Planting the seeds of post-lockdown life in Romania’s nature

Photographer Roxi Pop left her partner and her apartment in Cluj to quarantine with her parents in Mediaș. What started as a simple photo diary has grown into a beautifully allegorical series. She talked to The Calvert Journal about Romanians’ connection to nature, long distance love, familial generosity, and the restorative powers of gardening.

27 August 2020
Text and images: Roxi Pop
As told to: Liza Premiyak

Tomas is from Zoersel, Belgium. I am from Mediaș, a city in the Sibiu county, Romania. We met on 1 December 2015 in Cluj, which also happens to be Romania’s National Day. At the time, Tomas had been working on a photography project about life in the gold mining towns in Transylvania’s Apuseni Mountains, and wanted to get feedback from other Romanian photographers. A friend put us in touch. After his short visit to Cluj, he came back to spend the New Year’s Eve with me, and we have been together ever since.

We come from very different countries with big socio-economic differences. I remember the first time I visited his hometown: we were on the bus from Antwerp to Zoersel, and even as we drove out of town, we passed one building after another. I asked if we were still in the city, but we’d been driving through the countryside for some time. This surprised me: in Romania, you know you’re in the countryside because there’s nothing to see other than nature. In Belgium, urban and rural scenery blend into one. It was hard for me to make out the difference between them.

I drove to Mediaș together with my two cats and a car full of belongings. The cats cried throughout the journey and I cried too

I’ve loved sharing Romanian culture with Tomas, especially our connection with nature and the land. In Romania, 50 per cent of agriculture consists of people growing food and raising animals for their families. Younger generations have better paid jobs, so they afford to go buy food from supermarkets, but this only arrived in Romania 15 or so years ago. The older generations grow their own food. Even in Bucharest, you’ll still find vegetable gardens all over the city.

My family has a big garden with fruits and vegetables on the outskirts of Mediaș. Each time we visit my family — a two hour drive, usually, every two weeks — we leave with a car full of food. I have always considered myself very lucky to have access to fresh, delicious produce grown by my own parents.

The plan was for Tomas and I to move to Belgium in 2020. When Romania declared a state of emergency in response to Covid-19, moving had to be put on hold. My freelance gigs were cancelled and I could no longer afford to rent my apartment in Cluj. I decided to move to my parents’. This way, I wouldn’t be alone; I’d be in a familiar place with a huge garden. I could help my parents with work and save money.

I drove to Mediaș together with my two cats and a car full of belongings. The cats cried throughout the journey and I cried too. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us, or when we would be able to return home to our routine. It was my father who told me: “I am sorry to say, but I think this will last longer than you hope.” I knew he was right, but I didn’t want to believe it. In my mind, I was still hoping that in a month or so I could move in with Tomas. But months passed and the moment never came.

In the beginning, I tried to focus on the present, to take every day as it came. I tried to stay busy, by working in the garden, cooking, cleaning the house, unpacking my belongings, and spending time with my grandparents.

We had to learn how to adapt to each other’s routines, to find a middle ground. My parents like to eat while watching the daily news, but the constant flow of bad news was too much for me, and when it got warmer outside I started to eat on the terrace alone. My father noticed and took it upon himself to check if I wanted the TV turned off.

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My parents spend most of their time growing things, making something out of nothing. The month I moved back is what my mother refers to as “the spring campaign”: when thousands of baby plants poke through the soil and have to be replanted in the greenhouse. Usually my mother hires someone to help her sell the plants, but this year, I was my mother’s aide. The time I spent at home this spring gave me the opportunity to see the whole process from scratch: planting seeds in cups, nurturing the baby plants, replanting them in the greenhouse, watering them every day, and finally, watching them grow.

Me and Tomas would speak every three days. Video calls were difficult and strange. Seeing each other only emphasised the physical distance between us, so we stuck to phone calls. He started at a new job and moved in with his parents too, so that he could be closer to work. There were a lot of new things happening for him. The opposite was true for me: I didn’t have any work, I couldn’t see my friends in Cluj, and I wasn’t able to see anyone other than my family for a month.

At the end of June, me and Tomas finally found a way to be together. Since he could not come to Romania, we planned to meet in Hungary. He flew to Debrecen, a city close to the border with Romania, and I drove there to meet him. From there, we continued driving together with our cats all the way to Belgium. It took us three days with overnight stops in pet-friendly hotels. After five months apart, I couldn’t believe that we had been reunited. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the time we spent together was without a timestamp. I feared that we would soon be separated. It felt too good to be true.

When I left home, the garden was flourishing and my parents were reaping their rewards: they harvested lettuce, radishes, carrots, sweet peas, cherry tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, and rhubarb. Yet this is the last year that my parents will enjoy a harvest of this size.

Next spring, they will sell half of their land because they cannot care for it as they did before. They would prefer to give it away than leave it half empty. When my sister found out, she cried: “You can’t sell the garden. The garden is you.” It may be a natural part of becoming an adult, but recently I’ve become conscious of the fact that everything has an end, and I don’t want that end to come. I try to understand how others cope with the idea of losing someone very close, or dying. I haven’t found any answers yet.

Me and Tomas are living in Antwerp, Belgium, in an apartment with a small garden. Romania is back on Belgium’s “red list”, meaning I can’t go home to see my family. Still, we have our cats and it feels like life has somewhat returned to normal.

This experience made me and Tomas more resilient as a couple. It made us understand that we can overcome unpredictable, difficult situations. It has also made me certain that, wherever I live in the future, I want to have a garden. Two weeks ago, my parents sent us a package: 40 kilograms of cauliflower, big juicy heirloom tomatoes, hot peppers, celery, aubergines, plums, hazelnuts, blackberries, and much more. My parents’ garden kept me grounded in moments when I felt like nothing made sense. Nature is humanity’s greatest teacher: it show us that there is a beginning and an end, there is happiness and sorrow, there is life and death.

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