Tuesday 14 October 2014

The Strawberry Picker’s Heritage – Erdbeerwaisen

The German language is like Lego pieces; the words can interlock with each other, reaching incredible lengths. They adopt each other to form new words, new subtle or specific meanings. In that regard, it is a rather poetical language, even though it may sound abrupt. In Romanian, the title of the show was Căpşunile şi orfanii (Strawberry Orphans), which in German was translated as Erdbeerwaisen, almost identical to its English title – Strawberry Orphans; this translation didn’t suggest that those children belonged to strawberries and became orphans as a result of their absence, but rather meant that they were made orphans by strawberries. The English language is more flexible than Romanian too, because it even has a word for making, turning someone into an orphan: The children were orphaned by strawberries.

(...) "we have long become accustomed to the thought that people go away to Spain, Italy, England, Greece, Germany, and many other countries where this very complicated economy seems to be more stable." (...)

When I was little, I was under the impression that the world can only evolve and constantly improve, albeit at a slower pace. It only seemed natural, perhaps thanks to the stories I read, which always ended well for everyone who was good. I honestly believed that politicians learn from past mistakes and will automatically avoid repeating history, and I was convinced that economists can only improve the methods meant to control the economy. I have no better understanding of these things now, but at least I understand that everything is much, much too complicated and that people don’t always know, or do what’s best. Nor do Romanians know whether it’s always best to go and work in other countries; but when it seems to be the only option, and many others around you are doing it, you don’t waste time in securing your chance. Thus, we have long become accustomed to the thought that people go away to Spain, Italy, England, Greece, Germany, and many other countries where this very complicated economy seems to be more stable. And we’re used to hearing stories about those who left – some better, some worse. We, from the younger generations, have friends whose parents seem to have always been away, friends who come to aspire to the same goal because it’s the best success example they’ve ever had. 

It is also commonly known, although a generalization, that the orphans whose parents have left either miss a lot of school, or barely learn anything. They also say that all Roma people went abroad to steal or beg. Lots of other stereotypes circulate among us, oral and from the media; both the foreign press and the Romanian press have magnified these stereotypes for ratings’ sake, and we’ve assumed them without even realizing. The subject of the strawberry pickers has been disputed so much that we’ve somehow forgotten to pay attention to it; which is why a performance like Strawberry Orphans turns into a fundamental reflection, because it restores an objective perspective on the situation that has been happening in Romania for such a long time. The show, created within “The Art of Ageing” project, brought together four actors: two from Romania, from the National Theatre “Marin Sorescu” of Craiova, and two from Germany, from Staatstheater Braunschweig of the homonymous city. It was also supported by Goethe-Institut Bucharest, but by WorldVision and Save the Children too, which helped the artists’ team on their research work; through these two organizations, they were able to communicate with children, grandparents and families who live the reality of having relatives that work abroad. Their stories were dramatized in the performance I saw on the 28th of September in Craiova. Actors Gina Călinoiu, Gabriela Baciu, Sven Hönig and Oliver Simon animated these characters who live among us, and who were so real on stage that they must have brought tears to spectators’ eyes throughout the performance. On stage with the actors was musician Kim Efert, who provided the live soundtrack created with an electric guitar, synthesizers, a drum brush, and rhythmic tapping on the enormous cardboard box that was, in turn, a closet, the actors’ wardrobe kit, a children’s playground, or any other necessary furniture piece. 

The actors took their part in the research work; back in Germany, all four of them spent a day on a strawberry field, picking full baskets of this significant fruit, probably reflecting on how difficult it is to perform a task like this, day after day. The show’s director, Julia Roesler, together with other members of werkgruppe2, interviewed and had discussions with approximately 30 families in the Craiova area; the stories from the show are their stories, which the team tried to transpose in all their variety. The main subject here are the children and what happens to them when they cannot grow up next to their parents. Sven Hönig, an actor who is rather well-known on the scene of German cinematography as well, and who best managed to sink into the minds and worlds of the children he interpreted, concluded that for these so-called orphans, communication becomes the most difficult thing to do. Children like these don’t receive the same attention, or the same solid structure that would allow them to grow and evolve normally, with normal children’s thoughts. If Hönig was the most credible child, Gina Călinoiu was the most sensible one; her interpretation, oftentimes incredibly touching, demonstrated a level of empathy we should expect from all the citizens of this Europe we want to live in.

The show has its moments of original humor as well, but it works to further highlight the true bitterness of reality, like the scene when the cardboard box becomes an outhouse, and an interviewer’s voice asks: was this your toilet? The reply comes: it still is! On stage, we saw children who wished their parents brought them some doll when they came back, but more than anything, that they simply returned; children who tried to raise their younger brothers and sisters almost on their own, children who were apparently rejoicing in the liberty created by their parents’ absence, grotesquely matured children, sad children, but grandparents as well, who couldn’t enjoy their retirement, worried when their children stopped calling, or fearing that someday, the money might stop arriving. Similar situations from the Roma communities were interpreted, communities where the same children who rarely have access to a real education and equal rights – due to certain traditions, but also because of a less than tolerant society which is everything but equipped for such a responsibility –, are also deprived of the presence of parents who would at least love them. In order to have a real awareness impact, at the end of every show the actors are available for discussions and questions; the more we talk about this subject, the more real it will become, and we will come closer to finding a possible solution, or at least closer to eliminating a generalizing mentality that tends to discriminate against the seasonal immigrants from the get-go in the countries where they appear, but their children as well, whose poor start in life hinders a normal evolution in society. The performance will also be played in other Romanian cities like Sibiu, Brașov and Bucharest, thereupon following a similar route through Germany.

The situation is clearly overwhelming for all those involved, perhaps even more so for those who only know of these cases, like the Romanians, or for those who meet these cases in their own countries, like the Germans, the Italians, the Spanish, the French and so on. And yet we’re the ones who might be able to help, we whose families are at least together; the people who talked to the artists from werkgruppe2 often receive aid from the NGOs involved in this project, and which are mostly interested in providing the children with school supplies, making sure they can continue with their studies even when life at home is difficult. Projects like Strawberry Orphans are necessary, because they remind us to not become used to a tough situation, even if it’s been going on for such a long time that we barely notice it anymore. Habit leads to negligence, to forgetfulness, to indifference; and the theatre must take on a social role as well, like any of the arts – something that the collaborating artists have fully managed with this show. A show which, if analyzed from a purely aesthetic point of view, is well put together, played by discerning and skilled actors, and carrying that quality of keeping spectators on the edge of their seats, only this time being uncomfortable as well, because the theme itself brought to mind conflicting thoughts and emotions; a modern show directed with precision and minimal use of raw matter, but generous in subjects, range of emotions, and interpretation.

Lia Boangiu, Essayist & translator

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