Colour, 2021

I’m sleeping in my old bedroom for two nights this week. 

The apartment I grew up in is in an old house in Bucharest, built around 1900 and split into flats once the Communists took over. I’ve often wondered how the flats were created; did they decide how many families would move in and then draw lines on the plan where the new walls would go in? Or did the families first move in and then build the walls, haggling and fighting over who would get how much, stealthily occupying rooms and boarding up doors that they would then fill in with plaster? 

In any event, the size and shape of the flats kept changing even while we lived there, as if they were tiny medieval principalities forever biting chunks off their neighbours and then losing parts of themselves in turn. When we moved there, in 1983, our two-bedroom flat was split over three floors: a hallway and the two bedrooms on the first floor, the bathroom on the second floor, and a storage room in the basement that my dad and a neighbour turned into a kitchen. (The previous tenant, a ballerina, had used the basement room as a practice room, we were told; she had a makeshift kitchenette in the stairway leading up to the bathroom.) A few years later, the neighbours who lived in the other basement rooms moved out and we tore down the wall between the apartments to create a larger one. My parents moved their bedroom downstairs and my brother and I had full dominion over the first floor, with its high ceilings and two terracotta stoves. 

To get to my room, I had to pass through my brother’s, our fiefdoms separated by a tall mirrored French door. During one of the many fights caused by the inconvenient exercise of my right of way, my brother (he wouldn’t have been more than eight at the time, I was still in middle school) threw a hardboard book at me. I closed the door quickly and the book hit one of its mirrors, which broke into hundreds of small pieces that somehow never fell off. The mirror stayed that way, its brokenness a witness to my teenage years, then my brother’s, then his twenties and then the emptiness once we both left home and then left the country. Until this week. Dad has decided to finally replace it. Broken mirrors are bad Feng Shui, he said. 

My old room is no longer a shrine to my teenage self. My brother was finally allowed to turn it into a proper grown-up bedroom, but only a good few years after I moved out. But I can still see the door from the bed, so tonight I examine my broken mirror for the last time. The unbroken mirror right next to it is half obscured by a giant round sticker that says, in garish colour, “Playskool Pounding Bench”. I google it. It’s a wooden toy for babies or toddlers, and they no longer make it, but you can buy vintage ones on eBay. I look at the photo on the website and recognise the sticker, but the toy itself looks wholly unfamiliar. I don’t think I ever had the toy; I think I got the sticker from someone – maybe someone whose parents worked for a factory that made toys for export? – and then stuck it to the mirror because it was colourful. Just like other kids I knew had collections of colourful wrappers from sweets that kids other than themselves had eaten, or robots built from colourful packs of cigarettes that people other than their parents had smoked. 

It sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? That we, lost in a sea of grey, would quench our thirst for colour with empty packaging hinting at pleasures we could only imagine and that other people had already consumed. To those who have not lived through those times, it may (hopefully) sound completely alien, and the memory itself seems so strange even to me that I have to wonder if maybe I dreamed the Marlboro and Camel robots in my cousins’ house or the treasured Mars and Bounty wrappers that a new friend had shown me when I came to visit. She had a friend in Germany, she said, who sent her wrappers for her collection – just the wrappers, because packages with actual sweets in them wouldn’t have made it through. Surely that can’t have really happened. Right? 

And I also wonder why it’s only now that I wonder about the lonely sticker next to the broken window. Maybe it’s because I’m reading a new book by a Romanian author, set in a 1983 stationery store, among thick rolls of dark blue wrapping paper (the only kind there was) and the ever-elusive Chinese erasers, the colourful ones you could only find sometimes, and then only for a few hours because we all wanted them and they would be sold out almost as soon as they arrived in the store. Or maybe it’s simply because, a year and a half into this pandemic, I find myself craving colour again.

The psychologist and academic Adam Grant recently published an article about an emotion he calls “languishing”. He defines it as “the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either.” Grant thinks that languishing “might be the dominant emotion of 2021”. The article created quite a buzz, with some people embracing the term for finally giving a name to the amorphous blah they were feeling and others rejecting it and suggesting instead that they were “hibernating” – a more hopeful term, suggesting an imminent, flourishing spring. 

I don’t feel strongly about terminology on this one. But I do recognise, in myself and in those around me, the creeping grey we keep trying, but don’t quite manage, to colour in. It’s on the inside this time, but maybe I can fend it off by bringing in as much colour as I can from the outside, so I fill my eyes with lilac and wisteria, with the blinding yellow of the dandelions from my kids’ walk to school, the blue in their eyes, the flaming reds of some sunsets, with notebooks and pens in every colour of the rainbow. And I am seriously considering buying some stickers. 

A Romanian language version of this post appeared in the June 2021 issue of ForbesLife Romania

Photo by Owen Yin on Unsplash

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