Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Watershed

As I've spent the last week getting back to California and adjusting, I've thought about what I wanted to write. It's been a whirlwind. One day I was in Piatra, buying chocolate and instant coffee at Adrudan and walking back to the apartment in 40 degree weather and two days or so later I was changing out of my pants and sweater into shorts and a tee shirt in a Carl's Jr. restroom after leaving LAX, since it was about 100 degrees outside. Life just keeps going. But there are some moments I'd like to share with you, moments that for one reason or another stand out.

I get off the plane after we land in Istanbul and head for the nearest screen. I look for my next gate, but don't find it. Huh. I can't see my flight to LAX listed. I keep walking, turning to the right. I pass men, women in hijabs, children and babies. I look for the next screen and find it across from a duty free store. Sure enough, this screen has one more panel, and on this panel my flight to LA has appeared. But the gate is not ready yet. I stall, wandering over to check out the duty free stuff. They have shelves upon shelves of perfume. I scan them, guessing that they won't mind me trying a sample. There is a man and a woman clerk, and the woman is singing. I pick up a pink bottle. The name is Je t'aime pour toujours or some other flowery French phrase. I spray it on one wrist and rub it into the other. The smell is nice, and I appreciate the improvement on my state after the hours long bus ride from Piatra to Bucharest. There is nothing else to do in this store, and my gate has yet to appear, so I wander back the way I came, looking for a place to sit. A family with young children occupies the first row of benches but farther down there is another bench. I sit down, and figure that I have enough time to listen to a song or two. I pick "I'm Still Here." I was obsessed with this song when I was ten years old at Disney World, listening to the Treasure Planet soundtrack on my CD player almost constantly. I remember riding a monorail at night, putting the song on repeat. I was having depressed, teenage angst as a preteen. Something like that. Listening to this song in the Istanbul airport, I think back to earlier in the day on Tuesday, the previous day, the day I left Piatra. I came to the center to say goodbye to the kids. I got to have chocolate and caramel cake with Brandusa and two of the girls, two girls who I happen to be close to. And when we got back, Adrian came outside with a plastic toy gun, and he tried to arrest me but I ran away from him and we chased each other across the pavement and over the low fence and through the grass, jumping off of the tree stump. I picked him up from behind. He's small for a nine-year-old. He fell at one point, rubbing his elbow but he walked it off. I took a picture with him. He ran away before I could properly say goodbye to him. Thinking about running around chasing Adrian, listening a song loaded with meaning, I find myself tearing up a little, alone on that bench, staring out at the skyline of Istanbul, Turkish flags hanging from buildings. I sit in the moment, crying at this crossroads, at this turning point. I want to keep chasing kids around. I listen to "Divine Romance" and then I check my gate, and yes, it's up. I power-walk to the other side of the airport while listening to Paramore, going back the way I sprinted the last time I was in this airport, when I accidentally went to the wrong gate. Ain't it fun, livin' in the real world? Ain't it good, bein' all alone? It is.

Then next moment held in my mind comes when my parents pick me up from LAX. After stopping at Carl's Jr. so I can change and to get something to drink (I have strawberry lemonade for the first time in a long time), we decide to have tacos at our favorite place, Senor Baja. But traffic is terrible. All I want to do is shower. It takes us twice as long to get to our county as usual, about two hours. We stop in the Senor Baja. I've really missed fish tacos. I get two of them and an asada and a chicken. We sit down. But somehow it's all too much for me. The place is packed, and it's already pretty tiny. But the main thing overwhelming me is the loud mariachi music. It leaves no space in my brain. I'm used to hearing Romanian top 40 wherever I go. They even played it all night on the bus. This audible culture clash is too much for me, so I ask my parents if we can go outside, and we sit at the table out there. The heat is the least of my problems. It's really not so bad, now that I'm wearing shorts. Since this moment, I haven't had any more reverse culture shock. I don't get jet lag, and I don't fully get culture shock or the reverse. At least, I haven't yet. Maybe I will in the future. There's always time for that.

The last moment is the hardest to explain. Back home later in the week, I go next door to visit my Punjabi neighbors unannounced, as I always do. However, I pick an inopportune time to drop by because the parents are both working and the kids, Priya and Dinesh, are at their uncle's house. Grandma opens the door. At first I think she is saying that the kids are taking naps upstairs, so I take a seat. She brings me orange juice and then makes me tea. My neighbors always make the best tea. Really, it's the best Indian tea I've ever had, and some of the best tea of all time, in my book. The tea is always accompanied by biscuits. I sit and wait, and talk to Grandma. She speaks to me like I can understand, which I can't, but I appreciate it. She nods and gestures, and I nod at the appropriate moments. She is saying something emphatically, asking me a question, and she wants a response but I can only shrug. She laughs. After a while we just sit. The TV is not on. I try to get it to work, but as I try to explain to Grandma, there is no internet connection. We sit in silence. I run next door to grab a book. I read, still thinking the kids are upstairs sound asleep. Grandma is lost in thought. I wander outside, into the backyard. Rows of either onions or garlic are sprouting up in the garden, green tendrils poking through the dirt. The peach tree looks bigger. There are little orange and green globes in the orange tree. I walk over to the other side of the yard. I stop in front of a bush I have never noticed before. It is covered in buds, the purple petals still enclosed, so that I can't tell what kind of plant it is. I run my fingers through the stalks, feeling the buds, and suddenly a breeze blows down between my house and the neighbors' house and the breeze is soft and strong at the same time and it's like a gentle voice, like a divine hand against me. I look north, toward the mountains, the direction the breeze is coming from. I search the air, as if trying find its source. But of course, there's nothing there. The empty void between our houses disappoints me for some reason. So I close my eyes, and my fingers return to the purple buds, and I decide the best way to experience the wind is, of course, to feel it. The breeze reaches me again, but less meaningfully. But I only need to feel it once to understand.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Mountain I Didn't Climb

Everyone at the center is packed and ready to go. The kids begin to gather behind our two vehicles as we arrange their backpacks in the trunk of the Ford and the back of the Zafira. Everyone is excited for our annual trip to Ceahlau, a mountain in the Carpathians not far from here that some of us are planning to climb. I notice Ioana sitting on the low fence with her backpack. But she isn't talking to any of the others and she looks miserable. Then I notice she is with two people who must be her mom and brother. "Are you going acasa?" I ask her in Romanian. She says "yes." I can tell she isn't pleased to be with her mother. "Do you like going acasa?" "No."

I try explaining to her, all the while searching for an interpreter (aka Nadia) who can tell her that I will be leaving back to California on Wednesday, and that I will miss her. I think I communicate the first part but before I can even begin the second she is leaving, still looking very unhappy. I watch her go. Then Anca tells me that the Romanian for "I miss you" is "Mi e dor de tine." Mi e dor de tine. I am missing from you. Like French, sort of. Tu me manques. You are missing from me.

We all pile in the cars, Anca and I climbing in the Zafira. Brandusa sits on the other side of me. Somehow they both discover the fact that my hands are cold. My hands are always cold, and while most people treat this discovery with only an exclamation, Anca and Brandusa take both of my hands in theirs and hold them, warming them up. Anca holds my left hand all the way to our first photo stop. We climb out of the cars to take a group picture. We can see the peak of Ceahlua rising above the hills, so we pose in front.

We make a second stop, and scramble up onto a field. Ceahlau rises even more impressively in front of us. I have just entered the field when I feel a soft squish under my right shoe. Great. A cow pie. A minute later I feel the same squish, again under my right foot. Brilliant. A second cow pie. I don't know how I managed to step in two cow pies in the span of a minute but that's my life sometimes. Colin takes not one, not two, but three pictures of me trying to scrape the mess off of my shoe onto a wooden fence. I plan to delete them, since they're on my camera, but they are pretty funny.


We pile back in the vehicles and get to the place we will be staying. We all share one big room, the boys and Joe in four beds next to the bathroom and all the rest of us girls are in beds against the opposite wall. I will be in one of the beds that are extra tiny, narrower than a twin, somehow. We eat a meal of schnitzel, chicken legs, pork, red or white bell peppers, tomato slices and bread. It's one of the best cold lunches I've had in Romania. Then we go outside and some of the girls play that cup game. "...When I'm gone, when I'm gone...you're gonna miss me when I'm gone...." They sing the song and tap out a beat with the cups and their hands every time we get together. They even changed the lyrics to be about NGC. When the cold gets to us, we go back inside and Miruna wraps a scarf around her head, perhaps impersonating an old Romanian woman, and everyone is soon in stitches. I even laugh, though I have no idea what she's saying. Her voice quavers, high and reedy.

We all gradually change into our pajamas. But many people remain active even as others try to  sleep. I read a little, although Miruna next to me stands up on her narrow bed and begins to dance. Brandusa carries on a conversation with someone across the room. I put my book away and try to sleep. Eventually someone turns off the lights and a little while after that the conversation stops. Sleep comes soon after that.

When I wake up around seven the next morning, everyone else is also more or less waking up. I have decided that I will not be climbing Ceahlau. It would be a great accomplishment, but maybe I am too traumatized by that time I climbed up a mountain in India, using my hands to grab onto plants out of necessity, lest I fall off the side and break my arm. Joe says Ceahlau won't be like that. But I also don't want to climb because I know it will be very hard even so, and I would rather enjoy myself and focus on taking pictures instead. So I opt to go on a plimbare, a walk, with Brandusa and Anca and Georgiana.

When I packed for Romania in July I didn't know I'd be going to a mountain in mid-October, so I need to borrow clothes from people. I wear a scarf from Nadia, child's gloves from Ana, a hat from Rasvan and a bright pink jacket from Georgiana. I think I'm ready to go.

The majority of our group set off toward Ceahlau, which looms very close to our cabin, impressive in the morning light. The four of us going on the plimbare take our time, leaving maybe twenty minutes after the large group, and after stopping at the natural spring so we (I) could get some water, we head off in the opposite direction.

We walk down the road, Brandusa and I taking pictures with our cameras. Brandusa is a professional photographer, while I am more an amateur. She does it for a living and uses manual, while I do it to supplement my missions work and I use automatic, even though I have learned manual over and over, only to promptly forget it. We both loving photography, though. We come upon a blue and teal
painted house with white chickens out front, green grass and orange trees dotting the hillside behind it. I take about a dozen photos of this scene, playing with how much of the building to include, how much of yard.

We continue walking. It is cold, and I am kicking myself for only bringing a small wad of toilet paper for my nose. My nose always runs when it's cold out. At my job at PNC Arena, I used a handkerchief because every night from October to March it would be cold out, and I would stand in the parking lot for hours juggling tickets and a giant wad of cash, and the last thing I wanted to worry about was my nose. I lost that handkerchief in my move back to California so now I make do with toilet paper. As we walk along the road, I dab gently at my nose and suddenly it feels very wet. I look down at the red mark on the paper and realize, my nose is bleeding. Great.

My nose has been giving me these problems ever since I got to Sibiu. But this time it is my left side of the nose that is bleeding. It bleeds and bleeds. I lean over and blood drips and drips from my nose. We don't have any more tissue paper so Brandusa forces me to use two spare eyeglass cloths. I soak them.

Brandusa makes me lie on the ground, quite literally on the side of the road, using her backpack as a pillow, while I continue to apply pressure to the left side of my nose. I laugh a few times because the situation is so ridiculous.  I laugh especially hard when Brandusa attempts to use a piece of bread to absorb the blood running out of my nose. The girls flag down three cars. We acquire two packs of facial tissues and some gauze. I pack the gauze into my nose and hold it in place with some tissue. Brandusa says, "Oh look, a bear!" jokingly, as if to say the situation couldn't get any worse, and I laugh, and feel like a freak, lying here on the ground holding my nose. I soak through the gauze.

Another driver stops and Brandusa says he will return to use with something to stop the bleeding. I don't really understand what the heck that could be, but I welcome anything to stop this torrent of blood. As I lie here, every time I swallow I feel blood sliding down the back of my throat. I swallow so much blood that the acidity starts to wear at my esophagus, and it begins to hurt. I imagine that vampires must have sore throats all the time.

I have soaked through my second wad of gauze by the time the man gets back to us. Brandusa puts a wad of cotton soaked in vinegar under my nose. "Smell this," she instructs, and I do as she says. Sure enough, I find that my bleeding has finally stopped. Good. I was a little worried, since I also was losing blood in another form at this time of the month, and I didn't know how much blood I could stand to lose at one time.

I stand up, and the man drives the four of us back to our cabin. As we climb up the stairs, I imagine the elevator full of blood from the Shining, which we watched in the apartment last month. Remote cabin: check. Cold weather: check. Large quantity of blood: check.

I get in bed and eat some of my prepacked lunch and drink the spring water. Brandusa and Georgiana stay with me for a while before continuing on the plimbare, but Anca stays with me. Anca and I talk in Romanian, and we keep reaching words I don't understand so Google Translate helps us out. We talk and then retreat into our music. I can feel my stomach gurgling over and over, irritated by the acid in the blood that I swallowed. I write out the events of the morning in my journal, and I reach the last page and conclude with, "I am listening to 'Chicago' by Sufjan Stevens, and this is the end." The two others return and we all fall asleep. I dream that Anca is speaking English, and she is giving me several pairs of colorful shoes as gifts, and a machine that can spit out whatever color Fruit Loops I want, all hues of the rainbow. I wake myself up from this dream and lie in bed, listening to the soft sounds of snoring.

The others get back from hiking to the top of the mountain, and their pictures are incredible. They were above the clouds at the top, snow blanketing the ground. When they climbed back down below the clouds, it was raining. It all sounds incredible. But as Joe tells me, it was a very, very good thing I didn't go with them. If I had, since they left earlier, I would have been on the side of the mountain when my nose would have sprung its leak. That would have been even more of a disaster. I tell Joe the one piece of good news: Even after all that blood, after I got it all over my hands and even got spots of it on my glasses, I didn't get one drop on any of the pieces of clothing I was borrowing, not even on the gloves or the jacket. Hurray for silver linings.


All the mountain climbers eat a hurried meal of pate on bread with condiments, which I do not partake in, and we pack up our things and leave. In the Zafira, I sit next to Anca again, and again she holds my hand between hers, and rubs warmth into it, and then she rests her head on my shoulder and then takes both of my hands in hers. I lean my head on top of hers. I think about leaving. I plan to visit the center on Tuesday, to say goodbye. Mi e dor de tine. I am missing from you. Soon this will be true.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

This City

Piatra Neamt is not a smooth city. It is a rough, gritty, yellowed city. "German Stone." It is a city of rust-colored trees on the mountains and hills, in the fall. It is a place where dogs and cats roam the yards and sidewalks, occasionally meandering into the street, though no one bothers to honk at them. Birds fly down from the trees to the ground, where nuts and fruits have fallen. Old buildings shed paint and plaster, revealing reddish bricks underneath. Clouds cover the sky, the rain having stopped, though if you look in the distance you can see a smattering of snow on a mountainside. The Soviet style apartment buildings are painted orange, maroon, yellow in places. The sidewalk is crumbled. Paving stones have come loose, and shift beneath the feet of the many pedestrians. People walk to cafes, to markets, to restaurants, to the mall. A billboard still advertises back-to-school merchandise. Children on an excursion hold hands, bundled in colorful coats, hats on their heads. Cars traverse roundabouts, turning down side streets to park in gravel lots. People emerge from Lidls, Billas, Adridan, Kaufland with bags in their hands, full of groceries. Bread, sausage, chicken, pork, peppers, onions, potatoes, cookies, sour cream, yogurt, cheese, juice, milk. Churches are scattered throughout the city, one with blue, green and yellow tiles, one with a metallic gold roof. People sell corn on the streets. The lake is dotted with swans. The ground is littered with yellow leaves. The teenagers steal small, sour, purple grapes hanging over the fences. The city moves with an unconscious rhythm, every day much the same as the last, but never identical, always shifting with the passage of the weeks, months, seasons. Autumn suits this city, the clouds bringing out the saturation of the painted buildings, the gaudy advertisements. This city is textured. Its inhabitants are young, old, dark, pale. There is a world within this city. It is a city within the world.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Poezie (Poetry)

I have a bit of a writer's block, which is a nice way of saying that everything that I've been writing lately has been overly detailed garbage. So as I've been meaning to do, I've sifted through my personal papers to find a few poems that I can share with the entire internet--or, you know, the six of you who read my blog.

Don't let the title mislead you; these poems aren't written in Romanian. I'm not quite at Eminescu's level yet, but when I get to that point I guess they'll have to name me Romania's new national poet. Anyway, I'll shut up and let you peruse a few pages of my brain.

Tiny apple cores. The ground is
littered with bottle caps, a button.
We're eating corn for horses.
"20 pieces?" "Do you think I am
joking?" 20 worthless ears of
too-dry corn. Gina receives all
four of my cheesy mushrooms. I
eat an extra piece of bread. I'm
enjoying it now. All of it.

I know the language of children
and of pianos,
of cornflakes pressed into
the carpet by little fingers,
of espresso in a white cup
and the stain on my skirt.
I do not speak, but I understand.
I half-listen to the jokes, in English,
and taste the cake I feed
my ravenous stomach with full
comprehension. I do not speak.

I've cut myself with a dull knife
across my fingertips
& I haven't been dreaming
(too much) & when I do, I don't
like it because I ache
for things that are true, the
way I hate television, the
way the only story I am able
to tell is my own. I've been
so hungry for junk food & I
finally ate a cheeseburger & now
I never want to eat again.
My knee stopped popping & I
hate how people sink beneath
my grasp in the edges of my memory.

The yogurt here is better
and the cookies have men's
names, ice cream is a gamble
(unless it's gelato) & coffee has
shrunk. Water usually costs
as much as soda but more than
beer, there's always bread (though
it stales within a day) & you
better like potatoes (& I guess
most people do). Vegetarians
need not apply, food can
miraculously keep on the stove
overnight & I've had a happy
stomach throughout but what
I wouldn't do for an eight-
piece California roll.

"Let's assemble a demigod,"
they said, so they took
boards & nails in their hands
& grabbed spite & malice
to reinforce the structure
while outfitting the contraption
with half-truths & heresy,
pride jutting high as ramparts
on a cardboard foundation
& framework as brittle
as glass. They built their tower
grandly, boastfully. They called it
master, conqueror. They built it
the only way they knew how.

My hands dig up brown, white,
green, blue sea glass, lit by the sun.
And the whole Black Sea is

a blue, green, white, brown shard
illuminated, crashing into pieces,
shattering in the surf. We jump
and swim and I scream for the cold.
But soon it is not and we stay,
half afloat, while waves break
around us and carry us a little,
but we wade back out, until we're
pulled again, and on it repeats.

And I hate what she'd said, that
I would forget about this
(as if I could) but now
once more I am a free being,
and anyway these breakers
remind me that I am, and
that we are, and I will
remember, and remember.

Ioana knows a good picture
when she sees one, she says
"frumoasa," and smiles each time
she sees a picture of herself--
though the camera makes her
nervous, when aimed at her--her
voice so soft, so mild you might
have a hard time understanding her, 
even if she spoke English. But here
she is, engaged in the moment, in
each picture even more so than at
the time the photo was snapped. She
reminds me of Colin, the same
quiet murmuring, little questions
asked with big eyes, and it is all
I can do to understand, but
nevertheless, I do.

I have a penchant for originality,
for things I've never heard before,
and in that I am completely average.
I tire of cliches, of the expected,
of beating the proverbial dead horse.
Tell me something new, show me
the parts of life I've never considered.
Repeat them for me. But only a little.

Lots of ampersands and food references. You can see exactly how wide my journal is and how large I write. Thanks for reading.