Down to strawberry fields forever

Dorin was somewhere in his late thirties as far as I could tell, stout and going bald. Grey-blue steely eyes, which would get even harder when he spoke. No flicker as in Monica’s eyes whenever she was discovering your meaning, or when an idea crossed her mind. He bore in fact an all too grave look, like someone who knew better than getting excited at superficial phenomena. Actually I’m anticipating a bit, because at that time, before getting to know him closer, I put his grave look down to some concern that was nagging him. It was little by little that I was able to see him smiling through this veil of thoughtfulness, which somehow made me reconsider my reading of his state of mind. There was nothing that he was particularly worrying about and he wasn’t one of those sulky folks. His earnestness was not a mood. It was more of an outlook.

So we fumbled our way back through that dark corridor, took the same rickety lift downstairs and were out in the open, crispy air.

“Do you mind if we take the underground?”, Dorin asked.

“Not at all, on the contrary!”

On our way to the metro station I found out bits of his biography, the kind of bits one gets casually, like insignificant crumbs, in a few minutes of conversation when the speaker is not really eager to share his past like an open book. But he did mention the fact that he’d done some boxing as a very young man, which explained his stout figure and his set look. He’d studied the history of religions and was originally from the coal-mining region of Romania. His father had been a miner.

We were already going down the stairs to the metro when his mobile rang. He took the call in the same even, low-pitched voice. It was a very short call, he hung up and heaved a sigh.

“Do you mind a slight change of route?”

“Of course not, something wrong?”

“Oh no, not really, nothing dramatic. It’s just a pal who’s asking for a quick favour. His kid’s sitting alone in the flat and his mother is at work already; so he’s asking me to check on the kid.”

“Sure, no problem. How old is the kid?”

“Fourteen months.”

“Again please?”

A spell of a smile flew over his face.

“Yes, you heard it right. Fourteen months. That’s why, you know.”

“My goodness, we’d better hurry up then!”

We had left the McDonald’s, the four-star hotels, the rent-a-car offices, the Christian Dior’s and immersed ourselves in the underground world. The surface was never too bright, but climbing down those stairs looked pretty much like going down into a cellar. The floor was made of dirty yellow slabs, smudged with yet another grimy layer – the mud of the Romanian December. We had to be very careful not to slip while going down. At mid-stairs there was a cripple begging for a ‘hundred lei’, Dorin told me, with another spell, this time of a slightly condescending smile, on his face.

“It’s not so much the begging that’s remarkable, more the fact that he’s already setting the amount he wants from you. But if you really gave him a hundred lei, which is nothing, you should see his face!”

Walking on, the passage grew crowded and stuffy. Dozens of booths selling everything from cotton wool to pens, throngs of people swarming back and forth, small tables selling again the same things, people stumbling against them, and the air somehow greenish-greyish like oxidized metal. There were dozens of marble pillars and, it seemed to me, so many unknown ins and outs, as people never stopped appearing somewhere or other, just like water hopelessly flooding a cracked boat. When I looked around and thought that’s it, we’re all contained in this huge hall, there’s nothing else and no one else to see, just then I noticed other streams of people sneaking in round a pillar, from some hidden corner. They were so much alike in their tranced scuttle to their destination, that someone with a taste for metaphors could say they were all merely replicas of one and the same pattern. The only disturbing irregularity was that I couldn’t tell where they were coming from and through what invisible crack in the walls or in the pillars they were vanishing.

We soon started down a tunnel connecting two different lines of the underground. The ceiling was not higher than one foot above my head, and the walls narrowed your way to no more than twenty feet. The yellowish slabs were now close to see on the walls and under your feet. They made the tunnel look somehow creamy, a sick creaminess that sort of wrapped every object and made it look softer at the edges, darker on the inside. I couldn’t see the end of the tunnel but everybody seemed so sure it stood there, right ahead, and was walking on with intent faces. We were actually queuing for each step, advancing in small stretches, obediently timing out steps with the ones of the endless crowd. Along the walls there were other hagglers, some keeping their stuff on a small camping table, others holding it in their hands and waving it to the passers-by: Christmas decorations, teddy-bears and fake Barbie dolls, cigarettes, newspapers and dirty magazines, men’s underwear, winter socks, chocolate Santas, balloons of various shapes, diapers and toilet paper, lottery tickets promising flats, cars and billions.

There was also a man dressed in a long black gown holding a square board notice saying ‘Help St. John’s monastery’, or some other saint, in some unknown village in Moldavia, Romania’s poorest region to the East. The monk’s face was stilled in an undisturbed, unreadable expression and I couldn’t help wondering what he would be making of this almost devilish bustle. His skin was incredibly pale and translucent, and his eyes seemed to be slightly raised above everyone’s heads, about where the ceiling was supposed to lie, apparently able to see something there that escaped us all.

By his side and further on, a kid holding a baby which, wrapped in several layers of grimy blankets, was almost as big as himself, dressed in zigzagging rags; and then an old gypsy woman all crooked and hunchbacked, and opposite to them a one-armed man about forty but he could just as well have been twenty-five; beggars, like the one we’d already met on the stairs. All of them displaying their misery with something that looked like pride, which made my hair stand on end. I’d seen sights of war in the Middle East and in Africa; torn limbs had several times been the menu of the day while I was reporting from ‘hot areas’. But nothing compared to the squalor of that underground tunnel so eager to show, to boast, to reveal. I almost tripped over the only leg of one of them, stretched out into the way to call attention. The guy was holding his chin in his chest with a cap pulled over his eyes. He might have just as well been only a stuffed scarecrow. There was another one, who at first I couldn’t tell if a man or a woman, and who gave a speech telling everybody not to be disgusted but look at her as she pulled off her sweater showing her chest covered by once severe burning, no left breast left. She went on to give the complete account of when it happened (about 24 years ago, she said, when she was only 21) and what the cause was (some chemical stuff at her workplace). Funny, or horrifying, I thought, how they can make the most of rhetoric.

The walls of the station were a stale yellow, reflecting the whitish-greenish lights implanted somewhere in the ceiling. A piper was playing a Romanian tune, a waltz ‘of the Danube’, with some kind of nomad nostalgia for evasion. The passengers waiting for the train looked bemused, thinking probably of early 1900s promenades, where this melody used to be heard, or of the distant spaces that the Danube in the song seemed to swing you to. Or maybe just of what they still had on their to-do list for that day. The piper himself was a gypsy, wearing a red shirt and a pied scarf, wrinkling, arching and crumpling his face into dozens of expressions along the melodious flow of his music. I watched him switching face after face, fascinated and intrigued by the waste of significance that was discharged in this pent-up, underground tunnel.

“The typical Balkan show!”, Dorin muttered with a vague smile.

“Do you mind it?”

He paused before replying, as if weighing his answer first.

“I’m used to it, in a way. And it’s got some emotional value. Even though I’ve been living abroad for many years. To us here it’s sort of part of what we call home. It may not be right that people are forced to live beneath human dignity. But I’m horrified at the eagerness of showing poverty off, the greed behind this show, you know. That’s not morally right either. How does it look to you, I wonder?”

“Well, I’m not disgusted, actually. And this thing about showing off, that’s exactly what had crossed my mind just now. Yeah, that’s I think the worst, but then, I’ve seen more horrific sights than this, not that I’m bragging now. It sort of puts things in perspective. I guess a lot of people in this world could use a bit of travelling, not as tourists, though. It would help them see that their home is by far not the outrageous thing they hold it to be.”

“Yes, you’re right. In a way”, he added after a second, ruining the illusion he’d given me that he agreed. “It does put things in perspective, as you say. But this is a rational thing. One might understand rationally that there are worse places on earth, or that an outrageous matter is not really a singular case, at its worst, in one’s homeland; but things are not that easy when it’s about one’s home. Or where one’s forced to call home.”

“Why don’t you just think of the emotional value the song has when you hear it, and stop taking a double perspective on it? I mean, seeing it from the outside, with a foreigner’s eyes? By the way, what exactly is that emotional thing?’

“It’s a very popular song, almost part of whatever it is that can be called Romania; everyone has heard it and knows what it is; it’s called ‘The Waves of the Danube’, which you hear in most plays set in the 1900s and it tends to make us think of all the small Turkish, Armenian, Jewish, or Greek shops that used to open their oriental goods into the narrow streets of any town, but especially in Bucharest. It calls up a bygone and somewhat quaint world that smells of Armenian fresh-ground coffee, of spices and lavender. Besides, it’s the Danube, and this clearly means something southern, eastern – none of your northern and western emotions.”

“What do you mean?”

We’d reached an escalator so that gave us a short break from the distraction of the mindful journey through the crowd.

“Southern and eastern mean to me and I think to everybody here a sort of mood of mixed feelings –like what is called by a great poet an ‘I don’t know what and don’t know how’. Cravings, memories, desires, passion, taste for merry-making and dirty jokes, and all the rest, which is – I don’t know what. Only this is the bright side. The ugly one is the dirt and the crowds in the street, bazaars, sloppy music with dangling notes for a tipsy Sunday afternoon, a lot of small trade, of haggling, of red and yellow and pink trinkets, beggars with chopped limbs, gobbledygook on national heritage and so on.”

I looked at him amazed.

“Some translation”, I said. “By the way, you could include that too in your translation of eastern. Being good translators.”

“Translating is betraying, you know. Betraying the deep truth by attempting to put into alien forms”, Dorin said again in an undertone.

“Well, at least you’re taking the risk”, I replied.

He shrugged back to me in skepticism, dismissing the subject. The train was coming too.

We went by train for a good hour, or so it felt. A real trip. The train was only half full, so I had a perfect opportunity to look around. The dark beyond the window, the closed space and the absence of any view made us all feel somehow solidary; it seemed the outside world, the world above our heads, had different things to worry about than us, and there we were, cut off on a solitary vehicle going nowhere that we could see. Totally in the dark, and subversive, I could say. Looking at the woman by my side, just touching my elbow, I saw her bag and the bananas inside with a teddy bear, too. Her face was bearing clear signs of ageing, but had beautiful light-blue eyes, and silver hair in an old-fashioned style. Probably a retired teacher. There were three men sitting on the seats in front of us, dozing away or reading sports magazines, reports on football games. A young student, maybe, was leaning against the vertical bar place in the middle of the carriage. Her boots too smart and her makeup too stylish for the underground. But then her purse was nothing too fashionable, and at a closer look I noticed that her overcoat was a bit worn-off under her arms. She looked rather tense in her poise, trying to strike a determined and self-possessed attitude. Some street kids started to yell out a prayer or a song, or both, shifting from one foot to the other, rhythmically, abruptly and somehow in a limping manner. Their faces bore no expressions whatsoever, like routined technicians who had stopped giving any damn.

But then I took a more knowing look around and noticed that everyone there had petrified faces, petrified in something like non-expressions, eyes closed, or half closed, eyes staring blankly, features and lines dead flat; skins looked pale and yellowish-greenish – but nothing scary, just lifeless. So that they looked as if they’d all sloughed off their selves somewhere, and had all become now invisible empty clones, the skin to sneak back into once back in the real world.

We got off at a certain point and then we went through another, shorter tunnel. There were buskers playing guitars and I asked Dorin to stop a little. They were fantastic. Very young, twenty-something, with shoulder-long hair, some also wearing beards, they were giving a marvelous performance. This time it wasn’t anything with a particular cultural value, maybe they’d written it themselves and it was neither rock, nor anything that I know. Their music sounded personal to me… I mean it was so special and unfamiliar, like a fascinating stranger you’re just about to get to know. And it could not be claimed by just any mood or trivial incident in anybody’s lives, rather seemed to have a life of its own and create a feeling only for itself. And they looked so young and absorbed in what they were doing, and never disturbed by the throng dashing past them indifferent for the most part.

At the end of the tunnel there opened a modern shiny McDonald’s, which was however empty. It’s very popular in Bucharest, but here nobody seemed to pay any attention to it. It simply didn’t belong there. It was too much of the surface world immersed into this fantastic machinery of walking nobodies.

We emerged at the surface panting hard on the stairs; there was no escalator, I mean none that was working. Entangled in the crowd climbing up, we could only get our bearings when we were already several yards out on the street. I looked around and what I saw was two long tall massive greyish walls of blocks of box-like flats, balconies indiscernible from the griminess and gloom of the other windows, upon which there hung, it seemed, the woolly, heavy, sulky sky. The world swarming at the foot of this mountainside of dinginess was none the better. Ashen overcoats squirming along by themselves, it seemed, leaden trees scattered along a skeleton hedge in the middle of the wide boulevard, huge pools of thawed snow mixed with thick mud, pitiful booths selling cigarettes, cheap counterfeit spirits, or grimy newspapers, then smells of anything from rum to beer, some Arabic music as far as I could tell, it was all like diving into a different space. I still remember the bar scene in the Star Wars…

We walked along this boulevard for a good ten minutes, so I had plenty of time to observe it. The entrances to the buildings were like blank hollows opening into some dark mysterious world. In front of them however there were gangs of kids playing away, apparently unaware of the threat behind them, or shivering young mothers wriggling around their prams. It was clearly winter, a season of waste and deserted territories.