Meridians of the Heart

by Roxana von Kraus

Half my life I was trying to leave Romania, and the other half I was looking for it.

I escaped Communism on Christmas Day 1975. When I returned in 1991, the Bucharest airport had not changed much. Lufthansa still landed among cows grazing the airfield, and the concourse echoed with boots and anxiety. Customs agents smoked heavily and cursed loudly. Only this time, there were lights everywhere—the airport, the highway, the city.

When I left in 1975, the country lived in darkness. Ceausescu had decided to drain the economy to pay back the country’s international debt. Overnight, he imposed a discipline of madness; he shut off the electricity and heat in the entire country. Hospitals operated on emergency generators, people were stuck in elevators, trains were canceled, and twenty million people cooked by flickering gas and read by candlelight. Schools, offices, and theaters were unheated. People attended Communist party meetings and La Traviata in full winter regalia. A photo of my parents from that time shows them celebrating New Year’s Eve with friends, sitting around a festive table wearing winter coats, fur hats, and woolen shawls. Their gloved hands hold up champagne glasses to toast the New Year.

Walking through Bucharest in 1991 felt like walking onto a movie set. Wooden crosses surrounded the Intercontinental Hotel and large banners proclaimed the revolution’s credo: Better dead than Communist. The university’s walls were pockmarked with bullet holes; white candles on the pavement illuminated the places where students had died.

Our stone house, with walls the color of ocean fog, was still there—only we were missing. Some of us had married and moved away, others had crossed borders to join somebody else’s freedom, some had forgotten the time and simply died. On the front door was a handwritten note: Anestia. Anestia is a Greek word that means to be without a country, to have no land or language. That’s how I felt, suspended somewhere in nobody’s space or time. I sat on the cold front steps and listened to my city and to the stories of those who had passed through our house into nowhere.

The Tailor of Bucharest

When Domnul Badescu was evicted by the Communists from his home, he came to Strada Spatarului with his overweight wife, Betty, and Gypsy, his Pekingese dog.

They settled into the basement apartment with its street-level windows. Outside you could see only passing shoes, boots, or sandals, depending on the season. Occasionally dogs peed on the windows and children knelt to look inside.

Domnul Badescu brought to the basement his Singer sewing machine, a high, polished cutting table, and a wooden suitcase of parchment patterns and flat white chalk. Most mornings he waltzed around his clients, a measuring tape around his neck and a hedgehog pin cushion on his wrist. He wore black pants and a sharp winged vest. The sleeves of his white shirt were secured with gold-plated cufflinks. His real gold cufflinks, along with his gold coins and gold teeth, were deposited at the State Bank in 1947, when the Communists declared gold and guns illegal. Nobody had protested or even questioned the declaration. They simply donated their forbidden valuables in silence and fear.

From whole cloth, in his basement apartment, Badescu created gray cashmere blazers and kamelhaar coats, silk blouses and velvet corsets. His handmade shawls of Spanish lace and persimmon organza were folded in drawers, layered with lavender seeds and rose petals.

In the seventies, Badescu became the couturier of the nomenklatura, the Communist elite, who could afford his prices and disregarded his bourgeois past. When the minister of Foreign Affairs came for a fitting, the State Securitate closed the entire street.

As a student, I went to their apartment to read forbidden books, the decadent literature of the West published before the Bolshevik era: Cronin’s Hatter’s Castle, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Remarque’s Arch of Triumph, Maurois’s Climats. Stories of hidden lives and forgotten times that were stacked on small tables or shelved behind glass in cherrywood bookcases.

Domnul Badescu lived under the constant surveillance of both the Securitate and his jealous wife, Betty. There were rumors that when his affairs became unbearable she would beat him up.

Betty, dressed in a red velvet robe and shiny black flats, spent her days in the kitchen smoking and playing cards. She spread cards on the table and foretold the future. On Sundays she did not go to church, nobody did. She baked vanilla biscuits instead, with raisins soaked in Grand Marnier.

In the evening, bored with her husband’s work, Betty climbed the back staircase to our apartment. She brushed the stairs’ flaking paint from her shoulders and velvet hips as she emerged into our kitchen. She had no telephone, so she used ours—the black rotary phone on the Biedermeier table in the common vestibule. She sat on a leather stool, talking for hours with her relatives in the provinces and her daughter Coca, who lived two streets away. Coca was a heavy-boned woman who dreamed of becoming a ballerina but entered the world of theater only through an affair with a married actor. Betty’s telephone conversations became so embarrassingly intimate that we placed a lock on the telephone dial to discourage its use. She could pick the lock with a safety pin, but she stopped using the phone when she lost a leg to diabetes and could no longer manage the stairs.

In December 1989, Domnul Badescu had a stroke and died, slumped over the cutting table. Chalk in hand, he was tracing a new suit for Ceausescu. That winter, death reached for both the tailor and the emperor, and the suit remained unfinished.

A Romanian Story

In 1968, I attended high school in an orange house by St. Michael’s Church. The Communists closed the church but could not stop its chestnut trees from blooming over the school yard next door. Every spring our classroom smelled of green chestnuts.

We shared wooden desks, Koh-I-Noor colored pencils, and Bic pens. All the school manuals had Ceausescu’s picture on the first page, and his portrait was displayed on the teachers’ desks and nailed over the blackboard in a large golden frame. We started to learn Russian in the third grade and English in the fifth. In high school, Madame Coulon tried to teach us French. I did not learn much from Madame Coulon, who was already defeated by Communism and melancholia. But I will never forget her arthritic fingers or the way she held the pencil so tightly that her knuckles turned white when she corrected our homework.

That year I received first prize for academics: a copy of Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which I immediately traded for two pictures of Jean-Paul Belmondo, the French actor of Breathless.

Schools closed in May for summer vacation. We lived in a society where newspapers were censored, books were banned, and travel was forbidden, but summers, mysteriously, escaped government control.

Our summers in Bucharest were spent kayaking on the lake and playing soccer in the street. At night, garden cinemas projected movies on screens hung on ivy-covered brick walls. My friends living in surrounding apartments had beer parties on the balconies and watched the movies. Too far away to hear the sound track, we read the subtitles with old army binoculars or made up our own screen dialogue. During the day, the asphalt melted and remembered our shoes. Men smoked Carpati cigarettes and played chess in the shade. Women wore low-cut dresses and canvas espadrilles. And then it happened.

In August 1968, the Russians troops entered Prague, putting an end to Prague Spring and Dubček’s dream of Communism with a Human Face. The democratic attempts that had been tolerated by the Russians for almost a year were over. Twenty years later Gorbachev would reform the Soviet political and economic system, but in 1968 the Soviets did not accept any deviation from the Party line, and our shared dream of freedom with the Czechs turned into a nightmare. All the members of the Warsaw Pact supported the Russians. The only Communist country that did not participate in the invasion of Prague was Romania. We wondered, So what happens now? Will we be next?

When the Russian tanks entered Prague, I was in the kitchen eating peaches. My father got the world atlas, a large book published before the Communists invented the political geography. He cleared the table of plates and knives, opened the atlas, and showed me all the places he had traveled to. There was Czechoslovakia, where he saw the puppet theater in Wenceslas Square. “That’s where the Russians are now,” he said. Next he showed me the strait of Gibraltar and the coast of Patagonia, Africa, India, and the Arab lands.

I was mesmerized. The Russian tanks rolled out of my mind and I touched the map like an icon in church. Every day that summer I asked for more stories, “meridians of the heart,” as he called them. I was so proud of my father that I told all my friends about his adventures. One Sunday morning my mother overheard me and said loudly over our heads, “Your father has never left the country. The Communists did not trust him with a passport.”

Waterways

Doctor Sosoiu was the chief anesthesiologist at the Bucharest City Hospital. He lived upstairs with his wife and son. Every Sunday, he played chess with my father. One day he disappeared. We never knew what happened, and, suspecting a family conflict, we never asked. Years later, when I was ready to leave the country, his son showed me his father’s journal:

They came in the middle of the night. They always come at night, when the sleep is sweet and the love is warm, when you are at the lowest point of resistance … and dignity. They knock at the door, rush in with the cold air and the silence of the street, and order you out of bed, out of dream, out of life, into their secret torture chairs and shifting sands. Nobody protests, questions, or doubts the ambush. After all, who could start an insurrection in a pair of pajamas? You must have done something wrong, something shameful, something inhuman. Otherwise why the hurry, the rush, the whisper of black tires on wet cement? I did not know. For fifteen years, I did not know why … they sent me to the Canal to dig dunes of white sand … with wooden shovels, to weave the waters of the Danube and the Black Sea. Each day took me one meter closer to the sea and one life away from life. For fifteen years I died with every sunrise. With every breath.

Now the son told me why his father had been imprisoned. It happened during his last open-heart surgery. While he monitored the patient, the chief surgeon mumbled a political joke under his mask. They all laughed, but one nurse informed on them and the Securitate arrested them all, including the patient who was under anesthesia. They gave him fifteen years to recover.

Downstairs

In the seventies our extended family of aunts, cousins, and uncles lived downstairs. We placed a note on the door: Ring once for Zamfirescu, twice for Belloiu, informing mainly the mailman and the milkmaid, because our friends did not care who opened the door.

The apartment, previously occupied by two people, was now shared by eight. The new Bolshevik law allowed only five square meters per resident, and we all lived like cabbage heads in a garden patch. We, the kids born in Communism, were happy to share. We were born with nothing and did not miss much. It must have been much worse for our parents, who lost their dignity in the German war and their fortunes in the Russian peace.

The apartment had high ceilings and honey-toned parquet floors. A French door divided the space. On one side were three Zamfirescus: Bebe, Bobby, and their daughter, Mariuca. On the other were five Belloius: my parents, my brother, Dan, my grandmother, and me. All eight of us shared the bathroom, the kitchen, and the hallway.

Bebe was born a Cantacuzino, from the line of the Byzantine rulers. Brought up with gouvernantes, she was fluent in English and French and cursed the Communists in both languages. Evicted from her mansion, she came to Strada Spatarului with a truck full of wonders: Boulle cabinets, Cordoba leather chairs, Russian samovars, and Japanese Kabuki masks with eyelashes and flowing beards. A Louis XIV red secretaire with inlays of brass and tortoise shell stood by the bathroom door. A Biedermeier table held a black telephone and a Baccarat decanter. The Japanese armoire in the hallway had a black lacquered frame and delicate drawers decorated with ivory geishas in silk kimonos and tiny samurais with pearl swords and gold horses.

All the doors in the apartment were kept open, and the shared space became an extension of our lives. Bebe and Bobby lived in the front room facing the street. Mariuca had a camp bed in the back, in a dark room with no windows. A large Venetian mirror with Murano roses covered the wall and reflected the darkness. The Florentine dining table in the center did not serve its intended purpose. Bebe did not like to cook, so their meals were taken on the run on silver trays. The Florentine table came to life on Sundays when Bebe brought out the French roulette wheel and a Monopoly board with streets named after Hapsburg kings and Viennese cafés. The Communists did not believe in luck and declared these games illegal, along with other social vices like hoarding and homosexuality.

A golden mechanical piano stood by the entrance. Every Christmas, Mariuca sat on a black stool and “played” Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Mariuca was not a musician. Her performance was an illusion like everything else. The piano merely followed its own mechanical nature, reading rolls of punched musical notes.

In the seventies, Bebe sold the piano to a pharmacist who did not want to shop in consignment shops for fear of germs. The pharmacist liked the idea of acquiring an objet d’art from a private home. Unfortunately, this museum piece was riddled with bedbugs. We tried for two days to clear them out with soap and aromatic oil, but eventually we gave up and sold it to the pharmacist as is.

Bobby was a doctor, and when he was in his forties he got arteriosclerosis, a devastating disease where the sick lose their mobility, coordination, and eventually life.

One morning I saw Bobby facing the Venetian mirror trying desperately to knot his tie. He no longer went to the hospital to heal others and remained in bed waiting to die. One morning, I found him lying on the floor. He must have fallen and was too embarrassed to call for help. He was fully dressed with gray slacks, white shirt, and suede house shoes. When I picked him up, he was light as a bird. I could feel bones through his skin. When he thanked me, his breath smelled of graham crackers.

He died that afternoon.

Bebe had the veghere, the mourning of the dead, at home. When somebody dies in Romania, the family covers the mirrors but lay out the dead in the open. Bobby was placed, fully dressed, on the Florentine table, which was surrounded by friends and fellow doctors who came to whisper their respects. I had never seen a dead man before and the image of the gray body on the wooden table and the scent of funeral candles and incense entered my blood.

Forty days after his burial, on the night of a full moon, Bobby came back to me. I felt his hand on my shoulder and I smelled graham crackers on his breath. “Please help me. You are the only one who can help me,” he said. Then the French door opened and closed behind him. I was terrified. I cried for hours. Mariuca dreamed of her father that same night. In the morning we both lit a candle for his soul, as we still do now, thirty years later, on nights of a full moon.

The Typewriter

Garro Hatchatourian was an Armenian who left Turkey, crossed Lebanon by truck, and arrived in Bucharest in the spring of 1970. He followed the Levant route that brought an entire generation of displaced Armenians from Anatolia to us.

Garro lived in a small apartment upstairs. He remained a Levantine, caught in a confusion of cultures, languages, space, and time. He lived like us, pretending to accept the Communist reality while planning to escape from it.

In the seventies, he received an exit visa and took the overnight train to Paris. He left a gift for us—his manual Remington typewriter.

Under the Communists, a typewriter was an object of desire and intense fear. Every typewriter had to be brought to the police station for registration. Special agents took a copy of the typeset and filed it, together with the address, age, occupation, and marital status of the owner. If a political manifesto was posted on a public wall, its typewritten characters would betray the “class enemy.”

Garro brought us the typewriter in the middle of the night. It came with an instruction manual showing white hands over black keys like birds in flight. My brother did all the practice exercises and in a week was typing faster than the wind. I did not follow the instructions. I wanted to make money and learning good technique took too much time. I typed my English literature course notes on thin sheets layered with carbon paper, six copies at a time, and sold them to my fellow students.

There were no staples in Romania, so I secured my notes on An American Tragedy with tiepins from Domnul Badescu. By the end of the year, my typed notes on Dreiser, Chaucer, and The Wind in the Willows bought me a pair of Italian boots on the black market. The boots came from Milan, chestnut brown, with fine leather strings that wrapped around from the ankle to the knee.

Radio Free Europe

My mother covered the French door, which separated the two families in our apartment, with a heavy Persian carpet that brought more dust than privacy. On our side, I shared a room and a bed with my brother and grandmother. The parents had the other closet-sized room that held two armoires, a mahogany bed, a Russian refrigerator, and a work table where my mother painted icons and movie cartoons. A large bay window faced a purple lilac bush, where we draped our family’s bed sheets to dry. In winter the sheets froze and cut our faces when we passed them at night.

An amber terra-cotta stove heated the apartment. We used to cut thin apple slices with a razor blade and dry them on the stove’s marble shelf. There were no exotic fruits in Romania. Occasionally, my father brought home bananas, mostly in winter, when international freight trucks got stuck in the snow and whatever was headed to Paris ended up in Bucharest. Bananas were completely foreign to us, and their appearance in the market was usually followed by emergency radio broadcasts that sounded like nuclear tests warnings: Tovarasi, comrades, do not eat green bananas! They have to turn yellow before they are any good!

We did not have a TV, only an old Philips radio. Every night I listened to Radio Free Europe’s heavily jammed broadcasts, looking for music. My father was terrified—You’ll send me to prison with your Beatles! He refused to listen to news or commentaries because he no longer trusted the West. I heard the Americans on this radio in forty-five, when they promised to come and bomb the Russians out of Eastern Europe. And nothing happened. Nobody came, and forty years later I am still here, and so are the Russians.

Portocala

On December sixth, our house on Strada Spatarului was waiting for a saint. Our shoes, placed the night before in front of the stove, were, by morning, heavy with gifts from St. Nicholas, the protector of children.

I never knew where my mother found gifts in the gray world we lived in. One winter, a Little Red Riding Hood was left in my shoe, a sugar cookie with aromas of Arabian cinnamon and Tahitian vanilla. I looked at her for weeks and when I finally decided to eat her I started, like the wild dogs, with her feet. Other delights were left in our shoes: Amarettos in colored cellophane, Nuremberg Lebkuchen, brilliant aquarelles, picture books, and Matchbox cars. One winter morning there was a doll with real glass eyes! I will never forget her, standing by the terra-cotta stove, looking at me. She did not last long though. My brother, Dan, pushed her eyes in. Then her arms fell off. My mother tied them back on with an elastic band from Dan’s underwear but the magic was gone.

In the seventies the entire country was standing in line. You never knew what the line was for until you reached the front and discovered the elusive toilet paper, eggs, milk, or chicken’s feet. When I turned eighteen, my grandmother, who had more common sense than any of us, gave me one liter of sunflower oil and one kilo of sugar as a birthday present.

Still, the best gift came from my mother—the portocala. Once, after hours of waiting in the snow, she brought home a brown bag of oranges. We gathered around the table, all five of us, for the “orange ceremony.” My grandmother peeled the orange and put the peels in a glass jar for Christmas baking. The naked fruit left behind, one orange at a time, was divided into segments, shared, and enjoyed in silence. In Romania I never ate a whole orange by myself.

Years later, at a party in New York, I was given an orange for dessert. I divided the fruit and turned around with my offering for everyone at the table. Nobody understood, and I was left with my arms, stretched out like wings, reaching out to old shadows left behind in Bucharest.

Published on August 29, 2019

First published in Harvard Review 48

2019-08-28T15:48:15+00:00