My memories of childhood in Romania tend to be dominated by a mute color palate, more often than not entirely monochrome. While the exact reasons for that elude me, I attribute some of it to the fact that during the 1980s Romania was still a communist country, largely disconnected from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world, and commercialism had not yet taken a foothold in the country as it would following the revolution of 1989.
That year marks the fault line in my imagination when everything seems to have suddenly turned bright and colorful. As soon as the Ceausescu’s were overthrown and communism had fallen, so did the country’s borders, giving way to an influx of consumer goods from other countries. What stands out most to me about these products is how colorful they were compared to what for me had appeared mostly bland and dull. Another side effect of the advent of consumerist culture during the early 1990s was trash. The eye-catching packaging for all of these goods that we now had the chance to purchase and consume unfortunately ended up by the side of the road.
Again, it is difficult to recall for certain if before the revolution there was simply less trash on the street or I just did not pay attention to it (as with the monochrome memories of my childhood), but I remember quite vividly how the trash suddenly appeared as out of nowhere. Among the discarded items the things that caught my eye the most were used cigarette boxes and soda and beer cans. They looked cheerful, designed to catch the eye, and were decorated with lettering that seemed exotic simply for the sheer fact that I did not understand the language. And I wasn’t the only one. My friends and I, ranging from about seven to ten years old, started collections of empty cigarette boxes and beer cans. We traded them the way you would trade baseball cards. If someone had a double they would trade it for a box or can that they did not have. I remember that Marlboro and Kent cigarette boxes were pretty common, so it became pretty difficult to trade those.
Of course we kept all of these treasures in our rooms, never thinking twice that we were actually collecting garbage. Part of that could be because we did not have that concept, of waste/trash as something that dominated the imagination. I realize now that we simply did not know any better, we were part of a society still feeling its way through what we could roughly refer to as Western culture.
And having been closed off from much of it for so long, as children we also had little knowledge of the dangers associated with playing with such things. Our curiosity was often satisfied by playing with whatever we could find outside, and since we had found these items technically outside they seemed fair game. So did something else that we came across immediately following the revolution, which, looking back now is not as innocuous as the discarded boxes and cans we scavenged from the trash.
During the violent revolution, or right after (details were never established), Romania received quite a bit of aid in terms of medical supplies. For reasons yet again that are elusive, many of those supplies never made it to their destinations or to the places that needed them. Boxes of these supplies, specifically syringes and needles, ended up being dumped right outside of the capital, Bucharest, along the road that lead to the village where my grandparents lived. The boxes naturally were found, opened, and their contents scattered far and wide. Eventually some of the items came into our possession since as kids we had few limits in terms of where we could go and what we could do (Romania, as I was growing up, had a relatively low crime rate and playing outside was not only considered safe from morning until night but actually encouraged). I can still remember how fascinated we were by those syringes and needles. We divvied up what we found and kept them next to the other treasures. Sometimes I played with them as miniature water pistols. When recently I helped my mother administer some medicine to my three-year-old nephew using such a syringe I was tempted to show him the possibilities. I refrained, until he’s a bit older.
Of course I realized only much later how dangerous it was to play with those medical supplies. The cigarette boxes and the cans of beer or soda could have contained germs. The syringes much worse. We were lucky in a way that our experiences with such items was temporary. But around the world too many children play in environments where they cannot avoid encounters with waste products, where sanitary conditions mean that a plaything could very be the source of disease. For someone such as myself, now living in the US, waste is a byproduct, trash is something used and discarded and I have the choice and luxury to avoid it if I want to – for others, that choice is not entirely in their hands.
Here are a couple of other stories about playing with medical supplied that have been shared by contributors:
We lived next to a children’s hospital, and once I found a big glass syringe next to the hospital dump. The tip and plunger of the syringe were metal; it was fun to play with. I brought it home. When my father saw it, he asked me where I got it from, and then gently suggested to throw it away, promising to buy me a new one.
— Maria Bochegova, Kurgan, Russia, 1980s
Once my friend and I (we were 5 years old) found a surgeon’s toolbox in a dump. There were so many treasures in it! Syringes, scalpels, only not sharp, and a whole lot of different clips and what not. We played doctors for a whole month before our parents found out and confiscated the box.
— Olesya, Sevastopol, Ukraine, 1990s
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.