Look Homeward Angel

Whew, folks I’ve been incredibly busy as of late, delving into a lot of arcane technical things such as keyframes, clock wipes and the difference between 29.97 and 30 frames per second. Suffice it to say that digital video editing is quite a challenge :)

But in between the filming, the editing, the traveling, giving interviews, taking photographs and other “ordinary” things I’ve been up to, during this past week I had a chance to meet an extraordinary man. If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you know my policy on privacy, so there won’t be any names or identifying information.

The man I am referring to is a Romanian, a person born and raised here, who is one more native son who left many years ago but is now on his way back to returning to his homeland to live. I’ve met and written about Romanians like this before. Earlier this week I did an interview with Gandul as part of their upcoming series of Romanians who have returned home – and strangers who have made Romania their home (stay tuned for that next week).

The man I had the privilege to meet this past week has an extraordinary story. He first tried to leave Romania during the Communist period and was captured and jailed for his efforts, spending a year in the notorious Gherla prison, where he was tortured for his efforts.

After his release, he managed to successfully escape the country and spent two years in a refugee camp, where he taught himself the local language. He then applied for and was granted asylum in the United States, where he has lived for most of the past 20 years. He is now married to an American, speaks nearly flawless English and makes a good living as a citizen of my native country.

And yet here he was back in Romania this past week, making plans to permanently move back here. Why?

That is a question that deserves time to be pondered properly. After all, this man suffered greatly to leave Romania and has worked hard and gone through a lot to now enjoy a good life in America. Why come back, indeed.

Yesterday, this man and I spent time at the “ethnographic complex” here in Cluj, a large park that is filled with preserved houses, mills and other antique buildings from Romania’s past. One of the buildings we entered was a church from around 1776, a date which meant little to my kind host or to the female caretaker we were speaking with, but meant a lot to me, obviously, as an American.

I took a lot of photographs, some of which I will post here shortly, but it’s hard to really capture the feeling solely with images. The church is entirely wooden, right down to the hand-carved lock that secures the front door. Inside, the paintings and depictions of the saints are faded but still vibrant. There are inscriptions that are difficult to read as they are shortened and using arcane terminology (called in English Old Church Slavonic), not to mention they are entirely written with the Cyrillic alphabet, which was how things were done in those days in Romania.

There is a lot of history in that old church, preserved through all those long centuries from a time when Romanians were serfs in their own land, using a borrowed alphabet and language to celebrate their beliefs. And there was a lot of history represented in the three people who were there that day, talking and shooting photographs.

The caretaker was an older woman, who told us she had been working at the complex for 14 years. She was quite proud to be part of a team that preserved Romania’s heritage and lamented that the younger generation did not seem to appreciate it. Upon hearing my new friend’s story and past, she was astonished and amazed that having successfully left and having achieved a good life in America, he would ever want to come back at all.

And there I was, a son of the people whom, in 1776, made a vastly different series of choices in history, and clawed their way towards independence and dominance of their own destiny in a far-off land. And now, here, in this time and in this place, the three of us were all brought to the same spot.

Immediately adjacent to the ethnographic complex is an open area, a series of fields lying against a gentle slope, and my new friend told me many stories from his childhood, when the people of Cluj would assemble there on holidays, including the now defunct August 23 holiday, to cook meat on the grill and talk and gossip and play and laugh. He told me stories of sledding on those same hills back in the days when few people had cars and so there was little danger of collisions. He drove me through his old neighborhood and told me stories of the people he grew up with, of the hardships they endured and how they would use their wits and ingenuity to eke out a few good times as well, despite it all.

I also had the privilege of meeting this man’s family, including the members who stayed behind and somehow managed to weather all of the changes that have occurred in the past 25 years, including the uncertain economic conditions that have so traumatized this country as of late. And I had a chance to meet some of this man’s younger relatives, born in a different era and almost a different country, knowing little to nothing of the hardships of the past, the brilliant, computer-savvy and English-speaking younger generation, who have their own reasons for (sometimes) wanting to leave Romania.

None of this was captured on film so my words will have to suffice today. But I think, in a nutshell, that this family really is Romania. From the man’s older sister, who was laid off after 20 years at a government job and had to re-invent herself as a capitalist entrepreneur, to the young nephews who have to choose between building a life here and one in another country, to the man himself, who spent hard time in prison in order to leave his homeland and now is making plans to return, this family is Romania.

Certainly my own life here is extraordinary – I chose to come here, I choose to live here and I paid virtually no price for these choices and am free to leave whenever I wish. I can speak the language, hold discourses on the mystical origins of Burebista and decode Slavonic inscriptions in an old church, but I’ll never be truly Romanian in the same sense as this man, whose very heart and soul belongs here. All I can do is document it, photograph it, sometimes film it and occasionally write about it.

But it is a story worth telling, and if it falls to me to tell it this time, then so be it. As Thomas Wolfe said, you can never go home again, and I think my new friend will discover that there is a lot of truth in this as he makes his way back to America later this week. But his journey, and his story, is important because it is part of Romania’s healing from its very difficult and tortured past. After long centuries of struggling and suffering, it is now becoming Romania’s day to shine in the sun, and to blossom and flower, now time for its children to prosper and live good lives and to know what freedom truly means, with all of its incumbent difficulties and responsibilities.

And yes, maybe the only people interested in an old church on a lovely autumn day are a wizened caretaker, an old political refugee and a wayward American, but so be it. As Peter Tosh says*, let the dead bury the dead as there is work to do.

Since I know this man and some of his family read this blog, thank you for the privilege of letting me meet you and get to know all of you and know that you have truly earned my respect and admiration.

* – Like many reggae songs, the lyrics are based on passages from the Bible, in this case Matthew (Matei) 8:22, which I felt especially relevant to the Romania’s past and the story I wanted to tell today.