Growing up in post-communist Romania - thoughts on learning English
“Where did you learn to speak English so well?” my boss asked me one afternoon, as we were searching for a bike part he just lost in front of our office building. “By watching TV”. He laughed, I laughed. “No really”, I continued though, “I used to watch cartoons 4-6 hours every day, when we first got cable, and the cartoons were always in English”. Of course, I studied English in school. Twice a week, for 11 years, but the answer to the question of where I learned it “so well” will always be “on Cartoon Network”.
I was born in communism and I was almost two when Ceaușescu’s regime fell and he met his untimely demise. I grew up in the aftermath. Transitioning to capitalism after so many years of socialism was brutal and the western way of living hit us like a ton of bricks. Some managed to stay afloat, some managed to rise above and some sank. My family was somewhere in between the “stay afloat” and “sank” category, meaning that I and my brother were raised in relative poverty. Relative as in we always had a roof over our heads, running water, heating and electricity, but there were times when money was not enough for food. More exactly put, for the first 10 years or so, if one would’ve subtracted the amenities listed above and food from my parent’s income every month, the resulting number would almost always have been a negative integer.
Both my parents worked in factories before 1989, or “factory” to be exact, and they continued to do so several years into the 1990s. They used to work in shifts, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, so they could take care of us. But there was always an hour or so overlap between when one left home and the other one came back. They had no option than to leave my 4ish year old brother to take care of me, his 3-year younger brother. Looking back, I am, in all honesty, surprised we are still alive. I have a vivid memory of me falling of a 2 meter high closet and not being able to breathe for so long and of my brother putting something in a wall plug and the device exploding in his hands. Or of us playing on the open balcony of our 6th floor apartment. We did a lot of stupid shit and we did it all because we were bored.
But then came late 1990s…
and cable TV started to catch on. And it was so cheap that even we could afford it. Actual working TVs, on the other hand, were a completely different story. That we couldn’t afford, so it was a couple of years until my parents could put aside enough money to buy a second-hand TV. And they bought one from a shop that represented a business that thrived then and for many many years afterwards: getting discarded electronics (and furniture, and clothes and whatnot) from the western countries, refurbishing and reselling them. The image these new companies built was that the western countries were so rich, the people there often decided to change their appliances on a whim and these were good electronics whose only fault was that a newer model was available. Silly lies, of course, they were garbage. Literal garbage that people threw away and that these entrepreneurs would take, patch, bring back to life and sell. Oh, well, this was news that came much later so my parents bought one.
This was a huge upgrade in entertainment for these two children. I was almost ten and my brother was almost 14. Although I do remember always having books in the house, I don’t remember ever actually reading them. This was a habit which I took on, sadly, only in my thirties.
So here we were, with a TV in the house, jumping from crushing boredom to endless entertainment. At the same time, the factory closed and my parents lost the ability to work in shifts. My mother ended up being a seamstress and my father an electrician, both working these minimum wage jobs from 7 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. They would get back at at least 4. With school in the morning, from 7:30 to 10:30, we had a lot of time to kill at home and absolutely no one to supervise us.
Our only impediment was that the TV was broken more than it was working. After a few months of constantly calling Mister Repair Man, the financial viability of the TV came into question and once it malfunctioned one time too many, it never got repaired again.
We were TV-less for a few months when the company where my dad worked made a deal with a company that manufactured TVs (new and with an actual warranty) and they gave their workers the possibility to buy a TV at a reduced price and in installments. The installments were conveniently and automatically subtracted from my father’s salary every month for two years. But that is the story of how we got a reliable TV set, which we ended up using for thousands of hours later. And which, for all I know, is still working now, 20 years later. Last I heard, it was in my grandparents’ house and it sometimes had problems with the sound, but otherwise it was going strong. In fact, I found an exact working model for sale on the internet now for 35 euros.
So that was that, the TV came into the house to stay, and it brought with it the international content that would shape my speech for the years that followed.
For TV shows, the voice overs came later on, much later, after I stopped watching TV altogether. But back then, at the start, all shows either came with subtitles and original sound or, well, only with the original sound. I honestly don’t know why that is and I can’t find the official reason, but if I were to guess now, it was because it was much cheaper hiring someone to write the subtitles and maybe someone to check and synchronize them than it was to translate a script, have a crew of voice actors, a director and whatever else was necessary to dub a movie.
Nowadays, even if the are no more English cartoons apart from one or two channels, all non-children media is still subtitled, even in the cinemas. A few years ago, the powers that be brought into discussion if they should regulate this and force TV channels to only serve dubbed content. But then they looked a little bit at the past, saw it would be a dumb idea, laughed and never talked about it again.
I and the rest of my generation watched the cartoons on Cartoon Network so much those first few years that phrases and episodes from the cartoons are now part of the popular lore for us. I was mentioning this to people my age that grew up in Germany and they did watch the same cartoons, but for them it was just that - cartoons shows, not some integral part of them growing up. Which makes sense, of course, we watched the same cartoons, at the same time, but we were at different times in history.
Lack of standards and regulation = cheap service
You didn’t need much to start a cable company in the 90s: the usual satellite and local receivers, some receiving equipment in the customers’ buildings and the cable between them. Running the cables was some sort of no man’s land - there was no regulation about how many or where you could run cables between buildings, through the buildings, on the buildings, on the street, over the street. But not under the street, that was too expensive. The first cable companies started to build the vast web of cables that would come to be an integral part of the cityscape.
Low setup costs and lower maintenance costs meant lower prices for the end customers. And this was the virtuous/vicious cycle that helped the companies thrive and the people get their fair dose of TV: cheap, unregulated setup and service meant low prices, which in turn meant that most people could subscribe, which in turn meant that the companies grew.
One afternoon a few years later, there came a knock at the door. We, the kids, were home alone, as always in the afternoon. We answered and there was this guy asking if we wanted to buy an HBO decoder. A what? He shows us a thingy he obviously made himself and explained that if we put that between the TV cable and the TV input, we can watch HBO for free. Also, it was adjustable and, if they changed the frequency, we could turn a cog and continue using it. Nooo waaaay.
Hell yeah, we wanted that, so we invite the guy in (yes, we’re still alive. yes, I still wonder how). He installs it and quickly finds HBO. By this point we are mesmerized and decide to buy the small device right there and then. I don’t remember where we got the money from, but we ended up paying the equivalent of what the cable company was charging for one month of HBO - 3 or 4 dollars in back-then-money. This was the start of what would be a recurring theme in our lives in the next years: pirating content.
We used the hell out of it for a few years. See, this was big for us because all the other channels would mostly feature B-movies or worse, Romanian movies, with huge gaps in commercials (commercial time was still to be regulated). HBO was were the real stuff was. Bonus, no commercials.
The way the little thingy worked was quite interesting: everything was analog back then, so TV cable providers would send HBO alongside all the other channels. They couldn’t separate it, but they also wanted to restrict it and charge for it separately. So, HBO was coming on a certain frequency, let’s say 240Mhz. To block it, they would send another signal on a very close frequency, let’s say on 239Mhz, so your TV can see that there’s a channel there, but you could never see the channel, because of the two signals where so close together (I remember being able to see the shadows of playing movies without the decoding). To unblock it, they just had to put your cable through a device that cancelled the 239Mhz signal. And that’s exactly what the decoder the guy sold us did.
This is what the dingy looked like. The names on it are cable provider names - each had their own implementation of the “encoding”. The screw under it was for adjustments when the frequency changed.
Not only English
Also Spanish. Let me explain.
When you hear a foreign language day after day, you kind of start learning it, like it or not. I caught a great deal of English watching cartoons, but I had another buddy learning Spanish: Latin American telenovelas. Mi nombre es Viorel y me gusta ver telenovelas.
These South American soap operas had two great advantages that made them attractive to TV channels: they were catchy and they were cheap. And we watched the hell out of them. I remember everybody, boy girl, woman, man, talking about the latest developments and we loved to crack jokes in Spanish - cough, cough, estoy embarazada.
Eventually I took a semester of Spanish in college, since I had such a good basis but, nowadays, I can’t speak it that well. I understand most of what people say, though, so I count that as a big win.
Is this why I can’t speak French?
Just like English, I also studied French in school, two times a week, for about 8 years, but, 10 years later, I can’t speak nor understand anything in this language. I haven’t practiced it, of course, but neither have I practiced Spanish. I can just stop and wonder if my situation would have been much different if, apart from the regular school hours, I would have been exposed more to the spoken language.
This isn’t some really great thing I did, not by far. Would my time have been better invested had I used it otherwise? Probably yes, if I would have read more books and focused on learning some skills - for example writing, ‘cause maaan, that takes a lot of practice.
Would I have otherwise reached the same language level? I honestly don’t know.
Was it healthy? I doubt it. My attention span was probably messed up starting then and I had to work a lot at interacting with other people. Having a kid of my own, I try to keep up with the studies that talk about screen times and I always recoil thinking how much time I spent in front of a TV and, later, a computer screen. Alas, those were the times and that was the best we could do, might as well pick on the good parts.