Wednesday, August 25, 2010


One of my childhood friends was a beautiful blue-eyed blond, Ana. She lived two doors down from my parents' one bedroom apartment. There were five people squeezed in a two bedroom apartment with a tiny bathroom and a kitchenette. She had the typical aspirations to become a famous actress and, despite every one's poverty, she dressed differently and used make-up, both luxuries neither she nor her family could afford. She was looking for some knight in shining armor to save her from poverty and she was determined to find him. Ever anxious to fulfill her dream, she ran off with the circus five times from the age of fourteen. She would either be with the trapeze artist, the lion tamer, or the circus clown. The police would bring her back every time she tried to run away. Not that she would get very far without a passport. Heartbroken and locked up on the concrete balcony, she would plot her next adventure. It had not donned on her yet that there was no escape from a communist country.

One day an elegant, handsome African man appeared in our neighborhood. He was hard to miss since nobody had ever seen a black man before. He was well spoken, knew Romanian quite well, and very polite. He paid a visit to Ana's family and the patriarch, Stan. We had no idea how she found this man, it was obvious, Max was her ticket out of Romania. He was one of the first students from Sudan at the newly established Petroleum Engineering School in our hometown of Ploiesti. After a very lengthy and tumultuous courtship, Ana and Max decided to get married. She was so desperate to escape, it did not bother her that her future husband-to-be was extremely jealous, flying in violent rages at the slightest provocation. She also had no clue what her life will be like as the wife of a rich Muslim who had an assortment of other wives. She did not realize that her total lack of obedience and rebelliousness to rules might come in the way of marital bliss. He courted and supported her for the entire length of his studies and, when he graduated, they got married in a very lavish wedding. Ana left for Sudan and we thought, we would never see or hear from her again. Six months later, she returned very ill, she could not tolerate the African desert heat, all the usual tropical diseases, and the harem rules. She almost died, and, when recovered, she divorced her Sudanese husband in a hotly contested split. They loved each other but she chose living in a communist country over certain death in Africa. Many other girls since then have taken Muslim husbands to escape poverty in Romania. Their babies have become a glaring example of the insidious Islmaic occupation of Europe. The Ottoman Turks have terrorized and ruled Europe by scimitar, extracting tribute in gold and grain from the locals for 500 years, in exchange for "peace." Christians eventually defeated them and pushed them back to Istanbul. Islam is now succeeding their conquest that started hundreds of years ago, without firing a shot, through demographics and generous European welfare that supports them financially.

We were born and raised to accept everybody, we were not divided by skin color and religion, the word discrimination was not part of our vocabulary, it was foreign to us. We deplored the apartheid in South Africa and we knew that our society would never treat people with different skin pigment so atrociously. The communist party tried in vain to teach us to hate Jews but we paid no attention. Our parents instilled a fear of gypsies into us, but it was not based on skin color, it was based on their frequent practice of kidnapping small children to raise them into their culture of theft - they needed fresh converts to make money for their nomadic tribes.

The government did no issue statistics based on race, we were all Romanians. There was always a fringe percentage mentioned, called the rroma because they refused to adhere to society, remained illiterate, and kept their nomadic ways. We recognized instinctively economic discrimination because we could see the elite ruling class living so much better than the rest of us, the proletariat. We knew gender discrimination existed because men were always paid better than women. Women were more pampered at work and took more time off with full pay. They had generous maternity leave, while men could only take off if really sick. There was no such thing as age discrimination, everyone was treated equally bad.

As soon as I became part of the American society, I realized that everything is compartmentalized by gender, race, tribe, age, handicap, religious preference, political preference, sexual preference, income, education, intelligence quotient, emotional quotient, beauty, weight, social status, fame, and athletic ability. Every textbook I've ever read used discrimination statistics to make certain points and constant comparisons as if we were in a race. I realized then the American obsession with discrimination. There was a real industry of victim hood, rights, and entitlements based on discrimination coming from the leftist academics, ACLU, NAACP, ACORN, NEA, the Southern Center for American Poverty, et al.

I encountered discrimination almost on a daily basis, especially living in the south where people did not have much exposure to foreigners, but I did not allow it to affect who I was and how I conducted my life. It was not a compliment to be told that I looked exotic. If I sun-bathed in summer time, people asked me if I was black. If I shopped with mom and we spoke Romanian, store clerks would follow us around as if we were shop-lifters. Some shop owners would go as far as asking us to leave because they did not welcome foreign customers. Colleagues from southern towns would tell me that I did not count if I was not seven generations from that area. Memberships to social clubs that raised money for good causes would be denied to me because "they just did not take anybody off the streets." The woman who said this to me was a high school drop-out. She had married into money, to a man who owned a boat dealership, therefore she felt entitled to discriminate because she saw herself as financially secure. If I asked female colleagues about the meaning of Greek sororities and fraternities, which were totally foreign to Europeans, I would be dismissed with, "you would not understand," she did not want to waste her time. In other words, I was too dumb to understand. If I asked pointed questions, I was told that this was not how women behaved in the south, they were submissive and kept their mouths shut. It was the men who made policy and financial decisions. If I applied for a job and I was among the front runners, a person of color or the wife of someone with connections would get the job. It was never based on education or ability as advertised. Affirmative Action was prevalent, not meritocracy. Mediocre students of sub-standard ability and employees would be chosen at various universities/companies over better qualified students/employees based on their ethnicity. The communist regime at least pretended to have written exams by all applicants for a job, and then, instead of hiring the person with the highest score, hired someone based on nepotism. Similarly, the college entrance exam, although very fair, allocated admission based on communist party nepotism in spite of lower exam scores.

Did I get discouraged in my new country? Did I feel discriminated against in America? Certainly, but I persevered, I did not sue, I did not complain. I got up, dusted off, and tried again, even harder. I never allowed myself to become a victim.

Monday, August 16, 2010

My first trip to the hospital

My husband and I drove to Tupelo in his grandfather's old beat up 1962 Chevrolet Impala. I learned how to drive in this car around the pastures on the farm in Woodland, terrorizing the stampeding cows. It was the color of puke green and the seats had seen better days, oozing rubber from every vinyl crack. It baked in the sun while Sterling went fishing. We were glad to have the old car, it was heavy, burned a quart of oil a week, but it always cranked and took us where we needed to go. I covered the seats with towels, to make it more comfortable to ride in. When we went to parties or church, people were too embarrassed to ride with us.

My in-laws had decided for me that I had to have my tonsils removed. I was scared to death since I've never been admitted to a hospital before and I did not know what to expect. I had heard horror stories under communist care and I saw the results of Romanian surgical skills hopping on crutches, deformed, maimed, or worse, in graves. I was frightened and I thought I was going to die.

I've always had issues with tonsil infections growing up. I was given so much Streptomycin, I am still surprised that I can see, hear, and smell. Moving to a totally different climate, a sub-tropical, extremely humid and hot, created challenges that my body was unable to fight off very well and exacerbated any symptom I've previously had. I was plagued by more infections and severe nose bleeds from allergies to plants and flowers unknown to my immune system.

Here we were going to Tupelo - I felt like going to the scaffold. I had asked my husband to buy me a meal at KFC, it was the only food that somewhat resembled the fried chicken I ate in Romania, and, if I was going to die, I wanted to have comfort food as my last meal. He refused, since surgical patients cannot eat and drink hours before surgery. Sam* was laughing all the way, having a good time at my expense.

We did have insurance, so they were going to kick us out of the hospital shortly after the procedure unless complications arose. Everything seemed like a luxury hotel. The friendliness of the admission personnel and staff in general was a sharp contrast to the insulting rudeness and carelessness of the Romanian medical corps. The bed was clean, comfortable, I did not have to bring my own sheets, I had my own room, nurses checked on me every so many minutes, the doctors were friendly, knowledgeable, did not reuse needles and bandages, I had my own bathroom in the room, I had a TV, and the walls had been freshly painted in a "cheerful" grey color. Even so, it beat the Romanian hospitals where layers of paint from World War II were still chipping everywhere, revealing water, rust, and blood stains. And the floor was a mosaic of dubious marks. Imagine that, a TV in my hospital room - I had to wait until twelfth grade in high school in order to have a black and white TV with two channels playing mostly communist propaganda. It was lunchtime, the aroma of cooked food was everywhere, and I thought, "great, they are bringing my last meal."

Slightly drowsy and feeling no pain, I thought I had died and went to heaven and I just did not know it yet. I gave my husband my last wishes before they put me to sleep, firmly believing that I would not wake up again as I was counting backwards from 10. I had written a good-bye letter to my parents. In typical independent young person fashion, I had not told them I was having surgery - I did not want them to worry unnecessarily - there was nothing they could have done since I was 8,000 miles away.

I woke up in the recovery room, fire in my throat, and I thought, "oh, I did not go to heaven, I must be in hell and it hurts so badly." There were some angelic faces in a bright light telling me to wake up, the surgery is over. I closed my eyes and wished it all to go away. I spied a beautiful bouquet of flowers next to my bed, sent by my friend Lois, and I really thought I had died. But every time I swallowed my saliva, a volcanic burn enveloped my throat. I asked for water and they brought me ice. I was shocked since I remembered my little cousin Rodica having the same surgery and being given hot tea. I was offered ice, ice cream, and slimy jello. Rodica was in misery for weeks, it was probably the hot tea causing her slow and painful recovery. I was pondering my demise from so much burning pain. Ice cream was truly a miraculous cure.

Romanians and Europeans in general have this fixation with cold drinks causing sore throats and stomach cramps. That is why everything served there is room temperature. Waiters give customers dirty looks if they ask for ice and bring demonstratively only a cube or two. A doctor performing a tonsillectomy there would never give ice or ice cream to a patient - not when I was growing up.

There were no complications and they sent me home the next day. I called my parents to tell them about my brief encounter with the American medical care. They were incredulous about my descriptions - they thought I was fantasizing and delirious from my surgery and describing an expensive hotel. Until my mom saw the inside of an American hospital with her own eyes, she never believed me. To this day, she says, American medicine is very advanced and futuristic, while socialized medical care standards in Romania are still fifty years behind.
*Not a real name

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Cultural differences

As an 18 year old in Romania, it has never occurred to me that cultural differences can doom a marriage. As a typical naive teenager, I truly believed that people were the same, no matter what country they came from. We laughed, cried, experienced emotion, hurt, love, and enjoyed the simple pleasures in life the same way. What can cultural differences possibly do to one's relationship with another human being of the opposite sex? Quite a lot, I found out along the way.

For starters, growing up with freedom and taking it for granted, made enduring the indignities of living under a dictatorship quite unbearable. As an American, one can enter pretty much any official or government building. Not so under communism. I was shocked the first time I was allowed to enter a U.S. air force base and move about without ever being asked who I was or what I was doing there. We had clearance and business to enter. In Romania we were not even allowed within miles and miles of a military base, a sort of area 51, no man's land. If you dared approach the forbidden area, you did so at your own risk, you would be shot. Government buildings were off limits to its citizens, but particularly to foreigners. My American husband could not understand why he was not allowed to enter government buildings. His frustration grew and grew with every new rule and regulation he encountered that stifled his freedom to move about, to be who he was, a free man. He took out his frustration on the nearest person who was always beside him, me.

Traveling through Romania was a challenge and quite expensive. Every time we spent the night in a hotel, we had to reserve two rooms, one for me, and one for him. It was not that we were going to have company or lavish parties. We could ill-afford to pay for two rooms when we were going to use only one. The law dictated, since I was a Romanian citizen, although married, I could not spend the night in the same room in a hotel with my American husband, a foreign national. We had to present our passports each time and receive reservations separately. Interestingly, room rates were double what Romanians were paying. This put a strain on our daily serenity and our budget. One hotel in Mamaia at the Black Sea was across the street from the police precinct. We were envisioning what would happen when the police came to arrest us since I was not spending the night in my room but in his. Only under communist tyranny, from their desire to control every aspect of the citizens' lives, such strife and discomfort would be created between husband and wife.

Food was always a bone of contention in our marriage. I approached grocery shopping as a list of things I wanted to cook for the week. He shopped for food based on perceived basic needs. Having been a farmer's son, an abundance of food came from the fields, canning, farm animals, and other farmer's markets. Luxuries came from the store. I grew up as a city girl and our food was scarce most of the time. On every grocery trip, I picked up extras, as if next time the shelves would be empty. This angered my husband as he thought these groceries unnecessary lavish spending.

Saving money was sacrosanct and was decided by the husband - generations of Smiths* have done so quite successfully. Women were not perceived as smart or worthy of going to college. Leaving finance up to women was derisive and degrading to a man since it indicated loss of control over his family. We were really poor in Romania and, if we had extra money, we were hard-pressed to save it in the only existing bank, the National Bank, knowing that the government could step in at any time and confiscate our savings. Shortages of most basic things meant that each family kept a lot of cash on hand in order to spend it on short notice on perceived future needs, not necessarily current ones. Hoarding was encouraged and desired as it provided a safety net for the very real possibility of famine. Thus our opposing views on saving became a source of distress at times. Living for the moment to me, as a survival mechanism, was more important than living for a distant time in the future.

My orthodox religion and faith were considered heathen, only baptists were the real children of God. My mother-in-law expected us to re-marry in the baptist faith in order for our children to be recognized as legitimate heirs. This prospect gave me great pause since we had already married twice, once in a civil ceremony for the sake of the government and once in the orthodox church, for the sake of our family and our faith. A third marriage to the same man? Impossible. Did it cause a lot of problems? Certainly, in many ways, not the least of which was the baptism of our two daughters. We compromised, after all, my husband was a descendant of the McNeil* clan, and he chose the Church of Scotland - both became Presbyterians as babies. I fully expected them to change their religious status as they matured and chose for themselves. There was a strain in our marriage that I could cut with a scimitar worthy of the Gordian knot.

My parents emphasized education as a way out of misery, poverty, and dire circumstances. The Smiths* believed that a woman's place was in the kitchen, barefoot, and pregnant. Trying to pursue a doctorate put a strain on our marriage since my husband wanted me to wait until we raised our children, he finished his education, and we had enough money to pay for it in cash. I knew that time was of the essence and I could be a mom, a student, and a wife. I had youth and boundless energy on my side. I proved it - I finished three degrees in the time it took him to complete his bachelor's. I mothered my children and took care of the house quite well. I slept very little but I was determined to succeed and prove him wrong. The only casualty to my success was our marriage. I received my doctorate by the time I was 29 but the victory was bitter and Pyrrhic. My doctorate euphoria bubble was burst quickly when, my well-intentioned uncle Gelu, mom's oldest brother, God rest his soul, announced to my Romanian family that I had printed the graduation invitation and commencement announcement in my kitchen. I could not convince them that young people in a free America could actually pursue and obtain doctorates in any fields. Communists had made it so difficult that only old people were accepted into doctoral study and they had to have the approval of the communist party. Non-members were not allowed to apply. The president's wife, Elena Ceausescu, a woman with only elementary education to her name, in her delusional megalomania, had given herself a Ph.D. in Chemistry.

Child rearing was also vastly different in our two cultures. The Smiths* were strict disciplinarians and punished their children severely for minor offenses. I, on the other hand, rarely spanked my children. If I grounded them, I would soon forget and not follow through with the entire length of the grounding sentence. My husband took beatings from his dad with a belt and he understood that to be the only way to keep children compliant. I disagreed vehemently and forbade him to punish our small daughters in such a cruel way. As an only child, that was all my parents could afford to feed, I was cherished by my parents. Mike* thought such coddling would raise a spoiled, bratty child.

Our values in general were so different that I could not fathom why I had married him in the first place. He loved country life in the middle of nowhere, preferably a desert, with no noisy or nosey neighbors. I loved people, grew up in a bustling city that slept through curfews and lots of neighbors and loud kids. The thought of having to spend another day on a lonely, deserted farm brought me to tears and depression. Violent storms scared me to death, tornadoes and straight winds were a part of everyday southern life. Uprooted trees and totally demolished homes were unnatural and frightening to me. Creatures that I had not seen before became part of my nomenclature of dangerous animals to avoid - poisonous snakes, alligators, poisonous spiders and, the nuisance of them all, the huge cockroaches or Palmetto bugs. Stifling humid heat made everything feel like a hot oven - I could not breathe outside for several months until my blood adjusted and thinned. The misery index escalated with the soft water that was so soapy, it was impossible to rinse. I was grateful to have water all the time though, without interruptions from the government.

Dinners were strange and ritualistic, with the oldest male presiding over the meal and dishing out insults to women, foreigners, and pretty much anyone who was not Scottish. I am not sure the insults were intentional or malicious, it was just an accepted way of life. We ate with real sterling silver, a luxury which I found ludicrous and out of place. This was at a time when a complete silver setting cost as much as $3,000. No to mention that it had to be shined weekly. I was so happy to have plenty to eat that I would have used plastic cutlery or even my fingers all the time. Sometimes the favorite dogs from the twenty plus big mutts milling about the farm would circle the dinner table for scraps. I never owned dogs before and found this habit to be unsanitary - we kept dogs outside for protection not as pets. Food was very different in appearance and taste and my in-laws were very impatient with me - I was supposed to like everything overnight and not have any preferences whatsoever. To decline something to eat was a personal insult to them. I had an arduous road ahead of me if I was to survive in this culture, this family, and keep my identity and sanity.
* Not their real names

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Children are a whirlwind gift from God. My two daughters made me richer, happier, and more fulfilled in so many ways. They've been my life and my very reason to exist for 29 years. My blue-eyed Snow White beauty with curly tresses received the unique gift of a beautiful operatic voice and perfect pitch. My green-eyed brunette with angel kisses on her cheeks received the gift of a scientific mind and a soprano voice. Both learned to play instruments at an early age and were quite gifted with languages.

I am an only child and always yearned to have siblings. My parents told me that the stork was tired and too poor to fly to our house and drop a sister or a brother. I searched for years to find a stork that could bring siblings and plenty of food. My parents said that this particular stork took up residence in the Far East and was unable to fly back to us. How credulous and hopeful kids can be!

I never had to share toys or food. Food was scarce around our house and I could count toys on one hand with room to spare. There were not many material possessions to become selfish over or share. I suppose hoarding food to stave famine was a selfish expression. It happened in some families, within a thriving black market for hard cash.

Communist children, even an only child, were not often coddled or made to feel special. Hugs were rare, public display of affection was frowned upon, and parents did not usually say "I love you" to their children. Life was too hard and harsh to spend it on fluff. People hugged at funerals, at weddings, and, if they had not seen each other in a long time. Since people lived in the same town or village their entire lives, long-term separation was non-existent or unheard of. Three-year compulsory military service for boys created a vacuum in the family unit and a need for hugs upon their safe return and release from duty.

In recent times, as Romania became part of the European Union, the possibility of employment in Spain, Italy, and Great Britain, emptied villages and families, breaking up the tight-knit communities, and leaving children almost orphaned in the care of elderly grandparents, themselves in need of care and protection. The far-away parents, earning a decent income in other lands, left children feeling abandoned and bereft of parental togetherness. Some children could not cope with this form of abandonment and committed suicide, others tried unsuccessfully, crying for love and attention.

If there is anything positive to be said about communism, and there is scant little, is that it forced families to be close, very close, and stay together. Divorce was unheard of and seldom permitted. It took around six years of waiting on the disposition of a petition for divorce and often times the answer was NO. However, forced cohabitation of people who had psychological problems and irreconcilable differences gave rise to a lot of spousal abuse, child abuse, alcoholism, adultery, and even murder in the heat of argument or passion.

When I decided to marry Sam,* my parents were against it for a very simple reason - I would have to leave my home town and go so far away that they would never be able to see me again. Being a selfish teenager, I never gave it much thought how I and my parents would feel emotionally being suddenly torn apart and separated from our family unit that had been so close-knit for 18 years. Our entire universe revolved around a 20 mile radius, give or take a few miles, with one uncle living about 100 miles away.

I was too ignorant and young to give much thought to the vast cultural differences that would eventually lead to divorce as my husband and I had absolutely nothing in common. We were as different in our life experiences as night and day. Our only common denominator would be our two beautiful daughters.

I was always told to respect the opinions of our elders and parents in general, but, as a teenager, when it came to the affairs of the heart, I decided early on that I would not listen to my match-making grandmother or my parents. My mom had married my dad on advice from my grandfather although she was deeply in love with another man, much more educated than she was and Jewish. My grandfather objected because he felt that Niculina was much less educated than the man she loved and he would eventually lose interest in her for lack of intellectual equality. Additionally, he was Jewish and my mom was Romanian orthodox. Which religion would the children be raised into? A very important issue and tataia Christache was a very wise man. Grandpa felt that my dad was closer to mom's schooling and thus their marriage would be a happier one. As my mom still talks today about her first love, I believed my grandparent's criteria to be a false premise for marriage. I was not going to repeat mom's mistake. I did not want an arranged marriage, I wanted to marry someone I was in love with, whether he was my educational equal or not, and make my own mistakes, which I did. In retrospect, my granpa knew a lot more than I gave him credit for at times.

My marriage was a disaster and doomed from the very beginning, I was too proud and stubborn to admit it. Ignorance and stupidity in my choice exacerbated the problem. Neither Sam* nor I had dated much and married against our parents' wishes. His parents wanted Sam to marry the farmer's daughter next door so that their adjacent lands would someday make for a larger farm with more pastures and cattle. My parents wanted me to marry the Greco-Roman champion wrestler from our hometown. This young man worshipped the ground that I walked on and my daddy and his family greatly approved of a possible marital union. They just forgot to tell me.

Divorces were seldom sought or granted in our family but more casual in the west. As a matter of fact, I was the second person in a family of over 300 members to get a divorce. I was so ashamed of this statistic that I never disclosed the very sad truth to my daddy. He died thinking that his little girl was happily married and his son-in-law was taking care of her as promised.

I was not going to admit defeat, I was going to fight to keep us together at all costs. Mom knew the sad truth that I was abandoned with two very small children in a foreign country, to fend for all of us. She came to help me raise my two daughters and never left. In a way, she is a defector of heart because of her love for us, her daughter and two granddaughters. From our symbiotic relationship, mom received shelter, love, and care for thirty years, and my daughters had a second mom who was always home.

I took responsibility for a third person in my life; it was never easy since she never learned to speak English and could not function outside of home. But she enriched our lives and helped carry the linguistic tradition to my children. I hope they will never lose the ability to speak Romanian - it was mom who patiently opened up their horizons and encouraged them to be proud of their Dacian/Roman heritage.