How Much Did the Equally-Poor Proletariat Travel?

Romanian Family Rare photo of my mom and dad (second row left) and my grandma (bottom row), taken in the village
For the first twenty years of my life, I never traveled much. I have actually seen more of the world since I escaped the clutches of Ceausescu’s communism than I had actually seen of my own country as I was growing up. I changed that in the last five years when my husband and I did cover at least half of Romania. But I still have not seen the other half and I find that to be so sad because Romania is not that big of a country. It is beautiful, with stunning vistas and a rich history, but very small when compared to the United States. And I have seen a lot of the United States!
I wanted to visit the world then, to get away from the communist oppression, but my parents were very poor, everybody was really poor, and the only people allowed to travel were communist elites and their families.
Athletes, ballet dancers, and famous opera singers were given visas to go on tours after much debate, interrogations, investigations, and threats that the remaining loved ones would be imprisoned should they decide not to return. Political operatives were assigned to follow them like shadows during the entire foreign trip. There were not many opportunities to escape the political babysitters.
The rest of the proletariat was equally exhausted and miserable to care whether they went anywhere or not. It was hard enough to find food and to trudge each day from work to a cold home in winter, no water, no hot water, no toilet paper, no medicine in pharmacies, no food on shelves, just long and endless lines. Who had energy left to even dream about traveling?
People ran from work with a jute shopping bag in hand to join a huge line forming around the block, not knowing what was on sale, but they knew whatever it was, it was in short supply, and they would need it.
Once, Joe told me, a long line formed in Bucharest in the mid-80s to sign a book of condolences for a Russian communist dignitary who had just passed away. People stood in line winding around several blocks and were madly disappointed and furious when they got to the front of the line after hours of standing and there was no food or toilet paper with splinters for sale. I actually saved a small scrap of this toilet paper and have shown it to my students over the years but it seems that the lesson flew by their ears and eyes as they voted in droves for communist “social justice” in this country.
One evening, going home to his safe house, my friend Joe bought a tray of freshly picked cherries for his friends who were coming over to watch a movie. It was common for people who did not own TVs to get together on weekends at someone’s house that had a TV and watch whatever movie was on that night. They ate the tasty cherries in the dark when suddenly, his daughter who went into the kitchen to get a glass of water, screamed in horror. The table was crawling with white worms from the empty cherry crate. Nobody bothered to tell Joe that almost all fruits, but especially cherries, plums, and apples, had worms due to lack of pesticides. Like everything else, chemicals were in short supply as well and fruit flies overwhelmed the crops. The five year communist party plan worked like a charm from the Tower of Babel – nothing made sense, it was just communist rhetorical babble, impossible to translate into real life.
To this day, mom views with suspicion any fruit that I bring her to eat. She even thinks that bananas, when they turn slightly brown, have worms. I wrote a story about her titled, “Wormy Bananas.”
It was a real treat to go see my aunt and uncle at the Black Sea during summer vacations. Mom and dad scrounged enough money for the train ticket and the daily bus fare to the beach; my parents hoped that Mom’s brother fed me for the duration. I was used to little food so being fed once a day was no big departure from my routine.
I honestly don’t know how I lasted every day at the beach without food and water, without passing out. My skin turned a honey brown hue after a few burned layers peeled off and a few treatments with yogurt to draw out the heat from the burned skin. I had no lotion with SPF to protect my skin nor sunglasses to shield my eyes from harmful rays. And I could not swim at the time. The water was murky black from the algae, hence the name, the Black Sea, dangerous to be in at any speed.
My aunt and uncle were considered much better off than we were simply because she worked in the port and got to bring home whatever things may have spilled in the cargo of a ship, including the famous barter currency, Kent cigarettes, while my mom’s brother worked in a wine factory where it was easy to barter wine for other foods. They were not starving for sure, had a well-stocked fridge and pantry, and a small but much nicer furnished apartment, and they certainly ate well.
My uncle owned a dark green Russian made car that had seen better days twenty years earlier. He drove it once in a blue moon; most of the time it sat in a garage being washed, hand-polished, and tuned every weekend as if it was a prized jewel.
He even bought a motorcycle, an unprecedented luxury that attracted the attention of the financial police. I am sure he bribed his way out of that investigation predicament. His wife and daughter had the nicest clothes from the west, bought from foreign tourists who discarded their clothes upon leaving for home in favor of hand-made souvenirs. Some commercial ships would bring in brand new goods they would sell on the black market to people like them who had excess cash.
I think my aunt and uncle took me once to Tomis, then a beautiful art deco restaurant at the edge of the sea and made fun of my disgust upon seeing for the first time, shrimp, frog legs, and escargot.
I would look at all the foreign young people having a good time in places we, the proletariat’s children were not allowed in, such as discos, but the children of the moneyed communist elites were invited in with open arms.
I traveled in 1977 to Sofia, Bulgaria, shortly after the 7.2 Richter scale earthquake which took place that spring. It was a distraction my parents could barely afford but they wanted me to keep my sanity in college when I had to pass by mounds of rubble of collapsed buildings with the stench of death.
It was then that I realized how truly incompetent the communist regime was in the face of disaster and how inadequate in its heavily promoted care for the people. They were so dishonest in their outright theft that they even stole the donated blankets from the west – we knew because they appeared for sale in certain department stores. The commie elites only cared about themselves and their rich lives.
Once in a blue moon, my mom would pay for me to go on a school trip, usually to Sinaia, at Peles Castle, to a museum, or to Poiana Brasov, then an unspoiled mountain meadow with a winter ski resort for the elites and the European rich. My dad was skittish about letting me go. He always had a morbid image that his only child might roll into a ravine with the school bus. Sinaia was not far away from our hometown, Ploiesti, but it was at the end of a mountain road composed of constant hairpin curves. I never did appreciate my dad’s fear until I drove through it myself, decades later. The vertiginous drops at the bottom of the mountain were breathtaking and scary.
The proletariat was allowed to go on picnics on Sundays, a good distraction from attending church which was frowned upon. Grills were fired up in the communist-owned outdoor restaurant or people brought their own food to eat on a blanket on the green grass. It was such a treat to feel grass under your bare feet because stepping on grass in the city resulted in a big fine and signs everywhere alerted the pedestrians to stay away.
Children were happy, playing ball, hide and seek, tag, and picking wild flowers, not a care on their minds because they did not understand the world around them.
Beer was abundant and relatively cheap at these outdoor booths and many got drunk to forget their dreary lives. At the end of the day, the forested patch of green heaven on the outskirts of town looked like a trash pile. This bad habit to discard refuse in nature has not died today. I saw with my own eyes the trash dumped in beautiful and pristine areas. At the same time, the tiny trash bins were empty then, absent or overflowing today because nobody empties them often enough.
Ceausescu had hired crews of gypsies to sweep the streets with big brooms made of twigs but the recreational green areas were not tended to with as much care or picked up as much.
The extent of most people’s travels was to the neighboring villages were their relatives and parents still lived, on a radius of maybe 20 miles. The buses were old and rickety, spewing black smoke and the travel was not comfortable and it certainly was not fun. Visiting relatives and returning home with a dozen eggs, a pat of cheese, one liter of fresh milk, or a live chicken helped the family survive for the week.
Baptisms, weddings, and burials were valid reasons for travel but again, relatives did not have to go very far because mobility was not encouraged by the totalitarian regime – you had to have a permit to move from the village to the city. If you were caught living in the city without a permit, you were fined, and possibly arrested. People were born, lived their entire lives, and died in the same town or village, no possibility of upper or lateral mobility.
Trains took us further out but a one hundred- mile journey could take all day as they stopped at every little village. The faster trains that stopped less were much more expensive and beyond the reach of most people. Flying was something only stars did in the movies and the president and his entourage.
The proletariat was rewarded for their hard work with subsidized tickets to a two-week wellness resort run by the state. During this time each person was treated to massages, mineral water wells, mud baths, cafeteria food, and a hotel room. The sad thing was that they could not travel as a family. Only one person per family at a time was allowed such a luxury and they could not pick the time, the communist labor union did.
My parents went together years after I left Romania to such a resort. Growing up, I don’t ever recall them going on a vacation together and only a handful of times when they went to a nice restaurant – those were reserved for the fat elites. And children were always left at home.

2 thoughts on “How Much Did the Equally-Poor Proletariat Travel?

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I remember a Czech girl, Gloria Smolko who, along with her parents, escaped to the U.S.A. in 1968. She was a wonderful spirit and over the years, I think of her from time to time.

    My father’s mother’s people came came from Roumania/Romania. His father’s father’s people were Litvak. My mother’s people were American Negro and Cherokee.


    Jerry Segal

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