Romanian Holidays 2004-2005

24 Dec

There are two ways to ride a train.

Facing forward, your eyes flick from the distance, which blurs as soon as it enters your conscious vision, to the periphery, then back into the distance. Before you can focus on what is ahead, it is past and gone.

The other way is to face the direction from which you have come, a slower, sweeter experience, with time for eyes to linger on the shape of the landscape and the tracks unwinding like ribbon from a spool.

At the station in Iasi, a city on the eastern border of Romania, nearly touching the Republic of Moldova, and our home for the past four months, last-minute shoppers crowd into kiosks to buy bottles of wine or liquor, fancy cookies and candies, small toys and chocolate Santas for nieces and nephews.

Some clutch fir trees under their arms, their hands busy with shopping bags. Some of the trees are four, five, six feet tall, tied into just-manageable spear-shaped packages. These travelers will board the personal trains, slow commuter trains, the dingiest and oldest. On the personal train, no one (well, maybe one or two) will scowl at them for taking up extra room.
We board the Inter-city train, the Blue Arrow, shiny and bullet-shaped, a high-tech beauty.

Scraps of snow appear as we rise, the altitude softening the impact of noise ¬— boys in the seat behind throwing dice onto a hard surface, the beeping of mobile phones, the piped-in pop-disco music.

Outside, the past dissolves into the landscape, disappears behind hills and gets tangled in copses of black trees, their gnarled fingers reaching for the watery winter sun.

At each end of the journey is a flurry of movement, laundry and packing, arrangements of lodging and rides, gifts to buy, things to remember, like paying the Internet bill and buying a good bottle of scotch for the Fulbright driver, who will pick us up at 9:30 p.m. Christmas eve eve.

We will ride for five hours and fifteen minutes, putting more than 300 miles between ourselves and Iasi. We will start counting, and lose track of, the seven stops in between Iasi and our holiday destination, Bucharest, with names like Vaslui, Barlad, Focsani.
Once in that city of more than 2 million, now brighter than it was when we were here five years ago, we will stay in the apartment of a fellow Fulbrighter and friend from that other time, while she spends her holiday in the states.

We will visit other friends, drink champagne and watch the sky fill with fireworks and smoke on New Year’s Eve, walk around Herestrau Lake at dusk when the light becomes soft and misty, photograph the blue and white strands of snowflake-shaped lights strung all down the Bulevardul Magheru. We will buy the International Herald Tribune and read it in a noisy café, and, as we do at home, watch “A Christmas Carol” with Alistair Sim (the copy Gary ordered will be waiting for us at the Fulbright office).

Before earthquakes and tidal waves tear Asia apart, before carolers knock at the apartment door hoping to sing for sweets and money, before we get pelted with strange winter rain, or tour Ceaucescu’s despised Palace of Parliament—the monstrous government building erected to massage his monstrous ego—before we spend evenings drinking the strong brandy called “palinca” or eating Indian food with friends, before a single trip on the stuffy, efficient metro, we spend time on this train.

Outside, just before the light disappears, we pass a grazing herd of dingy sheep, tan and dirty white, scattered like a pile of crumpled papers in the burned-black field, while further down the line a simple wooden carriage pulled by two brown horses waits at the crossing, the driver watching us watch him.

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