We stopped short on the broad sidewalk of Bucharest’s triumphal boulevard, suddenly aware that we needed a direction.
“Let’s have coffee somewhere, shall we”, I said looking around. Designer shops and insurance offices. Mona imitated me turning her eyes around, searching with the expression of someone who’d never been there in their whole life. Then she shook her head briefly as from a spell and her alert, knowing air was back on her.
“Follow me,” she said laconically.
We disappeared through the gorge of a passage between the huge concrete blocks and left the ghostly boulevard behind us. It was the same boulevard down which we’d been driving the day before, me and Dorin, on our way from his friend Andrew back to the town. Having exited the concrete walled canyon, we found ourselves in a completely different scenery, as in a film where the set had been replaced. Behind the concrete blocks of flats were old houses, once coquette, with rambling roses or – in a different season – blossoming hedges. A disused tram rail was still running along, embossed in the asphalt, calling up nostalgic fata morganas of a lively and at once peaceful town. Cars were of course decking every spare inch of the space outside the fenced-in gardens, whether it was the narrow sidewalk or the narrow driveway. But over the pied ceilings of the wheeled tin boxes emerged a world of clear, personalized hues, telling a story of real, accessible people. A dog burst out barking just a few feet away, a thin corrugated iron fence between us; Mona and I were both startled, but instantly went laughing.
“Someone’s got to be very touchy”, Mona said. “Signs of real life can be shocking can’t they”, she added laughing but lunging further towards our target.
I followed, walking just behind her, a bit like explorers in a thick jungle who can’t afford to walk side by side. Indeed, our way kept meandering, between stationary cars, round electricity posts, occasionally round some ancient tree with roots protruding the asphalt, forsaken amid the urban development. The houses got ever more cramped into each other, gardens presumably patching the empty spaces at the back, but the details of each house somehow came forward powerfully. Window panes under arches in the façade, iron-railed fan-shaped covers over entrance doors, paths neatly paved with smooth, fine-grained stone slabs, here was the cosy homely cottage, there more of an affluent villa, further away an architect’s fancy house, stairs, rounded corners or turrets and all.
I almost bumped into Mona, so busy taking stock that I failed to notice her abruptly putting an end to her race and pushing a wrought iron gate. The path to the house was made of fine-hued mosaic, fringed by small slabs, just discernible under thick low evergreen bushes, which looked as if intentionally left to grow wild and overrun borders. It suddenly felt darker so I looked up; over our heads was one of those southern European arches that are overgrown with wisteria, vine or ivy, so typical in the Bucharest of the old days, I was told. Bare in the heart of December, the knotty, tangled branches were making up a thick grid that I couldn’t match to any particular species. All one could tell was that it must have been hanging for decades there, over visitors’ heads, undistinguishable from its supporting rail. The path with its arch created in this way a sort of semi-obscure tunnel, which I was trotting along behind Mona, alert to the partly homely, partly enigmatic air of the place, my good old curiosity stirred by the quiet privacy around. Wherever was Mona taking me? When I’d said let’s have some coffee I obviously hadn’t meant having it at some old aunt’s place, though this aunt here must be in quite a good shape, and open to entertain.
The house itself obviously needed some painting, but the walls were solid and the rain gutters clean, someone must be looking after the place regularly, while not attempting to “refurbish” it. Passing by a cellar window, left ajar, I caught a whiff of musty smell, between damp plaster and ancient, tightly-pressed paper piles, like dozens of books piled together and rotting away under their own weight in the humid air. I felt an instant pang of recognition, a contact switched on like a clap of hands before sinking back into obliteration.
The house was on our left and we’d just reached the few steps to its massive door. Unaccountably I stretched my neck and took a peek at what was further along the path, I say unaccountably because there was no obvious reason why one should suspect there was anything else apart from the house there. I mean, coming in from the street, one walks under the arched tunnel with the stocky house on one’s left, it seems obvious that the house is the thing to reach, it’s why you’re there, it’s where you’re going, but somehow for a split second my mind’s eyes suspected there was some more behind the house itself. So I stretched my neck while Mona was reaching out for the door knob, and indeed – further up the path, just next to the house wall, was a small green spot with two round-shaped, full-grown hydrangeas. I froze in bewilderment, so that Mona had to turn to me and say,
I looked up at her startled, then for a second glanced towards the hydrangeas again. Mona caught my glance and stepped down back to where I was standing and took a look herself.
I shook my head and set my body into motion.
“Have you seen something?”
I just grunted looking down, minding the step.
Mona turned round and went up the stairs again and pushed the massive door open. No, it did not screech, but it was heavy and slow opening. It was a dark oak double door with a greenish hued art glass panel protected by a wrought iron grid made of slim, spiralling bars. The kind of door that is not just an outer gateway, but it is part of the house it opens to, just like, well, you know – this may be going to sound ridiculous – but very much like a mouth that lets things out and takes things in but it’s basically part of the human face, and part of what the face looks like and more importantly what the face tells about the person wearing it. The thing is, one shouldn’t take that at its face value. I mean, things can be coherent in different ways. There’s coherence and coherence. I’m no good at theorizing things, I know. There’s the apparent coherent, the visible one, the one that makes things look harmonious, and there’s the deeper coherence, not always to be guessed by looking, but by delving in. So you see a person dressed all in black and you think they must be depressed. If they are in mourning, this is the easy, visible coherence. If they’re wearing black because – say – they live on charity and those are the only clothes they have, well this is the deeper coherence. It’s still coherence, things make sense, but not in the predictable way. Just the same, someone’s face may “look” mean because of their thin lips for example. You might be right. A face sometimes does reflect personality, like someone’s mouth and thin lips may suggest they are mean, and it may well be so. But at the same time you might be in for the biggest surprise of your life, finding that the mouth you thought looked mean actually reflects pain, for example.
I know what I’m saying is not terribly original or ground-breaking, the old dictum appearances are deceptive can testify for it, but actually I wasn’t saying just this. That appearances are deceptive suggests a rift between what you see and what is real. But what I’m saying is that there is no rift after all. Appearances are not deceptive, if I come to think of it; actually, I think they almost always do speak volumes, the problem’s what we make of them. The problem’s where we look for the coherence, whether we pick the outer one or venture to probe deeper.
I’ve been rambling on this starting from that door. That’s because the door looked so antique that I expected to be let into a century-old interior sprinkled with porcelain, art deco and Levantine scents. But I was in for the biggest surprise of my life, to quote myself. So was there a rift between what the door foretold and what the house really was like? No. I had just misinterpreted what the door foretold in the first place. In fact, it was telling me “this place is different”. And different it was.
The first thing that struck me were the slabs, maybe because I’d been minding my steps. They were that faded indefinite colour of earthenware, and gave the impression of colour scrubbed off, with a spongy texture. The Mediterranean, extra-large, rough, nature-stone look. I knew I’d seen those slabs before, they were belonging somewhere, together with the hydrangeas next to the house. There was an uncanny diffuse light soaking the whole place, so I looked up to see what lamp that was, but there was none in the tall ceiling. This made one presume some hidden lighting, and indeed, a closer look revealed thin clusters of yellowish rays emerging shyly from behind wall decorations, only to get immediately sucked in by the general, uniform mass of light pervading the room. It wasn’t a room actually, just an entrance hall. The slabs, on the wall a watercolour of a hydrangea in a garden fading behind diffuse dots of paint, a bit sentimental – impressionistic? – if you ask me, then a solitary umbrella stand with overarching wrought iron railings, in the shape of an umbrella, fitted with twisted hooks, where one or two coats were hanging. The walls around: perfectly smooth, latest paint from expensive imports, I guessed immediately, bearing that kind of ultra-polished, fine-hued (of an indefinite colour, anything between grey, rosa and green) look. Then realised I that that a funny combination of things was – sorry, correct: then I realised that that was a funny combination of things. There was one more thing around which I couldn’t put my finger on, until I detected the faint music in the background, something of that sobering, depressing symphonic stuff that I can’t make anything of.
Mona had swiftly taken off her jacket and hung it under the arch of the umbrella-coat-hanger, as if under a cherry tree on a picnic day. I found myself for a few short seconds contemplating her as in a daze, at a loss for grasp. The place was very intriguing, unhomely so. I mean, sorry again, the place was intriguing and strange. Unhomely is a false friend for German speakers as I – funny, never thought I’d need to specify that! – am.
“Well? Tea and coffee are out of this world here”, Mona said enticingly. “Won’t you take off your coat?”
I nodded hurriedly, like one just coming back from hypnosis. She helpfully took my coat and hung it next to hers. She then started up the next three or four steps that were taking one into the house itself. At the top of the stairs there were two doors with side panels fitted with the same hued art glass as the entrance door, the doors wide open to the inside, but the side panels being there made it look like a real step or a threshold into the place. From the entrance hall there was barely anything to see of the interior, except for the same creamy light, somewhat dimmer. So when I stepped across the imaginary threshold drawn by the glass partition I found myself spinning my head around all conceivable axes to take my bearings. May have looked a bit like the funny mite holding mama’s hand on entering the fairground mirror maze.
It was much more sophisticated than I could have imagined. Above hung a ceiling that must have been panelled, because its hidden side was glowing that milky light on to our heads, most probably covering numberless, uniformly disposed LED lamps. What one for a ceiling took must have been a one-piece (as far as I could discern) canopy, about a foot narrower than the real ceiling on each side, letting the light brim over. The canopy was shockingly painted as in those churches or palaces, real artsy, with skies and puffy clouds and a huge glowing sun in the centre, creating an optical illusion, as if the light flowing down the walls from under the canopy borders was being hurled off by that sun. The walls bore sparse framed paintings of luxurious vegetation, as if to reinforce the feeling that one was walking outdoors, on planet earth. Now the stony slabs were making all the more sense.
The immediate eye-catcher though was an astonishing tree arching over half the room. I turned my head back instinctively to look again at the coat-hanger behind. Its umbrella-like shape was here replicated by this green Gestalt. You know – Gestalt – thing. Object. Never mind. Under this tree, which one felt the need to touch and check out if it was real, a few tiny round tables for two, as if drawn in hair-thin pencil strokes.
We sat down at one of these tables. What with their miniature size, one found oneself inevitably sitting very close to one’s companion and an air of privacy set in, undisturbed. For what felt like long seconds, I was at a loss what to do with my hands. But Mona had confidently thrust her elbows on to the table, shoulders arched and bent forward to me, as if just about to share some secret, eyes sparkling with excitement. I mirrored her posture instinctively and placed my arms on the table and assumed a comfortable pose. There were just a few inches now between our elbows, between the tips of our noses. So what was the secret we were about to share, I wondered?
“What do you think?”, Mona asked.
I nodded deliberately casting glances around as if just appraising the place at that moment.
“Interesting”, I heard myself saying. “What kind of place is this? Never experienced anything like that before.”
“Ahaa”, Mona exclaimed as in “gotcha!”, “so now it’s you experiencing places. I know someone who was teasing me earlier today about this word!”
I shook my head again as if just waking up and hurried to explain,
“Well it’s just a way of saying, you know. We say that pretty often back home.”
I froze for a second looking in her eyes. Was I going nuts, I wondered?
“Yeah, who’s we – well people in general.”
“I got that all right, but where? As far as I know experiencing is not necessarily a favourite word with the Brits! Though now I recall some vague confession early this morning about being or not being a Brit!”
“Yes”, I laughed and then attempted to paraphrase, “Brit being or not being.” I heard the words and felt something was wrong. I corrected myself quickly, “I mean, to be or not to be a Brit”, and I smiled a bit embarrassed.
Mona was only smiling vaguely, expectantly. Was she still wanting an answer?
“You’re not going to disclose to me the big secret of where you actually come from?”
There it was, the secret!
I clutched at the words for face-saving.
“Where I actually come from is however not what I am, talking about being or not being something! – Gosh that sounds like intellectual crap doesn’t it!”, I had to admit. The effect I’d been chasing, of minimizing ‘where I came from’, was now actually reversed and I felt I couldn’t help bringing it under stronger focus yet. “Never mind, it’s no big deal really. I come from Germany”, I said and took a deep breath mentally. There. It was out.
“You’re German?” Mona exclaimed. There was something inaccurate about her translation.
I nodded as one does when attempting to negotiate a meaning but is missing the right words at that very second, then added just – “Yyyyess – kind of – “
Mona burst out laughing “Kind of!” The place echoed her laughter and by some weird coincidence a leaf fell lightly on the table from above our heads.
“Just go on laughing at me and you’ll get the whole tree leafless by the time we leave!”, I tried to sound kidding. “What is there to laugh about anyway?”
“O, sorry, never mind me. I guess you will have got to know me a bit by now. I do sometimes get crazy ideas, like seeing crazy things in what people are saying, you know,” Mona smiled reassuringly. “I kind of make funny connections or things like that, you know – KIND OF!” and here she winked at me and grinned. “So if you’re KIND OF German, I can understand why you just said Brit being or not being – it comes from Brit Sein oder Nichtsein, right?”
“You know German?” I asked almost out of breath.
“No, don’t worry”, she answered as if reading my mind and spotting my panic, “just background knowledge, having been through a few years of university, you know!”
“OK”, I said. “Yes, you’re right about Sein and Nichtsein, I mean about Sein oder Nichtsein”, I corrected myself, “but this doesn’t really come up these days any longer. In fact it’s been long years, I can’t even remember.”
“What? Long years since when?”
“Since I used to make such silly mistakes.”
“You mean, language interference?”
There it was, the accurate specialist jargon.
“Yyyesss – “ I replied hesitantly. Did my silly occasional fumbling really come up to this tag? Language interference heard itself like something serious. Sounded like something serious. Something observable, something of a phenomenon. Whereas what I call fumbling was just some silly slip that I couldn’t account for, which made it hard for me to give it a name, such as language interference. Herrgott, what a presumptuous label!
“What will you have?”
“Pardon?” I said shaken off my fumblings.
“What will you have? Now that I know you’re not a Brit I can’t go on assuming you’d want tea”, Mona teased me with a naughty smile.
“Oh, so you do know you’ve been assuming so far, do you!” I laughed.
“Well, it took me a bit to realise. Sorry if you’d have liked coffee this morning instead. My mother hen instincts you know.”
Mona and mother hen instincts? I still had to get to know that girl to fit that picture in.
“So now you’re probably assuming that I’d like some beer?”, it was my turn to tease her.
She laughed in a calm, composed way while putting together her reply,
“No, not that much, but I was going to assume you’d want coffee. Would I be right? If yes, you do need to make some choices, cos there are all sorts of coffee in the menu.”
I cast my eyes on the menu. It was written like in-chiselled handwriting and the cardboard looked and felt like tree bark. A crazy image flashed before my mind’s eyes, Adam and Eve comfortably sitting under the tree and ordering coffee from a menu, but Mona’s knowing, composed manner, having taken me all the way to this place, meandering between cars and trees on the asphalt, round street corners and down derelict tram rails, assuming now that it was coffee I wanted, playing up her mother hen instincts – and then me, walking dazed behind her just minding my steps, spinning my head around all conceivable axes to take things in, astonished and intrigued – no, that was no picture of Adam and Eve. On top of it, she was beginning to be questioning me, and I couldn’t let that go on and develop into something else. I don’t know if I’m truly German, I said I’m kind of, but I do know I’m the one asking the questions, that’s a sure thing!
“So tell me – “ I started somewhat abruptly, but then stopped short at a loss for a question, and pretended to be perusing the menu.
“Anything!” I heard Mona’s answer all too soon.
I looked up and my mind raced wild.
“What’s this place known for? Why did you bring me here?”
“Well, we were in the neighbourhood for one thing. Then as I told you, tea and coffee are fantastic here. But – just take a look around. Doesn’t it strike you in any way? – Isn’t this just a remarkable place?” she asked with a broad arch of her arms. I followed her movement instinctively and nodded.
“O yes, absolutely. Mmmm – I’ll just have black coffee, for now. – Errr, yes, quite remarkable indeed. Weird patchwork of discrepant things.”
“Well, Mediterranean slabs, glossy walls, minimalist furniture, Romantic paintings, classical music – “
“Jazz”, she broke in like a teacher correcting. I stopped short.
“That’s not jazz”, I replied.
“O yes it is. You just hear it as if it was classic, but it’s jazz actually.”
“What?” I asked bewildered. “How do you mean, I hear it as if it was classic? Then how do you know it’s jazz?”
“Because I just know the piece. It only paraphrases classical music, with this piano, you hear?, but it’s pure jazz in that it’s in fact improvisation. It’s jazzy, if you like better” she appeared to concede, and she smiled affectionately as if she’d just handed me a teddy-bear. “But you were saying something about these discrepant things here. Yes, you’re right, they belong in different paradigms. So what? I mean, take a look, breathe in – doesn’t it make a powerful impression? And here, this tree! Gorgeous, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, quite original”, I admitted. “You mean there’s a key, a reading to all this? Sorry, you THINK, not you mean, you think there’s a key?”
“If there is one, it’s just the way it makes you feel, don’t you think? It sort of shakes you out of routine thinking, you know, the next business deal, the next deadline, what X said, all that stuff.”
She had a point there.
“But I liked that just now, when you corrected yourself”, she resumed after a pause. “You think, not you mean” and her affectionate smile was back on her. “What did you mean – I mean, what did you think when you said that?” and she winked to me.
“O never mind, nonsense!”
“I don’t believe in nonsense” she gazed at me intently, somewhat patronizing. Mother hen? Astoundingly, it was getting nearer.
“By nonsense I mean it’s not worth going through it. But OK, for your linguist curiosity, in German the word ‘mean’ can also be used to say think, or believe, have the opinion. Meinen. Ich meine – I mean, or just I think.”
“Cool”, Mona’s face lit up. “I always knew I liked German, but couldn’t say why. Now I’m starting to find some reasons. So tell me, did you find it difficult at the beginning to be a journalist, so to make such intensive and meaningful use of language, but in a foreign language, in English?”
“No”, I replied confidently.
“No?” Mona wouldn’t get off my back.
“Why don’t we talk about our situation at hand?”, I said. “There’s plenty that we could plan for later today, or the following days, or you could tell me what you made of Grandpa and the whole thing in Parliament.”
Mona looked down, slightly embarrassed for one second, as if she was going to mumble some apologies. She attempted to explain,
“Sorry, I just thought this is a good timeout, you know, so we might just as well get to know each other better. But you’re right. Facts.”
Someone dressed in black was suddenly by my side, taking the orders. Mona sloughed off her English-speaking face for a few brisk seconds, then turned her eyes back to me and the person in black disappeared as noiselessly as he or she had turned up. English was back on Mona.
“Sorry, I did it again, in fact everyone speaks English here, I could have simply let you say what you’ll have, but it seems I keep taking over.”
“Yes, you’re friendly and protective. But I don’t mind, don’t worry, if I think something’s not right I just put things straight right away. So tell me, where do we go from here?”
“Errr –“ Mona gazed intently at a dot before her eyes, somewhere in the median region of my chest. “Honest? Don’t know really.” She looked up and straight into my eyes admitting it. I waited a few seconds, partly because I was stupefied, partly because I was expecting more. “I mean, there’s someone who’d like to meet you, but he’s coming over, just texted me. Do we need to GO somewhere from here?”
That was too comical not to laugh.
“At some point we will anyway or else they’ll be kicking us out!”
“I’m not so sure about that”, she replied teasingly.
“Who is it that’s coming over to meet me?” I asked.
“Andrew put me in contact with him. Don’t know him personally. Some manager or something.”
“Andrew? My Andrew you mean?”
“Yes, your Andrew, I mean. Or I think – no, I definitely MEAN it,” and she winked at me again.
“When did the two of you get together anyway? And planning things for me too!”
“Planning things for you is our job, isn’t it?” Mona replied pointedly. “You are always on our mind,” she added. “But until the manager’s here it’s my job to keep you company.”
“So this is your role, to take me places and keep me company”, I attempted to sound laid back.
“That’s right. You know, I can’t stop thinking about what you said just now, that you’re KIND OF German. Do you know that that’s very much like what Dorin tells us he used to say back in the nineties, when he emigrated? He was so furious and disgusted by what was going on here, with the politics but worst of all with this people, that when he was asked, in Germany, or later in the States, where he’s from he’d answer ‘I’m from Romania but I’m not Romanian’. Which of course would leave everyone flabbergasted.”
“I bet it would”, I nodded. “It’s not very common to ask someone the most routine question and get such a personal answer.”
“Hmm – you know that such things, going against the routine shake us into grasping something deeper.”
“Like what, in Dorin’s case? You would realise that Dorin’s a bit nuts? Sorry, this isn’t now about Dorin, I’m just challenging your statement.”
“That too, or maybe you’d realise that people don’t necessarily feel good about who they are, or where they come from. And maybe you’d realise that such routine, fundamental things, like your name, your citizenship, your family, are not just empty things, part of bureaucratic records of your identity, which you just take on board and then – go ahead with your life.”
My coffee landed smoothly before me. It was black. And small. The dark silhouette was already gone before I had the chance to say thank you. Mona had ignored it but kept gazing at me intently, apparently worked up in her cue. This personal and philosophical talk was beginning to get me. I’d said I wanted to experience Romania, not to sit and chat over high-brow stuff. I had to keep the ball rolling, talk talk talk, that would keep things from rolling out of hand. Ask questions above all. That’s the way to steer.
“And when’s the manager coming, did he tell you?”
“Must be here any minute now.”