When Reading and Reviewing Leads to Reflection on Life Choices

I’ve just finished reading two superb books for #WITMonth, both of which I intend to review: Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance. Both of them discuss linguistic and ethnic identity, the possibility of bridging cultures, how to find a home (or not) in exile – whether voluntary or not. These are topics so close to my heart that I could not remain indifferent and they both got me thinking deeply about my own situation, past and present, and pondering about future decisions – where I might settle next. It doesn’t seem fair to include such personal musing within my reviews of those books (‘we’re not interested in your life story, Marina, just tell us what the bloody book is like, will you?’). In fact, it’s not fair to share all these personal details in a public format online (even if I am not a huge celebrity or have that many blog readers – which probably would be even more of a reason for me to remain quiet). So I will wrestle with the granular decisions and uncertainties mostly in my offline diary, but here are some higher-level thoughts which may be more universal.

Shepherd. Painting by Nicolae Grigorescu.

Illusory Freedom of Choice

I am very fortunate at present to have dual citizenship and therefore settle anywhere within the EU or the UK. However, for the longest time, the Romanian passport was an albatross around my neck. Therefore, I cannot help but think of all the people who have no choice about moving to a different country: they might not be able to get out of their country at all, very few countries might ‘accept’ them (after making the process of entering or settlement as complicated as possible), the information they might have about the relative safety of certain countries might be out of date and so on.

But there are other reasons why this ‘I’m choosing to start a new life in X’ is seldom a clear-cut decision for people.

First of all, countries change over time, as do your requirements. You may be fine in your twenties, living in London or New York, working shit jobs and living in inadequate accommodation, learning the ropes for a future splendid career. But when you have children and it’s time to move to the ‘suburbs’, you might prefer the safety of rule-bound societies like Switzerland or family-friendly policies like the Scandinavian countries. When you start feeling the creak in your knees and a twinge in your back, you may decide you need the warmth of the Mediterranean or Australia. It’s a little bit like moving houses over the course of a lifetime, but just much, much harder to do, because it usually involves lots of paperwork and learning of new languages and ways of doing things.

Secondly, in my experience, the choices are never quite as deliberate as we make them sound with the benefit of hindsight. We often ascribe patterns or purpose where there was mere serendipity, or where small steps and choices led us up a corridor we didn’t even know we wanted, and by the time we wanted to turn back, too many doors had slammed in our face. How could we know at the time that our professional qualifications might be worthless in another country (or require many expensive years of re-qualifying)? Should we have picked our life partners by the worth of their passport – and what if that passport becomes worthless when political circumstances change? What to do if your pension is no longer recognised in other countries and you are never going to be able to achieve the minimum number of years required for somewhere else? What happens when the value of your house or your currency is not enough for you to afford something even halfway decent in another country? Worst of all, once children come along, you have only a limited number of years left for uprooting them, before it can seriously impact their education or their mental wellbeing, before they start formulating their own preferences and tying you down.

Nostalgia for Something Which Never Existed

Many immigrants and expats have a great nostalgia for the country they left behind – or the country that might have been… if poverty, war, nationalism, hateful ideology, corrupt politicians and so on hadn’t driven them away. As we grow older, we start remembering the butterflies fluttering across the meadows, picking cherries and peaches directly from the trees, the warmth of the sun as we lay in a haystack, the low mooing of cattle coming down from the mountains, grandmother’s apricot dumplings… Our senses tingle with all of these rich memories – and we forget that this is because we were children, and life was easier for us as children, even when it was hard. Our memories become selective and bring forth the sensual pleasures, while banishing any less than perfect images. In Mizumura’s novel, the protagonist craves a Taisho or Meiji Japan she has glimpsed in the literature she loves to read, but which hasn’t existed in that country for over a century. The very title of Gansel’s book ‘Translation as Transhumance’ conjures up my ancestors’ almost mythical occupation as shepherds (one of the most famous Romanian ballads Miorița is about three shepherds), which I will proudy proclaim at every opportunity. Yet I only visited my great-uncle’s flock once when I was a small child and thought the mountain hut smelled revolting.

Comfort, Friendship, Heritage?

Pragmatism and sentimentalism are at war within me as I try to decide, over the next two years, where I will go.

Remaining in the UK is probably the easiest option, now that I am so familiar with everything here and have established networks and connections, as well as pension rights and a house. But is it truly the comfortable choice, even if this absurd and corrupt government comes to an end within a few years. The curtain has been lifted on the dirty mechanisms and assumptions that lie below the magic of the stage, and I don’t know if I will ever recapture my entire love for the theatre again.

Perhaps I can forget that I never truly felt ‘at home’ in Romania while I was living there and return to a country that has changed so much since I left it in my early twenties. There are certain thirsty pockets within me that nothing but the Romanian landscape, language and literature (and food) can quench. Perhaps the happiness of my childhood there is less illusory than the nostalgia of my Viennese childhood. Who can afford a flat in Vienna, anyway? Plus, all of my childhood friends were so international that they have moved away from Vienna, even if we all love returning there from time to time.

As we approach old age, perhaps it’s friendships that nourish us most – and, oddly, the vast majority of my close friends seem to be divorced or single now. But when your friends are scattered all over the world, replacing the biological family and supporting each other becomes difficult. Nevertheless, I am fortunate once again in having two of my oldest friends both living in Berlin. Two friends that I can see myself growing old with, sharing stories, joys and burdens. A city I have often visited with delight, but which would be an entirely new adventure for me.

Berlin by night. From Strong Cities Network.

When you have no real sense of belonging, you have endless choices, or so it may seem. I remind myself that I am fortunate to have choices, but just how endless are they really? Will my choices be determined by my fragile parents, my children ready to fly the nest, my financial and legal position? And would I trade it all for a real sense of belonging?

If you want to read much more sophisticated musings on sense of belonging, then I really recommend the two books below, which I hope to review by next week.

An I-Novel: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/an-i-novel/9780231192132

Translation as Transhumance: https://www.lesfugitives.com/books/mireille-gansel-translation-as-transhumance

Friday Fun: Romanian Gardens

Romanians are very fond of their gardens but they’ve always had to combine their love of beauty with practicality. The climate ranges from very dry and hot in summer to very cold and snowy in winter, with everything in-between. Growing your own vegetables was never a trendy hobby but a necessity, and much of the land around your house (if you were lucky enough to own any) had to be given over to keeping hens, turkeys, pigs, cows or whatever livestock you could muster, to make up for the lack of food in the shops during Communist times. The younger generation now live mostly in the urban areas and have at best a balcony or terrace in which to unwind (or a park). Wealthier people, who have holiday homes in picturesque settings, are not there all the year round to look after their gardens properly, or are keen to copy Western models.

So, while they might not look as pretty and dreamy as the English country house or cottage gardens, these are hardworking gardens which deserve our admiration. And I can assure you quite a few are suitable for reading (tried and tested in my childhood).

Messy and busy, just like my grandmother’s garden, from the Botanical Garden in Bucharest.
Usually the flowers were in the immediate vicinity of the house, while the orchard and vegetable patch was behind. From adelaparvu.com
Flowers and vegetables alternate in rows in front of these traditionally painted houses from the Dobrogea region near the Black Sea coast. From Pinterest.
Some of the most beautiful flower gardens are at the nunneries, as here at Varatec. From AmFostAcolo.ro
Agapia Monastery also boasts a magnificent display of flowers in its courtyard. Photo credit. Stefan Cojocariu.
If you only have a balcony in the city, this will have to do. From Homelux.ro
But I prefer this porch, just like at my grandmother’s house. My cousins and I would sleep on little mattresses outside on really hot summer nights. From Pinterest.
Several of my relatives had dining tables under these vine-laden pergolas in the garden (with food coming out in a steady stream from the outdoor ‘summer’ kitchen). I think I read most of Dumas in places like these.

#20BooksofSummer Nos. 3 and 4: Eastern towns and dead end worlds

Bucharest in the 1970s, photo from Facebook group dedicated to old and new photos of Bucharest. For more pictures, go to the website bucurestiivechisinoi.ro

At this rate, I’m not sure I will finish 20 books this summer, or at least not read and review them, but I have read two more, and they both are set in Eastern Europe during Communist times.

Sarah Armstrong: The Starlings of Bucharest (Sandstone Press)

Set in Bucharest and Moscow in 1975. This is the story of a somewhat clueless young journalist, Ted Walker, who has escaped from the hardship of fishing life in Harwich and set off for the bright lights of London (albeit, living in an insalubrious bedsit in Plumstead). He is sent by the editor of his second-rate film review magazine to interview a famous Romanian film director in Bucharest and then later to an international film festival in Moscow, and becomes a target for the local security services.

Although it has some tense and dangerous moments, it is far less a spy thriller and more of a coming of age story, as Ted starts to realise what he is and isn’t capable of, and what people want from him. Coming from a humble background, without much education, he has been bruised by the class system in England and the Russians correctly surmise that he might be more sympathetic to their cause. Ted realises that, no matter how much he aspires occasionally to be part of the action, he is in fact far better at ‘watching it all unfold’. Above all, he is flattered by the attention that all of these mysterious bilingual people seem to be paying him: ‘I never knew I had anything to give, anything anyone wanted. It made me want to say yes without asking what it was.’

Quite an enjoyable read, and a more realistic look at the mundane details of the world of spying and the Cold War in the 1970s, more Le Carre than James Bond. However, I’m not quite sure what was the point of setting the first part in Bucharest and even giving the book that title, as most of the action takes place in Moscow. Was it purely to have another setting to describe? At that point in time, the Soviet and Romanian spy networks were definitely NOT collaborating, Romania was viewed with suspicion by the Soviets for its non-alignment with the other Communist states, while Ceausescu was still very much the darling of the Western leaders for opposing the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, signing agreements with the then European Community, visiting the Queen and Jimmy Carter in 1978 and so on.

From someone coming from Britain in the mid 1970s, with the oil crisis, strikes, unemployment, Bucharest can’t have seemed as grey and poor as all that. The food crisis was not yet as great as in the 1980s, clothes were plentiful and cheap (so the story of Vasile the guide craving Ted’s trousers sounds bizarre), although I agree the architecture of hastily put up blocks of flats was pretty horrible. Sorry to be picky, but if there are readers who point out that the train no. 45823 has a black undercarriage instead of dark blue, I think I can get slightly riled by inaccurate historical details.

Cristina Sandu: The Union of Synchronised Swimmers (Scribe UK)

Originally written in Finnish and translated into English by the author herself, this is a novella describing the starting point of a group of six girls who decide to form a synchronised swimming team, and their subsequent lives after they illegally leave their country during an international competition. The country of the girls is never named (nor officially recognised) other than ‘The Near Side of the River’ after the fall of the Republic, but for anybody familiar with the region, it sounds remarkably like Transnistria, with Moldova being the Far Side of the River, the ‘correct’ side, the place ‘where they can get a new passport and membership to a sports club that is internationally recognised’, sport being the ‘fragile link between two countries looking away from each other’.

I particularly enjoyed the lyricism in the parts of the story describing the girls’ childhood and their determination to become competitive swimmers, to escape from their boring lives and jobs at the cigarette factory, in a country where ‘for most of the year, the men were gone. They grabbed any kind of work they managed to get in a neighbouring country. They sent letters and packages home, and came to visit when they had enough money or their homesickness had become too great. Only the women stayed. They kept life going. They worked the land, fed and slaughtered the animals, raised the children. They ensured that the metal factory filled the sky with red smoke. They prepared the cigarettes… to be shipped far away, by land or by sea, to places they could only dream of.’

These descriptions (written in italics) were interspersed with accounts of the present-day – the experience of the six girls, now grown women, as immigrants in different countries – Finland, France, Italy, California, Saint Martin in the Caribbean – or returning ‘home’ many years later. The exploitation and subtle (or not so subtle) discrimination) they face elsewhere, but the certainty that there is no turning back, that they can no longer fit into the place they left behind either.

Much is implied or left unsaid, so I can understand the frustrations of readers who were expecting this to be more of a novel. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscope of images, impressions, vignettes from the women’s lives, the people they encounter, the conversations that mark them, a novella in flash one might say, and the gaps signify the distance between the six girls who once used to be so close. This worked upon me as a prose poem, although you shouldn’t expect something purely dreamy and lyrical: there is a lot of anger and sharp social observation too. Perhaps if you go in expecting something more like Jenny Offill’s Weather or Dept. of Speculation, you would be less disappointed. I think I know why the author chose to focus on the ‘after-lives’ of all six of the characters – to emphasise some of the univerals of the immigrant experience – but that does feel like we only get to know any of them in a very limited way, in a book that is that short.

The view of the Near Side of the River, the real-life Rybnitsa in Transnistria, town of metallurgy, and the river which might be where the girls learn to swim.

Friday Fun: Homesick for Romania

I was supposed to go to Romania this summer to celebrate my parents’ 80th birthdays (they are on different days, but both in the same year). I was hoping to take the boys for a hike in my beloved mountains, but instead will have to make do with these pictures instead. The first few pictures are from places that were within easy travel distance from Bucharest, so I used to go hiking and skiing there at least once a month when I was a pupil and a student. The last batch show the four seasons in different parts of the country.

N.B. I left Romania in the mid 1990s because it had a corrupt government, merciless exploitative capitalism combined with nostalgia for communist strong men, and because young people seemed to have no future there to fully develop their talents. There are still plenty of things wrong there, but I’m seriously thinking of moving back there in retirement at the latest.

One of my favourite places: the Sphinx on the summit of the Bucegi mountains. From Turist de Romania website.

Not far from there, Cabana Stana Tarla above Sinaia. From Booking.com

A little bit further away, sunset over the Caltun Lake in the Fagaras Mountain range, from muntii-fagaras.ro

The Seven Staircase Gorge near Brasov, photo credit Ionut Stoica. Not recommended if you suffer from vertigo!

Spring in the Apuseni mountains, from events.in

Summertime in the Retezat nature reserve, from Icar Tours.

Autumn is always spectacular in the mountains, from travelminit.ro

Last but not least, winter in Bucovina, with its traditional wooden churches. From The Romania Journal

December Reading and Writing Plans

After a few months of geographical reading, which I hugely enjoyed and which I intend to continue in 2020, I am having a ‘free-form jazz’ December. I will read whatever I please whenever I please, no plans, no judgements, perhaps no reviews?

I’ve started with Shirley Jackon’s Raising Demons, because I instantly thought of her when I finished the Euridice Gusmao book – the talented woman beset by domestic drama scenario. I will also finish Austrian writer Gerhard Jäger’s All die Nacht über uns (The Night All Around Us). I started it last week for German Literature Month but have only reached page 66 so far (I love it, but it’s a book to be savoured slowly and besides, I had a very full weekend). The only other book that I have lying on my bedside table and fully expect to pick up this month is The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness, because it will be 30 years this month since my generation (predominantly) brought down the Communist regime in Romania. As a side note, there’s a conference on this topic in Bucharest on the 21st of December that I’ve been invited to attend, but it’s too much of a logistical challenge. I’ll try to send a filmed contribution instead with the title: Thirty Years On: Illusory Revolutions?

Meanwhile, it’s only two weeks and a bit to go until I will be back in my beloved Genevois area, hunkering down to a lot of reading and writing, eating chocolates and fondue, and meeting some lovely old friends. I will probably buy some more books (on the French side of the border), so am travelling light on my way there, with just my Kindle, which contains a lot of goodies. For example, Will Dean’s Red Snow and Friederike Schmöe’s Drauß’ vom Walde – two crime thrillers set in snowy landscapes (Sweden and Germany respectively). I also have new books (even if they are not that new, but I simply haven’t got around to reading them yet) by authors whose career I like to follow, such as Lily King, Jenny Offill, Attica Locke, Deborah Levy, Valeria Luiselli, Yoko Ogawa… so plenty to keep me busy.

In terms of blogging, well I can’t let the end of the decade go by without at least attempting some personal literary (and perhaps film or theatre) highlights, so expect a few blog posts with ‘best of’ in their title. It’s been quite possibly the worst decade in my life, but even so there have been many happy moments and achievements. Happiness has been skiing, living in mountain country for a while and finally getting a cat, the perfect cat. And my main two achievements have been: returning to writing (after more than a decade in the wilderness) and even having some small things published here and there; and raising two intelligent, opinionated, occasionally lovable scamps.

Stock photo, taken from iii.org insurance website. Creator:yanik88
Credit:Getty Images/iStockphoto

Romanian Journey 2019

Last year we had a magical holiday in Romania. This year the holidays were much shorter, we stayed mainly in Bucharest and I didn’t expect any magic (and, indeed, none was forthcoming).

My parents are getting old and frail, so they wanted to talk mainly about what to do in case of ill health, emergencies or if one of them should die. I also tend to forget just how difficult it is to live in the same house as my mother until I am confronted with it on a daily basis. Last but not least, Bucharest is as chaotic, busy and polluted as most capital cities, plus a generous extra portion! So it was not the most restful of holidays.

However, there were some good bits, most of which I tweeted about while we were there.

It was nice to see that some of the 19th century architecture of Bucharest had been renovated and lived up to its reputation of ‘Little Paris’.
Just opposite this, however, and right next to the 1930 example of architecture of the Post and Telephone Building, you have this horror of a Novotel modern extension to an old facade (former National Theatre building, bombed during the WW2 and never rebuilt).
Other highlights include telling my older son (the history fiend) about the time when Ceausescu spoke live on TV from this balcony at the Central Committee of the Communist Party building on December 21st 1989 and was booed, sparking the full-scale public protests in Bucharest.
This building belonged to the Securitate forces and was riddled with bullets during the bloody days that followed the victory of the revolution on 22nd December 1989 (inevitable glass monstrosity was added later).
Rooftop bar can be used on rainy days thanks to these ingenious (heated) bubbles.
More examples of preserved architecture: the George Enescu museum, in one of the most impressive mansions on Calea Victoriei. Sadly, the exhibition itself is quite small and you can’t visit the entire house.
The Museum of the City of Bucharest in the Palais Sutu is really worth a visit: a carefully curated trip back in time in the history of the city.
For example, here is a portrait of a typical Phanariot of the 18th century – Greek administrators from the Fanari neighbourhood of Istanbul, imposed as de facto rulers of Wallachia by the Ottoman Empire for nearly a century.
I was somewhat shocked at the excessive luxury (and prices) in this giant shopping mall, complete with skating rink, climbing wall, food court, Imax cinema etc. when you consider that 80% of the population can probably not afford to buy anything other than a drink here.

I was discussing with my boys why Bucharest can feel like a shock to the system to those who live in other capital cities. It has all the traffic jams, lack of parking, crowded places, noise and building sites that we also associate with Paris and London. But, unlike those two cities, wealth and poverty jostle here more openly side by side. You can live in your protected bubble in the 6th and 7th Arrondissements in Paris, or in Chelsea and Hampstead in London, without ever coming across the less salubrious examples of daily life. That is simply not possible in Bucharest. You come out of the most extravagant restaurant and end up in a back street with crumbling old buildings. You drive your fancy Lamborghini through terrible potholes. On public transport you see fine ladies with expensive haircuts and camelhair coats as well as bow-legged peasant women with knotted scarves covering their hair – and both of them might be making the sign of the cross whenever the tram passes by a church.

The best bit was seeing that some of the beautiful older buildings had been sensitively and lovingly rehabilitated, rather than having ugly extensions built behind them.

If you are a foreign tourist with a bit of money, you can have a great time in Bucharest. For me, it will always be a city where pain and joy, anger and nostalgia blend. I can never ignore the dirt or inequality or those who have been left behind. I cannot unsee the price of foreign investment: people of my generation and younger who are being eaten alive by the Western corporations, a form of indentured labour for the present-day. The city will never be relaxing because there are too many threads binding me to it and never enough time to meet and greet all the people that I want to see – or that my family feel that I should see.

If you know the Cavafy poem ‘The City’, you will understand how I feel about this fascinating, infuriating, sleazy, beautiful, ugly city.

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.

This city will always pursue you.

You’ll walk the same streets, grow old

in the same neighbourhoods, tunr grey in these same houses.

You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:

there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.

(transl. Keeley and Sherrard)

My dream of trawling through bookshops and cafés remained just that: a dream. Nevertheless, I did experience two nice restaurants while meeting up with people and one café for breakfast. I only entered three bookshops (two of them quite small), but somehow managed to return with a massive pile of books. More about that in my next post!

#EU27Project: Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was not aware of this novel by Mihail Sebastian (if I thought about it at all, I thought it was an essay). It is actually somewhat uncharacteristic: most of his other works, which I loved and poured over, were romantic, idealistic, more about the artist’s place in society, avoiding loneliness, finding love. All the things guaranteed to appeal to a teenager. But they weren’t sickly sweet like Ionel Teodoreanu (alas, yes, I have to admit it now, although I loved him at the time too) or Cella Serghi. There was always an element of sharp psychological observation and a few hints of social critique (especially in the plays).

In For Two Thousand Years, the love story plays an entirely secondary role to what is predominantly social critique. The plot hardly qualifies as a plot: it describes key moments in the biography of a young Jewish architect in Romania from 1922 to about 1932, with references to his friends and acquaintances, and how they react during periods of virulent anti-semitism and more relaxed, tolerant periods.

The first few chapters are like diary entries (very similar in fact to Sebastian’s later diary, written in the run-up to the Second World War), so readers may feel somewhat discombobulated as the narrator talks about things that would have been obvious to those living in Romania at that time, but are not widely known nowadays. Anti-semitism was alive and well in Romania at the time (something they had in common with many European countries) and the first constitution of Romania (after the unification of Wallachia and Moldova) in 1866 stated quite bluntly that only Christians could be considered Romanians. The Versailles Treaty in 1918 (which led to Romania’s unification with Transylvania) had a special clause about granting equal political rights to all ethnic groups, but this was often taken to mean the Hungarians and Germans living in Transylvania rather than the Jewish population who was scattered all over the country. In 1922 a numerus clausus was introduced at universities, limiting the number of students from a particular ethnic group (guess which one?) and there were student riots and aggressions against Jewish students.

Mihail Sebastian

The narrator not only witnesses all of this, but also has discussions about the Jewish soul and Zionism with both Romanian and Jewish friends. In a sense, he is forced to discover his Jewish roots, which he hadn’t thought much about hitherto. His own family history shows him that there is no such thing as the ‘Jewish archetype’. His father’s side of the family were strong hulks, workers in the port town of Braila, while his mother’s side from North Bucovina contained sickly intellectuals, but neither were particularly urban or rich.

He has always spoken Romanian and is not sure how he feels about Yiddish or Hebrew, until he meets the elderly book collector Abraham Sulitzer, who has Cervantes, Moliere, Shakespeare and modern authors all translated into Yiddish. Abraham berates the narrator for not appreciating this language:

Jargon! Broken German! Ghetto dialect! That’s what Yiddish is to you. If I tell you, though, that it’s a language neither beautiful nor ugly, but a living language, a language that people have suffered in, sang in, expressed their thoughts and fears in for hundreds of years, you’d stare at me open-mouthed… It’s a living language, with its own nervous system, its veins, its joys and sorrows, with its homeland in the ghetto…

As a student, the narrator is dazzled by one of his professors, Ghita Blidaru (a thinly disguised Nae Ionescu, who wrote that horrible preface). Blidaru is an idealist, all about the cultural heritage of the Romanians, the superiority of the rural traditions, where the true, pure soul of the Romanians lie, harking back to an imagined glorious past. For a while, the narrator buys into his theories, but there are strong hints of his teacher’s thoughtlessness and indifference to those who are different to himself. The narrator’s surprise and disillusionment as he discovers the indifference and apathy of his friends to the plight of minorities, as they tell him that they don’t mean him of course when they launch into anti-semitic speeches, will sound very familiar to those living in Brexit Britain.

So will the desire to protest against the government, to make sure your voice gets heard, even if that is done in a truly destructive and hate-filled way. His friend Stefan Parlea, for instance (likely to be a portrait of his real-life friend at the time, Mircea Eliade, although Sebastian took care to deny that any of the characters in the book were drawn from real life etc.) justifies aggressions of the right-wing Iron Guard against Jewish shops (way before Kristallnacht) thus:

I don’t regret what happened. I regret how it ended: in indifference, forgotten… It’s great to smash windows. Any violent action is good. Of course, crying out ‘Down with the Jews!’ is idiotic, but what does it matter? You need to shake things up in this country. And if that means starting with the Jews, then so be it, it can’t be helped, but it will end with a major conflagration, an earthquake that will spare nothing. That was my ambition, that was my hope.

Camil Petrescu

The narrator survives all this, although getting sadder and sadder in the process. He becomes an architect and works on a project funded by a wealthy American to extract petrol and build a large refinery in a village in the picturesque Valea Prahovei, which leads to the destruction of the natural beauty and traditional way of life, as symbolised by the plum trees that they had to cut down. The narrator cannot help but feel that this time he is not innocent, he is actively contributing to the destruction of a way of life, but not because of his ethnicity. Here he has conversations with another friend Mircea Vieru (most probably a fictionalised version of Sebastian’s great friend and fellow writer Camil Petrescu). This is where the tensions arise, between the rational Western Cartesian values (often associated with urbanism and economic development) and the more emotional Balkanic approach, equated here with rural traditions, being a proud peasant, returning to the ‘soil that made you’, thereby excluding the Jews, because they were never ‘created’ by this soil, but are doomed to be forever migrant.

Funnily enough, when the book was published, the author was hated equally by both the Romanian and the Jewish community. Clearly, for the Romanians, he was showing an aspect of their society that they were not comfortable admitting to, but why was he considered anti-semitic? Not only because of his association with Nae Ionescu, who denounces the whole book with his virulent preface, but because Sebastian is remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental about the Jewish propensity to be almost complacent in their victimhood. Self-doubt and self-flagellation are very Jewish characteristics, and perhaps the persecution they have suffered over the centuries has added to their feeling that they are the ‘special, chosen’ nation. He is also sceptical about the Zionist movement, and he has characters discussing the pros and cons.

The author is almost thinking out loud (which explains why I thought this was an essay):

To be persecuted isn’t just a physical misfortune, but above all an intellectual one, because it deforms your thinking bit by bit… I never enjoyed being a martyr, although I do recognise a certain Jewish propensity in myself towards that… For a long time I couldn’t understand Parlea as the enemy territory, because of all the barbed wire separating us. It’s so easy and comforting to think of your adversaries as evil and stupid…

I could go on and on, there are so many juicy quotes, but instead of posting the whole book here (in my own translation), I would urge you to read it. It has been translated into English and published by Other Press in the US and Penguin Modern Classics in the UK. Don’t expect a conventional novel with a satisfying story arc, but do expect a disarmingly patient, honest, puzzled account of the rise of fascism. An inquiring mind that seeks to understand others, even when what they say is indefensible, as well as a scrupulously honest dissection of his own beliefs and blind spots.

Calea Victoriei, one of the main boulevards in Bucharest, in 1930. Sebastian lived for a while in a studio flat on this (long) street.

For me, a complete revelation, adding to the portrait of the talented, dreamy, idealistic young man that I knew from his novels and plays. As a Romanian, I cannot help but be ashamed of the venom that Nae Ionescu spits at him (and compare it with some of the things I have heard lately being spouted about gays in the recent referendum about family and Orthodox values):

It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian … Remember that you are Jewish! Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.

Romanian Road Trip: Transylvania without Vampires

Don’t get me started about the tenuous connection between Transylvania and vampires! I suppose we have Bram Stoker to thank for tourism to this part of Romania, but there is no historical connection between Vlad Ţepeş and Dracula. According to the latest research, Stoker was inspired by a book written by a Scottish lady, Emily Gerard. She spent two years in the 1880s in Romania and wrote about the belief in strigoi, as we call them in Romanian. The belief was far stronger, however, in the rest of the Balkans (Greece, Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria), with outbreaks of mass hysteria in the 18th century and people being accused of vampirism, much the same as they were accused of witchcraft in Western Europe. When Bram Stoker heard about Vlad Dracul, the nickname of Vlad Ţepeş’s father, he could not resist using the name with its satanic connotations for his novel. And so a myth was born – and, even if it’s not really our myth, why should we turn down a good money-spinning venture?

There is a link to Transylvania in the person of Elizabeth Báthory, Hungarian noblewoman related to the Báthory family who ruled over Transylvania in the 16th century. She was allegedly the most prolific female serial killer and kidnapped, tortured, killed and dismembered predominantly young girls between the ages of 10 and 14. 

While Elizabeth Báthory never lived in Transylvania, there are plenty of castle/fortresses in that part of the country that were in the hands of fierce and strong females, wives of Hungarian, German or Romanian noblemen whose husbands had gone off to war. Of course, they also had a small contingent of soldiers to defend them, but the women were the ones who took the lead in economic, political and social decisions in their community. One such place is the Fagaraş Citadel, about halfway between Braşov and Sibiu, and this is where we stopped on our road trip.

Făgăraș was built over a wooden fortress razed to the ground by the Tatars; most of the building dates from the 14th-15th centuries, but was added to until the early 17th century. It was built on marshland, surrounded by a moat, which made any approaches by horse or heavy cannons virtually impossible; thus, the fortress was under siege many times but never conquered. It was initially a military fortress, but also became the seat of the local lord and his wife, so you can visit their restored chambers and view collections of old furniture, glass, local costumes and other traditional treasures.

The inner courtyard suddenly transports you to a different century.
Reconstruction of the Throne Room – where the Ottoman representatives would come to discuss terms with the leaders of Transylvania.
Council room for the brief period during which Transylvania was independent of any empire.
Traditional German men’s costume from the region.
Traditional Hungarian women’s costume from the area.
Traditional Romanian costume from the area.

It has also been used as a prison in the past – and there is a rather stark scaffold for hanging in the courtyard and some torture instruments in the basement, which I did not take pictures of. The fortress has a sad history even in modern times: from 1948-1960 it was a prison for those who protested against the Communist regime. There was a small but fascinating exhibition there about the mothers, wives and sisters of the resistance fighters from the Făgăraș mountain area.

The road to Sibiu runs parallel to the Carpathians, although sadly it was not the clearest day to admire the views and acres of mountains. Those mountains feature in my novel set in Romania, and a fatal accident takes place there. (I feel much more inspired to edit the novel now after my trip to Romania, by the way.)

You can barely make out the mountains in the distance but on a clear day it is utter heaven. I’ve been hiking in these mountains many a time – and my parents live just on the other side of them, about 100 km as the crow flies.

We have visited Sibiu many times, as my younger son’s godparents live there. They have two boys of very similar age and are almost a microcosm of traditional Romanian culture: he is of Hungarian extraction, she is Romanian, but they both speak German and met while studying in Germany (which is where I too met them). So their children are trilingual and have grown up in a home free of prejudice or biased interpretations of history.

The Small Square, which marks the second set of city walls in Sibiu.
The tiny windows in the attic are known as ‘the eyes of Sibiu’.
Four strapping young boys braving the Liars’ Bridge. Local superstition has it that if you utter a lie on this bridge, it will collapse.

By way of comparison, here is a picture of three of the same boys a few years back. It is delightful for us to see the friendship extending to the next generation as well!

One side note: In the past, the only language my boys and their boys had in common was Romanian, so it was lovely to hear them chatter. Sadly, this year it became clear that the Sibiu boys’ English has become better than my boys’ Romanian, so they mainly spoke in English. Still, we all spoke Romanian at the table, and my sons understood everything and by the end of the trip, their tongues began to loosen a little. I have to make more of an effort to speak to them in Romanian consistently at home, a habit I lost while we were in France (when I was concerned about keeping up their English).

Romanian Road Trip: Mountain Country

When I was young, I always wanted to go to the seaside on holiday in Romania and couldn’t understand why we had to follow the national tradition of a week at the seaside followed by a week in the mountains. Nowadays, however, I much prefer the mountains (at least in my home country – for beaches are pretty similar everywhere in Europe).

The first part of our road trip was heading north out of Bucharest up the picturesque Prahova Valley (particularly colourful at this time of year) to Braşov. We only stopped for lunch because both the cable car at Buşteni and the Peleş Palace in Sinaia were closed on a Tuesday, but if you ever go that way, you should stop and check out both. (By the way, the s with cedilla is pronounced ‘sh’).

Peles, the summer residence of the Romanian kings in the 19th/20th century. From gandul.info
The Sphinx, rock formation caused by the heavy winds at the top of the Bucegi mountains, accessible only on foot from the Busteni cable car.

We stayed a few days in Braşov, also known as Kronstadt in German, because its symbol is of a crown on an oak tree. Not to be confused with the Russian Kronstadt near St Petersburg, it was a bustling medieval and Renaissance town of craftsmen and merchants, where German, Hungarian and Romanian ethnicities lived together in something resembling harmony.

The coat of arms of the city on the town hall.

While it does not have the grand architecture of Sibiu (which is where the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy lived), it is still full of beautiful old buildings, some of them more renovated than others.

Nightfall in the main square of the Old Town, with the Hollywood-style lit-up sign of Brasov.
View of the city from behind the sign.

It is also home to one of the narrowest streets in Europe, appropriately known as ‘Rope Street’. Each window looking out onto the street has been decorated by a different artist.

I have a soft spot for Braşov, though, and not just because it has been the scene of many an escapade during my high school and university years (it is only 2 hours from Bucharest, so we went skiing or hiking nearly every other weekend). It is also surrounded by mountains, so in just a few minutes you can be in the forest and feel that you have left all the urban hustle and bustle behind you.

We stayed at a very nice hotel here too, in the Schei neighbourhood, which was just outside the Old Town walls and was traditionally the only place where Romanians were allowed to settle. This was the view from our balcony.

The weather was not as kind to us here as it was throughout the rest of our trip. It only rained a little bit, but there was cloud cover, which meant we didn’t get the best views of or from the mountains. And it was very cold for two days, with some snowfall, especially up in the ski resort Poiana Braşov, where I learnt to ski again as a grown-up after a ski accident in my childhood put an end to winter sports for me, as far as my parents were concerned.

A world away from the mellow autumnal landscape below.
All is well, however, when you can warm up your icy toes in a hot tub at the Hotel Sport.
Since it was out of season, we had the whole place practically to ourselves.

But it was the interplay of nature and architecture, as well as the friendly cats, which made us love Braşov.

Gate to the Old Town.
The tower of the famous Black Church in the background.
We kept passing this abandoned house on our way back to the hotel. I would love to renovate it and keep a few cats there. 

This is getting too long, so I will have to tell you about the next stage of our journey in a separate blog post. I had some hard choices to make about which route to take to Sibiu, where my younger son’s godparents live. I was initially planning to go via Sighişoara, which is the most beautiful medieval towns in Romania, but a bit farther away. In the end, time and other circumstances made us opt for another route. But, as you will see, we discovered a lesser-known treasure there as well.

One last fond look at Braşov. 

If you go there, try their Bulz (a sort of polenta and cheese mix rolled up into a ball) and their Papanaşi – enormous doughnuts traditionally served as a pair with blueberry jam and cream. Extremely filling – I can’t believe I used to be able to tackle those as a dessert. I now could barely finish one as a main course!

From retete.unica.ro

Romanian Road Trip: Little House in the Forest

For those of you not interested in Romania or holiday pictures, look away now, as the following few posts will be all about my holiday there. I’ve had a fraught love-hate relationship with my home country all my life (more about the whys in a later post), but this time almost everything clicked to make it a magical experience. Two days of cold and snow (up in the mountains), but the rest of the time we had temperatures in the mid-20s, blue skies and ravishing autumn colours.

I’ll start with the place we stayed in last, as it was the most memorable. Lost in the fertile and beautiful landscapes of the sub-Carpathians in the centre-west of Romania, Pensiunea Dacica was like a place in fairy tale. We had to follow nearly 5 km of unpaved, narrow road alongside a stream, going deeper and deeper into the forest as night was falling. At first I thought the wolves would come to get us (we still have bears, wolves, wolverines, lynx and the like in our mountains), but when we arrived, we found all mod cons awaiting us: running water, heating, electricity, comfortable rooms, good food, lots of books and even Wifi.

View of the entire complex from the surrounding hills.

Not forgetting, of course, the array of friendly dogs, cats, donkeys and occasional stray cows to give you that authentic countryside experience.

Early morning visitor at my window.

The reason for this seeming miraculous retreat in the depth of the forest? This guesthouse is the brainchild of a team of archaeologists who have been working on the Dacian remains which are abundant in this part of the country. [The Dacians were the native population (related to the Getae and Thrakians of the Balkanic peninsula) before the conquest by the Romans in 105-106 AD, as witnessed in the carvings on Traian’s Column in Rome.] They established a publishing house and foundation for educating children and people more generally about history and traditional culture, not just the Dacians.

The library and conference room, complete with projector.
We played cards in the common room, but you could have a disco in here.

They have a library and study room, ideal for a historian or writer wishing to work in peace, a common room for socialising, plenty of outdoor spaces to settle down and read. And, of course, lots of mountain trails and archaeological sites nearby to explore. Sometimes the dogs and cats would accompany us to the top of the hill.

Our companions as we climbed up towards Dacian fortress Piatra Rosie (Red Stone).

I can’t forget the delicious food – with Ioana, the cook, fussing around my children to find out what they would like best for the evening meal and worrying if they didn’t finish off everything on their plate. In the morning, we had more than 20 jams to choose from, home made on site, including unusual varieties such as lilac flower, watermelon, peony petals and even carrot. In the evening, we could choose between home-made apple or plum brandy, mead or sour cherry liqueur. Everyone working there showed the legendary Romanian hospitality and kindness (which is sometimes more legendary than real in the bigger cities).

We only stayed there two days, but I could easily imagine myself staying there for a proper holiday or even a writing retreat for a month. It was quiet when we were there, as there’s no half-term holiday in Romania and so it was off-peak, but the few people who were there were regulars, who kept coming back every year. I am almost reluctant to share details of this little piece of paradise, as I don’t want it to become trampled by too many tourists.

You can also camp in the more basic chalets, but you have a kitchen and place to eat in the shade.

While there, we went to visit Sarmisegetuza Regia, the ancient capital of the Dacians. It is situated in a nature reserve and it’s the most peaceful, inspiring location, even if you don’t believe in ley lines and building for solstice sun positioning.

The Dacians put up a fierce fight against the Romans. Their last king, Decebal, waged three wars against the Romans, but was finally defeated in 106 AD. Together with a few of his generals, he retreated to the fortified capital tucked away in the mountains and they all committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Romans and marched through Rome in chains. Traian had to content himself with only the head and right hand of the dead Decebal. The Romans razed the city to the ground and forbade any access to it, for fear of the growth of cults around the deceased leader or possible rebellions. So, rather like in Sleeping Beauty, the forest grew around it and it was forgotten for over 1500 years, until archaeological interest arose in the early 19th century.

The interpretation of the Dacian legacy since its rediscovery has been very interesting. At first, the Romanians chose to emphasise their civilised Roman ancestry, probably in an effort to underline their Latin origin in contrast to the Slavic populations surrounding them and also to show that they were equal to the Austro-Hungarian empire that one third of the country was part of. From the 1930s onwards, the Dacian roots and the proto-population theories were used for nationalistic purposes. The Dacians were presented as fearless and noble, yet never as aggressors. (The Greek cities on the Black Sea coast, the Boii, Bastarnae and Illyrian tribes might all disagree with that, as they were all conquered or driven out under the first Dacian king to unite all the territories, Burebista.)

Yet, despite the bloody past and biased interpretations, this feels like such a blessed and happy spot. You can imagine people contentedly pursuing their agricultural and animal-rearing occupations here. The stones on the ground all glitter enchantingly, since these hills used to contain gold. Gold treasure hordes have been found in the region as recently as 2014.

The Eastern Gate to the city

You could be forgiven for thinking that people can still live as happily as their ancestors in these spots, albeit with all the mod cons. Pensiunea Dacica certainly makes you believe that all is still well with the world. But you would be wrong. The whole area is under threat from big corporations for fracking, with the government happily issuing licences (so as not to be overly reliant on Russian oil and gas), despite protests by the local population. In an earthquake-prone country, that could be even more of a disaster than in England. And, although this particular area around Sarmisegetuza is a nature reserve, huge swathes of forests everywhere else have been privatised and are being sold off and chopped up for timber or building.

One of the surprising promoters of Romanian tourism with an authentic flair and trying to protect the Romanian ecology is Prince Charles, who has bought a fortified village called Viscri. His foundation has turned this into a guesthouse but he seems to be ploughing the profits of it back into the local communities, attempting to revive local arts and crafts, encouraging the renovation of old houses and using local produce for food. 

My two favourite cats of the many friends I made there.