At the Black Sea (Part 1)

Eforie 1954

From A Family Album: https://alexduvan.medium.com/a-family-album-40829e212764

Nine years after World War Two and seven years after regime change, life in the Popular Republic of Romania was slowly taking a new and clear direction. But there were lingering doubts. People who had disappeared during the war remained unaccounted for and arrests during the political purges led to fear and caused tragic family break-ups. Yet food was becoming more plentiful, bombed houses were being rebuilt, trains ran more or less on time and the Party, in its infinite wisdom, established a Summer Camp for children in a former sanatorium south of Eforie, a resort previously frequented by the wealthy on the beautiful shores of the Black Sea.

Dr. Dalia Bardu’s assignment to the camp as the medical director was for the duration of the summer. It was a much-coveted position, for which she had applied well in advance, thinking that Andy, her seven-year-old son, would benefit from the experience. The fact that Virgil, her husband, was a Party member and a doctor as well, helped a great deal. Her mother came along to take care of Andy while Dalia worked. Virgil stayed in Bucharest and visited them on the weekends.

The other doctor in the camp was Nanu Zaharia, from Râmnicu Vâlcea. Two doctors for one camp were more than necessary, but when it came to setting an example, as far as the Party was concerned, more was always preferred.

Over one hundred and fifty boys and girls between the ages of seven and fourteen came to the camp for two weeks at a time over the summer. Their parents were workers and peasants, and many of the children, like Andy, had never seen the Black Sea before. In addition to the two doctors, the cooks, cleaning people, teachers and helpers, the facility employed a Party coordinator entrusted with promoting the correct ideology and morale. The boys’ dormitories were on the second floor, the girls’ on the third. The staff shared the rooms on the main floor, next to the kitchen and dining room. Dalia’s room was furnished with a double bed and a cot, a table, a dresser, an icebox and two chairs. Normally, she slept in the double bed with Andy, but on the nights she was on duty, she took the cot and Andy shared the bed with his grandmother, Galina. The showers and bathrooms were at the end of the corridor.

The building was right on the beach, painted a light tan to blend in with the sand. Large windows were covered by green wooden shades. A wide concrete terrace opened to the sea. The tan paint was peeling.

After breakfast, the children were marched onto the beach to catch the ultraviolet sunrays. At the beginning of their two weeks, they were instructed to lie quietly for five minutes on their stomachs and five minutes on their backs. They liked best being on their stomachs and letting their fingers rake the fine sand. Their controlled sun exposure was increased gradually. Once the daily heliotherapy ended, the children were allowed to play freely and even venture into the water. From their chairs under large umbrellas, the teachers and the helpers watched the children like hawks. At ten thirty, when the heat became sweltering, the children were taken inside to play board games, read and paint. They were allowed back on the beach after naptime. At the end of each day, the Party coordinator taught them patriotic songs, recounted episodes from the fight of the proletariat against the old bourgeois regime and read them books about Lenin.

Being the Comrade Doctor’s son, Andy didn’t have to submit to the rigor of the camp schedule and spent most of his time with grandmother. Most afternoons, once her work was done, Dalia joined them. The sun, which had risen in the morning from the sea, was setting over the sound on the other side of road, spreading soft rays of gold. When the wind blew from the sound, the air smelled of mud. It was still warm in the afternoon and Dalia, grandmother Galina and Andy build sandcastles or walked along the shore looking for shells.

Andy liked wallowing in the surf. Galina only let him advance until the waves reached his knees.

Dalia was daring. When she took Andy into the sea, the water reached to his chest, and they jumped the small waves holding hands. “Try swimming,” she urged him. “Like this.” She let go off his hands, lowered herself in the water, and lifted her legs. She floated, holding her head halfway above the surface. Droplets sparkled on her happy face. “See? It’s easy to swim in the sea. The salty water keeps us from sinking.”

Andy looked unconvinced.

“That’s all right. We have the rest of the summer,” Dalia said and stood up. Her wet hair was glossy, raven black strands split evenly over her shoulders in the front and the back. Aware that she had put on a few pounds since Andy’s birth, she was wearing a black one-piece swimsuit. Her tanned skin looked healthy and smooth. Enjoying the moments with her son, her face was relaxed and beautiful. If anything, the extra pounds added an enticing softness to her looks, appropriate for a thirty-four year old woman.

Dr. Zaharia waded into the water. He floated in their direction, arms stretched forward, strongly kicking his legs. “In order to swim,” he told Andy, “you first need to learn how to breathe.” He got to his knees, leaned forward and dunked his head. Air bubbles streamed to the surface. “Like this,” he declared when he raised his face and looked first at Andy and then at Dalia. “Always keep your eyes open underwater.” He took Andy’s hands. “Let’s try it together.”

Andy hesitated and then lowered himself into the water to his chin.

“More,” Dr. Zaharia said.

Dalia nodded.

A wave washed over them.

From the shore, Galina watched with concern.

“Like that!” Dr. Zaharia exclaimed. “One more time.”

Andy opened his eyes under water and a new world exploded in front of him. Strands of sea grass, little silvery fish, sand, shell fragments and air bubbles danced among dispersing sunrays. The sounds were muffled and tangible, like he could grab them. Waves washed overhead. There was no beginning or end, only magic — the magic of the kaleidoscope. Andy didn’t know why he liked it, but he did. He dunked his head underwater and exhaled, again and again.

“You did it,” Dalia said.

Dr. Zaharia turned and broke out in a crawl towards the open sea, foam trailing behind. It was a fine demonstration, intended for Dalia.

“Thank you, Dr. Zaharia,” she said when he returned from the deep.

“My pleasure. I love teaching small children. Unfortunately, we don’t have any, I mean me and my wife.” Then he added in a whisper, “She can’t.”

The camp staff whispered that Dr. Zaharia liked Dalia.

The swimming lessons continued over the following weeks and Andy got better.

“It’s good for him,” Dr. Zaharia said one afternoon. Behind the dunes, the sun was dipping. “It’s a complete sport that helps one’s body develop in the most harmonious way.” He inflated his torso and flexed his pectorals. “Your Andy has a tummy he should get rid off, in my opinion. Normal children, when they’re no longer babies, are skinny. Look at the kids in this camp. See their ribs and bellybuttons.” He raised his index finger into the air. “Like this finger, if you want, like a stick. But your Andy is chubby. I hope you don’t mind me saying this, since it’s for your child’s benefit.”

Andy was looking down at the sand. As if to protect him, Galina threw a towel over his shoulders.

Dalia didn’t respond. She minded Zaharia’s words a great deal. They made her angry. Why was he talking like that when Andy was there? Normal children, baloney! Andy was normal.

On the weekends, when Virgil visited, Dr. Zaharia moved in with the Party coordinator, so that Dalia and her husband could take his room and have some privacy. “How else would they enjoy their conjugal rights?” he asked the Party coordinator with a wink. Râmnicu Vâlcea was farther away than Bucharest and his wife only visited him once the entire summer.

At breakfast one Sunday, the Party coordinator surprised everyone with the announcement that he had invited an illusionist. Their regular schedule would be replaced with an afternoon of magic. Reading about Lenin’s life was magical also, but variety, why not admit it, was the spice of life.

The illusionist’s name was Jean Iamandi and the children were instructed to address him as Comrade Magician.

Virgil took Andy on a walk on the beach to the stone jetty by the former Eforie casino. “Let’s ask Dr. Zaharia if walking, like swimming, contributes to the harmonious development of children,” he told Dalia in jest. He found Dr. Zaharia’s comments about Andy’s chubbiness boorish, but not concerning. Andy wasn’t concerned either, running ahead like a pup, jumping the waves, splashing, and throwing polished stones into the water.

Local boys fished from the huge rocks that lined the jetty. For a few coins, one of them sold Virgil a dozen black gobies strung through their gills on a line with a stick at the end. “Eat them grilled,” he told Virgil.

Back at the camp, the children were more animated than ever. Their beach time was over, and they were going inside shouting and pushing, while the educators tried to split them into groups of ten. The magician’s truck was parked near the loading dock.

“He came early,” one kid yelled at Andy, jumping up and down. “We’re going to see his animals.”

Dalia wrapped the fish in brown paper and placed them in the icebox. “I’ll get some more ice from the kitchen.”

“I want to look at the animals,” said Andy.

“I’m coming with you,” said Galina.

Two metal cages, a small one holding white doves, and a large one with one black rabbit and four white ones sat on the kitchen floor. The children came through to admire the animals. The seven-year-olds received carrots to feed the rabbits and sunflower seeds for the birds. The cooks, who were preparing lunch, stood guard in front of the hot ovens.

Andy wasn’t impressed. He had seen the circus menagerie in Bucharest with tigers and monkeys.

In the dining room, a man was sitting alone at a table sipping his coffee. When Andy, Dalia and Galina entered, the man got up. He was slender and not very tall. His black hair was slicked back and covered his ears.

“Dr. Dalia Bardu?” he asked. “I was hoping to run into you. I’m Jean Iamandi.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Dalia and when they shook hands it was clear they were of the same height.

“Maybe you’ve heard this, Doctor, but your reputation precedes you,” Iamandi continued smiling broadly. “I live in Constanța and people there are speaking of you.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, they say you are a beautiful woman, and they’re right on.”

“I was hoping it was my professional reputation, not my looks,” Dalia said modestly. In her left hand, the ice was melting and dripping on the floor.

“That too,” Iamandi responded quickly. His eyes darted from side to side and fell on Galina and Andy. “And you must be the mother, Galina and son, Andy. What a handsome family you have, Doctor.”

Clearly, Galina was taken aback. “Hello to you, too,” she answered.

Iamandi turned his attention back to Dalia. “I admire your dedication to the children and I share it with you,” he said. “That’s why I’m here early, to meet all of them and make them a little happier. But Doctor, I know just how difficult your work can be, how monotonous. You might think you’re alone in this beautiful place by the sea, but you aren’t. Don’t take this the wrong way, and, if at any moment you feel like you need a break, give me a sign. Constanța, our largest port city, is half an hour away and it has so much to offer. I’ll leave you my phone number and if you call, I’ll come and pick you up in my car.”

“You mean your truck, Mr. Iamandi,” Galina specified acridly.

“Jean. Call me Jean.” Iamandi smiled broadly. “And my truck is very comfortable. But I understand your husband is waiting, and your ice is making a puddle. Go now but promise me you’ll think about it.”

“I will,” said Dalia.

“Like hell you will,” Galina mumbled as soon as they left the dining room. “I didn’t like him, and how did he know my name?”

“He’s a magician.”

While the children were napping, Virgil introduced himself to Iamandi. “I was going to the beach,” he said.

“I have about an hour to kill. Do you mind if I join you?”

Outside they ran into Dr. Zaharia who had just ended his afternoon swim. Dripping wet, he shook hands with them. Virgil dropped his shorts and his checkered shirt on the sand.

Iamandi made a face. “I don’t have my swimming trunks.”

“Then let’s go for a walk,” Zaharia said.

Iamandi nodded, and folded up the hem of his pants to below his knees.

“This way,” Dr. Zaharia said, starting in the opposite direction than Virgil had followed that morning. “There is something interesting, you’ll see.”

“The nudists,” Virgil said.

Dr. Zaharia nodded.

“It’s actually a spa,” Virgil said, not clear for whose benefit. “The mud from the sound is believed to have medicinal benefits, and people cover their bodies in it and lay naked on the beach. I’ll give it to you, it looks unusual.”

“I would say it looks sexy,” Dr. Zaharia said.

“Nanu, how long has it been since you’ve seen your wife?” Virgil asked Dr. Zaharia.

The man laughed. “It’s not that,” he said.