We went to high school together, our friend Iuliana and I. Perhaps this is different for others, but for me those four years of high school represented and still represent the most important formative time of my life, with cherished memories and fundamental concepts demystified and acquired. I do remember the names of my classmates and my teachers, places, moments, and feelings. Yes, we were taught math and science, and geography and foreign languages, some subjects being interesting and others dreary. And somehow, during that time we managed to become people. Human beings. We understood friendship, and intuited love — physical and romantic. We excelled in sports. We started appreciating music, art, poetry, debates, and intellectual and professional pursuits. We grew. We learned to appreciate humor. Humility. Generosity. Vulnerability. Right and wrong, and along with them, the vague contours of what it means to be on this planet. The only thing we did not understand (because no young person can), and took a lifetime to discover and confirm, is how fast time passes.
Before high school, I was too much of a happy child to worry about life, and afterwards in college, too focused on narrow subject matters. But in high school, yes, in high school was when the curtain lifted and the play started.
My wife and I met in high school and we spent time with Iuliana after school as well. We went to parties together, to the theater, and on trips to the beach. We stayed in touch during college, but then my wife and I left the country and lost touch with Iuliana. Many years later, we ran into her by chance, in Washington DC of all places. She was the consul at the Romanian Embassy, and we were residents of neighboring Columbia, MD. We were different people by then — mature, with professions and chores, and children.
We have stayed in touch ever since, and allowed another twenty years to go by. The world is different today. Communism fell in many countries in Eastern Europe. Last year, my wife and I visited Romania together with a couple of American friends, and Iuliana was gracious enough to accompany us on a whirlwind tour of several beautiful and interesting places and cities like Bucharest, the Peleș Castle, Brașov, Sibiu, and the Transfăgărașan, a scenic highway through Romania’s highest mountains.
Iuliana arrived in San Diego at noon by train from Los Angeles. We met her at the Santa Fe Depot and walked to our downtown condo. As always in San Diego the weather was picture perfect. We had a glass of champagne and a snack, and then crossed the street to walk through Seaport Village. As it got dark we dined at an open-air seafood restaurant by candlelight under the warming waves of electric heaters. It so happened that her birthday had been the day before, so our meal took on an air of celebration.
We had only a few days together and they were filled with the novelty of what we were seeing or doing, modified through the lens of the old (our life experience, both common and different), through debates and refrained enthusiasm.
We walked the Coronado promenade along the beach from the Dell towards Point Loma and remembered the wide beaches and the primitive lodging in the fishing villages of our childhood.
The end of the day, ochre and red, observed from the height of Sunset Cliffs reminded us of the early sunrises at the Black Sea (which washes the eastern shores of Romania), when the day was only beginning.
The visit to Balboa Park’s Museum of Art, with its beautiful Latin America exhibit (the unique Pérez Simón Collection, temporary on loan) enchanted us, while we spoke of earlier moments in our lives when seeing a single major painting by one (anyone) of the world-famous artists was a momentous discovery, recorded in journals, and proudly described to eager friends and relatives.
We visited my son’s family in El Cajon, and compared notes about our children and grandchildren, about the opportunities they enjoy today and the way the digital world and social media has changed things around us.
One evening on our deck, glass of red wine in hand, we talked about life and politics in today’s Romania (with that inordinate passion that only good friends can afford to display). It was dark and everything seemed like in high school — the same phrases, jokes, and gestures. But whether we liked it or not we were different, in looks and in understanding, and soon I realized that while I cared deeply about my native country, I couldn’t really understand it after more than forty years of living abroad.
And so it was. Before we knew, Iuliana rented a car and bravely departed in an easterly direction along the busy Interstate 8 to Phoenix, Arizona, her last stop on this American tour.
All in all, we had wanted to show her a good time in San Diego and had visited many places (among others La Jolla, with its sea lions and smells of the ocean, the Old Town and its tasty Mexican food, the Gaslight Quarter, the cruise on the Bay, the USS Midway aircraft carrier). We didn’t show her the San Diego Zoo, or Sea World, or Belmont Park, or any of the picturesque coastal resorts north of the city, or the vineyards around Temecula, or so many other beautiful tourist attractions. But it doesn’t matter. Because for a short number of days we acted and felt like so many years ago when the world had laid fresh in front of us, and no matter how much we missed, discovery was always possible, and everything was still ours to explore.
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