Towards Sulina

On the arm… downstream. Facing a grove with sparse trees, the Danube pauses in an endless lake, segregating at the bottom. Silvery waved, the Saint George Arm rushes to the right – a dead arm, with no fishermen's boats on it, only a decrepit Turkish town the likes of Mahmudia, and, towards the end, marshes for nesting sea birds, and for hindering ships which glide over the vast surface of the Sea. The Sulina Arm, absorbing the commercial contraptions of the world into our ports, pursues ahead, between the clay banks clad with scarce trees, dry weeds, by which flocks and herds graze, and where the tiny boat of a Russian or Lipovan fisherman would hide. The European Commission, a good husband in somebody else's home, firstly metaled one bank, then both, linking the straight channels twice with the fractured, elbowing flow of the river, clearing its muddy bottom with its humongous dredgers and channeling navigation according to the best norms. Large, heavy ships are passing by at short intervals, in their quest for profit: English, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, tug boats masting all the flags in the world, sailing ships under the white-crescent red pavilion, boats of Commission, with its blue band reading the CED initials (Commission européene du Danube) in-between the two white stripes, with the two red rims. Every once in a while, villages with row houses crop up, fairly poorly homes their founder, Nenitzesco, adorned with thundering names, appropriated from the members of the Royal Family, most certainly not worthy of this honor as yet, for they did no expansion or flourishing. At times, distant, thatched dwellings, where some tenant or fishing entrepreneur would have settled down. After a warm sunset, making the gently rippled waters blush, a star-studded night befalls us, as a belated vessel crosses ahead along a channel that runs as straight as the path of an arrow. At seven in the evening – or 'in the night', now, in October – we find ourselves in the vast harbor that brings stream and sea together: Sulina. This is heralded by the howling of the steam, the bellowing out of commands, the light that sleepily glints across the vessel chords and the key. This key, a never ending bank of pitch-black hell, cannot fathom out its own beginning, nor its end. We, the petty masters of the bank, have not had the ability, nor did we try, to assure a vicinity honorable to us for the Commission-created and owned port; for it is the Commission that positions all the shelters, even the battle ships that hoist the Romanian combat banner. The key, ignorant of lamp posts being amply planted along its cobble, is engulfed in half-obscurity: more destitute, more disturbing than a complete absence of light. Nowhere in sight a vaster, taller construction, to beckon in the night like a sheltering lighthouse. Offices with smothering, bad lights, cafés with curtains drawn, signs reading 'chocolate, tea', pubs where money bleedingly earned in the battle with the storm and the sea by seafarer and fisherman is milked to the benefit of beastly pleasures – a 'home away from home' to the English mariner, whose soul is always tended to by an eager anyone. Some blokes in soiled clothing sneak beside the frail, wooden, deceivingly whitewashed buildings. A cart, the benefit of which escapes my understanding – as here, there is actually only one single street, fringing the sea, is rambling about on the look for clients, who fail to come from any direction. Two rural gendarmes in their whirling, braided coats, with their rifles strapped across their back, chance across swiftly, as if in the pursuit of unseen thieves. And beyond, a fathomless gloom stretches, all-engulfing. A decent hotel opens its doors, or, more aptly put, its staircase, before us, running up beneath a coffee shop and a tea house. The room is passable, but what it may offer is mere beds, not the ability to sleep, as well. Each step, each word, pounds through the wooden walls. Instead of steps, one can hear insane galloping, staircase overthrowing, door smashing, and in lieu of words – modest hollers, drunkards' songs, rolls of la-la-la's, pouring up from the stair head, Italian palavering between obscure guests and their friends abandoned to a free-of-charge rest on the pavement. And, out-bellowing these sounds akin to felines in heat – at times, the shrill call of the electric doorbell.The way back to Galatzi occurs at the rise of a cold autumn sun. From the ship deck, the sailing ships of motley foreign lands can be observed, basking or getting ready to set off – amongst them, our gunboat The Grivitza, on whom the mariners are doing the morning scrub. Farther, a pale stretch of sea, dark ships rolling remotely, and a brim of picturesque Sulina houses; facing them, on the other side of the harbor, smoked warehouses, factories, workshops. All firms are foreign, and here, in Sulina, the capital of the European Commission, we are visibly represented merely by rural gendarmes, by a handful of marine officers, and by the tricolor flying at the mast of the post boat and of the gunboat. The only impressive building is the pavilioned palace of the sovereign Commission; our administration that should represent us in front of others is to be found nowhere. Any human idiom is equally justified in this port, scoured by motor boats under the CED pavilion. And I am somehow overcome by wonder as I have to stamp the fading green shredling of paper bearing King Carol's effigy, on the hideous post cards sold by an old apatride.The ship heads steadily towards Galatzi, in its own territory but in a foreign country, taking with her a multitude of races who, to my surprise, speak Romanian with Greek and Bulgarian inflections. Is this language a more comfortable medium for playing cards, as is the case from Sulina to Galatzi and from Galatzi to Sulina, or are we seeing the extension of Romanian amongst people milking off and selling away the work of our peasants' hands, on all the worlds' markets tempted to buy it? from Romania. How it was until 1918 (tome II, Moldavia and Dobruja)Bucharest, 1940

by Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940)