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The Romance of Romania


We sat baking in the sun.  It seemed that it must have been at least 120 degrees outside.  I was still wearing my pants.  Baking.  Why was I baking? Why was I sitting here in the middle of…hold on, where was I in the middle of?

After a whirlwind trip through Europe-9 countries in 3 weeks, we were nearing the end of our journey.  Germany, France, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungry, Croatia again (for some reason they wouldn’t let us into Hungry), Serbia, and then…ah yes, we were in Romania.  I had no idea where in Romania.  We had been driving around Romania for about two days with a friend who had spend the summer studying in Romania.  I did not ask where we were going.  I was busy feeling my body and the backseat of our fifteen year old Ford Sierra become one.  “American Girl disappears in Romania, eaten by car seat,” the headline would read.  I was way too hot to laugh. 

A city in Romania

So here we were, at our destination, a natural spring bath/swim park somewhere in Romania.  The parking lot was a sea of RVs from the Netherlands.  According my friend, people come to these springs for their entire vacations, park it in the lot, and spend their days splashing about and barbequing.  I wished I was from the Netherlands.

There were certainly a lot of people splashing about.  I was wondering why in the world I was still wearing my pants.  And then I remembered that I had been concerned because in three weeks of camping, driving, becoming one with the car’s backseat, I had not exactly had many opportunities to, how to put it delicately, maintain all areas of my body.  That is why I was sitting there baking in my pants. Right then.

Our car

As I looked around, I saw families, mothers, fathers, grandkids, swarms and swarms of people diving into the water, running in the sprinklers, strolling along the shallow canals that encircled the pool. I thought back to my childhood in Byelorussia, while it was still part of the Soviet Union, and I remembered myself splashing around in our version of a natural spring (a river called Berezina that had long stopped being natural) and I remembered what it had been like to be carefree, uninhibited, grateful for the chance to splash around in anything cool on a hot summer day. 

I thought also about the affect Romania had been having on me for the last several days.   When we first decided to make Romania part of our European tour, I was extremely excited: Romania is not a country on many people’s travel lists–exactly the kind of place I love to go to.  We first arrived in a city called Timisiora, in the Southwest of Romania.  Timisiora is the city where the rebellion against Romania’s Communist government began.  The wall in its main square is still riddled with bullet holes from the first moments of that revolution.  Right below that wall there is a McDonald’s now, in seeming mockery of the regime that caused its people to shoot at walls.

During our tour of Timisoara, my friend took us to a Serbian church.  Before the fall of communism, there was a large Serbian community the caretaker told us.  Since the war, most Serbians have left for Serbia, for reasons I missed in the translation.  As our tour guide was speaking of the history of the church–this chandelier from that place, this alter form somewhere elese– I turned around to see a small boy in the doorway.  At first I thought I was having a delusion. This small boy, in a dark church doorway, just like you see in the movies, was kneeling, his body glowing with the aura of the sunlight coming in through the doorway.  “I don’t even believe in angels,” I thought, yet here he was this tiny creature-a vision of innocence and purity, and in a church of all places-for a moment I forgot I was Jewish.  I turned to get my friends to show them this amazing sight, and when we turned around he was gone.  A small boy, in an almost deserted church, in a poor yet generous country…

A decorative gate

As I watched Romania pass by from my backseat, my heart began to ache.  At first I thought I had heartburn, everyone had warned me about eating food in “those Eastern Countries” (Romania has the best soup I have ever had in my entire life), but as I watched the houses with orchards surrounded by decorative fences and gates, the women in headscarves watching flocks of chickens, geese and ducks run amuck in front of their houses, I realized that I was seeing a time and place I had though long stopped existing in reality and in my memory.

In the little town I grew up in Byelorussia everyone had the little house with the orchard.  People had ducks, and chickens, and sometimes rabbits, the roads were unpaved, old women wore headscarves, and young boys ran around the streets chasing dogs.  And here I was, several lifetimes and so many different worlds later, being catapulted back into my past. 

I did not know how to explain to my friends what I was suddenly sobbing.  How do you describe to someone else the taste of a feeling left behind somewhere long ago?  What do you say when you’ve found yourself in a memory instead of a place?  How do you share, when words aren’t enough, that in a place so forsaken and so forgotten by most of the world, you have found confirmation of your existence?

I did not say anything to my friends.  I looked as hard as I could, and strained my eyes, to remember those scenes we were passing. I wanted to make sure that they were engraved in my memory as proof that this place really did exist. 

A welcome in a small village

After we left my little town in Byelorussia and moved to America, as time went on, I had an increasingly harder time believing that the world I remembered from my childhood really did exist.  There was almost no proof of “at home” in America, except a few pictures and my family’s memories, and as time went on I almost began believing that I had dreamt that little town with the chickens, the orchards, the old women in headscarves. 

Seeing all this in Romania awakened in me a feeling perhaps lost, perhaps purposefully forgotten.  I had never tried to deny my childhood in order to “blend” better into American society, but I had always fought with a nagging feeling that something in me was missing.  I refused to conform, but I had never found confidence in my unique step. I was afraid to speak, because often my voice disagreed with everyone else.  I was afraid to stand out, because I thought people would notice just how different I was and try to make me change.  In time I had grown more comfortable in my skin, I actually began to appreciate  my view of the world, but I had not quiet accepted it all entirely.

And so I sat there, baking, watching people happily splashing: young, old, fat, thin, tall, short.  And I could no longer remember why in the world I had been so concerned that I had not had time to shave my legs. I could only remember the little town, the dirty little river, and how as a child, I couldn’t wait to strip off all my clothes and run into the water.

A little girl came up to my friend who was sitting next to me.  The little girl just stared.  I noticed a lot of people were staring.  I realized that my friend, who is from Australia but whose parents are Chinese, was the only Asian person in the vicinity.  She was probably the only Asian person for miles.  My friend looked like she would have like to melt into the chair she was sitting on. 

Getting married – correctly

At that moment, I decided I was all through with melting into things-car seats, backgrounds, crowds. I took off my pants, grabbed my friend’s hand and said “Come on Betty, it’s time to go swimming!”

From a country of few luxuries, I brought back the best souvenir of my wild trip through Europe. Me.

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