I grew up in communist Romania and I was 14 when the Berlin Wall collapsed and communism came to its end in Eastern Europe. Over the next decade of the 1990s, I learned to identify myself as a member of the “generation of transition,” to grow accustomed to this strange label attached to young people of my generation, and to learn its treacherous nature. When 1989 came upon Eastern Europe and the communist regimes dismantled, I was finishing my eighth grade – the first crucial moment in the life of a Romanian student. I was supposed to be in the midst of grueling preparations for high school entrance exams, but I had no idea which high school might be suitable for me. Naturally, my parents had plenty of ideas … The December Revolution, as we call it, struck as lightning in my life: it was swift, dazzling, and life altering. For most Romanians, the collapse of a 45 years dictatorial regime was as unexpected an event as it was for the rest of the world. My family and I were visiting my grandparents in the countryside in the southern part of the country, and I remember my father’s bewildered joy when he cried out to us: “Ceausescu fell!” He had tears in his eyes. I felt shocked, in utter disbelief, but also overwhelmed by a sense of hope that I had not experienced before. It felt as though two tectonic plates had clashed underneath my world and a volcano of possibilities was about to erupt. However, as unexpected and sudden as it had all seemed, there had been

rumors going on months before it happened. I remember kids in school speaking about the opening of borders of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, and how their supermarkets were now stocked up to the brim with Western goodies! “Amazing,” I thought to myself. “Imagine that!” Nevertheless, our chemistry teacher was quick to teach us that in spite of their abundant choices, they could not afford any of those goodies, because their prices were prohibitive. Not to mention that their youth were now rebellious and already addicted to drugs. “So,” she said, “isn’t it better in our country where prices are low, and everybody can afford to buy things? Why would we ever want to change this system?” “Buy what exactly,” we asked astonished, “the empty shelves in our supermarkets?” We had heard from friends whose parents had gone on shopping trips in Poland and Hungary that things were changing there, that “there was more freedom” in those countries now, that

they were Westernizing … We listened to such stories in envy, imagining what it would be like if we ever set foot in a store stacked up “with everything”!1

But we never thought this would happen in Romania. It would have been impossible! Ceausescu had just been re-elected as the “beloved son of our country” for yet another term: it was a sunny cold day of November, and he had claimed that “even the sun is on our side!” My father had repeated this phrase bitterly when he came home from work; it was hopeless. We lived with the suffocating feeling that communism would last for eternity, that its immobility and fixity were so natural that nothing would dislodge it! Rumors and stories from elsewhere were all very good, but our everyday existence – in its repetitive monotony and predictability – was here to stay. A month later, Timisoara erupted, and within days riots spread like wildfire throughout the country, and people went out into the streets. The wind of change was finally blowing through this country, which, for

45 years, seemed resigned to its fate. I remember walking around the streets of my grandparents’ small town in December 1989, and imagining myself finally free … I went into a small convenience store because I had heard that Belgian supplies had been brought in. I bought some jam and some shampoo, and I still recall the thrill of sophistication that I got from eating Belgian jam and washing my hair with Belgian shampoo! I thought to myself that now a whole world of possibilities had flung its gates wide open in front of me, all I had to do was step in. I was not the only one feeling that sense of euphoria.

What was it like to live in communist Romania? many people ask me. Well, it was anything but boring. There were the constant and unexpected (sometimes prolonged) blackouts that were meant to “save the country’s energy,” which would leave us doing our homework in candlelight; the interminable and annoying queues for bread, meat, and Romanian Pepsi (!!!), during which you literally had to fight with other people to get to the front (no sense of the “civilized” and “polite” idea of personal space that I encountered in the West); the rations for milk, sugar, and oil; the constant disappointment at opening the fridge and finding it empty; the two hours a day of TV broadcasting most of which concerned itself with the visits that our “beloved father” paid to various factories and farms, and with the praise for his “wise” economic planning that made us “move forward on the path to communism”… I will have to stop here because the list will be a very long one. These everyday experiences constituted my very first lessons in self-deprecation, which translated the lack of “everything” in our homes into a reflection of us as backward, uncivilized, and outside of Europe. This disease continues to

plague Romanians’ sense of self-esteem. Such daily disappointments were peppered by occasional encounters with Western magazines, smuggled by friends and family from Germany or France, which left us bitter and resentful about our own condition. I would spend hours mulling over the glossy pages of Western catalogs, admiring the clothing of women, and fantasizing for days about the gorgeous images of food, accompanied by recipes I did not understand, and whose flavors I could taste only in my imagination. Ever since I can remember, I have always been fascinated by the notion of

foreignness. In Romanian, the term for foreign, stra˘in, also means strange, almost eerie. I have always had an ambivalent relationship with foreignness, simultaneously finding it alluring and irresistible, but also dangerous and unforgiving. So what did I perceive as foreign, as different? I grew up in Constanta, the second largest city in Romania after Bucharest, which lies on the Black Sea coast, in the Southeast of the country. This region enjoyed for hundreds of years (if not more) a sense of variety and diversity, as people from different ethnic and religious communities lived there together. The province had been part of the Ottoman Empire between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Therefore, there is a large Turkish community living there, and there are, or rather were at one time, also Arabs, Ukrainians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Macedonians, Russians, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox Christians. Growing up, I had constantly been surrounded by difference, and I cannot say whether it is not this ethnic and religious diversity that left its most powerful impression on me. I was so shocked recently when I read an article on Constanta, which stated that in 1853, Romanians had constituted only 5.4 percent of the city’s population, the majority being Tatar and Greek. How strange, as a Romanian, I was taught that this land had always been ours! Thinking back, it always puzzled me how in that region the group that

was conceived as most foreign and strange, that indeed triggered a “disconcerting strangeness” about itself, to use Julia Kristeva’s expression, were the Macedonians. One would expect the Turks to be a target of “foreignness,” as they had a completely different religion, with different holy days and customs, and a completely different language. Even physically, they could be distinguished easily from “Romanians” (especially since many of them are Tatars, a group coming from Central Asia). But oddly enough, it was not the Turks who were seen as the epitome of foreignness. It was the Macedonians, who share the same religion as the Romanians, whose language is similar but not quite the same as Romanian, and who were (and are still) identified as ‘Aromâni’ (which could be translated as A-Romanians). I wonder what made the Macedonians the target of resentment and prejudice that came not only from Romanians, but from other communities as well? In Strangers to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva talks about the “mechanisms” that

elicit this sense of strangeness, of the uncanny. She suggests that the term unheimlich is not necessarily the opposition of the “familiar,” that which is completely different from the “familiar,” but rather the continuity into

shadow of the sense of familiarity, which “should have remained a secret in the shadow, and it escaped to the surface” (2001: 270; my translation). It is thus this strange familiarity, the “immanence of strangeness within the familiar” that sets off the sense of discomfort and difference. It is the vague familiarity of Macedonians that triggered resentment within many Romanians, their similar but not quite the same religious and cultural traditions linked to Greek Orthodoxy; these traditions included differences that disrupted our claim to an “original” and “unspoiled” Romanian-ness. It is also the vague familiarity of their language, which was similar but not quite the same as Romanian, and which made me many times, as a child, think to myself: “I hate this language, it sounds like broken/spoilt Romanian.” I remember vividly looking with a sort of resentment mixed with fear at old Macedonian women sitting on the ground outside talking in their “broken Romanian,” dressed in black, with black scarves and the sign of the cross tattooed in dark blue ink between their eyebrows. I also remember looking at old Turkish women, dressed in vividly colored clothes, with scarves on their heads and their big semi-crescent shaped golden earrings and feeling a sort of curiosity and exoticism about them. Another early encounter with “foreignness” happened when one of our

Muslim friends got circumcised when he turned seven. It was quite odd that his family decided to perform the circumcision so late, but it became a reason for a party, as the whole neighborhood was invited to celebrate the “Muslim baptism,” as everyone else called it. The children from the neighborhood had been his friends: we had been playing together for years and yes, we had always teased him by calling him “Ottoman.” We never missed any opportunity of pointing out to him how heroically our Romanian people had fought and resisted the “Ottoman invasion” (the Romanians had also lost many battles against the Turks, but this was always conveniently left out of our conversations). Nonetheless, we were friends, and teasing each other was just part of friendship. But after the circumcision, especially since we knew what it involved, we treated him very differently. In our minds, his body now bore the mark of “difference.” His mother had also made it clear to us that now he was a “true Muslim and a man.” I guess we felt betrayed because we wanted to play with our Turkish friend whom we could always tease, not with a “true Muslim and a man.” Why was his becoming a “true Muslim” an impediment to our friendship?

One explanation that comes to mind is that within our imagi-nation, Islam was the “other” par excellence. Although Romania as a “unitary state and homeland” was established in 1918, much of the history of the people of what was later to be known as Romania revolves around the centuries long struggles of resistance against the “Ottoman infidels.” The fight against Islam and the heroism of Christians are very much part of the discourse that produces the idea of Romanian-ness. Even as children, history classes were extremely important in instilling in us this sense of national pride. It was not merely history but also literature classes that served to construct a discourse

of a small but valiant nation, which attained greatness through its resistance to the Ottoman invasion. By his becoming a “true Muslim,” our friend had suddenly distanced himself from us and unambiguously identified himself (or rather his mother identified him) as something we were taught to disdain and dismiss as “pagan,” “unfaithful,” “unfamiliar.” The West had always been present in the imagination of many Romanians

as a mirage, as a promised land that cannot be attained (except by those fortunate enough), but also as the standard whereby we can measure our own worthiness. Communist Romania had a paradoxical relationship to Western culture: there was its capitalism, which, we were taught, represented a culture of excesses and depravity – the phrase “decaying capitalism” was constantly employed; but there was also its historical, literary, artistic, philosophical, and linguistic tradition that represented for us the Mecca of knowledge and civilization. This paradox meant that in school there was an in-depth indoctrination into all things Western: history, languages, and literatures, so that as students we had more knowledge of and interest in Western European history than we did in any other culture. The school curriculum was designed in such a way as to alternate, on a yearly basis, Romanian history and European or “world” history. Inadvertently perhaps, we always compared our own achievements with those of Western Europe, and naturally, we always found ourselves wanting. History teachers would remark bitterly that when Western Europe was undergoing the Renaissance, we were not “out of the woods” yet. My deep passion for French literature and civilization meant that I could recite the French royal dynasties by heart, that I had imbibed all of its classics. I was certainly more knowledgeable and more passionate about the plays of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, about the poetry of Paul Verlaine, and about the novels of Gustave Flaubert and Alexandre Dumas than I had ever been about Romanian literary works. And so I secretly fantasized that I was born in France. This type of francophilia was by no means extraordinary: as Romanians, we saw ourselves as the “Latin oasis in a sea of Slavic peoples,” and regarded the French as our cousins. You see, the love affair with everything French had started in the nineteenth century, when many of the Romanian intelligentsia went to Paris for their studies. Lucian Boia, in a study on the link between history and myth in the Romanian imaginary, remarks that our affair with France started in the second half of the nineteenth century just as we embraced the discourse of modernization, which translated into an attempt to Westernize Romanian culture. This process of modernization also entailed a break away from our relation with the Slavic culture, of which Russia was the most important representative. We turned away from our frustrating relationship with Russia, and threw ourselves into the glamorous embrace of France, who was, after all, our Latin sibling in the West.2