Last year, our family decided to go back to the land that bore us into this world: Romania.
Or, better said, us the parents decided we’d take our daughter to the land of her ancestors. That is to say against her vocal opposition. You see, she was adamant that she did not want to go to Romania, after having remembered from her parents’ talks only that there used to be a lot of Gypsies who would abduct children, cripple them, and make them beg. Not to mention errant dogs, which were put down by Traian Basescu, the former mayor of Bucharest, before he became the president.
And since she adores all dogs and most cats, she formed quite a skewed image of her parents’ native land. No wonder she did not want to go to a place far worse than Dracula Land. Little did she know that times change and countries move on. And boy, was that true for Romania or what!!
Anyhow, once we overcame her protestations about going to a “shitty country”, her words not mine, we booked the flight, rental car, hotel stays and flew over to discover beautiful Romania, for a full month.
Between the fall of Communism in December 1989 and 2019 when we visited, the country’s population declined from a peak of 23.2 million to 19.4 million. Romania lost in the last 30 years, almost 4 million people, largely to emigration but also to a free falling fertility rate. It went from reaching the replacement rate (2.2%) in 1989 to an absolute low of 1.25% in 2002. This means that if in 1989 it could replenish the ranks depleted through normal attrition, by 2002, more people were dying than were born (59,137 people actually).
Uncles and aunts are like backup parents. You may never need them growing up, but if you do you quickly discover the freaking difference. This was also my case.
Having been raised jointly by my mother and grandmother, I can vouch for the accuracy of this truism. My uncle basically had two functions in our household: to provide sexually charged innuendos which he passed as manly advice to me, his nephew, and to apply physical ‘course’ corrections using household appliances. I do not know whether he imagined the former approach to represent the carrot and the latter to act as the whip, but it surely felt this way to me.
So between taking long amicable walks where he’d pontificate to a 14-15 year old boy the benefits of dating spectacle-wearing blondes, and making sure that my back and skull knew the difference between different gauges of garden hoses, I quickly developed an aversion for the sick fu.k.
My uncle has also tried once to ‘physically correct’ me using a rather bulky power cord. Unfortunately for me, instead of receiving the blows on my backside, I tried to get away, and ended up receiving a full whip on my forehead. To this day, I bear the mark on my frontal head vein. At the time, it was a blessing in disguise because the blow opened a blood vessel and he lost his nerve.
So yeah, I was lucky to preserve my eyesight. Three inches below, and I’d be learning how to give phenomenal massages instead. BTW I ain’t kidding. I got the best therapeutic massage ever from a semi-blind person.
The Predictable Outcome – A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy Comes True
During my 16th birthday, my uncle showed up bearing gifts… and words of wisdom. Honestly, my friends and the ladies present could have lived just fine without the shared knowledge he was going to impart on that joyous occasion. But being the asinine uncle that we had all come to detest, he had to tell us what he did to his father when he came of age. He shared with us the story of how he came to defend himself one day against his father who was going to physically discipline him. And how he managed to knock him out over the washing machine. Yeah, you heard it right! Over the washing machine!
My friends, and especially the ladies present, were appalled since even for the mid 90s, the story was quite inappropriate, particularly given the circumstances. And yet, this is how my uncle gave me his gift and then he left. I don’t even remember what the hell it was that he gave me. I will always recollect the shocking manner in which he chose to do it. So, I guess that in addition to “Beware of the Greek bearing gifts!”, we ought to also beware uncles bearing gifts, eh.
Little did he know though that his words would come back to haunt him just a few years later.
You see, back in college I was dating this girl, who would be in the habit of calling me several times a day just to check on me, and hear me spew nonsensical stuff, as young people in love are known to do. One Friday morning, she calls me and we start chatting like two silly little college students. A little bit of that, a tiny bit of this, and lo and behold time starts to fly, and remember this is the late 90s just before digital phone sets. We were talking using a landline, which did not have a call waiting feature.
So, while I was on the phone, I hear this ruckus coming closer to the front door. Five seconds later, my uncle bursts through the door and starts shouting at me why I was on the phone in our house. At the time, he had moved out with his newly wedded wife. I cover the receiver with my palm, and tell him to sod off. He asks me where my mom and grandma are. I tell him they’re off to the market. He jumps me and lands the first blow. I strike back with all my might and we start trading blows. We destroy the dinner table, and break three chairs in the process. We wrestle and I end up on top of him. I beat the sh.t out of him.
It’s payback time for all the times he subdued me and controlled me with his beatings. In the end, the women show up carrying grocery bags, by which time, we have already tried to restore some order in the room. We blame it on the house cat going nuts. The women buy it because sometimes it’s better that way. And this marks the last time my uncle laid a hand on me.
In the end, he was the one who taught me a valuable lesson in life. Always payback any transgressions if you want to walk tall. And never tell people how big of a bully you are. You will be surprised when they turn the tables against you, and use your own weapons against you.
Funny thing though, it was also the last time he ever told me to do anything. And that included to get off the phone. Incidentally, the reason he had been trying to call us was that he wanted to use us again to work for free for his print shop. Yeah, a real assh..e capitalist de merde. The type that doesn’t pay for labour because he wants to keep all the money.
In terms of our physical characteristics, at the time we were both big strong 6’6″ men. The only difference was that while my uncle was beginning to descend the biological slope at 43 years of age, I was coming into my prime at the ripe age of 20. He might have had the experience, but I had the fitness edge and the bottled rage of so many years.
Fast Forward to our 2019 Romanian holiday
After landing on the Henri Coanda International Airport in Bucharest, we quickly went through customs and exited the airport. I headed towards a pay phone, called my uncle and found out he was waiting to pick us up in the parking lot.
At this point, I was quite ecstatic. You see after some 13 years I was going to see one of only two relatives still alive: my mom and her brother. But first, I was going to see him. Only half a day before, while in Montreal, I went to the fanciest SAQ store located downtown, and went nuts. I bought him a bottle of Swiss absinthe.
Actually not to boast but this Larusée stuff is not only made in CH, it is actually made in ‘The’ canton that invented this wonder alcohol – Neuchâtel, only a few kilometers from where absinthe was born! And these guys really know their green bottled devil…
But did my uncle appreciate my efforts? Like hell he did. After looking funny at the bottle, and even funnier at me, he motioned my family into his old decrepit small van, and off we went on a quick tour of the city.
When I turn to my memories, I see the house where I grew up…
First stop, the house I was born in. I just had to see it with my own eyes. What I found destroyed me. Instead of the home I left behind in 2003, what I found was a concrete abomination purchased and repurposed by some hotshot lawyer or international corporation. The original architecture of our home was totally gone, as was the pine tree that my mother planted when I was born.
From what my mom told me, after our family moved out to another neighbourhood, our home was taken over by a bunch of embassies, one of which was Saudi Arabia’s. To think that they were the one who uprooted my tree, let’s just say that my thoughts are better left inside my head. But the real culprits for our moving out were a bunch of delegates acting on behalf the succession of the original owner.
To make a long story short, the house was built right after WW2 by a powerful Romanian attorney. In 1947, right when he was about to move in, the regime changes, the blasted Communists take power, forcing King Michael to abdicate, and expropriating the lawyer. Basically the guy lost his house he had just sunk a large sum of money in. But he is connected so instead of losing his freedom as well, is allowed to go in exile to America, with his family and money. So, the Communists stole a prime piece of real estate in the middle of downtown Bucharest, behind the Palace Victoria, seat of the government.
In passing, what happened to the attorney, also happened to our family’s manorial home in Busteni, a mountain resort at the feet of Carpathians. And boy, her fight was well worth the effort!
The irony of the entire situation will strike you as much as it struck me when I realized it. So, the attorney is out, my grandfather’s manoir is nationalized, he is sent to prison as an enemy of the regime, and his wife is relocated as a tenant into the house of the attorney. You see what the Communists did?! With one hand, they robbed Paul to give to Peter, but allowed Peter to rent out Paul’s house, only that they kept the money. That’s Communism for you in a nutshell!
But apart from this whole mess, the Bucharest house became the place where my mom and uncle were born, and where I was born, and believe it or not, where I hoped my children will one day be born. Little did I know that the Romanian Revolution was going to unravel those plans. So, the Revolution comes, we whack Ceausescu, and left-leaning Iliescu takes over and makes sure that the new 1992 Constitution “defends” but doesn’t “guarantee” private property.
Regardless, my mother, a tiger disguised as a woman, went on the offensive and managed to expel the tenants that the Communists forcefully relocated in our Busteni family manoir, back when they nationalized it in the 1950s. These tenants were some unsavory people who destroyed the house they lived in by sharing it with their pigs and livestock. They actually brought in pigs inside the house. Anyway, no point to get worked up for this. It’s in the past.
As it happens, we did get our Busteni property back, which was good. Yet, we continued to live as tenants in someone else’s house, in Bucharest, which was not good. I agree, this was not fair. The American estate trustees of the Romanian lawyer, who had long passed away, went on the offensive and took their case to court. Their objective was to recuperate the Bucharest house, which was worth a mint of money, in the 1990s. By the time the new millennium kicked in, the house had tripled in value.
The thing is that they wanted us out right away, and the 1990s law said that property was defended by the state, but not guaranteed. Honestly I do not know how my mother managed to get our Busteni property back, in these circumstances. My mom is the best, smartest woman who ever had to go against the system. She is a born fighter, and what she wants she gets. Coming back to the Bucharest property legal proceedings, things stalled for about a decade. Unfortunately for us, the regime changed more to the right, the law was modified, and the ‘Americans’ made another dab at it. This time, the law was more or less on their side.
But my mom said she wanted to fight, my uncle said “Fu.k it, let’s fight the motherf….ers!”, too. So, we hired a lawyer and postponed the inevitable. We did it so well that it took them another three years before they won their property back. At one point, I remember we flatly ignored a subpoena just because it listed our names wrongly. Yeah, that cost the ‘Americans’ three months, in the general economy of the trial. And their lawyer charged them a whole lot more than ours did. But as it happens with losing battles, one is only postponing the inevitable. Eventually, we lost and had to move out. But before we did that, the ‘Americans’ sent some Romanian muscle to try to unravel us by bullying us into moving out before we were legally obligated too. Time is money, you see!
So, one day in 2003, before the trial was over, two dudes came to our door: a big fat guy and a short slim one. They didn’t knock on the door, barged in, and scared my grandmother, who was getting sick and frail from onset Alzheimer’s. So, I come home and find them inside, and I hear how my grandmother, who was a puny little lady with a lot of soul but hardly any meat on her weary bones, CURSES them to hell and back. I am appalled. I never heard her curse like that before. I am actually afraid for the two gents. I politely tell them to sod off, or else. They decamp but promise to come back to evict us. I interpose myself between my grandma, who continues to curse them, and them. They finally leave.
You see for a curse to work and not return to destroy the person casting it, it is very important for that person to be blameless, like spotless, immaculate, no sins, no nothing. Any moral stains, and failings, and the curse will visit the person casting it, instead of afflicting its intended recipient.
I do not want to brag, but within two months, the fat guy died from pancreatic cancer, and the slim dude was hit by a car and killed. I rest my case. Quod erat demonstrandum
In the end, I guess we had to decamp too, and in a sense moving from a nice neighbourhood to a shadier one, also contributed to my decision to leave Romania in my rear mirror. But to this day, I remember that big house in the best of lights. I left a part of my soul back in its hallways. You see, that house saw my family live and die, laugh and cry, weep and sweep, cook and clean. I lost my virginity in that house, I threw wild parties in that house, we shot our first movies, with my buddies, there. I studied, lost my composure, got beaten, broke furniture, helped the cat deliver her kittens, went up the cherry tree to pick up fruit, played cowboys and Indians with my best friend, there. I lived there. My tree was there. My life was there. We were happy there. We were snug there. We were a family there.
And those damn ‘Americans’ relatives of the dead Romanian lawyer destroyed that safe haven. I still hate them for it. I hate them with a vengeance. I will always hate them. I wish they never existed. Yeah, legally they had a right to reclaim their house. But, by doing so, they unraveled our tight-knit family.
But I guess the best way to describe my feelings is to let Francoise Hardy sing the song La Maison ou j’ai grandi – the House where I grew up. Funny thing though, I used to listen to this song and cry my heart out for a few good years prior to returning to Romania. And while I cried again for five straight minutes when my eyes discovered the extent of the damage the builders had done to the house of my youth, that was the last time I allowed my heart to break over this.
I lie, I just shed another tear. There is something about this song that gets to me in ways that nothing else does.
The French lyrics are incredible but they also translate nicely into English.
When I turn to my memories
I can see the house where I grew up again.
A lot of things come back to me
I see roses in a garden
Where the trees used to live now the city is there
And the house, the flowers that I loved so much
No longer exist
They knew how to laugh, all my friends
They knew so well how to share my games
But everything must end in life
And I had to leave with tears in my eyes.
My friends were asking me
Discovering the world is better than staying
You’ll find all the things you can’t see here.
A whole city that falls asleep at night in the light
When I left this corner of my childhood
I already knew that I left my heart there
All my friends, yes, envied my luck.
But I still think about their happiness
To the carelessness that made them laugh
And it seems to me that I hear myself tell them
I’ll come back one day, one fine morning among your laughter.
Yes, I will take the first train of remembrance one day.
Time has passed and here I am again
Searching in vain for the house I loved
Where are the stones and where are the roses
All those things I cared about?
Of them and my friends there is not a trace
Other people, other houses have stolen their places.
Where the trees used to live now the city is there
And the house, where is it, the house where I grew up?
I don’t know where my house is
The house where I grew up
Where is my home?
who knows where my house is?
My house, where is my house?La Maison ou j’ai grandi, by Adriano Celentano / Edmond Bacri / Luciano Beretta / Mariano Detto / Michele Del Prete. Interpreted by Francoise Hardy.
I guess that house will always be my Achilles’ heel. I will always have a soft spot for it. For that’s where my best friend A. and I became blood brothers. That’s where we nicked our wrists, dropped a few drops of blood into a glass of water, and then drank it in the Brudeschaft manner.
That is where we played and where we fought. That is where we made forts out of cardboard, and shot water using machine guns made out of needless syringes. That is where we chased one another, and were we grew up together. That is where we gathered when we became teenagers, and had drinking binges, chased tail, and gave chase to work crews who wouldn’t shut up at 4 am in the morning. That is where we discussed politics, sex, philosophy, psychology, languages, movies, and yeah even gossiped. That is where we learned, studied, ate, made love to our girlfriends, and argued.
That is where we grew up into young men. And that house is no more.
It will take me 99 years before I will forget that house. But alas, those times are gone. I am here. My friends are there. And yet even as I wish I was there with them, I know it in my heart that those days are gone now. Life happened. And all of us have their own families and kids to cherish and nurture into making their own lives. And so the tree of life grows a little bolder, a little taller, with each passing day. And as it does, even as its old roots start to wither and die, they make way to newer, stronger, indefatigable roots.