Moments from a Summer Vacation

Bistrița 1954

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

Their train was leaving Bucharest at 9 in the evening and arriving eight hours later in the hamlet of Sărățel, where Galina and little Andy had to catch a commuter train to Bistrița. Galina appreciated the alleged benefits of the vacation, but she dreaded the idea of changing trains at five in the morning with a sleepy four-year-old, two suitcases, her purse and a heavy tote with snacks and the water bottle.

Andy’s parents saw them off at the North Railway Station, loaded their luggage into their first-class compartment, kissed and hugged both of them — Galina’s son-in-law pulled her hard to his chest, while she rolled her eyes and looked alarmed at her daughter. Their reserved seats were closest to the door of the compartment, and Andy wanted to sit by the window. He pouted and an elderly gentleman with a kind, wrinkly face offered him his window seat. Galina thanked the older man profusely, while Andy jumped with his shoes onto the upholstery, and happily leaned out through the open window to wave goodbye to his parents.

“We’ll call you tomorrow afternoon,” Galina said, and her daughter nodded reassuringly.

The train started moving. It was past Andy’s bedtime, and as soon as they closed the window and left Bucharest, the boy fell asleep, his head resting heavily on Ina’s shoulder.

The gentleman next to her talked to her nonstop, and insisted she try at least one of his Turkish Delights covered in powdery sugar from an out of shape cardboard box. Galina refused, afraid of getting too thirsty. It occurred to her that the man, the gentleman, was flirting, which was amazing and amusing also, given their age, the child by her side and the other people in the compartment. Had she not been pinned down by her sleeping grandson, she would have walked into the corridor. Instead, she let the man talk, closed her eyes and pretended to fall asleep, while her thoughts drifted.

This was her first train ride since a decade earlier and instead of melancholy, the trip was causing a sense of discomfort. Much had changed and she had contributed little in shaping those changes. She had simply ridden along, a passenger on a track she had not chosen. These days, she lived with her daughter and son-in-law in an apartment in Bucharest, her mother had passed away, and she had become a grandmother. She loved little Andy, yet there existed a secret empty space in her heart. Where did the years go and why did they pass by so quickly?

Bistrița was supposedly a nice little town on the sub-Carpathian plateau of Transylvania, with clean air and access to fresh produce, a good place for Andy’s health and for a summer vacation away from Bucharest’s dusty and crowded streets. She would have to adjust to living in Marie and Sasha’s apartment, her son-in-law’s parents. She had met them at her daughter’s wedding and during their rare visits to Bucharest since Andy was born. They were related now, but had remained, practically strangers.

She looked around and found the train compartment shabbier than the one in which she had last travelled. The floors were dirtier, the blue velvet seats frayed and the once starched white antimacassars hanging over the headrests were in urgent need of bleaching. Years of communist rule showed their mark, and she noticed it.

Eventually, with the monotonous rocking of the fast moving train, she eased off into a fitful sleep, and, when they stopped in a train station a couple of hours later, she noticed that the kind gentleman had disappeared.
In Sărățel, the conductor helped her lower her suitcases to the pier and called a porter. Andy contributed by carrying the tote with the snacks and the water bottle. The porter, a burly man who spoke with an lilting accent Galina had never heard before, led them to several coupled railcars parked on rusty tracks overgrown with spring flowers, told them to climb in, and installed them in a second class compartment that reeked of cigarettes and leather polish. They were the only passengers.

“Are you sure this is our train?” asked Galina.

“I’m sure.”

“But it’s totally empty. Abandoned.”

“It’s not. You’re early.”

“Not that early,” Galina said after consulting her wristwatch and noting that according to the train schedule they were supposed to leave in twenty minutes. “I don’t see a locomotive.”

“They’ll bring one shortly,” the porter answered in his heavy accent. He was getting impatient. “You owe me two lei, one per suitcase.”

Galina paid him, after which he relaxed. “It fills with commuters at the last moment,” he said. “All nice and hard-working people.”

The porter left and the railcar sunk into an eerie silence. Galina looked out the window in both directions and lit a cigarette.

“Don’t worry, Grandma,” Andy said. “You heard what the man told us.”

“You’re right.” She smiled and sat down. Why worry?

Satisfied, the boy sat next to her, lowered his head on her lap, stretched his body along the bench and fell asleep in an instant. Although she had watched him sleep every night of his life, he had been in his crib or, later, in his bed, covered by his blanket. He had grown. A miniature man was lying there right now, fully dressed, with his shoes on, a brave little man, telling her not to worry. She gently caressed his hair and moved aside the few strands that covered his forehead, letting her fingers spread over his closed eyelids, as if to protect them from the light that was becoming brighter. She felt a thud and heard a clanking noise, and the car moved a little. The commuters started pouring in, with speed and self-assurance, their heavy steps, loud voices, and door slamming reverberating through the metal walls of the railcar. The boy slept through the ruckus, through the long whistle of the locomotive, and the screeching of wheels, as the train gained speed.

In Bistrița, several travelers helped Galina with her suitcases, and, as she thanked them and lifted her eyes, there was Sasha waiving at them from the end of the pier. He had arrived with a service car, and his driver grabbed Galina’s luggage and rushed ahead with the throng of commuters.

Sasha bent down to Andy. “Hello, young fella’ and welcome. You must be tired and sleepy. Aren’t you? Come here. I’ll carry you. Come to Grandpa.” He put his big hands around the boy’s middle, preparing to lift him.

Andy looked at Galina, who nodded in approval, and the boy handed her the bag with the snacks and the water bottle. Sasha was a tall man and Andy’s face reflected a mixture of surprise and excitement when he found himself being raised high up in the air.

“Welcome to you too,” Sasha said, turning to Galina.

A line of horse drawn carriages waited in front of the railway station. Sasha’s driver was standing on the sidewalk, next to a car with a large Red Cross painted on the rear window. To his delight, Andy was allowed to sit up front, in his grandfather’s lap.

The apartment occupied the second floor of a century old stone house on Victory Street, not far from the Evangelical Church and the city’s main square. Facing the street, were two large rooms with high ceilings, one of which, the bedroom, bridged the old carriage entrance. The second large room, normally used for dining and entertaining, had been reallocated to Galina and Andy, as their temporary bedroom. Two narrow cots were placed against the walls, one on each side of a large, solid black dining table.

Sasha apologized for Marie’s absence. “They had an emergency at the hospital,” he offered as an excuse. He called Pani, their maid, and asked her to serve the breakfast. Smelling the food, Lonny, the family tabby cat, jumped on Sasha’s lap and was rewarded with several pieces of cheese and buttered toast. Satisfied, the cat curled up purring on one of the cots. Eager to pet Lonny, Andy joined her and fell asleep.

When Marie arrived, she found Galina dozing on her cot and Andy playing quietly with the three lead soldiers he had brought with him from Bucharest.
Galina opened her eyes.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Marie said. “And I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Don’t worry, I had all the rest I need,” Galina said, which of course was not true. “This bed is very comfortable.”

“You’re a small person,” Marie answered with an ironic look that Galina didn’t know how to take. Marie was the same height as her, but slimmer and she ascribed Marie’s aloofness to the unfamiliarity of the situation. The playful way in which her curly and graying hair framed her forehead and the mole under Marie’s right eye seemed like signs of distinction.

Marie didn’t dwell on the subject of body size or folding beds and moved to address Andy. “Young man, I have a present for you. I’ll be back in an instant.”

“Before you go,” Galina said raising the question that had been on her mind since she arrived in the apartment. “How do you want Andy to call you because he calls me Grandmother?”

“That’s all right,” Marie said. “I consider myself young. I work. My mother is still alive, I’m not ready for such a grand title. I’d like him to call me Mimi, the way my mother used to called me when I was little.”

And Mimi it was — two syllables, like a baby’s whimpering.

Marie rushed to her bedroom and returned with her present — a bright red fire truck, with removable fire fighters, a siren, a cistern that could be filled with water, a hand crank, and a hose. The firefighters took precedence over the lead soldiers in an instant, and Marie beamed.

“What do you say to…Mimi?” Galina prompted Andy.

“Thank you,” Andy said shyly.

“Thank you, Mimi,” Galina corrected him, while Andy, ignoring her, activated the siren and pushed his truck on its first rescue mission towards Galina’s cot, and then back and onto the cotton blanket where Lonny was still sleeping. Noiselessly, the cat slid down and disappeared.

The next day Mimi introduced Andy to Ari and Mordechai Perlman, the six year old twins, who lived with their parents and an aunt in the two rooms downstairs. The other room was occupied by a young couple, the Kovaches.
The entrance into the Perlmans’ rooms was from the backyard. A wood-burning stove served for cooking and heating. During the day, the bed that the aunt slept on was folded and pushed to the wall. Weather permitting, the twins spent most of their time outside.

“We are leaving for Israel at the beginning of summer,” Ari said and ran out the door. He had dark eyes, dark curly hair, and his slightly overweight body trembled with nervous energy. Mordechai, his identical twin, followed his brother.

Andy didn’t know what Israel was. He looked at the adult Perlmans who didn’t saying anything, shrugged and followed the boys. A few hens pecked peacefully in front of the stable, abandoned now, since none of the people who lived in the house used horses. Ari dashed towards the hens and scared them. The hens cackled. Mordechai picked up a pebble. Pigeons lined up the ledge above the doors of the stable. Mordechai’s pebble hit the door with a thud, and one pigeon flew away, then, like an afterthought, all the others.
Andy watched from a short distance. He wasn’t used to any sort of violent behavior and did not know how to react. In Bucharest, his best friend, Colette, was a girl and she liked to dress and undress dolls and sing nursery rhymes in a foreign language. He had played with other children in his street only in the presence of his grandmother. Now she was upstairs, and Mimi, who had introduced him to the twins, had left for the hospital. Both Mimi and Sasha were doctors. The twins’ parents and aunt didn’t work. They were sitting inside their dark room, looking at each other.

The next day, the twins took Andy to the barn, where they tried to give a stray cat a haircut and a bath. The cat wriggled in Mordechai’s arms, while Ari approached it with a pair of rusty clippers.

The barn smelled of rot and was filled with rubbish and dilapidated furniture. A basin with lukewarm water prepared beforehand by the twins stood on a makeshift table.

“Wow, this cat is sick,” said Andy pointing at the cat’s inflated belly.

“Yeah, sick all right,” said Ari winking at his brother. With a quick move of his fingers he clipped the cat’s left whiskers. He made a triumphant face, but his old clippers must have pinched the animal, because the cat tensed and arched and when Ari approached its right side, the cat scratched Mordechai’s arm from the elbow to the soft padding of his palm. Mordechai screamed in pain and released the cat, which jumped on the edge of the washbasin overturning it, getting Andy’s pants wet to the skin and disappearing behind the old furniture.

“This pussycat must have reacted so wildly because she was pregnant,” Mrs. Perlman offered as a potential excuse while bandaging her son’s injured arm. It was almost the end of May, but still cool outside, and Andy’s pants were drying in the heat emanating from the wood-burning stove.

A few days passed before Andy played with the twins again. He was too young to express his discontent through absence, but the wheels of a hidden instinct churned inside him and prevented him from seeking their company sooner. When he went to see them, he took his red fire truck with him and presented it as his trophy.

At first, the twins respected his contribution, the three boys taking orderly turns in winding the wheels of the truck and launching it on the cold concrete floor of their dark dwelling. Then they went outside and the rules of civilized behavior were quickly abandoned. The twins took the truck and sent it from one to the other, forgetting their younger friend, who was too clumsy to intervene and too contemplative in nature to protest. Soon, the truck took an aerial trajectory between the two, sometimes reaching the ground accidentally, losing its fire fighters in the mud, getting its red enamel chipped, and having the little water hose slide off its reel and come untangled.
The final test became the railing along the stairs that lead to the back entrance to Andy’s grandparents’ apartment.

“Let’s see how it handles obstacles,” Ari said enthusiastically, climbed halfway up, and sent the truck down on the railing. When the toy lost its direction and hit the ground, it came apart.

Andy collected the wheels, the remnants of the red engine, the out of shape water cistern and the thumb sized firefighters, and left without saying good-bye. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes.

“They were jealous,” said Galina when the family gathered to discuss the event.

“Which one of the two actually destroyed your fire engine?” asked Sasha on the determined tone of one ready to demand reparations, which, of course, he was not going to do.

Andy didn’t answer.

“It’s his inherent goodness,” said Galina looking at Andy admiringly.

“He just stood there,” Marie said, disappointed.

Andy’s friendship with the twins would have come to an end anyhow, because one day in the middle of June, a horse driven cart appeared in the backyard. Mr. Perlman and his wife loaded two large wooden crates onto the cart, with the help of the driver.

“This is all they allow us to take,” Aunt Perlman complained to a neighbor who showed up to bid his good-bye.

The Kovaches, Pani, Andy and his three grandparents came out as well.

“Good luck in your new life,” Ileana Kovach wished the Perlmans with nostalgia. They had lived next door from each other for years, and she was hoping to occupy the vacated room as soon as their cart made the corner to Victory Street. The housing shortage was acute, and squatters’ rights applied everywhere.

“Our plane leaves for Tel Aviv tomorrow in the afternoon,” said Mr. Perlman, his face distorted by emotion. “But we first have the train to Bucharest to content with.”

“Via Sărățel,” Galina said.

Ari turned to the side, covered one nostril with his finger, and blew the snoot to the ground.

Mrs. Perlman burst into tears.

Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.