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10/18/13

Over a Glass of Beer

I wrote this piece, part of a longer text about a travel to Romania, in 1997 while studying in Budapest.  

I gulped thirstily the foamy beer, sensing Florin was in a story telling mood.
The troublesome news was that his mother, Florin was about fifty years old, broke her leg and was now in hospital in Braşov. This is a medieval mountain town famous for its Black Stone Cathedral and a street narrower than an obese lady’s hips.
"She was searching for her wallet while going down the stairs and fell down,” he told me lively, though sympathetic. “I would very much like to ask her now, 'Have you been drunk?' because when this happened to me, in '93, she said I was drunk. Though I told her that I was not! I was heading towards having a beer with friends and I was searching in my pocket for my cigarettes and lighter and I stepped on the edge of the step and fell. I told my friends, lucky of me they held me up, that I broke my leg, but they thought I was kidding. They took me to the emergency room and here I was for two months in a plaster cast up the middle of my thigh. I very much want to ask her if she was drunk!"
He asked me if I turned into a Hungarian, living in Budapest.
I said not totally.
"How do you say ‘mormoloc’ (tadpole) in Hungarian?"
"I have no idea," I said, realizing I knew tadpole only in Romanian and I felt silly I wrote fiction in other languages.
"Then you are not a Hungarian yet."
He asked me what was going on with me, and I told him I finished my first novel.
He smiled and asked me what would I worry next now?
"Well, maybe about my second book, and then about my third book, until I run out of inspiration."
He said a friend of his, a poet, said it would be better if you could make your debut with the second book.
I said I was afraid of not having new ideas and repeat myself.
He said something bizarre, that to have imagination asks for patience.
I was tickled by this idea and asked him to explain it.
He went way back to his childhood.
I hope he doesn't die, because this is what happens to my sources after they entrust me with their stories.
"When I was little, I discovered a trunk of old books in the attic. Tolstoi, Verlaine, Shakespeare, everything. They were dusty and falling apart. The paper was almost brown. I read them all on the toilet seat we had in the courtyard outhouse.”
“Why?!”
“I liked sitting there. It was warm and sunny. There wasn’t much sun in Braşov."
The stink of outhouse stung my nostrils. Visual artists were always peculiar to me.
"I didn't like school in the least. Our parents wanted to make us urban beings. To have a future. We were coming from the countryside, we didn't know what was that a toilet, an electric bulb, tap water… We knew other things connected with nature and animals... The girls were more devilish than we boys were. Beautiful girls with budding breasts I was dying to touch, were saying, ‘Comrade Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, The President of our country said...’ in the pionier/scout ceremonies.” He imitated their goosey primness dancing his cigarette.
“I skipped being a pionier. I didn't even enroll in the Communist Youth Organization. I was too wild, not one of their positive elements, so they left me alone. When they asked me to enroll in the Communist Party, I avoided it. I said I’d think it over."
That was funny. I was always told everybody was forced to join the Communist Party's ranks.
"Even in primary school we were rioting against the absurd, rigid regimentation. The school I went was next to the Synagogue and of course all the classmates were Jewish, except for a few of us who lived in the Şchei district populated by Romanians freshly settled from the surrounding villages. The Jewish children were very good at school. They knew Russian well, we never studied it properly. It took us months to grumble a few sentences, while these Jews were chatting in Russian. We looked at each other little cocks in the toilet and instinctively formed a group of little Nazis. We didn't know what was a Nazi, but we started to say 'Hail Hitler' and raise our arms in the toilet." He says this smiling and I listen to him puzzled. This is a nice man, a real artist, and he tells me smiling how real life was long time ago. Why should I worry, as I do, and not write it as he literally told me, fearing this would offend my Jewish friends?
"Then they left with their families, one by one, to Israel.
“At that time the school had a new director who was very tough. He came in class and announced, 'From now on you don't talk to Miriam Katz anymore. Her family has been a traitor to our cause. They go to the capitalists.’ Miriam had long, red hair, white skin and never talked to us anyway. Then we understood we could start beating them without getting punished and swell! we did! We draw swastikas in the break on the back of their copybooks. They never said anything to us, they were always quiet and polite. Who knows what their parents said at home...
“I stayed in that school until baccalaureate, what else could I do or even imagine I could do? I knew I liked drawing. My aunt Marilena from Cluj invited me to visit my cousin and improve my shaky Romanian Literature and Language knowledge because it was required at the Arts Academy entrance exam.”
At that moment Flavia came home and she was not in the least in the mood to indulge Florin's stream of consciousness. She came hobbling around the kitchen, slamming things around. "Where is the bean soup? You drank! You didn't buy bread, though I left you money on the fridge! Why don't you put the beer in the fridge?!"
He was happy, not in the least embarrassed. Neither was I, because I knew Flavia thought much of him and worried about his drinking. But we were floating in the past and we didn't want to come back to the kitchen squabbles. Finally Flavia gave up and joined us for a while, adding her contributions with an impatient, "Let me speak now!" when they were describing what kind of woman was tanti Marilena with her piercing blue eyes, who took Florin and his drawings to a reputable drawing teacher who refused to teach Florin. Tanti Marilena looked at him, told him resolutely, "We have to talk!" and the two of them went into his studio, closed the door after them, and then the teacher called Florin in and told him he should come to class on Tuesday.
"But what did she say?" I asked thinking she was maybe a femme fatale.
"She was a very resolute woman,” said Florin smiling. “Maybe 'Fuck off!' I don't know. Once we were in her new Trabant. She was new to driving. She drove illegally thru the zebra crossing. A poor peasant froze in the middle of the street. He was looking bewildered at her while she was cursing him, both in Hungarian and Romanian, why the hell he wanted to make an accident."
"But she was making the accident!" I laughed.
"Yes, but she was like that,” laughed Flavia, warmed up by the memory. She made a graceful pantomime of Marilena, “In two seconds she rolled the window down, cursed him in Romanian and Hungarian, to make sure he understood, rolled back the window pushing hard at the damn handle, and left the peasant aghast holding his bags in the middle of the zebra… When I went to visit her for the first time, and Florin told her I was his fiancée, she, first thing, examined my legs! Though I had a miniskirt and you could see they were good legs, she grabbed my skirt from my back, pulled it upwards! I was preparing a tea or something in the kitchen, and she came and said loudly that she wanted to see my thighs! This was her style..."
The phone rang. It was some Italian, a friend of Pansa, Flavia’s sister, wanting to say a late Happy New Year to them. Pansa worked for a year at an Italian clinic. It was sweet how both Flavia and Pansa said beaming their siamo bene and arrivederci. We Romanians finally get to travel abroad, slowly but surely.
Then Flavia had enough of being up so she declared, "It's late, you should all go to sleep."
But Florin informed her musing, "I like her," making me blush, so we went on with our marathon. He was now talking about the Arts Academy.
"I didn't like my portraits because they were too true to nature, while others made futuristic stuff..."
"I need a true-to-nature cover. Can you turn photos into drawings?"
Yes, he could... Then, in the last year at the Graphics department, he had to do pedagogical practice. He taught drawing in primary school and the pupils were so brazen.
He was dutifully drawing on the blackboard some still nature or some floral frieze, working hard to expand their artistic abilities. He was quite sharply dressed, you know, with a fresh white shirt, his hair slick. Still, what he got from his sweet pupils while drawing so dutifully? Little bantering voices chirped, “Oh, don't you say so, dude?!" stabbing him with their giggling.
"You didn't know what to do... Slap her? She was too big! And too small to ask her for a rendez-vous... So I told them, 'Let’s be patient with each other and be quiet until the end of the class. You can do your math homework if you like. I will read this fine novel meanwhile.' So for a whole month we lost each other’s time, until I fulfilled my teaching requirement."
“O-la-la! I wrote these people in Syracuse—they asked me to write a statement in my graduate school application about why I liked teaching creative writing. I wrote them that I loved teaching because I loved eager young minds.”
“Eager young minds indeed,” laughed Flavia. “They are troglodytes nowadays. Few are like you. I admire you so much."
Oh, again I blushed in embarrassment, and wanting to change the subject I asked her, "How do you say mormoloc in Hungarian?" She is also both Hungarian and Romanian.
"V
ízibolha..." she mumbled, making an effort, "Víztetű
..."
"That is purece de apă, păduche de apă!” water flea, water lice I laughed, “You can’t speak Hungarian either."
"What is it in English?!" she asked.
"I don't know... Neither in French..." It’s tadpole, you sad English fiction writer.
She went to bed promising to wake me up early to be in time to fetch my scholarship money at the Ministry of Education.
Then Florin said how at graduation, they were already married by then, they wanted to go work in some other city together.
"There was something in Iaşi, but we wanted Bucharest. I got some very weird job, she didn't get anything. I was supposed to start work on the first of August, which I did. My new work place was at 'The Creative Esthetics and The Esthetics of Production Institute.' On August first, I knocked at their door. They told me the director was not in, neither was his secretary, or his deputy, so I should come the next day. They didn't want me there. It was tricky, because if you didn't show up at the due date, you lost your work place. I told them, 'The government wants me to work here. Look at this paper! It says black on white that I am your employee.' I came again the next day, and again they sent me around from one office to the other. I was staying at my aunt, so I wasn’t paying a hotel and I have plenty of patience. I decided I would wait until they signed my papers and gave me work.
One guy told me in a hurry that the director had already left. Later on I realized he was the director. He was a cynical, a sadistic idiot. In the end they didn't have what to do and gave me an assignment to draw yellow and black letters, from Ceauşescu's writings, for a school poster.
Then I remembered that my cousin Paul from Cluj, said I should go and ask for his friend's help. But I forgot his family name. I knew only where he worked. I went there and told the porter I wanted to speak to Cristian. The porter asked humbly, 'Comrade Vlădescu?' 'Yes, Comrade Vlădescu!' and he let me in. Comrade Vlădescu came out from a fanciful meeting, smoked with me and sent me to the Military Publishing House. There they treated me nicely, offered me coffee. It was different if someone like Vlădescu sent you. They didn't have any position opened but they promised to call me back and they kept their promise.
But now the Creative Esthetics didn't want to let me leave, because they didn't want to be known that people quit them. One day as I was drawing black and yellow texts from Ceauşescu, on a ladder, cursing Tofan, the guy who refused to stamp and sign my work transfer papers, so I could go to the Military Publishing House. Well, the school principal, a nice woman, came to give me sandwiches to eat. She was happy that finally the school would have quotations from Comrade Ceauşescu. And as we talked, I knew that she was also named Comrade Tofan, but somehow I never made the connection up to then, and I asked her, 'Are you a relative of Comrade Tofan from the Personnel Office at the Light Industry Ministry?' 'Yes. I am his wife.' 'Well, he gives me so much trouble. He doesn't want to let me transfer to the Military Publishing House.' 'Who? Sorin?! Does Sorin give you such troubles?!' The next day he immediately called me in and signed and stamped my papers and asked me nicely to finish the quotations for his wife before I’d leave.
"But still the director from the Production Esthetics didn't want to let me go. Such absurdities were going on. I told my future boss at the Military Publishing House about it, asking him to intervene somehow and he said, 'Who?! Basarabescu?! But we don't intervene when it comes to him! We order him, he complies!' He was their informer. So they ordered him indeed, and I got my stamp in no time, plus Comrade Basarabescu was licking my ass now telling me we should cooperate in the future, and what a nice guy I was.
"It was nice at the Military Publishing House so I worked there ever since. Until I broke my leg... It is so easy sometimes. Things that you struggle for years get solved in a matter of minutes... I was staying at my aunt’s. It was dreadfully sad to be alone in Bucharest. I don't wish this to anyone. I feared I’d annoy my aunt, so I came home only late at night, not to disturb her. I hang out in pubs, at Turnul, or Pescarul."
"Couldn't you work for yourself after your work hours?"
"Well, it was difficult. When you enter into a network of manipulation and thievery you can't get out of it. Flavia was in Baia Sprie. Then she came over. She didn't work for ten years, raising our kids."
"How could she survive without making sculptures?"
"She was okay," he said convinced and poured more beer into his glass. I was sleepy, sleepy.
"How could you? I'd go crazy without my writing! Don't you regret it?”
“Quite often, even now. But see, cover design is not exactly art."
"Why not?! Even making Eiffel Towers out of matches can be art!”
“Let’s make a cover for you. I need to hold your book in my hand. Send it to me.”
"It's in English. That won’t do. I’ll write a summary in Romanian for you. And I have a photo I'd like you to make a drawing after.”
"Send them. We could make a book, even if only a single copy. Something to hold happily in your hand. Not like these consumerisms they sell nowadays. Do you understand?"
I nodded. It was exciting imagining Florin brooding around designing my first novel’s cover.
I should mail him the photo.


 
 
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 some of them, I’d be grateful.


New York
October 18th, 2013

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