”And I kept saying: let’s leave tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and here we are 30 years later, still in the Banat, still haven’t left,” says Doru between two gulps of beer.
He’s aged somewhere around 40+, has blue eyes and a strong voice that echoes in the whole bar.
”My wife didn’t want to go back,” he goes on, laughing. ”So we stayed.”
Doru and his wife moved here, to Grabaţ, in the 80’s, being both originally from Alba county. Like everywhere else in the country, life in the Apuseni mountains was hard back then and people didn’t know where to turn. For some, the Banat became an option. It was our version of the West. Our little piece of the Occident.
”And truly, back then this place was something else. You were close to the border and could find anything. There was Comtim and you could find pork chops, salami, cold cuts, bacon. If you knew your way around, you could even score some Pepsi cases”, Doru recounts nostalgically.
It’s Saturday afternoon and people start gathering at Ilie’s Place, the oldest bar in Grabaţ, a village in the locality of Lenauheim, some 50 kilometers away from Timișoara. Until some time ago, the bar used to belong to Ilie Suciu, the mayor of Lenauheim, but in the meantime it has been taken over by Andrei, his son. After years of living in Timișoara (where he worked as a photographer, among other things), Andrei came back to the village determined to give the bar a face lift. And it really is not an ordinary watering hole, especially in this kind of rural scenery. It is a welcoming and peaceful place, a combo of village bar and pub, where people come to have a beer, catch a game and play some cards.
While Andrei fills our pints, for me and a couple of friends that have been on the road through the Banat, catch a glimpse of a brochure, finding out the village was founded in 1764, a time when the area was colonized by Swabians. And it’s enough to take a short walk around to get an idea about this place’s past. The streets are wide, spacious and seemed to be perfectly drawn, meaning that there was a well established plan in place when the village was founded. The name of the locality – Lenauheim – comes from Nikolaus Lenau, the great Austrian poet born here in 1802 (back when the place was named Csatád).
There’s a bustle at this time of day, people coming in from work buying a shot of liquor and a pint, and children buying ice-cream, cheese puffs and beer for their parents. Some people linger in conversations while others come in and down their drinks right from the horse’s mouth.
Like any village tavern, discussions are held from a distance, lines are thrown over tables and banter is had over any subject (”what’d you do, Southerned?”, ”getting drunk are we?”). Andrei is behind the counter and is monitoring all that is going on, managing to be authoritatvie and friendly at the same time with everyone.
Doru keeps telling me about his life in the Banat and about the changes that took place after the 90’s, when factories started being privatized and people were given the green light at layoffs.
”The Americans took everything they could get their hands on… Americans, Italians”, Marcel, a short guy in overalls, jumps into the conversation.
Doru changes the subject and tells me it’s not too late for him to return to the Apuseni Mountains:
”I want to build my own house in Alba…”
”You never mind, it’s still the best place, Grabaţ is.”
”Can it Marcel, you with your two bit act. I am still returning to the Apuseni, just you wait and see.”
”Come on now man, you know we take no issue with your kind… Doesn’t matter where someone’s from”, Marcel explains sipping his Bergenbier pint. ”We’ve got people from Ardeal, Moldova, Oltenia, you name it. It just matters that they know how to act like people, and there’s no issue then.”
The door opens and Ilie Suciu, a tall man with a wide back and a strong voice, enters.
”My regards, mister mayor”, someone yells from a table.
Ilie approaches Doru and asks:
”How’s it going, Dinamo?”
”How could it be going… having a pint. We’re beating Iași tonight. 1-0, that’s a fact.”
Ilie laughs, takes a seat by the window and asks Andrei for a beer. Andrei is stuck in conversation with one of my friends:
”Before each house made its own sausages, ham and jerky. We learned a lot from the Germans,” he says.
”The German taught us a lot while he was around”, Ilie, his father who is a talking mood, adds,”The German threw nothing away, not even the pig’s hair. He made painting brushes out of it. Didn’t throw the nails away either. Used everything. When a young man married, he got the furniture as a gift from his parents. The didn’t spend money on furniture or food. The only money they spent was on sweets. Any object inherited from the old people was turned into something new, treated, lacquered, painted and so on. The front room was always for the young ones after marriage.”
Five minutes later an older man appears at the bar, dressed in a tracksuit and with big rings on his fingers.
”Oooo”, Ilie yells. ”Look, this here is Lică, about to turn 70 any day now, lives in Austria. He’s a great football coach. Original inhabitant of Grabaţ. You can ask him more about the Germans, he’ll tell you. Lică, have a seat, I’ll get you a cold one.”
”No drinking, thanks. I’ll have a coffee though.”
Lică sits next to Ilie and I never get the chance to ask because he immediately starts talking in a slightly pedantic tone, as if he is about to hold a lecture in front of school children. We are all quiet and listen:
”It is true that people had jobs back then. Starting with the liquidation of institutions and a shift towards a market economy, the people had to do something. Went to work in Serbia, Hungary, where there was work to be found. Joining the EU was a big chance to get on the Western markets and become part of a different world.”
He meticulously pours two teaspoons of sugar in his coffee with meticulous gestures and continues:
”I have been living in Austria for 31 years now. What can I say… I was forced to cross the border illegally. The regime back then forced me to do it. I ran. And I am sorry I didn’t do it sooner, when I was younger still. I applied for political asylum in Austria and slowly brought my family, after which I tried helping my childhood friends, my neighbors. Bringing them to Austria. Finding them jobs. Now there is a community of Grabaţ native living in an Austrian town. At the border with Switzerland, where the Swiss Alps meet the Austrian Alps. We have a whole football team there.”
”Did Grabaţ change a lot?” I ask.
”A whole lot, yes. Radically. We miss… But let me tell you: it is sad the Germans in our community left, because they built this locality. We learned a lot from them. You know, we Romanians are a neglectful people. I remember having a German neighbor. That guy shoveled snow at 5 AM in the morning on his side of the street. These people enjoyed work. And so we took after them.”
”Everyone swept their street of dust. So that their street was clean when they left to go out. If it wouldn’t have been for the German, we wouldn’t have had parquet and wooden floors in our houses”, Ilie steps in.
”Exactly”, Lică chimes with the same scholarly tone. ”We have here a village with cobblestones built by the Germans in 1942. We are proud of it. Made by them, out Germans. And Grabaţ developed beautifully. We had one of the best bands in the country! But let me tell you… I’m no great patriot. I’ve traveled the country up and down, seen most of Europe, but when I return home, by home I mean Grabaţ. I could care less what passed in Bucharest, Ploiești or Craiova. I’m more interested in what’s going on in Belgrade or Budapest. Why? Can’t really explain. I have it in me. When I come home, I don’t return to Romania. I return to Grabaţ. Romania is barely 100 years old, if we are to speak historically.”
”The name Romania you mean” Ilie frowns with the question.
”What the politicians and businessmen did with that Great Union of theirs is a story. I come back to Grabaţ, not Romania.”
”Come now Lică, you mean to say the Romanian people is barely 100 years old? Is that what you’re saying?”
”I said nothing about the Romanian people.”
”The Romanian people is 2000 years old,” says Ilie, heating up. ”But then why didn’t we call this country Dacia? Why did they have to call it Romania? If we would have named it Dacia, it would have been 2000 years old. Or maybe 2500 years old. Or older still.”
”I’m no historian mister mayor. The Romanian Army came in…”
”Lică, we aren’t talking about the Romanian Army, we are talking about Dacia.”
”I have no clue about Dacia, I never say Decebalus or Burebista.”
”But you’ve read about history, yes?”, Ilie asks.
”For me, my street is part of history, and the water pump down the street, the place I was born in. I only saw Dacians in movies.”
”But why are you saying history means nothing to you?”
”You mean… what exactly do you mean? That after you’ll be gone, no one will say that Lică was a football coach and so forth?”
”Mister mayor, allow me to give you an example. Why is our nation so cowardly? So perverse?”
”It is not cowardly, only perverse!”
”The whole World says the same”, Lică erupts. ”I’ve recently read on Facebook about that Popa-Popas fellow who draws caricatures… He said something I’ve been saying for 40 years. What are the people from Oltenia doing in the Banat?”
”But what are you doing in Austria?” yells Andrei from behind the bar, leaning on the Bergenbier dispenser.
Lică pretends not to have heard and goes on:
”Maria Theresia of Austria and Franz Josef built this village…”
”But still… what are you doing in Austria?” asks Andrei again, smiling with satisfaction.
There’s a lull. Lică sips his coffee. ”As I was saying, Maria Theresia of Austria…”
This story was initially published in the MOVING FIREPLACES. 2019 book.
Photo credit: Flavius Neamciuc