A New Circle Begins, Part Two

This is our last post from Romania.

For all the consternation I went through renting a car from a friend of Cornel’s, we had grown to like the little diesel Volkswagen Golf. Along the way, we had anthropomorphized the compact as “Alf” (those were the letters on the license plate). He had carried us up steep mountain trails, rode with us on ferries through the Danube Delta, squeezed through castle walls, and accompanied us through the dense cities of Cluj, Timisoara, and Bucharest. Reliable and efficient, it would be hard to give him up and return to being at the mercy of on others for transportation again.

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Rebecca with ALF crossing the Danube on a ferry. We drove ALF over 5,000 km in a month.

When we arrived back in Zalau, we decided to have lunch at the old familiar Hotel Meses where we had stayed during the wedding. We enjoyed hanging out there, and knew that our phones and laptop would sync right in with the strong WiFi we had relied on, and catch up on email until Cornel was off work and could accompany us to return the car.

After Cornel showed up, we went to the car rental guy, paid for our extra days we kept the car, and Cornel drove us back to his place. We caught up on our writing and postcards and I got to finish reading my novel.

We wanted to take Cornel and Aurelia out to dinner for one final meal together and then they would drive us to the small town of Ip to meet Geta, about half way to Varviz. They chose a nice restaurant with upstairs seating about a two blocks from the church where Adi and Carmen were married. It was a pleasant dinner. We talked about Adi and Carmen, just back from a honeymoon trip to the Maldives. We talked about Cornel’s and Aurelia’s jobs. Aurelia was just recovering from a twisted ankle. It fettered her ability to practice with her folkloric dancing group. I gathered that she was sort of an organizer within the group, so she went in spite of the fact that she couldn’t actually dance.

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Aurelia, center, with her folkloric dancing group, performing at her son’s wedding.

We had the restaurant nearly to ourselves; there was only one other table being served in the elegant, upscale restaurant. By the time were done eating, it was a little before about 7:30pm, and gave us time to find the hotel with the strange name, “Trans Bitum” in the tiny truckstop village with equally unusual name, “Ip,” about 60km away. We were to meet Geta there around 8:30.
As planned, they drove us to the town of Ip. (I wonder how many two-letter towns there are in the world) where we met Geta and we are spending the night.

This was the only opportunity for my grandmother’s side of the family to meet my grandfather’s side. It was as if when my father and his mother left Romania in 1913, the only bridge that joined these two parts of the family had collapsed. Cornel is related through Gheorghe to my Grandfather, Petrus Fritae. Geta is the granddaughter of my father’s Uncle John, brother of my Grandmother. I was interested in the meeting of the two factions of the family.

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Cornel and Aurelia, left, meet Geta, middle, for the first time at the hotel in Ip with Rebecca and I are on the right.

Sitting around the table, they seemed to be more interested in talking about some of the recent news and regional issues. We talked about the highway that had been financed by the European Union and started some time ago. Now, there are wide swaths of land that have been cleared and started, huge sections of enormous concrete beams lying on the ground, but so far, very little of the promised highway has been completed.
We had seen evidence of this big highway project as we had driven, the day before through this region. As far as we could tell, the highway seemed to do nothing for the local economy. We could see, however, that during the aborted construction period, this truck stop, cum wedding venue seemed only to be part of the topsy-turvy way that the culture here in Romania is getting scrambled. Younger, enterprising people end up gaming the system and establish a modern shift in the economy while it tears the cultural history to shreds at the same time. What would a trans European freeway, if it ever gets completed, do to the rural culture we had come to embrace?

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We saw thousands of these enormous concrete girders that had been placed in fields, awaiting the construction of the trans European toll-way. They had been there for years. No one was sure what the status of the highway was, but everyone was sure that some kind of corruption was happening.

Both Cornel and Aurelia had to work the next morning. We said our goodbyes. Kisses on each cheek. Three years from now was a promise we found ourselves making lately. It seems, in my mind, that we really must come back and see them soon. They have given us so much.
The hotel staff gave us keys. Geta took us up stairs to the rooms on the top floor. They were exceptionally spacious, but it seemed pointless as we would only be sleeping that night and leaving early in the morning to visit her cousins in Varviz.

We woke up in this large room in Hotel Trans Bitum. It is part of a large truck stop, but also a wedding venue–it has a lovely garden and empty pool, fountains and very large rooms. We ate breakfast with Geta downstairs and she drove us to her town of Varviz.
When Woody was here with his parents in 1974, they went to Varviz to meet Don’s uncle on his mother’s side, (Jon) who was 94 or something. Woody took a photograph of John and his progeny–one of his granddaughters was young Geta–so we are going back to visit that side of the family. Geta showed us around her small town.

If you look at this region of Bijor county using Google maps with satellite imaging turned on, it looks like a microscopic image of something green and organic. There are small conglomerates where the commutities coalesce that form the towns including Vaizari, Popesti, and Varviz and others. Radiating out, around each community are crystalline, green rectangular shapes, the lots, all measured in the same narrow width, but the length about six to eight times the width. The plots of land that are various green shades of emerald, kelly, lime, or olive, depending on the crop. Pretty, really. Each town connected by threads that resemble synapses: the highways that communicate between the small towns, the smaller towns, connected the one larger town, Popesti.

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Varviz on Google Maps shows the erosion of the coal mine tailings to the south of the town.

To the south of this collection of agrarian communities lies a town-sized anomaly. This does not destroy the image of the organic metaphor. But this is, rather, an extension of it. It is something dark and somehow sinister looking. It is dusty grey and not at all symmetrical. It resembles an alluvial fan of a delta or a lava flow, spilling out over the green crystalline background. It is exacactly what my dermatologist told me to watch out for, if it has an odd hue, not symetrical and grows suddenly. It spreads into the farmland and some of the small highways divert off their connective paths to intercept this cancer, to draw it in, to receive it, to incorporate it. What was this, I wondered the night before we were to visit Varviz.
We first drop into the Popeşti valley and see the fog shrouded neighboring community of Vaizari, just to the south of Varviz. Geta speaks with fondness of this place as a village where she worked in her early summers. She would walk here from Varviz, five kilometers north to work on the farm of a family friend. She said that she could not count the times she had made the trip in good weather and bad to this place.

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The tranquil Popeşti Valley

Minutes later, we see the evidence of the dark soil I had seen on the Google maps. “So what is that?” I asked Geta. It was a coal mine. We could see the tailings stretched out in all directions. Where the trucks had carried the coal, the evidence had been permanently ground in layers of dark grey dirt over the highway, spread its dust into the ditches, onto the walkways, and coated the buildings. The all the houses we saw had a coat of reddish grey obscuring the old paint that once showed the visible and vibrant colors we had gotten to expect in Romanian houses. The movie, “How Green Was My Valley” came to mind. The notion of a place that was once vibrant but now abandoned or dying seemed to fit that black and white movie. We did not see anyone on the streets or in the fields. Many old farms seemed to be overgrown and uncared for.
Geta tells us that for a time, the coal mines were one of the big employers in this valley when she was growing up here. Everyone worked in the mines or had someone in their family that was employed by the mines. I asked Geta what happened to the mines. “They still employ many people,” she tells us. “But they don’t have as many jobs as they used to have.” It seems that automation has displaced many of the hand labor jobs, as well.

Then we see the sign for Varviz. First, Geta wanted to stop at the graveyard where her parents are buried. 20181116_090604.jpg
Geta shows us the grave of her parents. Her mother died only last spring, about nine months ago. Her father had died sometime earlier. There are some wilted flowers on the grave. Geta tells us that she hasn’t visited the grave since her mother was buried nine months ago.

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Geta’s parents’ gravesite.

We walk up the hillside where the cemetery is located. Geta did not know where Uncle Jon’s grave is. We all start looking, trying to read the gravestones, looking for Jon Bocra, died 1975 or 1976. We were not able to locate it. But some of the names on the grave markers are unclear, and some are wooden and were weathered beyond recognition. So it’s possible that it was one that we saw but couldn’t read. Geta said that she would see if she could locate it by talking to the local cemetery record keeper.

Then Geta drove us to meet Woody’s cousin Zoriţa who is the younger sister in the photo we had on our wall for years.

She has a typical Romanian set-up–a house with a gas stove, breakfast nook with a wood stove and a tiled stove to keep warm. There was a small room off that one where they sleep in the winter. They have a well system which brings running (but not hot) water to the sink.Their second house is bigger, fancier and they call it a guest house or a summer house, because they don’t usually heat it in the winter unless there are guests.

They had dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, goats, pigs, and two cows. Lots to care for. Zorita in the photo we had looks sad–(her mom had died just before that photo) but little has changed 40+ years since. She still looks sad–Her life is hard and it shows in her careworn face.

She gave Geta a key and we walked over to the house where Geta had grown up. Geta’s mother died last February, and nothing has been done with the house or the things in it. Evidently some dispute with her sister and her. It was odd to walk in and see dishes in the drainboard and placemats on the table.

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Geta poses with her childhood friend, Zoriţa and Zoriţa’s husband in the old site of Uncle Jon’s shack.

We finally got to meet Zoriţa. The t with a tail (ţ) is a cross between at and a z sound. /Zor eet zha/.

She gets us warmly and I recognize her eyes. She gives us keys to Geta’s family house. Zoriţa is sort of the caretaker for some of the abandoned houses around here.

We walked over to the place where Uncle Jon’s house was. It was no more than a shack in 1974; it was demolished some time ago. Now it was now just an empty field between the old church and a tiny elementary school.
We also stopped at the school where Geta and Zoriţa had attended as a girls, and met the teacher, an aide, and 11 students there. It looks like the teacher has it together, with work for each grade level, K-fourth grade. The kids played outside and had one torn soccer ball and a broken jump rope. Pitiful. But then the whole town is pitiful. Many, many houses are standing empty because the young people have no desire to stay in that life.

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I pose with some school kids and the one teacher for students K-fifth grade.

They say there aren’t any opportunities–but there are, if you want to be a farmer. The market in town has closed, and the school will probably close in a couple of years–there just aren’t enough students to attend–she had only one kindergartener.

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For recess, the ten students kick around one flat soccer ball on a cement slab. The only other playground equipment we could spot was a broken jumprope lying on the ground.

This is happening all over Romania–old people have no one to help them in the rural communities and they just let these farms crumble around them. Gheorghe is a perfect example–though Dona Mica does what she can.

We went back to Zoriţa’s house and she had lunch ready for us–a pastry with cabbage–vegetable soup, cheese, and sliced meat.

After lunch, we rode with Geta to Popesti where she had to take care of some legal stuff. Woody and I walked around to find a store that sold soccer balls. We did–we bought two soccer balls, some colored pencils and some markers. We went back to Varviz to deliver the goods and say goodbye. The school was closed by that time, so Zoriţa agreed to take them to the school for us on Monday.

Zoriţa and her husband live a quiet, slow life. I walked out to the back field of their long lot. They have what is now common for us to see, the setup for making wine, palinca, corn storage, pigs, two cows, a variety of fruit trees and and various out-buildings for taking care of their agrarian life. They really have it all, not one, but two homes, and everything for a selh-sustained life. The pace seems peaceful, slow, methodical, but somewhat lonely.

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Zoriţa’s brother stokes up the still for making palinca.

All around Zoriţa’s place are houses that are empty and in some sort stage of decay. A sense safety and security pervades their peaceful existence, but still, a sadness pervades.
I find it quite ironic that here is a country where so many of the younger people have left for the larger cities or to emigrate to another country entirely, leaving their farm life behind. In some cases, whole villages are abandoned. The older ones that are left behind lead a lonely existance.
At the same time, there are refugees coming from war-torn countries into Romania (and often just passing through for more affluent countries like Germany, France or Belgium). I can only imagine that many of those refugees would love to have the opportunity to homestead just such a piece of land. Here are abandoned houses, needing someone to come in, work the land, populate the schools, contribute to the local economy. Why couldn’t this work? Both Zoriţa and Geta don’t seem to think this is a good idea. They wouldn’t fit in, they explain. I’m not sure that they mean that the refugee seekers would not like it or the local people would not accept them,

We sat in Zoriţa’s kitchen, one of my arms so near a stove that I worried that my windbreaker might melt. The other side of me was chilly. They served us soup, cheeses, and some sausage. In many ways, the life here is rich and abundant. They have stores of vegetables and a fresh supply of milk, eggs and other dairy products right here. They invite us to stay in their newer, bigger guest house. We were honored that they asked, but we have a train to catch later that night, we explain.

It is amazing to me that I am looking into the eyes of the girl who for us had become a sort of nameless piece of art in our house for over thirty years.

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This photo had been in our living room for decades. We did not know that Dorita, left, had died when she was 20. Zoriţa, on the right, was one of the few of her generation that stayed in the village of Varviz.
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I look into the deep pensive eyes of Zorita and remember the young girl I met here over 44 years ago. She and her sister had just lost their mother the week before we had visited. Her life here in Varviz has not changed much from the agrarian life I saw in 1974.

We thanked Zorita profusely. Tears well up. Hugs, kisses on the cheeks.
We said our final goodbyes to Zoriţa, her husband, and her brother, then we started the four-hour drive back to Timişoara.

I sat in the front and talked with Geta while Woody sat quietly in the back seat. I think he enjoyed not driving for a change. We stopped in Arad for a snack Geta loves, a pastry with cheese and dill–or meat.

While we sat at Geta’s favorite pastry shop in Arad, Geta told us about the business of her childhood home, her mother’s house. She told us that she had investigated her mother’s estate when we stopped in Popeşti, that she had wanted to find out whether there was a final decision about the ownership of the house.
Geta’s English is so much better than our Romanian. We get general ideas but become confused on the details, sometimes. We were not entirely sure about the information that Geta was telling us about the status of her girlhood home, but it seems that the house was given to her sister and that she, Geta, would no longer have any part of that house or land. What we did understand was, that for Geta, this was a very emotional time. She had to pause telling the story, fighting back tears. This was a place that was her home, where she grew up, her connection to the land, her family, her childhood friends Zoriţa, and her neighbors. That tie, even if just a legal one, had been cut. The wound seemed to be viceral.
In a way, I wonder, if this is equally a catharsis for her. She was now set free. It was now the clean break from the rural Geta, the little girl who learned how to preserve red pepper spread, can jams and jellies, and make yogurt. All those skills that young George and Iulia do not and may never know.
And so we are now headed with Geta, permanently it seems, back to the big city of Timisoara, the university city, the European City of Culture, the 1890 first European “City of Light,” the business crossroads of the modern Romanian southwest. She was heading back more permanently to her profession now as the Dean of Agronomy and to her multi-national family. Her husband who travels to several countries a month, both her children now are studying abroad, seemed to be eons beyone that village of Varviz. They will vacation in Berlin to visit her son George later that month, and they will visit Iulia in Vienna for New Years in a couple weeks. Thinking about Zoriţa and Geta, their lives seem to be worlds apart.

We got back to Geta’s house about 5:30–taking pictures of a pretty sunset on our way in the car.

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We enjoyed one final jaunt in downtown Timisoara with Geta’s friends that where visiting from Spain. We strolled into the Liberation Square, near their old downtown house and had coffees and beer during what would turn out to be the last of the warm evenings.
During our conversation, the church bells from the Liberation Tower began ringing. After about thirty peals of the bell, we started to wonder why they did not stop. We were right under the bells, and the sound was deafening. The bells continued for what seemed like five minutes. Then, it occurred to us. This was the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, Armistice Day. The War to End All Wars.
I realized that it was also maybe very close to the hundredth anniversary of my grandmother’s death during the 1918 Influenze epidemic. For my father that marked a whole new, and very trying time for him alone at age 12 in America. For my father, like our nation, it was the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.
And now for Rebecca and me, we had ended one big circle through Romania. We would be boarding a night train from Timisoara to Bucharest later that evening. From a sleeper car as we passed over the Carpatheans again, we would watch the first snowfall of the winter. From Bucharest tee next morning we would be continuing on to Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, and on. Bitter-sweet, we ended this circle and were on to another big adventure.

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We said goodbye to Dorin and Geta.

Back at the house, Geta’s friend Lavina had made guacamole and we had a light supper then visited until 9:30. Woody and I got all our stuff together and Dorin and Geta drove us to the train station where we would take the train to Bucharest on a sleeper, then a bus into Bulgaria the next day.

Our sleeper is comfortable with a sink and two berths–old but clean. I can hardly believe the toilet, though, it goes straight out to the track! Romania has a lot to learn. Fitting, that my diary is on the last page as we leave Romania. La revedere Romania.

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