On Detachment

By Virginia Hughes, July 29, 2013, Aeon

We drove to the orphanage on a pleasant December morning, under a sky that seemed too blue. It was a short ride through a residential neighbourhood of Bucharest, littered with posters of politicians’ heads for the upcoming elections. Nervous, I mentally recited the two rules the American professor had given me the night before: no picking up the kids, and no crying in front of them.

We pulled up to a dingy pink building, lined on all sides by tall wire fencing, and parked at the curb. After passing through the checkpoint of a stoic security guard, we stepped into an empty hallway. It was cleaner than I had expected; old plaster walls and chipped steps, yes, but no obvious filth. There was an overpowering smell of institutional food, like burned meatloaf.

Over the next hour or so, the manager of the place — a short and affable 24-year-old guy — gave us a tour. He didn’t speak much English, but Florin Ţibu, a Romanian who works with the professor, translated for us. About 50 children and teenagers lived there, boys and girls ranging in age from about six to 18, and I saw just six adults: our tour guide, three female caregivers, and two cleaning ladies in white coats. The children weren’t in school because of the big holiday: Romania’s National Day, a celebration of the country’s unification in 1918. Perhaps a typical day wouldn’t have been so chaotic. Then again, Ţibu said, the kids always flock to new visitors.

And flock they did. A boy in a red T-shirt and sweats skipped up to me, grabbed my hand, and wouldn’t let go. His head didn’t reach my shoulders, so I figured he was eight or nine years old. He was 13, Ţibu said. The boy kept looking up at me with an open, sweet face, but I found it difficult to return his gaze. Like most of the other kids, he had crossed eyes — strabismus, the professor would explain later, a common symptom of children raised in institutions, possibly because as infants they had nothing to focus their eyes on. A couple of dozen kids gathered around us in a tight circle, chirping and giggling loudly as children do. At one point they broke into a laughing fit, and I asked Ţibu what happened. They were gawking at the whiteness of my teeth, he said. Two of the girls, somewhere in that gaggle, were pregnant.

We saw the kids’ bedrooms. Each had half a dozen mattresses lying on the floor and one television set. All the TVs were blaring old cartoons, some of the same ones I remember watching in my own childhood 25 years ago. Kid after kid dragged me proudly to see their room. Once, we walked in on a cleaning lady frantically sweeping, embarrassed by the cigarette butts, grey dirt, and insect carcasses all over the floor. One of the rooms held three or four older boys, still sleeping. They were heroin addicts, I would learn, and sometimes shot up in front of the younger children.

After about half an hour of holding the sweet boy’s hand, I suddenly, urgently, needed to let go. I wriggled my fingers free, only to have him clutch them again.

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