30 years ago, I was a student, living in one of the campuses in post-communist Bucharest, named Grozavesti. The so-called Romanian Revolution, in which Ceausescu was executed after a brief trial, was barely over, and the country was in chaos. It took about 18 years until Romania made it into the European Union. And, off of those 18 years, the first 5, which overlapped exactly with my student years, were the most chaotic.
It’s funny how they can be labelled as “chaotic” only in hindsight. Back then, we were all living in the present moment and everything looked and seemed natural. Buildings had bullets traces, but we found this normal: just last year we had people shooting on the streets. We were allowed to drink and sell alcohol in our campuses, to rent video tapes and throw parties, because, well, freedom. Almost anything was permitted.
I used to spend my nights in one of the bars at the ground floor of my dorm building, playing pool, drinking and talking philosophy or politics. When I wasn’t doing that, I was working as a radio anchor (somehow, my voice sounded better over radio waves than in real life). And when I wasn’t doing that either, I was listening to music.
Oh, music. When I arrived in Bucharest, as a freshmen, I was like a blank sheet of paper. My entire musical culture could fit on the back of scissor box. I literally had no idea what music was. Vinyl records were scarce, national radio was barely broadcasting anything other than propaganda, so I had no source of good music. I didn’t even know good music exists.
And when I first saw a stand of audio cassettes in front of my University, I was mesmerized. Yes, they were smuggling music back then, because almost anything was allowed. I even met a guy who had a “recording studio”, meaning he had a few audio cassette recorders he used 24 x 7 to copy vinyls or CDs over. No copyright, no nothing. Just music on audio cassettes.
I didn’t know the name of pretty much nobody on those cassettes. So I just started to buy every month (when I was cashing in my salary from the radio) based on random criteria: the cover, the name, sometimes even the recommendation of the seller. Many of them had exquisite taste in music. In my 5 years as a student I amassed an impressive collection. At least a few hundreds.
I would spend long summer afternoons during student breaks, staying alone in my room, knowing the building was almost empty (many of my colleagues were going home during breaks, I didn’t, because I was working), listening to the cassettes from my collection. I bought a double bay Panasonic audio cassette player, which had a more than decent sound for its money, and squeezed every bit of life out of it. Those were good years.
After I finished my studies, I carried that collection with me for decades, moving from one place to another. Until I reached a point when it didn’t make sense to carry them with me anymore. CDs were prevalent, audio cassettes were suddenly vintage. So I put them all in a bag and took them to my parents house.
They are sitting there for more than 15 years, in the same bag, unchanged. The featured picture of this blog post was taken just hours ago.
And that picture holds way more than the image of a few audio cassettes. It holds encapsulated emotions. I know that all I need to do in order to trigger one of those emotions would be to play one of these cassettes. I may even take a few with me in Lisbon.