“Valera! Radu! Wake up!”.
Two boys sleeping together on a double bed do not stir. The bright coloured Chinese blanket is kicked to the floor, they don’t need it any more. It’s five in the morning and the sun is already high.
“Wake up at once you lazy lot”, a woman shouts, “your Dad’s already up on the hill”.
The boys barely eat and start to make their way up. They are joined by 50 or so others – boys and girls from the age of 8 upwards, the older of them them swearing under their noses.
It’s 12 May 1982 and village Syrma in South Moldova is at the height of rose and lavender picking season. The children will collect one bag of the scented petals and then go to school. “You have to cut the heads off quickly”, Feda says to his brother, “to retain most of the oil”.
The fields are a sea of purple and pink, the flowery smell is carried by the air and the children think this moment will never end.
I met the boys’ parents during my PhD research 15 years ago and I am here to visit them again. Valera lives in Tyuman, Siberia and Radu, based in Warrington, UK , is also here for a week. Although the brothers are now 5300 kilometres apart they often meet in the virtual space on Skype. Despite the modern technology, their wives and children have yet to meet in flesh.
“How do you find England?”, I enquire. Radu’s wife Olga treads carefully. “We have recently moved a house but I am not sure of the neighbours”. Apparently, they told social services that the kids are often on their own. “It’s the shift times”, she complains. “I have to go out before Sasha returns home”.
It’s estimated that between 600, 000 to 1 million of Moldovans have left the country since 1990s. For a small country once counting around 4.5 million this is a big deal. The devastating effects of migration have recently been covered by a documentary by the Journeyman Pictures (link below). It means that one in 5 people now lives outside the borders and they are not all young. Men of all ages seek temporary work in construction and manual labour all over Russia whilst majority of women, young and old opt for Western Europe or Italy.
If anyone epitomises the high stakes, complexities and interconnectedness of post-Soviet and pan European diaspora – it is the mobile, multilingual Moldovan of any age. Most grew up learning both Russian and Romanian. Should they decide to immigrate they would have tried two or three different countries before they settled down.
Statistics show that most of the emigres tend to have middle or higher education (particularly women) unfortunately ending up in lower skilled, poorly paid jobs. You are likely to find them in services, personal care, agriculture or warehousing.
It’s not unusual for siblings to be scattered anywhere between Turkey and Ireland, making family reunions difficult. But what makes this disapora different from those between the two big wars is that women now make heartbreaking choices. They often leave their husbands, who fear change or drink too much, behind. It is not unheard of for mothers to put their small children into care of older brothers or extended relatives. Neighbours are often called upon to cure the cries of distraught children at night.
The thing that unites most of the diaspora, however, is the cash flow that props up the economy through the money sent to children, husbands or sick relatives as well as holidays spent back home and investments into ‘that future dream house’.
“What happened to the roses once you collected them?” I ask Sasha whilst we were walking up the hill yesterday. “They were quickly loaded onto the trucks and driven to the Roza complex. The factory site had its’ own workers’ village – with two grand pillars adorning the entrance. All the technology was there, with a distillery tower and a cooling vat – I remember my father being very proud of it at the time. Of course we did not see much of the produce ourselves, with the essential oil being shipped to Moscow and then sold onto perfume houses around the world”.
We reached the top and there were only a few bushes of rose scattered on the wild meadow full of sage and thyme coming out from rough, unkept ground.
“The whole landscape has changed, entire livelihood of one generation has been swallowed up by past, into a black hole, it seems”. Sasha pondered. “I know it sounds silly, but it annoys me most that my parents don’t even have any photos of the fields. They used to look beautiful in spring. I see them in my dreams sometimes.”
Later on, I drove past the ruins of the Rosa factory. Tall weeds were ingrown into the factory, a concrete basin outside had a blackened oily build up and it was so still, only the poplars at the far back dared to move. Two lovers passed me by looking suspiciously at a woman with a camera
I carried on to the nearby park where a man with a faded cardboard sign was selling two poetry lines for 5 lei. I asked for a poem about a factory but he said he could only do love, nature, beauty and so on.
I sat on the bench with remnants of sunflower seeds and thought about social workers and teachers I work with back in UK. Their efforts to support families’ wellbeing and prevent breakdowns. The British drive to protect children from neglect, harm and sexual exploitation. What to make of a Moldovan family at the time like this, how to support a child whose cousins and grandparents live only on Skype.
How to view an ageing woman who has a husband in a country that no one has ever heard of and she now lives in a multi-occupancy house? How to get your neighbours open up to you or public services about their background, worries and needs.
This is another reason why European countries and their neighbours should work closer, not drift away from each other. Understanding that our stories increasingly stretch far beyond borders of one country should shape our future governments and services. Enable emotional, social and bureaucratic ‘eco-systems’ speak to each other so that something new, better can come out of it.