Sunday, 30 September 2007

3. Light - Part 4

Later, towards the end of the 1980s (and the end of the world, of that world), analogue satellite receivers were smuggled in. Small companies started to manufacture the antenna dishes and for many people, this meant that their field of view into the Universe out there has radically widened. Many, like our family, could not afford the ‘imported’ electronics, so invented ways of peeking through the same, large electronic window others installed in their homes. It only needed a well calculated simple antenna, aimed at some neighbour’s satellite receiver... and managed to capture faint, snowy, wobbly images from the already demodulated, TV-band signals escaping their analogue tuner boxes. Sometimes with sound, often without, sometimes with colour, often dropping back to monochrome simplicity, being conditioned by what they were watching and when... It was a return of black & white, silent, but foreign movies thrown onto our screens in immense quantities. In blockflats, neighbours often agreed to share the costs and with little amplification, they split the signal into several flats, then knocked on the owner’s door and agreed on something to watch. Something for everybody.

We had our concoction in the loft, aimed at a neighbour vis-à-vis. Later my first cousin, who we shared the courtyard with and who lived in an apartment of our house, installed his own dish and tuner in our loft via the good old who-knows-who network, plus some extra money he decided to sacrifice. Whenever they left for the weekend to visit the wife’s folks in a close-by village, he left the tuner on for us - and then we had two days of continuous satellite heaven.

We were lucky (again...) that the satellite dish was not visible from outside the house. This mattered, as in the autumn of 1989, months before the carefully painted shiny Ceausescu hot air balloon took a mighty puncture wound, the Regime decided to make satellite equipments illegal. Well, ‘illegal’, in absence of another short word... They simply wanted to close that enormous window with sweeping, but after consuming months of Knightrider and Star Trek, admittedly indiscriminate vistas into an enormous world out there. Over there. Beyond that curtain.

Secret and also normal, ‘everyday’ police began to knock on people’s doors, enforcing the new measures that arose, like everything else those days, out of chemically pure paranoia. None of this really mattered any more, though... as we found out couple of months later, very suddenly, when December 1989 arrived with images we thought we’d never see.

3. Light - Part 3

But... there was also radio.

Magic... many channels, bouncing off the ionosphere, carrying on their invisible undulating shoulders messages from lands more distant than we could imagine, waves ending up being transformed on our old valve radio receiver into allowed or downright forbidden sounds and words.

Later we bought a sturdy, indestructible, imported, 'portable' transistor radio, packed full of the super dense neutron star material of Soviet engineering. Portable, if you had confidence in your underfed muscles not to drop it, as its chassis, that could have withstanded blasts from imperialist missiles, had the potential of causing major non-ideological pain if you dropped it on your foot.

My Dad once actually managed to knock it down, this VEF206 as it was called, from the top of the fridge... Of course, the black plastic skin was smashed to bits, but its massive endoskeleton stayed intact with all the electronics inside it... With a stoicism that was in sheer contrast to the momentary panic unfolding around its shattered body, it continued to croon. The plastic got cellotaped back around it, as much as we could put back into some sort of avant-garde shape - then everybody concluded, it was definitely worth putting ourselves on the pre-order list in the town’s main electronics shop (‘Sound and Light’ it was called...), followed by a waiting of a few weeks until the very limited import stock arrived.

So our wooden, then later considerably smaller (but not really lighter, just a lot denser) box of magic sounds kept us entertained for many years. We always tuned in to a few stations that came, riding long and mid-waves across the border, from the infinitely more liberal Hungary. Not only because they spoke in my mother tongue, oppressed by the Regime, but also because those programs could talk openly about things we could not.

Radio Kossuth, named after the great Hungarian, brought into our family home old beauties. Radio plays of classics, mind-expanding programs... and cabaret, filled with political satire way beyond anything we could say out loud on the streets infested with the Scary People and their opportunistic informers. Oh those political cabarets, carefully vetted by the liberal Hungarian censors, but still magnificently outrageous...

If we wanted seriously dangerous thoughts, we tuned in to the distant Voice of America or Radio Free Europe in Hungarian and Romanian languages, their precious waves fading in and out, occasionally perturbed by jamming stations that seemed to be ironically hampered by the geological realities of Transylvania, so never delivered consistently the intended noise.... Being reported for listening to these stations landed anyone in significant trouble. Via these radio stations we could hear from dissidents who escaped our reality and settled in various other worlds where freedom was as normal and abundant as air. We also heard about events we didn't know about due to local media blackouts. Such news and facts and thoughts from thousands of miles away helped in getting a better picture of our local reality. Often, there were stories on the sometimes catastrophic attempts of some who, trying to get certain sensitive information to these radio stations’ liaison people, were caught in the act.

My uncle in his block flat had to listen to his VEF206 at low volume, with the family gathered around it, as they tried to make sure that a potential informer neighbour could not hear the heresies carried into the small flat via unstoppable waves of the ether. We didn’t have this worry, living almost twenty meters from the gate separating us from the street, a locked gate, nobody walking past our door with opportunistic and malevolent ears. The sound of those stations wandered around the room, only constrained by our old walls, which were almost 40 centimetres thick.

Of course, with the power cuts, the old valve radio finally exchanged by us for a battery operated ‘portable’ one, allowed us to gather around it and have a window into the wider and better illuminated world beyond perceptual and geopolitical borders... The small, ultra-heavy VEF206 transistor radio became the most valuable object in the house... With sounds, it painted tableaus that our TV set, plugged into the regularly disappearing mains power supply and connected to an aerial only receiving Romanian TV channels, couldn’t.

Friday, 28 September 2007

3. Light - Part 2

Mighty flows of electrons used to return eventually, just before the evening TV programs were about to start. We had all-important three hours of TV per day on two national channels relayed over the Carpathian mountains. Just two channels that, without the technological help given by relay stations, would not have been able to cross the mountains in order to bring into our home that Voice and that Face... But, as he did countless times before during our history, man managed to spill his evil over those mountain peaks, his dark emissaries this time riding on relayed electromagnetic waves that were reaching every corner of Transylvania, every day after 21 hours of the visual emptiness of grey hissing static...

Those three hours were mostly filled with a tedious, but victorious news program showing that day's amazing achievements... It was followed by a program of folk music and dance that alternated with odes and hymns, both having had special lyrics praising the glory of the Party... Then, maybe once a week, there came a TV snippet about something. A play. A collage of classical music filmed somewhere. Sometimes, rare imported joy. An old Thames Television play, with good old ideologically safe Shakespeare. Or so they thought. Maybe some foreign science program about the future. About ideologically safe technology. About the world to come, a future that would arrive a lot sooner in the glorious society we were building.

The TV program stretched to an awesome 5-6 hours on Saturday afternoons and two considerable chunks on Sunday, all filled with propaganda, Romanian folk music from invented traditions and some carefully filtered glimpses of the bigger world beyond the Iron Curtain.

The classic trick to make us at least sit in front of the propaganda, if not actively watch it, was to announce the screening of a film - usually cut in half, second part to come at some point later. The first part may have happened as per the advertised schedule, but then we sat and waited the grossly over-run propaganda program, hoping and hoping for ages - then sometimes the second part was cancelled. Then cancelled again next week. Then eventually shown, otherwise the bait would not have worked after a few months of such manipulative fun. I managed to watch, for the first time in my life, Gone With The Wind, over a 3-month period, in short chunks akin to disconnected body parts torn apart by the power of communist propaganda.

Oh, but then we had series like Dallas – as anything that showed the decadence of the West was deemed educational. So while we were trying to forget our worries about whether we manage to pick up next day the monthly food rations or the daily half of sandstone-like bread per person, we could watch with great understanding and certainly deep sympathy Miss Ellie Ewing on our black & white screens. Poor old lady was being torn from pixel to pixel by a deep dilemma centred on whether she should drill on her husband's land, ignoring the old man's dying wishes or... make some extra millions of dollars from the oil she was expecting to find there.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

3. Light - Part 1

My school days and years came after I learnt the fundamental physics of light and heat. Not the complex laws defining and governing them, but how ideological darkness and cold calculation can alter them when it came to what I then perceived as normal everyday existence. The joyous and by all means luminous play of the mind that took over for brief hours my early school days was quite opposite to what came after school, when due to shortages of class rooms we started doing 'afternoon shifts' alternating with our normal weeks of 8AM daily start...

I was finding my way on streets rendered pitch black by power saving measures, with constellations of warm orange and yellow and reddish dots, daubs and flecks of lights coming through the windows, coming from kerosene lamps and candles and the occasional battery-powered torches, projecting shadows of tired bodies animated by tired souls inhabiting the houses and block flats.

The economics of these cuts didn't make any sense, as the consumption of the population was infinitesimal compared to what was engorged by old-fashioned, hopelessly obsolete industrial monsters. For example, the aluminium plant at Slatina was making deplorable quality aluminium with old electrolysis methods, soaking up every electron that the also inefficient power plants around it could squeeze out of low-grade coal or methane.

So there wasn't much point in doing calculations on the economics of our blackouts - but the periods, when we only had quivering shadows projected onto our walls by the flames of a kerosene lamp in the kitchen, were meant to make us a bit more aware of the powers governing our reality.

Darkness, physical or intellectual, is a powerful tool – especially when both kinds get combined...

I was lucky to live fifteen minutes from my first school, and this manageable walking distance slowly shrunk anyway as my tiny legs grew and grew. Half of this journey was a dreary walk on dark streets where I kept losing my shadow like a true creature of the night roaming the streets of a Transylvanian city. Still, in the distance I could always see an oasis of light, just one part of one street, which escaped the exasperatingly regular power cuts.

That small oasis of light, encountered every night on my way home, was a part of our street. The illuminated section didn't quite reach our house but it still gave me every winter afternoon a glorious transition from darkness, decorated by coloured specks of light, to cosy sodium and mercury vapour street lighting. The lit areas had empty shops lit by fluorescent tubes and yellow lightbulbs, both trying to push their fainter light through the curtains, competing, asserting themselves and always loosing against the power of the street lights... Then, again, came a jump back to darkness in which I was trying to reach our house and my Mum. She used to be immersed in the silent joys of crosswords near a kerosene lamp in the kitchen, always waiting for me, always ready to serve the tasty hot meal cooked with glorious imagination from desperately simple elements and always innovative replacements of impossible to obtain ingredients.

The reason for the short oasis of electrical bliss, where I again had a shadow for 200 metres or so, was that we had a non-stop bread factory on our street.

Considering the food ration queues, we never knew where all its output went, but this temple of beautiful smells agonisingly shouting ‘foooooooooood!’ had to have its own electrical supply. Somehow, the transformer giving its vital juice could not be severed from the circuits that were supplying a few dozen other houses and street lights... so let there be light! Just to make the darkness even more apparent...

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

2. Home

My home town, Marosvasarhely... A medieval city in Transylvania, comfortably resting in the valley of river Maros, in just one of the many valleys which spread themselves on the map like half-open protecting hands... Valleys that so often were not protective enough, but at least were able to soften the sounds of thunderstorms and too numerous battles into a gentle rumble that used to reverberate along the many rivers of that bruised land... A town that in peacetime used to gaze down on lively markets unfolding their tents on the plains outside its old walls... hence its name, ‘marketplace on river Maros’...

It had seen very turbulent and often blood-red waters flow from the mountains, pass under its walls... and when not enjoying its occasional, well-deserved contemplative rest by the river, it was busy withstanding many unpredictable howling storms brought to that valley by Nature and Man over the centuries...

The old city walls are still standing, layers of the more recent past expanding around it in all directions. Old graveyards on the high hills, villas of old and new aristocracy... The multi-coloured mixture of stone and bricks and inevitable concrete had flown from those heights, like some artificial lava flow spanning and changing over many centuries and many miles. Some parts of it coagulated into a glorious historical city centre... and, having left there most of its colours to decorate it, the remaining grey concrete flow continued further down, following the river Maros, gradually aged and sedimented into monochrome deserts of communist blockflats... Then, just before it completely settled, expired, its edges finally solidified into the shape of a monstrous chemical plant on the edge of the city... beyond which the untouched green land lies next to the river, the two of them reminiscing over the more distant centuries certainly only they can remember.

My home... on the edge of the historic city centre, enduring without complaints since the 1840s the regimes and changes history brought around it, comfortably rests its back against the hill which suddenly rises steeply, stopping for short rests allowing other layers of houses on higher ground to be built. Acacia trees and lilacs grew on the slope of the hill, a perfect place for sitting and smelling the dizzying aroma rolling gently downhill into the courtyard.

There was also the river, just a few minutes walk away, beyond some green parks, a place where suddenly the multicoloured noise of the city changes to green stillness, the all-muscle river, rushing down from the mountains, being lulled and hushed by the great water lock that protects the city.

All this sits pretty much right in the middle of Transylvania where eminently non-fictional creatures have been spilling and consuming blood for too many centuries. They did this in broad daylight, totally immune to garlic, casting onto those hills and plains of ever-changing colour very long and dense shadows which persist to this day in political life, in the ethnic tensions arising from the echoes of annexing the former Hungarian territory to Romania... These shadows are also present in the collective psyche that only in the last few years was freed from the most recent non-fictional, demented, but so calculated Evil.

I grew up there, during Ceausescu’s ‘Golden Era’... and can’t recall whether there was a certain moment when I realised that everything surrounding me was a tragicomic absurd play, set in a theatre made to seem considerably smaller than the world entire.

I still find it difficult to reconcile those two sides of me... One, the small kid opening his eyes and ears tentatively and initially very fearfully, a happy kid enjoying to the max a very minimalist childhood, accepting the food rationing and powercuts, propaganda and fake celebrations as the normal and, above all, the only possible reality. Then there is the other person, the grown-up looking back and finding that weird reality filled with funny and sad absurdities, contradictions still tying the mind into a confusing identity-warping knot.

Monday, 24 September 2007

1. Portrait

First, there was one ear.

Just the one, due to laws of optics that not even the absolute powers of the Party could alter. One visible ear, attached to a reasonably normal head with a face, the ubiquitous face, captured by some photographer's lens from a semi-frontal viewpoint rendering the portrait benevolent, almost fatherly.

The portrait... which hung on the walls of every office and every classroom, hovering with that fatherly smile in the peripheral vision of pupils who stared at mostly terrestrial, sometimes hellish and very, very rarely heavenly things unfolding on the imposing blackboard. The portrait... which smiled at us as we opened any of our battered, often almost disintegrating schoolbooks. Those books were handed out at the start of the school year in a store room filled with huge piles of amorphous-looking cellulose, a room where the smell of mould and rot in our very young minds helped to create the mental image of not a fountain, but a very old well of knowledge.

One of the key tasks in the first few minutes of owning that year's schoolbooks was to check the portrait. Not for any change in the smile or benevolence of the person immortalised on it, nor for any change in the age of that person stuck in a frozen moment ever since the heavily retouched shot exited in the 1960s some very central, very important photolab of the Party. The check had to be quick, there and then, to make sure nothing happened to the portrait on the often most intact page of the crumbling books.

Has anybody drawn anything on it somehow during the book's previous autumn-to-summer lifecycle spent with spreading spores of knowledge (or just ideologically altered lies)? Was it altered during its summer hibernation in the mouldy storage rooms - and somehow this remained unnoticed? Had it been damaged, torn intentionally or otherwise? Or materialist-dialectic Heaven forbid, is it missing...? If yes, we had to report it immediately and get a replacement - so that one didn’t end up being accused with an unspeakable act of subversive vandalism which always had scary consequences.

But after a summer spent by the stoic river, usually far from dangerous ears, mostly facing the sky packed to bursting point with ideology-free sunshine, there came one autumn when the mouldy and rat-piss smelling room, that source of the new school year's certain angst and possible revelations, turned out to hold piles upon piles of previously unimaginable surprises.

Some books were new, some survived summer hibernation again as collections of pages held together by just the cohesion force of the thoughts therein - but all now came with a change beyond our imagination. The untouchable portraits changed in the small pile of new books. It was also replaced in the old books, via an act of cosmic proportions: the old portrait ripped out, destroyed and replaced with a new one, cellotaped in for a brand new posterity.

It had two ears.

Two ears on a fully frontal portrait of an alien-looking creature, the result of a new photo shoot which came twenty-odd years after the first one. Two ears on a bizarre combination between the result of photochemical processes leading to non-ideological silver crystals that could faithfully only depict that much aged man in front of the lens... and the results of a heavy retouching job.

It now represented perfection that had to mean, obviously, two ears untouched by the laws of optics - in every book, on every wall. The monumental cost of reprints, replacements of zillions of benevolent portraits in every possible size did not matter, showing unequivocally and symbolically just what bionic arms could the Regime flex when it wished to alter appearances of any kind.

Watched from a distance that does not reveal the heavy, bizarre retouching, behold - a flawless portrait of a flawless man, the immaculate Leader, who shaped and will forever shape an equally flawless, model society.

It had not just more ears for overhearing dangerous thoughts voiced by careless, unsuspecting lips, but also illustrated the desperate strive for sustaining a fake image of a darker reality... While remembering the unexpected metamorphosis of that portrait, countless other memories and images flood into my mind.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

The first glance back

Memoirs are usually written by people who go through rustling bundles of sepia-toned images and yellow, stained pages of the mind... before that treasure chest terminally decays together with the valued, fading relics it kept for so many years.

Then there are people with memories that, after a while, start to feel like acquired collections of someone else’s surreal celluloid strips, film cells seen at some point in the past and now rapidly fading - a decay hastened by their very absurdity clashing with the rational mind’s immune reactions. After going through a major change in life, that mind, instead of blocking them out, just mellows all those irrationalities and all that absurdity into a bundle of seemingly second-hand, indirect experiences.

The world that surrounded me for the first nineteen years of my life, shaped by one of the most infamous totalitarian regime of daily kafkaesque assault on rational thought, has been changing radically since 1990 - but also, only partially. There have been volumes written about such societies, countless hours filled with documentaries on the vast political, economical and of course, ideological forces at work...

The following recollections though, from the Romanian pre- and post-Revolutionary years, are street-level snapshots with often surprising similarities between the old and the new country. They come together not as a grand portal into the past and quasi-present, but a small window for just one head at a time to peer through it.

These then are my film cells, my cut-up, fading film strips... projected for the first time in a continuous passing through the personal treasure chest of relics, done just when I am about to truly begin to believe that these are just somebody else’s visions seen in a cinema I haven’t been to, made by a cinematographer who never existed.

Having left that country eleven years ago, returning there regularly to this day, I can still meet and converse with many ghosts, ghosts cosily nesting in the altered, recently became ultra-material(istic) world of the Carpathian mountains.

This is about both the past when those ghosts still possessed powerful bodies in my weathered homeland, making Europe seem just some distant mirage, and the present when that world, still silently and slowly being kneaded by these ghosts, has gone through hasty re-decorating for its welcome party into a suddenly so reachable and tangible Europe...

It is also about the surprising and worrying parallels that one sees between that, thought to be defunct, world and the present day experiences in a historical democracy, the latter paradoxically resorting to exponentially increasing amounts of control in an attempt to saveguard its values...