The Iron Road by Mihaela Balica

About the equality from the starting line and the obstacles which make you who you are at the end of the race.

Saturday at noon. The sun burns unusually strong for the mid of September. Maybe it’s only the sensation created by the hot land which raises dust with every step. The road named by Craiova’s people “on the channel”, found at the outskirts of Craiova, and reminds us about the dusty narrow streets of any village. Sometime, here it spread a Deep channel of 10 meters. Today, it is only a road of approximately 2 kilometres length, enclosed by the gypsies’ houses who live in this part of the city. The majority from here deal with collecting the iron, which became a real trade and a source of income. The others have different businesses, from shops where you find everything to services, car washes and GPL stations.

Also here, at the shelter of a recently dyed fence in a green picture of locust leaves, Vali B. works continuously, of 47 years old, the most respected among the inhabitants from the channel. People consider him a leader of the community because he is one of the fewest gypsies from Craiova who graduated from a faculty and he opened himself a business with scrap iron – the most important resource from this city fringe. On the channel, everybody knows him; a literate man, wise and an unbeaten businessman. “He has a good heart, a pair of open arms and a satchel full of advice and urges”, says Ion, the owner of the shop situated across from the road.

On the other side of the fence is nestled a house with one story, in a simple architectural style, outlined through shades of warm grey colours and through the spacious extent of the yard. In the opposite extremity, there is the equipment of storing the iron brought towards selling for Vali by the collectors from the channel and weighed by means of the scales. Behind the yard, as a shelter unexposed to the eyes of the curious people, there is the workshop where the man retreats for many times in order to sort the iron and to disassemble the engines.

Vali does not let himself easily tempted from the iron temple. Only when it comes about a client whom he estimates or the well-known roll cooked by his wife. His grumpy expression on his face, his shoulders being pushed downwards by the grey labour jacket, his hesitating steps which lead him outside the workshop, seem to say that he was interrupted unwillingly from his activity. Nevertheless, his voice is tolerant and his attitude humble, almost embarrassed. When he speaks, his eyes unwind the movie of everything he says as in a movie theatre.

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He was born in the year 1967, on a rainy day of 12th of October, in Craiova. The house from the district 1st of May was miserable and crowded, with two rooms. He slept together with his mother in a small bed, and the father on a widened sofa with two chairs which supported a board. The kitchen was of the size of a pantry in which fitted a table, three chairs and a fire machine. His parents were iron collectors. They manufactured copper boilers and other utensils, axes or hoes. They were poor and Vali worked together with them ever since he was a little boy. He collected iron from the outskirts of the city. His father insisted a lot to send him to school. „Tinucă, if knowledge is a treasure/knowledge is power!’’ he used to tell him. He was their only child and he wanted for him more than a life on the iron roads. Education was an aim which he himself would have wanted to reach in his childhood, but his parents didn’t support him. Tinucă did not understand. He was only 6 years old. He was happy when he collected iron and received money for it. But, he attended middle school in the year 1975 in the district the 1st of May from Craiova and the high school in the same district, where he specialized on equipment.

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„His parents did their best to see me with the schoolbag on my back, although I did not want that at all.” says Vali. They hardly succeeded in obtaining all that it’s necessary for school. He was growing up and he needed so many things, which he could never fully satisfy them. This was the first obstacle between him and his colleagues, gypsies alike and Romanian people. The schoolbag offered by the neighbours from the district was old and discoloured. During the first school day he stuffed it with books and notebooks received from the school teacher. Under their weight, the school bag tore and fell noisily on the floor. The children laughed and pointed their fingers to him for a long time since then.

They isolated him and looked at him strangely. For the first time, Vali understood that he was different. Thin, with prominent eyes, hidden among the locks of black hair as the night, thin hands, his legs always injured in the collected iron with eagerness and ragged clothes in which he was so cold, patched, miserable. He almost reached the age of 8, and he knew that his parents make great efforts to send him to school. Only then he understood that also his effort had to be equal.

Vali looks at the clear September sky with nostalgia. The trace of a recollection shakes his peace. His back strains, but he easily shakes as if after a shiver. He remembers how wet were the rainy mornings and how cold were his legs in the shoes with holes on the soles. The same shoes which he used to wear in the autumn and winter as well and in the spring. The only differences were the number of pairs of socks and the holes which became bigger and bigger. He took care of them and he cleaned them frequently hoping that they could look newer. He turns on his left heel, he shelters his hands in the pocket as for warming them up and smiles happily. He looks for a long time the tip of his foot in order to convince himself by the well-being of his shoes.

In the 11th grade, on a Monday in which the projects in teams were presented, Vali wore his only shirt that he had. He wasn’t accepted by any team and he worked by himself, for 3 days, at the presentation of which he was very proud. The colleagues behind him hanged his shirt on an angular chair. When his turn came, he stood up and his shirt tore on his back with a loud swish. He knew that there was nothing to be done. He went in front of the classroom and without moving too much in order to hide the hole from his shirt, he presented enthusiastically his paper about forest equipment.

During that day he won three magazines of mechanics which his form teacher gave him for the best project. At the same time, he understood what his father told him frequently: „You must learn to be patient and respect everybody. Only in this way you will succeed”. At home he read being tossed off the magazines, many times and he persistently looked at the photos. His child’s eyes were investigating curiously, for the first time fascinated by the new discoveries. From here started also the need to study thoroughly mechanics’ secrets.

He sighs for a long time and he looks at the sky once again. He follows something there, up. As if it were the thread of a thought long ago forgotten. „I wanted to work in the lawyers’ field, to try to make people not to think about us that we are bad people anymore. But it wasn’t possible.” He was in the 10th grade and he was 17 years old. He dreamt about becoming a lawyer and fight for justice and for gypsies, to prove that education is not made on social classes or on ethny. Then he realized that it is difficult to enter the domain at which he aspired and he oriented himself towards the family tradition: the iron. At his parents’ suggestion, he chose to continue his studies at the Faculty of Mechanics from Craiova where he learnt everything about iron, its usage and engines functioning and the mechanisms. His learning results were average, but his ambition and home support did not allowed him to give up. Later, he had to use all his knowledge about this branch in order to start a business.
He perseveringly looked for defining an identity. But nothing was outlined at his homeless child’s horizons, of the channels and of the iron. He was 20 years old and he was a student at mechanics. He still could not find his place in the society or among his colleagues. He knew he was tolerated.

But he liked to study and prove that in education, everybody starts from the same starting line. At the age of 28 years old his father told him: „Starting from today you are a big boy. Manage yourself and start a future life.” He started the business with a Dacia car of his father and with a welding machine. At the beginning it was difficult, a lot of work and a lot of patience.

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Now Vali transports monthly at the Collecting Centre of the ferrous and nonferrous metals “ADIDRAD” from the district ‘the Barrier of Vâlcea’ iron that is worth 25.000 lei. He is aware of the turn that his life took. He feels a winner in a race in which he did not have the right to start equally. During the faculty the professors did not give him trust, and his colleagues discouraged him frequently through distant attitudes. During that time, even he started thinking that life would not offer him too many possibilities.

But, he followed his natural course, with the tranquillity of the thought that people make mistakes naturally, but that they can correct them anytime. So, he wasn’t surprised to find later, his colleagues from faculty in the position of clients who bring iron for selling. He wasn’t unfriendly, but on the contrary, he treated them with respect. Finally they are clients, business partners and more than that, people to whom he wants to prove that the supreme reason which raises you to a higher condition is the result of the effort of going beyond your limits. And what makes a human being be fully happy is the power to forgive. Vali feels like a rich man. He has a healthy family and a stable economic condition. He travels and interacts with people. And today he is happy to forward everything he experienced to anybody is eager to listen to him.

This article can also be read here: http://citescasertiunea.aser.ro/2014/12/03/drumul-de-fier/