Her eyes started swelling with redness all around. Tears were making their way to the edge of her eyes as our friend spoke loudly with no concern for the humiliation she might be causing our friend. “How often did you eat it? The dog food I mean.” I had been momentarily distracted from the conversation when I rejoined it only to feel somewhat confused by the discussion we were now having. Previous to this, my Romanian friend was insisting that she should teach us both how to make bread from scratch.
“It is important we learn to make bread from scratch. It is an absolute necessity. It was all we could afford and thank goodness we knew how to make it. It scares me that so few people know how to make bread from scratch these days. Anyway, come round mine and I will show you both how to do it.” My friends are Romanian, Hungarian and Polish. I actually have few friends who are British and the majority of my friends grew up in communist Europe. Yes they are white, but far from privileged. When I returned to the conversation, the shocking conversation, I could see deep humiliation growing in my friends face.
I felt terrible for two counts firstly that the despair on her face was so obvious and she was clearly embarrassed that I had learned about this significant point in her life, which she clearly wanted to keep discrete. And secondly that I was learning about something she was not ready for me to learn about. Indeed, I know all about keeping things secret and not wanting to reveal those secrets until feeling absolutely ready. Rightly or wrongly, I pretended to be distracted from the conversation pacing away from the two friends speaking and then returning every now and again. Unfortunately one of my friends has a very loud voice which makes discretion particularly hard for the two of us.
It was all too clear what my friends were discussing. They had both grown up in rural areas of their communist countries. They had obviously had discussions as to the problems they faced in these communist countries in particular with regard to food. They were children when their countries were run by communists, and they still have memories of the Russians or the Soviets driving vans to their farmland, taking their supplies and in return selling, yes that's right selling these families tins of dog food for their meals.
I had no idea. I had no idea this had taken place in European countries. This had been going on until the 1990s and yet we weren't learning about it in schools and we were not learning about it in the news. In fact we still don't learn about this side of recent communist Europe. In this bizarre conversation between my friends, which I was pretending not to be listening to, my louder friend stated, “we were lucky we didn't get sold tins of dog food. But bread was mainly what we ate. Oh, and rice.” She added with strange delight as she recalled her alternative food supply.
I have never raised the conversation with them since they had that discussion. I get the feeling that they will open up when they are ready. Or perhaps they would never be ready to discuss it with me, but that's okay. I understand that. I just want to say with regards to my friends who I love and care about deeply I am so sorry that your childhood was that way. I am so sorry for the way you were treated by others who were meant to care about you. I am so sorry that it clearly still effects you. I am so sorry how it affected your family and I am so sorry that this progressive society in which we now live belittles your horrifying childhood by claiming you are privileged because you are white.
Through various conversations I know that they had a very difficult relationships with their families due to the environment in which they were held. I am glad that they are out of that situation now and I am glad that they feel they have found at least some freedom. And in their efforts to flee from the environment in which they were held previous, they are aware of the impact it has had on the British people who can't get employed. It has had a very real impact on myself and my own self-employment. Not an easy discussion to approach between people who are trying to escape one life which other people who are sinking into. I just wanted to say I understand, I am here for you, I love you, and I am sorry.