Sunday, May 30, 2010

In Memoriam

I want to dedicate this post to my dad, Florin, and my aunt Stela, my dear Godmother. Dad passed away on May 12, 1989 and aunt Stela on May 29, 2010. Dad was 61 years young and aunt Stela was 76. Both had a zest for life positively beyond belief. Neither one of them died peacefully, either victims of neglect by the socialized medical care or because of their anti-communist views.

My biggest regret in life was abandoning my family and moving to the United States in search of freedom. Nobody would ever accept me in the fold of their families like my own family. And I had a very extensive family, 27 first cousins, fourteen aunts and uncles, and numerous nieces and nephews whose count I have lost. Eight thousand miles is a long way to stray from everything you have ever known and loved. If anybody got sick or died, we were there within driving or walking distance to give assistance, comfort, help, shelter, food, money, our time, and most important of all, our love. All of a sudden I lost this connection, it was severed suddenly and forever. The fanthom pain was indescribably desolate. It was like death without closure. The pain was and is so raw that it makes my throat tighten and cannot breathe. What do you say to people when they ask, where is your family, where are you going for Christmas, where are you going for Easter? I suddenly became nobody's child, although my parents were still alive. If people got sick, I was not there. If people died, I was not there. If people got married, gave birth, baptized their children, I could not be there. It took 24 hours to fly from my home in the United States to my dad's home in Romania. The plane ticket cost thousands of dollars and talking on the phone was very expensive. Until early 1990s, it cost $3/min or more to talk to Romania, money that I could ill afford. The phone connection took 24 hours sometimes since it was not done through satellites, it was through oceanic cable, I had to contact the operator, give her the number and wait at home for hours until she could connect me with Romania. The call sounded garbled, as if we were talking underwater. It could cut off at any time and the communist regime always recorded our conversations so we had to be very careful what we said.

I was frustrated when people got sick, needed simple drugs or operations that were routine here but life ending over there since surgeons lacked the skills or the equipment to perform them. I felt guilty that I lived in such a land of plenty yet I could not make a difference in my relatives' lives. I sent them clothes, toys, shoes, aspirin, Tylenol, coloring books, pencils, mittens, scarves, chocolate, childrens books, endless packages, but I was helpless with medicine. They could not understand our prescription system, how expensive drugs were, and how desperately poor I was. I could hardly afford care for myself and my children.

When daddy became partially paralyzed from the cracked skull after being pushed by his colleagues from a rafinery platform, nobody tended to him from Saturday to Wednesday. He languished half-paralized until his sister came to visit and found him in such condition. She called the ambulance which arrived three hours late with no medical help. He was taken to the hospital where they did precious nothing for him other than let him die a slow and painful death of starvation and thirst. His sister was there to help him eat and drink some but, after a while, he was unable to swallow. The hospital gave him no IV fluids, treatment, or care. He survived for several days because my aunt Marcella kept him alive.

I was never able to fly because I had fractured a disk and I was in traction myself in the hospital. I had no family to care for me, but I had skilled doctors and nurses. I was lucky that mom was here and took care of my little girls. While in traction, I was agonizing and screaming on the inside that I could not be with my dad. He was on his death bed and I could not say good-bye. I talked on the phone with doctors whenever I could find one, they were very dismissive, impolite, and uncaring. They had written my dad off and administered no treatment. I offered to pay anything they wanted in dollars but theirs skills were not up to the task. There was only one CT scanner in the country and it was at the military hospital in another town 35 miles away. Dad would not have been allowed in such facility as it was reserved for the top brass and the ruling elite. I spent thousands of dollars on phone calls, talking to people I did not even know, unable to say good-bye to my dad who, by now, could only speak in whispers. They told me that aunt Marcella pulled his bed to a phone in the ward's hallway, and he heard my voice, tears streaming down his face, but could not talk back. He died with a wadded picture of me and my daughters in Easter outfits that I had sent him a month earlier. Before he lost his voice, he was telling the doctors how proud he was of his only child who became a doctor in America.

Both families took over and gave my dad a memorable funeral in the village in which he was born. He was buried next to his mother, the beautiful blue-eyed Ecaterina Apostolescu, who had raised 8 children alone since the age of thirty-two. My paternal grandfather and his brothers had died either in World War II or from wounds acquired in the war. The extended family on both sides was present at the funeral, yet, here I was, eight thousand miles away in traction from a crushed disk. I felt like the worst child in the world and to this day, I cannot forgive myself for having left my country in spite of the fact that I have raised a family of my own and have made a difference in thousands of students' lives here in the U.S. The fact that I was not there was and is inexcusable.

I was devastated and did not wish to participate in the graduation ceremonies that month at MSU. I was receiving my doctoral degree and President George Bush was coming to deliver the commencement address. Doctoral candidates were handed diplomas directly by the commencement speaker and their names were called on stage. The President of MSU was a jogging friend - he talked me into attending and I later received a letter of condoleances from the President of the United States, George Bush Sr. My only consolation was that I dedicated on my mortarboard "4 my dad" the entire degree. I could not have been there without my dad giving up the only child he's ever had, knowing that he would not see me much anymore, given the distance.

Every time I see flowers or my husband brings me flowers, I think of my dad, of all the wonderful things he gave up so that I, my children, and all the other people I've touched could have brighter days. In remembrance of him and his name, we celebrate the holiday of flowers, Florii, around the orthodox Easter.

Aunt Stella was mom's middle sister, a skilled accountant, seamstress, homemaker, and mother. I spent many years growing up in the her home. She held me in church during my baptism as a baby and she was to take over, should something bad had befallen my mother. She was an inspiration for her tenacity and audacity to do the impossible. She never gave up and had a strong love of learning. She wrote many letters encouraging me to succeed here in the U.S. As early as last year, at the age of 75, she was strong enough to grow a garden, take care of her two grandchildren, and be a deputy on the village board. When cancer was discovered on her colon, doctors told her that due to her advanced age, it would be futile for the state to spend so much money to treat her when her life expectancy was fast approaching. Medical resources were limited and had to be rationed under the socialized medical system. She refused to give up and her youngest son went to work in Italy to earn enough money to pay for her chemotherapy. She underwent treatment but it was too late, the cancer had metastasized to other organs and bones. She never believed she was going to die, her attitude was positive although she was not receiving enough morphine for pain. I talked to her a lot on the phone during the last months of her life and her positive outlook made me understand that we should not allow pain and despair to rule us. Life is too short to mourn perennially, it is meant to rejoice and laugh often. Aunt Stela, as her Latin name says, was a true "star," shining brightly now in heaven.

My beloved dad and aunt, rest in peace, you will never be forgotten!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Communist Labor

As long as I can remember, my dad was an inveterate anti-communist. Because he spoke so openly about his beliefs and his anti-oligarchy stance, he was never in the graces of his bosses who had to kiss up to the local communist party organizer. There was a communist organizer assigned in every workplace, they earned double the salary of an ordinary engineer and his sole job was to spy on workers to make sure they were good communists. He filed reports at the end of each day which was read and catalogued by his higher-ups. The amount of paperwork and storage must have been overwhelming in the absence of computers. Staggering amounts of data were put on microfiche. Some were released to the public after communism fell in 1990. This community organizer was hated but nobody dared to challenge him or speak ill of the regime in front of him, except for my dad. He did not hide his feelings of hatred for the communist dictator president, Ceausescu, and wished openly for his demise. His policies were destroying the nation. Because my dad was on the security police's radar, every time the president was travelling within a certain mile radius of our home town, he would be detained under lock and key wherever he happened to be at the moment, at work or at home. If he was walking in the street, they would take him to headquarters until Ceausescu was out of range. I did not understand why they would do that, my dad never threatened to kill him and did not own a gun. Daddy was a peaceful man and would never take a small creature's life much less a human being's. He regarded life as sacred, only God could give it and only God could take it away. To make his life miserable, dad would get the most disgusting jobs to do and would be frequently moved from refinery to refinery - he was a petrochemical mechanic and a foreman. On any given day he could be swimming in mud and oil goo up to his hips, climbing on poles without safety gear, or crawling in narrow spaces with possible gas leaks. It was as if they wished him dead and put him in harm's way on purpose. Dad never complained about that, and even if he had, they would have ignored him. His labor union (sindicat) to which all workers were forced to belong and pay dues, did absolutely nothing to protect his rights as an employee. There was no such thing as bargaining contract with rights and responsibilities. Management improvised as they wished, with no accountability. The law was only on the side of the employer, the communist regime.

Many employees stole from the refinery, everybody knew it, but they kept quiet. They bribed the gate guard to let them through with their loot once a week. Workers used the stolen goods to barter with other people for food, wine, bread, medicine, gasoline, whatever their needs were at the moment. My dad hated the thieves and the collusive robbery. He said, poverty was no excuse for stealing. If he reported a theft to his boss, dad would get in trouble and the workers would beat him up for reporting them. Even the director of the refinery was caught stealing wrought iron fencing. He was going to use it around his parents' cemetery plot. The irony was that his parents were still alive! If you think, he did not get in trouble and got to keep the fence, you are right. Daddy was beaten up once again and thrown into a pit of metal shavings from a two story height. He cracked his skull which eventually led to his painful death.

Workers' lives were expendable, no OSHA there to protect them. My cousin Emil, a welder, was sent into a low tunnel, crawl space only, without protective gear, and never came out. He died of suffocation. How in the world was he going to weld around a gas leak? The all mighty government employer paid lip service to safety and protection but sent many young men to their deaths without any accountability. You were more likely to do hard time if you were missing money in the inventory - and some accountants did, by no fault of their own. Many factory directors and managers had sticky fingers and pointed the blame on hapless accountants.

Everyone worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a 15 minute break for lunch. However, many crew members would hide to sleep because there was no incentive to really try, you could not get fired, nor would you get extra money if you worked harder. Once the freedom and the reward to be exceptional was removed, there was no reason to try at all. But everyone expected the thirteenth check at Christmas time, a welfare check cloaked as performance bonus. The communist work ethic was, "they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work." Women skipped work worse than men and it was not difficult to bribe a doctor to give a bogus excuse. Aunt Angela missed work half the time and still received full pay. Her illness was laziness and alcohol, not necessarily in that order.

Agricultural laborers worked really hard, long days to put in the crops, weed them, and harvest them. It was backbreaking work with very little pay. Most of the work was done manually. Each village had one tractor and it stayed broken most of the time, either missing parts, or the operator did not know how to fix it. The dirt was tilled manually with a hoe, the weeds were dug up with a hoe, and the harvesting was done with shovels by hand. A large percentage of the crop had to be given to the regime to be sold on the open market, while the villagers shared a small percentage according to the amount of labor and the number of days worked. The collective farm of the regime had an agreement with each villager. When crops were burned by draught, the villagers were paid with money. The regime provided the irrigation systems via ditches diverting water from various rivers and creeks. Collective farms also raised cattle and hogs, remuneration was mostly in money since the animals went for slaughter, nothing was shared with the workers.

Each village had a shephard who rounded up the villagers' cows every morning and took them to pasture to graze. He returned them in the evening. Amazingly the cows knew exactly which house to go to as if they knew their own address. In mountain villages, there were more sheep herded than cows. You could hear the cow bells and bleats in late afternoon and you knew the herd was coming home. The shephard was the poorest man in town but always seemed the happiest. He lived, ate, and slept with the cows or the sheep.

Each home raised at least a cow, a hog, chicken, ducks, and rabbits. These animals provided them with milk, cheese, butter, eggs, meat, and fur. Self-sufficiency was important since transportation to the city was difficult, expensive, and uncommon. Sugar was a rare commodity and so were sweets. It was a real treat to be able to make your own fruit preserves and serve them to company as an exquisite desert with well-cold water. During wine making season in the fall, sugar was hard to find and very expensive. Milk was used to feed babies, make cheese, and butter. Teenagers and adults did not drink milk as it was better used to make other products. Most village kids had never seen ice cream, tasted it, or heard of it.

Many factory workers and shephards alike drank a lot to drown the sorrows of their pitiful existence. Communism was not supposed to exploit the proletariat, only evil capitalism did. Surely, anybody who saw how poorly these people lived, could not possibly believe this lie. They had no place to go and no way to improve their lot in life.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Communist confiscation of property

By definition communism implies that everything is "shared," from the Latin term "communis," meaning "shared." This could not be further from the truth since nobody really shared anything. The government controlled all the means of production, land, and property, and decided how much each profession, each service, was worth in terms of monthly pay. If I wanted to go and claim my share of the property, I would have been put in jail.

Everything was deliberately low and subsidized or on welfare in order to keep people beholden to the government. They had to beg for their very existence and sustenance. There was no incentive to do better, work harder, create more, achieve excellence because everyone was considered equal. In spite of this, some were more equal than others, namely the ruling elite and their families. There were no taxes withheld from pay, only forced union dues called "sindicat."

Communism was supposed to be class free but in reality there were two classes, the proletariat and the ruling elite or oligarchy, composed of communist party upper echelon. It was bourgeois, we were told, to own anything more than your next door neighbor would own. It was also your duty to report to the Financial Police anyone who had better food, better clothes, better entertainment, a better car, or seemed to be more prosperous economically. The ruling elite exempted themselves from such intrusion into their lives. It was fine to control every aspect of the rest of the country, but taboo to question anything the ruling elite did. If you were foolish enough to question the oligarchy, you had a one way ticket to a labor/re-education camp.

Confiscation of property under the guise of investigation or safe-keeping was quite common. The easiest pray were the gypsies because they lived such nomadic lives and did not have a permanent residence. It was a matter of choice for them, they pariahed themselves through their distinct life style and separate language. Most gypsies called themselves Rroma. Their ancestors migrated from a northern India warrior cast and spread across Europe, keeping their language intact. They were called erroneously gypsies because they were thought to have originated in Egypt and the name stuck.

Their legendary mobility is best exemplified by the joke told when gypsies applied for passports and visas to go to their annual festival in Spain. Such applications took months and years to process under communism, and the answer was usually no, sorry, you cannot go. Finally the bulibasha, the gypsy king, received his answer of no, to which he replied, "that's o.k., we already went and did not have a good time." Gypsies were able to go under the radar anywhere they wanted because people feared them, including crossing borders guards. Anybody else trying to cross the border under communists would have been shot on the spot and left there to die.

Gypsies carried their wealth with them in the form of wagons, horses, chandeliers, silverware, coins, and jewelry, all made of solid gold and silver. Many had their gold and silver confiscated by communists under the pretense of safekeeping and were given bogus receipts by the police. After the fall of communism, many Rroma tried in vain to reclaim their stolen property from "safekeeping". These receipts had little weight in court as they were handwritten, with no seal, or official identification. The police got away with the crime because gypsies were generally illiterate. Their children were never sent to school and the government did not really care, they were the unwanted citizens.

People's homes and land were confiscated under the guise of collectivization, accusations of being bourgeois, capitalist pigs, too much space for such a small family, and sharing the wealth with the poor. It was not the poor who received occupancy of beautiful villas and ownership of prized land, it was the communist party elite. The owners who resisted signing their homes and land over were picked up in the middle of the night, driven around in windowless cars or vans, told they were on their way to a gulag and, if they did not sign over their property, death was soon to follow. People were so frightened, they signed anything to escape with their lives.

My grandfather had buried his tractor in the garden, piece by piece, he thought himself so clever, but they came and dug it up - a chatty neighbor told the police what he did. They even stole the clock on the mantel piece, some policeman walked out with the chain hanging around his neck. Nothing was off limits to government confiscators: guns, jewelry, family heirlooms, carpets, furniture, paintings, clothes, art, sculpture, toys, crystal ware, dinner plates, porcelain statues, silverware, nothing was spared. The biggest confiscatory piece was the former king's castle at Sinaia, a ski resort about 40 miles north of my hometown. The communists even melted gold artifacts from the patrimony of the country for personal gain! To this day, some invaluable pieces are still missing. People spent years in court trying to recoup some of their former belongings, land, and ancestral homes. Some citizens were lucky and received a token reimbursement for their wealth, some got their homes back, and some received less valuable land as a quid-pro-quo. This happened during the period when Romania was trying to join the European Union and non-compliance with the rule of law was seen as a reason to deny its entrance into the EU. Romanian officials made feeble attempts and efforts to return some of the stolen wealth. There are many such as my family who are yet to receive any compensation or anything returned. My grandparents' homes and lands are still embroiled in battle in court as I speak.

Everybody wondered how the very same communist elites became billionaires overnight when communism fell while the majority of the population still lived in abject poverty, wondering where the next meal or euro to pay the rent will come from. Many children of former party leaders inherited the Swiss bank accounts with the stolen money of ordinary Romanian citizens who had done nothing wrong other than work hard and save the fruits of their labor.

Right after the fall of the dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena, a substantial amount of money, several billions, coming from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a development loan for Romania had disappeared overnight and there was no accounting of its whereabouts. There was no investigation, nobody went to jail, and the money was never found. But several central committee party members became billionaires overnight. Factories that belonged to the Romanian people were closed and sold off to the highest bidder by the general manager or the minister of that industry or were dismantled and sold off piece by piece, without any authority or legal right. Judges were paid off and everybody closed their eyes to the rape and pillage of the nation.

Well- being still eluded many Romanians although the economic system was slowly changing to capitalism. The corruption that was so strongly embedded during communism was very difficult to eradicate. The government machine complex was too powerful to destroy although communism no longer had total power by 1990.

Communist child rearing

My earliest and happiest childhood memories take me to my grandparents country house in the summer. I spent the first seven years of my life with my maternal grandparents. When I started first grade, I only saw them in the summer. They were my de facto mom and dad. My parents would come visit me on Sundays. I always felt abandoned each time they left. There was a deep sorrow rooted within my soul that I could not shake until I was fifteen years old. Grandparents had to step in and help raise a child until first grade as there was no such thing as day care or baby sitter under communism. People had to fend for themselves the best way they could. Some children were locked in by their mothers who had to go grocery shopping, others were tended by older siblings. I often wondered what would have happened to me if the apartment caught fire and I could not escape since I was locked in and our apartment was on the fifth floor of our building, with no fire escape? The locks were so primitive that only a key could open the door from the inside or from the outside. It was never customary to see mothers carry their babies with them shopping or on vacation. Chidren were always left home with other relatives. Newborns were never shown to the world for months for fear that they may get sick or get the "evil eye." Superstitious moms believed that someone with blue or green eyes could stare at their babies and cast a spell of ill fortune on the child which may result in death. Many children were hurt from lack of proper supervision, burns, scaldings, falls, cuts, electrocutions, and bruises. There was some weak accountability but, generally, a person's life was worth very little. I was an only child and mom did not have many choices. People who had lots of children usually left them with the eldest child who served as a surrogate parent. There was no law frowning on such practices nor child protective services who really cared about the welfare of children in general. Only when the population was not multiplying fast enough, did the communist party step in and offered stipends to mothers - a form of welfare to stay home and have babies. The more babies, the higher the stipend. Once a mom passed six children, she was considered hero of the communist regime and given an actual medal with lots of fanfare to make sure other women emulated her fecundity role. Since there was no birth control and no possibility of any legal abortion, women would have back alley abortions and often die of severe bleeding or septic infections. Those who gave birth and could not afford to literally feed their children, the government would step in and raise the child in the many orphanages that were designed to raise and educate the dictator's civilian army. Ironically, such a baby, raised to become a civilian army machine, given up by a woman who had been raped, eventually became part of the firing squad who executed the dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena. Nobody knows which of the soldiers had the real bullets, but it is ironic, that one of his henchmen may have been his ultimate demise, a victim of its own draconian birth policies. I lost a dear friend to a self-induced abortion. Laila was an architecture student and could not afford to feed another human being but did not want to give the baby away. She was 21 years old when she died of septic infection. Hospitals were forbidden to give medical help to anyone who had life and death injuries from botched abortions.
Women who chose to have babies and worked were rewarded by being given weeks and months of maternity leave, before and after a baby was born. For the first three years of a baby's life, each mother had generous full paid leave if a baby was ill. Some women took advantage of the system and pretended that their babies were sick in order to stay home and receive full pay. There was a cottage industry of dishonest pediatricians who wrote and sold excuses to justify the mothers' absence from work. It was a disgrace and it crated a class of cheaters who were a drain on the rest of society.
Country people had more children because they needed help in the fields. They had an easier life since they raised their own food and did not have to wait for the government handouts or meager salaries.
The government did not fuss much over the welfare of children except in the initial stages of adoption by childless couples. The process of adoption was quite arduous but the regime lost interest shortly after a baby was placed and a few visits were made to the new home. Abuse or even cases of murder by adoptive parents were seldom investigated thoroughly, the guilty seldom went to jail, or actually served harsh sentences. Life in general was expendable. People were more likely to do hard time for their political views or sexual orientation than for taking an innocent life. Investigations were quite commonly botched, files misplaced, evidence lost, or never collected in the first place. This made the job of a judge quite impossible. Not that they were that honest to begin with, they were stooges for the government and thus bought and bribed.
When a child made it to the first grade, life had not been that easy. Parents managed to scrounge enough money to buy supplies for school and the government provided the textbooks and free communist indoctrination. Everything taught was by rote memorization since labs were too expensive to provide experiments for various chemistry, biology, or physics classes and visuals or films did not exist. Concepts were illustrated on paper, if you understood it fine, if not, too bad. Students did not have calculators, they were provided with an abacus in first grade. All mathematical calculations had to be done with pen and paper.
Children were spanked by their parents and the law allowed teachers and administrators to spank as well. There was no breakfast or lunch at school. The daily schedule ran for elementary kids from 7 a.m. - 12 p.m. and for high schoolers from 1-6 p.m. There were no school buses and kids had to learn to walk to school in groups without parental supervision. Parents brought them to school every day the first week, after that, they were on their own. There were no kidnappings since nobody wanted the responsibility of feeding and housing another human being when they could barely afford to feed themselves. I remember walking past a cemetery while in high school. It was very unsettling returning home in the dark and letting the imagination run wild while passing by the cemetery. Needless to say, I never walked home, I ran. Few people owned cars and if they did, gasoline was so expensive, $9-10/gallon, that cars were kept mostly in the garage as a crown jewel. Owners would wash and polish them with so much love and care every weekend. Once a month, or every so many months, the car was driven a few short miles to grandma's house or to the nearest park for a picnick with "mititei" (a type of local sausage) and beer. Children were seldom invited on such outings. If the family could afford to dine in a restaurant once a year (a real luxury), children were again not invited. Baptisms, weddings, and burials were different, the children became the central part. Their youthful presence and joy inspired hope.
The government decreed that each child had to be vaccinated in school and the school nurse implemented this mandate with the same needles and syringes that were boiled every morning. Kids succumbed to hepatitis and childhood diseases that were preventable but untreated due to lack of medication, poor sterilization, or doctor care. Doctors and hospital visits were free but actually getting treatment was a different story. Everything was so rationed that the doctor/patient ratio was quite high. One doctor had to treat thousands and thousands of patients. There were not enough hours in the day to see everyone who needed immediate attention. I was one child of many who fell through the cracks and suffered needlessly. My mild childhood scoliosis was treated with three months of exercise instead of an expensive corset which the government refused to approve. To this day I have constant back pain.
By contrast, the children of communist party elite had the best schools, best food, free vacations paid by the regime, best medical care, drugs that were not available to the rest of us, day care, kindergartens, automatic admission to college, and assured visas to study or visit abroad. Their parents bought favors with hard currency, usually U.S. dollars, confiscated from political dissidents or by selling assets or art objects from the patrimony of the country. Every communist member who was part of the regime was above the law and lived a life of luxury, deception, and theft - the ultimate example of redistribution of wealth.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


All holidays were secular including Christmas. There was not even a hint of pretense that anything about the communist society was Christian or based on a very strong Christian tradition. The only concession to Christianity that mom was allowed to make without going to jail was to have our parish priest come to our home and bless it every Christmas and Easter. He was a very handsome man with deep blue eyes who spoke so many foreign languages that he inspired me to try to be like him. I owe some of my linguistic ability to this very erudite person who could read Latin and Greek with ease.
People did not get the day off at Christmas but celebrated the New Year's Day, a secular, communist sanctioned holiday. Christmas was not about gift giving, it was about togetherness with friends and family, cheer, and good food. It was a one time a year opportunity to eat well, the communist party supplied the stores with more food, the lines were shorter, there was more booze delivered to grocery stores, and an anemic Christmas tree was decorated with lights in some of the larger cities. Some families bought their own blue spruce and decorated it with real candles, apples, cookies, and home made paper ornaments. I remember owning a few real ornaments, given to me by my grandparents. Ornaments were availble but very expensive. Candles were lit with care a few minutes a day to avoid fires. There was no Santa Clause taking photographs with children and generally speaking, Saint Nicholas was someone to be feared. Children left their shoes outside the door on Christmas Eve and, if they behaved properly, Saint Nicholas would leave a chocolate bar and some candy. We did not go to church to pray as many churches were closed. Villagers were luckier because some of their priests opened the modest churches for liturgy on Christmas Day. I have attended church with my aunt Leana on Christmas. She was a cantor and deacon. The village was perched on this remote mountain of salt and because it was so inaccessible, the communists tended to leave it alone. People had small, productive orchards and vineyards because it was not feasable for the communists to take over their land as it was so spread out on top of the mountain. Caroling and donations of food to very poor families with widowed parents were the highlight of Christmas. One tradition observed in most parts of the country, Wallachia, Moldova, and Transylvania was the slaughter of a pig at Christmas. I always refused to watch the slaughter of my grandfather's pig the week before Christmas. I could hear the squeals of pain and saw the blood in the white snow. It always made me squeamish and I could not eat the meat. This pig provided sustenance for the entire extended family for months to come. The meat was smoked into ham, deep fried and preserved in large lard vats, and made into sausages smoked in the attic. Salt was a natural preservative and needless to say, many adults had issues with high blood pressure from so much salt and lard. Some of the meat was cooked fresh on open pits outdoors and the family gathered around the fire to celebrate the abundance of food and the flowing wine. Even small children were handed glasses of ruby red wine, most of it produced on the premises or in the village. I ate many hearty meals cooked on a cast iron top, wood burning stove that channeled hot air to other rooms in the house via primitive mud brick ducts. Villagers bartered things they had in excess with other neighbors since money was so tight. Services were also bartered, one learned to adjust to being poor in so many creative ways. My grandmother and her middle daughter learned to be seamstresses and made dresses. Her youngest daughter was a skilled accountant. Her oldest daughter was a master weaver -she made beautiful fabrics and wool rugs. My own grandmother knew how to spin the coat of a sheep into beautiful yarn, dyed it herself with vegetable dyes and knew how to knit warm and scratchy sweaters. I grew up in grandma's sweaters since my parents could not afford to buy expensive clothes. And they were all expensive when we lived on such meager incomes. My godmother made my dresses. She could take key measurements of my body, and with chalk, make an outline of the various dress pieces on fabric without a pattern, cut them with scissors, and voila, a new, not so trendy dress would emerge. She stitched it together on grandma's 80 year old Singer pedal activated sewing machine. We did not care about fashion, we were glad to have something to keep us covered and warm.
Grown men would go carolling in the village on January 1st to herald the arrival of the New Year. Dressed in traditional costumes, they walked beside a sled pulled by horses. A young green fir decorated with colorful paper ornaments was perched on the sled. Singing and cracking their whips, they demanded pay in food or money from each home. People gave small tokens of their poverty because they believed in sharing as a virtue.
Larger cities had an area reserved for rides for small children and it was the highlight of my year because sometimes the scary Saint Nicholas made his appearance. The children of the ruling elite could actually take their black and white pictures with "Santa."
My parents were my secret Saint Nicholas, they always put a small food item under my pillow - a chocolate bar, a bag of candy, a perfect apple, an exquisite orange from Jerusalem wrapped in fine tissue paper, or a perfect banana from Greece, with their exotic aromas of forbidden and out of reach fruit for mere mortals. I would imagine what would be like to pluck the fruit from its faraway mediterranean location and to bask in the glorious sun as snow and ice was blanketing our surroundings.
Christmas was abundant with snow and gave us kids the opportunity to sled downhill and to have our fathers drag us up and down the street. It was sheer happiness. Our moms would layer our clothes so much, we could hardly move. The key ingredient to staying warm was the flannel pj underneath all the clothes. We played in the snow from the time we woke up until nightfall. By the time we returned home, our clothes were so wet from sledding, ice skating, falling and getting up, that they froze stiff on our bodies. Nobody had hypothermia or lost any limbs to frostbite. We were happy and oblivious to our state in life.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Poverty is faith in government who is robbing the population blind while leading it over a cliff. Poverty is ignorance and illiteracy. Poverty is accepting your fate of servitude without so much as a whimper. Poverty is misplacing your trust in ordinary men while neglecting God. Poverty is a lack of hygiene. Poverty is watching your children and loved ones die because you failed to wash your hands or obtain clean water. Poverty is watching 3 million people die of malaria world-wide in the misplaced belief that DDT is worse. Poverty is death by famine near silos full of genetic engineered corn and grain. Poverty is being unable to get clean water. Poverty is accepting welfare and expecting entitlements from a omniscient and omnipotent government. Poverty is losing the will to fight to better yourself.

Westerners understand poverty as the difference between haves and haves not.
I remember the conversation I've had with my former mother-in-law long time ago. We were talking about Romanian poverty and I asserted that I was poor. Jean angrily declared my statement to be false. I considered myself poor since I did not have a dime to my name, a home, or any wealth. I was 21 years old, freshly off the communist boat so to speak. Her explanation was that I could not possibly be poor, I was married to her son, we lived in their nicely appointed ranch home, her son ran the farm, and they had money in the bank. Many Americans would respond to the question, are you poor, with a resonant yes. The reason most people answer yes is that they confuse wealth and income. They are short of cash in their pockets, others have no money in the bank, some do not own the car or home of their dreams, or have no accummulated wealth. They may be cash poor but are even poorer in certain commodities for which they are willing to give up their cash. Are we really poor in America? By most standards, Americans are not poor. Even homeless people have more wealth when compared to many citizens of other countries. Poverty is thus relative to most people. Poverty does not make one sad just as wealth does not make one happy. Some people don't even realize how poor they are, they are blissfully ignorant of reality, or may not even understand that such a concept of poverty exists.

Years ago Americans took a group of home-grown homeless to Russia to demonstrate the evils of capitalism that allowed these people to be homeless. The Russians stormed out of the building in disgust when they found out that these so called "homeless" did not work. How did they expect sympathy from the Russians when they made no effort to work? The soviets' philosophy was simple, if you did not work, don't complain that you are homeless.

People living under communism did not live pampered lives and the communist government did very little to improve their lot in life, just a bare minimum. The utopian society in which everyone was equal was not so egalitarian after all. Everyone lived in ugly and drab concrete appartments, sparsely furnished, and paid similar rents. The government decided what the needs of each family were and that was how far anyone could advance, if you can call that progress. Few families actually owned their own home in the city. Anemic bulbs provided intermittent lighting when the party did not shut the power off for reasons of conservation or inability to produce or pay for enough electricity.
The ruling elite occupied elegant villas that had been forcefully confiscated from businesses and individuals after the rightful owners were jailed on trumped up "crimes against the communist ideology." The elaborate grey complexes in the city had five to nine stories with semi-finished stairwells. Nine story buildings had elevators that constantly trapped its riders for hours when power outages occurred or from lack of proper maintenance. The common area and the stairwells were the responsibility of each renter to maintain and clean. Fines were levied if people did not take turns to clean the stairs. The garbage bay was always nasty, smelly, and unsanitary since the city was supposed to provide these services whenever they saw fit to do it. Kids played in very large groups and nobody supervised them to make sure they were safe. They were often run over by cars while playing in the streets, on the sidewalks, or crossing the road. People used sidewalks for parking, with total disregard for the law which was never enforced. Very few people owned a TV or radios and phones were even scarcer. One in ten apartments owned a TV and it was customary to invite the whole street over in the home with a TV if a good movie, football game, or concert were playing. That was not a frequent occurrence since the communists only broadcast two stations in black and white, both heavy on constant propaganda and nauseating 24/7 speeches by the president/dictator. Radios were more common but people had to pay a fiscal monthly tax for the right to own both a radio and a TV, a type of subscription that one had to pay whether they had an antenna or not. Inspectors came into homes unannounced to check ownership of TVs and radios, and compliance with the fiscal tax. Phones were rarer because it took close to 14 years to have a phone installed from the time application was made until it was actually installed. My parents applied for a phone when I was in kindergarten and we did not get it until I was in 12th grade! There was a joke about a person going to the post office to fill out a request for phone installation and the clerk told the customer that it will be in 14 years. The customer asked whether it will be a.m. or p.m. Irritated, the clerk answered, "what differenc does it make, it is 14 years from now." The customer answered calmly, "the plumber is coming in the morning."

Because everyone earned the same amount of money, there was no incentive to excell, to work harder, or to go the extra mile. The work ethic was, "we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us." My dad who was an engineer, was responsible for several men in his crew at the refinery. Most days his charges were hard to find because they were hiding in different areas, asleep. The work ethic was non-existent thanks to the low pay and the communist mentality to give everybody a living wage for just showing up, not based on performance.

Country folk were a little better off - they could grow a garden and raise farm animals, a luxury that city people did not have. They could also own a modest home, some better than others. In some far away villages, homes were made of bricks built of mud mixed with straw. Come to think of it, it was cheap and a great insulator both in winter and summertime - and a great burrowing and hiding place for mice and rats. Some homes were built of wood, brick, and stucco but lacked basic amenities such as electricity, indoor plumbing, and running water. A small barn provided winter shelter for farm animals. Dogs were kept outside in a dog house, poor creatures, but cats had better lives indoors. Dogs were more utilitarian than pets in the sense of providing guard to the owner or the flock of sheep. Only large animals were tended to by vets. It was a luxury - real vets were hard to find. A person with some vet training sufficed. Even in times of food shortages, village people had chickens, cows, pigs, and gardens to feed their families. A small plot could raise enough corn and vegetables to sustain them through winter. It was harder getting rice, flour, and oil and other basic staples. The communist co-operative who had forced everybody to give up their lands for the "common good" would force villagers to work in the fields, back breaking work, for a small percentage of the crop in the fall. The government took the lion's share, what was left was divided among the collective villagers who had plowed, seeded, weeded, hoed, and harvested the wheat, corn, or whatever crop the collective cooperative had planted on directions from the communist party planners. The common land and labor did not work very well since some villagers were more industrious and motivated than others yet the remainder of the crops was equally shared. This angered those who worked hard to see the fruits of their labor go to lazy villagers who did not contribute much work to the crops. The crop and industry planners had no experience in any of the sectors they made life and death decision on and often no formal education, but they were considered the "experts." Their only qualification was membership in the communist party and the ability to change their views on command as the wind blew from the direction of the dictator president and his wife who was very much involved in politics.

Children had few toys and improvised creatively for entertainment and play. I personaly owned one doll, a doll bed, a teddy bear, and a set of 9 block puzzle that could assemble a different picture on each side of the cube. I felt extremely lucky when my grandfather cobbled together a sled from a few wooden slats and two pieces of heavy iron which he welded together. This sled gave me endless hours of joy and many scrapes and bruises. My grandfather was the kind of man who could make McGuyver proud - he put together repair parts for the villager's bikes and motorcycles. He never charged them, he bartered or expected nothing in return. I watched him in fascination when he welded bike tires with glue and pliers. I used to joke that grandpa could fix anything with dirt and spit.

Everybody owned one nice outfit and pair of shoes which they only wore on special holidays: Easter, Christmas, baptisms, weddings, or funerals. The rest of the year, villagers went about happily in their bare feet and some old, sun washed, well worn outfit. City folk at least wore shoes all the time. They had to, there was too much debris and opportunities to get hurt. Every summer I got a new pair of sandals and every winter a new pair of boots. They were usually ill fitting and they caused me years of pain and surgery later in life.

The sparsely, spartan furnished apartments had a bed and a chifferobe, there were no such things as walk-in closets. Our kitchen, hallway, and bathroom were about the size of a large walk-in closet. We had a living room that doubled as dining room and my bedroom. It contained a bed, a couch, a dining table with three chairs and a bookcase. The one bedroom, my parents', had a bed, a black and white TV, and a chifferobe. That is how rich we were because the communist party had decided those to be our only needs based on the pay my parents received in exchange for their hard labor, as in the communist mantra, ... "to each according to their needs." The kitchen had a small cupboard, a sink, and a table with two chairs. When I was in high school, my parents had bought a very small, dorm-sized refrigerator which we placed in the hallway because there was no room in the kitchen.

Few people owned a car and most of us took the bus anywhere or walked. Children were not ferried to school by buses, nobody was fed breakfasts or lunch at school. We were lucky if we had something home to eat. Nobody went on vacations and travel abroad was impossible since the government only gave visas to very special people who were part of the communist millieu. The citizens had very little contact with the outside world, save for listening to Voice of America via short wave radio. Such broadcasts kept our hopes alive for a better life. And Hollywood gave us a fantasized world of America and glimpses of celluloid life in everyday America, or at least, what we thought everyday America to be. Many of us really thought money grew on trees for Americans. They were not blessed because they worked hard, were entrepreneurs and free, but because they were born rich. The first few years of my moving to the U.S., every friend and relative sent letters requesting blue jeans, medicine, thinking that they cost a pittance in such a rich country. It did not matter that I was poor as a church mouse and could not afford my own medicine, clothes, or visits to the doctor. How could I be poor in America, the land of opportunity? My family could not understand that wealth took time to create and income would come later with the opportunity to better myself.

Cities had museums, theater, and cinema, and although not very expensive by western standards, few Romanians could afford to go since there were other needs that had to be met before a movie, a play, or a visit to the museum. Some larger villages, closer to a metropolis had movie showings once a month in the collective co-op meeting center. John Wayne was everybody's popular hero and his movies played over and over, with subtitles. As a matter of fact, I taught myself English by watching John Wayne movies. I could hear the American English and repeat and mimic his accent. This resulted often in mispronounciation since proper diction was not the goal of a movie dialog. I later took two years of English in high school and learned proper British English.

Medical care was free to all, but the quality and availability of it was very poor. Villagers were worse off since their care was relegated to a nurse with 6 months of training and the ambulance took days to arrive with no help, medicine, or life saving support, just a driver. Each village had a co-op store with a few supplies of necessities, none of which included food. Villagers had to take the bus into town if they needed staples such as flour, sugar, cooking oil, and rice. The bus made twice a day runs, if it was closer, 10 miles of less, to a metropolis. If the village was remote, there were no bus routes and the villagers traveled by wagons once every so many months to get supplies for several families. They were totally cut off from civilization although they may have been only 35 miles from a large town.

And yet we were so much better off than other third world countries. Poverty is relative, no matter how you dice it. If I had to choose, United States is still the best country in the world to be poor in.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


When Americans complain about profiling, I am reminded of living under the watchful eye of the ever-vigilant police in Romania. There were three branches, the Militia, ordinary traffic and disputes police, the Securitate, the spying police, and Militia Economica, or the economic police. There was not a clear delineation between duties since any citizen could be picked up by any of the above and interrogated for no particular reason and held against their will without due process for days and weeks. Their families never knew where they were. We lived in fear of police, they were not there to protect and serve us, but to harass and imprison us. We were guilty until proven innocent and, most times, we were just plain guilty without the benefit of due process.

I was surprised that Americans object so vehemently to illegals being I.D.ed after crimes were committed. Do we not need to know who the criminals are? Every innocent American has to show I.D.s in order to prove who they are at the DMV, at driving checkpoints, at the doctor's office, in hospitals, at airports, at the court house, at department stores, at border crossings, etc. You can no longer pay with credit cards without showing you are who your credit card says you are. Credit card fraud has spawned such checks. You cannot enter any building with a certain level of security without showing I.D. and passing through scanners.

We feared police constantly in Romania. Many citizens were detained for their views under lock and key at their place of employment or at home if an important politician was passing by. Their lack of membership in the communist party was seen as an enemy of the state and thus of the official who happened to be in the vicinity. People were rounded up on election day and forced to go vote for the only communist candidate on the ballot. We were stopped because we might have given the policeman a furtive look, a sideways look, perhaps we carried bags that appeared too laden with merchandise, where did you get the money, where did we buy the loot, was it stolen, did we have proof that we purchased that? Maybe we were in the wrong place at the right time, or the right place at the wrong time. Each citizen had to carry an I.D. at all times that resembled a passport. This I.D. had your picture, address, blood type, where you lived, communist party affiliation sector, union affiliation block, how many times you have moved, stamps fromt the police showing that you have registered your new address as soon as you moved in, or, if you didn't, which neighbor ratted you out and what fine you had to pay for non-compliance with the law. Not that Romanians dared to move that much. You were pretty much stuck where you were born and raised, job or school mobility were discouraged. Every citizen received this I.D.upon turning 14 years old. This was considered the age of emancipation and thus legal responsibility. The law judged people not on the basis of precedent but on the basis of the law as it was written by the communist government. This law changed at whim to suit their platform, views, and ideology. Which brings me to the story of Caroline. I changed her name to protect the innocent. Caroline was my best friend in high school and my freshman and sophmore years in college. We were very close, rode the train together to school for two years, and interned in the summer at the Black Sea. The summer between our freshman and sophmore year in college, we were interns with the port of Constanta, verifying cargo and serving as translators. The port captain often told us to go to the beach and have fun when there were no ships coming in. One such fateful day, my friend decided to go on a date with a Swabian friend from Transylvania, I will call him Hans. She forgot her I.D. home while her date had his German passport. The I.D. check happened around 9 p.m. There was no curfew in place for young people under 21 or anybody else after 9 p.m., but people were discouraged from wandering or loitering the streets at night. The two were strolling, having fun, talking, like any teenagers would do. Except my friend was taken downtown to the Securitate in the basement and interrogated for hours. And that was not all. Because her date was German speaking Schwaben (his Romanian was limited as it is often the case with people of Germanic origin from Transylvania), he was assumed to be a foreigner, was let go, while they grilled her over illicit relations with foreigners (which was against the law). Any contact with a foreign national was forbidden by law. To teach her a lesson, the five officers of the law decided to take turns raping her. She returned home in the morning, in shock. We took her to the hospital, there was no inquiry, no law suit, no punishment because it was the law, the government representatives who raped her. Who was going to give her justice? A totalitarian government?

We remained friends, although I moved to the U.S. in 1978, and corresponded with Caroline for years. After e-mail became more prevalent, we wrote for a while and then lost touch. I don't know what happened to her, I know she married Hans, had two children, but I don't know her whereabouts. Last time I physically saw her was in Germany in 1994 - she drove for hours with her family to meet me for a brief reunion in Regensburg. She seemed normal and happy but Hans begged to differ. She was mentally unstable in the last two years before we lost contact. Her e-mails were erratic and bizarre at times. I don't think she ever received proper mental treatment from her ordeal and never recovered from the trauma she suffered. There was no closure to her rape - nobody was brought to justice for their crime.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Becoming an American citizen

Few Americans give much thought to standing in endless lines or fighting daunting bureaucracy. That is because they are very seldom faced with such possibilities in every day life.
My move to the U.S. started three years before I ever set foot on the plane to New York - three years of endless audiences to various vice ministers, police, security police, passport office, translators, notaries, attorneys, and other mayoral officials. I had to prove that I had not debts, no criminal record, no communicable diseases, mental illness, associations to undesirable agencies and organization, etc.; each document had to be translated into English, notarized, typed only by state approved functionaries, and approved and re-approved by state, ministers, and security police. By the time I finished the entire process, I was exhausted, had not a dime to my name, and had lost all my rights as a Romanian citizen. I was literally a person without a country, a persona-non-grata, with no rights whatsoever. I had a Romanian passport with a single visa to the U.S., but no home and no ability to earn a living. I had to pay back my schooling although the Constitution stated clearly that education was free to all Romanian citizens at all levels. I was stripped of all rights simply because I petitioned for a visa to come study, work, and live in the world's freest republic. Unfortunately, the communist dictatorship thought that I was a spy and my motives were less than honest. As a matter of fact, everyone who made contact at all with a foreigner without prior authorization, was immediately under suspicion and surveillance by the dreaded Security Police. When my fiance's mother came to visit, we had to answer questions at 2 a.m. downtown at the police headquarters. The interrogation lasted over two hours - the cops wanted to know why we did not notify them ahead of time of the visit? All the while, because they controlled the population's whereabouts through draconian block by block registration, they knew exactly who was coming and going into and out of the country. My parents and I were taken in separate vans and interrogated separately as if we had committed a crime. Jean and her son Bill were bewildered that their visit had caused so much distress and heartache to us. Americans could not understand or fathom total control, but we were used to living under constant surveillance and under a microscope. Our phones were tapped, our letters opened, our visits, moves, and job locations were recorded carefully. Nobody could ever be incognito anywhere on the soil of a totalitarian society. And they were doing this without the benefit of cameras or computers! We had become a nation of spies and traitors - spying and betraying our own families for an extra loaf of bread, a pound of meat, bananas, or oranges. It was very sad, knowing that nobody trusted anybody. The survival instinct taught us to accept and circumvent disturbing laws and rules and to keep quiet. People learned to take secrets to their graves.

Was it easy to become an American citizen? Not really. After my arrival in 1978, I lived for two years as a resident alien. I could not vote, I could not be on welfare (not that I wanted to, I was certainly poor enough to qualify), and had no rights. I did not march in the streets demanding same rights as American citizens because I understood I was not an American. I did not wave the Romanian flag in the face of Americans while shouting angrily that America will some day be ours. I learned English better each day. I had studied two years in high school, but it was not good enough. I wanted to become part of the fabric of this society, to understand it, honor it, respect it, and immerse in its culture. I did not want to lose my heritage, I kept it alive at home, but I wanted to be an American. After two years, I felt competent enough to apply for citizenship. I had to study the Constitution, take a test, pass it with flying colors, and be interrogated for three hours by an immigration officer in Memphis. I knew more about the U.S. history and Constitution than most Americans. I spoke better English than most Americans. I spelled better. I was truly prepared. The paperwork was very expansive, difficult to obtain, expensive to translate, and the taxes to the government were costly. As a poor student, just driving three hours to Memphis several times a year was prohibitive. I had to decide sometimes whether I paid for documents and gas to the Immigration Office, or for food and shelter. It took two years and a few months before I was approved and finally sworn in as a Naturalized Citizen in the Court of Oxford, MS. It was a very proud day for me and four years in coming. I was no longer persona-non-grata, I had gained a country, a language, safe borders, and a culture resplendent with a tapestry of many nations, ethnicities, all united by a common language and goal, freedom. We were truly a melting pot, not a tossed salad bowl. What a sweet day, May 20, 1982!

I don't take my American citizenship lightly and I watch in helpless disbelief the demonstration of utter contempt and hatred for our laws by illegal aliens and their supporters, La Rasa, the democrats, and the administration who are demanding amnesty for breaking the law. The foreign flag-waving and the burning of the American flag in the faces of Americans is shocking. The calls for violence against Americans, racial hatred, pitting one ethnic group against another, go unpunished. The federal government is approving and stoking lawlessness, racial divide, and the destruction of our culture and country. What makes hispanics more deserving of American citizenship just because they jumped a fence illegally? Why should we reward bad behavior? There are thousands of immigrants who are waiting their turns patiently, filling out forms after forms, waiting years sometimes to receive or be denied a visa to freedom. Vast oceans separate them from our borders. Does that make them less deserving of becoming legal residents? I had to prove that I had a sponsor in the U.S. who was willing and able to support me if need be. I also had to have thousands of dollars in a bank account so that I won't become the ward of the state. Yet that is exactly what is happening now with all the hispanics who illegally set foot on our soil - they drop their anchor babies and claim permanent residence and citizenship rights when their anchor babies turn 18. I had to pay for years for the birth of my babies because we had no insurance, yet all illegals benefit from free medical and pre-natal care, food, housing, WIC, compliments of the U.S. taxpayer. Why? Should the Mexican government not have some responsibility for their fleeing citizens? They have more wealth in petroleum than our country does, they certainly can afford to institute social programs to eradicate poverty in Mexico. The Mexican gang violence and drug trade are spilling onto our southern borders and the federal government is doing very little to curtail it. It is up to the states like Arizona to defend their own borders against the massive invasion. As one very savy conservative had said, borders, language, and culture are very important and must be preserved at all costs. Our soldiers would have died in vain if we fail to protect our borders and allow illegal immigration to wreck this beautiful nation. We are successful because we are free and are united by a common goal and our faith in God.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Encounter with elitist liberal academia

My love of learning would eventually lead me to the bastion of intellectual freedom, the American university. I felt so liberated, having fled communism, where I had to keep my thoughts to myself or risk deportation to a far away re-education gulag, that I would be able to express my every thought without any fear of repraisal, incarceration, or death. Boy, was I terribly mistaken! I would have to fear death by denial of professorial and professional appointments usually reserved for progressives who were toting the communist doctrine and party line.

My first denial came in the form of a grant offered by the Soros Foundation. As long as I was a certain ethnic background, belonged to certain organizations, or espoused the communist doctrine, it was very easy to obtain it. I had no idea who the great George Soros was. This man had spent his entire life trying to destroy freedom in America and install a dictatorial regime, under a world government led by him. He had made billions of dollars by shorting various currencies around the world and was still doing it a few weeks ago. He had promised to destroy the American dollar and install a new world order where America no longer was the center of exceptionalism. What was particularly shocking, his family barely escaped the Holocaust, bringing him to America to have a better life, free to achieve the American dream. His hedge funds were successful, yet he's had nothing but vitriolic hatred for the very country that protected and nourished him to wealth and prosperity. Why would anyone want to destroy the U.S. when so many Americans have died defending it, and protecting other countries in distress around the globe over the last 234 years? It was incomprehensible to me.

We were forbidden in Romania to have any political or critical discussions in the family, to friends, at work, or in school. Everyone kept a low profile and bit their tongues because they knew, some family members were informers to the dreaded Security Police. The informers were taught how to bait children to turn in information about their parents. Children were so naive and honest to a fault. How were they to know that innocent remarks about their parents would possibly incarcerate or condemn them to death? The communist agitators certainly had plenty of orphanages to put these children in. The more the merrier! This was Ceausescu's future army of drones who would carry out his communist propaganda and utopia at the end of the barrel of a gun. All he had to do is issue a command. The repraisal was swift and brutal.

The population was not armed - the president made sure these arms were confiscated long time before he became a dictator - he enticed the citizens with rewards for turning arms in voluntarily, all in the name of public safety and the reduction of crime. The less guns in the street, he said, the lesser the crime rate. People complied gleefully. Who is going to argue with the all controlling, all knowing government who had spies everywhere?

Here I was in academia in the U.S., free to speak my mind, but the academia was communist. I was shocked! If you disagreed with their point of view, usually liberal progressive, you became an instant academic pariah, you were never considered for a faculty position, much less for tenure, no matter how smart, well educated, qualified, clever, or credentialed you were.

The minds of young Americans were being molded and shaped by progressive radicals who taught them that America was an evil empire, and the citizens were bad apples who could excoriate their sins by giving up their wealth , soverignty, and their country to foreign powers.

I was shocked and could not believe that many professors and teachers were members of specialized unions that rewarded the worst teachers for promoting their platform. These teachers made the circuits of conferences all over the country and the world, presenting worthless "papers" in the name of research. The more popular a teacher was on such circuit, the more offices he/she held in a professional organization, the higher the salary he/she received. It did not matter that they were seldom in the classroom, or that they were terrible teachers, or that they did not care about their students' performance, so long as they promoted the latest teaching methodology deemed worthy by the College of Education. Parents had no idea what kind of education their children received in exchange for high tuition. I realized very quickly that the College of Education was the breeding ground for future communists and that it would eventually bring the downfall of freedom in the United States.

The teachers hired were usually not the best, brightest, and most qualified to teach, but the ones holding certification, a worthless piece of paper that most people obtained if they jumped through the right hoops. College of Education graduates were performing in the bottom 50th percentile on National Teacher Exams as opposed to Arts and Sciences graduates who were performing in the top 50th percentile. But Arts and Sciences graduates could not be in the classroom without a license. The Department of Education issued these licenses to everyone so long as they took worthless College of Education classes that did not improve their knowledge in the area of expertise, neither their teaching ability.

A teacher could have a Ph.D. and years of teaching experience in a private sector, yet, without a license, they were forbidden to teach in the public schools. I found this rather strange since in Romania, only the best and the brightest were allowed to teach. They had to follow the communist party line, but they still had to be extremely prepared in their area of expertise. Sadly, in the U.S., expertise was not a requirement, just a license. As it was often the case, C and D average students would declare their major as education because other majors were too difficult for them. This resulted in a watering down of the quality of future teachers and thus a decline in the quality of instruction they delivered once in the classroom. Methodology and proper indoctrination trumped content every time.

As an European, I was shocked how little students and their teachers knew and how open and unashamed about their ignorance they were. I would have been embarassed to admit that I was lacking so many basic skills and education and still called myself educated, having earned a high school or college diploma.

There was so much nepotism both in U.S. high schools and U.S. colleges; a sought-after teacher would not sign a contract with a particular university until his/her spouse were given generous and well-placed employment as well. Women were slighted in favor of men, and blacks in favor of whites. How was this the land of opportunity and freedom, I thought, when academia, which is supposed to be the bastion of freedom of thought, was so communist?

The Romanian curriculum had to be approved by the Central Communist Party and it mandated, besides math and science, strange courses promoting communism such as Scientific Socialism, Philosophy of Socialism, Socialist Economics, as well as revisionist history and foreign languages, particularly those spoken in other communist countries. Teachers were well prepared in math and sciences and had to excell in communist indoctrination as well. Teachers had to tow the party line. They had to do their job otherwise they would be sent to concentration camp-like prisons. There was no nepotism and teachers had to compete for jobs by taking a test and then had to be approved by the communist party. Membership in the party was greatly encouraged and it was frowned upon if a teacher was not a card-carrying communist. Awards were seldom given and the work day lasted 4-5 hours, including Saturday.

Students as well as teachers were forced to "volunteer labor" in spring and fall. We had to plant and harvest crops every year for a month. To add insult to injury, we were not paid, not fed, not even given water in the fields. Because the crops were dusted with chemicals and water was not available, we could not even eat what we were harvesting. I felt like a muzzled dog.

We wore our uniforms designed by the communist party and young pioneers (the budding young communists) had to wear red bandanas. These school uniforms had embroidered name tags and identification numbers with the name of the school, should we misbehave while in public. Any citizen could report a student as to what he/she did right or wrong to the school principal. The principal or the dean were kings. Corporal punishment as well as public humiliation in the classroom were allowed and highly encouraged. Furthermore, parents had to attend monthly meetings with the teacher during which time they were humiliated as well in front of other parents, alphabetically, if their child's performance and grades were poor. Many parents would come home and spank their children not just for the bad grades but for having been publicly chastazied and criticized for their lack of parental skills and interest in their child's future. We did not dare go to school without having done homework or without being prepared for daily oral quizzes or unannounced test. Nobody complained like they do in America that the test was not announced and thus unfair. Students had to be prepared at all times. Grades of zero or fail were given for unprepared or wrong answers. You had to study every time the class met. There was no ACLU, no threatening law suits, no blaming teachers for the shortcomings of students or lack of preparation. Everyone had to tow the party line and the rigorous and rigid rules of behavior and performance. You failed a class, you had to repeat the year - No second chance in the summer.

Teenage pregnancy was unheard of, we only had one girl in a class of 950 students who was found to be pregnant two weeks before graduation in high school. She had to repeat 12th grade during night school before she could get her diploma. The rules were draconian, but they were the rules of the communist party. Nobody dared to object.

So, here I was, in the best country in the world where freedom of speech was guaranteed, yet I was among Marxist professors, and, although I could say what I wanted to say without fear of jail, I could not do it because it was professional suicide.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Communist medical care

Rationing of everything was a staple of daily life in Romania. We could only have so much before we turned into burgeois society and we had to be kept under control by the dreaded financial police. Nobody was allowed to get ahead in any way and, if there were appearances that a family had acquired something extra, the neighborhood spies would report them to the economic police. What would these neighborhood spies get in return for their service? Usually the right to shop at the communist party stores, with no lines, better food, more variety, and better service. They were given about $150 per month as well. Once the police started the investigation, the family had to prove where and how they obtained the money to buy certain things, usually in excess of the identical salaries, barely scraping by, people earned. This was by design to satisfy the utopian communist ideal that everybody had to be equal except the oligarchy in power. They earned more money, shopped at their own stores, had their own doctors, hospitals, hotels, overseas vacations, Swiss bank accounts, and summer resorts with five star hotels and maid service.

Everyone lived in the same drab, concrete block apartments, the size of a studio apartment in the west. Often times two families had to share a two bedroom apartment with only one kitchen and one bathroom. The spartan conditions extended to medical care as well. By definition, everything was free. Trying to actually get the care, cost quite a bit of money, more than most families earned. There were bribes to see the doctor, bribes to see the nurse, bribes to see the pharmacist, the lab and X-ray technicians. There were bribes for the cleaning lady when the patient was in the hospital. A family member had to stay with the patient 24/7 and take care of everything otherwise the patient was not fed, changed, attended to when in distress, bandages changed, etc. The doctor and the nurse sometimes did not show up for days. A patient would be hospitalized for weeks and would not see a doctor almost the entire time unless bribes were given: bottles of wine, money, foreign chocolate, foreign cigarettes, stockings, shampoo, foreign soap, U.S. dollars, jewelry, etc. Doctors made the same low salaries as any worker and they compensated by violating their Hyppocratic oath and refusing to treat someone unless bribes were given.

The quality of doctors was very questionable since medical school graduates had no practical experience on patients whatsoever only theoretical knowledge. Medical school took six years to complete with no residency requirements. Most patients took their lives into their own hands when they agreed to have elective surgery. When an emergency arose, the outcome was mostly dire. Even simple operations ended in disaster, nipped colons during appendectomies, nipped voice boxes during thyroidectomies, cut blood vessels, ruptured and nicked organs, instruments and bandages left inside the patient, etc. There was no ethical or moral accountability for the death of any human being. Life was worth zero and nobody punished any doctor for malpractice. They were all working for the government, who was the family going to sue for the death of their loved one? The government?

The sanitary conditions were horrible. Bandages were washed,rewashed and reused, needles were boiled in rusty metal pans and so were the glass and metal syringes. Nothing was disposable. When I was in high school, the entire school received injections with the same three needles and syringes. Every morning they were boiled in a pan and the same were used all day until the next morning when they were boiled again. I do mean boiled, they were not autoclaved. I was lucky because my last name started with A so I was the first to get any shot. The rest of my school mates had gotten hepatitis from dirty needles. We were lucky that there was no HIV epidemic yet.

The hospital wards were very dirty and in bad need of repairs and painting. Each ward had anywhere from twenty to thirty metal beds with mattresses stained of blood and other bodily fluids of endless patients who had used the hospitals. The family had to bring sheets and blankets for the patient. The floors were not usually mopped and caked blood and other stains were present. Food was not provided by the hospital and family members had to take turns to bring nourishment and water to the patient every day. No IV fluids were provided.

Each hospital had one ambulance that was equipped with nothing to save lives and did not have an EMT on board. A driver would supplement his salary on the way to an emergency by giving rides to hitchhikers. Most ambulances arrived too late to save someone's life. However, if the patient had non-life threatening emergency, they were lucky to survive the long, uncomfortable, and arduous trip to the hospital in an empty ambulance.

Dental care was non-existent. Nobody was allowed to clean their teeth at the dentist, it was too expensive and too capitalist. The only time we were allowed to make an appointment, if we were lucky, was when someone needed their teeth pulled or a root canal. I still remember the dentist who talked and spit in my mouth when I was 15. He was doing a root canal without any anesthetic, oblivious to my screams of pain and the dripping blood on my clothes. He had nicked the inside of my mouth with the drill. The treatment was stretched over a period of three months. I cannot begin to tell you the pain that this man subjected me to unnecessarily. People tried to avoid the dentist like the plague and did their best to brush their teeth if they could find toothbrushes and toothpaste. Both items were in constant shortage.

There were no such things as tampons or pads. Women had to use rags from old clothes or purchase bags of folded cotton which was also very hard to find. It was considered a pharmaceutical item and in very short supply. It was not uncommon to see women bleed down their legs in public. It was embarassing and mortifying but those were the economic conditions.

Pharmacies compounded most drugs if they had the ingredients; there were a few drugs that were already pre-made in pill form or powder which had to be mixed with water or poured into large paper capsules that were very difficult to swallow. Meds were always in short supply and people had to bribe pharmacists even for vitamins although technically, they were free. When medicine was available, people did not need prescriptions, they could get whatever drugs they thought might cure their pain. There was no such thing as a controlled substance. The government did not care whether people lived or died. We were all considered a burden on society.

The government did care about the number of babies born. Because people died at such a young age due to poor nutrition, hard life in general, and lack of proper medical care, the replacement value of the population was not there. There were more people deceased than there were babies born. Ceausescu's regime decided to reward motherhood with stipends per live born baby and, at the same time, forbade any abortion, period. It became a felony for both the patient and the doctor if a pregnancy ended in abortion, whether it was a spontaneous one or a medical one.

If people could not afford the newborn, the government gladly took them and placed them in state orphanages where they were promptly neglected and barely cared for as human beings. Many women who were raped resorted to back alley abortions and lost their lives as a result. If they went to the emergency room as a result of a botched abortion or a spontaneous one, the law forbade the doctor to give proper treatment without police being present and investigating first. Often women would bleed to death before police arrived or did their criminal investigation. Antibiotics were refused if the woman did not testify who performed the abortion.

My own grandfather and grandmother were victims of the lack of proper medical care. My grandfather had surgery to repair a hernia and they nicked his colon - he died of gangrene in hurendous pain. My grandmother had an ulcer and the village medic gave her aspirin for pain. She bled to death.

My best friend had a tonsillectomy and the doctor cut her voice box - her voice was never the same, she talked like an old man.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

First trip to the Mall

What a novel concept to shopping - the Mall! I liken it to the Sunday Promenade in Europe minus the shops. Every Sunday afternoon, we dressed up in our only good dresses and shoes, and took a bus to downtown's Republic Boulevard, flanked by beautiful old chestnut trees. At one end was the main train station terminal, at the other end, the Art Museum, the Marriage House, and a Parisian like bakery with tasty confections of chocolate that we could only afford once in a very long while. Families dressed in their Sunday best paraded their children up and down or stopped if a bench was available. We admired or envied each other in a sad display of people watching in place of going to church. Church was "verboten" by the communists and priests barely made enough money from donations and a meager state stipend to keep the church open for baptisms, weddings, and burials. I am not sure how many people would have gone to church instead of the weekly promenade up and down the gorgeous boulevard had God worship been allowed by the communist state. Come to think of it, since we had state sponsored marriage houses, I think the only reason the communists kept some churches open was to bury its dead. We did not have funeral homes so the logical location to place the deceased in state was the church. I say this because the regime had no qualms about demolishing beautiful old churches, 300-400 years old some of them, to make room for gaudy concrete buildings, headquarters of the local chapters of the communist party or the unions (syndicates as they were called).
You can imagine my glee to be introduced to the Mall. I did not have any money to shop, but it was fun to look. I was surprised that shoppers could actually try things on in a very cozy dressing room, helped by polite ladies and, most shocking of all, could actually return things if you changed your mind. I was used to the communist central planning when they would produce half a million white boots when the market demanded 10 million pairs of black and brown boots. People would fight in long lines for the white boots anyway, sometimes grabbing the first pair on the rack, not knowing whether that was the right size or not. Not that it mattered, you were not allowed to try them on, you might get them dirty. Neither were you allowed to return them if they did not fit. Once you bought them, they were yours to keep. No returns, no exchanges, no credit. I can only imagine that there were many customers with sore feet and bunions. Romanian shoes were not exactly made for comfort or durability.

Cultural differences crept along the way in my daily existence and a trip to the mall was no different. I had to apologize to a poor girl who was politely trying to sell spoon rings, silver rings wrapped around the finger made from the end of a spoon. Coming from such a poor country, it seemed excessive to me to destroy a perfectly good spoon in order to create such a gaudy ring. I wasted no time telling the girl the truth, after all, Europeans are very blunt, not necessarily schooled in the fine art of tactfulness. Needless to say, I brought the girl to tears and was forced to apologize. My husband insisted and I complied, although I did not understand why I had to apologize for expressing my opinion and telling the truth.

Speaking of being truthful and blunt, you never ask an European how they feel, unless you are prepared to listen exactly to what ails them, why, and what they are going to do about it.

I was shocked when few people were paying with cash, mostly with checks and credit cards. I could not understand the concept of paper checks or plastic credit cards very well. At that time, department stores did not have an instant connection with a bank clearinghouse for checks or credit cards. They were mostly accepted on faith and in some instances, by making phone calls. My Egyptian friend, Lula, used to laugh that the country was run on paper and plastic, not fiat money. She had no idea how true her jocular statement was.
I loved the colorful department store bags and was amazed that they were given free of charge with each purchase. I saved them for a while, hoping to find other uses for them. I did the same with Styrofoam containers, plastic forks and spoons, I could not throw them away - I washed them over and over until they broke. My husband chided me that I was McDonald's bag lady.
I found the mall to be very peaceful, a place to meet friends, a place to relax, not necessarily to shop. Back in the late seventies, there were no restaurants inside the mall or a food court and no coffee shops. If you wanted coffee, you had to percolate it yourself. The biggest department stores inside the mall in Tupelo, MS were Sears and Roebuck and J. C. Penney. There was a McRae's but rather small. I was sad when the mall was destroyed by a tornado a year later and abandoned.

Monday, May 10, 2010

My first trip to the grocery store

Europeans are used to shopping for food on a daily basis. Italians, French, Germans like their bread, vegetables and meats very fresh. They shop in small quantities and do not like to refrigerate or freeze their food. One of the reasons may be that their flats, refrigerators are small and it is not part of their culture to freeze food. For us, Eastern Europeans, it was not just a matter of apartments being small, many families did not own, or could not afford a refrigerator and a freezer was totally unheard of. Our refrigerator in winter time was the window ledge in the kitchen. In summer time, we chilled bottles and watermelons in the tub. The tub was not being used anyway since we did not have hot water in the summer. In winter time, the birds got clever and realized that we stored food on the window ledge and made pecking runs. Families who could afford a refrigerator, had a hard time paying for electricity or often had ruined food from the daily blackouts. Rationing of electricity was a common theme. Even western Europeans had issues with electricity - you could not run the drier and the microwave at the same time without causing a total shutdown of electricity for the entire complex of apartments. While in Italy, I often short-circuited the entire network while drying clothes and making tea in the microwave at the same time. They knew me as the "pazza americana."
My dad often joked that the reason we did not own a fridge was because we did not have enough food to put in it. He was right, but price was an issue too. It cost the salary for 3-4 months of an average worker. Being that we lived under communism, everyone was equally poor, with the exception of the ruling elite, a.k.a. communist party oligarchy.
Shopping or food was an endless line for bones, wilted or rotten veggies, and basic staples if you had enough rationing coupons. Every family was issued a limited amount of rationing coupons that looked like fiscal stamps - we clipped them for rice, sugar, cooking oil, butter, milk, flour, etc. Each family was entitled one kilogram of each per month, about 2 pounds. Once we ran out of rationing coupons, even though we had money to buy, nobody would sell unless we had coupons. This created a thriving black market full of cheats, stealing from work, bartering what they stole for something else stolen that was in short supply, thus enabling people to survive. If you worked in a wine factory, you would trade stolen bottles of wine with a butcher who stole meat from the state run butcher shop, etc. Occasionally black market racketeers, who would steal rationing coupons, would sell food bought in stores for ten times the price they paid. The ruling elite was insulated from such practices or from standing in 3-4 hour lines for bananas, toilette paper, or whatever one needed because they had their own private stores where ordinary citizens were not allowed to enter or shop.
As for my family, I was glad when we could find even shriveled potatoes because it meant sustenance as opposed to starvation. I was often sad when I came back from school and I could not even find shriveled potatoes to bake them or make fries. We did not have school breakfasts or lunches, if we ate anything during school, we brought from home. Food was scarce in general and I did not know of any obese people, we were all underweight and not necessarily healthy. Fruits and veggies could be found only in season. Sometimes in winter time my dad would disappear all day and bring home some shriveled grapes, almost raisins, a few dry apples, or fruit compote, and he had this wonderful grin on his face that he could bring his little girl a special treat when she was sick with the flu or bronchitis. I adored my dad and fully appreciated the sacrifices he had to make in order to feed us.
The food lines usually stretched for a mile or two, winding around the blocks. It was common occurence for people passing by to join a line before they even knew what the store was selling. We knew instinctively that, whatever it was, toilette paper, soap, cooking oil, shampoo, vitamins, cotton, we needed it. Everyone was in stock up mode, carried collapsible shopping bags, and lots of cash in case the need arose. People were robbed often since writing checks or credit cards did not exist in a communist regime. There was one central bank that allowed citizens to have savings accounts or specialized accounts for purchasing cars as it took years for deliveries to be made and the purchaser had to have the entire amount in a car savings account before they could register their name on the production/purchase list.
My first grocery trip was at Horn's Big Star in Houston, MS. This was certainly not a supermarket since the town of Houston only had 3,000 inhabitants and a little over 50,000 people in the county. But to me, it might as well have been Harrod's of London or Gallerie Lafayette in Paris. I was speechless at the rows and rows of packaged, frozen, and fresh food. The bright light was dazzling, the polite staff, the immaculate floors, shelves, and the lack of lines were stunning. Bill was laughing at my shocked demeanor - I could not fathom were all this fresh food had come from. The packaging was so colorful and beautiful, it appeared as a work of art to me. I was filling my grocery cart as if there was going to be a 50 year famine. I did not know what to choose, I felt like a child in a candy store with a myriad of choices. I could picture myself as a chicken who, when presented with an endless supply of food, gorged so much that it eventually died of overeating.
Needless to say, I became Horn's Big Star frequent customer, relishing in the ability to buy fresh fruit any time I wanted. The apples were plump and fresh, coming in many varieties, ruby red, yellow, green, rosy, sweet, tart, etc. No more shriveled up or wormy fruits in summer time. I could eat apples or any fruits year round. I felt the luckiest girl in the world! I had tears in my eyes and I still do when I think of the experience and how I was explaining it to my mom and dad on the phone. To say that they were incredulous is an understatement. Only in heaven would people have such an abundance of food - endless rows of choices, cheap prices, attractive packaging, and free samples to boot.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

My first Baptist Church visit

Bill and I attended Mantee Baptist Church where his parents were members. I was amused by the best Sunday dress attire and the country club atmosphere. I was running through my mind the content of my meager wardrobe and it did not seem to find any matches for a suitable Sunday service dress. Needless to say, any event that required dressing well, meant that I would have to borrow a dress as I had no money for frivolous purchases.
I certainly have never seen cookies, coffee, and socializing in our crumbling churches. Orthodox churches had a mystical aura, with their old icons, paintings, candles, incense, statues, and other religious symbols. I felt the presence of God and feared retribution oozing from the medieval walls adorned with symbols of past reverence. I feared that God's wrath might strike sinners for past transgressions. There were no stools or comfortable chairs for the parishoners, we had to kneel on cold concrete or at best carry a pillow from home. The ornate chairs lining the walls were reserved for the deacons and the very elderly patrons of the church, the regulars, as they were called. During almost 30 years of communist reign, very few people dared to show up in church regularly for fear of retribution. The elderly had very little to lose and the regime left them alone. We went to church on Easter, Christmas, for baptisms, weddings, and burials. If you wanted to keep your job, you had to stay away from church. Bibles were hard to find, they were bought, sold, read, and studied underground.
The very poor and destitute congregated around the existing churches, supported by the elderly parishoners' donations and the food donated by families who celebrated weddings, baptisms, and burials. It was customary to cook and give certain foods to the poor "in memoriam" of the deceased.
The American Bible Society had donated thousands of beautiful Bibles but Nicolae Ceausescu, our communist president, had ordered them recycled into toilette paper. The print was so good and their recycling so poor, that Bible verses were still visible. It was blasphemy and I refused to use it. I used newspapers - I preferred ink on my behind, I did not want to deface the word of God. Toilette paper was a precious commodity at that time. Many rolls were so poorly made, I could see wood splinters through the paper. I saved a small roll years later for show and tell for my students and, to this day, they do not believe it. The toilette paper was brownish in color. Americans are so spoiled by Charmin and its abundance, they have no idea how other people live and that life can be any other way but good.
We spent an hour in church during which time we sang, prayed, and listened to the sonorous voice of the preacher. To this day, I have a hard time remembering sermons - after the first two or three sentences my mind wonders off. It is not that I am disrespectful or uninterested, I fall asleep easily, or day-dream when the cadence of the preacher's voice is monotonous.
Orthodox priests wear different garments and ceremonial attire that is significant to their position. Somehow, I could not associate a suit-wearing person with a priest. I was not questioning their religiosity at all, it was just harder to listen.
The liturgy lasted so much longer in the orthodox religion, I was pleasantly surprised at the shortness of the Baptist service, by comparison. Sunday school was a novelty too, lay people were not supposed to teach religion. So I thought.
In the end, running through the gauntlet of parishoners, Bill introduced me to everybody, nice, kind, God fearing people who gawked at me, pinched me, talked about me as if I was not even there, was deaf or dumb, or as if I was not a legal alien, but a bona fide alien from Mars. Nobody had heard of Romania, it might as well have been a crater on Mars. Rural Mississippians did not travel much outside of their communities, much less outside of their state in the 70s. They are salt of the earth kind of people and generous to a fault. As I found out much later, Governor Finch told me in 1979 that I was the only Romanian in the great State of Mississippi at the time. He was looking for a translator for the International Ballet Competition in Jackson and found me. It was a lonely and disheartening feeling to know that I was the only one of a particular ethnic group. Talk about being a minority of one!