We Came, We Saw, We Left

Today was the day of the reunion.

We started with a breakfast at our hotel, which consisted of bread, spreads, a bit of meat and cucumbers and tomatoes for fruit, yet despite its simplicity somehow remained incredibly greasy and made me feel a bit queezy by the end of it.

The reunion itself was touching, old ladies who were childhood friends embracing for the first time in 50 years. It’s sad that we are sundered from our friends in an indifferent wind blasted waste. Why do we leave the place where we were born? What’s out there that we leave behind the sweetness of home and old friends for strange lands?

War is a good reason, and so is totalitarianism. It’s sad that a world full of beautiful things smashed itself against itself during the war, and afterwards neglected itself in pursuit of petty power and individual rather than societal wealth, of coercion rather than consent, of a plan rather than a system that runs itself.

Then there are the old men who see a young man and are compelled to pass judgement or wisdom of dubious value:

Why don’t you speak Romanian or Hungarian? My daughter speaks four languages. You couldn’t learn one?

Are you married? Why not? If I can give you one piece of advice, marry a philipino girl. They make excellent wives.

But they’re not all bad. The friends my mother, Peter, Ticu, and Bibiloi, were, frankly, lovely. They’ve been friends since they were young, and made a real effort to make us feel welcome and comfortable. They kept up a friendly report, making fun of each other and themselves. When we first met Bibiloi in Budapest, Peter asked him how he was doing, he responded “Shitty but proud,” which was frankly hilarious. My mother still has a few friends she keeps in touch with in North America, Cica, pictured above, and named Shani (which is a Hungarian diminutive of Alexander), who were both very nice as well.

The main event seemed to be a four hour long mock class, which consisted of a 2 hour long lecture by two nonagenarian former teachers, talking narrowly about the malaise that pervades Romanian society, in Romanian of course. We all sat very politely through it.

After the lecture, they called roll– those who were there stood up and described their lives. They were mostly retired, in their twilight years, so there was a lot of justifying their diminished expectations of life. One man got a round of applause for proclaiming he had plans for the future. If they called the name of someone who wasn’t there, anyone with such knowledge would report on their recent happenings. If they were deceased, the alumni would say their name and acknowledge them as deceased. It was sweet in its way.

Lunch was a surprisingly pleasant banquet for the Alumni at a restaurant, called the Mioritza, which has been there for at least 60 years. By coincidence I sat across from an alumnus’s daughter, who lives in the Netherlands with her husband and two kids, and Shani’s sister. The daughter was 20 years older than me, which means her father got married and started having babies very promptly after emigrating to Israel.

Afterwards we took a nap and met up with my cousin Linda, who works in tech, currently remotely from Cluj. She was born in Romania, and has Romanian citizenship. We walked around a little more, admired some Soviet Era architecture, some of which is in worse shape than the 19th century buildings that make up Satzmar; and we looked for the addresses where her family used to live.

Then dinner, at a place called No Pardon Cafe. The name reminded me of the Timbers Army’s “No Pity, Rose City” cheer. The food was good, and the conversation interesting. Linda’s been living in Cluj for about a year. We talked about why things are so run down, and the destructive consequences of Communism. She said it used to be a matter of survival to avoid even acknowledging there is a problem when there is one, which leaves people ill-equipped to deal with them when they crop up now. The country is run by crooks– everyone from the reunion organizer, to my mother’s friend Peter, to Linda agreed. When Ceausescu was overthrown, the same people stayed in charge. No one else knew how to run the country, and the only way the people who knew wanted to run it was to loot it. What do you do about a culture of corruption?

And now bed. Tomorrow we head back to Budapest, and catch a train to Vienna for the night. I can’t say I’m sad to be leaving Satzmar.