I realized that I am a citizen of Europe by chance. I was passing through customs in Frankfurt and I heard, in the background, a border guard, saying Good Day. I looked up with surprise, ready to say something in Romanian as a compatriot, I thought he was a Romanian or a nostalgic Saxon, born in Transylvania, but no, he was a dark-colored European or, to use a hypocritical American expression, a kind of Afro-European. As a general rule, I used to pass with the eyes in the ground as a habit for a second-class citizen, a practice which turned into reflex. Do not look at the tax collector or the policeman with too much confidence or he can ask you for additional papers, that’s how we were advised by those traveling more often in the nineties. The purpose and duration of the visit, where is your return ticket, where are you going to stay, how much money you have on you, the address where you sleep? I’ve experienced all these, even though I was a young teacher or a journalist, when I had to go somewhere in Europe. It was a game of simulating the natural that you had to play as many times as needed when passing through the border. For some time, since Romania obtained free passing, things got better. You are not taken to the back anymore by the customs officer or the border guard to have your luggage checked with disgust, where they always took some white gloves on to search through your underclothes and stockings, sometimes with undisguised hostility. I never understood what they were looking for in our luggage, because I had nothing interesting to bring to their world, maybe some “palincă” or some „slană” for the nostalgic ones, they had a world of freedoms and possessions, but we did not have anything subversive. Once, a Transylvanian writer in Paris asked me to bring him some apples, even wormy ones, just to smell the autumn and leaves in them. Almost for a decade I was often selected for random searches by customs officers. I had a rather bad picture in black and white on the passport, with big mustache, I seemed a PKK member, I think, or I don’t understand why my bags were always opened. Once, in Berlin, I was verified to the skin and put to the wall with hands and feet apart.
Why did he wished me a good day in my language, was the question which worried me a few hours later in the bus to Strasbourg? Was he dating a Romanian girl? Was he also an emigrant or did he learn at the police academy how to greet in all languages of the Union? I will never know, but when I looked at him, he smiled and his eyes widened, and I saw the white around his pupils and I was sorry that I didn’t look at the name on the badge. Perhaps he understood my surprise and we the East Europeans, we were also some kind of blacks, I said to myself with grief and bitterness. In the bus to Strasbourg I looked at my watch to mark a historical moment. I searched the date on my phone because I felt it was an important moment. I wanted to mark it somewhere to make a gesture to put a milestone in my existence, seen as an escalator, long as those from Frankfurt Airport, which leads, invariably to death. At first it occurred to me to write an email to one of the newspapers and magazines that I collaborated occasionally.
The idea passed quickly because whenever I got somewhere abroad I wasn’t bothered to walk for hours exploring the surroundings on foot. I had the feeling that nothing was repeated and that I was entering a tunnel of otherness, a world from which I was forever separated, beyond the Iron Curtain which now I have to go through quickly before Europe closes again with some political zip. Being born in the countryside and walking through forests and meadows and reading hundreds of volumes of literature, lying in the orchard or lounging in the forests of my childhood the worlds were full of light, color, and especially fragrances. Olfactory memory had not recorded anything for the world beyond the borders in 1990. In fact, Europe is for me, even today after traveling hundreds of times, a world that smells like McDonald’s ingredients. Sorry, the reference is American, but even now when I write about my Europe it still does not have any smell of its own.
In that bus towards Strasbourg I felt a heat somewhere in my chest when I remembered the clumsy “good day”, accompanied by a smile. In the bus, I hid somewhere in the back and I leant my forehead on the cold glass watching the fields that passed like in a movie. It was autumn and I had the feeling that Alsace’s fields were more and more like the fields back home. It seemed that the trees were the same and the symphony of colors was part of a continuum of European space. I said to myself: it’s an illusion based on a synesthesia, the situation at the border has flooded the brain with some somatic markers which combines images from childhood with the present situation. The people from the fields were missing, machines were harvesting everything, even the grapes with their specific smell (our gewürztraminer from Blaj can be better than theirs, I though at that time). Europe has no peasants was the first thought that crossed my mind, although I don’t understand why it came, as I was aware of that from rural sociology. The similarity of the field made me think about it,or the child in me was the one who wondered? I pulled out my notebook that I always wore on me and wrote a new page: Europe has no peasants! So, what if it doesn’t have peasants, I thought instantly, the peasants will disappear anyway, your beloved sociology professor used to say to you two decades ago. Okay, but our peasants who will befriend if we become Europeans? Will our peasants be alone in Europe, will they feel the cosmic loneliness that Cioran speaks about? It’s not a problem, I knew that the Hungarians and the Poles have peasants too, there are also the Bulgarians, the Serbs, and ours will have someone to drink a “palincă” at the rural symposiums to strengthen the European solidarity. But the European people are for real, I wrote on the yellow page of my notebook, as a poetic delight, a style exercise that I practice as often as I can. After a few days, at a symposium on identity, I said that with confidence, in a very erudite trilled French and they were all delighted by my witty Transylvanian remark. It was as if the fool of the village was talking and they were all surprised by the great philosophy that made them to be silent when others were fighting with empty words like soap bubbles that burst in noise above the absurdity of the symposiums. I was kind of a small star, groped at the party afterwards, in a club, by two French women journalists, heavily drunk, specialized in European issues.
It had already been over 15 years since I travelled to Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Greece or Spain, but I never thought I was in a different space than in the areas where I was: I was making comparisons between the French and the Germans, the Austrians or the Italians, the French or the Greeks but I never felt the space per se, even if for many years I read everything I could find about the fears of the West or its culture.
In my mind, the Western world had quite solid ethnic boundaries and my first surprise was to find no boundaries. How could a country without borders work, I was thinking when I was passing by car from Germany to France and found only the trace of the border, what country is that with no border? But in that bus I started to search the roots for my condition of being a European citizen. It had been several years since Romanians could circulate freely, but I was not thinking in terms of identity, I wasn’t aware of my European identity?
How could I think about our rights as European citizens when I was thinking within myself that it is enough to be glad that these guys from the West accepts us to travel on their territory, to buy books and for that we bear to be blamed from time to time for the lack of democracy or other subtleties of postmodern civilization. Sometimes I felt ashamed seeing that some compatriots were responsible for all sorts of wrongdoing in these civilized areas and I was expecting in horror the moment when all borders will close again for us.
Now, that I was given `Hello` with respect, in my language, something maybe has changed, it was the most shocking thought. We are European citizens, okay, we have rights, but also obligations. I understand that very well, rationally, officially and formally, but to what kind of Europe we have to relate? I had many images in my mind, sounds or feelings, and all were mixed. I reopened my notebook and I tried to use a a projective test, among those learned in social psychology, a kind of top of mind, a kind of semiometrical test, as we say today. Europe? Under this word enumerate the first words or images that come to your mind, as the subjects are usually asked to do. I wrote a few pages full of words listed one below the other. As a cookbook, as a recipe like: What trimmings does Europe need? Which is the Europe with demands, which punishes us, that helps us, gives us rights, which rejects us, that helps us get rid of the fear of the Russians? Which is the Europe that considers us citizens? I turned over the pages of the notebook while I was arranging my library and my office. It has been several years since I discovered that European citizenship exists, but we went through several contradictory states from the day we stepped through the abandoned Iron Curtain.
Around 2013, US President Barack Obama came to Poland and told us over the fence the best thing possible, something that I still not believe it was written on the Teleprompter: “Romania Will not stand alone!”. My son sits beside me and he’s looking at the slogan on the screen and as a fan of Liverpool, he enjoys the sounds of his favorite hymn: You'll never walk alone! Grandfather, the one who waited the Americans for a while, no longer than a few months, as he was bragging, was gone long before we received visas and freedom of movement throughout the world, not in America, obviously. He walked free, with Death by his side, from Italy, to Denmark, Poland, Russia and Brussels in both world wars. So, there is now way to tell my grandfather nor ask him for real: which America came to protect us, and help us march through history with the head up (sorry, this is the anthem of Liverpool)?
America of my dreams is being led by Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck, its ministers are Faulkner, Salinger, Norman Mailer, the immoral Tennesse Williams is dealing with sexual minorities, Bruce Springsteen is the Minister of eternal youth, and Leonard Cohen is great general manager at Chelsea Hotel. There, John Dos Passos, Thomas Pynchon, Irving Stone or Ken Kessey are big bastards, as my friend, the trash collector from Pata Rat, would say.
I still don’t know which Europe made us citizens, as I still don’t know which America protects us. My America has never left me alone. In her honor, America of our dreams, we write this magazine, our Sinteza, each month. From Europe, we were separated by an Iron Curtain, which sometimes we still feel, as we fail to sneak around it every day. To America we were bound by the dream, it never rejected us. I read my notes about our frail European citizenship and I think every evening about the real America, the protecting one, about our elder brother overseas. How far is it from my America the one I know from the peasants who returned with stories from the factories in Chicago or retold by Hemingway or Faulkner, by our elder brother who came in military clothes after seven decades, when the Romanians who lit fires on the hills have died long ago, bleached from all that waiting?
The Romanian Institute for Evaluation and Strategy – IRES conducted a survey on the perceptions Romanians have of the impact that the accession to the European Union has had on Romania. I invite you to consult the study extensively: