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 trainA 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.