Notes from Abroad

After fighting windmills for 15 years, I packed up and moved to Luxembourg. This story is about what I left behind.

„The right foot presses lightly, the left releases the pedal, the signal is on, we make a complete left turn and get moving after a thorough rearview mirror check when… What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy? Yeah, honk, that’s right, as if you’ve never been a rookie.” My instructor sighs and shrugs her shoulders. “What to do with all the madmen, Miruna? Come on, let’s go.”

I turn the wheel, look in the left side mirror and cautiously join Bucharest traffic. It’s 10 a.m., end-July 2010, 40 degrees Celsius and I’m sweating heavily. I feel dirty and stupid, although I’m not a bad driver. I’m on the seventh lesson with my instructor, Rodica, a woman my father suggested, after I asked him to find someone I could communicate with. I am in Romania for a month, just until I finish driving school. I live on the border between Germany and Luxembourg and work for a European institution.

I left Romania a year ago. That day, I looked in the right side mirror, my eyes in tears, my hand pressed against my mouth to stop me from shouting. I was leaving for Luxembourg with a full car and an empty soul. My boyfriend, Radu, was driving; he, too, was leaving behind a good job, friends and parents. I could see my father in the mirror, standing in the middle of the street, in front of the house I had lived in nearly my whole life. A house that ultimately contributed to my departure, when a car wash opened across the street. The endless noise, which no authority, petition, or request could protect me from, made me want to live in a place where no such home violation was possible. Obviously, I didn’t leave just because of the house.

I was born in 1976 and I guess I was one of the fortunate. I have not suffered the degrading poverty I used to hear about. I only experienced a few very cold winters. I studied foreign languages since I was four and I had a piano (but I never became fond of it), a color TV and a VCR in the ’80s. My mom taught economics at Ştefan Gheorghiu Academy and my dad was a chemistry teacher. I was class president. I was always pampered, the star performer of French poems whenever my family had friends over. 

I do not know why I always rebelled. Why I used to bring home the most undesirable classmates to watch videos and eat fries. Why I constantly questioned rules and authority. Well, actually it was because they seemed stupid, though lots of people assured me they were not. In high school, I developed an obsession for things done right. Afterwards, for the need to help others. I do not know where they came from, but in time, I realized I was living in the most unsuitable place for such instincts.

Why did we stop?” Rodica asks, looking in the rearview mirror. “Well, I thought I would let this guy get out of the gas station, even if I don’t have to,” I answer. 

“Miruna dear, go on, they’re honking with no reason as it is.”

Indeed. What the hell was I thinking, I tell myself, remembering the countless crossroads in Luxembourg where smiling and slightly absent-minded drivers take turns inviting each other to pass, calmly ignoring signs.

Luxembourg seems implausible in Romania. It is like a parallel universe. The small, rich, bourgeois duchy has the highest GDP per capita in the world, a people frozen in time, and a banker’s monument at the heart of the neighborhood where the finance industry and European institutions are flourishing. 

Since I left, I have gauged the extent of the crisis in Romania by the number of emails I got from friends asking me to explain “how I got there”.

What should I say?

Romania has always stirred in me a suffocating fury and an equal will to fight. I have volunteered for Save the Children since I was 17. I used go to the Railway Station with groups of Swedish volunteers and search the sewers for homeless children, talk to them and try to help them. I rode a bike in Bucharest before most did. The most frightening experience was when a driver chased Radu and me, trying to hit him, shouting that cyclists have no right to be on the streets. I have worked for NGOs almost all my life, in one way or another trying to fix the laws, the infrastructure, the practices, the eternal mentality, the injustice, the poverty, the inequality. I studied journalism for the same reason. I organized protests and flash mobs for causes ranging from the Iraq war in 2003, to minority discrimination, to cyclists’ rights, to some sort of hippie event promoting neighborly love.

There were more than 15 years of fighting windmills. And, though they made me feel alive and useful and proud and powerful, they have also worn me out. Almost every success seemed futile in the sea of problems and carelessness. At a certain point I realized I was continuing the fight because I could not do otherwise, not necessarily because I still believed something would actually change.

Aside from NGO work, I tried all kinds of other things: translations, PR, journalism, training, CSR, management. I wanted to build another kind of country. Somewhere, undefined, there was a possible Romania, with people who minded their own business, public authorities who did their job, communities open to projects and a positive state of mind.

Sometimes, as with the job I left behind (PR of MaiMultVerde, an environmental NGO), I felt I contributed to this possible Romania. I really thought we were changing people and habits. The day we opened Cicloteque, the first bike rental center in Bucharest, was a glorious one. In Romania, “there is everything to be done,” Dragoş Bucurenci, my friend and boss from MaiMultVerde, used to tell me. It’s true, but it can become tiring to do everything.

While fighting for the country, I also had plan B: leaving. I was told countless times that I should leave and I began thinking about it seriously in 2004 at the beginning of my relationship with Radu. Leaving was his dream, and when he shared it with me, I realized I had also been flirting with the idea, but had not expressed it yet.

I started applying to various competitions organized by the European institutions: proofreader, translator, PR, policy expert. One turned into a job offer in Luxembourg, three years after I had been informed I was on the waiting list. I took it after a few weeks of careful consideration and many doubts.

Does this answer your question about how I got there? Maybe I was just very lucky. I do not know.

My hands are on the wheel and I feel the sun burning. A Dacia Logan passes me swiftly on the right, cuts in front of my car and stops 20 meters ahead at the red light. 

“Forget it, you won’t have such problems there,” Rodica says. I also stop for the red light and in the right mirror, I squint at a cyclist. He is an old man scorning toward our car. I smile at him, one cyclist to another. He turns his head in disgust and rides on.

When I left, I thought the world was going to end. I was leaving behind a large group of friends, people who I felt would be by my side no matter what. Everything that was most familiar and dear to me. Objectively speaking, I was leaving out of fear. Fear of having to deal with the health and justice systems; of growing old in Bucharest; of maybe raising an asthmatic and precociously neurotic child.

The first months of exile were moments of happy discoveries and idyllic life, in what a friend used to call “a society based on goodwill and trust.” I moved to Germany, got a big, beautiful house, with the best vibe possible, a river in front, a cherry tree and lilac bush in the backyard, neighbors living in “gingerbread” houses. My village is surrounded by a 180 km-long bike path network. We all say hello when we meet, we mow our lawns, and we have a volunteer fire brigade which does fire drills at least one Sunday every month.

In time, I got used to my job and the atmosphere within the institutions. Parents and friends came to visit. I spent my first Christmas away from Romania. It got cold. It became difficult. Radu didn’t have a job. I felt overwhelmed, alienated and sad. A major depression followed in early spring. Everything was bad. Everything was difficult. Everything was dark.

I instantly felt a heartbreaking desire to go home. In April, I bought a plane ticket. I came home after eight months of separation and I burst into tears when I saw a supermarket logo as the plane was landing. When I set foot on the runway, it felt as if someone had shocked me. I knew I was linked to my birthplace and all I had to do was come back from time to time to revive it. And I knew, as the car left Otopeni Airport for Bucharest, that I was very happy I had come; I was also happy there was a Luxembourg to go back to.

It is early August 2010 and I am in downtown Bucharest, with two friends with bicycles. I stare in disbelief at the new design of the area. Not long ago, there were just dusty streets and a few cafés that seemed to have been there since the beginning of time. Now it was all shiny – as if a horde of hip corporate workers had taken over. Which they have.

I remember some of the moments that drove me away: getting off the bike to meet a communications executive of a sponsor, and the reception clerk telling me delivery persons use different access doors; smiling randomly on the street, and getting sour looks in return; picking up trash at picnic areas and having some party people shouting: “Take these beer cans too, sweetie, we were going to throw them in the river anyway.” 

It is my third visit since I left, clearly my longest and toughest so far. I came to take driving lessons because I live in Germany and I don’t speak German. Anyway, my official address is still in Romania and Romanian is the language in which I learn best. My friends are still here and we love each other just the same, even more now that we see each other so rarely. The interaction is more intense, everything has to be said quickly, because you never know when I am going to disappear again. The eggplant salad with tomatoes is as good as always. The summer nights, when I ride my bicycle from Cişmigiu Park (which smells of pee from hundreds of yards away) toward Una, Verde Café, Baraka or Uranus are just as dear to me. I still love going to the Cărtureşti bookstore and running from MŢR (Museum of the Romanian Peasant) into Kiseleff Boulevard. It is good to be on vacation in Romania.

I wandered through Bucharest. I wanted to breathe it in and feel it in a thousand ways. I love this place, but I cannot pretend the landscape is not bleak. I cannot pretend that I don’t see the repulsive plastic kiosks, the garbage under balconies and windows. I cannot pretend I do not feel lucky for having escaped, that I feel ashamed of thinking this.

I hesitate writing this. Romania is dear to me in an overwhelming, painful, impossible way. But I do not feel it is my home (anymore). There is chaos and there is poverty and it is like everyone is lurking, waiting for something to happen. Anything. And I do not know if I could play this game again.

My “other” life is arguably more sterile. It is calm, steady, with no tension, fright, useless haste or despair. I have accepted the fact that I will always be a little melancholy. But when I think of “home,” I see the white house on the bank of the river, the gingerbread homes, the bike lanes, the highways, the calmness, and goodwill of the people around. I hear the peacefulness and I feel that anything is possible.

Eyes glued to the mirrors, go steady, slowly, lovely, like a missy, be focused, you don’t want to embarrass Rodi, right?”

I nod and look lovingly at the lady next to me. It is the last lesson before the exam. I am driving from Presei Square to Barbu Văcărescu Boulevard, going to IOR Park where all the applicants are gathered. The traffic is still light and I grip the steering wheel. This is how I wish the exam would go. Since I got home, I have heard some apocalyptic stories about the test. You cannot pass without a bribe, no matter how well you drive. They fail you on principle the first time around. They are offensive, they ask you to make swift maneuvers you can’t carry out and they humiliate you, just because they can. I even heard a story about sexual harassment. The overall idea was that, no matter what I did, I couldn’t pass it. (I did.) 

I chose not to listen. I think if you do a good job, if you act like a decent person and have confidence in yourself, you stand a good chance. After all, this is what I have been doing in Romania all my life: I went about my business and ignored the chorus foretelling the gloomiest catastrophes. I look into the rearview mirrors carefully calculating the timing of every car I pass and realize what a bitch I could become if I were to drive in this city. No, I would not pass on the right side, I would not honk the instant the light turned green, I would not cut in front of someone every time it seemed like they were too slow. But I would probably let myself get dragged into savageness, a must-have skill if you want to survive Bucharest traffic. 

I allow my mind to wander for a second down the road smoothly going up the vineyard hills in my German village. I feel I belong there as much as I belong now on Barbu Văcărescu Boulevard. No matter what happens with the test, I have a plane ticket for tomorrow. I’m going home, I say to myself as I look into the rearview mirror and plunge into traffic. 

Miruna Cugler worked as a communicator, translator, civil society activist, volunteer and occasional journalist. In august 2009, she left Romania to work for a European institution in Luxembourg.

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