The Girl in the Center of the World

Bucharest, 1958–1962

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

Lydia and her parents moved into an apartment a few hundred yards from Roman Square. “That’s in the center of everything,” Lydia’s father said.

Before they moved, Lydia had to ride bus number 37 to school. She attended the German School because it had an excellent reputation, and because her grandmother, who lived with them, spoke only German at home. Worried about safety, her grandmother accompanied Lydia everyday on the bus.

The school was close to the town center. Many of Lydia’s classmates lived nearby. After the move, Lydia walked to and from school together with them, and she could visit them after classes. Her grandmother stayed home.

The streets were crowded — a monochromatic gray image painted with broad strokes. There were gray cars, people in gray overcoats, and long lines at the stores. Her friends’ apartments, in old, gray high-rise buildings were crowded and small.

In third grade, her friend Frantzi and his family were allowed to leave Romania. Principal Gerhardt walked into the classroom and interrupted the teacher. “Francis Gruenberg,” he said. “Your mother is here and you’re going home.” Frantzi rose and silently gathered his stuff. The children fidgeted and Principal Gerhardt continued. “The Gruenbergs are being reunited with their family in Düsseldorf. We hope that the crumbs of German culture we have taught Francis in our school will benefit him, and we all wish him the best of luck in his new endeavors.”

Their teacher clapped. The children followed her lead and clapped as well. Frantzi was tall and fat andstood at attention.

“After what the Germans did, it’s astonishing they’re choosing Germany. Jewish people like us should go to Israel, if ever permitted to leave,” Lydia’s father said.

“They should stay put,” Lydia’s mother said. “Leaving our country is not what we should do.”

*

Simona was a quiet and slender girl with brown eyes and Lydia enjoyed talking to her during breaks. Her last name was Matti. Double consonants were rare in Romanian names and indicated a foreign origin. Simona’s father was German. On that basis, Simona qualified to attend the German School. The two girls spoke German and Romanian interchangeably. Like Lydia, Simona was an only child. She lived with her mother and father in a two-room apartment near Galați Square. In fifth grade, Lydia learned that Galați was the name of a town. She also learned that our planet was round — not round like a circle, but like a sphere. She had a hard time visualizing that.

It took Lydia the same time to walk from Roman Square to Galați Square as she needed to walk to her school. If Roman Square was in the center of everything, then her friends’ apartments were dots on the spokes of a wheel.

In sixth grade, in the biology lab, which was full of potted exotic plants and stuffed birds and small mammals, Lydia was seated near Cora, a girl with an aquiline nose and thick glasses. “We Jews must stick together,” Cora whispered into Lydia’s ear before the class ended. Lydia wasn’t sure what Cora meant. Cora’s last name was Kadosh, which sounded both foreign and funny. Lydia had seen her many times before, but didn’t remember ever speaking to her, much less mentioning her religion, and Cora’s words had the feel of a conspiracy between the two.

One day before Christmas, Marcel, her neighbor who was Lydia’s age but didn’t go to the German School, told Lydia that the Jews killed Jesus. That sounded to Lydia like a conspiracy, too.

Dante Codrescu sat in the back of the class with the unruly kids. He was unruly but likable. His body was narrow and straight like a board and his hair had the color of wood. He was rumored to be a genius of sorts. From the second grade on, he could multiply two-digit numbers in his head. He understood percentages. His mother was Italian, so he spoke Italian, as well as Romanian and German. His father was of German extraction, from a small town in Banat. Like many others, he must have changed his name to better fit in. The father owned a machine shop, which was rare — private businesses were frowned upon.

Dante built a metal rocket half a meter in length, which used celluloid film as fuel. His idea was that the energy developed by the burning film would propel the rocket straight up, to a high elevation. Simona and Lydia came to witness the experiment. Dante asked them to stay back. Black smoke and flames roared from the exhaust chamber. The rocket rose one meter, veered, and fell backwards into the shop. Papers and rags caught on fire. It took Mr. Codrescu two weeks to clean and repair the walls.

*

It was late winter when Dante stopped coming to school. Lydia didn’t know why.

Walking home, when boys saw an ice patch, they challenged each other and ran towards it, gaining enough speed to skid, one foot forward as rudder, arms flailing, scarves flying, steam puffing out of their noses and from between their lips. Their heavy backpacks bounced on their backs. Pedestrians complained they were making the sidewalks slippery, but the schoolboys couldn’t care less.

Lydia was walking home with Simona when Dante appeared at the top of her street. He wasn’t running or skidding on ice. He was tense. His hands were clad in heavy mittens. A Russian fur hat covered his forehead and his ears and an inverted sheepskin jacket with large, bulging pockets kept him warm. “Hi. I’m glad I caught up with you,” he said.

“Dante!” Simona exclaimed.

“Where have you been?” Lydia asked. “Why aren’t you in school anymore?”

He told them he wanted to bid his farewell. He was leaving the next morning with his mother and father to Udine, in Italy, where his maternal grandmother lived. He was leaving for good. He didn’t want to see all the kids in his class — he didn’t have much patience left — but he wanted to see his two friends. “You have meant a lot in my life,” he said.

The girls blushed.

He took a step back. “I’ll write to you,” he added looking at Lydia. Then he turned on his heels and took off.

“He thinks he’s important,” Simona said.

*

Three months later, Lydia received Dante’s first letter. The airmail envelope had red and blue stripes along the edges. Two translucent sheets of paper were covered in Dante’s hurried handwriting. Lydia had never seen paper that thin.

Rome, April 21, 1962

Dear Lydia,

By now the snow must have melted in Bucharest and you must be enjoying the soft April sun. Being farther south than you, spring has arrived here earlier. It is warm during the day and flowers are blooming everywhere, but don’t ask me to describe them to you, because I will stumble. As you know, I am dedicated to inventing and building, not admiring nature, although, from time to time, breathing fresh air can be nice. If I miss anything, it’s my father’s workshop and the ability to play with his tools. For sure, I enjoy not going to school. Without denying the value of a good education, I believe that school is overrated, invented by adults to rid themselves of their pesky children and confine them to a monotonous and well-controlled environment. I’ve learned more in these three months of travel than in all my school years combined.

But let me start from the beginning. We left Bucharest that evening in February and traveled all night by train to Timișoara and from there to the Yugoslavian border. My mother worried about the border crossing. She had heard horror stories about people being searched by customs officials, ordered off the train and even arrested on fake charges and separated from their traveling companions. My father and I tried to convince her otherwise, but even after we crossed without an incident, my mother continued to be nervous until we arrived at our destination.

In Udine, we met Nonna, which is how I call my grandmother in Italian, and I liked her. I liked her a lot.

She has an old stone house, and she gave us the upper floor, comprised of a large bedroom for my parents, a smaller one for me, and a separate day room, more space than we ever had in Bucharest. The walls are cracked and measure one meter in thickness. You smell mildew as soon as you enter the house.

I met my cousins twice removed, two boys my age, Luca and Fontini, but I didn’t like them. My problem with them was that we spoke and spoke but we rarely agreed on anything. It seems to me that in Bucharest the communication between people was generally more efficient, or maybe I was too busy with school and what have you to pay much attention. In Udine, my saving grace came in the form of a barn in Nonna’s backyard which, guess what, holds an abandoned Fiat. I couldn’t believe it! The moment I saw the car I wanted to restore it, although doing that was useless since it would take a few months of work, and in the end I would be too young to drive it. Father came down to help — I guess he was itching for something to do as well — and he looked around and stuck his head under the hood and picked up the pliers. The great thing with my father is that we don’t need to say anything to understand each other.

Udine turns out to be a quiet provincial town with an old square (Piazza della Libertà) with its town hall and a clock tower, which, they say, resembles the one in Piazza San Marco in Venice. I hear that Venice is remarkable and as soon as I make some of my own money, I’ll be sure to visit.

After a few weeks, my father decided to leave Udine, a nothing place where no one could start a business no matter how much money Nonna was willing to invest with us, and, over Nonna’s tears and my mother’s opposition, he packed our luggage, and we boarded the train to Rome.

Now Rome, this is a city! Lydia, I can’t even tell you how many things one could see here. How much history! Our lodging is not as comfortable as in Udine — we share a small room with a small kitchen — but I don’t care. My mother bought a city guide and every day the two of us go visit some marvel that leaves us awed and speechless: the Vatican, the Coliseum, the countless churches, the ruins and, as diligent Romanians, Trojan’s Column with its bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Roman conquest of Dacia. I’m glad they did it, because this is why Romanian is so similar to Italian.

School is out of the question until the fall, which is perfect.

Father is looking for a job or a business opportunity, most likely in a car repair shop. Boy, you wouldn’t believe how many cars you see here! They are driving like crazy and sometimes I feel like the world is spinning around me.

Well, I think I must stop here, because otherwise I’ll start describing Rome to you and I’ll never finish.

If my dad opens his garage — because that’s what I want him to do — I’ll work there and with the money I’ll make I’ll buy myself a typewriter. Expect typed letters from me in the future, with more information about me and especially about Rome. Please write back soon.

Your best friend,

Dante

On her desk, Lydia had a globe of the earth. She turned it until she located Rome. She found Bucharest next, which was not represented by a circle, but a dot, and she wondered about the connection between the Roman Square and the city of Rome. Then she looked for Dusseldorf, which must have been too small because it wasn’t marked on the globe. Finally, remembering her father talking of a country for the Jewish people, she searched for Israel. Israel was very small, much smaller then West Germany, which, Lydia knew from school, was half of what Germany used to be. The entire area she looked at was small, compared to the overall globe. She drew imaginary lines from Bucharest to Dusseldorf, to Rome and to Tel Aviv. She saw how her circle had widened and how much more it could grow. Someday, she too would fly out and travel the world.

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