"travel is like an onion, unfolding and revealing itself one layer at a time. sometimes it makes you cry."
i've already saved for that rainy day
may 16, 2010
you know, in my country, there's an expression about "saving for a rainy day." i wouldn't be surprised if the saying existed in many other countries. it's part of human nature, right? don't spend all your money when you're young, "save it for a rainy day." it's what keeps the bank account growing, or wanting to grow. it's what, if they're lucky, keeps the twinkle in the middle aged parents' eye, as the wrinkles get deeper and deeper and they save for their prized child's education and their idyllic, long-awaited, and hard-earned day in the somewhat not-too-far distant future when they can retire and spend "a little on themselves". you know, the "rainy day", when all the hard work and savings will pay off... the long-awaited day.... in the future... ... when things WILL BE... over.
i've never subscribed to this philosophy. because, unfortunately, as far as i can see, for most of us, the rainy day never comes. sure, it rains like hell. there are lots of storms. hurricanes. disasters. even new fangled tsunamis and collapsing world trade centers. lots of those. but the idyllic, long-awaited, hard-earned, rainy day? it never comes. the money gets spent along the way. it's never the right time to retire. to start enjoying life. to pack in "the career" and to indulge in the long-anticipated photography fantasy, traveling the world and writing about it in long-winded, self-indulgent photo essays.
wait. let me back up. before i left on this trip. i had a reading. you know, a "psychic" reading. perhaps from a gypsy. she was armenian, the closest i could get to romania. at least in LA, where we have the largest armenian population outside of armenia. right across the concrete river in glendale.
yes, andreea (2 "e"s) was armenian, with deep set eyes, a potato face, and a dark, east european soul. my ancestors must have looked like her, coming as they did from odessa and kharkov, on the eastern steppe. andreea had me choose 6 tarot cards from her starred and knighted deck. she spread them out on a small black wooden card table in front of her, and she looked deep into my eyes. i was calm, not fearing her pronouncement, as i've always been in the past. "dees will be a good treep. beeznuss and plea-shure." i was still a little wary, we jews always waiting for the trouble-bearing sky to fall on us. "do you have a children?" she asked with her throaty but reassuring contralto. "no, i can't," i said. "i see children, a child," she said again. "very soon. a child. you should prepare."
i did. which is to say, i did nothing. and two weeks later, here i am in barlad, romania.(they seem to spell it with different vowel every time you see it!) it's the poorest part of the country, in moldavia, in the northeast corner, but still not as far from bucharest as moldova, one of the new countries carved out of the former soviet union. i've been invited by mirela, one of my new, eager romanian students to go to an orthodox baptism with her and her family. i can't exactly remember which student she is, even looking at her facebook picture, which, of course, is how she has invited me... via facebook. (whoever doesn't believe in the magic of chance encounter via the internet, you're cheating yourself out of an unpredictable confluence of coincidence and destiny!)
we've met at the gara de nord, a little like paris' gare du nord, but about a hundredth the size. still, it's got the charm and bustle of a classic european train station, which means almost anything can happen there. hellos, goodbyes, espionages, trysts, murders. we, however, have met in front of the banal mcdonald's, the most recognizable and hateable icon in all of bucharest, a city curiously straddling the past and present, a little like prague was 20 years ago, i'm told... a creative frontier between the hungry capitalism of the wild west and the still sad, but authentic, stolidness of good old marx-leninism.
mirela and i have just descended the platform in berlad, having taken a 4 and a half hour train ride through the spring green romanian countryside. no hills like in transylvania's carpathian mountains in the central northwest towards hungary. just flat, potato and polenta-growing fields of grasses waving in the wind, and new rows of young green vegetables planted in rich brown gypsy soil. the walk to her apartment building is depressing. the buildings are sad and gray, showing a sort of abandoned grime about them, like they've been shot and left for dead along with communism and ceaucescu (their fierce and fascist dictator kicked out of office and shot to death after 1989's infamous christmas eve revolution).
mirela points and waves to a tiny figure in a window on the 5th floor of her building. it's her pixie goddaughter, miruna, a dark-haired 6 year old beauty who misses her actress godmother desperately. we tug our luggage through the barely-breathing town, which does its best to reveal her 21st century post communist charm. thankfully, mirela is a blond-haired, wide-eyed, young bombshell whose effervescence and loquaciousness more than make up for the torpor of the town. we climb the 5 flights of stairs (why does everyone i know live on the 5th floor?), and her stout, east european mother and wiry, hard-working father greet us enthusiastically. in romanian, naturally.
what was i thinking? i came all the way up here to northeast romania with a girl i couldn't even remember from class. i was so eager to "experience" another part of the world that i didn't bother to check out the details. where would i sleep? what should i bring to wear to the baptism? the weather? could i bring her parents a little gift? now i saw the answers standing in front of me. and none of my concerns mattered. they, the family, would be taking care of me. in romanian! dad asked me to sit down in the living room on a tiny wood chair that he had carved himself. i squeezed my oversized, american gulliver ass into it and dad sat on the one next to me. 12 inches away. we smiled at each other and sat. i think he said the word, "cowboy". so much for following my instincts and saying yes to the train of opportunity. it was going to be a long weekend...
but travel moves in odd and mysterious ways. what she first reveals to you in one light, often an uncomfortable one, soon becomes another thing entirely. another "window" of opportunity, another layer of her onion. the best way to deal with her, or it, or life, me thinks... is to just "go with the flow", "roll with the punches", "say yes to the information, make it your own, and add something new".
so i do. by saying yes to mirela, who recues me from dad's chair and takes me down the tiny hallway to meet her 22 year old, younger brother. she bursts into his room, with her cock-eyed enthusiasm, and introduces me enthusiastically. mirela does everything enthusiastically. it's a tiny room full of colorful european football posters, but i can't see anyone there. mirela starts rattling off my introduction in romanian, but then politely switches to english. me? i'm, also politely, standing in the doorway, so as not to intrude (i hate people suddenly appearing in my bedroom, don't you?), when her brother, marius, pops up from his bed in his underwear. i'm slightly embarrassed for him, but apparently neither of them are in the least. marius sticks out his eager right hand, wiping sleep from his eyes with the other. "hi, i'm marius."
marius is de man. or at least my savior in berlad. he's travel's unforeseeable, white knight in green under shorts. mirela leaves me in his well-spoken hands and happily goes out to the kitchen to visit with her darling family. i join marius on his bed, the only possible place for me in the tiny room, and ask him if i can use his laptop, command central of the world according to marius. he agrees, i check my e-mail, and soon i'm relaxing on his bed, leaning back against the wall on one of his pillows. no, this isn't a homo-erotic story of a romanian-american dalliance, but isn't that interesting: "romance"... "romananian"..... never mind.
soon marius is at command central himself, playing me i-tunes from his extensive deejay-like library. in fact, marius is a part time dee-jay on the local berlad party circuit, where he knows a lot of people from his job, that being the local willy loman of the town. it's my good luck though. for the next hour, marius plays me his own masterful mix of traditional romanian folk music, romanian club, trip hop, and house, authentic romanian gypsy music, along with the more recently bastardized version called "minela" that has a very low reputation among modern-day gypsies, but which i find contagiously danceable like its indoneisan sister music, "dandut". "you have to make me some cds, man." "no problem," young marius smiles shyly, obviously pleased that i've joined him so enthusiastically in his musical world according to marius.
"dinner's ready." mirela bolts in and drags us to the tiny table in the tiny kitchen. mom, dad, mirela, marius, and miruna are all squeezed around the tiny formica table, a la 1960s east european communist fashion, leaving me the whole side against the wall. i feel a little embarrassed and gulliver-like again, as they pull the table out for me to squeeze in, but being the guest, i guess, sometimes does have its awkward and gulliver-like responsibilities. the one thing i have no trouble doing is... eating. if there's one thing you don't know about me, it's that i'm an excellent dinner guest. any time you want to invite me, and you have some new, interesting, food, i'm available.
which, of course, mrs buhunescu has: a local pan fried white fish, grilled chicken, barbecued beef, local home grown veggies, fried potats, a cucumber salad, and the piece de resistance, a giant, puffed up "mamalega".
look at it. it's a thing of beauty, is it not? a giant and graceful polenta pie. in a trendy LA restaurant, it would be on the cover of LA magazine; here it's on the berladian table of mr and mrs buhunescu. i am a lucky man, am i not? traditionally, i learn, you're supposed to cut this beautiful thing with a string, but they apologize, i'll have to use my fork... not a knife... just my fork. no problem. i follow their lead and dig in. and dig in again. if you notice above, just above the awesome polenta, is a little dish of sauce. this is not to be overlooked. good things come in small packages, as the saying goes. sometimes, in small sauce dishes. and this buhunescan home made garlic sauce, is no exception. recipe? not in this life time. you had to be there, as the other saying goes....
...and, of course, i was. for the next 24 hours. after dinner, marius brings me back to command central, where i discover an amazing historical website called "the story of mankind" by hendrick van loon (http://www.authorama.com/story-of-mankind-3.html). it is what i've been looking for the last 20 years of my life: a very brief, easily digestible, history of the world. from prehistoric man to so called "civilized" man. from ice age to iron age. from egypt and mesopotamia, to greece and carthage. from ramses and hamuraibu, to alexander and hannibal. i devour the chapters: the phoenicians, the agaean sea. the fall of rome, the english revolution. it' all here. a delicious desert. and breakfast the next day. and many more meals to come. of course, mr. loon (not as in "crazy as", i hope), over simplifies and paints in broad strokes, but, if you want a big picture, to try and figure out what was happening around the globe in say, the year 800 a.d., then this loon is your man. then again, it's an almost entirely euro-centric history, including, well drawn antagonists such as the heathen huns and the menacing muslims, but leaving out the entire parallel histories of china, india, japan, africa, etc etc. but as i say, if you want a well-packed and useful cliff notes of the entire history of western man, check it out, my brothers and sisters.
mirela bolts in again, bursting my perfect historical bubble, now focused on the break up of greater romania in 1940, and she blurts, "time for the party." "huh? what party?" "the baptism party, indeed." "indeed? i thought we were going to the baptism in the orthodox church tomorrow morning." "no, that happened yesterday morning. saturday" shit! wrong day! i came all the way up here for the orthodox baptism, don't you know? not the local after party. i mean, i this circumcised, self-hating new yawk jew, came all the way up to this, at-one-tine, anti-semitic, bad ass berlad, to see a god damn baptism. i mean, a god blessed baptism. i already knew that the ghosts of my jewish, holocaust-surviving ancestors from odessa and kharkov were turning in their moldy russian graves, but had made my bed. where's the goddam orthodox baptism, mirela?
sorry. no baptism, just party, trules. get with the program! alright, at least my ensemble will still work. vintage gray light-wool slacks, a nice black cotton dior dress shirt.... both freshly ironed by mrs. buhunescu. a slick black leather dress jacket from my chilean brother in law, and one of my father's many 1960s "schmata" work place ties, that i've inherited in 2008. it's drizzling as we walk through the slick birladian streets to the little restaurant where the party is, but i have my trusty LA umbrella, proof-positive that i am, indeed, already prepared for my rainy day. any time........
we're the 1st guests to arrive, and we're greeted by the happy husband and wife, the beaming parents, and by the guest of honor, the little bastard, i mean, the little baptee, cuddled in mom's loving arms.
mom's a too-young, half-gypsy girl, maybe all of 22, but as beautiful and radiant as she still is tonight, i can already see her romanian future hovering about her: the thickening waist, the sagging breasts, the years of quiet, unknowing desperation, slowly piling up about her.
you have to see this place. post-communist party chic. very depressing, you might say, in its chintzy orange-curtained lack of charm. the buhunescus said it was a local restaurant, but to me it looks like a bare-bones VFW hall, a la detroit, 1956. it's not, obviously, but it is bare bones and it is depressing. like, simply put, there just weren't any more resources to make it any different. in fact, the guests have to pay for their own dinners tonight, per head. and with the economic "crisis" being especially hard-hitting in the hinterlands, there just aren't nearly as many guests in attendance as were invited. looks like it's going to be a lonnnnnnng night.
i convince marius to take a walk outside with me, as we wait for some more desperately-needed guests to arrive. he takes pity on me and agrees. we walk out in the fine moldavian drizzle, past the empty berlad train station, over to the small collection of outdoor, umbrella-clad tables, attempting east european charm, but at least tonight, looking more like the last chance saloon. marius orders us two delicious ice coffee frappes, and as he says hello to his many friends, i take a walk in the rain. i curl around the abandoned train station to the far-reaching tracks laid towards romanian infinity. i feel like neal cassidy, the infamous and outrageous beat from jack kerouac's "on the road", walking the lonely track he died on, down in barren north central mexico, his body found and identified only long after his invisible death. i'm missing the lovely wife back in immaculate lala land. i'm missing my mother and father, and my uncle bunny, and all the sadly departed souls i still carry around inside me. i'm missing my medical marijuana prescription that certainly would come in handy right about now.
and then it hits me. hard. this is the rainy day i've been saving for. or not saving for. right here. and right now. in beautiful, impoverished northeast romania. not too far, after all, from where my schtetl-living ancestors toiled away, under the exterminating germans and oppressive russians or whatever power-wielding anti-semites were the jealous, jew-hating fascists of the day.
oh yeah, the ever-ready... perfect... rainy day. or rainy... night, as may be. or... another of spalding's elusive perfect moments. right here. and right now. not in the future. not in the past. but right here on the tracks. in moldavia. in the rain. with my trusty LA umbrella. nothing to need for. just the present. just the now. thanks, very much, senor ram dass.
so we go back to the party.... and look... there are at least 20 more guests.
and they are dancing...
and as few as they may be....
they are each...
celebrating the ritual baptism of another child coming of age...
in the poor, but perfect, berladian community.
and what more?
my brothers and sisters?
here's to jack and neal and all you back home on the train....
it is rolling, bob....................