Reflections of a Romanian Student
Baetica, Ioana, Contemporary Review
WHEN I pass by shining shop-windows in the big English city where I study now, I still can't help staring at those nice leather shoes so carefully made, so elegant. I'm not a consumerist individual trapped in the Kingdom of Objects, no matter what the French social theorist, Jean Baudrillard has to say about me. In fact, I'm hardly an individual in the postmodern sense of the word. Secretly I still long for those 'backward' values in the spirit of which I grew up: to belong somewhere, to have a clean life, unpoisoned by extreme relativism, to respect human nature over human politics. I have to keep these values somehow silent, keep them secret. They seem to embarrass me whenever I confront them with those of my fellow-students here who believe that a woman who breastfeeds her child is but a poor uneducated creature allowing her beauty, time and freedom to be sacrificed. Generally, of course, because men want us sacrificed. I'm not quite sure whether sometimes women do to themselves much more harm with these theories than men have ever done to them otherwise. But that's another question. And I am hardly in a position to criticise a culture I've only recently become acquainted with. Besides, I'm aware of all the damage this sort of talk can cause--the fragile but well-informed young East European, knowing better simply because he/she suffered more. Wrong, simply wrong. There's a passage somewhere in Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, saying that deep knowledge can only come from peace of mind and joy, never from pain and anger. That those values emerging from happiness are there to last while those that surface in restlessness and uncertainty vanish together with the events. I like to trust that.
The fifteen years since 1989 have passed at a blink. With them, hope lost its initial naivety; Eastern Europeans are not heroes anymore, but unwelcome immigrants. I am one of them. Like many young Romanians, paralysed by the lack of opportunities back home, I grabbed a scholarship and rushed to a Western country to continue my studies. It took me a long time to make this decision. What should one choose: the fruitless struggle of making things better for your country or personal happiness away from an inhibiting system? Many of my friends didn't leave but they never judged me either. The judgement is here, though, in every newspaper I open, on every TV screen I watch. I haven't come for the nice boots in the shop windows here, or for the organically grown potatoes. I don't work on the black market and to marry a wealthy Englishman is the last thing on my mind. Yet I am judged. There's something else I left my country for. It didn't happen out of spite for the nation I left behind or for the greater glory of the country I now live in.
Maybe, to make myself understood, I should tell the story of the red rubber boots of my childhood. The big 'Cooperativa' (communist shopping centre) was placed in the middle of Turnu Magurele, the small provincial town on the banks of the river Danube where I grew up. This was the only place where one could buy clothes and shoes and cutlery. State-run, it looked like anything else that was state-run at that time, in the 1980s, in Romania. And that is everything, including people's lives. So 'Cooperativa' was a huge, ugly construction in the Stalinist style, grim and determined to last forever unchanged. Invariably black or brown, shoes where aligned on big shelves, all looking the same, all made of fake leather or rubber and pressed paper soles. Every autumn my mother would take me to the first floor to choose a new pair of boots for winter and a new uniform. But 'choose' is the wrong word for such an activity. That year snow came in early November. One of those heavy snows that covered up everything, roofs, cars, people's restlessness, even. Sometimes the snow fell pink. Looking back now, it all looks so sad, so helpless, but at that point, pink snow seemed a miracle to a five-year-old. …