We take a train and arrive at Schiphol Airport four hours before our flight, to be on the safe side. Although I’m mentally calm my body doesn’t seem to respond well to being dragged through another airport so soon. The airport fiasco from only three days ago is too fresh on my palate. A security officer waves me down for additional screening. After five minutes of being patting me down, removing every item in my backpack, and throwing away Clayton’s travel size contact solution, they let us go.
The Romanian plane is small and the seats are uncomfortable. Drinks are being served quickly and efficiently. A cup filled to the brim with free red wine is placed on my husband’s tray table.
“Welcome to Eastern Europe.” I respond to my husband’s incredulous look.
The three hour flight is peaceful. My native tongue hums happily all around me. I’m eavesdropping on three different conversations simultaneously with a heightened sense of alertness. I’m both happy and anxious to be getting so close to home. It’is my second time visiting Bucharest and I’m thrilled to explore it under the guidance of my friend, who now resides there with her husband and little girl.
“Only staying for two days?” a young customs officer asks me in Romanian.
“Unfortunately.”, I respond smiling broadly. My passport says I am American but he greets me with “Buna Ziua” (Good Afternoon) as soon as he sees me. He doesn’t miss a beat when he hears my Moldovan accent and his tone even gets softer. “I hope you guys make the best of it.”
As we emerge into the crowded arrival hall, full with the sound of hugs and kisses, we at first don’t see my friend, and old panic creeps into my body. We finally spot her running towards us, waving her arms. My sweetest, dearest Romina, whom I haven’t seen in five years. The two of us became friends in high school. She was the principal’s daughter and I was the English teacher’s daughter. We faced similar insecurities and challenges amongst our peers due to our mothers’ positions. Our friendship made me stronger and brought me much needed comfort during those difficult teenage years. Although we have lived on two different continents for the last decade, somehow our affection and respect for each other has not waned.
“You’re here! Hi Clayton.”, Romina’s English is impeccable. “This is my husband Igor.”
The two of them whisk us away in their car, now packed front to back with bags. Bucharesti unfolds before my eyes – shiny new skyscrapers, grim concrete apartment complexes, ornate homes from the turn of the century, dilapidated concrete walls overcome with ivy, grimy black facades next to beautifully restored facades, lazy cafes, busy restaurants, quiet museums, brightly colored pedestrians all dance around our fast moving vehicle. This city talks to me, demanding I remember who I am and where I come from. Eastern Europe, my childhood home, a fluid territory where borders shift, tensions run high, economic gain is covered by the thin veil of nationalism, history gets rewritten, old books burnt and banned overnight.
I was born in a tiny country always at the mercy of bigger powers. Czarist Russia conducted many of its military operations against the Ottoman empire in the present day territory of Moldova. Before then my country was called the Principate of Moldavia and included a section of Romania that is now known as the Moldavia region, plus a section of Ukraine that lies close to the Black Sea. We kept close relations with Romania, or rather Wallachia back then, with whom we shared a common language, traditions, religion, and Dacian descendance.
The golden age of my people was during the fourteen hundreds when Stephan the Great won over forty-two battles, mostly against the Ottoman Empire, to keep his country independent. After his death we lost all he had gained and more. We became a vassal of the Ottoman Empire and paid heavy tribute in gold and wheat. We saw the deliverance from our shameful chains through Czarist Russia, also perennially at war with the Ottoman Empire.
We didn’t expect the aggressive process of assimilation and denial of our identity as a separate nation. We became a province and Russian became the official language. Young Russian workers were brought in to Moldova work, marry, and establish, while many Moldovans were unwillingly sent to the farthest corners of the Empire. After WWI the territory now known as the Republic of Moldova was united to the Kingdom of Romania. The future looked hopeful. Moldova was dubbed the “Romanian California” for its beautiful orchards, vineyards, and agricultural land. In 1939 Hitler and Stalin divided Europe. Overnight, Russian troops replaced Romanian. The Russians and other slavic minorities who relocated to Moldova during the previous occupation saw them as liberators and the local population as invaders. Romania stood helpless, too weak to change the course of history, stunned by the political prowess of the famous leaders.
I ask Romina how often they go home. Not often enough, not long enough, she says, running her hand through her hair and looking out the window. I sense her pain. I know it too well. Their three year old girl Danuta has an adorable Romanian accent. At their apartment Clayton makes Northwest coffee we brought as a gift. We spend the evening eating, chatting, laughing, and going on a walk downtown.
During our leisurely stroll we pass by Casa Poporului – Palace of the Parliament – the world’s largest, most expensive, heaviest civilian building with an administrative function in the world. The Romanian communist dictator Ceausescu, in the name of progress, demolished an entire neighbourhood housing over forty thousand people, a monastery, a hospital, a stadium, and a museum in order to build it. While people struggled to feed their families he spent the equivalent of 3 billion euros building this gigantic palace. Romina and I stand together holding her daughter. Three Moldovan girls in front of the building created by the man who had a whole nation down on its knees. The dusk casts ominous shadows on the building. The area seems to attract huge murders of crows. I was only five years old when live footage of Ceausescuand his wife’s execution was broadcasted during the news. My mother covered my eyes and took me out of the room. It was a dark time for the Romanian people and more dark times were still to come. My father would enlist to fight in the civil war three years later.
When we reach the apartment Clayton and I are fading fast, jet lag preying on our tired limbs. We stretch out on the pull out couch in our friend’s living room and ten minutes later we are soundly asleep.
I awoke to darkness and moonlight. At first I thought I was dreaming, but I sensed my husband’s alertness. We laid there motionless and transfixed, captivated by the alien sound of howling dogs. Hundreds of them. A choir of bizarre magnitude. They howled forever and the sound swirled, shifted, heightened, lowered, ebbed and flowed as more dogs joined in and others departed. Howling at God knows what. We fell back asleep to the sound of the choir, holding each other, neither speaking a word.
It’s difficult to say who is wrong and who is right about who we are as a nation. Are we Moldovans, Romanians, Russians? While many people wish to be annexed back to Romania, just as many prefer Moldova to be independent, or even within the Russian sphere of influence, as we were during the Soviet Union or Czarist Russia. The Soviet regime was in many ways better than the economic and political chaos we are dealing with now. It was stable, even if the living conditions were poor. The borders were closed and no one could leave the country, so families stayed together (unless someone was exiled to Siberia for being an enemy of the state, which happened more often than people wish to remember). Now thousands of people work abroad to support their families. Mothers and fathers leave their children with their aging grandparents in search for a better paying job in Western Europe. Many young Moldovans leave the country disenchanted by the economical instability, hoping for a brighter future elsewhere.
Out of the howling in into the growling; our stomachs start to tell us its time to eat around 5:30am, though we would love to sleep in.
“It’s about dinner time in Oregon. Would you like to start your day with a roasted chicken and some veggies?” I whisper to Clayton giggling.
He’s not amused and we try to ignore our bellies with for the next two hours. Igor leaves early for work and we impatiently wait for my girlfriend to wake up. After the clock hits 8:30am, an hour after we agreed to wake up, I finally decide to walk in and wake her up. “Buna Dimineata”, I whisper in Romina’s ear. She raises her head smiling sleepily but when she realises the time she springs to her feet.
“Oh my God! I so overslept! How did this happen? I never heard my alarm.”
I reassure her we are fine. I know she took the day off work to be with us.
“The coffee you guys drink is insane. That small cup kept me up until three tossing and turning. Is that what you drink all the time?”
I shrug my shoulders. I don’t drink coffee, Clayton smiles guiltily. “Yes.”
After a quick breakfast of hot oatmeal topped with butter and raw local honey, and no coffee, we get a taxi to Danuta’s kindergarten. Romina’s nervous system calms down a bit and we squeeze each other’s hands. It’s so good to see her sweet face. Last night we made the decision that instead of paying to visit the dazzling interior of Casa Poporului – 1,100 rooms, 12 stories tall, with 4 underground levels – we would instead visit the outdoor Village Museum, which displays over 200 traditional homes from all over Romania.
We meet Alex, a German acquaintance of Romina’s who was visiting for a wedding, at the entrance. We begin our three and a half hour tour gingerly walking inside of the small homes – mostly comprised of two small rooms and a central hallway. The smell of the wool carpets, white washed clay walls, and dried herbs hung in the windows transport me directly to my grandma’s house. The outdoor museum is huge, designed as a quaint village with pathways, wooden churches, barns, gardens, a windmill, kitties lounging in the sun, and a few curious chickens skittering around. The difference between this display and a real community is that each house is unique to the region it was transplanted from, forming a colorful, odd mismatched quilt of styles, especially to the trained eye of a local. A mountain home made of wood logs sits comfortably next to a clay home from the low country. Both have been here since 1936 when the museum was founded, before then living in their respective locations, in many cases for over a hundred years. It is peaceful here, a quilted village with no people, except for the occasional tourists clicking their cameras.
“So where are the bathrooms in these houses?” Alex asks scratching his head.
“There are no bathrooms.” Romina shrugs her shoulders looking at me for help.
“Bathrooms?” I ask, amused and slightly annoyed. “These homes were built in the 19th century. This is how peasants lived in this country for centuries. They built an outhouse in the back of the garden and they washed themselves with well water from a wooden basin in one of these rooms.”
Unknowingly Alex touched on a sensitive topic. There was a time I felt embarrassed that I came from a world where they didn’t build bathrooms and there was no indoor plumbing. I didn’t want anyone to call my people backwards so I hid certain facts that made my childhood different than my American friends’. In recent years my attitude has changed, as I am beginning to reconcile with the contradictions that make up my life.
I’m not done either. I turn around pointing to a small clay house. “My grandma’s house looks just like this hut right here. No bathroom. I also grew up using an outhouse and had no running water. I turned out just fine didn’t I.” I wink at him.
“Oh yea, my grandma’s house is like this too. Romina chimes in good naturedly. This is how village life is at home still.”
Alex is not sure how to respond. He nods at us both slightly incredulous but says nothing in response.
“I’m starving. How about you guys.” My husband diplomatically interjects, placing a hand on my shoulder.
We opt for a lunch at Caru cu Bere (The Beer Cart), a restaurant located in the old town, in the heart of Bucharest, where the old cobblestone streets, turn of the century buildings, and no-car rule remind me of Rome. Despite the abundance of restaurants, we stay on track. A Romanian woman recommended this place to me last year when we were travelling to Sinaia, a gorgeous medieval mountain-town in Transylvania where we spent three magical days hiking around the Carpathians and staying at the Hotel International, a spectacularly beautiful, yet nevertheless quite affordable, hotel in the heart of the city with a great view of the surrounding mountains.
I am constantly taken aback by how friendly and open Romanians are, especially to Moldovans. I have heard they look down on us and our stilted dialect, but nothing is further from the truth in my experience. They welcome me as one of their own. We have been offered rides from perfect strangers, phone numbers were exchanged after a five minute conversation, and friendships were forged solely on the basis of coming from sister countries. Maybe not all of them treat my people this way, but I can only speak of my own experience.
Caru cu Bere, a brewery opened in 1879, has a rich story that I spent hours reading about on their website. By the time we arrive I am giddy with excitement and hunger. The tall vaulted ceilings, the wooden neo-gothic interior, colorful mosaics, and stained glass are of a different era. A band is playing traditional music in the center of the room. They still have the hooks on the walls used for top hats a century ago. Our waiter, a gentleman in his sixties, is offering us impeccable service. It is clear that he takes great pride in his job.
I love hearing him speak Romanian, his long drawn out syllables. My Romanian is harsher, less gentle. When we gained our independence after the fall of the Soviet Union my parents fought for the national language to be Romanian. Before then, while we were a soviet republic, we wrote in “Moldovan” – Romanian but written in cyrillic alphabet and some regional vocabulary. The Soviets hoped this would make the distinction from Romania more clear. Universities taught subjects in Russian and Moldovan. Moldova didn’t return to the latin alphabet till the early 90’s so when they did it was new territory for me. My grandfather would chuckle at us sometimes. Before the war he studied and wrote in true Romanian so he still remembered it well, while my parents and I struggled to unlearn cyrillic.
We all order traditional dishes. Romina and I order mamaliga with tocanita – a kind of polenta with a creamy meat sauce and feta cheese. Alex opts for mamaliga and sarmale – cabbage rolls stuffed with rice, meat, and vegetables, slow cooked in broth and tomato sauce. My husband wins the prize for the most impressive looking order: the special: a gigantic braised pork knuckle on a bed of mamaliga, spicy peppers, red onions and shaved horseradish.
We finish our outing with coffees at a surprisingly third wave coffee shop next door, and while Alex walks back to his hotel we take the subway home to pack up and wait for my brother and dad to pick us up. They have been driving for the last five hours to fetch us. My phone is exploding with messages from my mama. It is time to go home…
The history of my people has been difficult for me to process. So many political realities affected my childhood despite my parent’s best efforts to shelter me and my brother and give us a care-free childhood. I’m opening the doors of my past wider than I ever have. There are happy, ugly, and mysterious memories staring back at me demanding a response from the woman I have become. For the first time in my life I feel stronger than them, strong enough to speak about them out loud to myself and the world.