This trip was a big deal. I traveled to Bucharest to attend my 50th high school reunion.
50 years, a mind-boggling amount of time. It represents more than half a person’s average lifetime. The golden anniversary for half a century of marriage if you live long enough to celebrate it. Much changes in fifty years: music, fashion, towns and cities, the climate, technology, political systems, borders.
And the way people look. They change on the outside, but not necessarily on the inside. At first I didn’t recognize some of my schoolmates, but as soon as they opened their mouth I saw in front of me the boy or girl of sixteen or seventeen they used to be, speaking the same way, making the same gestures, telling the same jokes and even expressing the same world views they had in the late sixties. On the inside, I don’t feel myself aging and I am not smarter or more accomplished now than I was before. The passage of time has provided me only with a thin veil of caution that some call experience, and with the silent acceptance that I can’t do as many pushups as before.
The other reason the trip was a big deal was the journey itself. The long flights were uneventful, which means they were mind-numbingly boring. I waited — for the bus from the parking lot, to board the plane, to take off, to get there and back, to go through passport control, and so on and so forth, forever. To fly from Washington, DC to Bucharest takes about fourteen hours. The return takes eighteen hours. When I got home, I felt like a zombie. My eyes were red, my mouth was dry and my thoughts were twirling in my mind like dust in a storm. I had seen four and a half movies and three episodes of the Big Bang Theory on the little screen on the back of the seat in front of me, and I had played all the games on my iPhone at nauseam. I had lifted my Kindle six times only to put it down after a few minutes again and again, too tired for any serious reading.
The reunion festivities started at our high school in the faculty lounge. The school is an imposing 19thcentury neoclassical building, with massive steps leading to the main entrance and stone columns supporting the portico. A long table awaited us with preprinted metal nametags and buttons with the name of the high school: St. Sava National College. After about forty minutes of timid hugs, greetings and happy signs of recognition, we went to the auditorium. The organizer of the event, a woman who was young looking and spirited enough to keep us on our toes — did the roll call. Of the close to 400 students who graduated in 1969, only 75 showed up, and of these about one third now live outside Romania (on this trip I learned that four to five million Romanians had recently left the country, an astonishing brain drain and representing more people than there are refugees from war devastated Syria). As the names were called, those present rose up and said a few words: how happy they were to be there, how emotional this reunion was, how quickly the years had gone by, how thankful they were to our wonderful teachers who had put up with us and had set us on our successful journey through life, and that we should do this more often. None of it seemed trite, corny or sentimental. We were embalmed in that warm spirit that washes over a crowd when emotion rules.
After a glass of champagne and a memory walk through the hallways of the school, we went to a restaurant. At first, the atmosphere was awkward, as if we were strangers again. The air in the dining room was stifling. It’s not that they don’t have air conditioning, but there is this hang-up in Romania that air conditioning is expensive and unhealthy, as if feeling comfortable on a hot and humid summer day is unnatural. We barely made it through the before dinner drinks and appetizers, and through the wine and the steak and chicken dinner when the music started. It was the music we used to listen to in the mid to late sixties, sweet rock and roll, true and true. And it hit us like a ton of bricks. Some of us got up and went to the dance floor. Then more people joined in the dancing, and then even more. Soon we formed a huge circle, all seventy five of us, hair bouncing, sweat pouring, limbs flying any which way. It was a geriatric gathering gone berserk — an explosion of love and enthusiasm, of hugs and kisses, of grimacing and joking, a moment of abandon when all of our so-called experience went out the door.
Then they brought out the tiramisu and the dancing stopped. It had lasted only twenty minutes, but what twenty minutes those were! This was the moment when we were back in high school and temporarily erased the 50 years from our minds and bodies. It made my entire journey worthwhile — the waiting, the tiredness, and the effort.
My daily walks through the streets of my youth were a part of this trip also. The Pope was visiting and the place had been cleaned. Streets were closed to traffic. Policemen lined the sidewalks in the center of the city. Unfortunately, all the sweeping and street washing couldn’t hide the fact that many buildings in downtown Bucharest are slowly decaying. They were decaying when I was there two years ago, and five years ago, and twenty years ago. Yet this time there was an incredible, bubbling energy that I felt everywhere — the chaotic traffic, young people rushing around with their cell phones in hand, the summer gardens bursting at the seams. It had rained a lot and nature was exploding. The greenery was so abundant that it was overwhelming. Where I live in suburban America the lawns are manicured, the flowers are color-coordinated and the trees and bushes are trimmed. In Bucharest, weeds cover all grassy surfaces, the trees bordering park alleys are overgrown to a point that in order to see clearly in daytime one could use a flashlight, and tree branches and bushes are creeping over and through fences to scratch the pedestrians walking on the sidewalks. Everything is wild. Like the air conditioning — they don’t want to disturb nature too much.
And now I am home. My nametag and my button rest on my bookshelf. The pictures are saved peacefully in their electronic files. Snippets of conversations still buzz in my head and my memories are slowly settling down. Will I go back again? Will we have another reunion? Will we ever dance?
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