I’ll Take a Zup

After having resisted the desire to show off my English, I gave in to the temptation when the flight attendant wheeled the drinks cart by.

“What would you like to drink?” she asked.

I looked at the cart briefly, clueless, but I thought I saw one I could pronounce. “I would like a Zup, please.”

She tilted her head, and asked with a frown, “Excuse me?”

“I would like a … Zup,” I repeated louder this time, emphasizing my pronunciation.

She shook her head, puzzled, “I’m sorry.”

I pointed to the cluster of green cans.

“Oh, yes! You would like a 7Up,” she said, hiding a smile.

I felt myself turn purple from the humiliation. She handed me a can. “Thank you,” I managed.

“You are welcome.”

I knew there would be many more such embarrassing moments on an arduous road paved with enigmatic English spellings and intriguing pronunciations, peculiar expressions and linguistic oddities.

I leaned back and remembered the trips to the Black Sea, sitting behind Tati and wishing he drove faster. If only the pilot flew faster!

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Return from West Germany

That evening they mesmerized me with more stories about their trip. Kent cigarette packages worked well with border inspectors without our gifts confiscated. Mama’s German lessons paid off so much so that Tati commended her and atoned her for having alleged that she squandered time drinking Turkish coffee.

I was captured in a fairy tale with autobahn thoroughfares and fast cars, stores with shelves overloaded with a myriad of products. Instead of one government-issue of an item, a selection? Instead of hoping to find an item, a choice?

“I couldn’t believe it,” Tati said.

Mama nodded, “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen everything with my own eyes.”

On their first trip outside Romania and the Eastern Bloc, twelve hundred miles away, they experienced freedom. They saw and heard, felt and tasted a lifestyle vastly so different that their senses awakened – a people living life without fear, in comfort and abundance.

As I listened, I wished to see this world with my own eyes.

She continued, “The rumors are nothing. The differences are incomprehensible. Our lives are so repressed, so far beneath their standard of life. I must admit that Gisi’s and Rudi’s urging us to remain in West Germany was tempting.”

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Peasant Life at Mam’Anica’s

The days spent at Mam’Anica’s, whether summertime or wintertime, seemed as though I had stepped into an ancient time with the day’s preoccupation being survival. “If you want to eat tonight, you better get out there and catch supper,” Mam’Anica would tell me about noon. I got the impression she gave me this task purely for her enjoyment, for she would watch me chase after the chickens and call out, “Grab one already!” I ran after mean ones that had pecked or scared me, and spared the friendly ones that squatted to play with the next day. When I asked who catches her dinner when I’m not around, she’d smile and ask, “Why do you think there are so many when you arrive?”

While I liked eating chicken, the in-between process bothered me. I wept over every one that flailed without a head. It lost its life so I could eat. I’d take my usual seat on a short-legged wood stool, an old towel strapped over my lap, and stare at the sad sight of the scalded creature. I’d pull out feathers one by one. “Oh, Dana, stop tickling it and pluck away. It doesn’t feel anything,” Mam’Anica would say. We wasted nothing, down to giblets and feet. The good feathers Mam’Anica saved for pillows.

At potato harvest time, she’d assign me the easy task of gathering  unearthed potatoes into burlap sacks. No, it shouldn’t have been hard to accomplish, except that I truly believed potato beetles were intent on eating me. I’d spend more time running mad and screaming than gather potatoes. They wouldn’t stop laughing until it became obvious that my paranoia won’t collect potatoes.

And paranoia wouldn’t use the outhouse against the fence behind the cornfield either. Some thirty yards away, it would remain forbidden territory. This dilapidated wood plank structure not once failed to make me recoil with repulsion. I’d swear it creaked and moaned with the sort of ghouls one would expect had stooped to inhabit such a place. I remained unconvinced to patronize it in the daylight, never mind in the dead of night. Despite repeated rebukes, ceaseless pleadings, and reassurances that there’s nothing to fear, I preferred my own arrangements along the strip of land between the back of the house and the wooden fence.

I suspected that Mam’Anica’s cow must have known I was a city girl, too. Every time I’d walk into its stall, it turned it humongous head practically as big as me, stopped its chewing momentarily, and gawked. The peasant kids’ tales about smart people turning into idiots after getting kicked with hooves in the head didn’t help when given the chore of removing the dung and refreshing the hay. Any doubts over its sentiments toward me dispelled after it stomped its leg and whipped me with its tail in protest of my manner of milking. I gave up on a relationship when this otherwise docile milk cow transformed into an unrecognizable beast at the sight of the neighbor’s feuding cow during one of our walks back from grazing.

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Live Free

In my mind rang the hushed words that people in the Occident lived free.

Our government had rendered ordinary citizens entirely dependent, as though undeserving beggars, whose livelihood and well-being hung on the whims of mighty officials who had it made and whose purpose in life was to exercise power to gain more power over people.

Why didn’t the government  let people who wanted to go away to live free go, if that’s what they wanted? If they wanted to leave Romania to live elsewhere, why shoot them or torture them instead of letting them leave to the Free West – especially since officials shouted how bad the western world is?

And I didn’t know about the God the government declared didn’t exist, but I felt in my heart there had to be much more to life than the ticking of the clock.

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I am My Father’s Daughter

I couldn’t feel any wind. I couldn’t feel anything but sheer joy at having Tati all to myself. What a thrill to walk out until the water reached my shoulders. Tati had taught me to swim the summer before and an entire year had passed without another chance to swim. I kicked with my legs, flailed my arms, and took plenty of water up my nose.

“Make gentle, rounded strokes. Keep your fingers together.”

“I’m drowning!”

“Oh, Dana, how are you drowning? I have my hand under your tummy.”

“I’m tired.”

“Of course you are. Control your arms and breathe normally.”

“Let me stop now.”

He let me down.

“Let’s jump waves, Tati.”

We returned to shallower water, trying to catch the waves as they broke, and readied to push ourselves off the sea floor in sync.

“There’s a big wave heading our way.” He squeezed my hand. “Hold on tight!”

I tightened my grip and held my breath as the wave lifted me off the sea floor. One wave after another approached with only seconds in between to catch my breath. Nothing felt better than jumping waves holding Tati’s hand. I was oblivious of everything else, captivated in an exhilarating spell of the Black Sea.

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People Have Rights

Excerpt from Chapter 5

Stories about citizens risking death to escape communism circulated widely, said to have run west over heavily guarded fields lined with barbed wire and armed border guards or jumped into the frigid water of the Danube. Many died. Those captured were beaten, tortured, and imprisoned indefinitely. Others drowned in the unforgiving waters of the Danube or shot. Every one had aimed to reach the Free West, a world where it was rumored that “oamenii au drepturi.

I wondered what “people have rights” meant.

I had begun to understand that the communists ran our lives. The government controlled food stores, clothing stores, shoe stores; it controlled what the media reported, how much information and how the information was presented; it decided when two television channels aired and what programs would be broadcasted; it controlled the medical field, hospitals, and the quantity and quality of health care; it decided how much each profession earned; it controlled education and how many openings at each higher education institution; it required every second grade elementary student to join the communist party as a Pioneer; it instituted state atheism and declared it illegal to possess a Bible or Christian literature or to confess faith in God, the consequences of a violation being imprisonment, torture, and personal ruin.

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Destiny

“He stood motionless, unsmiling, as the train picked up speed and the distance between us grew. The second I lost sight of him an intense loneliness crushed me. I had set out on an irreversible course towards my destiny.”

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