I was six years old in 1983 and I was living in Galaţi, Romania. One winter afternoon, I was standing with my father in line at the grocery store, packed between dark, heavy woolen coats. Neon lights buzzed and flickered above our heads. The woman behind the counter wore woolen fingerless gloves and a sleeveless jacket over her white uniform. Behind her, stacked plastic crates, most of them empty. We were far down the winding line, but I could smell the bread. My stomach rumbled.
My feet were numb with cold. Every few minutes, I abandoned the pattern my boots had made in the dirty snow on the floor and took another step. I became familiar with the shoeprints left by the people in front of us, identical prints belonging to faux-leather or rubber boots bought from the same state-owned shoe-making factory.
My father pulled out the dog-eared piece of construction paper with our family’s name on it. Four members, half a loaf of bread each—no matter if we were adults or babies (a trick to encourage baby-making). The cashier blew on her ballpoint pen to warm it up and scribbled an X next to the other Xs on the calendar. My father dropped the coins on the counter, slipped one loaf into his raffia bag, and gave me the other one. I sank my teeth into the cold crust at one end. It was good. Cold and chewy. I swallowed and took another bite. It was good. I passed the bread to my father. He tore off the other end and shoved it into his mouth. Crumbs peppered his mustache.
People frowned at us. We made our way along a dormant stand that used to sell cheese, but had none that week. We heard the cashier’s crabby voice behind us, “Last crate, comrades!” and hurried into the cold and dark outside. I held my father’s hand. We walked back home, through the snow, chatting and eating bread.
Lost at Sea
“After a failed attempt,” Radu Codrescu said, “I would lie low for a while, but after a time, I would get up and try again. I used to wake up from nightmares, asking myself what I was doing there, in Romania. I had to get out.”
In May 1983, Radu and Florina (names changed for privacy reasons) got married. They had been together for a long time and shared a passion for rowing. In August 1983, Radu, Florina, and a good friend of theirs, Iulian (name changed for privacy reasons), were ready to try out their bold new plan. What if they sailed east, then south across the Black Sea and landed in Turkey? All three of them used to do competitive rowing. Of course, there were many dangers. They had to break through a five-kilometer wide corridor along the Romanian shore patrolled by military vessels, they had to keep only to the open waters, away from the Romanian and Bulgarian—and even the Russian—shores, and they had to cover a distance of more than 350 kilometers just by rowing.
They went down the Black Sea shore and for a week they searched for a good spot to set sail. They found one. They checked the weather forecast, which covered only two-three days of unreliable prognostication. It looked like good weather near the coastline, so they hoped to have good sailing weather on the open sea. And they hoped to reach their destination in three days’ time.
Radu’s mother gave them money to buy an inflatable boat from some Swiss tourists. Because the boat was big and orange, they couldn’t take it out on the water during the day. On Thursday, August 18, 1983, they hid the deflated boat and a few provisions (food, fishing rods, two square meters of sailcloth, bicycle pumps, oars) behind the big rocks of the jetty in the sea-village of Olimp, and spent the afternoon and evening pretending to be fishing by the jetty, watching their cargo in turns, wary of children and beachcombers.
After dark, Radu and Iulian began inflating the boat. Florina kept watch.
“Behind the jetty, it was a bit sinister. Hearing the waves, seeing nothing, and feeling the damp cold coming from the open sea.”
It took them a long time to inflate the boat. They were about done when a patrolman showed up on the jetty. Florina alerted them. They scrambled to prop their bright orange boat up against the rocky wall. They held their breaths as the soldier stood on the rocks of the jetty and searched the waters below. When the soldier finally went away, they threw everything in the boat, pushed the boat out, jumped in, and started rowing.
A Swiss inflatable boat is a safe boat and the white plastic oars glow in the dark, for safety reasons.
“We were shocked to discover that. I cut the legs off my jeans and covered the oars with them. But the soaked denim was very heavy, so we had to abandon that scheme after a mere two hundred meters. And I had ruined my pants in the process.”
Radu and Iulian rowed, one on each side of the boat, keeping the oars deep in the water. Florina held the compass. They headed straight east, toward the open waters and the coast guard vessels.
“Being on the sea at night is a very bizarre experience for a few reasons. First, dolphins kept us company. There was no way to get rid of them. They kept swimming around the boat. They were friendly, and they enjoyed being around people. We had that big school of dolphins with us all night long, they didn’t get tired, they didn’t lose interest. All night long they made noises and swarmed about the boat. Second, we could see lights out there in the dark, but we couldn’t position them. We had no reference point and no clear idea how far things were. There were lights from the shore, or from boats and all sorts of vessels, and we could tell at most if they were moving and in what direction, but not if they came from a tiny source or a big one. Third, it was hard to gauge the speed of our boat and the distance we covered so far.”
It was close to midnight when they got close enough to the coast guard boats. They were afraid of being heard, being seen or spotted on the radars. They waited in the dark and figured out the moving patterns of the vessels. The boats covered long distances, always in pairs, moving toward each other and passing each other. They waited and slipped through right after the boats moved away from each other. The dolphins followed.
Eastward they rowed until they saw a bright spot on the horizon. As they drew closer, the spot turned into a multitude of lights, until at dawn they saw a huge cruiser in the distance. People with fishing boats anchored by the cruiser hauled crates big and small up and down rope ladders. Radu, Florina and Iulian rowed past the trafficking spot without drawing attention to themselves.
By morning they were all tired. Radu kept rowing while the other two slept. He changed course southward, toward Turkey.
“The first day was easy. I would row or [Iulian] would row, we would take a bath in the sea, rest a bit, row some more. It was sinister overall because we were in the middle of the sea, with nothing around us but water. No shore, no boats, but the green-blue of the sea and a ton of fish, a ton of fish, all around us. (…) When we needed to go to the bathroom, we had an entire sea for ourselves. There is no other place where you would feel more in the middle of nature than the sea.”
They turned one of their oars and two pieces of their fishing rod into a short mast and tied the sailcloth to it. They steered it with a rope to catch the wind, and used the other oar as a rudder. They sailed with the south wind faster than they did when they were rowing. When the wind was gone, they rowed again, taking turns.
“Thursday, Friday, Saturday, that was all we did, without taking a break. I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t thirsty, I was excited.”
On Sunday afternoon, the wind changed coming from the east. It grew stronger, pushing them back toward Romania.
“The waves were not as you see them on the shore, coming from there to here. They were hitting us from all sides. The boat was leaping on their backs, and we were dizzy in no time.”
They dropped the sail and used the compass to row westward, against the wind. Soon they noticed that their boat was losing pressure. It had six inflatable sections and the sides started to soften up under the hammering of the waves and the weight of their own bodies hitting the boat with each jolt. They couldn’t inflate the boat while sitting in it—the rubber would have cracked. They jumped out of the boat but had no stable, solid surface to push against.
“We couldn’t use the bicycle pump. It was terrible. We rowed as fast as we could, but after a while we started to get water in. The boat was even softer and the waves were higher. I grew desperate. I was scared. We didn’t know what else to do. We threw everything out of the boat, we were scooping water out with our hands, we were tired, we were soaked, and we lost hope. We decided that if by midnight we didn’t fix our boat, we would jump out of it. We could still use it for floatation, to hold our heads above the water.”
Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.