On the way from the airport to the heart of Cluj-Napoca, I impressed my cab driver by knowing and remembering who Ceaucescu was. I had asked whether the brutal monolith apartment blocks that lined the avenue between the airport and the heart of the old city were attributable to him.
'Many thing are his,' he replied, sling-shotting his way through a roundabout like a satellite around Saturn. I remember being thrilled and terrified – mostly terrified – by the unused seat belt rattling by his left side.
The truth was that I knew who Ceaucescu was because I was American, and not American; I knew because I’d grown up during the crumbling years of communism and watched as reports on Tiananmen Square interrupted Saturday morning cartoons.
I had never before been to eastern Europe, a place writ large and looming by the kinds of people who used the word “freedom” a lot but never quite explained what they believed it meant. I wanted to see what things were really like here, as best I could in the short time I had, even though the revolutions of 1989 were nearly 25 years old.
The city was dusty, though it became less so as we left the semi-rural outskirts behind. On the radio, an ad in Romanian played – with my near-fluent Spanish I was able to catch maybe every fifth word, teasingly familiar but still just that side of unfathomable.
This was not an unknown feeling. Only a few years before, I’d moved from the US to Australia and encountered less of the unfamiliar, but what differed was just as disorienting. Expectations always cause jolts. I hadn’t been prepared for Australia, and how different it actually was – poor assumptions at work. But Romania? I knew the scenes in my head were only partly authored by my own imagination. I arrived sceptical of my own expectations.
The driver asked me again where we were going in his rough English, and I replied in my far worse Romanian. By now we’d gone past the old city, just on the outskirts, and crossed a river into a more residential area. Houses with families and without, small and not quite so small, unified by the presence of hanging grape vines.
Were they for eating? I wondered. Or did each household make its own wine?
At the pensiune, or boarding house, it was quiet – this wasn’t peak tourist season, and I was here for an academic conference hosted at one of the local universities. The dining room was almost empty save for a radio tuned to the same station as the one in the taxi. Breakfast started at 5:30, I was told, and they would be happy to call a cab for me any time I needed it.
Through all those mundane exchanges, perfectly pleasant and polite, I knew I was stepping into a history whose depths I couldn’t hope to fathom.
I’d done a little research, certainly, but brittle words are nothing next to actually being somewhere and feeling what a place is like. Cluj-Napoca sat on land that had once been Dacian, then Roman, then Hungarian, who ruled over their own, as well as Transylvanian Saxons and local ethnic Romanians, for nearly a thousand years. In fact, the city held a majority of Hungarians until the mid-1960s, when Hungarians were forced to leave under political and social pressures. To say nothing of Ceaucescu.
That tension was palpable. It was a Hungarian language university hosting our conference, not Romanian. It was a Romanian driver who whisked me past a theatre proudly proclaiming itself as a Hungarian opera house.
I grew up in Texas, a white Mexican American. I understood that tension. I live in Australia, an immigrant. I understand that tension.
It manifested here as a gentle shining worry on the faces of our hosts, who were impeccably gracious and presented an outstanding conference. The tension hummed quietly under every exchange, throughout every conversation, both at the university and out of it, in the streets of the city. No real anger, no rage, just a simmering discomfort, a grain of doubt that never would settle.
It was so much more civil than what I remembered of my childhood, but I wondered at what cost it came. Were there efforts to build connections, to make amends – in both directions? Was there a sense of camaraderie in the face of western European style economic gambits that kept, and continue to keep, the Romanian economy in tatters?
I got my answer to both questions, by sheer luck and the generosity of associates of our university hosts, when I and a few colleagues were invited to visit the Fabrica di Pensule – literally, an old paintbrush factory that had been reclaimed by the community and turned into an arts collective. It sat in the middle of a half-abandoned industrial district, an asymmetrical box made from soot-stained concrete and translucent siding, lined with thin-paned windows. Host to various blackbox theatres, artist studios, and galleries, the Fabrica was an example of the good that could come from a crucible of tensions where the response was collaborative, and not reductive.
Our hosts knew a few of the artists, and two were working in their studios. One worked in concrete – concrete! – and explained that he used it to break the dreary, deadening hold the stuff had on most Romanians. It was the very same concrete from which Ceaucescu’s apartment blocks were built. The artist played with shape and form, and especially colour. It is to my deep and abiding shame that I lost his card and with it his name.
Everyone was happy to talk with us, and were very generous, but through those conversations was the same tension. And I realised again that the tension wasn’t angry, but I’d misnamed its energy before — my expectations had yet again misled me. It wasn’t worry. It was grief, shone through the lens of hope.
Lois Spangler is an ex-pat Mexican American currently living in Brisbane, working on a doctorate of creative industries in interactive narrative at QUT. This is her first piece for Writers Bloc, but she's contributed short stories to ReDeus: Native Lands and Tiny Owl Workshop's Unfettered and Lane of Unusual Traders. She also voices a number of characters for Priori, a YA fantasy story podcast written by Emily Craven. Finally, she blogs somewhat irregularly at www.storytrade.net, supplemented by intermittent natterings at @incognitiously on Twitter.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.