And now, I’m in a hotel in Bucharest, Romania and my shower has just exploded. It’s late, well passed midnight local time, but I’m not quite ready to sleep. My mind is still on London time, but just barely, and its not even time for dinner back home. Jet-lagged and weary, I’m not sure what to expect. Jenn and Kristen have gone to bed. By now, I know what traveling with Jenn means. Kristen and I have only been out a couple of times.
And now I’m sitting in a room older than my country, like a wine cellar with leather chairs and low lighting, an arched ceiling and a flat screen hung in the corner, on mute and being ignored. I’ve known Andrei and Adi for three days and, already, they are friends. I’ve known Miruna and Cristian a few days longer, but those days were more than a year ago, in a different country, for entirely different reasons. The last few days I’ve fallen in love with them – the way they love each other. I’ve fallen in love with the way Andrei has fallen in love with a girl he’s met since I’ve been here. In love with Adi’s quiet, intelligent grace – the stoic sadness he carries with him and the way it melts away when he dances in the passenger seat without irony, pity or self-consciousness. He dances to “Betty Davis Eyes” on the stereo. And how we talk and drink and get high in English, with how they seem willing to change their minds about me, about Americans, about my country. How completely unaware they are of just how happy, how welcomed and appreciated they have made me feel.
And now I’m sitting on a rickety picnic bench in the garden of a house in Viscri. The sign on the wall read ‘Cafe,’ but it’s a house and on the white table cloth- the kind my grandmother had for years spread across the big wood table in her Iowa dining room – are plates of food, incredible food. Incredible soup with fresh vegetables, chicken and pork, a pickled pepper on the side. Incredible fresh vegetables on a plate which were, moments ago, still safely ensconced in the soft Transylvania soil. And fresh goat cheese with chewing gum strips of raw pork fat, a cheap paper bag colored mustard on the side. We drink Elder juice and sparkling water and homemade wine the shade of watercolor roses. Fresh chicken and potato salad with crunchy green onion right from the garden. Andrei and Adi step away to smoke between courses so we aren’t bothered. We decide to share the cake – hot, not warm – from the oven with berries and rhubarb. Kristen takes Miruna to the garden to show her what a rhubarb looks like and it feels like a contribution – finally a contribution to the finest hosts I have ever encountered. They refuse – Cristian, Miruna, Andrei and Adi – when I offer to contribute to the bill, which works out to less than $15 per person, all included. It is their honor, their collective sense of innate duty to be sure we want for nothing. Later, I buy Andrei a bottle of Jim Beam over protest. It is the least – and the most – I can and am able to do. I toast him to celebrate his new love, new friendship, a new perspective.
Adi laughs with his whole body when, after dinner, I tell him a joke. It’s the one about Seamus in Scotland and the bridge and the barn. Miruna stands next to Cristian while I talk to Jenn and Kristen. She lays her hand on his shoulder unconsciously. He stands, twirls her in music-less dance and sings an American love song to her badly, his accent thick, his pitch non-existent and perfect just the same.
And now I’m sitting in the garden of the hotel. It’s late and we are all of us wine drunk. Jenn has gone to bed. Andrei too. The table is lit by a single candle on the table and Adi comes and sits next to me. We talk about growing up and regret and God and how we both put feet on our own necks – holding ourselves back. And I tell him about my friend who died in middle school. And he tells me about his brother and the woman he was in love with, the accident and how his wife came to his rescue. We talk about America and what he thought it was and I tell him and the others about September 11 and why America still bleeds through a mostly closed scar. I tell them about being a reporter, about the smell at Ground Zero a few days on. I tell them how it used to keep me up at night. And we drink more wine, good wine. Romanian wine that does not create a hangover and does not make me angry. Kristen has had enough. She goes to her room. I stay up a little while longer, talking with Adi and Cristian and Miruna – about music, about politics, about the videos we’ve seen on YouTube. We laugh about things that cause laughing. We talk about mad things, incomprehensible things. We talk like friends of 20 years, not 20 hours. And all the time we laugh, so hard the hotel will get complaints about our laughing the next morning.
And now I’m in Bucharest in a conference room talking to a woman with bottle blond hair and stylish, oversized glasses. She Andreea. She is brilliant. She is 24 years old and older than that. She is serious and impressive and nervous to talk to me. Is it her English? It’s much better than mine. Is it that I have come all this way? I can’t be sure. Most likely, it is that she is serious and brilliant and 24. And Stefan, another Romanian genius in high tops and bright colored skinny pants. Stefan is slow to speak and quick to listen, which makes his brilliance somehow more brilliant. I find myself hoping that I have something interesting to say, something worthy of their listening – Andreea’s and Stefans, Andrei’s, Adi’s, Miruna’s and Cristian’s. I want desperately to have something worthy to say.
And now I’ in the backseat of Andrei’s Seat Leon, listening to his party mix. Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, the theme from ‘Knight Rider” and Dire Strait’s “Brothers In Arms,” as we wend our way through the Carpathian Mountains. The music is a step too loud for conversation, but the songs reveal who he is in words he does not have. And it’s raining as we come down the twisting mountain road and I can’t get my ears to pop and voice is gone from all the talking, from not sleeping, smoke, exhaustion. And I don’t mind the music. I like it and the rain clears as we make our way through Brasov, a big city in some high mountain plain – like Calgary, I think, but Eurpoean like Brussels – and the sunset takes my breath away. It’s the color of pink lemonade and blood orange against the indigo corners of night. And it seems to take forever, much longer than it should. Much longer than a sunset could last. And the music lowers and we talk some more… about cars, about music, about Romania and everything else.