About Firm Foundations Romania… Sarah was born in Boston, raised in California. She moved to Romania thirteen years ago, where she was led by God to establish a not for profit organisation; Firm Foundations Romania. Sarah’s organisation has grown over the years, beyond her original vision, as her team at Firm Foundations has supported and educated Roma children, and run an international volunteer program. Volunteers from around the world can spend time at the baby hospital in Brasov, holding babies, thereby providing them with much needed love and comfort.
This is Sarah’s passion today. To make a difference in a person’s heart through Christ’s love for them. God has gifted Sarah with the ability to write and perform beautiful music, which today reflects her life and those whom she serves. Sarah’s music is being distributed in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. This year, she recorded in Nashville with Russ Long. Sarah is living out her passion to help humanity and inspire lives through her inspirational music. Sarah is grateful to God for His calling on her life.
FFR is a non profit organization whose mission is to follow Christ’s instruction to assist widows and orphans in their trouble. Our purpose is to provide aid in a practical way to the abandoned children of the Brasov Children’s Hospital and the Roma community.
Our focus is loving the unloved and providing educational opportunities to the forgotten youth of this country. Our goal is for future generations to have a better quality of life; our hope, that they would then be influenced to serve others and be an example for the people of Romania.
*We have parental permission for all photographs of children used on this site.
It all started with one bag of diapers… Sarah and Steffi (President and Vice President of FFR) remember the first day they walked into the Brasov Children’s Hospital and saw children wrapped in seven layers of rags lying in their own feces and urine. The stench was terrible, and the children looked desolate.
They started to bring in diapers that were bought with their personal money and asked the nurses if they could help change the children. Relationships and trust were built with the nurses and the social worker as they continued bringing in more and more diapers. Thus the hospital project started.
Children are still being abandoned and neglected in Romania due to a myriad of social issues. Firm Foundations Romania has started an international volunteer program to hold, feed, change and care for these children in the local Children’s Hospital, where we have formed a partnership which enables us to run the project.
Our volunteers change over 4000 diapers a month which we supply. Our volunteers come from all around the world, uniting hearts for the plight of Romania’s youth. It is time to make a difference.
There are many ways in which you can help. We are always seeking volunteers, both short term and long term to serve with our various projects.
We are in need of donations such as clothing, hygiene products, school and craft supplies. At present we are seeking financial sponsorship of numerous projects, including diapers for the Hospital Project as well as sponsorship of our After School Program.
” I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand ” Isaiah 41:10
This is an article about a remarkable young man, Visinel Balan, who led a tragic life of beatings and neglect. Somehow, he not only survived, but went on to complete a Law Degree, a Theatre Degree and a Psychology Degree. But Visinel believes that his greatest achievement was in 2013 when he co-founded the N.G.O- ”Drawing Your Own Future”. In Romania, where there are 60,000 abandoned children many of whom live in institutions, these children ”age-out” of the system and onto the streets or live in the underground sewers. They have no income, no life-skills and no family to support themselves.
Visinel has also created ” Institutionalised Youth Council”.
His Mission Statement is; Changing the Legislation on Child Protection.
The Abolition of Children’s Centre’s
Drafting A New Law On Adoption.
”Drawing Your Own Future” and ”Institutionalised Youth Council” engage young people in activities which encourage, motivate and inspire each other.
Visinel wants to show these children that they can build a life for themselves, despite the tragedy of their pasts.
When Vişinel Balan was two months old he was put in a state infant centre in Bacău, a town folded into the foothills of the Carpathian mountains in Romania. It was August 1987. At the entrance to the institution there was a poster of a mother bringing in her baby, then walking away with her child, now older, hand in hand. The message was: the state can take better care of your child than you can.
Vişinel’s earliest memories are of rocking himself backwards and forwards and of waking up warm, wet with pee. When he was three years old he was sent to a preschool institution in the nearby town of Comănești. Here they were beaten on the soles of their feet for wetting the bed. Once, in kindergarten class, Vişinel tried to write the letter R and he made it wrong. He went to the cupboard, took an eraser to rub it out and put the eraser in his pocket. One of the other kids told on him and the caretaker stripped his clothes off and held him over the desk and beat his bottom with a stick.
Still, Vişinel was lucky. He was cute, blond and blue-eyed, and often sick with bronchitis or pneumonia. He attracted the attention of the staff. One of the caretakers made a pet of him and brought him extra biscuits, which he hid under his pillow.
When he was eight years old, Vişinel was moved to Placement Centre Number 6 in Comănești. Now life got hard. The older kids beat the younger kids. Sometimes he was woken by another kid punching him in the head. He lived in a room with six other boys. They had to be ready and dressed every morning before school, standing beside their bed for inspection. For every minute they were late, they earned one whack across the palm. One of the caretakers, Celina, beat Vişinel a lot. A year after he arrived at the placement centre, Vişinel jumped from the second-storey balcony and ran away to live in the railway station.
“It’s important to remember,” grownup Vişinel told me, sitting in a brightly lit cafe in Bucharest, with a slice of cake in front of him, “that I didn’t know anything about my family until I was 11 years old.”
When I first met Vişinel he was wearing a checked shirt and green jeans and green trainers. His favourite colour is green. His face is handsome, open and boyish. Vişinel is now 27. He has a law degree and a theatre degree, and has just begun a master’s in psychology at the University of Bucharest. He has worked as a project coordinator for the Ministry of Youth and Sport, as a drama teacher at a school for gifted children and as a consultant for Saatchi & Saatchi in Romania. He has bought a car and a small apartment in a pretty village outside Bucharest. The thing he is most proud of, however, is the NGO he co-founded in 2013.Drawing Your Own Future works with children in Romania’s child-protection system. Vişinel said he wanted to show teenagers that they could master their own destinies, as he had.
“I am looking at you and I am thinking about this sickly, beaten nine-year-old begging on the streets and I can’t put the two together,” I said. “Were you a different person back then?”
Vişinel’s face went blank for a moment, his smile stopped. He raised his chin and looked up at the ceiling, and when he lowered it again I saw that his eyes were filled with tears. The tears spilled and ran silently down his cheeks. He said, almost in a whisper: “It is the same person.”
In the summer of 1990 I was 19, revolutions had recently swept the communists from eastern Europe, the world was new and everything was possible. They said it was the end of history. I took my secondhand Peugeot 205 and a boyfriend and headed east. We drove to Prague, where they were selling ironic Pink Floyd The Wall T-shirts on the Charles bridge, south to Zagreb, where we laughed at the ridiculous idea of Croatian nationalism, through a place called Kosovo which we had never heard of, to Sofia where we watched a man chisel off the hammer and sickle from the facade of the parliament building.
We spent all day stuck on the Bulgarian-Romanian border (there was a rumoured cholera epidemic) and when we finally arrived in Bucharest, it was dark and the street lamps weren’t working. Along the road were piles of smouldering rubbish. Of all the east European countries, with the exception of Albania, Romania had been the most closed off. It had no famous political dissidents; no Sakharovs or Wałęsas or Havels. Its 23 million citizens were sequestered under one of the 20th century’s most repressive dictators: Nicolae Ceauşescu.
When he came to power in 1966, Ceaușescu had grand plans for Romania. The country had industrialised late, after the second world war, and its birthrate was low. Ceaușescu borrowed the 1930s Stalinist dogma that population growth would fuel economic growth and fused this idea with the conservatism of his rural childhood. In the first year of his rule, his government issued Decree 770, which outlawed abortion for women under 40 with fewer than four children. “The foetus is the property of the entire society,” Ceaușescu announced. “Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.”
The birth rate soon doubled, but then the rate of increase slowed as Romanian women resorted to homemade illegal abortions, often with catastrophic results. In 1977 all childless persons, regardless of sex or martial status, were made to pay an additional monthly tax. In the 1980s condoms and the pill, although prohibitively expensive, began to become available in Romania – so they were banned altogether. Motherhood became a state duty. The system was ruthlessly enforced by the secret police, the securitate. Doctors who performed abortions were imprisoned, women were examined every three months in their workplaces for signs of pregnancy. If they were found to be pregnant and didn’t subsequently give birth, they could face prosecution. Fertility had become an instrument of state control.
This policy, coupled with Romania’s poverty, meant that more and more unwanted children were abandoned to state care. No one knows how many. Estimates for the number of children in orphanages in 1989 start at 100,000 and go up from there. Since the second world war, there had been a system of state institutions for children. But after 1982, when Ceaușescu redirected most of the budget to paying off the national debt, the economy tanked and conditions in the orphanages suffered. Electricity and heat were often intermittent, there were not enough staff, there was not enough food. Physical needs were assessed, emotional needs were ignored. Doctors and professionals were denied access to foreign periodicals and research, nurses were woefully undertrained (many orphans contracted HIV because hypodermic needles were seldom sterilised) and developmental delays were routinely diagnosed as mental disability. Institutional abuse flourished unchecked. While some caretakers did their best, others stole food from the orphanage kitchens and drugged their charges into docility.
When the revolution was over, the world’s press discovered Ceaușescu’s archipelago of orphanages and the appalling images went around the world: disabled children with bone-stick limbs tied to their beds, cross-eyed toddlers who couldn’t walk, malnourished babies left unattended in cribs with metal bars, little corpses stacked in basements. The pictures shocked Romanians as much as they did the rest of the world; institutionalised children were generally kept away from the general population.
When I arrived in my little Peugeot that summer, eight months after Europe’s only violent revolution, there were still bullet holes around the national TV station building. On Christmas Day 1989, Ceauşescu and his wife Elena had been tried in an empty school house and shot the same day. Ion Iliescu, a communist opponent of Ceaușescu’s, had been elected president in May.
One night we bribed a guard with a packet of cigarettes for a tour of Ceaușescu’s palace, nominally the House of the People. Ceaușescu never lived to see it completed, but its monstrous proportions were clear: huge vaulted rooms, marble staircases big enough for giants, chandeliers the size of small cars. One day we went to an orphanage. There were 15 or more babies lying in cribs in one room. I picked one up. He was small and thin and had big, satellite-wide blue eyes in a head that seemed too heavy for him to hold up. The nurse told me he was a year old.
This autumn I went back to Bucharest for the first time. Ceaușescu’s palace has been turned into the national parliament which only manages to fill a part of the edifice. The facade is neoclassical bland-grand, from a distance it looks like a squat toad sitting on a hill. The new government never built the roof that they had planned, so the last story ends in an abrupt flat line. Its sheer size is still overwhelming – it is the largest civil administration building in the world – but the palace has weathered over the past 25 years. I remembered a sparkling white behemoth of ego in the middle of a benighted country, now it just seems part of the landscape, subsumed to democracy.
After running away from his placement centre in Comănești, Vişinel grew up to spend his teenage years in one of the smaller homes that, during the 1990s, began to replace the giant placement centres. Since the fall of Ceauşescu, Romania has come a long way in overhauling its child protection system. As Sandie Blanchet, the Unicef representative in Romania, told me: “The ideology under Ceaușescu’s regime was that the state was better than the family. Nobody is saying that now.” Today only a third of Romania’s children in the state system are housed in residential homes maintained by the state. Half of these are in what are known as “family-type” homes with five or six kids growing up together. The other half are in placement centres, larger institutional buildings that usually house between 30 and 100 kids. However, the majority of Romanian children in the state system are in foster care – Romanian foster parents are paid a salary from the state, rather than being subsidised volunteers as they are in western European countries – or placed with extended family. The government has made a public commitment to close all the remaining placement centres – roughly 170 – by 2020.
But this progress conceals an ongoing problem; just as in Ceauşescu’s time, most of these children are not orphans, they are in fact “separated from their parents”. The number of Romanian children separated from their parents has fallen from an estimated 100,000 in 1990 to some 60,000 today. But the birth rate has also steeply declined, which means that the proportion of Romania’s children in state care has remained stubbornly high. Things have improved little since the 1990s. And parents are still abandoning their children, largely it turns out, for the same reason as in previous decades: poverty.
Romania is the poorest country per capita in the European Union and spends among the least on social welfare. When it joined the EU in 2007, many citizens thought the country would quickly become as rich as France or Germany. Instead the global economic crisis hit Romania late, in 2010, but hard. Budgets were slashed, wages cut. In 2011, for the first time in 15 years, the number of children in state care actually increased. A caregiver in the child protection system now earns between €200 and €250 a month, less than they did five years ago.
Bucharest looks bustling and prosperous; a new metro extension is being built. But half of Romanians live in the countryside, in villages that often lack basic services. Schools operate in shifts, morning for the primary schools pupils, afternoons for secondary school. “There is a huge problem with poverty,” said Mirela Oprea, the secretary general of Childpact, a regional coalition of child protection NGOs. “In rural Romania girls don’t have enough information about contraception, education is very limited, they drop out of school very early.” Under the communist authorities police would visit parents of truants, now “no one comes to enforce the law”. The government gives a regular stipend to parents of children under two, but when this ends, children are often abandoned.
In the early 1990s western charities and NGOs rushed in to Romania with supplies of blankets, powdered milk and toys. Many children were scooped up by western parents in a rescue-adoption frenzy. Orphanages got basic necessities, but the culture remained unchanged. The importance of play, of interaction and communication, of care, was not yet understood.
Along with western money came psychologists and behavioural scientists. Romania’s neglected children represented a tragic experiment in what happens to institutionalised children denied the stimulation of normal human relationships. Michael Rutter, the UK’s first professor of child psychology, discovered that the time it took for the children to catch up to their peer group in terms of development, was relative to the amount of time spent in an institution.
Today, nothing about Vişinel’s demeanour suggests an institutional childhood. In the time I spent with him, he was open, gregarious and optimistic. He told me that often when he talked to teenagers in the system they didn’t believe he had grown up like them. His NGO has 35 volunteers, who work on various programmes, from taking kids on outings to playing laser tag to organising seminars to teach teenagers life skills. I visited him at the apartment in Bucharest which he shares with his older brother Virgil. Virgil, like Vişinel, had grown up in institutions and managed to go on to university, where he had studied psychology. He and Vişinel had founded the NGO together and on their apartment wall was the logo, a stylised pair of open arms linked to a heart, surrounded by hundreds of multicoloured children’s handprints. “We used to have lots of kids come over,” said Vişinel, “but the neighbours complained about the noise.”
Most of Vişinel’s work with his NGO focuses on teenagers in placement centres and family-type apartments. Some districts of Bucharest were more receptive than others. He has good relations with some administrators and educators, as caregivers are known; others see him as a troublemaker, giving the kids false hope.
Vişinel took me with him when he went to visit caregivers to discuss how his NGO could help. We visited a family-type apartment, which was like most that I saw: an ordinary flat in a housing block, three children to a room in which the beds take up almost all the floor space. The educators, usually women, rotate in shifts, cooking Romanian staples such as stuffed cabbage and soup, taking kids to school, helping with homework. The children were warm and fed and cared for. But, as Vişinel explained, they often grow up without possessions and without a sense of ownership. They have little agency in their lives and they suffer from a crippling lack of self-esteem.
At a conference we attended in Bucharest about how to help young people who are leaving the system, Vişinel and I listened as two speakers complained that teenagers often had unrealistically high expectations; they received the very best the Romanian state could give them and they should be doing much better, the problem was that they did not have any sense of responsibility because they were used to having everything done for them. Vişinel was angry at their attitude; these were the people who should be encouraging the kids in their care, he told me, not disparaging them.
One afternoon we went to an emergency placement centre in a poor Roma area of Bucharest; car repair shops, crumbling housing blocks and garbage drifts. The centre was housed in an old school, set back from the road behind a 10ft solid metal fence. A three-legged dog hopped around the entrance. Inside, Vişinel talked to the director, a jolly, square-shaped woman, who talked volubly about all the things the 40 or so children in her charge centre had: a chess club, folk dancing lessons and plans for a new football pitch. But, she lamented, everything they had came from donations. The government money was not enough even to buy clothes for the children.
The director took us on a tour. The facility had recently been refurbished. It was clean and functional, but empty and depressing. A wide corridor led off to small rooms with bunk beds. A teenage girl tapped into a mobile phone at a desk. (Vişinel told me later that girls in placement centres were sometimes given mobile phones by pimp boyfriends so they could earn money doing sex chats online.) The director proudly unlocked a room full of donated computers. Once a week the children had a lesson on computers, but no, the rest of the time they were not allowed to use them.
Vişinel shook his head as we left. It had snowed the day before and the wind was cold and raw. “I promise you it was even worse when I saw it a year ago,” he said.
* * *
Vişinel’s teenage years were rescued by the chance discovery when he was 11 that two of the cadet soldiers billeted in his placement centre for the summer had the same surname as him. They were, in fact, his brothers. They told him that he had other brothers and sisters and that he had parents too. That summer they took him to meet them. Vişinel learned that he was the last of 13 children. His mother was mad and his father beat her. Four of their children died. The rest had gone into the system. He met his mother for the first time that summer. The first time he saw her she was walking down a hill throwing stones at dogs. His father was asleep in the yard in front of a collapsed hut, and couldn’t remember anyone called Vişinel and then tried to make a joke about it. Vişinel didn’t know what to say or what to feel. There was a donkey braying in the adjacent field and he went over and petted it.
He found a better reception with his brother Virgil. Virgil was 10 years older than Vişinel. When Vişinel first met him Virgil was 21 and living with an old Armenian professor, who had unofficially adopted him, in the forest spa town of Targu Ocna. Virgil had grown up there during the 1980s in one of the worst orphanages. “We were 1,100 kids,” he told me when I met him. “We were like ants.” Virgil was small, with a thin, concave frame. He said there had been a lot of violence between the older kids and the younger ones. I asked him for an example. He was silent for a moment.
“Emotionally, it’s very difficult,” he said. He held one thin arm across his chest, clinging on to his wrist. Like Vişinel he preferred to talk in generalities. It was painful to retrace specific episodes. “The principle was [that] the strongest were the leaders. If you tried to ask for help from a caretaker, the caretaker would punish the boy who had hit you and then he would just come back and abuse you worse. So the second time you wouldn’t tell. You repressed everything you felt.”
* * *
As much as the revolution against Ceauşescu was a popular uprising, it was also a palace coup. There was an overlap between the old regime and the new government – securitate members got rich, functionaries in ministries continued to be self-serving and incompetent. “Romania lost a decade,” a prominent magazine editor in Bucharest told me. Things began to change in 1997, when Emil Constantinescu replaced Iliescu (although Iliescu would be elected again, serving from 2000-2004). Constantinescu ushered in a period of greater reform. His government established a new Child Protection Authority, promoted the “family-type” apartments and introduced foster care, which had never existed in Romania. The EU made reform one of the explicit conditions of Romania joining, and spent money on training foster parents and renovating accommodation for children in care. Mirela Oprea remembered the impact of the EU’s declaration that membership would be tied to the way Romania treated its abandoned children. “You cannot imagine the huge pressure created by such a statement,” she told me. “It became a political issue. There was something amazing about this that still gives me goosebumps.”
Professionals working in Romanian child protection who I spoke to often stressed that the next step would be to implement a comprehensive welfare system that would prevent many children from falling into the state system. Sandie Blanchet told me that Unicef is now working with the government to test run a programme that would put social workers in villages. They would try to reach vulnerable families, helping them with medical care, administrative tasks such as getting birth certificates, and issues such as violence and alcoholism. “This is what we have in western Europe and we don’t even notice,” said Blanchet. Funds for the scheme were coming from the EU.
In many ways Romania is a poster child for EU expansion. More than once Romanians I talked to shuddered at the example of neighbouring Ukraine, corrupt and suffering civil war, caught in the Russian sphere of influence. Despite the nation’s poverty, things look a little better in Romania. Corruption, once endemic, is now being checked. Over the past few years more than 1,000 officials have been indicted; a former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, is in jail. Romania now has a lower rate of children separated from their parents in state care than Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
* * *
One blustery blue-grey afternoon we drove out of Bucharest, five hours along a single-carriage highway through a flat plain, north towards the Carpathians. Vişinel wanted to take me back to the sites of his childhood. Horse-drawn carts, piled with silage and chopped wood, slowed the traffic. Peasants gleaned corn in black furrowed fields. We passed through villages in which half the houses were collapsing under carved gingerbread eaves and the other half had new polyurethane roofs, often paid for by remittances of Romanians working abroad.
In the centre of the small town of Comănești, where Vişinel spent much of his childhood, was the hulk of a closed down factory. An oil pipeline ran alongside the road, propped up on crumbling concrete supports and wrapped in tar paper bandages. We drove into the town and through quiet streets.
In Comănești, Vişinel and I found the train station where he had lived when he was on the streets when he was 11, a handsome building with Ottoman yellow and blue tiles around the windowsills. In the forecourt had been a ramshackle bar where Vişinel cleaned up for money. Other times he washed cars at a garage a few blocks away or worked for tips as a porter at the market.
“This is the fountain where I washed,” said Vişinel, tour guide for his own past, “here is the waiting room where I slept …” Cold stone floor; missing window panes. “This was my corner,” he said and pointed to a metal baggage cart. “I liked to sleep on that exact baggage cart. I can’t believe its still here. Many of my colleagues were raped or killed at the train station. These things happened. I remember the cemetery where we buried one of the girls. We used to train-hop together and a man tried to rape her and she resisted and he killed her. I was 10 and she was only a little older.” Vişinel spoke in an understated rush, as if he was constantly testing the limits of what he wanted to remember. I didn’t feel I could push him for more details.
Vişinel spent several months going back and forth between the train station and Placement Centre Number 6. He finally ran away again, this time taking refuge in a monastery in the woods a few kilometres from Comănești. He lied about where he’d come from and how he got the bruises on his back. The priest let him stay if he worked for his board by chopping wood. Although he says that the nuns chopped the wood for him – “the axe was as big as I was!” – and let him take the credit. When he made contact again with the authorities, Vişinel was placed with a foster family who had a farm in the area. The husband beat the wife and the wife beat Vişinel. He lived there for two years. He complained to the authorities and was told to stop making trouble. He kept complaining until they took him out of the foster home and put him in a family-type apartment in Bacău. He kept complaining until the foster couple were taken off the foster register.
He had gained confidence by getting to know his older brothers, elder boys who could protect him and help him. He now saw that he had some control over his own destiny.
* * *
This autumn, Vişinel was in the process of organising a conference for teenagers and had invited other success stories from the system, including a fighter pilot and a civil servant, to talk about their experiences. His conference was titled My Story but Vişinel was not going to tell his. I tried to tease him about this paradox. He shook his head. “I like to listen to other people’s stories, not necessarily to speak myself.”
Vişinel is an unusual success story. He went to university and remained legally under state care until last year, when he was 26 years old, the maximum age the state will support a young person if they are in higher education. But his success was his own.
He was intelligent and engaging and cute. From a young age he understood that these were tools for survival, attributes that would attract adults who could help him. In his teens Vişinel became active in local politics, joining the local youth wing of a liberal political party in Bacău. A local councillor called Codrin Lungu befriended him and helped to get him into a better high school so that he could take his university entrance exams. Near his school lived Constantin Prihoancă and his wife, a retired childless couple who had become foster parents to several children. Their cosy apartment became a place of respite on winter evenings. Here Vişinel found a home.
He took me to see them in their apartment in Bacău, a town of grey blocks and collapsing villas. Constantin was now retired but had been, in Ceauşescu’s time, “an ordinary worker”, as he put it. He thought life was better under communism because back then everyone was equal, everyone had a job and an apartment. He was for the socialist party; Vişinel was for the liberals and they discussed the upcoming presidential election as we sat in the little kitchen and ate the hot soup his wife had made. The mayor of Bacău was under house arrest for corruption and Vişinel’s old friend Codrin Lungu, now a deputy in parliament, had suggested that Vişinel run for mayor in his place. “Will you vote for me if I am the liberal candidate?” he asked Constantin and both of them laughed.
When I talked to Vişinel’s brother Virgil about his work with children, about their difficulties with personal relationships and self-esteem, I asked him what the personal consequences of his time in the system had been. He said he noticed he was reticent. “And probably the fact that I have not managed to have a wife and a family is also a consequence.” Neither Vişinel, nor any of his brothers, have married.
As I was listening to Virgil, I remembered a man I had seen in the foyer of the child protection offices in Bucharest a few days earlier. He was drunk, hobbling with a stiff, dragged-along gait. He was holding a cup of McDonald’s coffee and cadging a cigarette from the security guard. His head seemed too large for his small body. The security guard knew him: he had been in the placement centre, now closed, just across the street, as a child. He was 35; although he looked 50. Another member of this ghost generation, one of the uncounted children that didn’t make it.
When I asked Vişinel what were the things that upset him the most, he told me that it was other people’s distress. It was also clear that his pain and trauma hovered very close to the surface. More than once his expression went rigid, his throat closed and he stopped talking and left the room so as not to cry in front of me. He told me that part of the reason he had studied acting was to learn “how to control emotions, how to understand yourself better and other people around you, relationships. Acting helps you to discover yourself. I realised through theatre how sensitive I am and it’s how I started building my mask.”
“What is your mask?” I asked him.
“To protect myself, to avoid getting wounded.”
He had played many parts, including Hamlet.
“Hamlet is a difficult role!” I said.
“Yes, very,” said Vişinel. “Especially to understand the character and his drama and his relationship to his real father and mother.”
* * *
His father died a few years ago but Vişinel and I went to the village of Petreshte to see his mother. We stopped at the village shop and Vişinel bought rice, oil, tins of meat, two loaves of bread and a kilo of biscuits to give to her. As we drove on, the road turned into a rocky track, wound up the slope of a pretty, wooded valley, thin streams of smoke rising from stove pipes, ducks in puddles. It was close to dusk. We stopped in front of the shack where Vişinel had first met his father. It was impossible to imagine anyone had ever lived there, it was a ruin. A couple of years ago Vişinel had convinced the mayor to build his mother a new house, next door. It was a single room made of breeze blocks, with a tin roof and no running water or electricity.
Vişinel walked up the sloped yard, overgrown with weeds and strewn with rubbish, and called out her name: “Ileana! Ileana!” He has never been able to bring himself to call her Mum. An old woman appeared, wearing a shapeless skirt and a heavy men’s suit jacket. A blue headscarf was tied under her chin but wisps of wild white hair escaped it. She was barefoot. She talked in a torrent of disconnected thoughts. She was afraid to light the stove in case the house caught fire; they had taken all her animals and the donkey and she had to bar her door against the thieves.
“Are you Vişinel? Where are you living? Is that your car?”
Vişinel told me that once he had given her a ride in his car and she had been thrilled and said: “I am pleased the state has made you a chauffeur!”
She wanted to take us to see one of Vişinel’s brothers, Dumitru. She set out, still barefoot, carrying a large stick, overflowing with gossip and complaint. “The state has five of my boys, the state built my house, the state did a good thing.”
We scrambled up a steep mud bank and came to a hut that was even smaller than his mother’s house. Dumitru had built it himself from wood plastered with mud, and Vişinel had sometimes stayed there during his teenage summers. “There were fleas,” he told me, half smiling. Inside, it smelled sour and dank, the floor was tramped earth. Two beds facing each other took up almost all of the floor space. Heaps of clothes made mattresses. “Come in! Come in!” Dumitru looked just like Vişinel, but older and weather-worn, with jug ears and a pink flushed face. (“I am surprised he was sober,” Vişinel said afterwards.) Dumitru fumbled for a candle and found a broken taper and stuck it into the bowl of cauliflower as a candlestick. He asked after Virgil and other brothers.
“And how is Vişinel?”
“I am Vişinel!” said Vişinel. Dumitru was embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I get you mixed up.”
When we left Dumitru’s hut, he hugged Vişinel very tightly and said: “No matter where we grew up we are all human beings.”