My story, a long family journey from the bolshevik revolution, through communism, earthquakes, the battle to overthrow Ceausescu, to finding myself in the West
I grew up in a changing world. Millions of people in this world face real challenges. Like many of them, to survive, I had to re-invent myself, to start again, and again, and again. In this journey I have learned an important lesson, that life is what you make of it. And that what you make of it can be enhanced if you listen to your intuition, really connect with people and embrace change as being just another step on your personal journey.
My story really starts in the Steppes of Russia, with my Russian grandparents, Marina Romanova and Grigorie. Their vaguely Chekov life was turned to physical and emotional rubble when their home was burned to the ground by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution, our identity was lost, and my grandfather was imprisoned.
It really continues in WW2 when our rebuilt family house, in a tiny village where the deep winter snows fly in from a thousand miles, was commandeered by the Nazis during the apocalyptic war with our Russian armies on the Eastern Front. My mother and my grandparents had to live in underground tunnels until the Nazi occupiers finally departed, burning villages and "eliminating" the remaining villagers they could find as they left, leaving an indelible mark on my mother that influenced all our family life.
The enforced poverty brought about by the acts of those "who were only working to orders" caused my mother to be sent at a young age to live with her much much older sister living with many other families in the converted stables of the former Czar in Pushkin, near St. Petersburg - the sort of scene played out in David Lean's "Dr Zhivago" - where she met my father, a young army communications Lieutenant who had been sent for training from Romania ........and Romania beckoned.
..........But, for my mother, the twisting and turning of her life continued apace when Ceausescu decided to distance Romania from Russia - turning things at the family level upside down - when members of the Romanian military were forced to leave the armed forces if they had a Russian wife or husband.
So, my father had to leave his beloved army just after graduating from military academy, at the end of his five year military training programme, of which he was so proud, wiping out his whole life ambition in one go. The consequences for our family were challenging and long-term.
But all this is another story for another time ............
Home for the first seven years of my life was a two room flat in central Bucharest which we shared with another family of three. We then moved to the "luxury" of our own three room flat in a new concrete high-rise where we continued to suffer the oh so frequent power cuts, where my candle-lit studies were interrupted by the need to warm my hands over the gas rings of our tiny cooker in a tiny kitchen, where we "enjoyed" the seasonal absence of hot water, in a flat where I was ever fearful of the too frequent minor earthquakes, always expecting a repeat of that terrible night in March 1977, when I was 7, when so so many people in my city, over one thousand five hundred, lost their lives and many thousands were injured, a tragedy that even now I cannot speak about without retreating to a dark place in my mind.
Daily life was dominated by the need to queue in shifts with my parents in front of the butchers shop, or the baker, or the grocer, for as long as twenty four hours at a time, even in the dark, bitterly cold winter months, to await the delivery truck and the inevitable rush and clamour to buy. Queuing though was a really liberating event with the constant chitter chatter of the crowd totally out of character for a warm society that had become closed, mistrusting and inward looking, ever fearful of strangers and the one in five who were Securitate informers, a society where people just disappeared, never to be seen again.
I had a childhood in name only. I took refuge from the traumas of my life in my school work, in after school tutorials on many subjects, in ballet, and in the peace of my own small bedroom with piles of homework that demanded concentration as failure to pass would have meant life in a factory……. and in my books, my trusted friends, then and for my whole life.....a pattern broken only during occasional holidays to be with our Russian family, their different lives and wonderfully different homemade foods, in Pushkin and near Orel in the Steppes, a holiday made possible by an always fascinating (because of the people one came across) two day train journey across Romania, Moldova (and then, after our carriage was lifted onto Russia's different width railway tracks, a device to slow the progress of enemy armies) the plains of Ukraine and Russia to St. Petersburg.....and two days back!
1989 Libertate Roumanie by Denoel Paris.
The revolution in 1989 changed our lives forever! The memory of panic, insecurity, conflicting messages from the streets, gruesome images of dead bodies that I had to pass by, the sound of gunfire, the scary tracer fire penetrating the pitch dark December nights, makes me shudder when I revisit buildings that are still, many years on, pock-marked by bullets and shells. I had been trained to shoot Kalashnikov's but this was the real thing.
But, looking back now I smile inwardly at our bravery in deciding, as young students do, to defend our university. It was also the end of my so-called childhood and the beginning of a new world of opportunity for me, the West, equipped with a baccalaureate and engineering degree, destined under the old regime to build big things, but now free to fly high or to fail and to fall. There were no communist comfort blankets now. It was all down to me.
I had known the West mainly from books that I had read in the safety of the British Council and the Russian and American libraries, and from Jane; Jane was an intellectual, determined hermit from the communist state, in her early 50’s when I met her, quite round with loose flowing clothes, never venturing from her small back street flat unless she absolutely had to. I travelled across Bucharest for ten years, come snow or sunshine, to see her. More than anyone in my life she stimulated my mind, opened my eyes and challenged me to discover the wonders of the world, its literature, arts, cultures, languages, and religions. She died too young, leaving a clear memory of what a single person can do to change the life of another for the better, from whatever background they come from. It’s as if in life we all need a guiding star, for me it was Jane.
I re-invented myself, I became a career girl, it consumed my life, and I now look back with pride and some surprise at what I achieved! This was someone, me, who under the communists had been an introverted book-worm, lover of maths and physics, but who emerged, like a butterfly, adapted to a new reality.
It all started with my part-time (for three years) university job as a tourist guide for our State tourist agency, a job with amazing benefits when one of my lovely tour families invited me back to their own country, Georgia, where I was really taken aback by the hospitality and harmonious musicality of the lovely people of T'bilisi, a holiday that resulted in my first aeroplane flight, by Aeroflot from St. Petersburg, at age 20, much against the wishes of my parents who thought I would be "stolen" ...... and it continued with another part-time university job as an interpreter for a new British led commercial tv venture with our state broadcaster which I was offered because I was acting as translator for a group of Russian dancers visiting Bucharest !! (I loved languages and took the time to speak good English, Russian and Spanish).
I then won my first real job, I joined the first ad-agency to open its doors in Romania, founded by a pioneering American and his lovely, artist, wife who had come ashore from their round the world sailing trip on Romania’s Black Sea coast and decided to stay for a while - as the free spirited do! I learned rapidly from them and from others that life in western companies was not one job, one desk, one boss for life, that personal growth was what you make of it. The youthful team I joined in 1993 has gone on to do great things.
Two years later, having held responsibility for the agency’s largest account, persuading Romanians to smoke even more Camel cigarettes, an RJ Reynolds contribution to world health, with a little help from me ! the owners saw a gap in Romania’s burgeoning media market for a first women’s colour magazine. Being pioneers the challenge was too much for them to resist – definitely for me too. So I re-invented myself again, joined the search for the right publishing format for our market and took responsibility for the launch as marketing manager - and, as small, young, all hands to the pumps teams do, I found myself co-ordinating the launch and writing articles on new products on the market - especially products that I liked!. "Avantaje", the Romanian format of Essentials, became and still, years later, remains a real success!
At that point, filled with adrenalin, I wanted another new challenge. So I used my savings to open my own ad-agency, to employ two people, take on premises, and sign up clients, mainly Arab traders from Egypt and the Lebanon, enjoying my first steps in that lovely language, Arabic – until a French client did what so many did in those days, treat Romania as a throw away toy, walking out of the country leaving unpaid bills, including mine, in their wake – so I ran out of money after a year and had to close. How did I feel? …disappointed, crushed but also very proud that I had taken that opportunity, treating this year as a learning on the job experience!
I replied to an ad and in the face of competition from one hundred “new young westerners” won the job of my life as marketing manager, later sales and marketing, of another US start-up in Romania, with the multi-national, Washington based, HIV/Aids social marketing organisation, PSI. Re-inventing myself was now a part of me, so I threw myself lock-stock-and-barrel into the project, staging major rock concerts on the beaches, promoting HIV/Aids awareness in front of Romanian youth, army cadets, government officials, ministers and even the President of Romania himself - that's him and me in my "Love Plus" campaign uniform below;
The beginning of my march out of Romania
Lobbying President Constantinescu
I found myself working with amazingly creative Romanian TV producers and ad- agency teams, making tv and radio programmes and campaigning videos (that actually won international awards at Cannes for our little PSI unit and for Romania), leading the creation of a national volunteer network and building from scratch a distributor and direct sales network for our healthcare products, writing reports back to Washington at any time of the day that I was still awake - or on Christmas Day.
I was invited by PSI to mentor other young PSI teams in countries that I discovered were even poorer than us, in the mountains of Albania, in the lovely Kingdom of Lesotho and in Swaziland where my first HIV/Aids rock concert in Africa, to which an estimated 20,000 enthusiasts turned up, ended in complete chaos with me, one of only two white people present, running for my life after the main star decided to “walk among his fans” causing pandemonium - but beginning a love affair for Africa in me that is undimmed by time.
Later, exhausted, after leading the promotion of a new sustainable rural project in and for poor communities for an eminent British charity partnership, a project to "introduce" disciplined organic farming to Romania where we had been growing crops naturally for lack of money for centuries!, I “escaped” to England, and to a whole step-up in terms of re-invention. While studying and waiting for my work visa, I immersed myself in painting, in writing, and in all things that this civilised open society does for its people. I trained to mentor young people with The Prince's Trust and volunteered for charities and for three years immersed myself in a mental health charity, volunteering to work alongside those with schizophrenia or depression, who were bi-polar or had learning difficulties, experiences we both enjoyed. I went back to "school" at Henley thinking that if I obtained an MBA I would be equipped to understand business life in the West - but having passed all my first year exams I decided that the theory of what I was learning bore little resemblance to how decisions and incomes are actually made or earned on the streets of the emerging world and only dealt superficially with people - and so I quit. So I trained for 18 months to be a coach thinking that the West's way of developing people would do me good. Through this programme I came to realise how good my upbringing had actually been, having to work out how to motivate un-motivated people in an un-motivated society to do great things. And I spent a year part time on the campus of the University of Brighton on a programme "Solution Focused Psychotherapy" to get to understand the workings of the mind.
Through all this "back to school" activity I started to enjoy the childhood I never had, throwing stones on the beach, painting pebbles, experimenting with my unusual cakes, laughing, those things I never had or did when I was young – for that’s all I ever wanted, just to be happy – its what most of us want.
A new chapter
Dream of England!
My first and only job in England, much to the amazement and pride of my friends back home, was in the Communications Directorate of a large British Government department in Victoria, London, a short walk from the Houses of Parliament and Downing Street, where I worked to start with on campaigns to influence the population in favour of Eco-towns - before asking for a transfer to join colleagues in the Home Office, DfID and the FCO working on campaigns to influence young Muslims to reject violent extremism and terrorism. Imagine it, me, a Romanian citizen at that time (now I have dual British and Romanian citizenship), doing that - it was courageous of the Director.
But, after three years, and even though I loved working among London's ethnic community in Brick Lane and more, and even though I was grateful for having been given the opportunity to work on the PM's Big Society project, I decided I had to re-take my freedom - to find ways of using my creativity, curiosity and life experiences for audiences of my own choosing.
With my husband I had been back to Africa, perilously flying at 1,500 feet in a single engine Cessna plane, dodging violent African storms, landing on remote, waterlogged, dirt strips at isolated community farming projects in places that he refers to as “God’s own Country” and to that beach in the Cape and its penguins, to that sunset, and to my real purpose in life, to something that I know Jane will be proud of as she watches over me. I finally decided then to use my life experiences to find ways of empowering women who are less fortunate than me to build better lives for themselves, to carry on Jane’s work, work that had so materially touched and enhanced my life and enhanced the lives of so many others.
So the cycle of change in my life turned again, I had to re-learn and to re-invent myself again, but if it's what you decide you want in life...........
So much is left unwritten for the moment - the words that describe the scents, the colours, the textures, the changing sounds, emotions and extraordinary architectural diversity of my home city, a diversity that reflects the tidal waves of influence over Romania for centuries - Ottoman, classical European and communist - and words that capture the beauty of Romania, it's glorious snow capped Carpathian mountain ranges and untouched wilderness foothills where the undisturbed peace of wild flowers and summer bees always guarantees a sweet harvest and the contentment that comes from caring for the land through the changing seasons, caring for fruit laden orchards, for cherished animals, all of which is indelibly stamped on the sun drenched faces of those whose lives in the countryside have hardly changed for centuries. But I will write the story one day.