So this past Saturday I am cornered into attending baby Alexandru’s 5 month birth day party. As mentioned in a previous blog, my host sister Nina is the nona for a delightful young couple who have three boys, the youngest one for whom Nina is the „matsura.” This is akin to a godmother, though it doesn’t appear to have as much to do with religion as it does with providing presents each month on the anniversary day of his birth. (I am beginning to wonder if I will have to be in attendance for the next 7 months, until he turns one.)
The celebration is again in Boghaceni but – since it is not raining this time – I feel a bit less trepidation regarding the logistics of the journey. That was before I figured out that Nina would be traveling at a different time than me, so had arranged for me to accompany a male friend of hers that had been by the apartment a week or so ago for lunch. (Nina has quite a little harem of male friends whose relationship to/with her I am not able to absorb with any real degree of understanding.) This particular friend is a „profesor de mașina școala” (a driving school instructor) and purportedly has his own vehicle in which he conducts his lessons.
So I’m thinking: Cool, my own chauffer again – ala Therry . Only this time it’s an actual driving instructor so he probably drives a whole lot better. And, as I wait on the street in front of the apartment building for him to appear, I actually begin to have little fantasies about the car he drives: Perhaps it has door handles that work from the inside…maybe even seatbelts… air vents…maybe it will be one of those Landcruisers I see all over town with leather seats and leg room… crap! It might even have air conditioning OMG!!!
Then suddenly, he’s in front of me, smiling and lifting my bag and motioning for me to cross the street. Huh? Where’s the car? Maybe he parked across the street… Hey wait a minute! I realize this is not the driving instructor, but his side kick, the one that kept asking me if I had a daughter in SUA and whether she was married (dude, gross, you’re my age!) As I am busily trying form topics for conversation that don’t involve my daughter we stop at the corner amidst the crowds waiting for a ride out of town. Hmmm. Is he trying to solicit a passenger before we even get in the car? I’ve never seen this done before, but okay.
It takes me a full minute to realize that, in fact, there is no car, we have no ride, and we are among a haphazard hoard coalesced on this corn attempting to flag down some sort of vehicle to transport us into the hinterlands. Ok. I can do this. I can get into a car with a veritable stranger driven by another stranger to go to a strange village to celebrate a strange event with strangers. I am in the Peace Corps. And I have equipped myself suitably, this time, with a bottle of wine and a bag of candy. I am integrated. Can’t wait to get there.
It takes maybe 10 to 15 minutes, during which time my friend – let’s call him Andrei, I never did get his name, because, after spending as much time in close quarters with someone as I did him, you just can’t figure out the tactful way to ask his name – approached a variety of vehicles, from luxury SUVs to something sporting four wheels that was just barely above a horse cart, before he finally found us a ride on a plumbers? Electricians? Construction suppliers? van headed for the Romanian border. It had room enough for a multitude of us and that’s indeed what boarded….maybe 8 to 10 people. My friend Andrei seemed to immediately adopt the cruise director role – he is inviting others aboard and negotiating prices and storing baggage and helping old ladies board. Everybody instantly adores him.
We sit in the front with the driver and I am instantly in the middle of a lively repartee. Jokes are flying back and forth and words I’ve never heard, punctuated by loud guffaws, are exchanged (everyone in back is strangely silent – I think it best not to ask.) I clutch my bag, managing not to land on the dashboard or Andrei’s lap through interminable miles of bumpy, pothole punctuated road. Two times the van/truck pulls over and Andrei negotiates prices with the people congregated on the side of the road (why he is suddenly anointed part of the bargaining team, I could not for the life of me figure out.) He also gets out to help another bunică (grandmother) onto the truck. She apparently gets to ride for free.
After about 45 minutes we are dropped off at the side of the highway at a place I vaguely recognize to be near the road I turned down the last time I visited the baby Alexander. Only we’re some 100 yards afield ( kilometers?) from the turnoff and Andrei doesn’t appear to be the least bit interested in heading that way. Instead, he motions me to pull out my phone (it seems he doesn’t have one – what?) and we make a call to Nina, who shouts something rapidly, and all but unintelligibly, to me and then hangs up. We try several other phone numbers with no answer. We call back Nina and I hand the phone quickly to Andrei. He speaks for awhile and I gather that the car that is supposed to retrieve us is not working and we will have to walk. Oh really. Here we go again. (Me and my diva knee.)
So we walk. Down a road in the opposite direction of the road I took before. (Andrei? I don’t think this is the road…no cred acest este drumul…) And we walk. But – oh my lord above, and now I hear the angels singing, – a rutiera goes by and dear Andrei flags it down. Some words are exchanged. Things aren’t perfect I can tell – this is a rural road going nowhere and this rutiera cannot be the final solution, but we board. And drive about a hundred feet (meters?) And then stop. In front of a gate to a house. And someone comes out. And I dare to think: oh, we are here! Even though this wasn’t the road I took before and this isn’t the house I went to before, perhaps we are here! And Andrei is back slapping the dude and they are talking and laughing and he invites us in and then we’re in a courtyard where some 20 people are seated around a table with a pile of food and wine. And a glass of wine is poured, for both me and Andrei. And the standard “Noroc” is hailed and we clink glasses and drink. But I don’t see Nina…unde este Nina? I ask. Andrei looks at me funny. Mergem…(we go.)
To continue walking. A mile of country road. Goats. Geese. Silence. Unde vom merge? (Where are we going?) Another quizzical look from Andrei. (Like, why is this so hard to understand, you dimwitted American?) Then there is a man standing on a corner. Andrei engages him in animated conversation. The man takes my bag. He begins to walk with us down another road. (Is he a guide, sent to find us? An angel affirming our path? A beggar looking for a handout? I have not a clue. I never will find out.) Some twenty or so minutes later we enter another gate. No one appears to be around. Andrei calls out. A man emerges from one of the houses in a bathrobe. It is the original driving school instructor. He is naked beneath a bathrobe that barely hits his knees. The man carrying my bag returns it to me, gives us a salute and departs. I guess we don’t know him, after all. (Just like we didn’t know the people at the first house, where the rutiera dropped us, and they offered us wine.)
The driving school instructor returns to the house. I accompany Andrei into the extensive garden out back, where I spend a half hour admiring the plushly plump grapes and dead yellowed corn. We return to the house when we hear Nina’s voice. She is really here. I am not a victim of an eastern European human trafficking ring, after all.
Thence commences a three hour interlude in which I am fed wonderfully roasted meats, fresh vegetables, homemade bread, and watermelon, washed down by a not insignificant number of glasses of homemade wine. I must confess that I spend most of the time with the six year old, who is completely and all too easily enamored by the games I’ve previously downloaded onto my iPad ( I do think ahead, folks.) Romanian chatter surrounds me. I understand a smattering. A mere smattering. I am blissfully happy not having to respond, caught up in play with the six-year-old ( never mind that it isn’t me he wants, it’s the iPad doing all the engagement.)
And then it’s time to leave (after the dancing part, but I don’t think I could really do that justice, so I’ll just leave it out for now.) We’ve made the obligatory trip to the beci (the underground cave where Moldovan’s store their wine and jars of peppers and probably conduct all their dirty deeds) and I have been offered, and drank, the requisite cupful of 200 proof alcohol. My head is reeling. Now we need to find our way home, the three of us (thank God,) Nina, Andrei, and me.
Alexandru’s father gives us a ride to the highway. We disgorge from the car a laughing, rollicking mess – all three of us are drunk beyond our extended years. We’re much too old for this. Now we find ourselves standing by the side of deserted highway. Not a car in sight.
But- what’s this? There are hummingbirds. Yes. Hummingbirds, feeding on flowers by the side of the highway. And I am, of course, enamored. Hummingbirds!! I say. (This in English.) Andrei and Nina don’t speak English. I MUST find the words to communicate. BBBBRRRRRR, I say, and flap my arms. I point to the hummingbirds. “Pasarea mica” (Little birds) BBBBBRRRRZZZZ. Nina grimaces. “Insecte!” she says, very clearly. Huh? Insect? NO, IT’S A HUMMINGBIRD! BBBBRRRRZZZZZ.
And then they start laughing, Andrei and Nina. And laughing. And laughing. And laughing. “Nu vorbești Engleza, nu vorbești Română.” (you can’t speak English, you can’tspeak Romanian.” They think I am making buzzing noises because I am drunk. They are falling down by the side of the road; laughing at me. I laugh along. I WILL integrate, I will!!!
And then a huge truck is pulling up, right alongside of us, as we are rolling about on the road. Andrei springs to action, garnering us a ride. And then I am heaving myself after Nina, 10 feet (meters?) up in the air. The seat is dented, crooked ( like so much of Moldova) and I spend the entire 45 minute ride trying not to roll onto Andrei’s lap as he braces himself against the dashboard. Jokes are flying, along with our bags, as we careen down the road at a high rate of speed, accompanied by a mishmash of Russian/Ukranian rap inexplicably punctuated with American love ballads. By this time of night I should be asleep, only I am too conscious of how close I am brushing up against anonymous death. I should be remembering this moment, I think.
And it seems that I did.
(Were they really hummingbirds, I try to recall the next day? Or giant scary insects? Who is right, I think? Who really cares…)