I want to own a street corner

I was at a wake for a distant relative last night and I realized how different my life has been from that of generations past. The wake was about an hour drive from Targu-Mures on the less traveled roads, where potholes reign supreme and both lanes take on the appearance of an exploded minefield. A 30 kilometers trip turns into an hour-long affair, with phones losing signal and the car stereo losing reception.

As we drive further, the road gives up any pretense of being drivable and turns into a country road, just gravel and dust. It was never paved and it probably never will be. We drive 7 kilometers on that road and it seems that every 500 meters gets us further away from the city. As we get to the village, cows are coming home for the night and they take up one lane of traffic, moving heavily. The sun is still up and the view of the Transylvanian hills is beautiful.

My dad says something about building a house in the middle of nowhere, maybe even buying a hill and running away from it all. I know he doesn’t really mean it, but sometimes voicing such thoughts is more important than ever putting them into practice. I say that I’ve given up on trying to respond to the countryside from the heart. My brother says “if you don’t know what do to with money, just give them to me.” I don’t feel bound to the earth. Endless hills, a star-paved sky and a sea of silence make me edgy. I don’t see quiet in them, I see isolation. It’s true that I am not the most outgoing person so you’d think isolation and me would make a pretty good team. But it isn’t so: one of the reasons I wanted to do journalism is so that I can cure my social stage fright. I need the urban landscape, the rush, the schizophrenic pace of the city to keep me at it.

I don’t want to own a hill, I want to own a street corner.

I remember standing in the window of my eight-floor apartment in Washington, DC in the middle of the night. Three streets were coming together just below us and except for the weekends, there always seemed to be heavy traffic. The 6 PM jams were a car bonanza and I stared in awe at the thousands of people stranded below, more or less coerced to live among so many other people and yet embracing this role. Ambulances and police sirens would blare at all hours of the night and when they woke us up we’d curse this and that politician for using the official convoy to make their way home. But I knew that I wasn’t really complaining. I needed the city and its noise and I know I’m not complete without it.

The wake was at the house. All the wakes I’ve been too in my life–which are not many–were held either in a room at the morgue or at the cemetery the night before the burial. Here, the dead was brought home to the village and she lay in a room surrounded by mortuary flower arrangements. The room was imbued with the smell of formaldehyde and I asked myself how long the smell would remain there. I fear death so the idea of living with its smell after there is no more body to make it real makes me uneasy.

I’d seen most of the people present only a handful of times. They spoke Hungarian and I mostly nodded politely. I understood what they were saying, but my Hungarian has deteriorated so much that I don’t attempt a conversation anymore. We stood in the yard and I watched as men were stuffing huge plastic bowls with pork meat that would be cooked at the funeral the next day. The house was old, and the walls irregular–I thought of how much fun one would have using one of those bubble things that tells you stuff should be straight or at an angle. There was electricity, but that’s about it. The kitchen was a separate room and they pumped water from a hole in the ground that was connected to the well.

The visitors that lived in the village were older–probably the last generation to live there. The youth has left and some have gone far away. On a shelf in the kitchen, in see through plastic, were two printed pictures of people my age. I knew right away these were taken in a foreign country. That’s how far we run.

There are many houses in the village that are uninhabited. There are no jobs. People make a living from selling fire wood and doing agriculture. They talk to my dad about the surgeries they had and about the only medication that has helped them in their lives: a shot or two of palinka a day. Their fingernails are black and bunted, their skin coarse. A dying breed, I think, but it’s not regret I feel. I feel a tinge of sadness, the sadness of losing something I never owned, but at the same time understanding that the world won’t be the same after without it.

This is not good, or bad, it just is. When they poured me a shot of palinka, I downed it thinking of this. Sometimes, life just “is” and we just “are”. And what I want is to be able to remember all of it, because I’m afraid of forgetting more than I am afraid of losing.

9 Responses to “I want to own a street corner”

  1. i love your writing.

  2. In the interest of contrarianism, I’d submit that longing for the urban scene tends to preoccupy the youthful while as one ages the great outdoors becomes increasingly more appealing.

    Not everyone fits the pattern, but don’t be entirely shocked if your trajectory changes in a couple decades.

  3. One of your best pieces.

    I, on the other hand, long for a cabin in the mountains — with fast-speed Internet, however 🙂

  4. Mono, thanks. Raluca, I knew you’d say that. I hope there’ll be no cabin fever in your future 🙂

    And yes, I admit that 20 years from now I might want to run and hide. I’ll let you know where I am when that happens so we can do some activities 🙂

  5. great article

  6. I had similar reactions when I first visited my grandmother’s village after my one-year stint in the US. Lives that don’t belong to them…

    I don’t know, I got scared all of a sudden that they will pass away closing shut a possible door to what I am, where I came from. So ever since that day I tried to make up the time I never bothered to give them. I’ve had various family members, some of which I didn’t even know were family tell me their stories (much was forgotten though). I have digital recordings of my dad, grandmother, aunt remembering.

    I don’t quite know what I am going to do with them and the old sepia photos, but I sure learned a lot about my family.

    The weird thing is even recent history is fading – I grew up in Bucharest and on a recent trip to childhood places I barely recognized them.

    Great post Cristi.

  7. “That’s how far we run.”

    What do we run from?

  8. We run from this country I suppose. From our belief that this country will not do its part as well as we do ours. Maybe from our own cowardness to confront it.

  9. Bravo maestre, excellent work

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