The Erstwhile Snows

Winters in Ramnicu Valcea were quite mild in those times, though there was plenty of snow (I guess this is the cliché of those whose childhood memories are blurred by their excessive subjectivity); anyway, they unfolded following a certain ritual: at the beginning of December the first snow would fall, the children went out to play in the snow, screaming excitedly, the color white took possession of the city and out into the streets came a smell of clementines and other delicatessen that decorated the shop windows of Mihai Bravu Boulevard, an indubitable sign that Santa Claus had passed by. The people prepared for sacrificing the pigs and checked once again the barrels of pickles they had carefully kept in their pantries or in their vaulted caves. The central restaurants would hire Gypsy bands (I knew Nicolae quite well – I never met someone who knew his family name – who played at the grilled pork and plum brandy parties my father's brothers regularly organized on the wooded crests of the local hills that had been nicknamed the Chimneys), on the frozen lake of the park of Zavoi the skaters (the boys wearing knitted jumpers, the girls sweaters and large, pleated skirts) started gracefully circling around under the weeping willows that had lost the lithe ornament of their leaves; the ladies in their fur overcoats and silver fox collars rushed into the shops to buy presents: bracelets, rings, necklaces, sweets, articles of clothing or toys (dolls imported from France, Austria or Italy were very fashionable, they were the newest craze in town with their blond hair and blue eyes that they closed with a curtsy). In a word, the city boiled with enthusiasm, tradition had its say, Christmas was coming. For us, the children, Christmas began a couple of days earlier, with the carols, as we embarked on our Christmas Eve tours[1]. The event started after careful preparations (a chorus on four voices that was authoritatively led by my elder brother, a gifted and trained musician, who had taken violin classes for years); we had a rich repertory of carols that we had borrowed from our music textbooks; we left as soon as it got dark, following a carefully planned itinerary, which we had decided on in advance, taking into account the generosity of our potential hosts, as well as the topography of the streets we walked on. We wore warm clothes and carried sticks to protect ourselves against possible attacks from rival gangs of singers that might try to rob us of our earnings. We also had small bags with us for the pretzels, biscuits and sweets, the stuff that children traditionally get on such occasions as a reward for their musical endeavors. Our group included some four or five boys, the same people every year, who had been selected from those who could sing well and had musical inclinations. We first stopped in front of the houses of the Simians (some of the richest people in town) near the leather factory, where we got admitted into a huge dining room (my dim memories of it need the support of imagination) where the table was laid, covered with the richest foods of the season and lots of bottles and glasses full of wine and champagne, and around it about a dozen people sat enjoying themselves, laughing and talking. We stood in two rows, according to the pitch of our voices, and the landlord (I cannot remember his face) made a discrete sign that we could start our performance; and as we were striving to give an artistic, vibrant touch to our show, the revelers would empty their glasses, strip a chicken bone or a pork rib of their meat, would joke or laugh loudly, or belch and sometimes deign to cast a glance at us, seeming somehow surprised to see us there (we had the embarrassing feeling of acting like a band of Gypsy violinists that play for the tips of the boyars). Our enthusiasm gradually cooled down, we sang three or four carols depending on the patience and mood of our host, who finally bestowed on us, generously, a sum of money that was bigger than what we were going to make the whole night after many an exhausting performance in the cold and snow outside, at the doors of many people. Then came, in a succession, following a plan carefully designed (and imposed) by my mother, the visits to an endless series of aunts and cousins and other relatives, many of them Aromanians of my mother's family, elderly women, mainly widows, who received us enthusiastically and with feigned surprise, stroked us on the head, asked us how things were going at school, how our parents were doing or often kissed us, and a reek of moth balls enveloped us; they forced us to nibble a pretzel and gave us just a few pence that could hardly cover the price of a chocolate bar (we always went for the Suchard brand when we could afford it). We finally "approached" the houses of a number of well-off people, many of whom had children in our class (teachers, army officers, lawyers – the latter were by far the most generous), and we ended our journey at the bishop's palace. There we spent some time negotiating with a priest, the tax collector of the diocese, who asked us, like a genuine inquisitor what our families were, what grade we were in, what marks we got at school, if we attended the Sunday service in church, and only then were we met by the bishop himself, surrounded by a group of priests in long, black clothes. The bishop would stand at the upper end of the stairs in black, domestic apparel, devoid of the customary pomp that accompanied the Te Deums in the cathedral of the city. I didn't dare raise my eyes above my humble condition and look him in the eye, so I can't remember his face; all I remember is our emotion and the excitement with which we sang our carols, carefully following my brother's instructions who led the chorus with great skill; we did our best to come as close as possible to the high standards set by our colleagues, the seminary students, who were wonderful singers, genuine professionals. Finally, His Grace would bless us, and the father inquisitor would disburse a modest sum of money (the amount depended entirely on his disposition and state of mind and on his being or not being in a generous mood) that rarely came close to what we got from the Simians. He would deftly and professionally slip the money into my brother's pocket or hand it to our "cashier" (as we had a bursar, generally the strongest lad in our group, who kept our treasure in a cloth bag that had been sown by mother). After that, we followed the Boulevard on our way back home, red in the cheeks and completely frozen, and we shared our pretzels and money (we often collected reasonable sums) that we kept in metal, locked boxes or spent in town on sweets and chocolates and as many balls as we could get, since they became more and more valuable as spring approached and the ball games season started. For us, however, the climax of the entire Christmas season was represented by the arrival of Santa. What mattered most was not his mysterious, occult appearance, out of nowhere (Deus ex machina), which remained inexplicable and suspect to us who, as we grew up, had already started to be more and more inquisitive and ask our parents uncomfortable questions; it was rather the long period of nervous waiting of one or two weeks that preceded the miracle that was important to us, and I only have vague, flash-like recollections of those distant times, of the sleepless nights when we were waiting, leaning against the window frames, our noses stuck to the cold panes, looking into the deep darkness outside and imagining weird, shapeless, dangerous, even threatening creatures, looking like ghosts or werewolves or vampires or the evil elves that haunted our minds that we had read about in books of Scandinavian stories or in the fantastic literature of Selma Lagerlöf. And this endless and excited waiting that often became unbearable, like a long, trailing musical overture, was punctuated not so much by our eagerness to see Santa pulling his gifts out of the sack he always carried with him in his journey down from heavens and generously spreading them under the Christmas tree that mother had so properly decorated, but by the almost sickly feverishness with which we always met the great events of our existence, the crises, the thresholds. Santa would arrive at dusk, dressed in a long, fluffy military overcoat (that father was going to wear during the endless winter nights in the trenches by the river Don or, later, in the Tatra Mountains). He had a red hood over his head, and his boots were big and shiny. He would sit down on a chair close to the Christmas tree in the smaller bedroom that was dimly lit by two flickering candles (that was mother's idea of an appropriate environment for the event), and would drop his bag (that strangely resembled the one my father would always take with him when he went hunting), would pant theatrically, apparently out of breath, and rub his gloved hands, pretending, quite clumsily, that he was frozen stiff and exhausted by the effort of coming down to us; then he would inquire if we had been good, if we had annoyed our parents (we always had prompt answers to that, which we had prepared well in advance), and lots of similar trivial things that were part of the already established ceremony, then he would ask us to recite some poems, and if we took too long, would impatiently interrupt us: he definitely was in a hurry and reeked of the brand of tobacco my father smoked; he distributed the gifts and, before leaving, would once again enjoin us in a sharp, unpleasant tone to behave ourselves, to get good marks at school, to put an end to our sleighing down the slopes of the Capela hill, and mostly to stop fighting each other, me and my brother (how on earth were we supposed to stop fighting? that was definitely a stupid request). Then would take his empty bag (when he remembered it) and vanish into the night outside, his back curved, his air old and tired. Things went on tolerably well until one winter (there must always come a winter of disenchantment) when my brother noticed that Santa was shamelessly wearing our father's parade boots and thus the sacred myth of Christmas vanished for ever, and we all felt that, with it, some of the magic of our childhood, of its innocent happiness was also gone. I only have scanty recollections of my school years, separate snapshots of an old, worn out film; thus I can still see in front of my eyes the few old trees in our yard around which we chased one another or happily played hide and seek, the small kiosk (an exotic word in those times) where we bought sweets or mints or hot doughnuts when we happened to have some small change in our pockets; the kiosk that competed with old Ibrahim, the old, brave, unshaven Turk with his swarthy, ascetic, placid face that would show up during our breaks pushing his small wheelbarrow-like cart on which all sorts of rare, good-smelling delicatessen were displayed: sesame and halva and pretzels and hot croissants and braga[2]. When we were in the third grade, King Carol, probably encouraged by his counselors, or maybe in an attempt to break the usual monotony of everyday classes and give us a new, attractive kind of occupation, meant to prepare us bodily and mentally to become brave defenders of our country and to accustom us to the strictness and discipline of a soldier's life (or simply out of boredom and disgust with existence, just like the kings that you can see in movies who, fed up with a dull life, amuse themselves playing with leaden soldiers), King Carol, I say, created the "Country Sentinels"[3] and we suddenly found ourselves dressed in sentinels' uniforms (that our parents naturally had to pay for): white shirts with shiny tin buttons and dark blue trousers (or short pleated skirts for the girls) and berets and ties. We were grouped, according to the respective educational unit – class or school – into centuries, cohorts and legions. I cannot remember exactly the correspondence between this ludicrous nomenclature, inspired by the organization of the Roman army, and the structure of our school system. I have few memories of my sentinel's exploits, though I am sure that we were quite enthusiastic, as kids are always fascinated by touching ceremonies, uniforms, badges, medals and all sorts of such trinkets, flying flags and heroic songs and marches. I mostly remember the trips to the Capela hill on Ascension Day, when the solemn ceremony of "planting trees" was organized… at the beginning (or end?) of the week, all pupils, dressed in sentinel's clothes, were summoned in the schoolyard for different drills, under the leadership of their juvenile commanders, who had been appointed by the principal; these children, proud of their new position of authority in the hierarchy, were unconsciously practicing for their later social advancement to top political, or administrative, positions. The sentinels were arranged in a square formation and the tricolor flag of the country was hoisted on a pole as high as a lamppost; while the flag was slowly raised, handled by one of the pupils who had been specially trained for this glorious mission, the rest of us were chanting the national, royal anthem, with an unquestionable, but thoughtless and unmotivated, enthusiasm, yelling desperately in various tones and registers so that our combined efforts resulted in a terrible uproar that could be heard, I guess, as far as the petrol station or the cathedral of the city. My first school years are – I might say, fatally – associated with my teacher of Romanian, Nicu Anghelescu, whose nickname, "the Lion," was transmitted from generation to generation of terrified pupils. When he came into the classroom we were all petrified into a hypnotized dumbness. His head was small in comparison with his tall, imposing body; his hair was combed with a parting, he had green, cold eyes and a grin on his face (not a genuine smile, but rather a snarl, I never saw him laughing heartily, so I can hardly imagine him opening his heart in moments of tenderness). He would meticulously open the register of the class, staring at us all the while, and would call to his desk a horrified pupil and ask him, for instance, to decline a noun or a pronoun, and each mistake the poor devil made, or even the slightest hesitation, was promptly chastised by the teacher, who hit the child over the knuckles with the sharp-edged, triangular ruler that he pulled out of his black briefcase, full of papers and files, which he never parted from during his continuous errands from the school to the courtroom (our teacher was also a brilliant barrister). The despotic authority of our master was doubled by a matchless erudition and a perfect logic in his argumentation; he gave us the impression (we were, indeed, convinced of that) that he knew everything, from old literature texts to the latest bestsellers; his obsessive insistence on grammar, accuracy and precision, on the correct spelling of words, on our expressing our ideas in a rich and beautiful and grammatically correct language, his passion for sophisticated etymologies (he had an excellent command of Latin) made a powerful impression on us, many of whom were poor country simpletons, unaccustomed with, and dazzled by, the exquisite aristocratic manners of our master. Paradoxically, in our hearts the admiration and respect we had for him were mixed with the terror "the Lion" inspired by his simple presence in the classroom. The teacher's maniacal punctuality – which he tried to instill into us, too – made him organize his life very rigorously; at the very same time his tall and a little bent silhouette could be seen every evening (he thus re-enacted, more than a century later, the legendary behavior of the Prussian philosopher of Konigsberg) walking nimbly down the Boulevard (always on the left side) and carrying a walking stick (or an umbrella, depending on the weather), accompanied by a friend (a teacher, or a judge or a lawyer) that he held by the arm, and with whom he talked earnestly… his stroll ended as he disappeared inside his fortress, a two-floor house built to his own plans in the composite style of those years, having big windows camouflaged by impenetrable shutters and curtains (I often asked myself if sunlight ever got into that house), behind which, we imagined, dark labyrinths were hidden. This fortress remained inaccessible to me until much later (when the master had long died), when I was invited there by his widow and I could see the vast living room downstairs. This visit was a bitter disappointment, as I discovered that the idol of our childhood, whom we had placed among the gods on the Olympus, had only been a common man, after all – though a refined intellectual, of course – whose imposing library only included carefully ranged, leather-bound treatises of civil law, while the literature section hardly met my expectations. Looking back, amused, I fail to understand how a man like me, who lived for half a century inside a world that was a silly joke of history, can hardly remember the major events that marked the years of my childhood and caused a deep emotion in my native town, putting an end to the legend of the so called patriarchal, provincial Ramnic. I do remember, however, the assassination of Prime Minister Armand Calinescu (I have a clear image of just the first page in the daily "The Universe," where his oversized black-bordered picture was published beside images from the street of Bucharest where the murder took place; then I remember the days when the territory of the country was amputated in three successive turns: first Bessarabia, then parts of Transylvania, and finally southern Dobrogea; events that precipitated the abdication of King Carol, then the dictatorship installed by the coming to power of the Iron Guard; the assassination (followed by the desecration of their bodies) of Iorga and Madgearu by members of the Guard, quickly followed by the so-called rebellion of the Guard. This "exploit" had some vague reverberations in Ramnic (or in our young minds, anyway) as I remember, even today, a quite insignificant detail, the cavernous voice of a man announcing on the radio – the headquarters of which had been briefly occupied by the rebels – that the troops of General Dragalina were marching on Bucharest. I never heard of that general again in my life. Then Ion Antonescu gained full control over the country and Romania entered the war. I remember even today the chimes of the bells in the cathedral of Kishinau – or maybe Cernautzi – broadcast on the radio for minutes on end, an ample, majestic, worrying sound that accompanied the event. I always remember those obsessive bells when I read the famous text that Ion Ghica wrote in a moment of grace on the chimes of the bells of Bucharest. One day, shortly after the assassination of Armand Calinescu, I plucked up courage and, stirred by the rumors that had spread in town, I rushed to the centre accompanied by my brother. There I saw some poor devils riddled with bullets, lying abandoned on the pavement in front of the City Court House, stiffened in the position they had when death had dropped on them. Their bodies were partly covered by blankets and to the chest of each of them a sign had been stuck that read: "This is how traitors of their nation and of their countries are punished." A couple of armed soldiers frozen in an awkward position were guarding them as he crowd had gathered on both sides of the street and watched the horrible scene, the blank, stupid glances of the people expressing terror rather than compassion. We were not used to the brutal, shameless show of murder and for me too, who was still a child, witnessing such bloody events was a first… and yet, the deepest impressions in my mind are not associated with such details, but rather with the pervading feeling of sickness and disgust as I had been confronted with the repellent image of crime, shamelessly exhibited in the street. A year later, immediately after the Iron Guard seized power, as I was beginning the second year in high school, other bodies were displayed on the pavement in front of the Court House, following the same ritual, the same macabre, abominable pattern, in the magnificent environment provided by the hills in the background. This time, however, the parts had been swapped, the victims had been murdered by the members of the Guard, the former victims were now the executioners, the tragedy was reenacted in a new casting with new stage managers. I still remember the deep, visceral repulsion I experienced, but we had not much time to think of that, the events were soon to push the country into the war, the mentalities of the people seemed to be slowly changing as the sweet, sleepy patriarchalness of the city was dissipating and death became a common, trivial event in Ramnic. from The Stork's Nest, Almarom, 2003
[1] It is customary for children to go, on the 23rd of December – the eve of Christmas Eve – on a kind of trick or treat tour and sing carols at the doors of various people, for which they get sweets, little presents or small sums of money (translator's note).[2] Turkish soft drink made of millet (translator's note).[3] An organization for pupils and young students created by King Carol II in 1937 having obvious similarities with the scouts; it was dissolved in 1940, after the King was forced to abdicate by General Ion Antonescu. (translator's note). 

by Constantin Mateescu (b. 1929)