Slightly Abroad

My grandmother’s sister, Lucretia, was freed from jail around 1964 as a direct result of her sons paying some tens of thousands of dollars to the Romanian state. Consequently she left the country where her freedom was in danger at any time. The two sisters had a remarkably strong bond. The fact that they were the only children remaining out of many dead at young ages, the fact that both shared the fight of Transylvanians to unite “with the country” as they put it, to unite with the Romanian state, living large parts of their lives together and thinking similarly united them like seldom brothers are linked.

After Lucretia left the country letters were going to and forth from Romania to France every week. When my mother died I have found hundreds and hundreds of postal cards and letters. Every evening in my prayer I would ask God to help 4 unknown people: Lucretia and her three sons. From them however came my newborn “trousseau”, my Sunday dress, and a couple of dolls like nothing on our market. The four were extremely present in our house, every trip, every illness would be discussed and analyzed as if they were the family next door. Even the large number of cats one of the “boys” had (a grown up man around 50 at that time) was a copious subject of consideration. The eventuality life would go back to normal and all of them would live together again was not a hope but a certainty, only how long it will take till then saddened them.

During the 1970 summer something extraordinary was preparing to happen. Somebody somehow discovered that the Romanian state didn’t stop its citizens anymore from visiting other communist countries on one hand, and that Hungary, our communist neighbor, won’t reinforce Romanian political condemnations, on the other. Put together, these two pieces of information meant for my folks one thing: we could meet again in Hungary. Preparations started on both ends. My grandparents and my mother all suddenly got passports to pass into Hungary, I was included in mom’s passport. On the other side, Lucretia didn’t seem to have big difficulties of getting a Hungarian visa to visit. So one sunny morning here we were all in a train heading for Budapest.

At first the city seemed dark and dull for my five years imagination. Grand Baroque actually never interested me too much. People and shops didn’t seem so much different from the Romanian counterparts in spite of mom who maintained that some of the commerce was still free there. Since the old ones only wanted to stay together and talk, and talk all day, I spent many hours with mom on the streets.

There were some new and amusing things for me like the subway, the first I’ve ever seen. I still remember the strong stream of air which yanked my mom’s new and very modern pink sun glasses and our silly laughs. I still remember the first pool with artificial waves in my life and the long speech mom had to provide to persuade me to strip naked in order to swim. We strolled all the downtown, visited Margareta Island and ate all the stupid junk foods we could find on the streets. We were like two escaped sisters. Inside though the four adults were talking and talking. To my grandparents and Lucretzia, the widow of a notable Romanian poet, an intimate friend of theirs, added. I had no understanding to what they would be up to in the hotel rooms, but I didn’t mind, the trip was a holiday with my mom I seldom had only for myself.

With her tall stature and white hair my grand aunt seemed to impose upon everybody. My mom was surely taller than her, probably even my grandmother, still she managed to seem the tallest in the room. I wasn’t too affectionate towards her since I had overheard her saying “A sharp mind is best taught  with a sharp whip” or something  like that. With the attitude that old visitors always have towards kids she asked me one evening what would I like to become when I grew old. I shrugged and said the truth: I don’t knowAlright, she continued a bit amused, then what do you know to do best? That was serious, I never thought about me being best at anything. I thought deeply then replied: To smell stuff. I can’t say I was delighted to the roar of laughter I produced in the room.

We left too early for my taste, Budapest had felt like an immense Luna park for mom and me. I wasn’t the only sad one, my grandfather had a gloomy expression and my grandmother was weeping quietly. They weren’t at all sure if they would be ever able to see each other “in this life”. The wait hadn’t been meant to last that long because around 1975 they were able to get passports again for France this time.

The state politics changed in some untold way that allowed, in general, old people to travel to the West. So, in as much as they were in good enough health and had some money, they did travel as much as they could. Many had relatives political refugees, others just wanted to see the world. Maybe the state just decided they would better off not paying them the retirement money should they decide to move permanently outside the country. Usually someone who left for good lost his citizenship and together with it all his possessions, pension, house, all.

Some were left to leave conditionally, I was to find this out about ten years later when I was visiting my last alive relative in France: the youngest of mom’s cousins, now almost 90. We were talking about dr. H, a dear friend of us all, now dead. My uncle was recounting his first arrival in Paris, around 1980. Dr. H had a pleasant lunch with them, then my uncle as usual prepared his sophisticated Italian espresso. His wife was taking care of the vessel and the two old friends were chatting in my uncle’s study.

Seeing the typewriter dr. H said with a smile. “Oh, great, now please take a sheet of paper and type an information notice about yourself” To his dumbfounded look he explained a little abashed “That was the condition they gave me my passport… you don’t imagine I would inform on you”. Nobody asked that of us, but I assume we were just too compromised for them. At any rate for my grandparents the Paris trip was a world of a change, for me it meant mainly my green school backpack which I proudly displayed for years.

Among many adult stories that never reached my ears or at least my consciousness, they brought one that somehow got to me. One of Lucretia’s sons had some argument with my grandpa. It should have been about democracy or freedom, I am not sure. However this Parisian lawyer who was my mother’s cousin took my grandpa in his car, drove in the gyratory of Tour Eiffel, stopped right next to the circulation officer there, pulled down his window and yelled as loud as he could “Mort à D’Estaing!” (Death to D’Estaing – D’Estaing was the French president at the time). The officer shrugged, smiled and motioned them to move along. I have the feeling my grandpa, as amused as he was now by the demonstration, was proved wrong by his younger nephew, and the democracy rule went a little different from what the old judge thought it would be.

It must have been their stories that made me perfectly comfortable when in 1980 I got myself for the first time in the West. People who lived in communism for a long time without connections to the exterior, especially those who spent their  first years during the privations time of the Romanian communist economy crumbling often were genuinely shocked when going abroad. I remember this girl, the little sister of a good friend. She was  about seven years younger than me. Which generally meant she seldom saw an orange or a banana, she knew that for a bad piece of meat one should bribe someone or stand four hours or more in a row, that during winter we have to find our own means to warm our houses because the state owned natural gas based  system ceased working, and so on. Together with her boyfriend she left Romania for the first time after 1989, the revolution. They were both students in architecture. Right in the train station where they descended in Switzerland there was this stand full of all fruits, oranges, bananas, tangerines, grapefruits… she stopped frozen then started to cry  hysterically.

In 1980 we spent the summer in a mountain villa some friends had at Sinaia, one of the many mountain locations close to Bucharest. That was after my grandmother’s death and my grandpa seemed a bit lost. I remember reading with passion Allan Edgar Poe’s novels and Queen Mary of Romania memories, both books found in their library. Queen Mary’s memories were certainly forbidden lecture but who was to tell about what I was doing, after all. We were also waiting, my grandpa and me, for our passports. We weren’t sure at all they would issue them to us, many were simply refused, but friends advised us that he, being 80 and me just 16, there was a good chance the authorities would allow us to leave the country temporarily knowing none of us was able to win a bread in a Western country. In the evenings we would watch Nadia Comaneci triumph at the Olympic Games. It certainly made us feel proud of being Romanian.

The Olympic Games ended, and my mom’s summer holiday ended too, my school was about to begin and the passports weren’t coming. We returned to Bucharest and even today I can effortlessly see in my mind grandpa wobbling back and forth after  hours of standing in a row just to get the invariable answer: the passports weren’t ready.

There was this old two levels building in a small weedy garden, probably once owned by some “bourgeois” jailed, immigrated or dead by now. They had painted it in dirty green on the outside and oil dirty green on the inside. As you entered the main room you could see two rows of people covering the grand staircase in wrought iron that was raising to the first floor. At the top, instead of the opening meant to be a ball room, the sight was cut short by a new wall with two grated windows. Behind them there were two rude women dressed like police.

They weren’t the regular police, we all knew the passports service was an interior ministry division, closely intertwined with the secret police, the Securitate. I could never be sure why they were treating people like that. Did they think it as a means of discouraging travelling abroad? But the huge queues proved the contrary. Was it just genuine incompetence? Did they wait for a bribe? But who could give any bribe in the middle of that crowd? What stopped them from simply telling you after the first month of waiting (and on their part checking): you are not allowed to leave the country? Period.

The way they were talking to people was appalling. My memory carefully erased details about it, but my 16 years blood was boiling. It felt as if we were incarcerated already, as if we had some unknown guilt that made us, as soon as we stepped inside, subhuman and, to be sure, their inferiors in any respect. My grandpa asked politely if our passports were ready, the lady kept him waiting some 30 minutes more, then told him in the best condescending tone she managed that they weren’t. Then I moved swiftly next to him and asked her to tell us just that they won’t be ever ready, it would be better than keep an 80 years old standing for four hours a day, isn’t it? Isn’t it? She dismissed us, but the next day we had our passports. I don’t think it was me who determined that, but if by chance the passports were right in front of her, maybe somehow the question just spoiled her not so secret happiness of making us come back again, and again, and again.