This is Not a Rehearsal

We sang and danced with strangers last night.

Our fifth and likely the last concert we’ll be going to this year, and the first time we’ve seen U2 perform live.

We’re concert people.

We try to get tickets for something we like every couple of months, and since we’ve moved to London we’ve been lucky enough to sing along pretty much all our favorite musicians.

We’ve been to smaller venues and we’ve been to big, tens-of-thousands-of-fans gigs. We know the O2 Arena inside and out by now, we’ve had seats all over the place in the Royal Albert Hall, we’ve sung and danced in Hyde Park in all weathers.

We’re rock people, we’re folk people, we’re pop people, we’re jazz people.

We’re concert people.

As U2 were wrapping up their gig last night, the third and final national day of mourning in Romania was coming to an end.

We followed the crowds out of the O2, into a night of fog and wintery smells. We queued outside the tube station for a while. People were lighting up cigs, knotting scarves, buttoning smartphones, humming Elevation. It figures. Concert people. Always humming something.

Last Friday, a nightclub fire killed 32 and severely injured 140 young people attending a rock concert in Bucharest.

As details of the tragedy have unraveled, and the authorities’ and public’s reactions have been making their way to me, I’ve sunk deeper and deeper into a state of infinite hopelessness.

It’s a complicated story to tell. This history of my hopeless relationship with my country and my past. A past which, like all pasts, constantly seeps into the present and keeps the wounds open.

In a parallel world, who knows if I’ll ever see U2 perform live. I live in a beautiful Romanian city in the heart of Transilvania. I work long hours, relentlessly climbing my way up the corporate ladder. I’m married to a guy I’ve been seeing for a few years. We own our home together. We have a dog, a cat, or both. My mom drops by unannounced, with Dutch biscuits and home made gerkins. I have at least three friends playing in rock bands. At least one of these rock bands is well known locally. I go to all their gigs. Most times they’re in nightclubs randomly popped up in the basements of historical, crumbling buildings, or in old factories. I make my way to the very front. Never count the emergency exits. Can’t tell if the ceilings are flammable. Can’t use a fire extinguisher. Have astma. Never called 911. I know all the lyrics. I’m with the concert people.

In a parallel world, if I die at a rock concert, it will probably be my own fault. I should have stayed at home. I shouldn’t like rock. The all-powerful God of parallel worlds doesn’t approve of concert people. I should know that.

I’ve lived in a parallel world for most of my life. Then I moved to London.

I get glimpses of it, my parallel country and its many parallel layers of grief.

They break my heart.

#colectiv

My Bones Are Shifting In My Skin

So.

A few nights back I dreamt I was pregnant.

It wasn’t one of those dreams that turn you upside-down-inside-out and haunt you for weeks, deliciously relentless and so vividly alive that you end up wondering if you’ve actually dreamt them. Or if they’re in fact part of a parallel reality in which you’re perfectly content with your life, an infinitely more wondrous one than what real, dreaming you has to deal with.

But no, it was just a regular dream. My belly felt like one of those Halloween pumpkins piling up in Tesco veggie aisles these days. Round and firm, ready to sink your teeth into.

Then I woke up. Made coffee. Had half a biscuit. My brand new wisdom tooth was killing me, so I inspected it in the bathroom mirror for the longest of times, like a wild animal caught in mid roar, volume muted for some reason. It looked a lot less painful than it felt, which I guess is to be expected with most things in life.

Then, on my way to work, I fainted on the train.

It wasn’t hot or crowded and I hadn’t run into George Clooney or anything. Just a regular, celebrity free day, and my regular body making its complaints heard in its regularly annoying way. Half a biscuit is not enough. Sleeping with a throbbing jaw for eleven nights in a row is not sleeping. Fainting among strangers can be just as bad as getting a bout of morning sickness among strangers.

I wasn’t phased by any of it, the evil fang, imagined pregnancy, surprise loss of consciousness, but went on with my day like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I do this more and more these days, ignore the extraordinary. It’s less energy consuming.

*

I guess I’m going through a weird phase again.

Which is fine, you know, I seem to thrive on weird somehow.

We flew to Barcelona last week for a few days’ visit with my old friend B and his new girlfriend. We hadn’t been, V and I, but were both so exhausted with the year long house hunting/moving crazies, that I wouldn’t say we were in the most happy-happy-joy-joy of holiday moods. On the flight back last night, I felt like I was leaving the heaviest of burdens behind me and couldn’t wait to get home and just lie there, fallen against the oak ribs of our still mattress-less bed.

We cannot, I understand it now, be happy.

Me and my friends, me and my family, happy is simply not something we do.

I don’t know if it’s the Romanian way of dealing with changing relationships, or the expat vs. people left behind way, or the me way. But whatever it is, it’s here to stay, evil grins and sticky tentacles and all.

I don’t know how and who to be among these people.

It amazes me that I can’t do the simplest of things with them watching me. Stupid things, like ordering a sandwich. If I do it in Spanish, which I’ve spoken for a decade, way before I moved to London and our friendship obviously derailed for good, it’s called showing off. If I do it in English, why do I need to do it in my silly Queen-of-England accent and make them all feel small and Eastern European? Why does my sandwich need to cost €1 more than theirs? Do I absolutely need to remind them I make more money than they do?

I sit at this tiny cafe table across a person I used to share Tequila bottles with, and watch grenades explode over our heads. I don’t get it, so I say less and less as time goes by, I order tap water, no lemon, thank you very much. Gracias. Whatever.

I don’t want to end up having a bunch of kids just to surround myself with newly made people who, at least for a while, don’t hate me.

But I don’t get it, I really, honestly don’t get any of it, and it breaks my heart.

My English is good. I’ve been in London for almost five years, and studied it in school for more than a decade before that, is it really so surprising? I’ve got a Cambridge diploma for crying out loud! I called you after I got the test results in the mail, remember? My mother had opened the envelope and I was so mad she hadn’t waited for me to get home, and you laughed. You got it, who cares who tore the letter open, you said. And now, is it really so unusual that I’m constantly working at improving a language on which I build my livelihood and most of my social interactions? How is that belittling to anyone around me? And why? Why have we even reached this point in our conversation? Why is it so vitally important how much my freaking sandwich costs, is it not the same couple slices of bread with gooey stuff in between it’s always been? What does friendship mean these days?

As I type this now I’m so mad I’m crying.

I miss everything, you know. The boring, the bad, the scary, the let’s-never-go-to-bed-again-this-is-the-only-thing-worth-doing-until-we-die. And talking, I miss talking the most. I rarely ever do it these days. I can’t discuss any of my problems with my friends and family from home. How can I have problems when I’ve just bought a flat? When I’ve got Netflix?

I sip my lemon-less water and wait for the smoke to clear, secretly hoping my brain has learned its lesson well over the years, and will prove appropriately selective in terms of Barcelona memories. A map of broken friendships is the last thing I need in my perfect, British accented little life these days.

*

I bought a couple of picture frames on my lunch break today. I’ll spend tonight nailing things to the walls, leaving more permanent scars into the surfaces of this place. Then on Friday, my book shelves are coming. I’ve taken the day off and I’m planning to spend it sipping indecent amounts of Spanish wine, dusting, stacking and re-stacking my hardcovers. We’ll probably have a little house warming get together around Halloween, so I’d better learn how to turn the oven on by then.

My high school friend M gave birth to a baby girl yesterday. We spent the morning on FaceTime laughing and crying like silly teenagers, and I’m planning to open that first-night-in-the-new-flat bottle of champagne we’d forgotten about tonight, in her honor. Teodora. Thirty hours old. A piece of someone I used to share secrets with. Crazy how you can love a person based on just that. I guess there’s a very thin line between the everyday and the extraordinary, and the latter, exhausting as it is, is worth it sometimes.

Top of the Pile #11: Radu Rosetti

This will be the first Romanian book I’ve read since I started doing Top of the Pile. I couldn’t find an English translation, so I chose to use the author’s name in titling this post. But Rosetti’s title roughly translates to What I Heard From Other People. Memories., and it’s what attracted me to the book to begin with. I got it during my Romanian book shopping spree this winter, and it’s been sitting on a shelf since, under a pile of six or seven other Romanian books I bought then and have yet to make time for.

I picked it as my new read for the week following the impression Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul has made on me. The melancholic images of the city following the fall of the Ottoman Empire, for some reason brought back countless dear memories of the time my mother and I lived in Bucharest in my childhood, and I found myself craving for Romanian literature of the past. Rosetti was a historian, genealogist and writer born in a high ranking Moldavian family of the 19th century, his grandfather having been the final ruler of Moldavia before it joined Romania in 1859. His memoirs tell a story of Romanian (Moldavian) society between 1790 and 1840.

I may not have mentioned this about me, but even though I have the worst memory in the world and I’ll never ever remember dates and geographic coordinates, and I ABSOLUTELY HATED History in school, well, in spite of all that I’m very much into historical literature, so I’ll surely be writing more historical book themed Top of the Pile posts in the future.

Breathing Lessons

I really was an interesting child.

I thought I’d close one eye and see everybody cut in half. I used to have nightmares about it. People’s insides spilling through the wound, half the heart still beating, spurting blood everywhere. I’d spend hours thinking about pirates and eye patches – poor people, having to witness their loved ones butchered day in and day out – and I’d close my eyes tight, pressing both lids with my fingertips just in case. I was a frightful child. Darkness, gipsies, death in my sleep. Pools. Vacuum cleaners. Carnivorous plants. I had more fears than I could count and I could count forever. It was the first thing they’d taught me, counting my breaths.

I was two when I had my first asthma attack.

I don’t remember it, but they’ve told me the story so many times, that in the end I’ve built myself a disturbingly intricate memory of it, complete with bright colours and sound effects and lodged deep in my brain even now, when you’d think I’ve got a million other painful, embarrassing things to involuntarily remember and feel depressed about. Instead, my tangled synapses choose to torment me with this invented recollection of the first time I almost died, and endless armies of spidery Organic Chemistry formulas. Fun and games.

My first real asthma memory dates from a couple of years afterwards. I was sleeping alone in the little bedroom I’d later share with my sister, and the sound of my breathing woke me up. They’d left a door open in my chest, I thought, unable to find another explanation for the screeching. It must have been the doctor Mother had taken me to see the day before. A bad man. He hadn’t even blown on the stethoscope before pressing it against my ribs. It made me shiver and cry and Mother gave me one of her frowny you-need-to-be-a-big-girl looks and everything was quiet again. Except for the sound of air forcing its way into my lungs. I must have been four.

I was born in 1984 in what was then Communist Romania, in a family of medics. My mother was frail and her doctor opted for C-Section. When they’d finished with me, they couldn’t wake her up from the anaesthesia. My dad, a doctor himself, stood by in terror as the operating team tried to slap Mother out of her coma. He had to run to a nearby pharmacy to get the vial of adrenalin that would later bring her back among the living. The hospital didn’t have any in stock. The lack of stock was, I’d later find out, a defining quality of the time.

Mother recovered. She lived to tell the story of how she’d heard the noise of the doctors slapping her face, but didn’t feel any of it. It may well be an invented memory, like my first asthma one.

I was a sickly child. Sick wasn’t something you wanted to be in those times. People were queueing in endless queues for most of their waking hours. Oranges, flour, salami. You’d hear a rumour that they were delivering something to your local grocery shop and you’d drop what you were doing and run for it, ready for a several hours long queueing session, not even knowing what you’d be queuing for, not even caring, anything was good as long as you’d have something to put on the table in the evening.

There was no queueing for asthma medicine. There wasn’t any. No promises of secret deliveries to your neighbourhood pharmacy either. No salvation in sight. In Romania, it was better not to have asthma if you could help it.

My parents tried everything and when everything failed, they made friends with people who had friends who knew people who could get us some medicine from Germany. Mother used to tell me this story again and again when my attacks got bad. There was hope, she said, just hold on, and don’t mention it to anybody. Germany. It was dangerous even saying it in those days, but I used to whisper it to myself in the dark, in between counting my gasps for breath. One…  Two… Three… Germany. Our little secret.

No magic German made salvation ever came.

Dad would torment me with horrible, bad tasting concoctions he’d picked up from his Grandma. She’d passed away long before I was born, but I was sure she’d been a very cruel lady. Only that would explain the vile smell and taste of these make-believe cures, most of which contained some form of grated horseradish. Mother was gentler. She heated rough salt in a frying pan, poured it into a sock or a tied up handkerchief, and put it on my chest. It was almost too hot to bear, and smelled like roasted sunflower seeds.

I don’t remember if any of this helped. Mainly I just remember fighting for breath. Coughing myself to tears. Not being allowed to go out and play in the snow. I remember watching cartoons with the TV muted, Mother dozing on the sofa after yet another sleepless night of attacks. I hadn’t realised I was coughing, but then she suddenly rolled in her sleep and yelled at me to stop it already, so I must have been. Coughing. Always coughing. Stupid Germany.

I’d just had another attack in the first days of December 1989. Dad had taken time off from work, which he never did, and industrial quantities of horseradish mush were spooned into my mouth after every meal for a couple of weeks. The day the revolution began, my sister and I were visiting neighbours. Dad had run to the shops and Mother was working. Turmoil erupted in the street and we all went out into the front yard to see what was going on. No one cared that it was cold and I wasn’t wearing my jacket. Dad came running through the gate and locked it behind him. Revolution, he said, and I wanted to ask what it meant, but everybody was dead silent. A short while later, Mother arrived. She tried the gate open, but someone had misplaced the key and she had to climb onto the railing and let herself drop into Dad’s arms. The commotion was still in full swing outside the gate and I thought, if Mother could do it, and in her impossible looking heels, then they could easily jump over the fence at any time too. They sounded mad and strong.

The aftermath of the revolution brings back memories of burnt presidential portraits littering the streets. Flags with round holes cut in the middle, where the coat of arms had been. And the unexpected end of my asthma episodes.

Once Communism fell, our German connection sent us the miraculous asthma cure. I didn’t get to take it, there’d been months without an attack and Mother stored the wondrous parcel in one of her drawers my sister and I weren’t tall enough to reach, where I wouldn’t be surprised if it was still gathering dust to this day. I never needed it. My body, no doubt inspired by the events of ’89, rebelled against the asthma and broke free.

For more than twenty years, I didn’t count my breaths once. I almost forgot how to do it, I certainly wanted to forget.

But these days my asthma is coming back. It’s not been as bad, yet there’s no mistaking it for something else, a friendlier cold or an allergy I could easily push towards the back of my mind. I might have been only a child on our first encounter, but I know my enemy. It’s true, I don’t need dangerous connections to get medication these days. Nothing is as complicated and frightening as it used to be, and I’m full of hope. But sometimes I’m scared, really scared, grownup scared, and I wish I could just close my eyes, press my eye lids tight with my fingers, and feel safe.

50 Stories of Little Consequence

You know what? This marks my very own 50th post on London Geek.

– applause break –

I know I know, it means nothing in the big scheme of bloggy things, but it’s 49 more posts than I thought I’d be able to come up with in, like, ever. So yay for me!

Note to self on this extra special day: Write a huge, super duper funny post to let people know they’re more than welcome to correct my dodgy blogging English. Insist on the fact that I won’t use my Romanian mafia connections to make them pay if they dare to.

Note to self 2: Post something about vampires / Vampire Diaries / tips to dating a teenage werewolf. Surely it’s the only reason people stop by, Romania being so famously vampire friendly and all.

Note to self 3: It would be really lame if this were my last post, after all this I’m-so-cool-I-wrote-50-posts-bow-down-to-me-everybody business. Try and make it to at least 51.