Maria is gripped with fear. A fear that has settled in her soul since the whole ‘deadly virus’ madness started. She no longer sleeps well at night, and eats poorly during the day. „I only had half a lemon for dinner. I’m not hungry.”
Her thoughts are swarming around several words: borders, home, Goșa. Words that grind her soul and pierce her brain. Words that leave her with eyes fixed on the ceiling nights in a row. „You know, I have a bad headache. I cannot take it anymore. I’ve been having it for about a month, since everything started. I told [my husband] Vanea that if I manage to come home, he should take me to the madhouse. He jokingly said he would book a place from now,” Maria sighs long.
How would she cross the borders that have closed? Where will she sleep if she doesn’t get home? What if she never sees her child? And, in general, what kind of a virus is this, to have blocked her in Italy and she cannot go to Moldova?
These questions are her best friends and follow her everywhere: in the field, in the Italian’s vineyard, in the plate with potatoes, which she leaves untouched, in the bathroom and in bed, in the things packed in a red bag with black stripes.
”Why the hell did I come here? If I had known…”
‘Kiss me with your mask on. Ok, mother?’
It was Thursday, April 2nd. In two days, it would be exactly three months since Maria had come to Mareno di Piave, a town with ten thousand residents in northern Italy, at about 60 kilometers away from Venice. The 30-year-old woman’s ‘work contract’, which she had never seen, was expiring on that same Saturday, April 4th. She got an unofficial job, with five other Moldovan citizens and several Romanians, in a vineyard. Seasonal work.
„He promised I would earn six euros per hour. But the rent adds to this money, which costs 200 euros, and already the food, which we buy and also cook. You know, I didn’t spend a penny,” Maria said proudly, on the other side of the phone.
Since Saturday was her last workday, Maria had to return home. She teamed up with her roommate Ana and a Moldovan man who had his own car and, together, they decided to leave Italy.
„I want us to leave on Saturday night, because they let you go through customs in the evening. This is how I understood it. We are coming through Austria. I don’t know how we’re going to pass through those customs. They say, you must go through the one between Romania and Moldova walking. I don’t know why, but I’m afraid lest we have problems. I’m afraid I won’t be able to come home and see my boy. I’m afraid I’d be a vagabond around here if I don’t get to Moldova. I just came for three months. I just don’t have anyone here.”
Maria was whispering about their escape plan. She was afraid of the other Moldovans, „lest they heard and wanted to come along.” „What if he seats someone else in my place or they won’t fit in the car?” I’m not so afraid of the coronavirus as I am of these customs,” the young woman told us worriedly, while the vine pruning shears could be heard snip in the background.
As of March 17th, when the European Union announced it was closing its borders for a month, because of the coronavirus pandemic, she had been calling for various Italy-Moldova bus tours to book a seat, but the drivers explained that, for the time being, they were not making any tours. „Just last night I called a Moldovan and asked If he had a seat available. He laughed and said, ‘Don’t you see what’s going on in the world? Unless you take flying horses to come.‘ He said I should wait until April 15th but that they may not remove this ban even then.”
So her only rescue was the young Moldovan with his own car and who promised to start out for Moldova on Saturday. „I don’t really trust him, but whom should I trust? He said he wanted home, too. On Saturday, we will work until four in the evening, then I will pack my things and maybe God is almighty and we will start out. God, I want to see my boy so much!” the young woman confessed on the phone.
„I can’t return to Mareno di Piave. Saturday is the last workday for the Italian man. I must also leave my rented flat on Saturday. On April 4th, it will be three months since I’ve been in Italy. I came with my biometric passport (which entitles Moldovan citizens to a 90 day stay within six months in the territory of the European Union – editor’s note). Even it weren’t for the coronavirus, I’d be going home on Saturday anyway.”
She did not have a backup plan in case the border guards did not let her pass, but she hoped that „we would cross, as everyone did before us,” because „I must get home, to Goșa.”
„If it doesn’t turn out as we planned, Ana and I decided to take our bags and go to the train station, to the airport, as maybe the police would catch us and deport us home. You know, Ana and I even joked about this when we went to the store. That, if a police officer saw us and said: ‘We have been looking for you so long, girls!’, we’d answer: ‘We’ve been looking for you even longer…’,” Maria laughed short.
She tried to make some more jokes but her voice betrayed worry and anxiety. She often repeated the words ‘fear’, ‘care’, ‘customs’, ‘coronavirus’. What sent her gloomy thoughts away a bit were the calls she received from home, from her husband and from her 7-year-old son, Goșa. Just the night before, they called her up to show her the new bike.
„I was so proud of them… Goșa riding a bicycle! He told me, ‘Mother, make all that money already and come home.’ I said, ‘Goșa, if I come home, I’ll kiss you and squeeze you so hard, that everything will come out of you.’ But he said, ‘But wear a mask when you hug me and kiss me. Ok, mother?’”
Maria knows very well that when she gets home, she will have to be quarantined for 14 days. That is, she will not be able to leave her house yard at all. At least that’s what her relatives told her. „They may quarantine me for 28 days, I just want to see my boy! Last week, Vanea was crying on the phone… I heard him sob for the first time. He said he was afraid, too, that the borders had been closed and that I would not be able to return.”
When she arrived in Italy on January 4th, it never occurred to her that, in less than two months, everyone’s life would be literally turned upside down. In Mareno di Piave, they took rigorous measures, Maria told us. After returning from the field, no one left the house. Nobody walked in the parks, only those with dogs. The police roamed the streets and shouted into the megaphone: “Stay in the house. It’s dangerous!”
„We go shopping once a week. Only stores and pharmacies are open. Only one person at a time enters the store. We [once] encountered the ambulance and thought it was the police. We were so scared. Word has it, if they catch you on the street, they fine you, by about 400 euros.”
Despite the measures taken by the Mareno di Piave administration against the ‘deadly virus’, Maria continued to work without disinfectant or protective masks.
Far from the news, with only what she heard from her co-workers and what her family in Moldova was conveying, the coronavirus seemed like an invention to her. „Well, I don’t believe in this corona. I think it’s all lies. What kind of a disease is this!? They thought it up, so that to get money out of Moldova, those losers in our country. Didn’t you hear how Dodon is waiting for us? He’s making houses for us in the cemetery!”, Maria slammed angrily.
She calmed down quickly and made jokes about the villages of Balceana and Sofia, because she is also from a village of Hâncești district. At that time, both localities were in quarantine. „Maybe the drunkards will calm down in their homes!”
In Italy, Maria worked from day to night. In the morning, they were transported to the vineyards, surrounded by the Alps and generously warmed by the sun, and late in the evening – were brought back home. ”The work is hard. At night, when I get to my room, my hands hurt, my legs are numb. Everything hurts. If I had known…,” Maria was sighing on the phone.
When Ana, a friend from Carpineni, told her there was work available „in Italy, on the hills, in the vineyard,” Maria did not understand what she would have to do. She only supposed. She is a country girl – she has ploughed vines, tied stumps, harvested and crushed grapes – and she thought it would not be complicated. But her first day of work will be etched on her memory forever.
„I was crying and wanted to go home because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. It’s different from what I used to do in the village. The boss was shouting at me: ‘Come on, move, or I’ll push your face through this ground!‘
He behaves really bad. But then he showed me how to prune, tie, take care of it. And so, I got used to it in three months and I know everything now,” the woman said.
She also got used to her ‘student life’. Together with her friend Ana and another Moldovan woman, they rented a flat in Mareno di Piave for three months. She shared with Ana not only her room but also her bed. They couldn’t afford a bigger flat. She enjoyed the modest conditions and fondly remembered the days when things were normal. „I like it when it’s nice and there is no quarantine. You can walk, work, go window-shopping. It’s nice.”
She never found a common language with her boss. After reprimanding her at the beginning, one day Maria asked him to put money on her phone account, so she could call her child. ” ‘Give me your p**sy and I’ll put it!‘ I didn’t understand what that was about, but I never raised that question again. I asked a woman to help me. She uploaded my phone and I can talk with Goșa and Vanea every day.”
He was not the first boss to make advances to her. In the autumn of 2019, when she ventured for the first time to the peninsula, she also worked unofficially, for a 75-year-old Italian man. She resisted a month. She had to cook, clean and do laundry. After finishing the housework, she painted smoking pipes in the workshop arranged in the house yard.
„At first [the old man] was nice, but in about two weeks he started playing the devil. He was misbehaving with me. He was talking nonsense: that I shouldn’t hold on tight, that I would get in his bed anyway, like all the other women. He started going crazy. He wouldn’t let me eat, so I wouldn’t have a big ass. So, if I ate only pasta with tomatoes the first two weeks, I ate only apples with bread the other two. As they say: I lived only on goodies – apples with bread,” Maria laughs now, bitterly.
For the 850 euros that the Italian man threw on the table at the end of the month, she constantly cried the nights in the cold, damp and mouldy pantry the old man had made available to her. She endured all the mockery for that little money. „I don’t know why I didn’t leave the psycho. I thought about the money. Honestly. What did I have to bring home when I had borrowed to come here?”
And so, at the beginning of January 2020, when she went to Italy for the second time, she was more careful when choosing work. But if it’s not the devil, it’s his father, Maria noted angrily. „If it’s not the mockery from the employers, then some coronavirus hits you. I swear that if I get home safely and see my son, I will never return to this Italy!”
„It’s hard without you, Maria”
It was Saturday, April 4th. The dawn of the day rushed through the window. Maria was breathing hard. She barely got out of bed. „This day has finally come.” She sighed long and pulled her pants and black sweater with difficulty. At night, she slept even worse than on the other days. For two hours.
She went to bed thinking about her family and got up with the same thought in her head. „What did they eat for dinner last night? What are they doing? Did Goșa sleep uncovered? Did…?”
She went to the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. With grey hair, red and swollen eyes, she could no longer recognize herself. „I look like a drug addict, not like a thirty-year-old woman,” she said to herself, throwing cold water over her wind-blown face.
Her fingers ached. The index finger of her left hand was crumpled to the flesh from the vine pruning shears. Her entire body ached. From work and anxiety.
– What if I don’t arrive home today? What will I be doing? an oppressive thought asked.
– Well, you will take some money from what you’ve earned and you’ll live on it until you find a way, another thought answered.
– No! What? To spend all the money I’ve made!? Did I come here just to see Italy and that’s all!? No, that’s enough, stop! I’ll get home and everything will be fine, Maria finished the symphony in her head, wiping her face with a towel.
She took a deep breath and went to the kitchen to eat breakfast. Half an hour later, the car came and transported them to the field. To plant vines. „I put twigs in the ground. At home, we use a spade for this. It’s a bit different here,” Maria explained.
She did not touch her lunch. „You kind of feel hungry but then you think that you are so soon starting out for home?! Nothing was going in any more. I couldn’t swallow even a crumb of bread.”
On her way to the vine rows, the phone rang. It was Ghenadie. The guy who promised to take her home by his personal car. He reminded her that he would come in the evening to pick up her bags, and then, around midnight, they would leave. Maria wanted to whistle with joy. „If he told me about the bags, that means he’ll take me home.”
With her face unfrowned, she began to drag on her back the dry branches between the rows, taking them out to the end of the rows. The hours passed slowly. Her heart was pounding as she looked at the white peaks of the mountains. She knew she was seeing them for the last time. „Tomorrow, with God’s help, I’ll be far away from here.”
The sun went down lazily on the ridges, while Maria carries hard the last bundles of sticks. She was about to fall over one of them. She had no more strength. „I worked so hard that afternoon that I could feel the operation on my reproductive organs,” the woman complained.
She finally got home around six o’clock in the evening, She took a shower. She once again checked her bags, to make sure she didn’t forget anything, and together with Ana, started waiting for Ghena.
The young man came as he promised. At around seven in the evening. They took their bags down to the trunk of the car.
At midnight, on the night of April 4th to 5th, they set off from Mareno di Piave. Maria, Ana and Ghenadie’s mother perched on the backseat of the car, and on the front seat – an Ana’s acquaintance.
In order to protect herself at least a bit against the new virus, the woman made masks from wet wipes. She had not found any medical masks in pharmacies.
Once in the car, Maria did not take her eyes off the road. Fear was not leaving her. The customs… „God, if I could only cross them,” the woman kept praying. At the same time, „I was glad to get rid of Italy.”
Music was playing in the car, and in the background, everyone was talking about the coronavirus, about Easter, about Moldova, about what they were going to do next, and what the world would look like after the pandemic.
By morning, Maria hadn’t been able to fall asleep. It was uncomfortable to sleep with my head resting on the glass of the window and my feet on the bags and „I really wanted to see myself in the Leuseni customs.”
The first stop, at six in the morning, coincided with the first border crossing. Whether it was Slovakia or Slovenia, the woman can’t remember. But she remembers perfectly that “Ghena lost the way. We had to arrive at the Austrian customs. Well, but I didn’t bother. I trusted him.”
There were very few cars and a lot of trucks in the customs, Maria remembers. They got out of the car. ”We were stiff. We couldn’t walk.” They filled in some papers. The border guards measured their fever. The whole procedure did not take more than a few minutes. Then two police cars escorted them for several kilometres. One in the front, one in the back. With the flashing lights on.
„They came to show us the right way. As if we were presidents, with so many cars around us,” Maria laughs now, when she remembers how that Sunday started.
It’s just that, in half an hour, with all the escort and the GPS of Ghenadie’s car, all five of them found themselves again in the customs they had already passed. Slovenia’s or Slovakia’s. „What the hell, alas, Ghena, alas!, reproached the passengers, with tense faces.
This time, they spent three hours there, because of the change of shifts, and Maria’s anxiety began to grow. They had to be in the Austrian customs a long time ago, since last night. At least that’s what she understood from Ghena, that „the Austrians allow Moldovans to pass at night”.
They walked around the car some more, took deep breaths, and left at about 10 in the morning. This time, in the right direction – Austria. Escorted by the same police officers. „I wonder what they said about us?! That we are so stupid that don’t even know how to get home.”
They drove on for another six hours or so. They stopped at gas stations to unwind their stiff bodies. Maria didn’t have any coffee. „Why spend money on that? I drank water from the little bottle I had with me and ate what I had prepared that evening in Italy and that’s it!”
After the dusk, at around four o’clock, they arrived in a small town a few kilometres from the border between Austria and Hungary. They stayed there, in a parking lot, until 9 p.m., when the passage was allowed. Five hours of life stories, eating nuts and drinking coffee.
They passed easily. The control was similar to the morning one. „The customs officers measured our fever again, made us sign some papers.” An hour later, after waiting for the twenty-three cars in front of them to pass, they left for Romania.
Maria was tired. She had not contacted her family in Moldova and had not closed an eye since leaving Italy. „I wanted to make sure I got home. I was afraid that if I closed my eyes, I would be stuck there forever, on the roads.”
Nonetheless, she felt waves of relief. She felt alive. She still had some worries about how they would pass the penultimate customs, but calm enthralled her more and more. „I was afraid lest they stopped Ghena at the Romanian customs and quarantined him, because of the Romanian number plates on the car. He has a Romanian passport but his car papers are Moldovan.”
In the morning of April 6th, at six in the morning, the five Moldovans arrived at the Hungarian border with Romania. There wasn’t a soul in the customs. „It was just us and we passed quickly. Of course, with fever measured, papers signed.”
They spent the day on the roads of Romania, and in the evening they arrived at the deserted customs of Leușeni. Maria felt faint. As long as they checked her passport and they signed papers that they would comply with staying in the house for 14 days, her heart was pounding. She was already sure they would let them pass.
She took a deep breath. She had only a few more miles to go. „I can’t describe how happy I was.”
Vanea was waiting for her at the first gas station from the customs. She recognized his car from a distance. He was alone. „I didn’t bring Goșa with me. I wanted us to surprise him,” Vanea told her shyly.
Maria threw her arms around his neck and gave a ‘serious’ smack on his lips. „I missed you so…” Vanea, in turn, squeezed her tightly and said bluntly: “I won’t let you go anywhere without me. It’s hard without you, Maria.”
When they got home, Goșa heard the sound of the car engine and ran to the gate. He saw his mother through the car window and was stunned. He couldn’t understand what was happening. Vanea warned him that his mother had avian flu and that he shouldn’t come close to her.
„That’s not true… It’s money laundering. Mother doesn’t have anything,” the seven-year-old boy replied with his gap-toothed mouth wide to his ears and, in two steps, he jumped right into Maria’s arms. „I hugged him as I had dreamed. Hard, to get everything out of him,” the woman recalls.
Monday, April 20th, was Maria’s last day of quarantine. For 14 days, she called the doctor and reported her body temperature. „I called her again today but she said: ‘What’s with you, Maria? Your last day was yesterday.’ You can finally leave your yard.”
According to the Border Police data, from March 17, when a state of emergency was established in the Republic of Moldova, and until April 22, 67,444 people entered the country.
Photos and video – from the heroine’s personal archive