Radio Swann

As long as we still lived in the old country house in Transylvania, every evening, after feeding the chickens, my grandfather would have always be climbing up to the attic to listen to his radio. It wasn’t that we didn’t have a radio downstairs. In the dark of the dining room there was a light brown wooden box with two tired ivory buttons. Along the doors leaves there were carefully mounted wires coated in khaki fabric, transporting my grandmother’s music to small yellow loudspeakers in the rooms her work was mainly done every day: the kitchen and the sleeping room. That’s how you could always find her cooking while discussing with you all the modern Romanian singers or mending, patching on the side of the round table while listening to her favorite radio theatre.

I am not sure if anyone alive in the civilized world has a clear idea of what mending a cloth might actually mean. In the movies I often see patching as taking a piece of material, cutting it as to fit the hole in the old garment then sewing it on top of the hole. That’s not the patching I grew up with. There was never any reason why people have such big holes in their clothes as to deserve such a patch. Most of the time your thumb toe would have found its way to freedom from the sock, or those tights got torn into a furniture corner, or even more often the underarm portion of your dress or shirt became so thin after years of sweating then washing, then sweating again and washing again, that you had to choose between doing something about it or throwing away the whole thing. And throwing didn’t ever seem a viable option to us.

Many years later when my grandmother died we counted four dresses in her wardrobe in all. Three of them, no matter their old color, had white underarms, the fourth was a gift from her sister in France, the dress that she took with her in her grave.

What she used to do then was to glide her thread across the remaining original threads of the fabric starting maybe an inch from the actual hole. Back and forth, back and forth went her thick thread of cotton floss recreating the original force of the fabric. When the hole and its surroundings were covered in horizontal lines the vertical part started. Her needle was grabbing a thread, leaving the next, then grabbing again delicately the next while avoiding the other. Watching the whole operation seemed had an alluring rhythm, it felt like music. The result looked more like a piece of art in itself, a small checkers table made in the heart of the tired fabric. At times she showed me her progress or stopped to add some wood in the tall, dark red, ceramic stove.

The radio theatre was going on and on, while I was organizing my new toy zoo garden in a corner of the room. It smelled like burnt wood, and like the iced clothes just brought by grandpa from the attic where we dried them during winter, and sometimes like warm chicory milk, while beyond the vibrating fabric of the loudspeaker the Chekhov’s three sisters were still hoping to see their beloved Moscow, or Stephen the Great would tell us how Moldavia belongs to the many generations still to be born.

However the attic radio was something entirely different. We were climbing there, my grandpa and me during the day time. Sometimes just to deposit some corn or nuts, other times to catch a cheeky mouse, once or twice to isolate a smoking chimney using old prunes jam. But in a corner, on a small table there laid the big radio. Maybe twice the volume of the one downstairs, dressed in dark red veneer and watching us with his big, round, crimson eye. If you peeked at it from behind you could see the thick, glass lamps flickering inside. My grandpa hanged a wire from a chimney and attached it to the monster calling it his “antenna”. I guess it was the first antenna I saw that was not belonging to an insect.

I was never invited upstairs to listen to it but in the evening silence the voices and the static could be heard downstairs, too, from certain angles.

I wasn’t used to secrets either. Somehow they always talked to me seriously and frank as if I were an adult. Being only five or less I guess this was an illusion but in this case they were very good at maintaining it. Maybe that is why at some point I decided to show them I knew what the big radio is doing so I started to simply sing around the kitchen “Europe Swann… Europe Swann”[1]. My grandmother froze for a second then asked me to repeat. What I had heard was highly illegal. “Radio Free Europe” was a radio broadcast funded by the US Congress „where the free flow of information is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed”.[3]

No more than five years before I was born, people would serve time if they were caught listening to it. The authorities weren’t so strict anymore but there was no formal guarantee. The station bothered so much the communist government that some people working for the Romanian Radio Free Europe were assassinated. But Free Europe didn’t make sense to the five old girl while there were plenty of stories about Swans that were read to me. My grandma called her husband and they both listened to me again. I have no idea what they whispered to each other in that old kitchen of ours; however they didn’t try to shut me up nor to explain too much. After a while they both had a good laugh and left me alone. Somehow I didn’t feel like singing that song anymore.


[1] Radio Free Europe has a very similar sound to Radio Swann Europe in Romanian. Radio Europa Liberă – Radio Europa Lebădă