The homes of our lives
“Happy are the people of one home, just like the people of one love. Most of us do not have such destiny and so, from one home that we take with us the first time we move, with time we end up carrying inside a whole city of homes. People and homes spend together a certain time. As it has been said before, it is not exactly known whether we inhabit the homes or the homes inhabit us. Some homes survive even after being demolished, even after they died, same as a dear human keeps on living inside those who were close to him/her. Usually, it is the homes that outlive us, still standing after we are gone, and carrying the memory of life, while people move through and beyond them, like water.
Our fundamental experiences are connected to a certain street and a certain house or at least a certain room where we once lived. When you leave a home and you close the door behind you for good, you leave one world to enter another. Continuity is not possible. For most writers, the most important home remains, obviously, the home of their childhood, which shrinks and becomes smaller as the human gets bigger. To write about childhood’s lost home means to re-establish the balance between the human and the home that once guarded him. As such, one of the first and most elementary drawings of a child is the house (even for children living in apartment buildings) and perhaps this remains ingrained in our emotional makeup for the rest of our lives.
At peace are the people of one home, just like the people of one love. We look for our soul-home with the same restlessness we look for our soul-mate. Most times, we find it, but we cannot afford it or we find it just to lose it again. Sometimes, we loved it so much that when we see it again, we do not dare to visit, like those who lived in exile and, after a lifetime, they return to the old address which no longer belongs to them.
Happy and rare are the people of one home, just like the people of one love. Most of us move many times throughout our lifetime and, from one home that we take with us the first time we move, with time, after our pilgrimage through the big world, we end up carrying inside a little town full of stories.”
This is an abbreviated translation of the preface to the book “Casele vieților noastre (The Homes of Our Lives),” originally published in Romanian, in 2014, consisting of stories of people and homes, unforgettable memories and bonds that establish between humans and the places they inhabit. It is a very touching book and, to me, also a very touching subject, which I am going to explore in these pages.
A change of surroundings
I can say loud and clear that my life so far has been defined by two things: chance encounters and changing homes. Planning and continuity do not seem to work for me; I am an individual of the unexpected and of disruption. But here I am going to discuss moving in and out of homes, places that shaped my experience and made it impossible for me to forget them. And there have been quite a few so far, more than I would have preferred. But as I learned, it is not changing homes that disrupts your spirit, most of all it is living in the wrong place.
To change homes (and cities, and countries) is a very common thing nowadays, with most of us absolutely willing and almost desperate for what is called “a change of surroundings.” There must be something fundamentally wrong about you, or maybe you are just plainly boring and complacent, should you choose to live in the same place for the rest of your life. Or maybe you are a writer, like Pamuk, who not only has been living in Istanbul ever since he was born, but he has inhabited the same house with views over the Bosphorus, a house once shared with parents, grandparents, and a plethora of aunts, uncles, and cousins. He writes about this and his special connection with Istanbul in his memoir, “Istanbul: Memories and the City”, intertwining his life with that of his hometown. And this is the first example that came to my mind. Like him, so many others. Proust has barely left his premises for the last years of his life, while writing his masterpiece, “In Search of Lost Time.”
What was/is wrong with these people? This must be the question popping into the heads of the cohorts of digital nomads (ah, this expression!), expats, and, in general, the modern human being self-branded with contemporary mottos such as “always on the move,” “never stop exploring” or “never settle.” Because why do life any other way? To move is to live, to stay is to die.
Not everybody is allured by the unexplored. Some of us do like to stay. What exactly determines this behaviour? I cannot tell. But I can give you my view on it, my personal experience, marked by an early life spent constantly changing homes, indeed “always on the move”, and not exactly thrilled by it.
Living in a block of flats, B16
The memories of my life in Bucharest are located in blocks of flats, monotonous constructions, eight-storey high, with many apartments and as many families inhabiting them. Community and conviviality are not excluded, and they do happen, but what these constructions really gave me is friendship. I cannot think of my life in a block of flats without thinking of my neighbours and especially their children, those I used to play or simply hang out with day after day.
I was too small to remember the first apartment I lived in. But I can clearly see the next, the two-room apartment on Diham Alley, in Pantelimon neighbourhood, where I lived with my parents until the age of eight. Blocks dominated the landscape. Ours was B16. Concrete and vegetation. Grey and green.
I read horrible stories about life in Romania in the 80s, but I remember those years differently. I remember peaceful Sunday afternoons at home, trying to have a nap with my father. I couldn’t sleep. I was too captivated by the world outside our window: a bird in the tree, children playing, a neighbour beating or washing the carpets in the parking lot. I could also hear my mother, doing the laundry, or in the kitchen, cooking one of her favourite recipes: crème brûlée, brownie or saltines. In the evening, although there was not much to watch at the black-and-white TV during the two hours of broadcasting, we would gather in the living-room. Stretched out on the sofa, my father liked to be caressed on the head. My mother would do that for a while, with her carefully manicured nails, painted bright red, but not as much as he would have liked to. That is when I intervened.
“Do you love me?” my father would ask me in one of our affectionate moments.
“Yes,” I would answer. “I love you very much.”
“How much do you love me?”
“As much as all the little dots on the walls.”
And they seemed to be infinite, those dots painted on the walls.
I started school. I can’t remember if I carried the home key around the neck, as my generation’s name implies (“the generation with the key around the neck”), but indeed, like most children back then, I was going by myself because the parents were working. But my school was literally around the corner. After school, I liked to spend some time by myself in the front of the apartment block, hanging on to the low fence surrounding the flower garden. I would just stay there and stare at the flowers, or the pavement, or at nothing in particular, simply indulging into my newly-found independence.
But most of the time, I would be playing with the children from the block. And there were many children at B16. We would hang out for hours doing absolutely nothing. From time to time, one of us would go “upstairs”, which meant home, and would return with a treat that would make the rest of us drool: some powder milk, eaten with the spoon directly from the bag, or, on the fancy side, a slice of moist bread with sugar sprinkled on it. My mother had to prepare this for me or I would not stop asking. Other times, we would play “in the back”, which meant at the back of the building, running or playing hide-and-seek. I was particularly bad at running, spraining my ankles many times. My father was pretty good at estimating when they were healed, and proceeded to remove the cast himself.
Then, my sister was born, and soon after the Revolution, in 1990, we left the apartment in block B16, we left the neighbourhood, too, and moved to the city centre, in a modern block on the newly-built Unirii Boulevard. I can still remember the disappointed faces of my little friends from B16 when I told them we were moving. “You are leaving us now, when we survived the Revolution?”
But I did leave. And that is the first move I can remember. Of course, I hardly knew what a move entails and I had no concept of never seeing people again. And indeed, I never saw my friends from the block again.
Block number one
I visited the new apartment with my mother on a cold day at the beginning of 1990. The block was right next to the House of Parliament, which was then called The People’s House. On the small plate at the entrance was written “block no. 1.” No children playing outside though. My mother unlocked the entrance door and I was mesmerised by how new and clean everything in the building was. The elevator doors were closing automatically and that was something I had never seen before.
The apartment itself was brand new, floors and walls still smelling of paint. My mother showed me the children’s room and the parents’s room, both facing the main street and the fountains that stretched along it. Because it was on the seventh floor, we had quite a nice view. There was even a children’s bathroom and a parents’s bathroom. Everything was spotless, untouched, as if to give us a proper welcome.
We moved in soon after, I was transferred to a new school, just across the street, and this feeling of novelty is exactly what this move – and especially this time, in my personal history and that of the country – brought. A lot of things were for the first time, big and small. The first time I ever saw and ate a banana. The first cans of soda, so colourful. Making robots out of cigarette packs, also new and colourful. All the soaps and the deodorants. No package would be thrown away, they were too beautiful for that. Convenience shops selling sweets and soda and what seemed to be a never-ending list of products. There were so many things we did not have access to before – and so many colours – but we had no idea about their existence. Now, it was all there. Radio stations playing music non-stop. Televisions broadcasting non-stop. The first concert of an international artist in Romania: Michael Jackson, The Dangerous Tour, 1992. And the list of novelties could go on. It was an exciting time.
And I really loved my new home, my room with its own colour TV, my school, the teachers and the friends I made there. I also made a friend at the block, a blonde girl living on the third floor, and through her I met some of the other children. There were less apartments, which meant we were not so many either. But that was alright, because I was happy with my friend at the block and the rest of my friends from school. Besides, there were family friends coming over to our place or us going to theirs, there were picnics in the forest and fishing at the lakes near Bucharest, there were holidays with the family or with the schoolmates at the seaside, in the mountains or in the Danube Delta, weeks on end spent at the grandparents’ house in the countryside during school holidays.
Looking back, I think this was the time of my life when I felt the safest, when I really had no worries and when I rejoiced in that amazing feeling of belonging. I thought it would always be like that, and how wonderful to know that it actually was a time in my life when such beliefs were possible. Obviously, I was living in a dream, and again, how wonderful to know that life could offer me this.
It lasted for five years.
The house in the countryside
My dream was killed by another dream: my parents’s dream to build a house in the countryside. This was a common wish for the city dwellers of post-communist Romania in the 90s – and it still is, perhaps because our countryside is beautiful, perhaps because our cities are bad – who most likely were born in the countryside and were the first generation in the family to live and work in the city. It certainly was the case of my parents.
This house was supposed to be our weekend residence initially, and to eventually become the place where my parents would retire, and where my sister and I could go visit whenever we wanted and have enough space for our future families to stay over. Of course, when they embarked on this project, my parents had no idea what the future held for them: a divorce, a child moving abroad (me), no grand-children and not much of an extended family either.
With each year that passes by, my father, who ended up living in his dream house by himself, seems less and less charmed by his rustic existence, let alone gardening and keeping the household in order. Maybe he forgot about his dream to, in his own words, “wake up in the morning in the country home, open the windows large, breathe in the fresh air, and listen to the birds singing.” When we talk on the phone, he mostly complains about the eternal muds brought by the rain, the costs of heating, and, not surprisingly, loneliness. But that was before he got married again, his new wife being now the one enjoying the fruits of what used to be our family enterprise. Ironic.
I called this an enterprise because it took a lot of effort and resources for a middle-class family with no extra income or inheritance to build a two-storey house in a location close enough and well-connected to the capital. But the biggest costs, as it is often the case, were paid in emotions. My sister and I hated this house almost immediately, from its project phase, when we learned that the only way to make this happen was to rent our family apartment to the foreign employees who were then starting to pour into capitalist Romania.
And this is how the nomadic history of my family began. What was supposed to last “one, maybe two years” extended to a decade of moving in and out of homes, better said apartments, because most of them did not feel like homes at all. Transitory places where temporary became a substitute for security, where friendships were not meant to last (this was a time before social media, with mobile telephony still in the incipient phase, so when you left a place, you were gone), when home, our home, was always out of reach. We blamed it all on the house in the countryside and, in spite of our parents’s efforts to convince us it was for our own good, my sister and I did not see it that way. By then, I was thirteen and she was seven.
A real house, not just an apartment
Our first home away from home was actually very close to our apartment, but since nobody was doing urban explorations back then, it seemed like a whole different world to me. That is because it was a real house on a street full of real houses, with generous windows, and more or less generous gardens, but with gardens nevertheless. I was aware of the existence of such “anomalies” in Bucharest, I used to see them from the car’s window and hear my mother call them “dilapidations.”
I had no concept of it back then, but to own a house in Bucharest in the times of communism meant that you came from a rather wealthy family, a family of intellectuals at least, who inherited the place, and even then you were forced to accept total strangers to move in with you, as the communist state dictated. With no such illustrious predecessors in our family, we had always been block dwellers and, apparently, quite proud of that.
To live in a real house on a street full of real houses seemed rather strange and old-fashioned. Wooden floors that creaked under your steps, unexpectedly large rooms with high ceilings that echoed when you spoke, a bathroom with a boiler and a bath-tub on legs, even a staircase leading to the basement – all these were new and strange and rather inconvenient. Nothing like the comfort and safety of our apartment at the block.
As real as this house was, its weird charms and facilities were not exactly for us. We only inhabited a small room, a sort of annex, with its separate bathroom and entrance. It was part of the house, but different from it, with low ceiling and common windows. Only the floor reminded of the more bourgeois side. The worst of all, we had to share this space between the four of us. A room of beds, that is how I remember it. One for my parents, one for me and my sister. I would spend a lot of time listening to music with my headphones, living in my head as much as possible, and trying to remember it was only for a year. It is also when I started to write in a diary.
Sadly or luckily, not sure which one it is, I do not have any photos of this place. I went to Principatele Unite street, where the house is located, on my latest visit to Bucharest, last year in April. The owner must have decided to sell because a sign was hanging above his royal bedroom window, saying “PIZZA.”
The Block of the Writers
After a year spent back home, which coincided with my first year of high-school, my parents decided to list the apartment for rent again. It turns out, with the money made from the first year all they could do was buy the land on which to build the house. Soon enough, we were packing for yet another move, this time a studio in a somewhat older and historical block of flats just behind our own, on Apolodor street, the so-called Block of the Writers, supposedly because a lot of writers live there.
This is the place where I spent an entire school holiday, just two weeks, without going out once.
This is the place where I would eat two blocks of chocolate of 100 grams each, one after the other, then sit at the table and draw compulsively for hours.
This is the place where I would force myself not to eat anything at all.
This is the place where the only private place to cry was the bathroom.
This is the place where I would do my homework on a tiny hallway between the main room and the kitchen.
This is the place where I never invited anybody.
This is the place that, given the chance, I would most gladly erase from my memory.
It lasted for two years.
When the construction of the house seemed to take longer than planned and my parents suggested we start the third year in the studio, my sister and I threatened to go home, kick the Italian guy out, and simply reclaim our room. Our parents finally decided to rent a bigger apartment, one where we could have our own room. It was a quiet yes from me and my sister and little did we know what was waiting for us at the next block on the list, the Tower Block.
The Tower Block
To have your room again – meaning one to share with your sibling – where you could listen to your favourite radio shows until late at night, where you could simply lie in bed if this is what you wanted, guard down, no one around, to write and study with no interruptions, to have friends and, later on, boyfriends coming over, now that seemed miraculous.
When I look back to the years spent at the Tower Block, at the United Nations Square, a total of five, I remember a lot of (positive) excesses. No wonder, after all the deprivation. It is the apartment I mentioned the most in my writings so far, a collection of very fond memories of people, places, and experiences. Those years were perhaps the happiest years for us as a family, too, and that, to me, is really precious. It turns out, moving is not bad per se. It just needs to be the right move.
My sister, a social and easy-going creature, toward whom people naturally gravitate, was the first to make friends at the block, and there were so many people living there, in the seventeen-storey building plus its surrounding, lower-rise satellites. My identity was based on hers. I was “Mirela’s sister,” a rather weird girl who never stopped for a chat, who listened to music at her headphones so as not to be stopped by others, and who was working a student job at a theatre. My sister’s friends from the block knew this because together they would come to pick me up in the evening, at the end of the show, and together we would walk back home, down on Victory Avenue. Slowly, I was opening up, to them, to me, to the rest of the world.
Among the people the Tower Block brought into my life is my first boyfriend, a friend of a friend from the block. I was living at the Tower Block when, absolutely by chance, I met the guy to whom I still believe I owe my move to the Netherlands. He was the first to move to Amsterdam and allure me here. And then, there are the friends from the block and the happy times we shared at the apartment whenever our parents left for the countryside. What the previous years deprived me of – self-confidence, company, affection, laughter – the Tower Block offered, and I gladly took it.
I remember early mornings in summer, when the shops would open, and from my window I could see shop-keepers throwing buckets of water on the pavement, a protection against the heat that was to come in a few hours.
I remember the roof of the Court House covered in snow, another view from my window.
I remember late nights, when the parents were away, and I would listen to my favourite tracks loud on the stereo, windows wide open to the dark, starry sky.
I remember my first night of love.
I remember writing my first texts, other than diaries.
I remember frying pans of fries and eggs to indulge into with friends, again, when the parents were away.
I remember taking turns with my sister to surf the internet and chat on IRC on our dial-in connection.
I even remember weekends spent in our family house in the countryside.
The next block
We never moved back home. Not to the place we used to call home ten years before. In 2004, recently graduated from the university and having my first real job, my parents decided to sell the apartment for good, buy another one relatively close, and use the money difference to get the rest of the furniture needed for the house in the countryside.
It was moving day once again. Garbage bags with our clothes lying on the floor in our new living-room. After so many years of living in other people’s homes, to have our own family apartment again – even if another, new one – was almost unbelievable. My sister and I crashed on the sofa, put our feet on the coffee table, and, in silence, we gazed at the windows in front of us. The sky was pouring into the room, colouring the walls in sunset shades. Outside, the incessant noise of the traffic on Unirii Boulevard.
“Sister, we are rich,” my little sister, who was not so little anymore, says.
The next moment, we burst into hysterical laughter. Our new home looked good, but most of all, it was our home.
This is where I left from when moving to the Netherlands, six years later. This is where I stay when I go to Bucharest. Only my mother lives there and, freshly retired and still single, she is the one complaining of loneliness now.
My Romanian city of homes (because now I also have a city of homes here, in the Netherlands) would not be complete without my grandparents’ house in the countryside, where I spent the first four years of my life and, later, most of my summer holidays while in school, and the house of Tarasov family in a small village in the Danube Delta, where I would go with my family year after year, and which still is my favourite place in the world. But I will write about all this another time.
A special breed, a different kind of creature
Going back to the book I quoted in the beginning, there is an entry there by a famous Romanian writer, who has lived his entire life in Bucharest, in a real house, on a street full of real houses. He talks about the joys of living in such a house, which I now totally understand and appreciate myself.
He also believes that us, dwellers in block of flats, even worse if located in less central neighbourhoods, have lived our lives in a toxic environment, an environment contrary to nature itself, which is making us and the city sick. He calls us a special breed, not in a positive way, a different kind of creature, our very humanity different from the humanity of those living in houses.
“I believe block dwellers have less memories. You cannot have memories in such neighbourhoods, so stereotypical they amputate any attempt of personal relationship to the space. Who is looking for an address in such neighbourhoods has difficulty finding it, because the address is ubiquitous. To live in such neighbourhoods is to have no address at all. You live in a place with an apparent geometrical look, when, in reality, you are lost in a labyrinth in which you cannot be found.”
Well, then I have had as many as six such “non-addresses” in Bucharest, because then I should not count the real house, which most certainly brought me countless memories, and also a desire to stay and not to be “always on the move.”