Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Where I Come From

Since I come from a far away land, a lot of people ask me “what is it like where you come from?”. That is a broader question that one can attempt to answer in a lifetime, and when you’re dealing with your familiar, it’s impossible to answer. Of course, folks here, especially those who have never been out of the country, cannot tell me what it’s like to be from “here”; all they have to tell me is “look around”. So I can never get any hints on what it is I am supposed to say to describe the world I come from …

I know it’s different than the one I live in here. I know, most times, why. But it’s hard to put into words.

I am sure one can google or wiki my home town and find out its location, its history, how old, how vast, how populated … That it used to be the capital city of the province of Moldova back when Romania didn’t exist; that one of the most famous and esteemed princes, Stefan cel Mare (later sanctified), had his residency in the castle built on the same foundation of now The Palace of Culture, back in the 15th century; that we have 13th, 14th and 15th century churches and monasteries, and buildings still standing; that we host the first printing press in Moldova that printed Romanian materials; that we have the oldest university in Romania (1860), the one I attended: Al. I. Cuza – and so forth…

But I am here to tell you about what I think about my home town. About what leaves with me every time I get on that plane, crying a river, filled with guilt, remorse, sadness and also pride, in a sick and very lonely way.

There are some things I always make a point of seeing when I get home. I do want to take a sightseeing trip around town, be it on foot (my favorite) or in a car, to see what’s new. I notice new buildings, streets that are wider, even gas stations and convenience stores that were never there before.

I try to see places that bring back memories. For instance, on some trips, I love visiting the grave yard. Not because my grandparents and other relatives are there, but because that’s the first place that ever gave me the depth and perspective of life, human condition, and eternity. That’s where I learned first where we’re all headed. It gave me purpose, and scope. I didn’t get to see it this time around, though.

Other places are streets we once lived on; or schools I attended. That, somehow, connects to where my life’s been – it gives me an itinerary to understand how I turned up this way, by “connecting the dots” of what was. I look at the blocks of crumbling concrete flats and remember the cold winters, where we slept with the coats on, or the hot summers, with no a/c, nor fans, where we would leave the water in the bathroom running, to cool off the dry, hot air; or dress the windows in bed sheets, so the sun won’t come in. I think of the close quarters we shared, and which never bothered us – and compare those with the three bedrooms I have now, for just me!

I notice the architecture, however old, or new, or crumbling... Did I notice it when I was there? Probably not. But now, it leaves with me. Every street corner is another dent in my brain - never to be erased. It's amazing what you do see, when you do want to see it. Pressured by limited time and craving belonging-ness, you open your eyes wider! And your heart ever more so ...

My sister and I in front of our elementary school

Al. I. Cuza University - my Alma Mater

I can tell you that I also go home to watch the physical love affair that people have with the food they make. It’s literally like love making: so attentive, and detailed, and sensual: there, it’s a big touching party! You touch everything. You knead, and wash, and clean, and soak up in aromas, and … You feel the food, before it enters your mouth. You clean the animal, you portion it, you think about what to cook now, what you can freeze, and you never once squint that “eew, that’s blood”, and “eew, that’s teeth”… We work with it all. With respect. And love. And patience. Much patience. We try not to waste much in our food. We use it all. My friend will tell you all about it. Just ask him how I eat a Boston Market chicken.

Laborious deliciousness: making stuffed grape leaves and cabbage rolls

Back home, people are always merry. Times have been tough and even tougher than now ever since I can remember. But if there is one thing that stays with me is that Romanians know how to party. For better, or worse, they find time, and food and drinks to gather up, and share the happiness or sorrow that bonds them. I find that Americans are more inclined to withdraw in their shells, and communicate less in times of sadness. Or party with everyone, but not really with the ones that matter, when they’re happy. Romanians stay close to family, close and distant, and gather up for chow and drinking for better or worse. You’re truly free to be whoever you are amongst those folks: after all, they’re truly your folk. Nothing to hide there. There is always forgiveness if you do happen to mess up! The sense of “blood community” strikes me back home, and gives me new juices to go on for another year: after all, I belong, somewhere in the world.

There is always a reason to celebrate and something
to make a spread out of, at my parents' house

I like revisiting places like my favorite city park, with wide alleyways and wooden benches. I like remembering first kisses, and love quarrels in those parks. I like seeing places where I grew up, or where I remember I had a favorite ice cream, back when I liked that, and where my grandfather used to take me when I skipped preschool!

I love going back for the pizza – the best I have had yet, without having been to Italy, let’s say! I love the street food, fresh, warm pastries that are welcome no matter how full you are: you cannot survive the smell alone – you MUST buy a couple of samples! Food is, again, part of your day, who you are, your routine. It smears the soul with good oils!

And of course, I go for my family. I go for the hugs that really mean something, and for the kisses that are sweeter that lovers’ ones. I go for their advice, and sometimes, I love going back for a good scolding, too! My dad usually criticizes everything I wear: I am either a hippy, or a bum, to him. Mom cries a lot. Cries for my bad luck with men, and my being alone, always … She doesn’t know that I take that as a scolding: that I cannot do any better than “this”. But mostly, I go for their spreads, and smiles. They’re loaded with love and honesty. And meaning! They always make my favorite foods, and display my favorite silverware, sheets, home décor, what have you. They’re the best! Their eyes full or tears, with “I’m going to miss you lots” written all over them travel with me for another two years! I even go for those eyes! To remember them, and know that they’re waiting for me – no matter what. They’re my safe shore!

So, I guess, in short, I come from a place of mixed architecture, that travels time-wise anywhere from the 13th century to the 21st; I come from a place of old churches and old schools. A place of chatty, happy people, and love, lots of it. I come from where the bread is always fresh and warm, and the wine is always sweet. A place of vast spreads, and poor but giving people.

Crumbling history ...

Iasi, my home town, is a city surrounded by seven hills. I come, thus, from a protected space. We were deemed as provincial “Moldovans” (which was an insult), but we felt safe, and proud. We had our history. How in the world I escaped this protected space, it’s still a mystery to me. And to this day, I long for that protection, in some form, every minute.

Home is where your bread is plenty ...

For more glimpses of what it’s like to go back home, visit the Wander World’s Photo Album, and enjoy!

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