Look at this snitch! He thinks he’s fooling anyone in that mothball-reeking wedding suit of his. He’s still a loser. He acts all nice now, but tomorrow he’ll be the first to tell the head of police who was at the restaurant, what they ate, what they drank, who they talked to and what. He doesn’t look it, but people like him have elephant ears and radio antennas. They can even register burps. I’m sure he’s not going to say anything about the guy dancing with his wife just now. He’s under protection, he’s not stupid, he married the daughter of the head of police. Sure, he loves here so much… carrying her around the dancefloor as if he’s hugging a sack of potatoes. And when did those good-for-nothings show up? They’re sat in my section. Let me go see what they want. I hope they have the money to pay for it…
– Boys, what can I get you, something to eat?
– Drinks. A bottle of red wine.
Just as I expected. They don’t even have money for a soup.
– Ok, but it’s 3 lei a bottle.
I bring them the wine and four glasses and mind my own business, because it’s Saturday night and it’s crowded at Dacia. People with money go out and this is when I make my tips. Why is that guy looking at me like that? I can’t make a move without his eyes following me. It makes me a bit uncomfortable. Let me bring them the bill, maybe they’ll get the message they need to leave, and I’ll be rid of that guy’s eyes. I can feel them burning a hole in my back.
– Boys, I brought you the bill.
I bet now they’ll turn their pockets inside out looking for money. The guy who wouldn’t let me out if his sight has stopped looking at me, he’s staring at his shoes. I think he’s even blushing a little. He’s not unpleasant to look at. His ears are kind of pointy, but he seems like a gentle man.
– You can’t pay the whole amount? It’s okay. I’ll put in the rest, but next time you come to Jimbolia you have to pay me back. Where are you from?
Check out the guy with the lowered eyes, he found a voice.
– And what are you doing in Romania?
– I came back from America to Uzdin, to do my military service. I was just visiting this guy in Timișoara, he says nodding towards one of the other men, we want to marry him to a Romanian girl. In Uzdin we always think ahead.
– Well, if you think ahead, you should have thought before stopping at a restaurant without having enough money.
I turned on my heels and went to another table. I had shown him!
A few months ago, when I told my sister who works at the gas station to find me a job, I didn’t think I was going to make a loss. I thought that if I got a job at the restaurant, I’d earn some money, which is hard these days, when everything is scarce. I’m 22 years old, God willing, I’ll get married, I’ll have children, I need to be able to provide for my family. But with clients like those ones, I need to bring money from home. Maybe it would have been better if I had stayed at the Ceramics factory, I had an easy job in accounting. But I wanted to attend highschool classes in the evenings, I wanted to have an education. But it doesn’t matter anyway, I’m not going to go bankrupt over a few coins.
I wanted Jimbolia, I got Jimbolia. Nothing happens in this place, today is no different from yesterday. Not that Mărgineni, back home in Bacău county, was any more fun, but I expected something different when I moved here, to the west of the country, following my brothers. At least I started school so maybe something good will come of that. I’ll be here for another hour, then I’ll take my notebooks and go to the restaurant because my shift will be starting.
– Irina, someone’s looking for you!
God, that startled me. It’s the school security guard calling me.
– What is it, nea Ion, why are you yelling like that?
– A foreigner has come for you!
– What foreigner, I don’t know any foreigner.
– I asked for his passport and he’s a foreigner, like I tell you. He’s called Iovan. Iovan Maran. I couldn’t reason with him. I told him he’s not allowed here, and he keeps saying he’s looking for Irina who works at Dacia restaurant. He’s at the school gate.
I take two steps and I’m already at the entrance, where I see a back that looks familiar. But where do I know him from?
– What do you want with me?
– I came to pay my debt.
Oh, it’s the shy Serb! He must have left his shyness home if he’s came all the way here for this.
– I never thought I’d see that money again.
– A debt is a debt, and must be repaid. This is what it’s like with us Serbs.
– How did you find me? And you came all the way here… You know foreigners aren’t welcome…
He doesn’t answer, just looks at me for a long time. What kind of man is this? To come all this way for a little change. And the police keep a close eye on everyone coming into the country. What am I going to do with him now?
– I have to stay in school for another hour. I’ll give you the address and the key to the apartment where I live with my sister. Go wait for me there. We’ll talk later and you’ll explain more.
It’s true I must also be crazy to give the key to my house to a stranger. What do I know about this Iovan? Nothing. But he’s got this good-natured look about him, and I seem to trust him without asking too many questions.
I would never have admitted it to him, but I could hardly wait for my shift to be over so I could get home. I even messed up a few orders and made a fool of myself. Well, when I walked into the house, he was talking to the neighbour. Doru is a good guy and so kind. His mother is deaf and mute, and he takes care of her all day long. If I had a child, it would be Doru I would ask to watch him.
– What are you two doing?
– Iovan was just telling me about America. Everybody, from the youngest to the oldest, wears jeans and eats… what did you call them? Hamburgers? They go to the restaurant, where they fry some meatballs that they place in buns and pour lots of gravy on them.
Look at that, the Serb is full of surprises.
– How do you know what it’s like in America?
– Don’t you know he’s from America? He came to Yugoslavia to do his military service, but he grew up in a town with wide, crowded streets.
– In New York. I’ve lived there since I was eight.
– We have another problem now: it got dark since you two have been talking and where are you going to sleep, Iovan? If they catch you here with a foreign passport, it’s going to mean trouble. I can’t have you sleep here, or people will start talking.
I look at my neighbour, who understands. Not even my own brother would have been as forthcoming.
– Come sleep at my house Iovan! You can tell me more about America and in the morning you can go home.
I went to bed worried. It was like someone had thrown peanut shells in my bed, I kept tossing and turning. What’s he doing now, is he fast asleep of full of thoughts, like me? When I heard fists knocking on my door at 6 a.m., I didn’t even have to rub my eyes to ward off sleep, I was already awake. I just tied the cord of my dressing gown and opened to see who it was and what they wanted from me. In the doorway, a huge guy in a uniform.
– Who was at your place last night?
Well, here they are. They’re quick on the uptake! They don’t miss a thing. Who told them? Maybe nea Ion from school, he’s a lizard that one… Venomous.
– Girl, listen here, don’t gamble your life! Admit it! Or else you’ll go to jail or get a fine for hiding foreigners.
If it’s a matter of choice, I’d rather dress in stripes, because that fine will cost me half a year in the restaurant, and I’ll have to take other people’s shifts to pay it. What have you done to me, Iovan?
– There was nobody here. You can come in and check the house.
How he looks with those piggy eyes of his over my head, in case he spots anything out of place in the apartment. But there’s nothing, so what can he do to me? He has no proof.
– There might not be anyone now, but I’m on to you. Be careful.
No manners. Probably his mother didn’t discipline him properly when he was a child. He didn’t even say “good day”. Well, nevermind! Who cares about politeness now. Good thing he’s gone, I would happily see him go to hell, God forgive me! But if I catch that Serb here again, they’ll surely throw me in jail. Not for hiding strangers, but for murder. Because I’ll kill him myself for getting me in trouble with the Securitate.
Two weeks later, the weather has turned so bad that I have forgotten what summer felt like. The rain has got to my bones, into my soul. Customers don’t come to Dacia anymore. They’re all hiding like rats in their houses. Who has any money left to go to a restaurant? If only we don’t go bankrupt. I’ll see what I’ll do if that happens. I sit around all day long and tap my fingers on this wooden counter until it gets so dark, I can’t even see the light switch anymore. Was that the doorbell? Did anyone dare come into this place?
– Hello, Irina!
I have to change my voice so he can’t tell I’m glad to see him. In fact, I’d be glad to see anyone right now, it has nothing to do with this big-eared-Serb.
– Iovan, what are you doing here? Are you looking for trouble again?
– Irina, I…
He’s stuttering again. You can’t get anything out of this man. Is this what they teach him in America?
– Please don’t come looking for me, leave me alone. You’re the reason I’m in trouble with the Securitate. Only God knows how I got away last time. You want to get me in trouble, is that what you want?
– No, I… I had to see you. See how you’re doing, how life is treating you…
– I’m doing just fine when you’re not around. Let’s please keep it that way. I didn’t see you at the restaurant today, you didn’t see me. Good day!
He put his chin to his chest and walked out the door without another word. I wish him the best, but it’s the only way. He must see to his own life in Yugoslavia, America or wherever his soul desires. He can’t cause trouble for me here. It is what it is. You can’t lose what you never had!
But my Serb didn’t give up that easily. They don’t say Serbs are determined people for no reason. The entire country was rejoicing over getting rid of the dictator, I was the only one crying; I was mourning my father, who had passed away. I couldn’t go to his funeral because he had died when the Revolution was in full swing, the people had all gone wild, but I had to make it to his six-week commemoration. And, to top it all off, Iovan wanted to go with me. It wasn’t right, he said, for a woman to be alone on the train for so many hours. The poor guy became the talk of my Moldavian family. But I didn’t get off too easily either.
“How do you talk to him, if he’s Serbian?”, “Well, in Romanian, because there are Romanians in Yugoslavia”. And how nervous I was when he took my mother aside—I remember she was just drawing the sugar cross on the cake—and said: “I want to make your daughter my wife”. My mother caught fire. He had used the word muiere for wife, which in Moldova you only use as a man if you want to get beaten up with a rolling pin. Nevertheless, my mother loved him. She loved him the most.
But she couldn’t be there for our wedding. There were no telephones at the time, and she only found out afterwards that we got married. We did it according to the tradition in Banat; here, if the godfather isn’t present, there’s no wedding. So we waited for Iovan’s godfather to come from America. In 1990, on the 14th of July, we got married.
Queues again. I queued before the Revolution, I’m still queuing after the Revolution. This country will never get rid of queues. You stand in line to live. If only I get that visa that got me queuing again. It’s the eighth time. It’s been three months since I last heard from Iovan, and I don’t want to lose him. He’s such a good man. I’ve had men before. They were handsome, nothing to complain about there, but Iovan is the kindest. He wouldn’t say a bad word to me, he wouldn’t do anything up upset me.
I can’t go on like this: me in Romania, him in America. He went there when the war broke out in Yugoslavia because they wanted to separate. They can separate all they want, Croats from Serbs, Serbs from Bosnians, it’s their business, but to separate the two of us, that’s not going to work. I’ll find a way of getting that tourist visa on my blue passport, I haven’t come all the way to Bucharest for nothing.
Last night, when I got off at the train station together with my nephew, I sat down to fill in the paperwork for the visa application. I checked my suitcase one more time, to see if I had the Bible; I kissed the cross on the cover and opened it at the Psalms, where I hid the $3,000 my mother-in-law gave me to give to a Securitate she told me about, he will be able help with my visa. I’ve been reading the Bible from cover to cover for the last three months, since Iovan went to America. It’s said that if you read it from beginning to end, your wish will come true. Everybody knows that.
God helps you, but He has to see you trying. It wasn’t even that big of an effort reading it. I haven’t had much sleep lately; I used to sleep two or three hours a night, then back to the Bible. My mother would see the light under the door and say to me: “Irina, go to sleep! “
And now, with all my faith in God, I’m waiting to go talk to one of these Embassy clerks. I wonder which one I’ll get. The tall, dark one? I hope not; I hear that one rejects all the applications. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get the little redhead.
– Hello. Are you from Canada?
– Oh, I’m from Jimbolia. I stammer before the counter. I can barely see the little guy behind it.
– I see you have a blue passport, not a green one like the Romanians.
– I’m one hundred per cent Romanian, but I’m married in Serbia. My husband is in America now and I want to visit him. He’s been in America for 22 years.
Look at him analysing me, trying to read me. I think he’s smart enough to tell that I will do whatever it takes to go to Iovan, no matter how many queues I have to wait in.
– You have to pay the cashier $16. Have a nice trip.
Is that it? $16 got me an American visa? I can’t wait to give my mother-in-law back her $3,000. She won’t believe it. I can already hear the women in Uzdin saying to her: “Mărioara, you have one hell of a daughter-in-law! My girls wouldn’t have brought back one dollar!”
Neither in Mărgineni, nor in Jimbolia, nor in Uzdin have I ever seen such high buildings. I kept looking up at the clouds and it was as if I couldn’t see where the end of them. I remember the first few months in New York I had a headache every time I looked at those big buildings. And my ears were ringing from all the honking, from the hustle and bustle of the streets, from the roar of the subway. I didn’t like it at first. Too hectic. Everyone one the run.
An hour of shopping in the city was more tiring that a whole night of our boy crying and me having to stay up and rock him until he fell asleep again. I told Iovan that I wanted to move to another town. He may have grown up in New York and gotten used to it, but you can’t have a nice, quiet life like I wanted. How’s the kid supposed to grow up in this madness? It was also dangerous. In Queens, I was living in a nice area, and they still stole the computer from my car. I had a grey Pontiac, my mother-in-law had given it to me as a wedding present; it was waiting for me in New York, when I arrived in ‘91.
So they stole my computer once, I replaced it, tried to steal it again. And it was only then that I convinced Iovan to move out of New York, even though he had a job there. He worked in all sorts of jobs, he was a supervisor; in Manhattan, he worked at the Twins, at those two houses. But when I saw that there was no life to be had there, after two years, I said let’s go to Pennsylvania. We didn’t start from scratch, because that’s where our godfather was, but it was still hard. We were renting, we were looking for a house, but we kept taking money out of the bank instead of saving.
Then one day, when I was just thinking of telling my mother to come to America to help me with the baby so I could get a job and bring in some money, my Iovan said to me: “Let’s go home.” “Home where?” “To Serbia.” We lived in Uzdin for a year and a half. We got married in church, because we couldn’t do it in ’90 when my father had just died. We baptized the baby. We tried to make a life for ourselves there. But after a year and a half, we went back to America, to Pennsylvania.
– You think it’s easy working at Amazon? Take that box, move it to a higher shelf, put it back down. Until you pick up an armful of books, you don’t think of how heavy they are. My shoulder didn’t get like this for no reason. Thank God for the procedures at Băile Herculane. They saved me. When I come home, about once every two years, I go to a balneary resort my mother.
– It’s a good thing I’m working with a computer now, I’m a trainer, they saw that I was resourceful, that I’ve got something up here. I don’t have a college degree, but I’ve been really nice to everyone.
– Remember the time you called me crying because you couldn’t put your foot down because it hurt? And you couldn’t lift your elbow?
– Yeah, I was desperate. I had to work. I had a house to pay for, a big house, three floors, three cars, a kid in college. I liked living well, I admit it, but I also worked for it. Because if you don’t work, you can’t afford anything.
– You were like that as a child…
– I wouldn’t have been able to make it otherwise. How can you afford to spend 10-12,000 dollars on a visit to Romania unless you save every penny? Remember the 2009 crisis? I came home without Iovan, only with Deian, and I called him to send me another thousand dollars. The money was slipping through our fingers like sand. And we didn’t even go to restaurants all the time. When we went to Herculane, we bought salami and tomatoes and ate in our room. I didn’t need to show off.
– I can’t get over the fact that the boy doesn’t speak much Romanian.
– He speaks, mom, he does his best. I taught him how to read and write. I remember how he used to cry when he was little, and I’d put the first grade textbook under his nose. But I saw he liked money, so I said, “Mom will give you $5 if you study. Deal?” And so my kid stopped crying and started studying. He doesn’t know it perfectly, but the Romanian he knows comes in handy…
– And he’s very respectful…
– Everyone praises him for being respectful, as he should be. I don’t need bad people in my house, I want you to be respectful, civil, I worked hard to make a good man out of you. When he was 15 and a half, I made him get a job. He had everything he wanted at home, but he needed to learn responsibility. I’m a strict, tough Moldavian, I wanted to make a man out of him. And I did. Everybody says to me: “Irina, you have a great boy. ”
– He had a good example in you, you taught him to value work.
– You know what they did at Amazon when I told them I was going home to Serbia? Amazon put it on that big sheet of paper that I was going back home, they didn’t do that to anyone else. They collected money, cake, pizza… And they asked me, the Americans: “Irina, how do you feel? How does it feel to be loved?” I said: “It feels very good, because I have also loved you and helped you with all my heart. ” I gave everything. Everyone cried. It was so beautiful, the entire factory cried, all 4,000 people. It was hard to say goodbye to them.
– At first I didn’t want to go back to Serbia, but the land calls out to you, the heart urges you. That’s what I say. You return in the same way these storks return to their nest.
Like the cadence of a melody, the poles strung along the streets of Uzdin are topped by intricate weaves of straw, dry leaves and twigs. These nests are inhabited by storks that return to the same place every year, a phenomenon for which ornithologists have yet to find a satisfactory explanation. But their natural GPS always brings them ‘home’. Just as, for the people of Uzdin, “home” can only mean the village where they grew up, whose streets they left at some point driven by need, worry or dreams.
It’s been six years since Irina and Iovan have moved back to Uzdin. In 2016, in less than a month, they sold their house, their cars and left their son to get by with college and work. At 30, the boy just needs to find a wife, his mother believes.
– Maybe, God willing, we will find him a girl there. My wish is for her to be Orthodox. He lives in Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. He’s working now. He’s a road inspector and he’s also going to college. He takes however many classes he can. I figured I’d go over there in winter, to cook for him and push him to graduate as fast as he can.
She looks me straight in the eyes, like a person who has nothing to hide, and smiles broadly as the story carries her from past to present. Her gestures show confidence. It’s the confidence of a person who has learned that fear of the unknown cannot bring anything good. And that in life you shouldn’t be afraid of change. Because no matter where your footsteps take you, you will always find your way home.
Photo credit: Răzvan Popa