Note: This is a story about six days I spent in Romania this month. The echo of my time there is like the one from Cambodia; being in a country where the pace remains more connected to the earth-rhythm than elsewhere, ostensibly because the country is still poor. For me, the rhythm is a mirror showing what contemporary life has lost - and what the people in Romania are in the process of loosing - but it is also about the different kind of future we will have when we turn back toward that more earthly, sustainable rhythm. Bill
. . .
I’d found a $128 flight from Istanbul to Bucharest and sensed this was the route to begin my journey back to the U.S. In the late afternoon on October 31st I found myself on a bus from the Bucharest Airport to the hotel where I'd made a reservation, chosen once again through the internet. Only later did I realize I had arrived in Romania on Halloween.
The passengers on the bus I turned to for directions were diligently kind, which formed my first impression of Romania. The woman behind me deliberated at great length just where I should get off for Magheru 8-10, the address of my hotel, and when she asked the man across the aisle for his advice, he knew with certainty and just about took my hand and led me off the bus when it came to my stop.
The Ambassador Hotel displayed the flags of the European Union, its entrance was embedded between two sex shops - just as one internet review claimed it would be - and the lobby itself was a chaos of pillars, worn out sofas and florescent lighting. I handed over my passport and once I'd established a bit of rapport with the desk clerk asked him if I could have a room had a good view. He retrieved the key he was about to give me and handed me another. Room #314 was at the end of a hallway and was large, with two balcony windows and a bathtub so enormous it suggested the disquiet of accidental drowning. The walls seemed to be yellow, painted very long ago and lit by weak energy saving light bulbs. Except for a rotary-dial telephone, the room seemed it had been left unchanged for decades and I imagined I could have been a minor Politburo authority just arrived from Moscow. Across the street was an immense Communist-era apartment building, its concrete peeling apart and enduring at the same time.
I turned on the tap and eventually the tub did fill and I took a bath, the hot water bringing my nervous system back to earth. Armed with directions from the desk clerk I set out for dinner and a walk of ten or twelve blocks to get to where the restaurants would be. What Bucharest would look like in the day was largely obscured in the dark and instead consisted of headlights, the sound of traffic and the streetlamps lighting the grey surfaces of sidewalks, buildings and asphalt, a kind of contemporary anywhere. Eventually I had the good fortune to find a small restaurant and a kind waiter, a man who spoke enough English that we could eventually even exchange irony over the size the dinner (large). My broccoli soup came in a deep tureen and was so good I came back the next night and had it again.
The soup, the spaghetti carbonara and two glasses of good red wine erased everything I’d been missing after three months of eating nothing but Turkish food and I left the restaurant with a sated and gratified well-being. I was walking down a mostly deserted street when an elderly woman approached me from the opposite direction and began speaking to me in Romanian. I knew she was asking for money, but her demeanor and dress - as if she'd come from the office - belied this. When I spoke the woman switched to English and began to explain to me the short-form of her story. She had worked her adult life in some ministry, spoke five languages and now she was retired, her pension had been cut and food prices were rising. She had no family and no other way to survive but to beg to make up the shortfall. We spoke for some time and I gave her 10 lei (about three dollars) – later I wished I’d given here 50. She told me her name was Ellen and thanked me profusely. “No, I thank you,” I said and meant it. Affection flowed between us in a kind of shock that we were now parting. I thought about Ellen for a long time. I wondered if I would be in her shoes one day, or who among my friends might be.
Inner courtyard. Timisoara, Romania.
When I arrived in Timisoara I tried to avoid, as I always do, taking a taxi. Not just because I would rather take a bus or metro and thus find my own way to my hotel, but because I dislike getting ripped off by taxis drivers and one is never more a sitting duck than when one has just arrived in a country and doesn’t even know the foreign exchange value of its currency. I bought a ticket for the bus and waited at the stop as the small crowd in the small airport gradually emptied and left me with no idea at all when the next bus would arrive. Finally a seeming taxi-driver approached me and I surrendered to what seemed to be the better part of common sense.
As we got into his grey BWM sedan I realized he wasn’t an official taxi driver at all and I was engaged in a form of transportation not recommended by one’s embassy. The steering wheel air bag had been removed, leaving an unsettling cavity in it’s place. I was suddenly regretting my suitcase was locked in the trunk. Even before we were out of the parking lot I realized the driver was not a criminal but quite kind, reasonably fair and was gradually able to answer my question about train travel, though we had not a single word in common, that there were no trains from Timisoara to Budapest. For that I’d have to go to Arad. I wondered if I was closer or farther from my destination – my return to the U.S. It is after wondering such things that I realize, sometimes with a sinking feeling, sometimes with almost an elation, that I don't exactly have a destination.
. . .
Hotel Delpack was the first hotel on my trip in which I could see chickens from my window. The hotel was a modern, three-story cube in an otherwise rural neighborhood of one-story houses and a two square-block cemetery. Besides the chickens I encountered an even more welcome sight that first morning: crows. A large flock of them circled the city, moving cavalierly in and out of various formations then scattering into their own temporary destinies.
I spent two nights in room #211, in numerology a four. I decided to find its symbolic meaning through the internet: fours represent stability, calmness, home; the four directions and the four seasons. On my first night it seemed to work that way. I sat in meditation before dinner and I’d never felt the forty-five minute transformation to be any greater. To simply sit, let ones thoughts scatter. Like the crows did. That particular sense of well-being-for-no-reason arrived and carried me well into the next day.
Timisoara is the Tahrir Square of late 20th Century Romanian history. The revolution that overthrew the twenty-eight year dictatorship to Nicolae Ceaușescu and the even longer reign of communism began here and then spread to Bucharest. Since then, democracy and so-called free enterprise have transformed the country and the twenty to thirty-somethings one sees on the street would have no more memory of the Communist ear than I do of the Eisenhower presidency. For those of my generation, growing up in Romania would be the polar opposite of growing up in California. Instead of free education and the Beach Boys followed by the Jefferson Airplane one had farm collectivization, forced-labor camps and secret police. It is thought one of every four Romanians became an informer.
My experiences in Timisoara revealed very little of its history per se. I didn't visit museums or read guidebooks, but instead simply wandered in the general direction of the central city. Instead of learning of Romania's cataclysms in WWII - the fascist Iron Guard, the eventual alignment with Nazi Germany, the campaigns against the Soviet Union and the deportation and murder of its Jews - during the day, I studied them on the internet in the evening. In the day I wandered the streets and saw a veritable Louvre of peeling paint and exposed bricks. The layers of history as visual texture. I came across a wall that displayed all of this, plus a defunct pay telephone - a scene that was a combination of Marcel Duchamp and musuem of technology, the telephone as useless as a phonograph without any records in the room.
The chickens I'd seen reminded me of a quote from Milan Kundera, who once wrote that human goodness "can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power....
Mankind’s true moral test (which lies deeply buried from view) consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: the animals. And in this respect, mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.I felt this way even about the telephone - the unmerciful development of our technology just to go ever faster more conveniently - much less the chickens in the yard of my hotel. Like most people, I've eaten so many chickens I could never calculate the amount (currently the world population of chickens on any given day is over twenty-four billion). It is for that reason they have become a totem. They ask so little, feeding on garbage and living traditionally in our yards with little other demand than the rooster's need to crow, yet giving us so much through their eggs and their life. If only they could have a decent life, the one they've always had, instead of being stockpiled, just as pigs are, in cages and grown like hydroponic lettuce or a silicon chip. Just seeing chickens rooting around in the dirt is enough to cheer me and give me hope for our collective future.
. . .
On my third day in Timisoara, the day of my departure, my state of mind was quite different than the day before. I felt anxiety. Perhaps only because I was leaving this home and had no idea what the next one, the next hotel, would be like. But when I went to meditate the anxiety spoke to me, told me its subject – and in that moment changed. To sadness. I began to feel the sadness was about Romania. Was it something collective I’d walked into (just as I walked into something collective in Cambodia) and was now feeling? The moment told me not to avoid it.
After two days in Timisoara I found myself on a train to Arad and my first chance to see the countryside of Romania. Early November at 4:00 PM, the sun low; farmland harvested and now picked at by crows and blackbirds, stubble burning in untended fires, late model tractors and small towns huddled around a central church whose steeple penetrates the sky and dominates the horizon.
I had missed my train and had to wait two hours for the next one and now I had almost missed my stop for Arad. Assumptions are usually wrong and if followed usually lead to great or smaller misfortunes. I’d assumed my departure train was late but I was reading the sign for arrivals. I assumed I wasn’t yet in Arad since most of the passengers weren’t departing the train. Fortunately, I asked someone at the last minute, who said, Yes, Arad!”
When I got off the train at Arad it came with the same kind of thud as my suitcase produced hitting the floor. Suddenly, in this small and derelict train terminal I felt as far from home as I ever had in my life - not to mention I don’t currently have a home. I wasn’t ripped off by my taxi driver but the sight of my hotel gave me a second sinking feeling. The Xo Residence was as bland as a Motel Six and looked eerily out of place and slightly elicit on a street of small houses and boarded up shops. Everything pivoted when I walked through the door and was greeting by a young woman with shaved eyebrows and a low cut sweater. She helped me in every way, from calling to find when the trains left for Budapest to assuring me I had a room with a good window, but mostly by her smile and kindness. She took me to room #1.
There is not much you can do to make a hotel room home other than to accept it, and after that feeling at home often comes quickly. Last summer I spent a few days in a Denver hotel room with the number 2319. During that time I had the experience that we never go anywhere. It was an on and off again phenomenological truth with me for those few days, something more than the punitive cliche that we never get away from ourselves, but instead a feeling of continuous homecoming. I felt that way as soon as I locked the door behind me in room #1. It didn’t hurt that the WiFi worked and that there were plenty of chickens in the neighbor’s courtyard.
I didn't know it, but one more event was about to cheer me even further. I had began my evening walk and search for a place to eat dinner and had reached Boulevard Revolutiei where the restaurants supposed were - though I found only a monstrously large MacDonald's, a Turkish döner hole-in-the-wall and a handful of bars that also served food. As I made my way down the street, suddenly I saw a number of young women dressed in white gowns and looking like they had come from a wedding - though this was Friday night. As I got closer I saw they had wings attached to their gowns, were handing out flyers. The first of these costumed angels I reached immediately offered to hug me. Was my journey from abjectness at the train terminal to about-to-be-hugged by a beautiful angel a joke from the dralas, a set up to amuse them?
. . .
I had dinner two nights in a row at Pomo D’Ora, an Italian restaurant I had found and immediately chose over the McDonalds and döner joint. I sat at the same table each night, drank the same wine (Romanian, from a box. It was good.) and had the same waitress. On the second night I learned her name: Florina. She, too, had shaved eyebrows. Florina was married and in her late twenties and told me she was born and raised in a village about 150 kilometers from Arad, a village by the name of Avram-Iancu. This most musical five syllable name, with its consonants enclosed in vowels, is also the name of a famous Romanian revolutionary of the 19th Century. I learned this when I asked Florina what her village was known for.
I also asked Florina how she liked living in Arad. She liked it OK, but not like her village. When she spoke about Avram-Inacu, that’s when her eyes lit up. Florina had grown up in a village whose economy was based on raising pigs and growing vegetables. It was the warmth and familiarity of the community there that she missed. “Of course I have lots of friend here in Arad,” she said, “but it’s not the same.” Florina grew up in a village that raised pigs yet she could easily have worked in any restaurant in the world. She moved gracefully, was at ease when our eyes met. She was naturally warm and yet reserved in just the right way; you felt she wouldn’t lose track or your order or anyone's, it was all one piece and Florina was as much of a dancer as waitress. Florina didn’t know how good, how capable she was. Though she did know the melancholy of being displaced from the town of her cheerful youth and the earth that sustained it.
During the meal I went to Avram-Iancu myself in some small way. I was raised in a town that was only thirteen thousand people. It was a town of gamboling casinos, ski lifts and motels rather than pig pens and carrot patches but I, too, lived in a world of seeming stability. Doctor Whitely gave me me antibiotics when my throat was sore in kindergarten just as he did when I was a freshman in high school. And above all, I had nature, all that I wanted of it. Creeks, pinecones, secret paths only I knew about. Florina must have had the same.
. . .
On the morning of my last day in Arad I had time to take a walk before leaving for the train station. I passed the drain pipe that had been lit by the sun when I first saw it and radiated the inner, compelling vitality the moment had given it. When I saw it last night it was dark, a different object entirely. I was different too (could the drainpipe know?). I walked all the way to Boulevard Revolutiei again, found a good bakery and bought provisions for the train. On the way home I came across the large semi-outdoor market that I had encountered the day before. But today - Sunday - it was also a livestock market. Living geese, ducks, rabbits, peacocks and, of course, chickens everywhere. It was a scene of unregulated animal well-being - at least before the slaughter - and human beings enjoying the animals, the barter, each other and the morning sun.
My time in Romania had come into symmetry with myself and no guide book could have taken taken me here. There wasn't a cash register or bar code in sight. Only cages and men with great knowledge of the content of the cages beside them. Neither peacock or person seemed to be going anywhere, though any sale could part them. It is an accepted fact that people often look like their dogs but I'd never seen a gentleman who looked like his rabbit. Lit by the sun, the man squinted with the same expression as the rabbit, while the rabbit sat as impassively as the man.
At the station I bought a second class ticket from Arad to Budapest for thirty-three, U.S. It wasn't until we were in Hungary that I realized my train had virtually limped out of Romania. I could see we were going slow, but only when the train speed almost doubled after it picket up passengers at the Hungarian border did I realize how slow. Perhaps this was a homage to the difference between Romania and Hungary, how much more "developed" the latter country is. Hard to believe it was the same train. And suddenly everyone on it looked as different from Romanians as the Romanians do from the Turkish, perhaps even more so. It was a shock to be in a different country having just gotten barely used to the one I was in. On the way to Budapest we passed through farmlands and small towns, just like in Romania, but everything looked more prosperous and maintained. Thank God I could still see plenty of chickens running around.
The rewards of aimless wandering: I encounterd the angels who
hugged me on Friday night again the next day. Arad, Romania.
hugged me on Friday night again the next day. Arad, Romania.