You Never Forget Your First Phone Tap
Especially when it's one of your first memories
Nobody ever prepares you for the first time you're put under surveillance.
I was six. Sure, I'm a young protagonist for a coming-of-age story. But what happened to my me and family in Romania, winter 1990/91, just months after the fall of the Communist revolution, defined exactly who I am today, 30 years later.
I remember the van, a converted Volkswagon Transporter that would take us on the 3-day road trip from the UK to Romania. It was plastered with the Romanian flag, proudly announcing that my family was ‘Helping Romania’s Children.’ It was filled with hundreds of fur coats, freely donated by our local community keen to distance themselves from animal cruelty after the famous supermodel ‘we’d rather go naked than wear fur’ campaign. There were industrial-sized containers of medicines, donated by local doctors which acted as footstools for me and my 3-year-old brother in the back seats. There were hundreds of donated toys, discarded by UK kids who didn’t have to worry about where their next shiny new plaything was coming from.
I remember the trip driving across Europe, my dad making up games to stop my brother and me from screaming with utter boredom.
I remember my mother in the front seat, wondering why in the world she had decided to take her two tiny children on a mission run to a country that had just executed its communist leader, Nikolae Ceausescu, and was riddled with violence during a turbulent phase as another political party seized power.
I remember my dad being taken away by police with guns at the Romanian border, where he was detained for 2 hours whilst they figured out why this British family would be stupid enough to do something like travel to Romania in 1990 with a van full of medicine, fur coats, and toys.
I remember crossing the border and my worldview being turned upside down. A long, narrow, pothole-riddled road lined with precarious, shack-like houses, their owners curiously peeking out from behind net curtains. Kids playing dangerously close to the edge of the road.
I wondered what their lives were like. What it was like to live in a house that looked like it could be destroyed by the next bad storm.
I remember traveling with cans of Coca-Cola we used as bribes to stop men slashing our tires as we traveled through the hills of central Romania. And I remember the time my dad chucked one out of the window at a confused-looking guy before putting pedal to the metal and getting out of there.
I remember stopping for gas, where women and their children would hand us trinkets through the van windows, desperate to make a buck or two. I remember the look in their eyes when we had to say no because they were there were umpteen people before them asking us exactly the same thing.
I remember visiting local friends for lunch, being forced to wear traditional clothing, much to our hosts' delight. I remember them teaching me to count to 10 and say “my name is Charlotte and I am 6 years old.” I can still say both today. In Romania, I’ll only ever be 6 years old.
I remember that the apartment we rented was opposite a bakery with never-ending queues around the block - a literal bread line - as citizens stood in sub-freezing temperatures. I remember my dad telling me that many would be turned away today because there wouldn’t be enough food for everyone.
I remember the orphanage. I remember poking my hand through the rails to hold the hand of a newborn baby whose parents had died just weeks before. I remember handing out the donated toys. That newborn baby got my own personal teddy bear. Even at 6, I knew they needed it more than me.
Then I remember the surveillance. My brother and I were bored one afternoon in the apartment. My parents were napping, we were playing ‘monsters’, where you stick your sleeping bag over your head and roam around the apartment blind, trying to catch each other. I remember my dad waking up and telling us to shut the hell up, as we heard shuffling outside the door. That he had suspected we had been followed for some time. That someone was tapping the apartment phone.
This was our first trip to Romania. Years later, after my father had visited 20 or so more times, he laughed off this experience. Of course they were following us, he said. They had known nothing but communism for 40 years and then this weird British family rocked up with clothing, medicine, and toys many hadn’t seen the likes of in their whole lifetime. They were just curious, he assured me.
I refrained from telling him that I also remember him packing up and leaving the apartment to seek refuge at a friend’s house. Curious or not, it rattled him enough to swiftly change where we lived.
For years, I refused to acknowledge that these trips to Romania were anything other than a nuisance. Whilst my friends were hanging out in Disneyland and Greece, I was being bundled into the back of a van to drive 1500 miles to spend time in a country that I declared “smells different to the UK and always gives me stomach cramps.” As the 90s progressed elsewhere, Romania stayed largely the same. It wasn’t a world I wanted to inhabit anymore.
But whether I liked these trips or not, they imprinted on my soul like indelible ink. Once I reached my twenties and I stopped being angry at my parents for never taking me on a 'proper' holiday, I started to hit the road, traveling with increasing frequency. As I visited the world, I started to ask the same questions as I did when I saw those people living on the Romanian border. Who lives here? What are their lives like? Are they happy?
I became so curious about how other people live their lives that eventually last year at the age of 35, I sold my house, business, and most of my possessions to permanently travel. Right now, I’m traveling through Eastern Europe, the very place I declared in my teens that I would never return to.
30 years is a long time and things have changed in the ex-Eastern Bloc. There is no secret police officer stationed outside my door, there is no apartment phone to tap. But there is still me, 1500 miles from home, wondering how in the world a trip I made in 1990 would be the making of my adult life.
Defining moments are funny like that. You think they’re going to be one thing, like your wedding or the day you set off for college, and they end up being something entirely different. They can manifest themselves years later, long after you think you’ve shrugged off the effects.
Life isn’t filled with just one defining moment, it’s filled with many. It makes me wonder, have I already experienced another one and not even noticed it?
Only time will tell.