The Letters of Plenty

Some guy at the queue in front of the customs office keeps staring at Nora. Although he somewhat got used to men looking at his wife, Lecu instinctively grabs her elbow and sends the guy a daring glance while saying in a low voice: “Noro, watch out with those shoes and if someone gives you a hard time just remember your foot kick is virtually crippling’.

That’s actually true, as Nora carefully sewed all the leva coins in small pockets inside her sandals, burdening her feet with about 400 grams and giving a majestic touch to her walk, which isn’t humble at all to start with. The big money however is with Lecu. She skillfully sewed the leva bills on the inner sides of his trousers last night, indulging in the pleasant chill of touching foreign currency. In 1987 Romania it’s easier to touch the fur of a rare forest animal than foreign currency, or at least it’s safer, and Lecu had to resort to some of his highest connections in order to buy leva for this long awaited trip to Bulgaria. The father of a friend’s wife (a retired army colonel) managed to have some reasonable amount leaked from his own high connections. He charged Lecu a demijohn of export wine from the Murfatlar vineyard, where one of the night guardians is an old friend of who owes him money. It’s people like Lecu that maintain the clandestine dynamics of this society and make the necessary connection between the apparatchiks at various levels and the ordinary people. He knows that under the eagle eye of the system there are always small areas of shade where business can be done in almost all safety.

 

  

 

This time he hopes to come back from Bulgaria with a satisfying load of the usual currency in this infra-economy: whiskey and Western cigarettes. He’ll buy them in duty-free shops and spare some money to purchase the famous high-quality Bulgarian shoes, a pair for Nora, one for their 6 year old daughter and another for himself. He prepared a large brown bag for this shopping spree and plans to bring it back full.

The bus is waiting by the customs office but the queue is slow. Although it’s only 9 am the sun already started to bite people’s napes with the promise of an extremely hot day. Nora is thirsty and leaves the queue to buy a Cico from the kiosk next to the frontier police booth. Everyone who has lived at least for a few years in socialist Romania remembers this yellowish turbid-looking soft drink that was the country’s defiant yet cumbersome replica to all those colorful Western drinks subversively associated with American accent, tanned women in blue jeans, electric guitars or who knows what chimeras from the other side of the world. Cico was what we may call a uniproduct – at least for some time it was the only available industrial soft drink in stores, and one in a series of uniproducts that were meant to appease people’s hunger for consumption in a sort of a box-ticking fashion: chewing-gum? Check. Chocolate bar? Check. Shampoo? Totally annoying packaging, but check. Romanians had everything that the Western did, except for diversity and flavor, but that was unfortunately what most of them were yearning for. There was however one foreign company which managed to penetrate the Romanian market and that was Pepsi. The drink was quite expensive but still popular, and no New Year’s Eve or other party was considered honorable without it. But Nora has had enough Pepsi, and her daughter was having sleep problems because of it. Not to mention that Pepsi, however cold or fresh, will never have the playful and refined savor of a drink like Schweppes, which Nora tasted long ago when invited by an ex-boyfriend in a classy hotel bar in Bucharest.

 *

Nora drinks Cico under the glance of men and women in the queue. Her platinum blonde Hollywood appearance and slim silhouette are not easy to foster but it isn’t energy that Nora lacks. She’s lucky enough to have a god-daughter who married a Saxon and went to Germany, from where she sends Nora clothes or shoes or make-up products on a yearly basis. But what’s most important, Angela sends fashion catalogs which serve as a support for Nora’s nocturnal tailoring sessions during which, bent over her robust Czechoslovakian sewing-machine, she assembles featly and ‘modern’ outfits for herself and her daughter.

As a result, Nora tends to be quite suspicious to chunky married women whose only shot at beauty is having their hair tightly curled through torturous procedures and who happen to be the forgers of public opinion in provincial cities. They are the feminine voice of the working class and their gut instinct tells them that high heels, glittering bracelets and lipstick are a sure sign of depravation, especially if worn by a mother.

But Lecu enjoys his wife’s sparkling style and the occasional jealousy she generates is a fair price to pay for the sweet sense of rebellion he secretly nurtures when she’s beside him.

Lecu calls Nora back to the queue: he already handed their id documents to the customs officer who went inside to check them. The officer stays in a little longer than usual and when he eventually reappears he poses a heavy glance on Lecu and calls him inside with an expert gesture. ‘This guy’s a professional of calling people inside’ Lecu says to himself while entering the foul smelling office.

His sudden hunch turned out to be correct: he’s not allowed to cross. Nobody explains why and Lecu knows there’s no point in insisting. He would later be told that one of his colleagues from work – a guy he didn’t even know -had used a homemade raft to sail to Turkey just a few nights before. Lecu never found out if that man ever made it, but it was certain that, either in Turkey or dead, the deserter couldn’t be punished. And since the reaction of the authorities to such insane audacity had to be fast and exemplary, the result was that nobody working for the same agency – and there were thousands of people throughout the country – could cross the border on such legal and harmless state organized trips as this one.

‘What about my wife?’

‘Your wife can go.’

 *

5 minutes before the bus leaves, behind the wall of a sad country toilet and witnessed by a sun flower field, Nora hastily tears apart the secret pockets of Lecu ‘s pants and stuffs the leva bills beneath her soles. She’s 34 years old and has never left this country. She daydreamed of Paris sprees with the likes of Michel Polnareff as a teenager; she danced to Billy Ocean tracks on tapes bootlegged from Poland, she crafted Christmas tree decorations out of Milka chocolate tinfoil imagining how it would be if they would one day allow her to visit Angela in Munich. Her mind has almost always been a little outside this country, she even learnt English, refusing to believe that she will never have the chance to use it. And now she really crosses the border, and besides she’ll be alone, without Lecu who (as much as she hates to admit it) is actually quite good at dealing with the unforeseen. No, she isn’t completely ready for this yet. But she’s not the kind of person to back down. It’s no big deal anyway, Nora says to herself. It’s only Bulgaria, and there’s a guide herding the group and it’s only a one day trip, no spending the night…Still she has a silly sense of fatality getting on the bus, like a teenage soldier going to war for the first time. That’s just how she is. In her heart she’ll make any challenge a sort of rogue wave to stand against, and then she’ll take her panic and turn it into even more determination. She’s a brave woman in a classical sense, even though bravery isn’t much of an asset these days.

As Lecu watches her getting a seat on the bus, one thought gets half-consciously more annoying than the regret of not being on the bus himself: Nora will certainly be hit on. Who knows how many charming strangers are wandering free in Bulgaria which, though it’s no Las Vegas, still has high-quality shoes available in stores? And loads of foreign tourists on its Golden Sands beaches? What if one of these fair-haired foreigners with shiny shoes lures Nora with the promise of tempting distances? In Romania it’s not difficult for Lecu to keep a woman like Nora beside him. His gypsy-fashioned moustache matches his soft wavy hair that’s kept long, but not long enough to cause trouble with the Militia, who are allergic to Western music inspired hairdos. And although he’s 14 years older than she is, Lecu hasn’t yet developed the respectable husband belly that Nora finds repulsive, against the general trend for women her age. Of course he’s a good-looking fellow, but can he compare himself with beautiful strangers? No, he can’t. Because he doesn’t really know how they are.

 *

The bus is long gone and Lecu is now back to town, sipping a beer with his old friend Relu on a terrace by the sea, while his little daughter has been served a Cico. It’s funny how he was refused to leave the country. Once more, he didn’t make it. Because this isn’t the first time Lecu’s tried to leave Romania. A long time ago in 1958, when Lecu was still a teenager, things were looking a little bleak for him. At that time the boy who had run away from his mountain village with the audacious dream to become a truck driver had wound-up in a South-Western district by the Danube, day-laboring for whoever would pay him the food for that day and often sleeping in train-stations. He never pitied himself when looking back to that time, especially because he knew that he could have been safe and sound living with his sister in Bucharest. He decided to go to the Danube with the precise intention to swim across it and somehow get to the refugee camp in Yugoslavia, from where he would be sent directly to America, though the logistic details of this part were not very clear in his mind. Staying in Yugoslavia would have also been an option, since at the time Tito’s regime looked slightly more bearable than Romania’s Gheorghiu-Dej. But the Danube was winding hostilely between these two masters and their respective power range, keeping their subjects safely separated. Each evening after occasional work in the villages along the river, Lecu would stroll down to its bank and contemplate the quiet monster waters, pondering how to proceed. Some people might have made it. But who knows how many didn’t? Nobody ever got news about those who tried their luck with the Danube. One km of deceitful waters, whirls and frontier police boats are likely to change your mind, but on the other hand the water is not very cold in summertime and you might hope to get rescued and hidden by a warm-hearted Serbian fisherman. However Lecu didn’t know what he feared most: thickening the probable layer of bones on the bottom of the Danube or the freedom he would almost certainly find on the other bank? No, he chose right not to do it, he would have not gone too far with his 59 kg and acute malnutrition. It’s just that ever since those days he feels a slightly painful void somewhere in his throat every time he finds himself around such majestic peripheral distances as the Danube, the sea or even the great plain of Bărăgan, which is a continuation of far away Eastern steppes. No, man was not created to go around in circles in the perimeter of historically circumstantial frontiers or even unfriendly natural borders; he’s pushed from within by an energetic bow, by o cramp of restlessness, or curiosity or melancholy. Lecu knows that Nora, who’s not a very cerebral person, could give in to the ecstasy of freedom, just like any bird out of its cage. But will there be freedom? The guide (who’s actually an employee of the secret police) will never be far away, and Bulgaria is not that different from Romania, at least not visually, not on a one-day trip. On the other hand, Lecu knows that many people never came back from such trips, and glamorous Nora could be an easy prey to various crooks promising easy access to Turkey or Greece.

 *

Lecu sweeps away such paranoid thoughts as Relu brings into discussion their only two foreign friends: whiskey and cigarettes. To Lecu, as to all Romanians confined to their Latin alphabet,  K and W are the letters of Western plenty: Kent, Johnnie Walker, whiskey. When surrounded by these letters, your influence suddenly boosts and your connections improve. Lecu has got some official attitudes to smooth and some canisters of gas to buy for his car. He also promised the retired colonel a bottle of whiskey and Relu insists that he was promised at least one pack of Bulgarian BT cigarettes. Relu is an underground businessman who used to be famous on the Romanian seaside for providing foreign tourists with certain services that the authorities couldn’t offer. But that was in the 70’s, when one might still find foreign tourists in Romania. These days he’s trying to make a living by selling fake tanning lotion from USSR on the beach, avoiding as much as possible customers who already bought it.

As Relu deplores once more his own decay and as his daughter slurps the endless Cico, Lecu watches the sun and the sea about to unite in a place where he will never go.

 *

Back to the customs, Lecu listens to the to the crickets’ evening chirp while waiting for the bus. The air is nostalgically violet and the customs officers are making fun of a boy who came on bike from the village to sell them sun flower seeds. The boy laughs along and eventually sells them two newspaper cornets filled with seeds from the sack on his bike. When the bus comes, Lecu gets out of the car and gazes in the lit interior for a blond head. She’s there. She gets off last, and Lecu has to utter a sharp thanks to a guy who’s zealously trying to help her get off the unbelievably heavy brown bag. What did she buy, the Golden Sands?

Lecu takes the bag to the trunk, opens it and lights his torch on its content: ‘Noro, what’s this?’ ‘It’s for the kid to drink’.

The bag is stuffed with nothing else but bottles of Schweppes.

*

Back to their hometown, Lecu, Nora and their daughter drank Schweppes for about 3 months (once a week, not everyday as the little one would have liked), and still had some left for the kid’s birthday party in December. 

For one thing, Lecu was pleased: during all this time, their house was filled with Ws. However you took it, that could only be a good sign.

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