An impressive trip to Romania – formerly behind the ‘iron curtain’

When I was working as a photo-journalist, I took for granted the many prime tickets and first-row seats that were offered to me for various events. It is one of the charms of that profession.

At the time there were enough independent media to make it worth your while to try get a scoop. I quit the job after more and more papers merged and asked of their journalists to write marketing and advertising stories, rather than ‘the real news’.
But I think that journalism is something that will never leave your blood. Asking questions, being inquisitive are engrained in my spirit.

Photo-journalist in action… Don’t I look all flashy and alive 🙂 (1985)

After leaving the profession, I spent some years working for Center Parcs, the originally Dutch company that made popular the phenomenon of ‘short family breaks’ in secluded bungalow settings with a ‘tropical paradise’ in the heart of each of the parks. It was a novelty formula, that still exists to this day, albeit now in a more commercial setting. I wrote for their guest magazine and one day my Center Parts colleagues told me that a support-run to the country of Romania was being prepared. Beds and mattresses were donated by Center Parcs and a local church added to that many other articles that the country was in bad need of.

Fun fact…

The reason Center Parcs was donating beds and mattresses was due to the fact that people apparently are getting taller and taller. The original beds in the bungalows were 1.80 meters long and this was no longer sufficient. When beds are changed, mattresses also must be replaced. They were perfectly good mattresses but in Romania they were considered a great luxury. People were eager to change out their old buttoned straw mattresses with the new items.

A support run to Romania

Romania’s borders had been on lockdown down for ages under the tyranny of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who ruled from 1965-1989. Ceaușescu and his wife Elena fled the capital in a helicopter after a revolution broke out in the winter of 1989, but they were captured by the military after the armed forces defected. After being tried and convicted of economic sabotage and genocide, both were sentenced to death, and they were immediately executed by firing squad on 25 December. This did not instantly ‘liberate’ the population. It took years, generations, for them to recover and it was in the early years of relative freedom that many churches and other organizations organized mass transports to provide food and other necessities to the still suffering Romanians. Long story short: I accompanied the support-run and wrote about this experience.

Arrived in Budapest, Hungary. The trucks were parked behind a church cemetery wall, so as not to stand out too much. Hungary was in a much better place than Romania, but seeing European trucks with possibly valuable content was a certain invite to robbers.

I have always found this part of the world fascinating. There is just something about the history of Transylvania, the Carpathian Mountains, which cross Romania from the north to the southwest, and the presence of the famous Dabube river…. The history of this part of the world is wrought with conflict and culture-clashes and it has shaped its people. For the longest time it was behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. And when it opened back up, I was curious to go there.

Changing perspectives

In recent years the Covid pandemic has introduced scenes in our daily life that sometimes make me think back to Romania. The lines for stores where par for the course there and when I visited the country it felt, at the time, like I had stepped back in time. How weird that the image below now suddenly looks a lot less strange. In early 2020 there were similar lines in my own country – how quickly perspectives change!

Back now to my trip to Romania…

First stop was Hungary. We stayed with a lady in an apartment building that I remember being heated by a communal device of some sort. The temperature could not be adjusted in individual apartments and many of them had their windows wide open so it would not get too hot inside… We were received with great hospitality but it was a good thing that our convoy contained one normal car. The trucks were often eyes with suspicion and we were never sure whether they would not be broken into at night… We often had to park them in a hidden spot…

Charming the border control soldier

Our journey then came to Romania. Crossing the border was bloodcurdling creepy. There were watch towers and soldiers with guns and there was great interest in what we were bringing in. I remember ‘getting up close and personal’ with one of the guards that initially insisted on seeing our cargo. This would have been a recipe for disaster, because many times food items would be confiscated by the authorities without ever reaching their intended destination. The young soldier was a bit enamoured with me and so I decided to ‘distract’ him so he would leave our guys alone as they were filling out the paperwork. We never got the inspection…

Searching for old friends

We drove through most of the western part of this beautiful country with 2 big trucks and one regular car. It was amazing! And it was emotional. Because the destinations of the support-materials were mental institutions and orphanages.

Talking to an old man that one of my companions knew from a previous visit. She had not found him in the senior institution she expected to find him in. It turned out he had taken a nasty fall and was moved elsewhere and not doing so well. But he was elated to see us!

The word that comes to mind mostly, looking back, is ‘heart-wrenching’. I was never blind to the hardships in the world, but the situation in Romania was one that I could not have envisioned. Because the transport was organized by a church, we mainly went to see christian institutions. At the time, many of those were illegal and receiving outside assistance was punishable with death. Our trucks, filled with mattresses, blankets, first-aid supplies, food and toys, were not exactly inconspicuous, so often we had to park somewhere outside of a city and use the regular car to truck over the goodies. Of course the foreign car would still be noticed, but that could be explained as a personal visit. I remember that one of the ministers was executed after he was found out. A young guy, with a young family. It chills my blood to this very day.

I remember this to be quite frightening. A random roadside check. You never knew what to expect and it was not unheard of to loose all cargo to corrupt soldiers and policemen.

The orphanages were endearing and terrible at the same time. Many of them were sponsored by western countries and were part of an adoption-program. But some were not. And the unsupported orphanages were the ones that made me cry. There were many, many, young children who were born out of wedlock and therefore surrendered, voluntarily or not, by teen mothers. There were babies that were born after rape and incest, that were not acceptable to local families. There was a screaming shortage of caretakers. It really got to me in one particular orphanage, were I saw a big room filled with cradles. There was one caretaker, who spent her mornings moving around, sitting between two cradles, each hand touching one baby. So that the little ones got some form of physical contact distantly resembling a mother’s touch.

“Mommy! Mommy!’

Imagine all of these toddlers running towards you, grabbing your legs, looking up to you and crying out: “Mommy! Mommy!”. This was one of the better orphanages, that was sponsored by an organisation in England. They had lots of toys and other things and the kids looked OK.

The tears were already overflowing, when I stepped into another room. Here were toddlers up to the age of 4. When they saw me enter, they all ran towards me, surrounded me, yanked on my clothes while screaming: “Mommy! Mommy!” The director of this home told me that many of the young children had drawn the conclusion that, once a lady entered their room, often one of them found a new home. So they tried to attract as much attention as they could, in the hopes of being ‘selected’ for adoption. It was a hard place to witness. The memory will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I happen to be the victim of a medical mishaps in my younger years in The Netherlands. A surgeon, during a laparoscopic abdominal intervention, accidentally ‘nipped’ an artery and while fixing it, cut one of my ovaries. The other one was infected so when I woke up, he told me in a ‘by the way’ kind of fashion that my chances of getting pregnant had now been reduced to less than 10 percent. I was young when this happened so I did not worry too much about it. Later in life though, it caused a deep inner sadness, that sometimes still surfaces. I was lucky to have 4 sweet step/foster children in my life, through different relationships, and experience a little bit of motherhood with them. But of course it can never take the place of a baby of my own. It was during this trip to Romania, with the toddlers calling me “Mommy! Mommy!” that this hit home particularly hard.

My toys found a new home

I had brought along a large number of colorful teddybears on this trip. I was going to generously donate them to these orphanages. But when I saw the situation of poverty and scarcity of caretakers, that made me feel very ashamed of myself. Here I was, the ‘good-doer’ from a capitalist country, giving toys to the less fortunate, sharing my riches… It did not feel good at all. And I was almost paralyzed that day and never donated them.

I did at the next stop. Another orphanage. Even poorer. And dealing with one kid in particular who just melted my heart. He was a 5-6 year old, that spent his days in solitude, in a crib in a large empty room. His eyes did not really see the outside world. You could tell that he was without hope. The caretakers, who really meant well, told me that they could not allow him to mix with the other kids, because he had AIDS. This, at the time, was still a relatively new disease (also see my story about Yibi on this website). It wasn’t until the early 1980s, when rare types of pneumonia, cancer, and other illnesses were being reported to doctors that the world became aware of HIV and AIDS. Medication did not exist at the time and even if it did, it would not be readily available to these types of developing countries. So the kid had no hope. I asked to be let into the room and when I made eye contact, I knew where my teddybears were going to go. I gave them all to this boy and the joy in his eyes when he saw them, made me bawl my eyes out. I hugged him for a long time. I knew that hugging cannot infect other people.

Traveling back in time

Like a scene from yonder years. Unfinished roads, chickens and geese in the street…

I have another strong memory of this country, that in many ways reminded me of old pre World War 2 pictures. Unclosed roads, horse-drawn carriages rather than cars…

More specifically the impact of prolonged political and social suppression on its people. We were visiting a small family and after sharing a meal, the man of the house took me to see his workshop. He was a carpenter by profession and had survived by making coffins. Whenever he had spare time, he would turn to other things. He made the most exquisite jewelry boxes I have ever seen. He actually insisted on giving me one and I have cherished it ever since. It has a secret compartment that you cannot find unless you… know the secret!

In my conversation with him he told me that he owned a lot of land. And I asked if he had been growing vegetables there to make up for the scarcity of food in the shops. And if he considered maybe selling it, so that he had some money to invest in his family’s future. He looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face. He shook his head and said: “Why would I do that? They will just come and take all my land.” It was an expression of total lack of hope in the future. He was the fourth generation in his family to live under the boot of the worst kind of communism. He had no reason to believe that things would ever get better…

Tasting different home-made brews, or did I?

If you look closely, you can actually see the small glasses in different colours that I mistook for different types of booze… I think I might have been drunkenly zooming out in this picture already; I don’t look very awake and this at 11am….

The trip was not dramatic and emotional every single day. In fact, let me finish this story with something funny. One day, we were sleeping at the house of a local church family. I hugely enjoyed the big chimney like furnace that kept the room comfortably warm. It was tiled from floor to ceiling and it was a type of cuddling wall. I slept well and was asked to come and attend Sunday services at the church next door. What I did not know was that the church was unheated. And the temperatures were well below zero. I was cold to the bone by the time the service ended. And when we returned to the family’s home I gladly accepted a hot coffee with a shot of home-brewed alcohol. It helped warm me up quickly. There were some visitors that morning and they each brought their own home-made booze. And invited me to taste it. There was red booze, yellow booze, green booze and even blue booze. I felt obliged to taste them all, even though I could not distinguish one from the other. By the time noon arrived, I was positively drunk and went for a long afternoon nap. We were going to leave the next day and when I got into the car, the lady who drove it on that day was questioning me sternly. Why did I drink so much? No wonder I had a headache. It was surely not necessary to get drunk on a Sunday! I told her that it was not my fault. They all had insisted I partake in the tasting of the different home-brews. The lady looked at me in surprise. “What different home-brews are you talking about?”, she asked. “Well”, I replied, “The green one, the blue one, the red one and the others…” Suddenly she laughed out loud and got the giggles, unable to talk to me. When she calmed down, she said: “Those were not different home-brews! Everybody brought the same drink, they just poured them in glasses of different colors!” You can imagine how dumb I felt at that moment and it became a running joke during the remainder of the trip….