“Come on, boys, just another step! Let’s do this!” shouts Emil Stoica.
Six young men are struggling to lift a piano up the stairs of an apartment building in Mannheim Germany. It’s not easy as the instrument has a cast-iron frame at its core.
After ascending 25 floors, the young Romanian men take a beer break on the landing between floors. The boys chatter about what’s going on in the motherland. They never talk about Germany. It would be too boring. Everything here is monotonous, like the music of a street organ.
After a brief break, the boys get back to work.
“Boss, what floor did you say we have to bring this piano to?” – comes a question from a man breathing heavily as he supports the piano with the back of his shoulders.
“What do you mean, man? The 16th floor?! Are you sure? We’re on the 25th floor!
The men roll up their sleeves again, load up the piano and descend nine floors.
For years, I wanted to discover the headwaters of the river that flows goods into the second-hand stores at every corner in Romania. For a week, I had the privilege of solving this mystery with Emil Stoica and his funny team of strong-armed and thick-necked men.
Emil Stoica is a stout sixty-something year old man with a sunburned face and a square beard. He looks like he was made to climb up staircases or wind his way through apartment buildings with a fridge under his arms.
His dark, hardened face appears to be chiselled out of coal. But it quickly lights up and becomes as gentle as the face of a little grandmother whenever he smiles or laughs with his lips stretching to his ears. I met him a while back, when I passed through Germany driving a truck that was on its way to England.
The words “Haushaltsauflösungen, Entrümpelungen,” are inscribed on Emil’s company truck. In Romanian, Haushaltsauflösungen, Entrümpelungen would mean something like “a company that dissolves the goods found in your home”- which sounds absolutely ridiculous. I am curious what it means to dissolve households, so I hop in the truck in an old pair of sweatpants.
We start with the home of Mr. Meuth Gerber. The apartment was rented to a relative of his who recently passed away. He’s now selling the apartment and it has to be emptied immediately.
I expect to find a spacious and well-lit apartment in this well-maintained building with an elevator that’s as fast as lightning. Instead, the two-bedroom apartment is tight, small and dusty, drowned in the darkness of a dreary morning whose minimal light enters through a tiny, poorly placed window.
Mr. Gerber and his wife, both impeccably dressed, seek refuge against the wall, looking slightly frightened by the incoming attack of Emil Stoica’s workers, four of them this time.
Without much talk, they scatter through the apartment as if they were following a previously established plan. They begin to dismantle the furniture. The worker in the kitchen gathers the plates and utensils into boxes. Another one disassembles the wardrobe in the bedroom, another one does the same for the couch in the living room and finally, another one stuffs clothing – hanger and all – into nylon sacks. Over 100 pieces of clothing are hanging on a separate hanger. Suits, blouses, skirts, gowns, blazers, pants, coats, nightgowns, slips. The are colourful and seem barely used.
The garments reveal an energetic person. A happy, athletic, clean woman with rather extravagant taste. She lived a modest life in her home, but wanted to shine and attract attention out in public when she left the dark shadows of her apartment.
In her last years, she suffered from old age and illness. The apartment gives off the odor of urine and once all the clothes are gathered from the closet, two large boxes of diapers become visible. These two boxes will undoubtedly make their way to Emil Stoica’s second hand store in Râmnicu Vâlcea, Romania.
The entire life of this woman is about to be scattered in the distance. Soon countless Romanians will be shaking off the unseen dust of the woman from Mannheim.
Suddenly, a painting of a peasant girl by Grigorescu makes its appearance from one of the boxes going into the van. It’s a well-done reproduction.
“How nice! Look, you have one of Grigorescu’s paintings in the apartment!” yells Emil excitedly in German, looking over at Mr. Gerber.
“What does Grigorescu mean?” Gerber responds.
“He’s a great Romanian painter!”
The old man Gerber has never heard of Grigorescu. But he recalls the fact that his deceased relative once visited Romania during communism. She probably got the painting there. Along with a nice hand-stitched tablecloth that she always kept on the table under the chandelier.
“Was she a Saxon from Romania?”, asks Emil.
“No. But she certainly knew a lot about your country. I think she was in love with someone from there.”
I place the painting in a cardboard box to be brought into the truck. Grigorescu finally returns home after decades abroad. Stuffed away in a cardboard box full of spoons, glasses, towels and diapers, Grigorescu will soon be a masterpiece in a Romanian living room.
Now I understand what “dissolving a household” means. It’s not a forced translation because this is precisely what is done. Everything is dissolved, annihilated, the way a corpse would dissolve if it were placed in caustic soda. There is a sadness of about these emptied homes.
I’ve moved about 10 times in Bucharest and every time I moved into a new place, I always came across something that the prior resident left behind. And I always left something behind for the new tenant. A sort of unseen bond was created between those who had passed through over the years.
Here, a brutal line is crossed, separating the destinies of each person. The Germans, who once gifted the world with the Grimm brothers, seem to have no stories. For a Romanian, this is extremely frustrating. In Romania, you never see a laborer working in a home without engaging in a discussion with the owner. There’s always a comment that’s made, advice that is exchanged and gossip that is shared. Dialogue is part of the service that is offered.
How can a Romanian work in a home, especially one that is being dissolved, without being able to discover its past and the person who lived there for at least three generations? How can you leave without finding out what the person did, who she sided with and finally, what was the illness responsible for her death?
The Germans want you to enter into their homes quietly, to work quickly, neatly and then to leave the house empty, wrapped up in the sorrow that they are not capable of seeing”, says Emil.
Emil believes that the work he’s been carrying out in Germany for 25 years has helped to patch up Romania’s economy. His goods can end up in Ramnicu Valcea, Botosani, Buzau or Ialomita.
Emil is a patriot. On the wall of his office are his great grandparents slippers. He wore them when he arrived in Germany 25 years ago. He doesn’t want to forget where he came from.
He remembers his humble beginnings with sadness. He left the country in 1992 at 36 years of age. He was a foreman at the Hydraulic Equipment Enterprise. He had a sentiment that everything would fall apart, like an absurd theatre production. His colleagues laughed at him when he told them that he was leaving, but a year later, they were all unemployed.
He ended up in France, starving and homeless. He slept in a night shelter in Nice. In the evening, he’d get a bowl of soup and a cup of chocolate milk for breakfast. He spent his days roaming about the city and would only eat when managed to fish out coins that were thrown out into a public fountain. Sadly, he often had to fight other desperate Romanians for these coins. He kept a journal describing his feelings during this struggle. He wrote down everything from the humiliation to his dreams.
“Lord, help me to find a job and give me the strength to work so that I can bring my wife and children here, so that we could live together in a dignified way,” he wrote in his little journal that he now flips through emotionally with his hands trembling. It moves me to see this strong man, built like a wrestling champion, so vulnerable.
In Germany, where he applied for political asylum, Emil used to walk door to door saying “Arbeit! Arbeit!”. Work was the only word he knew and the only thing he could do.
There was an American army base where day laborers would show up every morning looking for work. Emil Stoica, famished, would head to the base before sunrise. While walking on a train track,
wet with morning dew, he’d say to himself: “If I manage to get to the end of the track without slipping, I’ll be given work today.”
It was his way of remaining optimistic.
When he didn’t find a day job, he’d walk around Mannheim gathering things that Germans had thrown out. He would grab a fridge or whatever else he found and carry it on his back to the other side of the town where he’d found shelter in a basement. From this basement he would store scraps and sell them to Romanians heading back to the home country.
Little by little, this struggle for survival became a successful business. He provides good salaries for 12 employees and built a nice home for his family.
The entire team eats at the company’s office where Nicu cooks lunch for his employees. If there’s too much work, they eat out on the job site. Nicu usually appears out of nowhere with his arms full
of grocery bags and serves each person after inquiring what they’d prefer to eat.
“On the feast day of Saint Dumitru, October 26, after emptying the home of an exceptionally crabby German man, we head to the pastry shop for a slice of cake. It feels like a school trip, we line up and everything”, says Emil.
The boss has remained an incredibly simple person. He carries furniture and eats alongside his employees.
On the way to the train station, Emil tells me, “What convinced me to stay here is the fact that I was treated with respect regardless of the work I chose to do. Whether I was carrying a fridge on my back or planting grape vines or cleaning toilets at a hotel or sweeping the street. Here, human beings are respected. That’s why Romanians leave, they’re looking for respect.”
I hop on the train back to Romania, dressed neatly in a velour coat and a pair of jeans bought from a second-hand store in Ghencea. They cost just 25 lei.