One of my favorite things to do as a kid was listen to my parents tell me stories about their childhoods and early adult lives in Communist Romania. I have had countless conversations not only with my parents, but also with my grandparents, family friends, and even relative strangers about what life used to be like before democracy and free-market economics began sweeping the globe with the culmination of the Cold War.
Sunday, February 16th
I recently had the opportunity to see my parents’ godparents in marriage, Nick and Dorina, while they were in Vienna for a surgery Nick had to have on his hip after a car accident. We went to lunch together and they spent three whole hours catching me up on the last five years since I have seen them and, more significantly, reminiscing about the good old days of Red Romania.
Nick, between large sips of white wine and puffs on his chipped, wooden pipe, began to flesh out accounts of his own childhood and that of his children. People were only allotted a certain amount of food per week and a certain number food items. His kids would get upset and complain because they were allowed only one orange per week. They had to wait in line for hours on distribution days for beer and for bread. Occasionally, when they were able to go buy cheese, Nick would purchase two massive rounds (the kinds you see in animations chasing terrified cartoon characters down grassy slopes) and strap one each to his front and his back. Nick’s wheezy laugh echoed off the walls of the restaurant as he remembered how ridiculous he looked and felt on the long trek home.
He continued with a story about a business trip he was able to take to France years ago when his children were still young and communism still alive. Regular people, unless they had a similar business reason in which the government asked them to leave the country, were not able to cross the border. He was so excited to be able to buy things for his family. For his kids, all he wanted were bananas. They hadn’t had bananas in years. He told me that he went to the vendor in France, and she thought he was so strange because he was telling her exactly how long he was going to be in France, how long it would take him to get back to Romania, and how long the bananas needed to last him so that they would be perfectly ripe for his kids when he got home. Nick also recalled that when he finally did arrive home, his kids wouldn’t touch the bananas he had worked so hard to get for them.
He told me about his friend who wanted to buy a pair of shoes for his wife. They shopped around for hours in France before they found the perfect pair. It wasn’t until they got back to Romania that they realized the shoes had been imported to France from Cluj, Romania.
As Nick was telling me these stories, he was practically choking from his laughter. When I relayed them to my dad, he too could not contain himself. This seemed so strange to me, that they could laugh so easily at these things they had to go through when these stories absolutely broke my heart. Communism, while I will never be able to truly grasp it, seems just like an incredulous, humorous memory to them.
When the people began to stand up against the Communist regime in Romania, my dad was at the epicenter. In his hometown of Timisoara, he and his friends would paint messages on trains traveling between Romanian cities to fire people up against the corruption. But soon after the revolution was over and the government overthrown, my dad packed up and moved to the United States on a political refugee visa. He anticipated that Romania’s rise into democracy would not be a smooth one, and he anticipated correctly. To this day, while Romania’s urban areas have seen tremendous growth, towns like the rural one my mom came from, Lupeni, deep in the mountains of Transylvania, have remained stagnant. Even in the biggest cities, poverty, unemployment, and exploitation of the lesser are rampant. This is the case with the majority of Eastern Europe, even those nations that have become members of the European Union. Things that were never issues during communism because everyone was required to have a job and a place in society began to plague the entire region.
I have heard it before, and I suspect that the reminders will never cease, that Europe has a long, beautiful, yet tragic history from which its people and its systems continuously have been forced to learn and improve. While Eastern Europe is significantly further behind in development compared to richer Western Europe, both have made a commitment to peace and solidarity with their fellow nations with whom they share a landmass. In many ways, they have succeeded to create a greater quality of life for their citizens where the United States has been unable.
While Eastern Europe opted for more straight-forward, far-western style capitalism, which is understandable based on what their people endured for decades under communist oppression, Western Europe opted for a higher degree of socialism, bigger government and more regulations and higher taxes, to reflect their commitment to their community and family values. Results have varied.
The instability of the economies of Eastern Europe after the fall of communism caused their transition into capitalism to result in large socio-economic gaps. The Western European governments that adopted capitalist markets but imposed large government and strict regulations now have the highest quality of living in the world and the happiest people. The interesting thing, however, is that in many ways these big governments seem to offer people more personal freedoms than those claimed by the “land of the free,” with the understanding that one’s individual choices, if they don’t harm anyone else, are the business of the citizen. For example, in much of Europe, prostitution and recreational drugs are legal, the drinking age ranges somewhere from 16 to 18, transgender communities celebrate their freedoms without the judgment of the older or more conservative communities, and sex and the human body are beautiful works of art, not dirty realities that must be covered up and hidden away.
If you honestly ask yourself, “How do we make life worth living for the majority of people on the planet?” it is impossible not to realize that this certainly cannot be achieved through forcing fathers to travel across a continent to acquire bananas for his children. Nor is it gained through systems in which corporations, profits, and the elites have unlimited access to all the greatest things in life at the expense of the poor and the marginalized. It is not through exercising neo-imperialism where we are not welcome and imposing our morals on societies who will never think the same way we do. And it is not through claiming personal freedoms where it is evident that freedom is an illusion.
Tolerance is the thing that sets Europe apart from the rest of the world. Its history of persecuting its people and engaging in violent wars have made it finally realize that life is worth much more than a religion, political preference, or nationality. While America is a melting pot of different peoples assimilating into one culture, Europe is like a big tossed salad. The expectation is not that people who visit a country have to speak the native language or agree with the cultural norms (although these are expectations Americans seem to have about their visitors and immigrants). Whether it is through preserving ancient traditions or collectively distributing the burden of social costs equally, the expectation is to cooperate and to coexist.