Romanians' Childhood: Analyzing A Big Question

"How on earth have we survived our childhood? If you were a child in the 60s, 70s or early 80s, how did you manage to survive? From early childhood on we would travel in buses and cars with neither seatbelts nor airbags… a trip in the trailer of a lorry was a remarkable thing, something we would remember our whole lives. Swings were painted in bright colors and all paint had lead as its main ingredient. There were no child resistant medicine boxes, no protection for drawers or doors. We would wear no helmet when riding the bike. We would drink water from the drinking fountain in the garden, not from a mineral water bottle. We would spend hours on end devising small carriages from rusty iron and those who were lucky enough to live in an area of inclined streets would let themselves slide downwards in these carriages and halfway through remember they had no brakes. A couple of crashes into a fence or tree, and we would know how to handle the situation next time. We would go out to play with the single obligation to return before dark. School would end at noon, and we would come home to eat. We had no cell phones, so nobody would know where we were. Unbelievable… Sometimes we cut ourselves, broke a bone, lost a tooth, but we would never look for the culprit. The fault was ours and nobody else's. We would eat biscuits, bread and butter, we would drink beverages that contained sugar, yet we were not overweight, because we would be outside playing most of the time. We'd share a bottle of juice among four friends, drinking from the same bottle, and this hurt no one. We had no Play Station, Nintendo 64, Xbox, video games, cable TV with 99 channels, Dolby surround, personal cell-phones, computers, internet chat… but we had friends. We would go out, ride the bike or walk to a friend's house, ring the bell or simply enter the door discreetly, and then we'd go out to play together. Out there, in that cruel world, with no one to supervise us! How ever did we manage it? There were all kinds of team games, football, country, country, give us soldiers, hide and seek, and not everyone would get picked, but no one would mind. Not all of us were outstanding pupils, and when one or other flunked a subject he would simply repeat the class. No one would go to see therapists, psychiatrists, no one had dyslexia, or concentration problems, or hyperactivity, they would simply repeat the class and thus be given a second chance. There was freedom, failures, joys, responsibilities… and we learnt how to deal with each of them. The big question is: how did we survive, and, most importantly, how did we manage to become the adults we are today?" This is an anonymous text I received by e-mail in the summer of 2005. It may still be circulating, and is probably a signpost of my generation which struggles somewhere between 30 and 45 years old. I will try to provide an answer for "how on earth have we survived our childhood," using my life experience and the perspectives of human history I have been absorbing for the last ten years. Why was this question asked? It is because we have been helped to recognize drawbacks and look for solutions. The children of the 60s and 70s have evolved against the cultural background, albeit a discontinuous one, of old Romania, a society centered on social and moral values and all too little on material values. Our parents, even those who came to the city from a post-war village, had kept in their emotional framework and in their worldview the perspective of their grandparents who had not been affected by communism. Our parents became subject to great pressures starting with 1950, when many were still adolescents. Soon enough, becoming compliant working individuals, they were molded into an easily manipulated mass of people, locked in the matrix of party meetings or youth organizations of all kinds, with marches, parades, and slogans. They lived in a "sub-zero temperature," as we are told in Radu Tudoran`s last published novel. The party had to know whom you married, who your girlfriend was, how faithful you were in a relationship, how many children you planned to have, it prescribed how you should eat, depending on your position within the party, and other such absurdities that exploded starting with 1971, after the "July theses." Many of the parents of those who have ruled Romania in the last fifteen years are responsible for the social disaster we are experiencing nowadays. While this was happening in the higher strata of our society, all of which didn't affect us because of our parents who made great efforts to filter events for us, we were able to enjoy the very last manifestations of a 1900-like childhood. We can remember how we were gradually evacuated out of that fairy land once we were forced to become motherland hawks, pioneers, young party members, etc. And something else happened. Between 1970 and 1989 there also were large population movements, from deportations to intentional population movements encouraged by the gradual expansion of industrial areas across the country. Urban settlements, cities or small towns, were radically changing their appearance and population about the same time we were becoming adults. The demographic and cultural pressure on the newcomers, generally old village inhabitants, dogged by poverty and by the myth of a comfortable life in a block of flats, has left its mark upon cities and upon our lives, imposing new models for living. Metaphorically speaking, many villagers of the period 1955-1989 went from the dust of unpaved village roads to luxurious city footwear. They became parents and, after 1990, started a pathological rush for the trivial accessories of a saturated West. Whatever had a mere social or daily use, a commonplace accessory, became here an object of social prestige. This is a primitive way to socialize, or to adapt to urban life, because the cultural standard of those who feed on them in such an inversion of social roles is reduced to a symbol, instead of its immediate use. A history of our childhood or a "how on earth have we survived our childhood" requires more than a historical chronology – it resembles the digging at an archaeological site of several anthropological strata. The childhood of each of us proceeds according to secular customs and is filtered through the ideals of the young man now turned into an adult. That is how we have survived our childhood. Those who have not been aware of this double human perspective of their beginnings live like a cultural sleeper, something A. E. Baconsky has rendered so well: "bodies which are not interred in time start getting younger." It is like childhood lived backwards: with accomplishments which have not come at the proper time and which are, in the end, bought, after they have lost the significance they would have otherwise had. The question asked by my colleagues of the same generation synthesizes a more general despair related to the mixing of ages and chronologies. On a historical scale, Romanian childhood was deprived of a timeout for understanding and the respite needed for acquiring strength. It was a short childhood, at times unpredictable and always tributary to the adult destinies around. Childhood years were prolonged in the first part of the 20th century, when one became of age at 21, only to be shortened in the communist era, when becoming of age happened at 18 again. Nevertheless, the fragments of our childhood recovered in one form or another through our children remain the only standards of value for the fulfilling of each of our destinies.

by Adrian Majuru (b. 1968)