political. As a six or seven year old kid, they instilled in me the fear that I could lose them if I was careless – maybe the main reason why today, I still hold precious the power of words, why I respect meaningful interactions with people.
It was June 14, 1990 when I decided to leave Romania. It was August 20, 1990 that I arrived in the US. It took me about 3 years afterwards to not get my heart rate up when I saw a policeman coming close. I never regretted this move.
Well…this blog post was supposed to advance us quite a bit farther, but I got wrapped up in the history and here we are. I have only a handful of photos from my time in Romania pre-1990 and I cannot find any right now. But here is an article about Drumul Taberei, the area of Bucharest where I lived for 26 years in one of the communist-built high-rise apartment buildings (check out the gallery here). Below is a sketch of the initial development and more photos from the neighborhood can be found here (this article is also the source for my photos).
Typical communist building - this one was within minutes from my "matchbox" building, the place where we went to the cinema and to shop for necessities.
You can see some more photos from the neighborhood here.