When I turn off the lights the house is enveloped by silence, broken only by the purr of the crickets outside in the grass. I’d never heard crickets in England – and they’ve become an emblem of my past. I’m suddenly moved by my parents’ effort to make their home comfortable, finding the right balance of elegance and cosiness. Every little detail shows planning and care: the arrangement of the sofas, the easy access to the house’s only balcony, the ladybird shaped night lights. My bathroom is bigger than most single rooms I’ve seen in London, in those dark years of renting before finally buying my flat.
And then it strikes me: this house was designed with us in mind, a house for the parents and the children, in the spirit of our Eastern culture. My mother often boasted of how much intimacy we’d have, if one of us decided to stay. They hoped it would be my sister, Andra, the one to settle in the silent rooms upstairs. About me, my father would say that I’m as volatile as wild water, a wanderer to the core. They knew I’d never return.
My sister and I exchanged looks whenever the discussion moved towards settling down in the sleepy town where my father left his native Transylvania to live with my mother in 1981. She, too, had dreams – and they were more than allowing her family to help her own a private practice and treat people who could afford it. She dreamed of being a medic without frontiers, a researcher, a medical expert. A winner.
We knew it without saying it, and they knew it too: our charming town just wasn’t good enough for us. As children, we had access to a world of knowledge: ballet lessons, French lessons, Music, Drama, Art. We both speak four languages, but we lived in a bubble, in a place where we’d never be able to really practise them. It was a tough world, ruled by the post-Communism mafia, a mined field where every step could be a trap. Preventing us from making bad friends or developing bad habits was Mother’s explanation of why we weren’t free to play.
It was, perhaps, to be expected that their tireless determination, fueled by an acute sense of class often found in provincial towns, would backfire. We would always want to do more, achieve more, BE more. We left home at eighteen to study in Bucharest, and never returned. My sister would never be the smiling middle class country doctor. I’d never teach English at the grammar school that terrified me with its cold exam rooms and the dreaded gyms.
When I think of my highschool, I think of the teacher who couldn’t teach me Latin and the neverending German lessons ( I can’t speak German, or Greek; as with perfumes, which the brain can’t register more than three or four at a time, the brain must have a satiation point with languages, too). I think of looking out through the hundred years old windows to the changing seasons, wishing to be anywhere but there. I think of the urge to run away. I think of wishing school to end at 16. I think of the longing to travel the world, away from the eighteen year old lawyers’ sons with toothpaste ad grins taking their virgin brides for rides in the same sports cars they used to pick up whores. Honeymoon in the mountain resort an hour’s drive away, splashing out Daddy’s cash on some fashionable gambling habit. I think of dreading to graduate because you were expected to be engaged and marry the summer you finished Uni (or the one after), and I couldn’t see myself in a long term relationship.
I could fall in love, but could I stay in love? That was the question.
Unknown to us (or at least not to me) Andra and I left our home town with the thorn of ambition deep in our souls, a taste for luxury, and not knowing how to use a vacuum cleaner. I remember sitting in my condo in Bucharest, on my first week alone, staring in awe at the pile of dishes in my sink, the realisation that they won’t wash themselves hitting me like a punch in the stomach.
I’ve now lived in London for twelve years. I do a lot of things I thought I’d never do, like cooking and cleaning my own flat and going back to University to do another degree – this time, one I’ve simmered over long enough to let it ripe. I’ve seen parents loving their children and saying that not being very academic is not the end of the world. It makes me smile, and in fact I mentioned it to Andra the other day, when I visited her in Cambridge. In our world, not being very academic WAS the end of the world.
The thirst for achievement is still there, perhaps dark and unhealthy, like a vampire’s love of blood. Comfort is the motivation killer, and in England, we haven’t always been comfortable. Being ‘home’ reminds me of how hard my life really is, being a working mother, raising my own child, without the network of family support, grandparents and aunts and cousins, that many Romanian mothers enjoy.
Sometimes I allow the thought to brush against my heart, intimate like a kiss, each summer when I indulge in the beloved corners of my parents’ home: sunbathing on the balcony, lounging on the sofas, having a water massage in the ultramodern shower cabin. This is more opulence that I can ever hope for in London, and I ask myself: could I ever go back? My life would be easy. I could just go back to my room and pretend the last sixteen years never happened.
But when I shut the windows, I notice the night smells of smoke. I’m reminded of the bonfires I witnessed as a teenager, the burning wood scents that made my heart ache with the panic of being trapped in routine. And I notice something else: the windows open into a dusty road, where the dogs bark louder than the crickets. The next house belongs to a judge, a man with a grey beard and a Hemingway hat who breeds his own pigeons.
And then, further down the street, but not much further, is the DEAD END.
I smile to myself and go to lie down next to my sleeping son. The road trip starts tomorrow. a present from my parents, all expenses paid for. A new chance to reconnect, to find each other again, or maybe for the first time, before it’s too late.
When I close my eyes these words come to my mind. I can’t remember who said them, if anyone said them at all. Most probably I found them in a book, and now they have a new flavour.
DON’T STRUGGLE SO MUCH. BEST THINGS HAPPEN WHEN NOT EXPECTED.
The words warm me up like cinnamon tea in winter. I wrap my arms around my son and fall asleep.
TO BE CONTINUED…