CHAPTER FIFTEEN: THE RETURN HOME
(Lakatos, “Udrozlo Liszt Ferenchez”)
The evening Michel and I arrived to the Buchuresti Hotel was a sweltering time in June. The hotel lights were dim, not because of the heat wave, but because of government restrictions. Only 40-watt light bulbs were allowed in private and public buildings. The hotel lobby’s chandelier had not only the minimum wattage, but half the number of light bulbs were lit. In the corridors there were no lights at all. But from our dimly-lit room, we had a lovely view of Bucharest’s main street, Calea Victoriei. Little did we know then, that in several hours, our small window would offer us a view of an entire revolution.
We had spent the prior week in Budapest sharing an apartment with Romanian-American friends who had traveled with us from New York. We continued together on to Bucharest, but they went to stay with family outside of town.
The morning after our introduction into Romanian politics, we decided to ignore the turmoil and continue to be tourists, despite our friends’ advice. Instead, my husband was eager to show me the places where he had spent the first 20 years of his life: the apartment building where he lived; the park where he played soccer; the French Lycée where he recited Molière; the university and Medical School – all the places that colored his youth.
When we arrived at a bustling shopping district, Lipscani, I noticed a modern building with lots of police guarding every inch of the heavy cemented façade. I commented to my husband that something must be going on, for it was cordoned-off by dozens of policemen. I took out my camera and started taking pictures. Five seconds later, a man tapped me on the shoulder and spoke to me in Romanian. My husband looked concerned but pretended he did not understand the language, not wanting to expose himself as anything but American. I decided to answer in English and hoped to indicate that I’m a tourist. The man listened and then quickly left me. I smiled to my husband, but he wasn’t reassured.
One minute later, another man came over to us. He was not dressed in a police uniform, but in a suit and tie. He spoke to me in faltering English, “Camera. Photos.”
I answered politely and very rapidly. “I am a tourist. If you want, I’ll stop taking pictures.”
He left without saying a word. I smiled at my husband again, but Michel was not placated. He had understood every Romanian word. “Secret police,” he whispered to me. “He wants your film.”
Thirty seconds later, another man came over to us. He was also dressed in a business suit; his English was slightly better. He was less polite, even intimidating. I quickly understood his body language and took the roll of film from my camera. “Here,” I said, giving him the film. “I’m an American citizen. A tourist visiting your city.” I thought the best defense is a counter attack.
My husband took out a map of the city and asked him in crisp English, “Where is Lipscani?”
The agent hesitated to answer. Eyed us both suspiciously and reluctantly pointed in the direction. I took the cue and commented, “We want to find a restaurant. Taste your wonderful food.”
He was not flattered. He eyed my camera.
I understood. “I have an empty roll of film. Here.” And I took it out of my pocket.
He took the bribe, waved his hand in disgust that we should leave and warned us, “Don’t come back to this building.”
We walked calmly away despite our legs wanting to run. My husband was upset. “Not much has changed since I was a boy.” He remembered when he had been summoned to be questioned. His father summoned. His mother summoned….
In 24 hours I got a taste of rebellion, revolution, secret police, little freedom. I’d have a lot to write about from one day of being a tourist.
When we returned back to our hotel, we received a telephone call from our friend’s brother. He was concerned about our wandering in the city.
“How would you like to go to Transylvania for a week? It’s cooler there in the mountains and much calmer. I can arrange that one of my interns drives you and stays with you all the time.”
My husband looked at me; I smiled, and Michel discussed the details with Dr. Mihescu. The next morning, we checked out of the Buchuresti Hotel and met Niki with his 4-horsepowered Dacia.
My husband sat in the passenger seat next to his new friend. I sat in the rear, notebook in hand. Michel and I were delighted with our new adventure. Bad luck had turned to good luck and we were given the opportunity to travel escorted to a region of marvels. Michel was thrilled to strengthen his Romanian vocabulary with such an intelligent guide, and I was delighted to look at everything around me for the first time.
My position in the back seat gave me a secret perspective of watching Michel’s reactions to what he was seeing after so many years. I could write with his eyes. His words became Mica’s.
It reminded me of how Goldoni, the 18th century Venetian playwright, would go every night to the Rialto with notebook in hand and hide in a dark corner to transcribe what people in the Square were saying.
Michel’s reactions directed my thoughts. What a rare opportunity I had!
His and Mica’s Return Home was more beautiful than I could have ever imagined on my own. The nature of Romania’s countryside is marvelous and would serve as a perfect frame to my literary picture. The forests are rich in pine trees and evergreens. The mountains – rough and severe in some places, with alternating green hills – always reaching to the sky. The cities have not changed since the 15th century for the conquering Empires have left their mark on the architecture in a mosaic of chipped cultures.
As we traveled north from Bucharest, we left the city behind us. Cars became wagons and motors turned into horses. The violence and smoke bombs of revolution transformed into pine needles being burned for farms. The odors turned sweet and nature became freer. We visited Sinai, Bran, Poiana Brasov, Brasov, Sibiu, Sighisoara. We ate grilled bear, wolf, snake and drank new wine from wooden vats. Michel became happier as memories brought him closer to his world of all beginning. He was returning home. And I was writing:
Mica opened the window. The smell of burning leaves filled the moving car. Dust from the airport was slowly replaced by the aroma of charred herbs and plants. People were using whatever they could find for firewood. She saw before her scenes that were foreign but familiar and she tried to focus on the moving figures as if they were before her for the first time.
In between the pine trees lining the road, she saw strips of farm land. In a field, a little boy dressed in red was running after a shepherd’s dog. Hundreds of white dots painted the fields. And as the car traveled on, the dots became sheep and Mica saw the shepherd boy wave his wand to the herd.
Farmers, bent over with hoe and pitchfork, stood up when they heard the car engine rumble into second gear. Mica waved to them from her open window as haystacks in the fields passed by.
A church with a mosaic multi-colored steeple reflected the morning sun. The cluster of neighboring roofs lit up bright red and Mica remembered the blocks she used to play with as a girl and the tall skyscrapers she had once built.
She looked up at the sky to watch the clouds floating by and recalled a game she played with her father when clouds took different shapes. One day she had imagined a cloud became a bird and then a plane and she rode its wings to a land where she’d be free.
A group of peasants raised their heads as the black car moved into third gear. They were arranging piles of cheese on a stand and Mica breathed in the fragrance. She saw an image of her mother in their old kitchen baking cakes filled with goat cheese. But suddenly, the sweet smell turned bitter and the image of her mother disappeared as Mica saw from her window tanks and cannons. The air turned cold; snow began to fall and froze the memories of her past. Mica closed her open window pane.
She studied the line of mountains and tried to calculate when she would meet the Carpathians. She looked around and tried to hear the silence of the hills. There were no planted flowers on the side of the road, no terraced gardens, no manicured lawns. Just the natural beauty of pine trees powdered with memories.
Everything was so different from what she remembered. Scenes appeared to her as if she was seeing them for the first time. She kept rubbing her eyes thinking they were out of focus. Colors appeared muted as if she were viewing them through dark lenses. Only the timbre of a cow-bell was the same. She sat back in her seat and returned to her memory’s moving screen.
As they drove through the villages, she kept seeing wagons on the road. The deeper they traveled into the country, the more wagons she saw. All sizes, all types, pulled by one horse, two horses, two oxen, driven by farmers, women, youngsters. Gradually there were more wagons on the road than cars. When Niki slowed down to pass one, she waved to the people. The excitement of remembering overtook her. She was no longer the outsider observing, no longer the Prodigal Daughter returning home. She swayed in the back seat of the car and the small vehicle became her shield, protecting her as she tried to pierce through the past. This was the Romania of twenty years ago, of two hundred years ago.
With each kilometer they traveled and each village they passed, her life in America moved farther and farther behind her. The sight of the mountains became more real than the structures of her western world. Slowly, the pieces of her youth broke through the restraints of memory and emerged from the shadow of time. Desperately, she wanted to touch the mountains, make sure they hadn’t changed. But the cold wind against her face and the tall pine trees didn’t allow her to come near.
Niki stopped short. Mica swayed in the back seat. She held on tightly as he read out loud, “Sibiu – Centrum.”
He turned around and asked her, “Do you want to go into town?”
She saw before her the medieval town of Sibiu. The houses took a different shape; the roofs sloped down and glassless windows looked like half-opened eyes winking in their slits. The car crossed the original fifteenth-century stone wall that surrounded the town.
As they approached the Square, Mica smelled incense from burning candles. At the base of a well, she saw a statue of the Madonna and above the well was a sign, “Those who drink from these waters will not be thirsty for a century.”
Mica tried to recall if the water fountain was created on top of a sacred base? Or was it where a miracle had once taken place?
Next to the well was a group of old women praying in front of the Madonna. They were holding the same candles that several days ago had lit the way for freedom in Bucharest.
She returned to the car and they traveled north for hours over a narrow road that looked as if it were carved out of white fields of grain. In her back seat, Mica wiped the frosty window. There were no houses, no animals, no signs of life – just layers and layers of silent white fields. Niki and his car forged forward.
Upon entering Transylvania, Mica saw street signs and names written with both the Hungarian and Romanian spelling. At the end of the day the farmers walked home. Mica saw one carrying a shovel on his shoulder, another a sickle, another a hoe. The cows from the village walked next to them on the road and when the animals smelled their house, they entered the yard, ringing their bells like honored guests.
At sunset a group of farmers in a field clustered together by a fire to eat dinner. Seated on the earth they shared their bread and cheese. They used the last light of day to eat by. Inside their hut, it was dark.
As Mica and Niki traveled through the crimson path, she saw more wagons on the road. Women wore the same scarves on their head as they wore twenty years ago. Men wore the same berets. The day’s farm tools were strapped above the wagon’s wheels; farmers were chatting and laughing the same way their grandparents did years before them. The accent was the same, the thoughts were the same, the fields were the same.
Mica wanted so much to be the same.
They approached Sighisoara as the sun was setting. Mica marveled at the bright sun as it folded into the white mountains surrounding the medieval town. It appeared as if the Clock Tower with its mosaic towered roof was sparkling with fire and colors. The dramatic beginning of night’s end filled her with all remembering.
She was going home, and the memory of youth filled her with an excitement she thought she had lost forever. As she looked through the window, time confused its borders, years turned into minutes. Outside nothing had changed; inside, she was trying to find her old self. While the car traveled through the once familiar road, she searched for the person inside her that she had left behind.
It was the soft mist of morning that Mica missed most of all. The fragile vapor had a way of mysteriously spreading its drops from the mountains to the meadows that Mica
remembered from her youth. In the winter, the dew turned to fine particles of ice and all the fields were covered in a blanket of blue-white frost. Smoke, colored orange by the morning sky, rose in straight columns from chimneys and blended softly with pine trees.