Cristina is a woman of thirty who works for a construction company, a working environment which she very quickly comes to feel is toxic. Her boss is impulsive and demanding and she has nothing in common with her colleagues, one of whom is the owner of the flat where she lives. She has a long distance boyfriend, Mihai, whom she sees only seldom. Her relationship with Mihai is ambiguous and she can’t decide whether it is love or not. Others make for her the big decisions she is unable to make for herself : she wants to give up her job, but manages to break away from it only when the company goes bust. She wants her relationship with Mihai to come to a clear conclusion, but this happens only when he vanishes, after she has a miscarriage, the unplanned pregnancy having forced them to come closer together. The book is a series of tableaux (from scenes at construction sites and in hospital to the company Christmas party and dismal weekends spent in night clubs) that illustrate the idea of a world without landmarks and life passing meaninglessly, pointlessly.
Mother has been working in Spain for so long that it seems like forever. She works in tourism, at the seaside, and comes home once a year, out of season. She arranges it so that she will catch the winter holidays. For years and years, she hasn’t seen Romania in leaf or in bloom, she always comes when it’s muddy, when people are grey and muffled up, and she gets the impression that the country is a depressing place. Sometimes she’ll be here when it snows and it makes her as happy as a small child, her woolly hat slips down over her eyes and she blows her nose and she shovels the snow out of the yard. And after that she tells the people in Spain that it was snowing here and they are amazed and they always say that they ought to come to visit Romania at least once.
When she comes to my house in Bucharest, I always draw up a plan for where we can go and what we can do to have fun, so that we won’t sit in my one room flat and get bored.
We’ve set aside a whole day to do a tour of Berceni and the new housing blocks. So that we can see what they’re like, because I’ve been sending her links about the new blocks, and if I decide to take out a loan, she’ll give me the deposit.
There’s a little bit of sun in the morning, but by the time we leave the house, we’ve missed it. The day turns grey again, like it was yesterday and the day before yesterday. We get on the metro, change at Victoriei and then sit next to each other during the long journey to Dimitrie Leonida. I tell her that the new metro trains are built in Spain. And that the woman who announces the stations has taken Metrorex to court, because they didn’t pay her. I don’t know what else to tell her about Romania.
“But isn’t she from the time of Ceausescu ?”
“No, it’s a young woman. An actress.”
The Dimitrie Leonida metro station is a time capsule and Mother likes it. But when we come outside onto the boulevard she doesn’t like it.
We turn left at random and the asphalt immediately peters out. Here and there between the new housing blocks you can see a rustic yard, which has survived the real estate invasion. A cowpat, a horse neighing, a cockerel. I think it’s nice. Far from the madness of the city. And this is the only area where a one room flat costs twenty thousand.
“Where are the drains ?” wonders Mother.
“I read on the chat rooms that the ones that are farther from the main road don’t have drains. They have septic tanks.”
“What’s a septic tank ?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
“They can hardly come with a cistern to empty a cesspit for an entire block.”
We come to a muddy street. A little way ahead, right in the middle of the road, there’s a huge puddle.
“Where did that water come from ? It hasn’t been raining,” I say.
“Must be a burst pipe,” says Mother.
We walk the streets at random, until we’ve wandered far from any landmark. Some streets are asphalted, others are not. There are no pavements. The buildings are crowded together. From one balcony you could jump across to the balcony opposite. When you walk between the blocks, you’re in a dark labyrinth. There are no green areas. You can’t breathe. Even so, they’re inhabited. There are lots of curtains at the windows, lots of cars parked everywhere.
After a while, we reach the edge and find ourselves facing an empty field.
We see a pack of dogs.
“Do we still know the way back ?” asks Mother.
“I think we came from that direction,” I say, pointing back the way we came. “What do you think ?”
“I’ve no idea. Let’s go this way.”
“Are you tired ? Can you walk further ?” I ask.
“Yes, I can.”
We walk back between the blocks. The streets aren’t laid out in straight lines, but at random, and I get the feeling we’re going astray again.
Mother lags a little way behind.
“Are we walking too fast ?”
“Nobody is going to come and visit you here,” she says. “It’s the back of beyond.”
“Better we ask somebody, so that we’ll know we’re going in the right direction,” I say.
“What’s the deposit on a loan of twenty thousand ?”
Before I can answer, she goes on : “I reckon the ones that cost twenty thousand are in the semi basement.”
“Yes, it says ‘starting from...’”
I take another photograph of the banners with the developers’ telephone numbers.
“You’ll end up paying the mortgage on a cave for the rest of your life. I’ll give you the money, if you like, but you should think about it carefully.”
“I brought you here so that we could discuss it. I’m sick of thinking about it already.”
I’ve been trying to find a one room flat for almost a year. I’ve got a steady job and a decent wage, I’ve made a good impression at the bank, and they’d give me a loan straight away. The woman from ING, where I have an account and where I first went to ask for details, phones me periodically to ask me whether I’ve thought about it. I keep looking at the ads, I’ve been to see a few places, and they all looked like an old woman had just died there. And I died a little in each of them. I’d really like to get something that’s new.
“I don’t know what to tell you, darling. I don’t know. But nobody is going to come out here to visit you—”
“Nobody comes to visit me as it is. Except you, when I fetch you from the airport.”
“Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad.”
“Yes, it’s that bad.”
We stand where we are without saying anything. After a while, a shivering woman comes out of a general store in the semi basement of a block.
I ask her which way to the metro station.
“You’re going the wrong way. Popesti-Leordeni is over there. The metro is in the other direction.”
We set off once more and try to find landmarks, so as not to get lost on one of the stupidly crooked streets. We ask two other passers by whether we’re going in the right direction.
In front of the metro station, in the din of the main road, mother says :
“I’ll give you the deposit if you like, you know that I agree with everything you decide, but I don’t think you’ll be well off here. It’ll be a long time before the area develops.”
“Yes. I didn’t see any supermarkets. But there’s a direct line to the centre of town. In twenty minutes you’re in the centre of town.”
The problem is that in the chat rooms everybody complains about the new blocks. The concrete is bad ; the pipes are narrow and aren’t properly lagged. In some of the blocks, the boiler is in your bedroom. “Don’t buy anything in one of the blocks that aren’t ready yet,” my workmate Paul Dobre told me. “Make sure you view it first. But in the ones that are finished, the only flats available are in the semi basement or on the top floor. Everything else is taken.”
I’d like my long distance boyfriend Mihai to be more obstinate. I’d like him to want us to be together more. I’d like there to be at least one thing he wanted more.
We were lovers a while back, when we were both students in Cluj. We split up because he was lukewarm. After that I moved to Bucharest, and after that we got back in touch, when one of us, I can’t remember which, phoned the other to say Happy New Year, on the off chance.
He told me he still thinks about me from time to time. And for me that seemed sufficient. That’s what everything is like with us : from time to time. We talk on the phone from time to time ; we see each other from time to time. It’s infrequent enough for other people to think I’m single. And from time to time I think about him often enough for me to believe he’s my boyfriend.
Mother doesn’t know about him. I don’t want to get her hopes up.
That’s what he said to me : that he doesn’t want to get my hopes up.
“If you were seeing someone, it would be different. When there’s two of you, it’s different,” says Mother, who has been single since the dim and distant days of her youth.
“Like you would know—”
“I know that you’re not strong enough to carry the whole load by yourself.”
We go down into the metro station. I insert my card once, for her to pass through, and then once again, and I pass through.
“Don’t nag me to get married.”
“You know I don’t nag you.”
We get off in the centre of town and go to the History Museum, where there’s an exhibition of old children’s books. Before we go inside, I show her the statue of Trajan and the she wolf. I tell her it’s controversial and that Trajan’s willy is shiny because of all the people who touch it while they get their photos taken there. She looks amused, but I get the feeling it’s only out of politeness. I don’t know what else to tell her about Romania.
I recognised some of the books in the exhibition from my childhood, and Mother recognises them too, but the others are much too old. There’s an entire display case with nothing but Pinocchio, in all kinds of versions. I look at him in fascination.
“I never had Pinocchio !”
Mother looks guilty. Then bored. Then tired.
“Can you keep standing for much longer ?”
“I can,” she says and takes my hand.
I hold out my cheek for her to kiss. It’s a joke of ours.
Whenever we meet, she seems different compared with the visit before. Even though we see each other on Skype all the time. Now her hair is really long. It was never that long at home, in the first seventeen years of my life. And I see time washing over her. It’s like seeing the rings in a tree trunk : I can tell how she’s changed from one year to the next. And if time washes over her, it washes over me too. She is my guardian angel. What do you do when your guardian angel grows old ?
My whole life, what I’ve wanted the most is to be a good child.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Inspired prose, on the knife edge between despair, helplessness and laughter à la Eugene Ionesco. Prose of great talent, which, I think, could do with a greater spirit of protest at every level.”
“Lavinia Braniste is a writer with an affinity for banal situations, but which become spectacular because they verge on the absurd. And when we say ‘spectacular,’ we’re not referring to an aesthetic relationship to the text, but to that mixture of expressiveness and attention to detail and visuals that a story needs if it is to aspire to the status of literature.”