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The Impossible Return

© Gabriel Plesea, 2001

This is the English version of Imposibila reintoarcere (The Impossible Return), a novel by Gabriel Plesea first printed in Romanian at the Vestala Publishing House in Bucharest, 1996, ISBN 973-9200-33-8

The Impossible Return

 In December 1989 a popular revolt in Romania topples the Ceausescu communist dictatorship. The subsequent opening of borders and the promotion of democratic reforms make possible the return of dissidents, opponents and expatriates to their old country. After seventeen years in exile, Ion decides to take advantage of the newly created situation and embarks on a visit to his homeland. The novel, a narration of highly emotional encounters with relatives and old friends, also gives an account of events in a post-communist Eastern European country trying to break away from totalitarian mentality, practices and politics.


To my folks back home

and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden
Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way,
to keep the way of the tree of life.

                  Genesis, 3, 24


Chapter One

   They were all there. Ion had seen them through the swinging doors separating him from the people waiting in the arrival hall. The walls were of large matte glass partitions; behind them one could only see shapeless, amorphous silhouettes and shadows. The customs officer asked for his passport in Romanian: he had his hunch: this is one of ours!
   "Well, I knew it!" he said triumphantly to a colleague, not bothering to explain what exactly he knew. "Will you stay with us for long?" he inquired while giving Ion back his travel document bearing the State Department insignia along with the gold lettered Passport and United States of America inscribed on its blue cover.
   "Couple of weeks," answered Ion matter-of-factly. And, seeing the customs officer looking at him somewhat bewildered at the idea that one would come all the way from America only to stay two lousy weeks, he added in almost confidential tone, "I may stick around longer; it all depends on how things are going."
   "But of course, of course," the officer agreed. "Do you have anything to declare?" he added with a professional twist in his voice.
   "Not really: a trifle here and there, one small attention…"
   "Your luggage looks impressive, though. For a few trifles that is," the officer observed with some irony, as if to let Ion know he was an old hand that could not be fooled so easily.
   Ion was not impressed. "I have a slew of cousins, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces. I saw them: they are waiting for me behind those doors. It's the whole family!"
   "All right: open these two here," the officer pointed to Ion's attaché case and a piece of luggage that was quite large. "Any electronics, tape recorders, VCR's, anything special, firearms," he listed.
   Ion answered hurriedly trying to keep up with his questions, "No, no, no, no!" The question on firearms in particular seemed strange, the more so as even before getting to the passport control a detail of military men equipped with metal detectors were checking all luggage and persons, looking for firearms no doubt. With sleeves rolled up, the military were all business, wearing camouflage fatigues and caps and toting AK-47 submachine guns, the type issued to Special Forces. Although one year had passed since the Revolution, the military acted as if still on orders given in the state of high alert during the events of December 1989.
   "What kind of money do you have on you?"
   "I have traveler's checks and cash."
   "What's the cash amount," the officer asked, continuing his search in the luggage.
   "Some one thousand dollars," Ion answered promptly.
   No longer interested, the customs officer waived to him, "You can close up your luggage," and moved away, leaving Ion to put his things back into the luggage as neatly as he could.
   Done with the customs, he put the bulging pieces of luggage on his travel carriage, a handy accessory that could be folded into a convenient size so one could take in the cabin. A porter that came to help him realized the traveler did not need him: he had placed his luggage on those cute western contraptions. Ion hesitated. He thought of giving him the carriage, but the man was so firmly holding the handle of his own carriage—a true platform on wheels—that he gave up. Ion had no longer been accustomed to having his luggage carried by a porter. In fact, you can hardly see one in stations or airports in western countries. Finally he took his eyes from the man—most likely a peasant from a small village near the airport—wearing a peasant's fur hat and a blue overall. "He'll find a customer," thought Ion, and thus relieved he started his way to the exit, pushing his carriage.
   He walked a few steps, and then stopped. He felt something strange taking hold of him. He realized that in a few moments, beyond those doors, he was to meet people he had left behind seventeen years before. He could hardly believe it. "Seventeen years!" he whispered to himself. He resumed walking, pushing his chin up, as if to control his emotion.
   Past the doors he faced the huge crowd, lunging forward as billows to the shore. Luckily, there was a rope, or something of that sort, preventing the mob to run him over. He heard his name called from several directions, all at the same time. With his eyes he searched the callers, but gave up, it was too difficult to identify his own folks. What happened to him was happening to ten other travelers and it was impossible to determine if the hands or the faces pushing forward were for him or for some passenger behind him, or to his left or right. He continued to walk to the end of the corridor formed through the crowd by the magic rope. Ion felt his hands being grabbed, then his head being pulled so as to face him or her, other hands tried to unclench his own hands from the carriage handle. ."I'll carry it, I'll do it!" he heard a voice that wanted to assure him that there was no danger in releasing his hold. Ion had no choice and let the handle go. Right in his face appeared one's face, all a broad smile sporting a wide tooth gap right in front. Ion recognized this one: he was his cousin.
   "It's me: George," assured him this living example of good nature. "Remember the times we solved crosswords for the Rebus magazine contest?" And, hurriedly, as if astonished by his sudden discovery, "But look at that pair of Addidas shoes you're wearing, my dear Ion. I'm dumbfounded! What size you're wearing? I love them. I feel like taking them off your feet and run."
   "You're talking nonsense, man. These are not Adiddas, man. Don't you see it says U S A on them?" spelled out somebody, some nephew on his cousin's side that he left as infant or has been born in the meantime, because he could not remember him. One thing was sure: the youngster knew his stuff.
   "You make sure you come to visit my house. You'll see water leaking from the roof," one voice invited him. An aunt, as he could figure out just from her pitch, because the face he could not recognize.
   Ion stood there dumbstruck. This unexpected welcome was too much: he felt tired. He did not want to offend anybody, but he realized he could not resist too long to this manifestation of love. Love? Sheer madness rather. Totally out of control. He did not expect to be met at the airport by so many. How did they find out he was coming? With many of them he stopped corresponding a long time ago. And others he had not seen or talked to even when he was in the country. He was not quite sure he was related to all those that showed there to greet him. He decided he had to get out of there, get into a cab, go to the hotel and have a good rest. The flight had been incredibly long.
   He started to walk to the exit accompanied by his motley and clamorous welcoming party. The people in the hall watched this bemusing show already too embarrassing for Ion: Furtively, he looked around and became somewhat comfortable when seeing two other groups pouring their effusions down their new arrivals. He accepted his lot and continued his course to the doors.
   Outside, on the sidewalk at the taxi stand, the party became more boisterous. Each of them wanted to invite Ion to his or her home. He regretted now he had not written them about his own arrangements. He had reserved a room for a fortnight at the Intercontinental. He had no intention of falling upon his relatives and, above all, he wanted to keep his own schedule.
   "What do you mean, staying at a hotel?" asked a voice that sounded very angry. "You have so many relatives, so many friends and you stay at a hotel?"
   "I made all my arrangements in New York," answered Ion, convinced that his was a good excuse. But his people wanted more. "A friend of mine, a businessman…" He knew he had to come up with something solid. They would not let him off the hook so easily. The eyes were focused on him with intense looks, as if expecting to hear a confession or the revealing of a big secret. Maybe he could tell them how Ceausescu had fallen, what the Big Ones had arranged at Malta. He surely knew. Ion saw their impatience and decided he had to put an end to that comedy. His voice was firm, "As I was saying, my friend, a businessman who comes here to conclude some contracts, gave me the keys to the apartment he had reserved at the Intercontinental. His initial departure was delayed for two weeks and I took advantage of his offer to stay in his room. Actually, this is how I decided to take the trip."
   Ion turned and waved to a cab. But not one of the taxi drivers pulling at their cigarettes moved. They could not help him. He was surrounded by too much love. Finally, the tooth-gapped guy stepped forward and straightened things out.
   "Forget about the cab. Let's say it's OK with your hotel business, but the cab stuff is out of the question. I have my car here. I'll drive you to your hotel."
   It made sense and Ion accepted the proposal.
   "Let's move it, then".
   They all made it to the parking lot. The tooth-gapped was in the seventh heaven. He told Ion he had made the best choice. "And the safest one," he added,
   "Those cabbies are a bunch of thieves," he whispered to Ion in all confidence. "They are waiting for these suckers, the foreigners, to milk them of their dollars. Lots of them. Dollars only. They don't want to hear about lei. As if they were born in dollars."
   "What's the exchange rate for the dollar?"
   "By the way, don't make the mistake to change dollars with the gypcians that hang around the hotel. I can do it for you, and at a good rate."
   Ion realized he would have to rely on Toothgap—he now remembered that was his cousin George's nickname—on so many things. He had no choice: things have changed since he left the country. There was no point in playing the wise guy.
   "Thank you for your advice. I'll need local money. Maybe tomorrow morning I'll ask you to change some dollars."
   "No problem. Whenever you want it… Well, here's my car. Bring that luggage over here," he ordered the young man who had pulled the carriage and carried the hand luggage Ion had with him in the cabin.
   George opened the trunk and Ion helped him put the pieces of luggage in. Everybody else was watching every single move, ready to jump and give a helping hand if summoned. They were not and Ion had only to thank them for coming to the airport to meet him.
   "When do we see you again?" asked a young man, most likely another cousin.
   "As soon as possible. Give me a day or two, so I can pull myself together. In fact, let's set the date right now. We'll meet the day after tomorrow in the hotel lobby at twelve noon. You are all invited to lunch."
   Ion looked at them intently, waiting for their acceptance of the invitation. Instead, they gaped at him, as if faced with an extraterrestrial. No doubt their relative from afar was out of his mind. Ion needed no translator: he understood them perfectly. He would not, however, give up and, in a voice that did not accept a refusal or further discussions, he added: "We are all set, then. I'm waiting for you the day after tomorrow. I mean all of you."
   He turned and made it to the car, looking neither at them nor at George. He simply climbed up in the car and waited. George followed suit, sat down at the wheel and started the engine. He waved to the crowd to move away and started down the exit ramp. As they passed, Ion turned in his chair and waved them good-bye. They did not answer back: they stood there like some statues planted along the road.
   "You gave them something to think about."
   "To think about?" Ion wondered.
   "They'll question why you asked them to lunch at the hotel. We talked about getting together and decided to meet at uncle Andrei's. He has plenty of room, he has food, he has drinks, and he has all that's needed for a big feast. At the hotel, at the restaurant it's going to cost you an arm and a leg."
   "It's my pleasure. We can go to uncle Andrei some other time."
   He looked at George, seeking his approval. But George remained silent, minding his driving and watching the traffic.
   The car was now speeding past the airport, through Otopeni, the village where the national gateway was located. He hardly recognized the place: the locality had changed so much. Buildings four or five floors tall, with shops at ground floor level, stood along the highway on both sides, but no person was in sight. Ion was wondering where the habitants could be, all those people who used to flock the sidewalks along the national highway. To the left he noticed the road going to Baneasa Forest. Then he saw the farms on the outskirts of Bucharest, isolated cottages and former manor houses. Finally, they reached the Baneasa airport, now used for domestic flights. Soon they crossed the bridge spanning the lakes and were approaching the Miorita Fountain. To the right, in a rapid succession, he reviewed the former Royal Railway Station, the Minovici Villa and its gardens, followed by the immense, domineering and ugly building of the Scanteia House, the former Communist party's official paper headquarters and home of a slew of publishing houses. Ion turned his eyes from that architectural aberration, so misplaced in a town of nobler traditions by an erstwhile fraternal gift of the Soviets. The building was an eyesore and Ion was chagrined, as ever, to see it still standing.
   "Have they decided to do something about this old, ugly pile?" he asked George.
   "They talk of refurbishing it, redo the façade, and modernize it somehow, who knows…"
   "It's a national shame that a monument to the most abject oppression and submission is still standing!" Ion bemoaned.
   "Ion, just wait to see the newer wonder: the People's House!"
   "Bucharest, our pride, the Paris of the East…"
   "Ceausescu used to go ballistic when hearing of the Paris of the East. 'What Paris?' he'd say. And he ordered everything razed to the ground, such as never seen in Paris."
   "Listen George. Was it a revolution here, or what? From what I saw on the television… They couldn't have faked all that: the revolt, the street fights, Ceausescu's flight and execution…"
   "It's all blah! You guys from abroad, getting drunk on spring water. What do you know? The truth is that your politicians have sold us out to the Russians again. Ceausescu himself said it before they shot him. At Malta. He spoiled their schemes."
   "Come on, George. It's not like that. If we talk about truth, then we must admit that the guy was a hopeless cretin, to say nothing about that wife of his. One may forgive a paranoiac, but a moron freezing and starving his own people so as to sell everything outside, just to be able to satisfy his egomania, this is both unforgettable and unforgiving. Starvation and fear of Securitate have annihilated Romanians as people, as nation…"
   "Ion, why have you fled the country?"
   "As if you did not know… I was blacklisted. Nobody would give me a job. They were all afraid stiff…"
   "When you left, one could find food. Houses were heated in winter time."
   The car was now rolling down the Kiseleff Avenue. To the right, the tennis courts at the Tineretului were still there. Ahead the gracious silhouette of the Triumphal Arch was coming closer in sight. "After centuries of sufferings Christianly endured…" Ion remembered the inscriptions in the Arch's stone walls. "By God's will and… of King Ferdinand and Queen Maria the Union was achieved…" The car was speeding so he could only glimpse the Casin Monastery church. They continued down the avenue and soon they arrived at Bufet. He thought of asking George to stop the car, to take a few steps on Ion Mincu Street, where he grew up. He did not. They passed by the school at Mavrogheni, built, like the Bufet, on plans by architect Ion Mincu. The adjoining Mavrogheni church cupola was hardly visible through the trees so rich in leaves now, in early summer. Then came the Geological Institute, with the huge tree trunk, or a meteorite chunk—nobody could tell—in front of the building. To the right, the discrete building of the Museum of Natural History presented itself in old-fashioned majesty.
   The Victory Square—Piata Victoriei for locals—revealed itself as dramatic as always from the shade of the richly adorned chestnut trees. Although it was late afternoon, the sun was still reflecting its splendor of golden rays in the tall windows of the monumental building, which served, according to the whims of the country's rulers, as seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or of the Council of Ministers.
   "What is it now?" Ion asked.
   "Hell knows. It's called the Victory Palace these days. The Council, meaning the government, meets here. The demonstrations take place here… A mess," explained George not too convincingly.
   They continued their way on Ana Ipatescu Boulevard, passing by the old villas and stately mansions brought now to a state of decrepitude. They were standing tall though, having resisted with dignity forty and some years of proletarian terror. On those still in better shape Ion thought he could recognize the flags of some African states.
   In Piata Romana, the Roman Square, a tall cross was standing out on a podium surrounded by a concrete wall covered with inscriptions dedicated to those fallen at the Revolution. To the left, the repugnant structure of the Academy of Economic Sciences—"V. I. Lenin" in past times—where he was not granted "the honor" of being accepted, although he got top grades in the admission examination. He did not get the adequate "social grade" and was denied attendance in the Academy. Even after so many years, he remembered the truly revolutionary satisfaction displayed by lame Octav Popescu, the Academy's secretary, when he gave him the news. The bastard!
   The Magheru Avenue, as seen from the care, was unchanged. The same bustling and the same crowds, most of the people loafing around. At the Aro Theater, the immense panels were advertising an American movie. From the moving car Ion did not catch the title, but could recognize the faces of some noted actors, but not their names.
   "Well, here we are," George announced. "Let me see how I get to the hotel's entrance. I don't want to do the roundabout at the Universitate. Rather, I'll make a left right here and then we go through the parking, all the way to the entrance.
   Ion did not interfere with George's driving; just mumbled something in way of approval although he imagined his cousin was doing something illegal. Apparently people were no longer afraid of cops.
   "I haven't seen militia around. They used to be all over the place."
   "Make sure they don't hear you calling t them "militia"; they get upset. Now they are "the police" like in Western countries!"
   They pulled to the entrance and to Ion's surprise a bellhop appeared to carry his luggage. The boy must have had his good nose, because you could not bet on George's car to know who the guest was. Out of the blue also appeared two guys who asked him in two or three languages if he needed to change money.
   "Get out of my face!" Ion yelled at them, remembering George's advice. The gypsies dropped the matter altogether: it was not funny to do business with a Romanian.
   "OK!" said George. "You go to the reception desk, I am going to see where I can park my car."
   "Just park it over there, by those cars in the parking lot," the bellhop directed him. "There's a spot next to that BMW."
   "Can I do that?"
   "Yes siree," the boy decided.
   Ion tipped him five dollars. In New York such a spot would have been a real bargain.
   "Have you gone crazy?" George hollered, forgetting where they stood. "That's my salary for a month!"
   Ion ignored his cousin's state of shock and went to inquire about his reservation. At the reception desk he asked for a room with a view to the University Square, on a floor as high as possible. Watching the grimaces the receptionist was making while searching in his register, Ion was wondering what was the big deal to satisfy his request. This was off-season and the prices were quoted in rates practiced in the West. Who could afford them anyway? As if reading his mind, the receptionist said: "We have all sort of delegations, we organize congresses. We are not idling here… I'm giving you a room to your pleasing, though."
   "Foreign guests, of course," Ion agreed and thanked him. "The prices are New York prices and I hope the services are likewise," he commented.
   He thought a hotel is a hotel, and a business at that and this one was no exception. After all, all he needed was a place where he could rest after his very long and tiring flight from New York.
   George joined him and both headed to the elevators accompanied by the ever-amiable bellhop. Ion was trying to accustom himself to the smell of the place. In the air was present the fragrance so familiar in hotels of good reputation, but this was challenged by another, insidious odor. He could not tell what it was, only that it became more persistent, replacing, as they went farther in the hotel, the pleasant scents in the lobby.
   They reached the floor, high enough, where the receptionist had given him the room. The bellhop put the key in the lock then opened the door ceremoniously, inviting them into the spacious, large windowed room. Ion was happily surprised to see his native city spreading out before him. From up there Bucharest looked as attractive as ever. Slowly approaching the large window he could rediscover more of it. The buildings were still bathing in the day's twilight. He remained by the window a few longer moments, trying hard to check his strong emotion at regaining his birthplace. As if out of respect George and the bellhop had stopped a few feet behind, leaving Ion to enjoy the view all by himself. Ion's urge to see more crisscrossed the city below, trying to recognize streets, buildings, gardens, church steeples, until his eyes were stopped by a massive, fortress-like structure dominating both the sky and the city. That was, if he remembered well, towards Mihai Voda Hill.
   "What's that huge thing over there?" asked he totally befuddled.
   In his countless travels he had not seen the likes of it. The Alcazar of Toledo came to his mind as a possible resemblance in its overbearing dominance over the former Moorish capital, but that one displayed a sober elegance, which was totally absent here.
   "The House of the People," the bellhop announced with lots of circumstantial pride. Most likely he had worked with the hotel before the Revolution and remained stuck with his old habits.
   Ion put his hand in his pocket, to give him a pourboire, but George was faster and handed the guy a few notes of local currency. The bellhop did not complain, but thanked and left the room.
   "Be more careful with your dollars," George preached. "It's not wise to show'em all over the place. If you want, I'll give you a couple thousand until you change some money."
   "It's good you remind me! Here, take the two hundred dollars and change them. You can bring the Romanian lei tomorrow."
   "Two hundred dollars? Ion, you are nuts! Who needs all that money? Give me just one, then we'll speak. I'll bring in the local money tomorrow, by ten o'clock. Is that good?"
   "I would think so. For the time being, I have no program. Make a few phone calls. Colleagues, acquaintances. I know we, the family, will meet the day after tomorrow, as agreed. Would you remind them, please?"
   "Okay, I'll take care of this. But, say, wouldn't you like to meet somewhere else? Here is too expensive and it's not a big deal either."
   "I'll let you organize the thing. Money is not an issue. Now, with all this talk about lunch, I feel like I'm hungry. Let's go eat someplace. Is Capsa still there? Let's go there.
   "Yeah, it's still there, but I'd like to warn you that some of these places are no longer what they used to be."
   "Hell! When I was in the country, the older people were saying how great it used to be in their time, what a formidable place Capsa used to be. Now I am hearing you, comparing things: how good it used to be seventeen years ago! I'm totally confused."
   "Ion, you may want to know that crazy Ceausescu was selling everything out. After 1980 good life was finished: you could find nothing. All was for export, to get currency, to pay the debt. He had a fixation: show'em, to those in the West that we can do without them. You know what? You want to go to Capsa. Let's go to Capsa."
   "I'll just wash my face, freshen up and we go. But, if you say it's not good there, we go somewhere else."
   "You speak as if you had many choices."
   "We'll manage: we are not going to starve!"
   "Good for you. It shows you are still Romanian, just one of ours. 'We'll manage, we are not going to starve'. This is how we've survived, with the 'we'll manage' mantra."
   Ion was no longer listening; he went to the bathroom. Left alone, George walked closer to the window and looked at the city outside. He tried to imagine and experience for himself what Ion might have felt when looking at the city from the very same spot.
   Outside it was almost pitch-dark now, and, with the exception of a few streets around the hotel, you could hardly distinguish a thing. Flickers here and there or occasional headlights of a car. The massive silhouette of the People's House, appearing as a huge solid black cutout against the starry sky, enhanced the darkness. From that height, George felt liberated from the feeling of domination and oppression he experienced when passing by it at street level. He realized that Ion, having seen it from a hotel's room on a higher floor, could not possibly make the connections he, or any other Bucharest resident, would have done looking at that much-hated edifice. It certainly was better for him that way: he had no reason to feel guilty or apologize for that monstrosity being there.
   "I'm ready: let's go!"
   They got out of the room. Ion pulled the door and was about to walk to elevators.
   "You don't lock the door?" George asked surprised, his voice doubled by a horrified, almost comical face.
   "It locks automatically," Ion answered and, to reassure George, pushed hard on the handle. The door opened widely, pulling Ion in.
   George burst into laughter, happy that he could teach his credulous cousin another lesson. This one said nothing and locked the door with the key. In the elevator, all the way down to the lobby they did not exchange one word. At the reception desk, Ion handed in the key and both got out relieved each with his own reason from that outpost of Western civilization.

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