'Farewell My Transylvania!' Fragments

Old Folks' Home
Tuesday, June 6th, 2000

"Here in the old folks’ home," the nursing students' group leader informed us, "we'll see 100 old people. many of them were abandoned by their families even though some of them have two or three children."
In the office there was a strong medicine and chlorine odor. The director gave me her consent to take pictures of the old folks on crutches, with missing eyes, sitting on benches. Though later she was afraid and mumbled with the doctor about how those photos could actually be misused.
One old lady patient marveled at how wonderful God was giving humanity such inventions as my camera. I asked her what's up and she said they just sat on benches all day. Now they were unraveling a sweater for the cook, who wanted to weave a rug out of the thread for her daughter.
She was occupying her mind with unraveling because otherwise she’d worry about her house. When I asked her if she still had her house, she said of course, in Poarta Sălajului.
She'd had a rich husband, who had loads of land and cattle, and his family had said when they came to ask for her hand, that all they needed from her father was the girl. But the father had said, "My daughter won't leave like a beggar from my hearth!" and gave her land and cattle. And they were well off because her husband worked in Cluj at the chemical plant, and they built a big house and had two children. But then the husband died and one child was well off, good child, in Zalău, while the smaller, though he was so very handsome that every girl in the village wanted to marry him, he married—and the old woman was crying outraged, humiliated—a Gypsy woman with three kids! He then made her a fourth one and they all lived together in her house.
They destroyed her beautiful house. She'd had large windows with four partitions, and he smashed the windows and together with the Gypsy woman destroyed the furniture and sold it and ruined it all, kicked his mother out in the stable and beat her on and on, threatened to kill her with the axe, even hit her in the loins with the axe and she didn't heal and now she ended up in the old folks’ home.
She was crying, poor woman. I felt so bad. Still, I was trying to justify to myself the Gypsy woman's behavior, her hate for furniture and the resentment for being rejected by her mother-in-law because she had kids and was of color. I was forcing myself to take pictures of the crying old lady, gnashing the teeth of my compassion, feeling awful that I was taking pictures while she was crying, but then saying to myself, ‘If I don't, I won't make her story heard.’ It was painful. It was even more embarrassing to tell her that I had to leave because the bus would leave me behind, but I'd be back, I'd be back.
I plan to go back with my sister on Tuesday. I wish I knew what to do for them.
They were so glad when I showed them their digital photos.
The old lady said she marveled at modern devices, like the telephone. Her older son came with a buyer to sell the house, but she called her brother and he said she shouldn't let anyone talk her into selling her house, she should better give it to him. Asshole, I thought. And the phone enabled her to speak with the potential buyer and the buyer said he was sorry, he liked the grounds, but the house itself was in a sorry state. Meanwhile the younger son came back from the Gypsy woman who was from Iaz village, and so he occupied the abandoned house again. However, the house is still in her name. She didn't sell it.
Before I ran after the bus, the women blessed me. Such sad old ladies. There was one with no teeth who burst into the office asking the director if she'd spoken with the mayor. The director told her she couldn't find him, but then after the old woman went to sit by the ditch to wait for the mayor, the director told us that this old woman had no one at home back in Lozna and the mayor was happy he could find shelter for her at the old folks’ home. For a year she'd been insisting on going back to her home though no one is there to take care of her, so she keeps on asking the director to call the mayor of Lozna to take her back home.
“They have childish minds,” the director said.
It came out that the nurse group didn't get on the bus yet, but went to the other building across the street where the men were.
So I still had time. I entered a small ward with six beds. The air was sickening with pee smell. Poor moribund old women. One had rheumatism, she said. She couldn't stand up anymore, she just slipped downwards, she said softly, girlishly, raising her hands to show me how she couldn't use them anymore. Her knuckles hurt. She tried to hold things in her hands, but she couldn't anymore. Poor, poor girl. She was thin like a skeleton, hollow-eyed, her gray curls spread out on the pillow, and so meager in her beige sweater.
The nurses were hardened women. No wonder in that smell and suffering. You have to survive taking care of those poor, unpleasant looking beings, and you protect yourself by hardening.
But maybe it is true what they wrote in the papers and showed on TV, that nurses are cruel to patients here. I don't know. I don't even know if I want to know. It’s disturbing and disempowering. I'll go back, but it makes me cry again. I hope I get out of here sane.
Another old woman—lying in bed with her face squashed somehow, her nose especially—said her heels hurt and she was operated on and since then they'd deformed so much that she couldn't stand up anymore. She said it was dreadful to stay in bed.
The woman across the room, behind me—I had a hard time looking at her because she was a mass of round flat flesh, with a face, and hands. She couldn't move at all, having lain on her back for the last 12 years. Before, when she could sit, she said faintly and proudly, she sewed the geometrical wall cover, which I found ugly.
It was dreadful, they said. The only woman who could sit in the room, on the edge of her bed—she had the Kidnapping from Seraglio on her part of the wall—said that perhaps the only meaning of their suffering was to have others see it.
I felt so bad when one nursing student opened the door, saying agitatedly that they were leaving and I was the only one they were waiting for.
The doctor from the local hospital, who came to guide the students around the buildings, said he too thought of writing a novel about those old folks. I told the nurse students what one of the old ladies had told me, that it was so very kind of the girls to bring them waffles and chocolates and cookies since they were sure the girls had no money themselves, but bought them anyhow, and they could have bought something else for themselves for sure since they were so young, but they bought poor old folks something.
Still, the director wanted to make sure that I wouldn't make them bad publicity. I told her I'd be back with my sister on Tuesday afternoon. I hope she won't put mother in that place.
The bus left. We ate our sandwiches. It was so hot, I was afraid of getting sick with food poisoning.
Hermaphrodites in Cages
Friday, June 16th, 2000
I knew the hospital area. I was married and lived in that neighborhood for a year. I was 18, I married just to run away from home.
We looked for block P-83, where Malvina, my brother's betrothed lives. She was so happy to see us. My brother Mircea was in an orange bathrobe. Malvina started to feed Alex fries and chicken, and he wanted to see Sunset Boulevard or something—a soap with witchcraft. So I went to the Contagious Diseases Hospital to take some shots of the beautiful sculptures a doctor made there. They were placed around the hospital yard, behind a wire fence, so from the outside my pictures looked spider-webbed by the fence.
Malvina advised me to say I was Dr. Elena Veres' sister and they would open the gates widely. Well, it wasn't so. The guard said no, then mumbled something through the window, behind a curtain, and finally came out of her booth and I told her I wanted to take pictures of the sculptures, for my book about my hometown, and she said I should come on Monday morning. I said I'd be leaving on Tuesday and what if it rained on Monday.
She regrettably couldn't let me in. I told her she could call the doctor on duty, she said she could and called, but she said he wasn't answering and he might be asleep. I said, "I'll wait until he gets up." She mumbled again. Then a mother with a daughter in her arms and another one holding onto her skirts came in and they pushed the gate open while the porter was talking into the receiver that she had a problem, there was a woman who claimed she came from abroad and wanted to stroll around the hospital yard and take pictures. I stepped in and asked her why she was saying such things, but of course she didn't listen and she said victoriously—like, "Am I not right?"—repeating after her boss, "No," and then put down the receiver.
I asked her why she didn't tell to the doctor exactly what I'd told her. She said again in answer to my question, "No." I said angrily, "Why did you twist what I said and tell him that I wanted to photograph the patients and the yard when I told you I just wanted to get near the sculptures?" She viciously smiled and said the sculptures were in the hospital yard, weren't they?! I asked her name and she didn't want to say it, and she chased me away. I told her she was a liar and I'd be back, be sure about that.
I didn't give up, so I then went and took shots of the sculptures from the street when after a while public guardian, puffed up in her civil police uniform like a turkey passed by looking nastily at me. After I finished my shots, she came from behind the fence and started to holler at me about taking photographs because this was a hospital and it was forbidden. I said there was nothing posted saying that and I would take as many shots as I wanted. People started to gather around me. She was hollering that the police patrol would show up and fine me one million lei. She herself couldn't care less. I told her they were both fools, she and the hospital guard, but I put my camera away in my bag and left.
A man followed me, insisting—he was carrying a plastic bag of cherries in one hand—that yes, I could, and I should take pictures, it was my right to do so, and inside the hospital too! I said I would be back the next day, actually meaning Monday. I was so angry that I forgot it was Friday.
I went around the block to get to Malvina's apartment building, while the guy told me that I could go behind the hospital, where there was a garden and from its tall wall, I could photograph the desperate conditions patients were kept in there.
He said poor people with schizophrenia and other diseases, and hermaphrodites, were locked in cages, behind there, like animals, and there were poor people, like animals, famished, looking around to eat grass, poor people like animals, who were let to go around naked in that area. And hermaphrodites.
I asked him if he had relatives in that hospital or he himself had been a patient. He said, "Sadly, yes. Someone has to write, to expose these people who live like animals. They are humans too."
I felt so annoyed with myself for not being able to say, "Fuck the expensive cameras, fuck the million lei fine, fuck my safety," and go and take shots of the animals and those he called hermaphrodites.
I imagined fantastic creatures.
Malvina was serving French fries and chicken thighs and drumsticks, so I got to eat with Alex. It was kind of her. She was so warm-hearted. I told her my adventure and she said it was not quite like that. They were for sure kept in poor conditions, but the situation in hospitals was disastrous all over the place.
The man also said that the guardian was a thief, he knew her, she was from Ortelec, and now she was a public guardian. He looked sound, but how can I tell if he was insane imagining "hermaphrodites".
Malvina said the public guardians were previously guards at the gates of factories and now that the factories closed they were turned into civil police, as public guardians. She said people were so very stupid in our town, afraid of everything. Like it happened to us at her work place, in her hospital sterilization section, where after I took pictures of her and her fellow nurse with their machines, her boss got scared one day later and told Malvina to stop me from publishing the photos because their machinery was secret. No one was allowed to enter their sterilization rooms. “What secrets?!” Malvina was laughing, "Two iron holes in which they put surgical instruments to sterilize. Idiots. If you stay around longer, you'll see more of the stupidity around here."
I'm watching a nation dying, but still this can't be true because many, many things changed for the better. It's like in spring, when patches of green grass show through the dirty, melting snow.
Smiling for Me
Tuesday, June 6th, 2000
Kids in the handicapped children's institution that I made a point of visiting—because this is what Romania is infamous for, handicapped kids, orphans, street kids, so I have to cover these too, I'm a serious reporter, am I not?—have a great environment and housing conditions, thanks to some German religious sponsors. Their home looked like some mountain resort facility, much better than many "respectable" neighborhoods in Zalău. Still, it was hell. It had a lovely location, in a valley with vineyards and orchards, like a sardonic Garden of Eden.
What help could brand new Adidas shoes and colorful clothing, clean rooms and polished wooden walls and floors be for these kids? It was hell. Young, jittery kids that couldn't stand still; they made clockwork-like jerked movements. They were hollering, like little beasts. It was potty hour: they were lined up in the bathroom on their pots. I felt sick. The student nurses that I was on the trip with got out of the building fast, like from a horror museum, but I had to stay longer, to grapple with what I saw.
Grotesque painting exhibition. Imagine all kinds of jerky movements, distorted grins and slobbering. One little girl, Delia, had her knees in the back of her legs. "She has an incredible will to walk and stand," the nurse said about Delia. "She could barely walk when she came here."
From time to time one child uttered an unbearable hollering. The nurses tried to hold him and calm him down and managed to for a while, but then he'd start again. How can you help him, if he doesn't say what pains him? How could they work in such a place? Hell is nicer than that, I assume. And more logical. No, it's not logical either, but biblical imagination was fairytaly compared with this collectivity.
The nurse said that the hollering boy was Gusti, and he was 25 years old, though he looked like a four-year-old kid. They had to tie his hands because he was scratching himself till he was bleeding.
Made me very, very ill.
On my way out, I met Victor, hanging out on the porch in his yellow foreign wheel chair, his limbs, his face twisted. His sunny smile reminded me of my own ability of getting out of misery by pulling my boot straps. You have to smile, you have to be happy that you’re alive because it is beautiful to be alive, so smile thru its grotesque absurdities.
Perhaps I too am oblivious, like them am not even aware of all the absurdities I’m subjected to.


Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.

New York,
August 7th, 2013 

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