Places and ages

Moldavia seemed, by some miracle, to be swathed in spring. The snowfalls and the nasty frost felt like episodes of a different story, as the whole scenery seemed lit up and surprisingly mild. Small patches of snow spotted the green and brown, up-heaving and down-coming expanses of earth. It wasn’t the first time to see this landscape in Romania; it suddenly came over as almost familiar, like an old childhood drawing – the rounded swells and hollows like some fairy-tale land beyond the seven seas. The other good feeling about it was that its roundness went on and on, up and down, up and down, smooth and steep, greenish and brown, growing into a pattern. In other words, an impression of unseen immensity, which the traveller perceives as a containing matrix.

The sun, rolling in a staggeringly dense blue sky, impressed every stretch of the land with a variety of full-bodied colours that you would otherwise classify under restrictive terms: different shades of green, ochre, yellow and brown lay perfectly flat, and delimited each other with neat, straight lines running into the distance. The clear air made the view look very much like a moist picture. There was no strikingly bright colour, it all bore the sober mark of vegetation, of earth. But the intensity of the greens, browns, ochres or gingers stood out and seemed to be a natural characteristic, just like climate, air pressure or altitude.

Every once in a while, in the middle of a square of coloured grass or earth, some crooked wooden hut came in view, which looked abandoned but still reminded one of homesteads, seasons, work and tools. Sometimes villages appeared on a distant mountain foot or scattered along and over a buxom hillside: tiny blots of white and the dwarfish but intransigent spear of a church spire.

The van rode along the mountain range. Beyond the greenish-brownish grassy hills here there hunched dark-green wooded mountains, taller indeed but retaining that plump, wavy look of the closer landscape. Some peaks were stuck in the nebulous invisible hazes of the distances. But the stateliness of the fir woods gave the view a mark of fresh vigorousness and intensity.

The man looked for was called – (again!) Andrew. He was a tourist guide at a medieval castle and the Andrew in Bucharest had given best references on him: the very man to have if in Moldavia. They drove over hills, passing by orchards and farming plots, until they reached a wider plateau, with mountains circling the expanse. In the distance ahead they saw a whitish blot on a dark green mountainside and as they drew closer they managed to discern the ruins of a castle, perched up midway to the top of the vertical slope.  At the bottom of it a somewhat dirty and scanty river flowed in a slack winding pattern, banks like mounds of refuse rubble and colourless dust. The view had suddenly taken up the exhausted aspect of a derelict building site, now that they were driving into the town. Trees had lost the vigour and colour they had a few miles back, while the air seemed ordinary and dry.

The man had to be contacted on site, at the castle. Mona made an ironic comment on what he could be doing on a winter morning in a roofless ruined castle that no one would dream of visiting in the dead of December, but when they got to the parking lot they noticed a dozen of cars, vans and buses waiting for the wandering tourists. They fitted the van neatly into the fishbone pattern of the other stationary vehicles and set off to the castle on foot; there was still a ten-minute climb to it, the sign said, but it was a steep one.

“I’m glad they banned the access of vehicles up there”, Peter said. “The journey, they say, is worth more than the destination.”

“Who’s they? It must be Romanians saving their face for lousy roads.”

“Come on, can’t you just enjoy this?”

“Sure! Only I bet they forced us to go on foot so that they didn’t have to mend this road.”

Peter smiled but was out of breath; he stopped and looked behind: the slope looked steeper from above.

“If it wasn’t for this tarmac, you’d think you’re really in those times, wouldn’t you?” he thought aloud.

“Yeah, though the tarmac itself must be ages old, ha, ha!”

Peter looked at her confused. Could it be that she didn’t see it? He never thought of himself as a particularly imaginative man, but after the long drive in that salient space, and after the sight of the dull, lifeless town, he was inclined to face everything with a more gap-filling attitude. He was also getting tired (or baffled?) of Mona’s temper. Looked at with her eyes, the land would have been unbearable, he felt. There had to be something after all, somewhere deep, or beyond, or maybe right in front of their eyes that had to be grasped, and was worth grasping.

“OK, let’s make a pact”, he said blandly. “Let’s suppose we are only playing a game. This place isn’t true, it isn’t real, it’s just a setting in a computer game, so don’t waste your precious brains detracting it. Play the game for me, will you? Let’s imagine we are now at a mountain’s base heading for a medieval castle hidden in the woods midway to the top. There are pedestrians like us, carrying baskets with food, other people in wagons or on horses, and the sentries in the castle saw us long ago. There’s a steep, very steep climb through the thicket of the forest but at the end of the path there are tall stone walls and a friend called Andrew who’s going to lead us through all the maze. What do you think?”

Mona gazed at him smiling and said,

“If you put it that way, it’s an entirely different story! Let’s go then, or the Tatars might strike.”

Mona walked past him with the same merry smile, probably amused at the jest. Peter resumed walking, slowly, sparing his strength. What could be going on, it feels as if I’m losing my grip. I’m now myself and the next minute I’m rambling, thinking of it all as if I was someone else, thinking and acting like someone else. There’s something funny, like an interference: I speak with Mona and I smell the firs and almost at once I find myself telling it in my mind like telling a story, like I’m in the story and I’m the storyteller too. And when I find myself doing this, I hear weird things that my mind imagines – cheap sentimental imagination as if I was in a foreign country for the first time or as if I was for the first time taking places in. Is this because of Romania, I wonder? Is this some kind of mental trap that I’ve fallen in, to keep prompting a second world behind everything? Jesus, where’s the third world – Ethiopia, Chile, Tanzania – with its easy paradoxes?

“This Andrew had better speak plain Romanian – or English. I’m in no mood really to translate technical terms from archaeology, architecture, regional Moldavian terminology for medieval court hierarchies and so on.”

“I’m not worried about that. You’ve got tremendous summarising skills. I know you’ll put it in a form that my mind can process.”

Mona stopped and laughed between gasps.

“Yes, you can rely on that. I’m not exactly fond of history and neither interested in detailed biographies of ancient ruins. I do hope this Andrew at least won’t bore the life out of me.”

“Come on, we’re a team! It can’t be too bad. In fact I’m pretty excited, I don’t think I’ve been to a medieval castle in the past few years. Being a journalist doesn’t exactly bring you to such places. So it’s more like a holiday – my kids would love it.”

“How old are you, Peter?”

His breath was punched in his stomach; he eyed her startled, then looked away.

“I’m older than I look. I’m just as old as your former prime minister.”

Mona looked up into the trees and calculated aloud:

“In ‘89 he was – now – that makes 54. So you’re 54.” She said it as a final verdict.

“That’s right”, he assented faintly.

“Why, what’s wrong? You don’t mind my asking, do you? O, Peter, come off it”, she stopped again with eyes wide open in surprise, her voice sounding like a pat on his shoulders, then exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! I thought only women – God!” and she burst out laughing without any malice. “You really are so cute!”

He felt the girl was taking up unnaturally big sizes, so he looked aside into the woods to re-gather the proportions. He didn’t like being asked about his age. Twenty-four had been natural; thirty-four had been a compliment; forty-four had been still reasonable; now fifty-four enclosed an impossible threat that he could only dismiss from his meditations as silly. He knew that mathematically speaking his children’s age counted down – or up – his own age, but he, for one, preferred the busy lifestyle and his kids’ faces bright with excitement over the presents he’d bring them from his long trips. Besides, new kids kept coming every five years or so, which luckily meant he stayed a “pop” long enough. He still was a pop. Bringing presents home to his crowd of little ones. Fifty-four is preposterous, forget it!

Having kids had been the experience. The first one had brought the ticking of a clock in his ears. He had suddenly found himself facing a miniature version of himself: his face, his name, most of all his biography. He too had been that size. He too had lain immersed in a nebula of sheer sensations with no memories, with no words and no feelings. Then he too had started seeing notions, one by one, as if a veil was being very slowly lifted, and the space where he moved and existed had begun to acquire names. First a face, then a misty figure, then feelings of fear, or confusion, or later love.

And then under his eyes this dwarfish creature would grow, as he had, re-composing his own becoming. It was then that everything came back to him as fresh as on day one: the foreignness of the immense unseen space, the intense fear of lamplight sifted through the folds of the curtains at night, or the bursting frustration of his will dammed up. It came back intact, and he would feel he was carrying with himself a bottomless container of evidence of all his past bodies testifying to the ultimate truth that he was still the same.

The intuition of it, however, only made him feel more acutely that he had hopelessly lost his youth. If he had kept on assuming that it was a part of his life that was distinct from his present, he would at least have lived with the comfort of knowing it was out of reach. As it was, however, the situation was impossible: he felt the same but knew he was not. Just like a self-driven exile, commuting between the world behind and the one ahead, whose pain is all the greater as what was left behind remains a permanently standing option, he too seemed bound to probe the paradox ineffectively.

A mysterious kind of desperation quietly sneaked into his heart. This baby was the loveliest thing on earth, but what it did was take his own timeless youth and defragment it into implacably clear-cut allotments: week by week, month by month, soon year by year, he would watch his own being from a detached, age-conscious position. The slots were harmless, true: they signposted when the infant could eat carrots or eggs, or when it could sit up, or use the potty. But underneath this innocent parade there slunk the drip-drop sound of the clock, ticking his growing away.

But then it was only a baby, and fathers of babies are young. He knew, however, that it wasn’t going to last, as babies grow into brats and brats into teenagers; so he had another kid, and another, and then he divorced his first wife and then fell in love again, which was something young people do. Then came another baby, and yet another. Now it came home to him that he had wanted that feeling of start, of time being fresh and young, again and again. His wives, come to think of it, were always more or less the same age, somewhere around twenty-eight.

He had an ally in his appearance. He knew he had a kid’s face, with intensely blue, narrow eyes. A spoiled kid, always up to something, and mercilessly straightforward with people. That’s what he had been told, he only recognised the directness and the impatience towards things or people he didn’t connect with. His tanned skin, the rounded cheekbones, his fair, slightly wavy hair did him a good turn, but months kept coming back every year, with another Christmas, another birthday of his or of his family’s.

But then he had so little time to think about it, thank God! He loved his work. He’d had exciting experiences in the strangest parts of the world, which had made him feel he was living intensely every second of his life. He had slept in a tent in Tanzania, lost in the savannah. He had climbed to the South-American settlements on the Andes crests. He had seen the Everest and taken a prayer stance in an Indian Buddhist temple. He had spent a night in a Cambodian jail for having shot the anti-governmental riots and had paced the Red Square all across. He could go blindfold in Durban, South Africa, and knew how to say ‘hello, thank you’ to a native in the New Guinea.

He still liked to think of himself as a young man. He’d been that all his life. He simply felt he was the same man, with the same name, file, CV, with the same memories of which some were still painfully alive, speaking the same language on the same map, and loving more or less the same people. So what could have changed so significantly, how could it be that he’s heading for middle age?

“Don’t get me wrong, Peter, but you don’t look younger at all!” said Mona. “I mean, o, Jesus, I’m sorry, I mean you aren’t older than you look. You’re quite handsome, but I suspected you were over forty. So what?”

Peter looked at her stunned. How could she be so serene saying all that?

“You  suspected – ?”

“Come on, Peter, don’t make such a fuss, you’re a man for God’s sake, what am I supposed to do in ten years’ time then? What’s your problem, you look fantastic, and mind you, I’m not saying you look fantastic for your age! You’re very good-looking and slim – “

“Yes, I lost fifteen pounds last summer in Saudi Arabia, I was very fat you know!”

“ – OK, and then you act like someone young. Look at Andrew – your Andrew, your facilitator – there you’ve got your elderly man! You’re not faking it, you simply are young!”

“OK, OK, you don’t need to insist that much. It’s not a problem to me. I don’t care. I know I’m young and I’ve got a kid’s face, I’ve been told that – that’s what I meant by looking younger.”

“Yes, you’ve got that, it’s true. When I first met you in that hotel room I wasn’t very comfortable, I thought you’d be very tough, and ironical, you know, like someone spoiled and used only to the best. I was afraid I might make a blunder – or some stupid mistake in English and then you’d start deducing points from my score.”

“Are you serious? – Anyway, you showed anything but fear. I think you’re a very self-possessed young woman”, he said in sincere admiration.

“And you’re a very special middle-aged man”, she replied, and then she burst out laughing – “Sorry, just teasing you!”