Mirceşti, 1880 Dear friend, These days I've lost a childhood friend, whose name resembled more of a person who lives in a tent than of a gentleman, for his name was Porojan! He was one of our slaves, a gypsy, and baker by trade. I confess having felt a deep sorrow when I heard that he had passed away, like many of my contemporaries, boyars, peasants and gypsies as well, many of whom I have known for over a half century! With Vasile Porojan, I've lost the last witness to my life, my childhood rival in throwing rocks over the St. Ilie church in Jassy, next to my parent's house. Life's wave and social class separated us; I went up to the top, while he stayed down, without being able to make even the first step. Fifty years ago, still, we were equal under the sun, sun-baked together, forming an unbreakable team, from dusk till dawn. The fruits from the garden never had the time to ripen, since we both knew how to shin up a tree like squirrels, to get to them. Masters of stealing apples from branches; daring in assaulting stacks, from whose top we loved to roll around; tireless in games such as catch-me-if-you-can, "poarca," tipcat, and even inventors of new games; we were proud of each other! The only difference was that, for our childish wrongdoing, only Porojan was punished by the housemaid, amah Gahitza! The beating he endured, the poor fellow, on my behalf! Barely free from the hands of the maid, his mane upright as an axe and his cheeks flushed by slapping, he used to run to me and, forgetting the pain, he urged me to play with him. I gave him relief, by handing him some chump change to buy halvitza and pretzels, two friandises
, as the French say, or two Delicatessen
, as the Germans say, for which Porojan was capable of selling his own fur cap, if he had had one, and for which I was capable of selling my shoes. He had such a talent for making bows from twigs and shingle arrows! And he used to know so well how to raise kites of gilt paper up to the clouds, and to send them messages on the string! Those kites, with long tails, were manufactured by the church teacher, and carried on their front the following message, written in Cyrillic: "Damned be he and all his descendants and burn in hell forever who finds this kite fallen and does not take it to the courtyard of St. Ilie church." The snoring kite carried this curse all over the city, being spied by all the boys from the outskirts, and when it happened to fall from the sky, it became their prey; the curse had no immediate effect, since the robbers were illiterate; but Vasile Porojan used to go right away to regain his property, climbed walls until he'd find the thieves; he started the quarrel and sometimes he managed to get back with a piece of it, but mostly he would come with his hair disheveled and his shirt ripped. In those moments, his face would become gloomy and his eyes glowed, wishing for revenge. With savage intelligence, he prepared his weapons, and by weapons I mean a round rock tied to the end of a clew of thread, and when he saw an unknown kite flying, he would suddenly throw the rock toward the sky with such skillfulness that the rock would always fly on top of the kite's string, and fall back close to him. "It's ours, master!" Porojan used to yell, with a triumphant voice; and so it was: he pulled the tangled strings, and the kite would soon fall into our hands. What joy! No treasure on Earth could be compared to such victory. My comrade wasn't limited to such strategic skills; he had artistic inclinations as well: he played the Jew's harp with a talent that I could never equal and that I admired more than I later admired the talent of Liszt... he knew how to imitate the sound of snakes, and to make them come to him, when we used to get lost in the blooming fields at Mirceşti... the skills were however left behind; Porojan was destined to be a bread maker. One day Porojan was handed over to a baker, to learn to make bread, cakes, and the like, and I was sent to Mr. Victor Cuénim's boarding school to learn what used to be learned then: a bit of French, a bit of German, a bit of Greek, and some history and geography on top.Farewell, childhood carelessness! Farewell freedom! Farewell happiness! What happened to my pal under the baker's peel I don't know; as for me, I remember that without Porojan I was a creature without a shadow. That new student life, trapped in the athenaeum, lying low in my desk and condemned to learn French, German and Greek verbs; the obligation to wake up in the morning to the sound of a copper bowl hit like a Chinese tam-tam by madam Cuénim; the disgust of the students being forced to eat food to which they were not accustomed; a thousand of small cavils, in regard to the poor child who's just got out of his parent's house, the hunger, the cold, the lack of sleep and the daily exams drove me into bitter despair... although I used to take part in the games my comrades played when the bell rang, my most joyful activity was to ride the box of an old abandoned carriage, in a wide open barn. From there, I watched the hills of Socola, the movement of clouds in the vastness of the sky, the passing of the flights of cranes, the famous Bordii road that lead to the lower country, and especially the mysterious, attractive horizon... my longing for traveling was awake in me when, one night, two students, the Cuciuc brothers, told us about Robinson Crusoe's misadventures, and my mind turned into a museum of paintings representing broken ships, sea waves as high as mountains, crowds of savages that would fry people for their feasts, and so on. A great influence on my imagination had these adventures of Robinson Crusoe, as told by the Cuciuc brothers! These students had an extraordinary memory and skill to learn, two qualities that could have enabled them to go far, hadn't they ended up in the gallows on Frumoasei field as parricides, abetted in murder by their own mother... Finally, the day of our valediction came! In the summer of 1834, Mr. Cuénim took his pupils to the shore of the Prut river for vacation. We were guests in the peasant houses in the village of X... and we felt at home there: cheerful and rompish. Between the village and the river there was a bouquet of trees that had came to be our arena. Sheltered by them, we used to look at the Cossacks on the opposite shore, armed with spears, and when we bathed in the river we shouted: zdrasti cholovec
, as if we would great Caesar. I was sitting one mid-day, resting on the base of a willow, imagining myself as Robinson Crusoe, waiting for a gang of savages to appear, when I suddenly saw the face of Porojan! "Vasile!" I shouted gladly "Here, master," Porojan answered, "I brought a letter from the boyar for mister Cuénim." "Did he send you?" "No, but I followed the trail of the clerk who was responsible with the letter. I was yearning to see you once more, master, before you leave for Paris." "Paris? Me?" "So... so I've heard the ladies talking, that the boyar decided to send you to study, to the end of the world, and I came to beg you to take me with you." "Don't worry, Vasile, I'm not leaving without you," I answered, self-assured. Ten days later, I took my farewell visit to my mother, who was crying, my father, who was barely holding his tears, my brother, my sister, amah Gahitza, and the servants, and I left, leaving behind poor Vasile Porojan… his eyes were full of tears, for the first time since I had met him. I left with Alexandru Cuza, whose fortune would reserve him the throne of Romania, with his cousin N. Docan, and with the painter Negulici, who died in Constantinople, following the events of 1848. Our leader and governor was no other than Mr. Filip Purnaraki, the secretary of the famous Greek philologist Korais. I spent five whole years in Paris, preparing, according to my father's will, for the study of medicine, and then for law. A useless try it was, being contrary to my vagabond imagination and my penchant for literature. When I returned home, about the end of 1839, after a pleasant journey to Italy, I found my parent's house to be just as it was… only Porojan was missing. The day after I'd gone to Paris he ran away, never to come back again, afraid of the iron-spike brace and especially of Urzica the policeman, with whom all the lazy, thieving or too freedom-loving gypsies had to deal… it wasn't long before Porojan came in the courtyard, having heard of my return. His longing for me made him confront the asperity of the sentence he deserved… but I had the pleasure of pardoning him and giving him his old job as a baker. After the death of my parents, I released all of our serfs, thus admitting Porojan's friendship to me. A beautiful day it was when, from the balcony of the house in Mircesti, I announced to the gypsies that they were free men! That their children would no longer be taken to be raised and trained as servants in boyar houses, and that they were free to go wherever they wanted, without being stopped. They manifested their surprise by shouting like savages, and their joy by a thousand jumps, just like people bitten by a tarantula. Three old men, however, started to cry and told me: "Master, master, what have we done wrong to you? Why are you punishing us like that? You're giving us our freedom? Who will take care of us from now on? Who will feed us, clothe us, marry us, bury us? Master, please have mercy on us and don't throw us out!" Empty words they were, for the crowd that was in a paroxysm of drunkenness. All of them, leaving their hovels the next day, carrying all of their wealth, going… where? They didn't know, but were decided to walk the earth and use their rights as free men… Laia stopped at the first pub to celebrate his new social position, then at the second, to toast for the health of the master, then at the third to baptize his freedom with wine, then at the fourth, to check if free
brandy tastes better than the other, etc. They kept on going like that for some time until they ran out of money and started to steal, ending up in prisons at Roman, Peatra and Bacau. After six months, they all returned to Mircesti, naked, sick, hungry and frozen, and they fell on their knees, begging me to take them as slaves, just like in the good ol' days, they said. This return to slavery, by free will, made me think a lot about the way to liberate people who are slaves by birth and convinced me that, as inhumane as it is to deprive a man of his freedom, it is improper to set free a slave just like that, without preparing him for the joy that awaits him, and protecting him from the dangers of a misunderstood freedom. Porojan however did not share the same fate with the other gypsies. Being set free, he went to practice his job as baker, and finally he settled in Peatra. Thus we lost track of each other for long years… some even told me that he died!.. One day, while I was sitting at the table, in the shadow of the trees, in the garden at Mircesti, I saw a stranger, wearing a Nankin jacket, and barefoot… his figure didn't seem unfamiliar… I looked at him attentively… surprise! Porojan! What words could express my joy? Here he is, crying and kissing my hands! I didn't know what to offer him, to please him. I wanted to invite him for dinner; to invite him to a game of arsici.
After the first moments of wonder, he told me his odyssey, a long track of human miseries, and then he asked me to offer him a job as a baker at Mircesti, saying he wanted to die where he was born. I accepted with gratitude, I gave him new clothes form head to toes, I arranged for him a good salary, and I found him a special room in the courtyard. He settled there and after two day he was gone with one of the bailiff's horses. Since then, I only saw him once at Peatra, an old man, ill with rheumatism, hunchbacked by old age and disgusted by the world. The poor man! He left this world, in the end, taking with him a part of the social picture that shows us the boyar families surrounded by gypsy servants, like the homes of Roman patricians, full of slaves brought from the entire world. Literary Colloquies,
by Vasile Alecsandri (1821-1890)