Sunday, November 21, 2010

How much is 32,000 lei worth?

My parents have worked very hard their entire lives. Every penny they could save beyond the daily expenses to survive went into a savings account towards the purchase of their own home. The ultimate dream was home ownership that few could afford before the age of retirement. Purchases were made with cash and it took that many years to build enough savings to attempt acquisition of a one or two bedroom apartment. Anything larger was considered lavish and bourgeois, frowned upon and investigated by the Economic Police. This arbitrary presidential decree, similar to an executive order here in the U.S., excluded, of course, the ruling elite and their families. They resided in and now "owned" the homes taken by government decree from their previous owners who were declared "enemies of the people," simply because they owned a larger home or more than one piece of real estate.

An urban home was a bit of a stretch since most Romanians were crowded into grey and drab concrete block apartments built in haste by the communist government, scrambling to create a socialist society on its way to communist utopia. Many such blocks were crumbling shortly after completion because the concrete had not been properly mixed or was poured in winter time in less than ideal engineering conditions. Answering to barely educated communist apparatchiks who only understood deadlines, not safety, pushed many builders to complete dwellings that were unsafe for human habitation.

Country houses were much safer, built of bricks and wood, one story homes with no indoor plumbing and wooden outhouses. Some poorer ones were made of mud bricks, offering natural cooling in summertime and warmth in wintertime from wood burning stoves.

A very strong earthquake in March of 1977 demolished scores of such apartment buildings. Many crumbled into large piles of dust and steel bars. Some residents contributed to the problem by knocking out walls in order to enlarge their meager abodes. They did not realize that it weakened the support structure of the overall building.

My parents and I were lucky - the building survived with severe damage. This one minute long earthquake, measuring over 7.2 on Richter Scale, left such large cracks in the walls that we could see the outside. Many months later, support beams in place, the building was repaired, however weakened the core may have been. We prayed and hoped that there would not be another strong earthquake any time soon.

There were always tremors, registering on the Richter Scale, it was part of life. We lived in earthquake alley. The Vrancea Mountains had a huge fault that was constantly active and heaving large plates against each other. We were used to chandeliers swaying, furniture sliding across the floors, and china and glassware breaking. Treetops will elegantly sway to the ground, sometimes snapping, as if a giant was caressing the rooftops.

As a long-time Southern resident in the U.S., if I had to choose now, I am not sure if I would pick the uncertainty of living with the possibility of earthquakes or that of tornadoes.

I remember the early evening as if it was yesterday. I was taking a shower when the first rumble hit, the noise of a thousand thundering trains approaching. My daddy was banging on the door, yelling that I should run out of the building. Everything seemed in slow motion, I was fascinated by the swaying and the cracking noise, the groans coming from the middle of the earth, staring at the walls, convinced that I was going to die, but my morbid curiosity wanted to know what my last seconds were going to be as the walls were beginning to split and door frames were coming apart.

I knew that I was not a fast runner. My chances of outrunning Mother Nature and Romanian construction were zero. We lived on the fifth floor of a building with no elevator.

I remember the weeks afterwards, having to walk past the two-story high piles of dust and steel left behind by thousands of many storied buildings that had collapsed, on my slow walk to school. It was eerie, life was going on, I could not understand how we could still have classes around so much devastation. And the smell of death! It was sad and numbing but gave us a purpose around so much sadness.

Nobody dared to stay indoors, we slept outside for weeks, under the stars, on the cold, grassy ground. Late March in Romania of 1977 was still pretty cold. Many aftershocks kept us running outside from buildings for months until the routine set in again.

After the building was repaired, the government decided that all the renters had to purchase their apartments or they had to move out. My family contemplated the possibility of homelessness as they had nowhere else to go, except vagrancy was against the law.

Our one-bedroom apartment had been arbitrarily priced at 30,000 lei. I say arbitrarily although the amount may have been directly tied to the cost per unit of the structure repairs done to the entire building after the earthquake. The government was broke and needed some way to recover expenses.

Under different conditions, I don't think anybody would have desired to purchase these basic, ugly apartments, they would have been satisfied with renting, as it was the case and still is for some Europeans. The cost of owning a home is quite out of reach for most people. I never understood why Americans think that owning a home is a right, expect, and demand vociferously from their government the right to a free home. Communism does not give anybody a home for free!

The Romanian Central Bank (C.E.C.) put a hold on my parents' 32,000 lei savings account as future payment for the 30,000 lei apartment. The purchase date was set for 1989, eleven years later! Communists were never in a hurry to do anything, the bureaucracy was too cumbersome - phones and TV service took fourteen years, buying a car ten years, there were endless lists for every purchase and service. Prompt service with a smile was not part of the communist vocabulary.

My daddy passed away in May 1989, my mom defected to the U.S., and a revolution took place that replaced and executed the communist dictator Ceausescu in December 1989. Our apartment was never purchased and the money remained in escrow, controlled by the new government.

The newly installed government had no idea how to run a capitalist economy based on supply and demand, all they knew was communist economics based on the rotten ideas of Karl Marx, an indolent moocher who hated manual labor and chose to come up with ideas to confiscate wealth from others and spread it around in order to survive. He needed Frederich Engels, the son of a successful Prussian businessman, to subsidize his laziness and lack of desire to provide for his family. Karl Marx' wife and children went often hungry and cold, on a diet consisting of bread and potatoes.

As the newly appointed and then elected government began to print money out of control, without any backing by goods and services, the money supply became so large, there was too much money chasing too few goods. Inflation set in, followed by hyperinflation. My parents' 32,000 lei could now either purchase three loaves of bread or two pounds of meat.

When an old house was demolished recently to make room for a parking lot, the construction crew found a buried "damigeana," a very large, bottle shaped, glass container in a straw braided cage, filled with Ceausescu money, almost one million lei. Under different circumstances, such a vessel would be used for home-made moonshine. Apparently, the owners of the house had buried the treasure for safe-keeping. This one million lei was now worthless, as the transition to a new devalued currency had been made. It was a fortune under Ceausescu, it was now worth something only to numismatic collectors.

My parents worked very hard to save 32,000 lei to buy their dream home. This worthless dream is now accumulating interest in a bank somewhere in Romania, an account that nobody can claim or cash in.

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