And here we were driven past the empty presidential palace mocking in obscene opulence the high rise buildings where water only came on once or twice a day.
We went down avenues of Soviet era diplomatic mansions, their intricate gates strangled by over grown gardens, their walls a tired, old fashioned blue. We saw the bullet marked walls and lamp posts of the city streets and small queues outside shops selling luxuries: toothpaste, scented soap.
In the countryside: uneven roads, a well, two ladies in black, a bakery selling the best bread in the world for less than a penny. A scene for a photograph I was too ashamed to take. In the orphanage, children hesitated when we offered them toys. Were they theirs? Were they really? Could they keep them? Dumb for want of a common tongue, we taught them games we’d long stopped playing: skipping, catch. Swings were put up, a slide. Inside, tiny ones too sick to play, watched us, solemn, tired; or didn’t watch, looking inward, silent. While painted walls dried, we were given a tour of the orphanage grounds. The little boy, a character from Dickens, alight with cheekiness, chattered away regardless of our incomprehension and we chatted back, regardless of his. I smelt wood shavings, and looked into a shed, where in the sunlight, strips of pine curled and fell as the carpenter planed a small box. I smiled at the sight and smell until I realised he was making a coffin. So many children there, not orphans but abandoned. Some had HIV (then a death sentence) others’ parents could not afford to feed them. Later, in the sun, a little girl said “Mama?” and sat on my lap. She looked healthy enough, but you couldn’t tell.
Back in the city, an excursion into the night. The high rises glowered down onto shadowy streets. We were ushered into an informal inn straight off the pavement. Our small group half filled it, our women, the only women there. The local drinkers looked askance then shrugged. Glasses were filled and raised, hard-boiled eggs were passed round, songs were sung. Romanian songs, the melodies as foreign as the words, then Irish songs as the priest in our group stood to sing ballad and love song.
The night drew on. We started back to the flats at midnight and as we passed, the doors of the Orthodox church burst open.
The congregation bearing candles spilled down the steps in near silence until the priest on the threshold shouted “Christ is Risen!” and the congregation shouted “He is Risen Indeed!” and raised flickering light above the dark streets.
And when I went home, how could I glory in Easter chocolate and endure healthy children demanding the latest toys when I had shared the simplicity of a boiled egg and watched the astounded delight of an abandoned child cuddling a teddybear?
And what were chicks and bunnies compared to hope peppering the darkness with that exultant candlelight?
Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission