‘When the soldiers came, we hid in the woods’
Alexandra Jones, 28, was born in Romania and came to England aged six, with her mother and English stepfather. Her grandmother, Elizabeta Moldovan, 80, was born in Bistrita, Romania.
My grandmother was eight when the second world war passed through her village. With her father and brother fighting, soldiers swarming the village and bombs raining down, her mother decided to pack up their cow, pig, some clothes and polenta flour, and head for the nearby woods. They lived there, in the middle of a freezing autumn, for a month until the fighting subsided.
“I wasn’t afraid,” my grandmother tells me. “I had a child’s bravado and, more than that, my mind was occupied by something else: a calf that we’d left on the farm. I remember feeling heartbroken that we’d abandoned it, so I decided to go back to the village. It was an hour’s walk. When I got there, all the windows in our house had been smashed and the floors were strewn with hay where soldiers had been sleeping. The calf was still there, weak and bleating. I dragged over as much feed as I could and a trough of water, then headed back. I tripped along, the ground shaking from the bombs, soldiers crashing through the fields to my left and right. I remember bullets hissing past, but I kept going. It never occurred to me that they might have hit me.”
I left Romania in 1993 and, though I’ve always been close to my grandparents and make yearly pilgrimages to see them, I didn’t know this story until last year. They often quizzed me about life and school, or, later, university, jobs, rents and career prospects, and I’d answer, passively: “Fine, nice, expensive, difficult.” It never occurred to me that I should show a similar interest in them.
It’s an attitude that’s parodied in a particularly genius episode of US comedian Aziz Ansari’s 2015 Netflix series Master Of None, called Parents. Sitting down to dinner with his family, he finally asks his Indian parents about their experiences. As well as poking fun at a particularly millennial brand of self-centredness, it portrays an epiphany that every immigrant’s child has at some point in their life: compared with your ancestors, you will never work so hard, nor so long, nor face so many obstacles.
In just half a century, the world has changed so definitively that my grandparents’ experiences are almost unimaginable to me. And perhaps mine to them.
“Did anything ever make you anxious?” I ask my grandmother. “You know – you can’t breathe properly, your heart beats too fast?” She looks puzzled. “OK, is there anything that kept you awake at night?”
“Well, my one great worry came when your mother was two [in 1970, when my grandmother was 34]. I got cancer. All I hoped for was that I’d live for five more years, just long enough for her to remember who I was.” There’s a common refrain in Romania that goes something like, “It doesn’t matter about anything else: as long as I have my health, I’m happy.” Having lived through the war, the communist regime, the revolution and the subsequent economic and ideological upheavals, my grandmother understandably subscribes to this school of thought.
Career prospects, the cost of rent – those subjects that might keep me awake at night don’t seem to have been as big a cause for concern. “When I left school [aged 12],” she says. “I knew, for certain, that all I wanted was to get away from the village and that country way of life.”
“It seems as if every generation has that ambition,” I say, “to move away and do better.”
Walking with her mother one evening, my grandmother saw a man coming in the opposite direction, dressed in a navy uniform. He was freshly released from a four-year conscription. A mutual friend had told this man about her: a hardworking woman with dark hair and green eyes. A few days later, he turned up at her house, introduced himself and made a proposition: would she go with him to the city where he had the promise of a house and a job in a coalmine?
“And you said yes?”
“But you’d never met him before? You’d never… had a chat?”
“I knew him, a little – we had mutual friends – but no, we’d never really spoken. My dad sat me down and said, ‘You don’t know this man from the next.’ But I said, ‘If even the wild animals in the countryside can work it out, I’ll manage.’”
“It seems… brave.”
“Yes, but if you’ve got nothing to lose, it’s easy to be brave.” That man became my grandfather.
“I took a suitcase of clothes and Mum gave me a pan for cooking, and your grandfather and I went together. The house had a kitchen with a broken coal-burning stove and one other room. I walked in, and saw this miserable place with no furniture, and I sat down on my suitcase and cried. At 24, I saw myself for the first time as a poor woman.”
Laughably, I’ve often seen myself as a poor woman, too – every 15th of the month, when the rent disappears from my account. But this vision – of my grandmother, younger than I am now, feeling real despair, hopelessness – is sobering. I may feel poor, but I buy lunch most days. And coffee. Despite my bank accounts sometimes running close to zero, my life seems somehow built on a more solid foundation.
“But you had a house,” I venture.
“Yes, and in that respect I am luckier than you, maybe. It was a hard way of life, because at first there weren’t shops where you could buy things, so I made everything myself [from cheese and butter to fabric from raw hemp]. But the communist system meant everyone had somewhere to live and everyone had work, even though the wages were low. Society generally isn’t as nice as it was then.”
“What do you mean? You think the capitalist system has made people less caring?”
“Yes. Now, everyone just wants to make money. Life has always been a struggle, no person has it easy. You have to pass through the fire and the water – as the saying goes – but somehow it seems better if there are people with you. It’s why you should get married. When will you? You’ve kept your boyfriend waiting long enough.”
My boyfriend and I have been together since university, and while there was a period when the thought of marriage appealed to me, that has long since passed. Nothing profound happened; it just stopped seeming important. “I’m not sure that’s what I want.”
“But don’t you want children?”
“Well, I do want children, but I don’t need to be married to have children.”
“No, but it’s nice to have stability. Children need stability.”
At the heart of this small disagreement is that our understanding of stability doesn’t quite align. To her, marriage is an immutable fact; my grandparents have been married for 56 years. For me, it represents a profoundly mutable life choice – a very special life choice, no doubt, but, like so many things nowadays, liable to change. “Oh, well, you shouldn’t complicate it so much,” my grandmother says when I explain this to her. “You pick a man and get on with it.”
“We’re moving into a shared house soon, so I’m not sure we’re quite marriage-ready.”
“Why not just get your own place?”
“Can’t really afford it at the moment.”
“But you’re constantly going on holidays.”
“Yes, but what would you suggest? That I never see any of the world?”
“You’ve seen more countries than I’ve seen towns,” she sighs. “Save for a house. Get some nice furniture. What else do you need to see?”
Well, Japan, hopefully. But she’s absolutely right, of course.
Perhaps in my case, as with all first- or second-generation immigrants, the differences in our lives are a little starker. But I’d venture that anyone who spends some time in conversation with an older family member will feel it: the dizzying sense of evolution in action. Generations of accidental encounters and near-misses – those bullets whistling through the corn – all leading, with haphazard precision, to you.