Romania, October 2013

header image - tara

I finally got back to Romania after almost six years gone.  It’s my wife’s homeland, my second home, and a certain blessing every time I return.   This trip was especially memorable since we were welcoming a new brother to the family–that is to say, my wife’s little sister got married.

While there, I found myself writing some poems in my free hours–when my mother-in-law wasn’t coaxing me to the table for another round of her fabled Romanian cuisine and my siblings-in-law didn’t have me scurrying around with wedding prep–about my general impressions of the place: what it’s like coming back after so many years of longing, of Skyped conversation, of change.

I thought I’d lump them together on a single post rather than publish them individually.  Hopefully they’ll all appear soon as I finish touching them up.

Here’s the first one, a sonnet, it so happens:

Bucharest to Craiova, by train

A charm is found in years of gritty stains
and prints of rushing feet on faded slate,
in paint worn thin on handrails chilled in faint
October air.  The aging trains await,
 
then fill with faces stoic and crisp, with limps
that plague the graying men and twinge the steps
of frowning women dragging bags within.
Their coats are black or gray or brown: hues adept
 
at masking dirt and wear.  Without, the fields
slip past the weedy tracks, the fertile plains
of earthy riches flow—creased seams that yield
to toil of wrinkled hands and clicks of canes.
 
The youth have fled to cities, have gone
and left the limping shepherds all alone.

This idea of the aging population, and especially the workforce, was something that really struck me on this trip.  Maybe it’s because Indonesia, where we’ve been living most recently, has such a young population–nearly two-thirds below the age of thirty, according to the most recent statistics I’ve seen.  Here the youth is impossible to ignore.  There, the effects of “brain drain” and “youth drain” are obvious.  Here are a couple other poems I found in my notes that deal heavily with the same theme.  The first is a prose poem.

I found the young ones

They’re not on the farms, or even in the villages.

They saunter through malls and stand at bus stops, staring, not smiling, their faces hardened by a chip on the shoulder and a hole in the pocket: a shortage of quality work and a refusal to be blamed for that.

They watch you speak English and count the dollars in your pocket.  Often they’ve worked overseas by now, have tasted the waters of Italy and of England and of Spain, hard eyes dreaming of making it big. 

It seems they have returned.

They sweat and dance with hands in the air at joints called “One” and “Diabolika,” where 90s music reigns and the beer is warm and lights are low and all the trimmings dark—Or where techno throbs and lights splinter across crystals and hands raise above sweaty beats of bodies.

Then they stagger to the streets and sleep off the daylight, somehow showing themselves in the malls again the next evening.

Grandparents work the village earth, bring soft buds to bear from the seeds of yesterday.

Sorry if I’m a little hard on the young people there, but that’s all too often what I saw.  Here’s another of the poems I wrote there that deal with the youth moving off and away, but this one also celebrates one of my favorite aspects of Romania: the food.

Breaking Fast

breakfast

The tomatoes are all-natural and from a friend.  The olives were picked by arthritic hands and aged in tubs with generations’ years.  The cheese was cured by the same hands that held the staff down dusty roads and ran the bleating sheep and goats before.  It’s all natural.  It’s all so wholesome.  It’s all a man that microwaves oatmeal every morning and tells himself it’s fine could ever ask for.

But the hands here are aging fast.  The hands who pick the olives and haul in eggplants and mix the sausage herbs are swollen with pain and gnarled with age.  The eyes wear dim from candle-lit nights, and throats go parched rather than brave the cold for another bucket from the well.

I sit and feast on produce their hands have brought, on all the soil they’ve tended long years yields.  The hands are aging, and tall sons and toothsome daughters have left for cities’ lights and promised hope.  They’ve sought a life abroad, an urban existence.

Another bite of homegrown grapes, another sip of cider, another caress of tomatoes’ juicy flesh.  In five years’ time, will I eat such as these again?  Will the village windows finally dim forever, and the fields go fallow while the heirs toil over screens and emails and curse the traffic and forget how to protect the greens from frost?

By then will we all eat oatmeal and try to convince ourselves it’s equal?

I love the food there.  I love when we cook Romanian at home.  I can’t, for the life of me, understand how spots like Italy and France get all the glory for great food and no one even seems to know where Romania is on the map, let alone their food.  I think I gained a lot of weight those two weeks.  Eat and sleep, it seemed, eat and lie to rest again.

Here’s what happened when I got to feeling a bit too sleepy all the time:

The Sleepy House

An old cat coils itself for a nap

on the radiator, and I yawn in warm

agreement.  Yellow sun streams

through blinds and onto an ancient blanket—

 

it’s already well into the daily race

and none of us is up.  Sleepy footsteps

apologize from creaky floorboards;

hinges creek in shame to wake

 

the drowsing.  We’ll do nothing before noon.

 

Then stubborn PJs will not release us

until deep into the waning day.  We scrape

away hours over coffee, shrugging

that we have time enough later.

Meanwhile, our plane-stickered luggage lies

plundered in hallways for gifts and want

of space. We discuss who will walk Dolly—

the puppy shows gumption enough for all. 

 

The cat squints and buries her paws under her fluff.

 

Outside, I find it’s fall—crisp orange and

fading to death, but still somehow warm.

Gardens have gone scraggly and to seed.

Leaves litter the limped steps of grayed

 

lives creased from worry and cups of homemade țuică.

 

I yawn in agreement.  It’s fitting it’s fall

in a land where yearnings are manacled in

tight confines: no space to grow and what

will old neighbors say if kids are running free?

 

It’s fitting it’s fall, and we have gone to seed.

Yep. I definitely got to relax more than a little this trip.  But something else I love about Romania is the Țara, or Tzara, I guess I could write in English’s phonetics.  It’s the countryside, the village, the ancient homestead every family seems to have.  Stateside, we seem to make a big deal over stuff that’s organic and sustainable and green and eco-friendly.  There, it’s the țara, and everybody, it seems, has got somebody still there–at least for now.

La Țara

tara - beci
Home-grown tomato sauce

Two cold wells,

three plastic greenhouses

with fifteen rows,

two mud-covered hogs,

one roaming cow,

and a wrinkled couple

to lord over it all.

 

Grandpa walks with hands clasped behind back

and speaks slow words to my eyes so I understand.

 

He shows me irrigation: lines

parallel and perpendicular

through a jungle of tomato

leaves under a glowing arch

of warming plastic.  Thick black

soil boosts fibers skyward—

limbs tied neatly

with string to rafters .

Branches sag, laden with ripening vines

the bulging red fruit of his days’ labor.

 

No tree grows that won’t yield fruit

for compote and preserves, staples of desserts. 

 

It’s more than a stretched family can ever stomach.

 

Vineyard leaves shade all the paths,

leave raisin-ing remains in autumn chill—

leftovers from a crop already fermenting

in age-old barrels in the dank basement.

 wine jugs

We dodge the half-feral-but-ever-loyal guard-dog

to slop the hogs, to coax the milk from the cow,

to pick through hens’ nest for eggs and chase

the rooster away.  Grandpa sifts through seed

plots in low-roofed warming beds and dragon-scale

 

tails of fiery peppers drying.

 

The grill is almost ready—slap

on the sausages and go for fresh

cheese. Roll a loaf of new bread

off the shelves—guests are here.

Pour the beer.  Mix them wine.  Do

they need more pork?  Get garlic

mayo on their plates and pour

another beer, slice another slab

of salty cheese and how about some pickles?

Never too full, thanks.  Just taste a bit

of fluffed dessert, and try some

home-grown walnuts, and here’s

the sunflower seeds we roasted

in paprika.  Wash it all down with

well-water crisp enough to curl your

tongue and make teeth shiver.

 

He smiles through teeth that may have never

felt a dentist’s prod, through wrinkles deep

in folds of sun-roughed eyes, through all

the paths his feet have bowled into the earth

step after step, sunrise after sunrise, to arrive

at the outhouse out back, the fertilizer pit.

 

Later we’ll meet his mother, ninety-

one, who lives alone next door.

 She came to draw her water

from the hand-cranked well.

 

We kiss his stubbled cheeks goodbye, bow

polite thank-yous to his bulb-knuckled wife.

 

In the car, pop divas ooh and gaggle through nifty speakers built into headrests. We

speak of foreign cities and flight times and hotels’ amenities and our itineraries as

village after village,

home after home,

cherry, prune, and pear roll past.

Somewhere, somehow, going green became a fad, organic got expensive

and only eco-hipsters and hippies—along with doomsday preppers—ever

thought own owning a couple self-sustaining acres such as every grandpa

seems to have when you steer outside the city limits and into the heart of the țara.

In the end, though, all things must come to an end, and we ended up flying out far sooner than we would have liked.  As you’ll see in the next poem, an early AM flight meant a night in transit: here’s a glimpse at the Bucharest train station in the dreary watches.

The Way Back Out

The Gara de Nord is trying, it really is,

but it’s still not a place you want

to spend a sleepless night.

 

At least tonight, in the autumn shivers

after shops close at midnight, I take

comfort in counting almost as many

strolling cops as prostitutes; as many

 

early travelers awaiting pre-dawn

trains as prowling gypsy pickpockets

and crippled beggars. 

 

I’m fascinated

 

by new banners for cheap hotels

and McDonald’s wi-fi shutting with

their door and warm teas. 

 

We’d thought we wait inside

a few more hours.  We’d thought

we’d catch the early train to airport’s gates.

 

No such luck: airport express

doesn’t roll until after we fly,

and now there’s no place left

to warm our weary bones.

 

We’re going home with luggage stuffed

to airline allowance.  We’re packed

with homemade pie and sliced sausages

and salty cheese. We’re waiting a friend

to speed us to the airport, to wile away

the hours there, to fly away from two

weeks of creamy bliss skimmed

beneath our mortal feet.

 

The Gara de Nord is trying.

It’s getting there.  It’s going

to be even better yet. 

 

I can feel the ripples, despite October chills.

 

Maybe on future stays I’ll sleep

the night in the station.  I’ll shut

my eyes through times the thieves prefer.

I miss Romania already.  But I still have poems from this trip to finish.  Hopefully this week’s  classes will be kind enough to allow a few more hours to scribble around on my word processor.

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