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The first of June marked 23 years since my adoption from Romania. Born in 1989 just five months before the revolution and overthrow of communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.
I was nearly two when I was brought to the UK. Born behind the Berlin wall which divided east and west. I talk openly about it. I quite enjoy certain aspects. I have a piece of the Berlin wall on my desk, a piece of history that helped hide my birth nation, reduced to a souvenir.
When people find out about my past they tend to ask similar questions.
‘Do you remember anything of Romania?’
Because of my young age at the time, I don’t. However, this can be seen as a blessing in disguise. Orphanage conditions came to light after the fall of Ceaușescu.
These images shocked the world. Footage was beamed across the news of children with their arms or legs tied to their cot, not that they had the strength to sit up, let alone escape. An outbreak of hepatitis and AIDS was discovered after the orphanage nurses had been reusing needles for vaccines and medicines. Babies and toddlers showed visible signs of institutionilisation, rocking backwards and forwards, shaking their heads from left to right – behavior not dissimilar to that of a caged animal. Children sat in a pool of their own urine and feces, malnourished and unloved.
I had the fortune of being placed in Orphanage Number One in the capital, Bucharest. This was the flagship orphanage. Things were not perfect but were better than their rural counterparts across the country. I myself was ill with the lining of my stomach damaged due to the high levels of antibiotics I was given to help with my ear problems. It transpired that I had two perforated ear drums, an issue surgically rectified by age 11.
The second question I’m often asked is, ‘Do you know who your real parents are?’
I have the name of my birth mother and a letter accompanied with a photo. It’s still in its original envelope.
Does it give me answers? Not really. Just more questions – questions I will probably never get answers to.
I try to be realistic about it all. I know things weren’t perfect back in Romania. I know I was born out of wedlock so the biggest question I will probably never have answered is the question of who my birth father is.
In Ceaușescu’s Romania, he believed an increase in the workforce would increase productivity and thus make the country rich. He made contraception illegal, along with abortions. He requested that all women should have five children, and rewarded mothers with medals should they have more – not dissimilar to what Hitler did in Germany. Should the mother not be able to afford to keep the children, whether through poverty or through the child being too sick, women were told to place the children in the care of the state.
In the capital, people’s homes were knocked down and replaced with tower blocks of flats to make way for Ceaușescu’s grand vision for Bucharest. This knowledge leaves me in no doubt that I was lucky, for want of a better word. Lucky to have been born towards the end of this chapter in history. Lucky to have been placed in Number One. Lucky that the media picked up on the children in need of love and care and lucky that I was chosen.
Another question I get asked is, ‘Do you feel abandoned?’
I am in two minds. It would be easy to say yes. After all, how could a mother give up a child? I feel that it’s circumstantial. If my birth mother felt deep down in her heart that the best thing she could do for me was to hand me to the state, then is that really abandonment? Maybe it’s showing the strength of her devotion – after all, she would have to live the rest of her life knowing what she had done, with as many unanswered questions as I have.
Do I wonder if she thinks of me every day? I will never know. The only way I think I could possibly know is if I went through that process of giving a child up for adoption.
The other side of the coin is the knowledge that I was chosen. I tend not to dwell on this too much, because a sense of guilt is there at the back of my mind. Especially when I see footage of those who were left in the institutions and the problems they have – mentally, physically. It’s hard to feel proud that I was chosen. Hard to find happiness in that knowledge, when in reality it all came down to luck and chance.
Fourthly, I am asked if I would ever want to meet my birth parents.
Who wouldn’t? Once again my realistic thinking kicks in. I watch the series on ITV called Long Lost Family. Do I think that I would be able to meet my birth mother after so long? Would I be comfortable with it? I suppose the one thing I would like her to know would be that I understand. I understand why she did what she did. I understand that she may have felt no other choice. However I would not want to have this image in my mind of her saying how sorry she was or how she always thought of me, as that might not be the case.
With things the way they are I sometimes wonder if I was the product of rape or some other tragedy. I would find that hard to deal with. There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’.
Lastly, I’m asked if I would ever want to go back to Romania.
Well, I have been back. Just the once and that was to make a documentary for the BBC called The Forgotten Children back in 1999. I visited my old orphanage and met one of the staff who used to look after me. Granted, conditions appeared to have improved there, but the conditions discovered after the revolution were and are still present.
I wouldn’t say I feel a natural pull towards Romania. I may take an interest, and I have and will continue to protest against the likes of UKIP – who seem to have a great dislike of Romanians. When Nigel Farage makes comments that he’d be worried if a group of Romanians moved next door, I do find myself getting offended. A switch goes in my head, as if I have clicked from British to Romanian.
When asked if I would describe myself as British or Romanian, I tend to reply according to the scenario I find myself in. I am Romanian by birth, however I am British through my development. I sometimes describe myself as European. I’m Romanian-born with British humor, the German drive for efficiency and getting the job done, a Swedish attitude to socialising and a Swiss sense of time. I suppose if I had a degree of fluency in Romanian I might feel differently. I don’t punish myself for not knowing it, as if I have betrayed my heritage.
My past has no doubt had some bearing on who I am as a person right now. Whether it’s been a good or a bad thing, I’m sure would be the source of much debate amongst psychiatrists and counsellors alike. For me, though, my past makes me feel I need to earn my right to be where I am. I have been given a second chance at life and I don’t want to waste it.
There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my parents – the people who brought me up and their families who provide a web of support and who treat me as one of their own. It’s important to say I have never felt out of place, and I probably don’t say it enough, but I’m grateful to every one of them. Thank you.
A follow-up to this story was published here.