My first memory: I am running through what I think is a restaurant, weaving through legs that I think belong to my godparents. I am probably two years old, clinging to a stuffed animal duck. As my family would tell me later, the duck, named Donaldel, was a gift from my cousin Monica at my christening and is therefore almost as old as I am now.
Aside from my restaurant escapade — which in hindsight could have been nothing more than a dream — I remember nothing before when I was five years old. My memory generally works like clockwork, easily matching complex patterns of colours and shapes on IQ tests, pulling up decade-old facts about people that they don’t even remember themselves.
Consequently, I find this lack of recollection infuriating for a number of reasons, the most important being that it’s as if my life began only when I stepped foot on Canadian soil.
I was born in 1996 in Constanța, Romania, a city on the shore of the Black Sea. Less than five years later, my parents packed up and moved to Toronto. Since then it’s been our home, yet those five years still itch at my conscience. Every time I return to Romania, everyone I speak with seems to have a larger knowledge of who I am and where I am from than I do.
Reflecting on that years later, not fully knowing felt like an ignorance I wanted to wash my hands of. Reaching out to family and unearthing photo albums I hadn’t touched for decades, I made it my mission to connect the dots.
An exhaustive summary of Romanian history is impossible to contain within the scope of this piece. What is relevant, in the simplest terms possible, is that the political and ideological forces that shook the rest of the world during the post-World War II period left no stone unturned in Eastern Europe.
Although Romania was never part of the USSR, for decades it was governed by a rigid and repressive communist regime. Persecution, rationing, eviction, and violence were only some of its consequences, and my family lived through them for generations.
I was born almost seven years after the revolution of December 1989, which violently dethroned General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu — former leader of the Communist Party — and set off a spark of revolution and reform that extended beyond Romania’s borders. For a long time, the country struggled to get its head above water again.
“Romania in the 2000s was turbulent, captured by a wild capitalism, without major opportunities for regular people — as in, those without political power or security,” my aunt Viorica tells me, reflecting on the time around when we left and the years afterwards. “It was difficult for all of us… It was a jungle that made us all sick.”
Problems with democratization and re-building the state are what drove many people away. “[We] considered at that time that we could not wait any longer,” my dad, Tudor, tells me. “Three generations in my family [were] sacrificed, killed, prosecuted, isolated. I did not want my children sacrificed through other social and political experiments.”
In 2001, my parents moved to Canada to escape political and economic instability and the corruption that had corroded social institutions like rot. At the same time, they were hopeful for the opportunities that Canada might bring. Understandably, the gravity of this choice made it a difficult one to stomach for many of our loved ones.
“It was a shock for all of us,” Monica says. “You caught us unprepared. For a long time we didn’t understand why, only your parents knew what drove you to leave.”
Much like the majority of my extended family, my parents had lived in Romania for their entire lives; they had spent decades becoming both established and successful. Compared to others, my parents stood pretty high on the social scale, both holding postsecondary degrees. My mom worked in psychiatry, my dad in engineering.
Abandoning that to move halfway around the world, to a country 40 times the size of what we knew at home, must have seemed rash in some sense.
“You leaving was extremely emotional for everyone,” my cousin Dana says. “Everyone felt like they lost something, something we couldn’t get back.”
“I recognize that at the time, I didn’t understand their decision very well,” she adds, having been near my current age when we left. “But now I’m a mother also, and I can understand it better.”
My parents told me that this was far from easy, and my family struggled both financially and socially to adjust to life in Toronto. Overwhelmingly, as is the case with many families who leave their homes behind for North America, my parents wanted a better life for me. Perhaps this is what made the sacrifice worth it.
“They tried to bring the American dream to life for you and your future children,” Viorica says. “Any parent would want for their children everything that can be the best and the most secure. In a family, a child is a treasure, the only one for which there can exist no price.”
When I ask my parents if they regret leaving, their answer is no.
“The only things I miss are home, family, friends, and the seashore,” my dad says. To me, that seems like a lot to leave behind.
The first time I returned to Romania, I travelled alone. At 10 years old, I was unable to fully comprehend where I was going or who I was going to see. My family is dispersed across different regions of the country, and in just a couple months, I visited many people, including Viorica and my uncle Ion in Bucharest; my uncle Ionut in Piatra Neamț; and Monica and Dana in Constanța. I took back with me my first real memory of the Black Sea.
I remember a phone call with my friend, shortly after I came home. After a couple months of speaking only Romanian, she almost didn’t recognize my voice with the slight accent.
This seems wholeheartedly bizarre to me now, because I have always been right at home in Toronto. Having completed all but one year of my schooling here, I speak perfect, unaccented English. I am white. I grew up in North York. I learned French, watched Degrassi, and listened to Drake. The fact that I was born elsewhere, can speak a different language, and could have had an entirely different life easily goes undetected.
“When you come back to Romania, it’s joyous for us to see one another,” Monica says. “I think you have changed a lot since you started living in Canada, but that’s the way it is.”
She expresses a sentiment echoed by everyone I spoke to: “All of us have changed.”
My parents and I have been back to Romania together on three occasions since we moved. Each time, we visit as many people as we can, all of whom warmly welcome us into their homes. With each trip, I began to put the pieces together, and only recently have I begun to conceptualize how much meaning these reconnections hold.
“There is a lot to say,” explains Ionut, recalling our visits. Even when my parents and I lived in Romania, distance was a factor; we lived near the sea, while Ionut and his family lived up north. He says, “Sometimes it can compare to those times when you were in Romania, but in a different city, in Constanța… It was the same in some sense.”
Over the years, I’ve taken hundreds of pictures, seen the mountains and the sea, and spent time with people whose faces had regrettably faded from my memory. All of them remembered me, and each time were shocked at how much I had grown. Time had created chasms between the pieces of my family here and there, and what little we had to spend together seemed perilously short.
“I feel that there’s never enough time to sit and talk,” Dana says. “The distance… It ruptures communication. I admit I know almost nothing about your life there, and in the few moments in which we can see each other, we don’t have enough time to say everything. The distance is great and it’s limiting.”
This idea of distance complements the ways in which we are all becoming more globally connected. Cultural exchange between Eastern Europe and other areas of the world is extremely prevalent, and North America is no exception.
Despite differences in language, religion, architecture, and traditions, unifying forces remain. In Bucharest, I can shop at American retailers and watch Hollywood movies with subtitles in theatres. In Toronto, I can attend Romanian churches and find my favourite Romanian desserts in European delis, though they don’t taste quite as good as what you might find in the ‘cofetarii’ shops in Romania.
“Today, Romania, the EU, Asia, Australia… are all one water and earth,” Viorica says. “That’s what globalization means, and I speak from my own experience. We have been to many places all around the world, we’ve been to every continent, we learned that we didn’t have anything or anyone to fear.”
Simultaneously, my relatives also identify with the importance of returning home. No matter how far you wander, something about where you came from pulls you back into its grasp. That kind of thing is hard to shake, and in spite of my predominantly Canadian memory, I continue to identify with that feeling whenever I go back.
“I don’t ever feel as good except when I’m at home,” Ionut says. “In the country I was born in.”
I often wonder what would have happened had I not grown up in Toronto. I keep in touch with the few relatives I know that are my age, and we seem similar in a number of ways. Ionut’s son, my cousin Octav, is in Bucharest studying to be a doctor. The last time I saw him, drinking espressos on a cobblestone street, we talked about school, his cat, and Starbucks coffee.
On my last visit, I walked up and down the halls of the University of Bucharest’s Faculty of Law, where I could easily have ended up, had things gone differently. I also consider whether I would have eventually left the country on my own. This wouldn’t be an uncommon thing, for despite the headway Romania has made over the past 25 years — financially, politically, and socially — many Romanian youth are doing just that.
“Especially now in Romania there are opportunities for smart and hard-working youth,” my parents explain. “They can apply to study or work in Europe and North America, and have a bright future anywhere they want.”
Most of my relatives say that living in Toronto has probably changed me, and that I have grown up differently than I would have ‘back home.’ At the same time, they all attest to the unwavering nature of my character. According to them, personality traverses geographical context.
“I think that everyone has a fate, and yours is destined to be to grow up in a world that needs you,” Viorica says. “You have a good path ahead of you that you build by thinking in the present and dreaming of the future, without forgetting the past.”
Viorica concludes her writing to me with a stanza from a work by the popular Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu. As translated by Corneliu M. Popescu, it reads:
Cu maine zilele-ti adaugi,
Cu ieri viata ta o scazi,
Si ai cu toate astea-n fata,
De-a pururi ziua cea de azi.
With life’s tomorrow time you grasp,
Its yesterdays you fling away
And still, in spite of all remains
Its long eternity, today.
I wanted to confront gaps in my memory, and the more common threads I pull together about my family, my heritage, and the way I live my life now, the clearer it starts to become. Forgetting is the last thing I’d want to do.