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Andreea Vîlcu - Being poor is a shame

Author: Andreea Vîlcu

I realized what it was like to have debt growing up in the apartment I loved most. My grandmother, my father's mother, bought it for us a few years after I was born. It was a two-bedroom apartment in Braila.

A real home that gave me my blue bedroom with wooden windows and tall poplars beyond, the mint green living room (PICTURE 2) with grainy lime, where I watched cartoons, and the kitchen with blue flowers on the tiles, where I sat next to my mother as she fried schnitzels or baked scones and brownies.

In summer I played hide-and-seek or rubber band with the kids in front of the block. In those evenings, sweet-smelling and warm, the only money that mattered was the lion I got and I often bought myself a vanilla waffle, a bag of seeds and some chocolates.

One of my earliest memories is of me playing with some wooden cubes with designs all over them by candlelight because our power had been cut off. Another is from elementary school, when I would go to the neighborhood convenience store and ask the saleslady for 3-in-1 noshes, a pack of Viceroy, bread, sausage, or dairy products on a pad.

As a family, we have never defined ourselves as poor. Poor were street people, sleeping in parks and begging. We just "didn't have it". We had no money, no patience, no control, no luck. Sometimes we didn't have any.

My parents didn't necessarily grow up in poverty; maybe straitened, like many families under communism. My mother turns 52 next month, my father is 55. They both come from good families. Mum worked at the Progresul factory in Brăila and Dad was a weightlifting coach; Grandma was a dental nurse and Grandpa was a technician, also at Progresul. They all went on annual holidays together, to the mountains or to the sea.

But after they started their family, my parents could not keep to any rules. Most of the time, they paid the bills out of their salaries, made one big shopping trip, but not enough for a whole month. They loaded the fridge with cold cuts, vegetables, fruit, some sweets, coffee and detergents, and the rest of the money went on cigarettes and my father's slot machines.

When I was 12 years old, we moved out of this apartment because of a debt of over 10,000 lei in maintenance. At one point, my mother wanted to make me feel better after the news of the move and said, "You'll see, Mummy, we'll have new furniture there, it'll be the last lightning!"

I knew we were moving because of debt - all three of us were purposely avoiding the block manager, as was to happen again.

The new apartment had two rooms and was in a block next to a nursing home. All three of us had tacitly resigned ourselves to the first blooms of mould, because Dad had lost most of the money left over from the sale at the poker game and had not insulated the flat. He rarely won and, like any addict, would return the amount in the hope that on the screen he would see three cherries in a straight line. When it did happen though, he'd take a few more from me and my mother.

When we were completely overdrawn, my folks would borrow from family, co-workers, neighbors, friends, or Provident, each time in hopes of starting from scratch. But it's hard when you're actually starting from scratch.

They'd make it through though, for a few weeks. When I wasn't asking my grandmother, who was lecturing me that my parents didn't know how to hold on to money - because I was the messenger for such transactions - I was going to Mamaia, my mother's mother, in Galati.

I was 16-17 years old and I was coming back from her house in a cold that would crack your face. In one hand I had a bag as big as me, and in the other, my brother, who was about 3 years old. Dad was waiting for me at a betting shop, yelling into the phone all the way to move faster, to stop walking "like I was on the boulevard". When I finally got to his place, in front of the Stanley in the neighborhood, my heart was pounding harder to get out of my jacket from fear and exhaustion. I handed him the money.

"What, and he didn't give you any?" I took out my money, about 50 lei that my grandmother had given me and took from my hand.

"What are you looking at, you look like you want to kill me," he said grinning, knowing I didn't have the strength, courage or especially thepermission to answer him back, and walked back into the agency, slamming a "Come on, move home." With my bag and a baby behind me, I cried silently all the way home, as if in a trance, my face numb, as if covered in dozens of cobwebs. Arriving at the apartment, I left the little one on the bed in the living room. I went into the bathroom and gritted my teeth in the mirror until I ran out of air and passed out on the blue tiles.

Poverty is a mental illness. It's a vicious circle that you obviously get out of with money, but most importantly, and with healthy financial habits and principles. In such situations of precariousness, the frequency band that leads to multiple strings of thinking narrows. Organically, you can no longer make long-term decisions. If you only have 10 lei and nothing to eat tonight, you can't do meal planning for the rest of the week, a method which, sure, gets you out cheaper. That's why I've always judged budgeting theories. Because they help you, but nowhere intersect with my reality.

In 9th grade I was hoping for a fresh start with my new white iPhone 3, a gift from my aunt, and a new bag.

In the new class a parent committee was formed and a leader was elected. Later, it was decided to buy new desks and everyone contributed until 4-5,000 lei were collected.

Shortly afterwards, one afternoon when it was just my mother and my brother, who was under a year old, at home, a couple of angry parents turned up at the door demanding an accounting for the missing money. My mother didn't understand a thing. People blamed her for my father not answering the phone. My father, a committee boss, had taken the money from the banks and lost it in the machines.

Mom froze. With the baby in her arms, in semi-darkness - they had cut our lights again - she tried to calm them while holding the door shut, to hide the orange walls with grime.

Dad's brother eventually paid the debt, but we never talked about it together. He probably still thinks I don't know, or if I do, that I forgot.

By 10th grade, they cut our gas, again. For several months, including the winter months, we heated ourselves with an air heater. We ran it sparingly, mostly in the evenings before bed. We took baths with the tub next to the bathtub, with the water heated by the boiler. Because of the improvisation, the mould spread like a cancer in the body of the walls and my brother, a baby at the time, got bronchitis.

I went to university in Bucharest on my family's charity, and after my first year I got a job in a bar in the old town centre. I earned 800 lei, and gradually the family stopped sending me pocket money for monthly expenses. One month I was living on my salary, the other on tips, because I was paying rent on the hostel.

The balance inevitably fractured at some point and, to cover a certain hole, I pawned my laptop. I promised myself it would be a one time only, because I'm a good kid and good kids don't do combinations with pawning.

Despite the promise, within a month I was back there again for the 320 lei they were giving me. It was a white Waio, pre-2012. But then I didn't have the money to get it back, so for more than a year I ping-ponged this one, where I paid 52 lei monthly to extend it for 20 days at a time.

I'd also come 1-2 at night from the coffee shop, stop at the pawn shop, then go home and cut out for college in the morning. Until I lost it for good. Paradoxically, I felt like I had simultaneously gained and permanently lost my dignity. I felt as if I had robbed someone and, simultaneously, I was comforted by the thought that I would never again wait in the eternal queue that led out of the pawnshop room, on the steps where I prayed in my mind every time that I wouldn't run into a colleague, professor or acquaintance.

I had become what I hated most in my own family. Debtor. And that felt like a second dirty skin on me. Waiting tearfully on the pawn shop stairs was my ostentatious imprisonment in full view of everyone.

In my last year of college I was expelled because I didn't have the money to pay the fee. I kept extending semesters while working until the beginning of 2020 when I officially graduated. To get through college and the first two years after, I took out a loan that I refinanced 2-3 times until it reached 9,000 lei. In the meantime I also added an overdraft of 2,000 or 2,500 lei.

It took me about five years to pay off all the debt. The last instalment on the loan was in January last year. 584.17 lei. In February 2023 I had paid the last instalment and closed the overdraft.

I earn my highest salary ever and for the first time in a year I don't owe anyone any money.

What's more, it was the first year I went out at least 2-3 times a month, whether it was coffee at the mall, a theatre show, a movie or dinner. I went to the seaside and on a holiday to Italy. I gave my inner child cherry fondants in alcohol from Capșa, the bakery I'd dreamed of since I came to Bucharest, and the teenager in me bought clothes more often and colorful shoes, to forget the brown shoes I wore from 1st to 8th grade. I also put some money aside.

I don't have a recipe. And nobody does, because it doesn't exist. I think it's all about hard work, hope and luck. I'm lucky and grateful that in this lifetime I've been able to experience the joys I've had so far, that I have priceless memories with my friends from vacations, be theyon the budget, from the terrace of my college dorm, cracking seeds or at tired crèches where I laughed myself out of chairs.

For me, my story is a happy one. I've made amends. But one thing I wish you'd stick with is patience. When at the cash registers someone counts their change for who knows what they bought. Because I've been there myself with a few dozen pennies for bread, yoghurt and something sweet from Auchan. I was paying at the fast-cash registers to avoid the judgement in some cashiers' eyes when they counted my 23 lei in coins.

Patience for a waiter who moves slower or seems to lack energy. Maybe it's a student in session.

Patience for the woman cashing you out at the store. Maybe she recently changed jobs and doesn't earn more than 2,000 in hand. Maybe she's not your mother, but maybe she's someone's, maybe even mine. And no matter where we are and where we end up, we all need all the patience and kindness in the world to make amends.


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