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How communism got me into reading as a child
The advantage of growing up with communist TV
One of the most vivid memories I have from my childhood is bulging into the house on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and asking my mother:
‘Did it start?’
On the days when the answer was ‘It already finished a long time ago’ I started crying.
‘Why didn’t you call me?’
‘You were playing.’
‘But I wanted to see the cartoon!’
I grew up in communism, and we only had cartoons on TV on Saturday and Sunday from 1 pm to 1:05 pm. Usually, it was one episode of ‘Tom and Jerry’, ‘Bolek a Lolek’, or some other party-approved cartoon.
As I grew up and started to play outdoors with other kids from the neighborhood, I usually missed the weekly episodes, and I was devastated.
The advantage of growing up with communist TV 📺
I am already on day 38 of my 100-day TV detox challenge, and I can’t believe how time is flying. Things have been very busy at work lately, and this newsletter filled up the gap left by not watching Netflix in my free time. I also started to meet more people and generally spend quality time with my husband.
Aside from a couple of documentaries and some TikTok and YouTube videos, I haven’t watched anything during this time.
Between weeks two and four, I automatically thought about watching a series or a movie whenever there was some unstructured time. I am surprised at how deeply ingrained watching entertainment is in my psyche. But about one week ago, my brain stopped craving for series, and now I don’t think about it as often.
Besides, I can’t watch anything right now. I feel physically ill every time I think of starting a Netflix series.
How did I get to this?
This question made me go down the rabbit hole on the TV detox topic and look at my life through the TV lens.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things is that I grew up watching very little TV.
It wasn’t by choice but by design. The communist TV diet was rationed like our food, hot water and electricity.
For example, a family of four could only buy one litter of cooking oil and half a kilogram of sugar per month. This was enough fat and sugar for the whole family for an entire month.
Hot water was dispensed twice weekly because showering every other day was more than enough. And electricity was cut for some hours during the night since everyone was sleeping anyway.
We had around seven to nine hours of TV every weekend and about two hours in the evening during the week. Of course, some TV entertainment was allowed on weekends, such as 5 minutes of cartoons or party-approved Romanian film productions.
But during the week, the two hours of TV were filled with news about the dictator.
Almost every evening, we would watch Nicolae Ceausescu pour cement into the foundation of yet another communist building while his wife observed him with a watchful eye. When he wasn’t pouring cement, he would walk through a laboratory wearing a white doctor’s coat or a factory wearing a safety helmet.
His wife, Elena Ceausescu, was always next to him, featuring her version of the ‘Thatch’ helmet hair and her Channel knock off suits made in Romania.
Left without much choice, I was gorging on the Encyclopaedia TV program that was running once a week, inspiring me from a very young age to become an astronaut. But, as you can conclude, the inspiration wasn’t strong enough.
This strict TV diet also had its advantages. As I grew up, my parents read a lot to us, and after I learned how to read at the ripe age of six, I started reading books myself, and I didn’t stop for the next six years.
Everyone who knew me during that time remembers me holding a book in my hand. Or a stash of books if they saw me on my way back from the library. Without a TV to distract me, I fully embraced the magic of books and developed a lifelong love for reading.
Do you doubt I read so much as a child just because I didn’t have anything age-appropriate to watch on TV?
Let me introduce you to the next chapter of my life.
The glory of capitalist TV
In the autumn of 1989, about three years after I started reading books, communism fell, and suddenly we had twelve hours of TV programs every day.
I remember watching my first anime series, Sandybell, which was now running almost every evening during the week instead of the dictator news, and each episode was a whopping 25 minutes.
I still remember the anime theme song in gibberish Japanese as we watched the anime in the original language with Romanian dubbing added. I am unsure if I remember it correctly, but I think it was a man’s voice dubbing all the characters. You could actually hear the Japanese in the background.
I also remember the first MC Hammer music video I ever watched: Can’t Touch This. And I remember falling asleep one night in front of the TV, waking up to Queen’s music video for the song I Want To Break Free, and wondering why the sexy lady hoovering the carpet was sporting a thick mustache.
Everything that was not made in Romania was mind-blowing.
But anime series and curious music videos aside, the post-communist TV programs were still not interesting enough for a child. On the other hand, my books were much more captivating, and I continued to hold a book in my hand (almost) at all times for the next three years.
Then, in the summer after I turned 12, the world as I knew it was about to be blown away.
We got cable TV.
I am not sure how to describe this moment.
It was as glorious as the first man walking on the moon 🌔.
Suddenly, this new world opened up to us, and it was jaw-dropping. The other thing that dropped beside my jaw was the book that I was holding in my hand.
I watched so much Italian TV for the next two years that I learned Italian. Even today, I can read books in Italian, understand the language and speak enough to make conversation when I travel to Italy. However, I never took an Italian language course nor lived in Italy.
Like reading, I found watching TV much more interesting than playing with the kids in the neighborhood. I wasn’t antisocial but let’s face it, there wasn’t much going on in my tiny post-communist town in Eastern Europe.
Cable TV opened up a world that I didn’t even know existed. Such as Formula 1 races and MTV, The Adams Family and Ambra Angiolini.
And I was fascinated.
Unfortunately, my newly found TV addiction ended abruptly after I turned 14, and we moved to the countryside, where there was no cable TV.
Fortunately, high school started, and upon discovering my love for books, my literature teacher introduced me to some of the best and most outrageous books I had ever read, such as Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov or Bitter Moon by Pascal Bruckner.
And for that, I am forever grateful.
Reading in a post-TV era
I moved away from home shortly after I turned 19 and never owned a TV as an adult. For many years, I kept reading lots of books, and books started to pile everywhere I went.
I remember those book-reading times with a lot of joy. Reading was intellectually stimulating, a vigorous exercise for the brain and the mind. There is something solid about reading a book that cannot be matched even by the most incredible film.
Sure, watching series and movies is more engrossing than reading a book but only up to a certain point. It lacks a certain depth and intimacy. Reading a book is like dialogue. The writer explains what they see, and you imagine it with your mind’s eyes.
Reading is a participatory activity.
Watching films and series is a passive activity and can leave you feeling empty when consumed in high quantities. And this is precisely how I felt after watching lots and lots of Netflix during the pandemic.
Netflix was the second ‘cable TV’ moment in my life. Once I started watching, I couldn’t stop.
For a while, I loved every moment of it until I didn’t.
And this time, I didn’t have the choice to move to a place where there was no Netflix. Because with the internet and a laptop or a smartphone, Netflix is everywhere.
I wonder who even reads books anymore?
Now that we’re done with this week’s newsletter, I have something to share: I spilled water on my laptop 💻🚿.
So why am I telling you this?
All my fiction work is on that laptop, and I didn’t back it up on the cloud. So I am letting my laptop dry out, and I’ll try turning it on again in some days, hoping I can log in and save my work.
All these years, I had my work at my fingertips, and now this happened the minute I decided to finally publish it. So I cannot even begin to tell you how I feel 😩.
Let’s hope for the best! 🥺
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