(Translation of Părinţii noştri în ’89. Noi acum în ’19.)
These lines have been lingering for some time and I’m trying to find the words to write them with at least three months delay, considering there’s soon to be one year since – inspired by some retired folks waiting for the tram – it budded in my mind. I say this because its birth should’ve most probably happen in mid December 2019, when thirty years have passed since the “’89 moment” – whatever it was, revolution, coup d’état or both. Even though a frequently used phrase is “nothing has changed” – especially with regards to the political flow (and politicians-politruks) or to the endemic bribery system, for most of the population not only that a lot has changed, but everything has changed. I’m part of the eighties’ generation and for our parents – who at the time were about our age now – indeed everything changed. And not only that, but it happened suddenly, confusingly, irreversibly. It was a paradigm change; I won’t say for the worse or for the better, as opinions have been divided among the protagonists at that moment and ever since, but the switch was to its fullest.
The young adults in their thirty-forties our parents already where back then were faced with a new world out of a sudden, a new life many had dreamed of, some had even fought for, but most of them got caught by surprise. Some of them sniffed the opportunity, used their entrepreneurial spirit in the chain of legislative voids and built up business in the grey area or even – the lucky ones – in the white area of the economy; they thrived and promised themselves their children would never know shortage, darkness or cold. Others were pushed to the existential limit by the industry either technically outdated, or just robbed by “hot shot” former secret police officers who became great businessmen; the bankruptcy happened way too fast for professional reconversion even for the ones who were apt to it. Others – especially the plant or military “veterans” – chose early retirement with lots of cash in their pockets, so they could put together a small household by their parents’ countryside (where they had been moved from decades before, to work at the lathe or serve the barracks), to start some minor enterprise which would die when the small entrepreneurs got smashed, to lose in pyramidal utopian schemas as Caritas or National Investment Fund, or to look at while dropping value when the inflation hit the ceiling.
Another category, which I’d call rather neutral, kept their jobs, saw the shop windows full with everything and could afford at least some of it, cheered the cable television and some bus trips to Greece or even Italy, got to read books which used to be banned by the regime not too long ago, witnessed their offspring welcoming Michael Jackson with some sort of hysteria and started listening to “satanic” music – they had a life with good and bad, and sailed muddy waters while keeping the flag of hope up high all the way. In short, these people (including my parents and most of my friends’ parents) adapted to a new – completely different! – reality, arisen in a moment when, although still vigorous, they didn’t have the soar and flexibility of their first youth; they already had the experience of a steady job which made the future comfortable and secure, they were fond of habits like Sunday barbecue or evenings with wine and rummy, their health was mostly good, the brats (that’s us) were well (res)trained by school and didn’t cause trouble.
They were caught off guard, but the enthusiasm of a better life gave them strength to bypass their habits, comfort and drowsiness – in the beginning, that is. Later on, they could see all that glitters was not gold, freedom didn’t cover all levels, and capitalism became fierce as the strings were being pulled by the second echelon of the party they had thought they’d gotten rid of. I won’t get into politics and the opportunity they missed with the first democratic ballot, but I think of the social x-ray during the mid nineties, when a lot of dreams became nightmares before life could finally find its way, without so many ups and downs. That was the point when our folk really adjusted to the new times, with or without being nostalgic for the past. More or less, most people my age during the Revolution and didn’t leave the country right away managed to adjust. They let themselves be transformed – sometimes deeply – in order to survive the environment. I’m not talking about the ones who were already in high places, or put a noose around their necks, or moved to madhouses; fortunately, such cases were rare, and the hardened mental “plebs” adapted.
And I presume one of the reasons for their adaptive power was seeded in the tough times they had just left behind. All the hardship of a totalitarian regime had forged the people. It had taught them how to survive, because this had never been easy in spite of almost zero unemployment. Maybe you didn’t have to worry about you job, but for all the rest: fill your belly with better food than the one intended for the swine, heating during harsh winters, the misery and poverty within hospitals (in spite of good, committed medics) – these to name the “worldly” issues. Let’s add the matters of the soul, like the lack of cultural freedom, artistic act restrictions, clandestine baptisms for the children of radio or television employees, stigmatizing any freedom of conscience that had convicted many – the best of them! – to be political dissidents, even three decades after Dej had purged the post-war elites.
In the austere ‘80s, leave aside the privileged or the brutified, most of our parents proved themselves resourceful. Everyone used to have some relative in the countryside to breed an extra pig which would suddenly disappear before holidays, or an open line to the Agricultural Production Cooperative to “extract” food – which, technically speaking, was not even theft, since it was produced by the land previously stolen from their elders. Or, thanks to their job, the favors of some food store manager, to let them know when poultry meat was expected or to save a truckle of cheese before the hungry horde would get in. Or they used to mount big metal stoves in the kitchen to compensate the cold radiators, or at least to find wool-filled quilts, heavy lift job – but so warm underneath. Not to mention that the “men” in the house, no matter their profession, used to be able to fix anything – electrical circuits, mechanical stuff, wall paint, joinery, car; and the women could cook for the entire week out of almost nothing. In the big cities, you could get a hold on the black market, where the “currency dealers” used to provide – not without risks – exotic products: Turkish blue jeans, audio vinyls or tapes of Greek import, French fashion magazines, serious literature from Western Europe or even beyond the Atlantic, sometimes written by the exiled political dissidents – and it was exactly those who kept the flame of hope burning. Any soccer fan used to be an electronic engineer under cover, so those near the borders would watch the World Cup from the Hungarian, Bulgarian or Soviet television. Just as in many homes, even those nested in the mountains, there used to be a way to listen to public enemy number one: Radio Free Europe.
With all the doubts, pressure, insecurities that accompanied the ‘90s, our parents knew how to sail towards the shores which meant exiting – brutally, sometimes – the comfort zone. Yes, some scars were never to completely heal and that’s natural; I vividly remember my mom buying me a pan top, although I had already replaced the broken one: let it be, maybe it breaks again and look at the huge sale that one was on. I can see her stuffing the closet, fridge and freezer (sometimes, at my place since there’s no room left at hers) only because that day, that product was ten percent cheaper. But, generally speaking, they all made a successful transition to something completely unknown, on one hand because the change was done “for the more opportunities” (I can’t say “for the better” when I think of people who had to raise teenagers while the plant they used to work for was turned into junk), and on the other hand because they had the physical and mental strength nurtured by living during communism, they had the flexibility and change auspicious capabilities.
Fast forward to 2019, three decades later: the “transition” adults are mostly retired and we stand in their shoes, maybe with kids the same age we used to have back then. As much as I enjoy science fiction and dystopia creations, I’m not able to imagine right such a paradigm change now, as important as the one in the ‘90s. It doesn’t have to be a political regime shift as it happened then, but to have the same impact: sudden, allowing time to react only to the quick and perceptive, spread towards all positive and negative directions, deployed in all social and cultural layers, and with the effect that would shake the country to its roots – actually, it should shake the entire world, considering the degree of interconnection and globalization we have reached. This could be the aftermath of war, world economic crisis, pandemic, some cosmic phenomenon which affects telecommunications with the electromagnetic field, bank disaster, artificial intelligence experiment gone out of control, etc. The world changes just as I write this, but – in spite all the alarmist titles that announce the end of humanity through climate issues, nuclear weapons, corruption, viruses in medicine and technology, stock exchange – the changes occur one by one, slowly, insinuating. And the ones who trigger them act like this on purpose, exactly because people can adapt to about any atrocity – economical or ideational – provided they are given a slow enough pace.
But what’s to be done – what can we do – when facing a real black swan? Us, the interconnected, one click away from any information and used to have anything, anytime, within our personal financial bounds that we’re precisely aware of. Us, who cheer while most aspects of physical life move online in order to save time (no more waiting in queues or pushing papers around), but somehow ending up with less and less time because of the “scroll” syndrome. Us, who are still proud of knowing how to change a socket, but soon unable to do that as technology blackboxes everything – look under the hood of modern cars. Us, who can’t find the way in the streets and can’t drive without GPS, who can’t park without sensors, who can’t run without a progress awareness application, and who can’t sleep without a wrist watch to confirm it’s actually happening. Us, who waste hours through the shelves, but unable to stand in queue for a few extra minutes in order to pay, because our time is so precious, right?, I’ve just explained what for. Us, who can’t pay attention to read more than fifteen lines, hence would always dismiss thorough articles focused on economical, social or political analysis next to all-caps rags, with aggressive wording and three phrases that give us the illusion we’re the best informed ever, especially when we skim it in the mainstream, “approved” media. Us, who understand tolerance as accepting the ones who agree with us. Us, who can’t notice that the lack of empathy is just as vulgar as an excess of tears.
So, today’s us, the ones who live rather nice lives – pampered, quiet and comfortable, touched only by the non-dramas of online reckonings and number of likes. Us plus a great change; and, considering how our reality looks like, I can only imagine a black swan who is… black indeed. A sudden and nasty deterioration which would completely stupefy us and which I really can’t tell how we’d escape. Our parents had their guard quite up high, they knew how to “manage”, they had lived tough lives since their birth and had been forged; the change they had to confront had many bad parts, no doubt about it, but a lot of opportunities, too, and they knew to take advantage exactly because they had been tailored that way. We are – let’s say it out loud – weak; we may be traveled, cultured and professionally well trained, but we have weak characters and minds because the years when we grew up, became young adults, evolved in our jobs and started our own families have been friendly years so far. We didn’t have something to strengthen us. I’m not talking about being beaten at home, humiliated in school, bullied at the work place, about bank mortgage, burn out syndrome, and depression out of a broken heart. With no intention to minimize these real, but individual, problems, they do not substitute a society where the main rule is to find means of survival for you and your family, and give up as little as possible of the moral convictions that define your most inner self while doing that. The majority of our parents juggled with all these the best they knew and, despite the sequels, they prevailed. We were spared the collective drama and were left only with the personal dramas, framed by a society aver looser as far as the constraints go.
When I think again of our parents facing the paradigm change that started in December 1989, of how and how much they managed to adjust, I realize once more the great success they had with physically and psychologically surviving – for them and for their families. May Our Lord protect us from such a black swan. And if it will decide to spread its wings after all, I can only hope we’re able to replicate our way – successfully, too! – the social-psychological “acrobatics” our parents have performed without even knowing it.