As a child, I spent summers at my grandparents’ place in Bistrița, a small town with a medieval center in northern Romania. Hills covered by forests surrounded the area, and farmers and hunters brought their merchandise to the local markets. My parents were convinced that my grandparents’ love, the clean air and the meat and fresh vegetables were essential to my healthy development. A traveling circus came to Bistrița every August and pitched its tent in a muddy field quickly converted into a joyful, if rudimentary, fairground. To one side of the circus stood a smelly menagerie with sleepy, bored animals including a bear, a monkey and a scrawny tiger; to the other one enjoyed the maize built of mirrors that caused one to look fat or thin or crooked, a shooting gallery, a shack selling balloons, an ice cream and cotton candy parlor, a Ferris wheel, a large swing chair carousel for young people and a small one for children. Waiting my turn to climb into the small, slow moving carousel they called Ringenspiel, I watched with trepidation how the big carousel would start spinning, slowly at first and gradually faster and faster, the single chairs on long chains rising high into the air and flying almost horizontally, music blasting, lights blinking, the young men and women shrieking in excitement. I’d pull at my grandmother’s hand and jump and scream as well, eager to return the next night, but more than anything impatient to reach that wondrous age and maturity when I would be allowed to ride in the big carousel as well.
About ten years later, after my grandparents had become too old to live on their own and moved in with us in Bucharest, I was spending some summer nights at the permanent fairgrounds in Herăstrău Park, in a fancy neighborhood. “Where are you going?” my mother would ask, and I would innocently respond, “To Herăstrău, with my buddies.” She would nod confidently, and I would sneak out of the apartment as swiftly as possible. The fairgrounds were limited in their offerings: a maze carved out of tall bushes, a set of swings, two slides, higher than the ones in children’s playgrounds, and the main attraction, a pair of boats supported by long bars on swivels, that rocked back and forth, and eventually, with sufficient determination, could be made to complete a full circle. We would hide in the maze, or lay low in the boats, smoke and drink beer. Girls would show up as well, run up to the swings and rise into the thin air, their crystalline laughter breaking the still of the evening, their dresses billowing, their long, white legs pumping rhythmically in a sensuous tease or dare. We always accepted the challenge and rushed out of our hiding places screaming at the top of our lungs, climbed on the slides and flew downwards on our backs and bellies. I knew that the metal on the left at the bottom of one of the slides was loose and capable of slicing my skin open or worse, rip my pants, but I didn’t let such knowledge diminish my enthusiasm. It was dingy Romania, of course, yet no amount of communist imperfection would interfere with my happiness and budding masculinity.
Years went by. I married my high school sweetheart and together we moved from Romania to Israel to Greece and finally settled in Maryland. When our daughter and son were four and five the words ‘amusement park’ reentered our vocabulary. The first one we visited was Disneyland in Anaheim, California. We rode the boat through It’s a Small World at Fantasyland, listened to Pop Goes the Weasel, met Mickey and Goofy and generally rejoiced at the expression of happy bewilderment on the faces of our little ones. After the visit we were supposed to have dinner at our friends’ house in Santa Monica. They had a son and a daughter who couldn’t wait to meet our children. As soon as we got in the car, our children collapsed into sleep. They slept during the drive on the highway, as we carried them into our friends’ house, during dinner, after dinner when our friends’ children tried to wake them up and play with them, and then while we apologized for the missed opportunity and carried them back to the car, on our way to the hotel and in their folding beds in the hotel room — until four o’clock the next morning. According to our children’s biological clock, it was wake up time in Maryland.
As our children grew, we took them to amusement parks on the boardwalks in Rehoboth, Delaware and somewhere near Nags Head, in the Outer Banks, North Carolina. We visited King’s Dominion, Bush Gardens, Hershey Park, Sea World and the Aquarium in Baltimore. When we lived in Denmark, we toured Lego Land (the real one!)) and enjoyed Tivoli with its charming old-fashioned rollercoasters, and beer gardens where old ladies smoke cigars and German tourists link arms with each other and sing drunken German folk ballads. In Vienna we took the Ferris Wheel (the Wiener Riesenrad) with our children, and one time, many years later, we enjoyed the panorama from the London Eye on the South Bank of the Thames.
We also visited Disney World in Florida, the most memorable impression from that trip being a short exchange I overheard between two tourists. “Don’t hesitate to go to Europe. It can be enjoyable,” one of them suggested. “Why?” the other asked. “This morning I was at Epcot, and I visited both Norway and Germany.” It took me a while to realize he was serious.
Sadly, as I grew older, I started discovering my limits. The adrenaline is gone, and I am sometimes overcome by a feeling of malaise. I remember when it happened for the first time. We were on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, and my son asked me to ride the ‘scrambled eggs.’ A large moving framework supported what, for lack of better words, I would call three round platforms with individual seats, each platform and seat capable of spinning independently. The platforms tilted back and forth. The ride started, we spun around much faster than I thought we would, and a few minutes later it ended. I had a hard time getting up and walking away. The world before me was a huge precipice. My legs buckled, my head ached, and nausea overcame me.
I do not go on roller coasters anymore, but I don’t think it matters. My children, who have children of their own, have taken over from me.
This year after Thanksgiving they came to our condo in downtown San Diego, and we walked together to the old carousel in Seaport Village. It was set up for the first time in 1895 in Fairpark, Texas, it was moved to the West Coast more than half a century later, and eventually it made it to San Diego where it has been operating since 2004. Alex, my eight years old grandson, had ridden in it many times. When he was smaller me or one of his parents would accompany him — by that I mean that one of us would stand next to the white horse he was riding on, rotating slowly and waving to the people watching the ride. Now he is asserting his independence and insists on riding alone.
His younger sister, Addy, has enjoyed the ride as well. Yesterday, she hopped out of her stroller and ran towards the carrousel. Her mother and Alex ran after her. During the ride, she rewarded us with big smiles.
And this brings me finally to ice cream, for what good is a ride in the carousel, if not followed by a sweet reward? It was Friday after Thanksgiving and I was still full from the turkey and stuffing and the apple pie from the other day, but one cannot avoid what one must do. So, like a diligent grandfather, I stood in line at the Ben & Jerry ice cream parlor, got a cup of mint chocolate chip ice cream for myself, a sugar wafer cone with a scoop of chocolate ice cream for my son, and another sugar wafer cone with vanilla ice cream with sprinkles for my grandson. The ladies in our party held strong and refused my treat. We all remembered how Alex used to call vanilla ‘manila’ when he was four.
The sun was setting. We were together, relaxed and content. It was simple: love, ice cream and an old carousel. Who needs anything else?
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