English Lessons

September 1981. My parents brought me to kindergarten, where I spent the entire first year not speaking any word at all. I was too busy wondering about everything and everybody in this new environment.

Every morning at a quarter to eight, one of our family took me down the street towards the market. On the left side, between two blocks of flats there was a hidden alley, which went behind them, on to a green gate and fence. Passing the gate, a garden with roses on the right and a sandbox on the left; between them, a path to a yellow house with three steps and a green door.

From the garden gate. Kindergarten wing on the left. Aunt Ann’s (conversation) room on the right.

There I met Aunt Ann, who became my grandma no.3.

I went to kindergarten every day from 8 to 12 for six days a week for five years. Aunt Ann used to have all three age groups in the same big room and she was able to keep us all busy. She’d sing with us, playing her guitar, we’d exercise together and draw and do handicrafts, while we’d all be surrounded by her beautiful British accent like in a dream.

I started talking in the second year of kindergarten, suddenly and without any warning.

This private kindergarten existed in spite of the system. It closed in 1986, the year I went to school, because dear Aunt Ann had gotten too ill to go on with it. She kept giving English lessons and I kept going to these twice a week for the next 10 years.
I learnt so many things from her, also about what should but cannot be spoken about. It probably was the one of the last memories of someone teaching me stuff without trying to break me.

***

Aunt Ann was born as Annemarie Fischer in 1915. Her sister Lieselotte arrived in 1922. Their parents were of German origin; the father, an architect, had built the house in the back in 1916-18 and the house in front in the nineteen twenties. Annemarie had gone to Oxford to improve her language skills for at least a year. She had married Toni Böttcher, her colleague at Astra Romana, the oil refinery company that was part of the Royal Dutch Shell trust between 1911-1947. The couple had a daughter in 1941.

War came and Romania went in on the Axis’ side first. Toni couldn’t go to war, because his hands that once played the piano so well were now impaired after a bike accident and subsequent gangrene due to a too tight cast.
Romania switched sides on August 23rd, 1944.
That same month former Soviet Ambassador to the UK, Ivan Michailovitch Maisky proposed the deportation and re-education of German active nazis and war criminals in work camps as a ‘post-war reparation’ to the Allied representatives in London. On September 12th, 1944, Romania signed a ceasefire, which did not stipulate reparations in workforce.
Meanwhile, Soviet troops had reached the Balkans.
October-November 1944, all German ethnics of Romania were called to submit their names on lists at the police station. They were told they could go visit their relatives in Germany if they did so. The queues were long and Annemarie and Toni got in that day, but the counter closed in front of Lieselotte, who was supposed to come back the next day. She didn’t go anymore, annoyed by the long lines.
What they didn’t know was that Stalin had allegedly asked, among other reparations, for 100’000 workforce from Romania, among other reparations. Our new ally had passed their State Defense Committee Order 7161 on December 16, 1944*.
Christmas and New Year’s Eve passed and on January 12th, 1945, the Red Army started seizing all people on the lists, one by one. In less than a month, all German ethnics of working age were snatched from their homes: men of 16-45 and women of 18-30, if they were not pregnant or had any babies under the age of one. Some tried to escape and fled to the mountains, others hurriedly married Romanian ethnics. Their families were pressed to give up on their relatives, regardless of the family situation.

Toni and Annemarie were seized in their garden – she just had time to pass her 4-year-old daughter to her sister’s arms, on that same lovely path I later walked on to kindergarten every day.
They were separated, put on livestock wagons and sent to work in the coal mines around Donetsk, were they worked for more than one year, not knowing if either was still alive or if there’d ever be a ‘back home’ one day.

The Romanian King and government protested in January: according to the armistice, Romanian civil citizens of any race and religion were supposed to be protected by the Allies. At the Conference in Yalta in February 4th -11th, 1945, the U.S. and UK raised some objections to the Soviet use of German ethnic civilian labor, arguing that the „reparations in kind“ were done in the name but without the agreement of the Allies. By then, the process was already closed; Maisky was deputy foreign minister. Churchill allegedly concluded,  „Why are we making a fuss about the Russian deportations in Romania of Saxons and others?“

The Soviets sent about 3/4 of the laborers to the Donets Basin to work in the reconstruction of heavy industry and mines, and about 11% to the Urals’ heavy industries. The workers were housed in concentration camps under armed guard. The working and living conditions were harsh and according to Soviet records about 24% of those interned died. Forced labor turned out to be inefficient and unprofitable since many of the women and older men were not able to perform heavy labor. Repatriation started as early as 1945 and almost all were released by 1950.

Some time in 1946 Annemarie was released, on the grounds that ‘there was no one else to take care of the family’. She returned home and, some time later, Toni did as well. They changed their name from Böttcher to Dogaru, which meant the same, but in Romanian: barrel maker. They had another daughter in 1947. But they never got along anymore after Donets Basin, so they separated, eventually.
Her health was shaken and she couldn’t work anymore, so she started with the kindergarten. It was the 1950es, 30 years before I walked into that garden for the first time.

that ‘instructed to intern all able-bodied Germans of ages 17–45 (men) and 18-30 (women) residing within the territories of Romania (67,332 persons), Hungary (31,920 persons), Yugoslavia (12,579 persons), which were under the control of the Red Army. Consequently, 111,831 (61,375 men and 50,456 women) able bodied adult ethnic Germans from Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary were deported for forced labor to the USSR.’

Oil

When I was about six, I learnt about oil. Oil was in the layers of the earth, it made cars work and it gave heat; also, all plastic came from it – so, if you found it, your troubles were history.

Romania had been the first country to put up a commercial oil probe in Bacău and build the first refinery in Ploiești, constructed in 1857 with preordered German equipment. Bucharest had become the first city to be equipped with gas lighting, as of April 1st 1857, with one thousand lamps to take the darkness away.

And grandfather was said to have been a natural talent with finding oil: he had even been invited to Chile for that, somewhere between the world wars.

Dad was and ‘oil and gas engineer’, from what I gathered. Like grandfather, who had died that year.
So dad comes home from work one evening to find that his little girl had dug up most of what had once been our beautiful garden, behind the house. Rose bushes and tulip beds and hydrangeas were holding their roots out in plain view, like the flower ladies would huddle their multilayered dresses, when a ‘control’ came.

I had just started working on the big linden tree roots.

‘What are you doing here?!’ he gasped.

I proudly showed him the extent of the disaster. ‘Dad, I’m looking for oil under our garden!’

Dad was tired and it was the year 1984. He just winked me away. ‘Great job… if you find any, the state will come and take away our house and garden both.’

‘Who’s this state?! How can they take our house away?! Doesn’t it belong to us?’

Dad sighed. ‘State is…look – they can, if you should find oil. You’ll get to know this state one day. Just clean up the mess and stop digging, please.’ He walked into the house.

I kept wondering about this state person over the next days, keeping an eye out, maybe it was lurking around a corner, waiting for me to find the oil, prepared to take something away – oil, house, toys – or even great grandma! Who knows! And how was I to fight this state, if even dad felt powerless against it…

A few days later, it had rained a lot, the garden was revived and all flowers were back in their initial positions.

Dad came home one afternoon to find me flattening the garden with a shovel. No more holes! Not even earthworms were spared – when I saw one, I pulled it out, threw it over the fence into the neighbours’ yard and flattened its construction immediately.

Dad stopped at the door. ‘What in heaven’s name are you doing here?’

‘Psst, dad, I’m removing all the holes! So that the oil can never get out and the state doesn’t come to take our home!’

Dad sighed and sat me down for a talk – about more drilling details, brave firefighters, of how oil appears in nature. He reassured me that it was VERY improbable to find oil under the house. After all, grandfather hadn’t found it there.

***

My next project was to get ownership of an oil platform in international waters, at least 12 Nm away from the coastline, where no state could take it away. Still working on it – this one seems more complicated somehow.

 

The Street

One afternoon late last summer, this lady walks into the Ark building. She’s middle-aged and speaks Romanian with the accent of someone who’s lived abroad for longer than she can remember. Timeless chic, scarf, lively black eyes under a fringe, beret cocked to the side, she’s somewhat enraptured by the place.
I show her around and tell her about how the new owners had saved this big old ship from falling into nothingness ten years ago.
The former Commodities Trade Building is one of the few survivors of the Uranus neighbourhood, which had been razed to the ground by Ceausescu in 1982-84, nothing being built on the wasteland instead.

She’s fascinated, the building was renovated so carefully; memories come back. She’s dreamy, but not very talkative.

In the end she says goodbye, delighted about our little chat and walks away – then she stops at the door and turns around with a frown.
‘Actually, maybe you could help me find this street I’m looking for.’
Sure, what street?
‘It’s strada Minotaurului. It must be somewhere around here, but I can’t find it.’
Lady, there must be a mistake; I guess you mean some other name. Are you sure?
She looks at me, shaking her head, and then takes out a map and points sullenly at the street shown on it.
‘It should be near by, around the corner somewhere.’ The map is new and shiny, the street’s there all right, M-i-n-o-t-a-u-r-u-l-u-i it says, I can see it, but it’s…


21, Minotaurului © Dragos Frincu
Gheorghe Panu str. – Schitul Maicilor str. Photo from Mihai Isacescu

Gone.

Arionoaiei Street © Dan Perry

Strada Minotaurului was demolished in 1984, along with all its houses and trees and gardens, to make way for the new civic centre.
Its people were thrown out and scattered all over town, distributed to the new anonymous concrete blocks of flats.

Although…for a moment I’m hesitating. I feel like running out to see it with my own eyes. Maybe I’m mistaken and she’s right and the street is still there. Opposite of our building, a bit further down the road, with its trees and cobblestones and people and tiled roofs. The diggers were just a nightmare.

Somebody opened their gate on Lazureanu this morning and left for work, walking down the sloped sidewalk. They’ll be home in the evening, passing the stores and the Cosbuc cinema on that rattling tram from Unirii Square. On the steps on Ecoului, kids are still playing. At Meteorilor, a few older ones are skipping school and hiding with their cigarettes behind an old iron fence. A couple are clinging on to one another as if it was their last day on earth, in the shadow of the old chestnut tree on Arionoaia. Somebody is loading his furniture off a truck on Uranus. A nun scurries out of the Schitul Maicilor monastery, busy as nuns always seem to be. It smells of freshly ground coffee from a house, were the old lady awaits her nephew to return from the military. Cazarmii, Salvatorului. Someone else just finished roasting the joint, opened a window and is calling down ‘Lunch’s ready, boys, wash your hands and come up – now!’

If I run out right now, I will see them all!

The lady is still looking at me, waiting for an answer.
‘It was there, if you walk out, left hand side. But now it’s…gone.’
She smiles, ‘No, madam, there must be a mistake. Minotaurului is still there, look at the map.’
I can see the Parliament’s Palace is there on the map, easy to spot, enourmous as it is. The nightmare is as real. But – the academy building is missing; all the old streets are in their places, LazureanuMinotaurului and EcouluiMeteorilorArionoaiei and Salvatorului, with Ion Taranu crossing them. For a moment, the children are still hanging on the corner, the couple is snogging, and mom’s calling her boys from the window, lunch’s ready, and the tram rattles around the corner.

But it can’t be. I had walked up that hill 2 weeks before, over the wasteland in front of the unfinished academy building. There’s only shrubbery there now, hundreds of hectares of weeds and thorny bushes cover the hill where these houses stood in which these people lived. If you dig in the dirt with your shoe, you can still find some bits of a cobbled street under the bushes.

She hands me the map and points at the little street. The map is brand new.
I ask her, ‘Lady, where did you get this map from?’
‘At the Romanian stand at a tourism fair, back home in the States, last year.’
She folds it carefully and walks back to the door, smiling at me.
‘Don’t you worry; I’m sure I’m going to find it. Thanks for your kindness.’

Link to our platform and exhibition URANUS NOW, 2019

A wonderful superposing of pictures from different times.

Watch a movie from demolishing times, 1984, here.

The Uranus Neighbourhood – Minotaurului street in the lower third – THEN…and NOW

It’s all gone. Palmyra

There are no words to describe the absurd horror of blowing something up that was built with such delicacy and skill as the temples of Palmyra.

Temple of Bel. 2004No situation describes the actual times better: a bunch of uneducated fanatics runs around blowing up in a matter of minutes what has been put up more than 2’000 years ago with more skill and craft than we can deliver today with modern machinery.

Great Colonnade at Palmyra, 2004.

Actually, it’s all about looking for hidden treasures to fund warfare and making it look like religious zeal.
The powerful nations keep away, it’s about antiques and therefore not their (democracy-spreading) business. The residents, intimidated and destabilised, begin fleeing towards those very democratic countries, whose governments are then taken aback and don’t know how to react.

A July morning in 2004, 6am

Memories of walking down those majestic streets 22 m wide ten years ago and passing the imposing walls and columns 12m high almost choke me now. I had hoped to come back one day in a month other than July.

Until May 2015, all people passing had respected the work of the ancients. 

The sands would have taken better care of the ruins, had they never been retrieved from it.

The amphiteatre, 2004. 20 people were shot here in May 2015. Ten times more were killed until August, at least one third were civilians..

There is nothing to go back to. Gone are the marvels now. Their guardian died trying to save them from looting and destruction. The valiant head of Antiquities Department in Palymra for 50 years, Khaled al-Asaad, 82, was captured, interogated about hidden treasures for one month and then, for his refusal to cooperate, beheaded last August in front of the very ancient stones he was trying to protect.
Do stop using the word ‘execution’ for similar acts: there is no ‚lawful penalty’ or ‚state’ or ‚trial’ linked with this kind of attrocity. It is murder.

Altar. Temple of Baalshamin, built in 131AD. 2004.

What happened since last August? The loathed bunch of freaks finances its existence by selling loot. I wonder who’s buying. And who keeps selling dynamite to creatures which ruin in one day what took years to accomplish and stood there for 2’000 years.

A lizard hiding in the altar wall, 2004

Once, under Queen Zenobia, this was a place of both power and tolerance, where different eastern and western cultures interacted. Not even the Mongolian Timurids dared to destroy what survived from the Neolithic times and what the Romans had built under Diocletian.

Destruction in 2015. ©REUTERS/Social Media

Meanwhile, there are 60’000 people trying to flee from this madness – and Europe keeps debating and discussing, trying to sit it out, make it go away.

While everybody sits around yapping and bawling on overpriced devices designed in California and made in China about the rights of borderline cases in countries whose people don’t give a flying fart about what happens here.

 Jordan, Za’atari, Syrian refugee camp, 2013. 122’700 people and 5’000 coming in every day. From Wiklipedia

Places are being pillaged and there are more people on the run than after WWII – but nobody seems to care about what Syria is going through or see the great efforts Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are making right now.

Jordan, Za’atari refugee camp, opened 2012, fourth largest in the world. Photo: Brian Sokol / UNHCR

So many lies everywhere. These are dark times and the end is nowhere near in sight. Let us please at least stop lying to ourselves.

The way in. ©The Economist from August 29th

Later edit, November 12th, 2015. The refugees are in Europe. Almost everywhere. Not in Romania, where there’s nothing much for them to be found except animosity and poverty.

In generous Germany’s harbours there are 80’000 people waiting for something. And winter’s coming.

Ski

The time was early 1982. My dad must’ve taken the picture. We were in Predeal for a ski cup, as you can easily recognize by the numbers on the people’s torsos.
These were his colleagues at the factory where he had landed as an oil engineer.

Times were murky. We’d go skiing as often as possible, because there was no other distraction from the routine. We’d all stay at some villa, which once had belonged to some…bourgeois, before the war. I’ll always remember the spaces as – cold and somehow strange. We’d all sleep huddled together in the same room. In the mornings, us kids would watch the grown-ups trying to fry raw cut in half eggs, which had frozen between the windows over night, on a rather improvised camper heater, attached to a smuggled gas bottle someone had brought along.

1982. People in a distant galaxy, it seems, are shaking their limbs to the sound of MJ’s Thriller. Madonna makes her debut and gets her first contract signed, while everybody’s wearing terry cloth stripes on their wrists and heads, in horrid neon colours. Shoulder pads, acid washed jeans and starry patterns rule the dance floors.
Prince William gets born to Lady Di in June– another one to follow the hairdo- and fashion sins of the moment.

By the time we’re competing in the Carpathians, Argentinian troops invade the British Falkland islands, on February 4th.

Grace Kelly drives off a cliff in Monaco, later that year, in September.
The Delorean motor company goes bankrupt.
Kohl becomes chancellor of Germany in October.
In November, Leonid Breshnev dies in Moscow. Yuri Andropov, former head of the KGB, takes his place as head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Lech Walesa is released in Poland after a year in prison.

The mountains were quiet and peaceful. We’d go there on every possible occasion in winter, because Bucharest had become dark and increasingly menacing. Ceausescu and his lot had started demolishing whole neighbourhoods, in order to build a new stronghold against capitalism.
Excavators were ripping deep trenches in the mud, were once houses stood and kids played on the cobbled streets under age-old trees. The city turned more and more silent, dark and scared. Grocery stores and markets looked emptier every week, while the lines for sugar, eggs, sunflower oil and – even toilet paper – grew. People just stood in lines in front of random stores, hoping some of these products would miraculously show up in the shelves. Gas, water and power shortages contributed to the fight against the imperialist enemy.

The system was keeping everybody busy.

I remember those winters as cold and dark, at best grey. I remember my parents speaking less and looking more tired, worried.
Naturally, I remember feeling protected – a lot more than I feel today.

But…this was because I was a kid, not because times were in any way better. Adults would bear the weight of the worries.
I just used to linger in the staircase and ask ‘When are we leaving for the mountains?’ innumerable times, no matter who’d pass me by.

I might look like some kind of a princess on that pic, but my biggest worry was not loosing that leather bag – and the contest. Instead of feeling protected and surrounded by caring people, I’d compete, in my head, against anyone and everyone, except the tall guy, Gil, whom I always admired.

Dad and his mates would soon go back to working at their factory, which does not exist anymore. I’d start school that next fall – about the time Grace Kelly drove her car off that cliff.

A few years later, the Berlin wall falls and there’s major change in the air all over the world.

It’s been…33 years since then.

On taming wild beasts

When I was small, people would ask: ‘What do you want to be, when you grow up?’

There were always several answers in may head, so I’d need a moment to answer.
‘Storm!’ or ‘a millionaire’, I’d say sometimes.

Often I thought I’d like to be a tamer of wild beasts. To understand the languages of many and be able to handle their different ways. I’d be able to talk to owls and falcons, lizards and foxes, tigers and buffaloes…

Time passed by – and I became something else.
I do not want to tame beasts any more, I’d rather prefer to be like one.

A tiger, largely solitary, strong, unimpressed by ants or humans and their small struggle.
Minding his own business. Equally at ease on the ground, as in water.
Sharing food and territory amicably, whenever the case.
Just being.

‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.’ Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

We need to talk.

“You woke up, washed your face, put on your clothes,
went by your business,
Shaking hands, passing smiles, counting coin…
Got a secret?
Can’t tell nobody.
Carry it close, dawn to dusk.
Pick up tomorrow,
All over again.
Life
Ain’t nothing at all.”
Daughter Maitland – St. Louis Blues. ‘Boardwalk Empire’

We need to talk’, she said.

By that time, there must have been nothing left to talk about, anymore.
Should have listened closer, way earlier’, she thought.
‘Should have said something, earlier’, he thought.
Cracks were already going all the way through the sky.

The fig tree

In the garden of the house I grew up in, there’s this fig tree. Maybe young grandma planted it, in the late 30es, shortly after the house was built.

Winters here are often cold: there’s -18°C outside now. So, every once in a while, the fig tree doesn’t make it to spring. Every time I see the withered branches, I think to myself ‚So, this time it’s over.’

Somehow, we never even liked eating its fruit: they take so long to ripen, looking indecent all summer, in their shrivelled green skins.

Every time the tree withers, after a few weeks, an amazing little sprout shows up in the ground, just a few inches away from the old stem. It takes 3-4 years to grow back to the size you can see in the picture. By that time, next winter will be a cold one…

I never understood the fig tree parable in the bible. It seemed like a stub: some crucial information must have been left out, so the story makes no sense to me. Why curse the fig tree for not bearing fruit, if it wasn’t the season for figs anyway?

Once I read about Sylvia Plath’s fig tree.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – from The Bell Jar, 1963

For such a long time I felt just like this. There were so many attractive options and – I was scared that choosing one meant, I’d decide against all the other ones.
Fortunately, I do not feel like that anymore.

The fig tree is not old, because it always starts anew. There were times when it came out again about 4 meters away from where it once stood. But it did – and it’s the same, somehow: it never forgets about spring and never looses the wonderful shape of its leaves.

It taught me this wonderful thing: it doesn’t really matter what you choose, as long as you keep on doing stuff. You’ll find your way. All in good time, it said.