Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Please allow me to introduce my children to the land of their birth ... Gypsy freaks, Vlad and all

Four blocks from where the fat, legless Gypsy beggar angrily tossed my son Joe’s offering of a piece of candy before she reached into her underwear for her iPhone,  Emily stands atop the stone wall, looks over the ironwork and sees a 43-year-old man with long, brown hair on the orphanage steps.

“Dad.   I remember,” she says, emotion offering a bit of gravel to her normally sprightly voice. “You were sitting right there, and I crawled up the steps to you and you grabbed me and held me.”

The pigeons – and there are even more than there are members of the Gypsy sidewalk freak show troupe – sing “woo-woo.”   Perfect pitch.  Like in the chorus for The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil,” a song which – even when I have seen Mick sing it in person -- still catapults me to this land of  narrow cobblestone streets, plow-pulling mules and fields of sunflowers and hops.

Romania: The land that time forgot, where the clubs are filled with those stuck in some sort of cigarette and martini Sinatra cool while the peasants – pronounced “Pees-Ants” by those attempting English – suck on second-hand cigarettes and navigate a hardscrabble life.  If they are lucky they make it to Bucharest, the capital.  One million people were there on my first visit in 1995. Ten million now.  The children of salt miners and hops harvesters know that if they can make it there they’ll make it anywhere. Of course, most don’t.    It’s difficult to make any progress at all on roads planned by an evil dictator for 25,000 cars and trucks that now accommodate a million tiny, exhaust-plumed vehicles.      

Getting ahead of myself, but for those of you who have never been to Romania, let alone know where it is in the farthest reaches of Eastern Europe, nestled against the tepid Black Sea, please allow me to introduce you to it, a bit, at least. It is a poor land of mostly wondrous people and Gypsy con artists. Watch your wallet and try not to meet the eyes of the beggars lest you become sucked into some sort of deviant lifestyle.

After all, isn’t this the same country where Vlad the Impaler, who drank his enemies’ blood, gave birth to the legend of Dracula? Both are national heroes.

Vlad’s ancient fortress, still being excavated from layers of dirt, Nazi troops and general abandonment, is right around the corner from our hotel in Bucharest’s Old City. More pigeon “woo-woo” choruses can be heard -- at least in my mind -- as I stand at that fortress of blood and stare at the age-worn statue of Mr. Vlad D. Impaler.

But on this day of fat and freakish beggars, we aren’t in Bucharest. We are across the country, in a battered but brave college city called Arad, filled with ancient churches and statues celebrating war heroes who seemed to have saved Romania from everyone – the Hungarians, the Serbs, The Nazis, the Commies, Matt Dillon and G.I. Joe. And the Hungarians who saved the Romanians also are saluted. As are the Arad residents who hid Jews who escaped from nearby Germany during crazy little Adolf’s reign of hate.  How could such a little fart with a licorice-stain mustache be considered the leader of the master race?  

No answer though, at least not here, where Romanian cops tote AK-47s while eating freshly twisted pretzel-like pastries  filled with chocolate from the almost constant series of storefront bakeries.       

On this day, during our search for our children’s pasts, I help hoist my daughter the three or four feet to the crown of the concrete and stone wall so she can look over the ironwork and see the front steps of the orphanage from which we adopted her 18 years ago.

The sudden flashback it spurs from her is the payoff for this trip in which we search for something… Answers? Closure? The end of recurring nightmares about old people staring in windows? Swallowed fear of abandonment?

Even though we’d planned for a year and I’d taken on as many writing jobs as possible to help us from depleting all of our resources, we really aren’t sure why we were here. Since we don’t  know what to expect, why should we expect anything at all?

It is mission with purpose, though, to help our kids confront their pasts.  But how do you do that when, to us, their pasts only go back to the days we embraced them in the orphanages?

Well, the only thing we knew was you can’t find those pasts on Rochelle Drive in a tidy little middle-class section of Nashville called Crieve Hall.

My kids were raised in this neighborhood of 1950s ranchers and mature trees.  But they were birthed and abandoned in another world, in that country that always comes to mind when I hear “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Our children – Emily, 19, and Joe, 17 – are all ours. Sometimes I regret that my sense of ethics and never backing down nor bending over when principles are challenged has perhaps hampered their material rewards. I just hope they have learned about doing the right thing … and why the cost is worth it. Besides, how many Xboxes does a kid need?  

I’ve been their dad most of their lives.  Before Suzanne and I met them, absorbing them into our hearts, they existed. The existence? Perhaps not pretty. They were abandoned by their mothers, perhaps for their own good I suppose, and spent their first years in warehouse-like dormitories filled with cribs and chaos and chicken pox and the stench of dirty diapers. In Emily’s case, when we first got her 18 years ago, she was swaddled in plastic, sort of like a low-grade Hefty kitchen trash bag, taped around her midsection.

Almost 15 years ago, Joe’s diapers were more conventional. When we met him, he was naked from the waist up and his lower half was covered by leggings. He wailed as Suzanne pulled them off and replaced them with Pampers and American toddler clothes.

They don’t remember much, my beautiful babies.

But sometimes what they don’t remember hurts them. And they don’t know why. Nor do we. We only know their lives since we went to Romania in 1995 for Emily – I remember Jerry Garcia died while we were in Bucharest back that summer, only because the radio in the bus blasted about what a long, strange trip it had been -- to my agreement – as I stepped out the door for some bananas from a farmer.

 We returned three years later to adopt Joe, the kid the orphanage director scolded for crying, cursing him in Romanian and tossing his last name at him like a weapon. “Flagiu!” he shouted when the little boy resisted the two Americans who were going to take him from the only home – disheveled,  nicotine-stained  and soiled as it may be – he had known since his mother turned him over to the orphanage at six months of age. She lived in a one-room house with a dirt floor, neither electric nor water. Several families shared the “home.”  She had other children, but could not care for the kid who has become Joe.  I think he’s better off. At least I hope so.       

I was just 43 when I first entered this land where the pigeons seemingly always coo the “woo-woo” punctuation of “Sympathy for the Devil.” (Sometimes I’ll be walking alone on a Romanian street at night and I’ll hear someone singing “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste….” Except it’s in my head.)  

My mission 18 years ago took Suzanne and I from Bucharest to Arad – via the Orient Express and to a train station where men urinated openly while rolling cigarettes and sharing liters of beer  with naked youngsters. We were only in Arad briefly, with our lawyer leading four couples past the guard shack – the guard was smoking with a pal that day, I recall – and into the building where we would first meet our babies and then take them down into the courtyard to play briefly before choking down thick, boiled coffee and signing the legal adoption papers.

Our daughter had been left in the hospital after she was born.  For almost two years she lived in this orphanage.

Now, 18 years later, Emily gets to look again at that courtyard where her life was changed. Where she became my kid. Where she climbed into her Tata’s lap and smiled.

The guard shack is empty so there was no one to bribe with American cigarettes on this visit.

As I watched the mixture of awe and shock on Emily’s face the other day, images of life also flooded my brain. Inside these now-locked gates – they are refurbishing the old orphanage to make it into a social services building – I remembered clearly those first few moments with our 23-month-old daughter.

I was one of four brand-new fathers on that journey and the only man who did not frighten the little girls, who had been raised by an all-female group of caretakers and administrators.  The three other girls also sought me out on that day, in that courtyard, on those steps.  Never knew why. Perhaps it was because of my long hair. Perhaps it’s because beneath the bluster and profanity, I’m a relatively gentle human being. Hell, for all I know it was the fact I didn’t smell bad. Or perhaps because I did.

Of course, there was the one girl who changed me forever.

Perhaps I’ll return to that courtyard one day, I thought back then.  Because in addition to the girls who were getting new homes in the U.S., there was this tow-headed boy, maybe 2, wearing a ratty Cubs T-shirt. He kept grabbing my legs.

“Wish we could take him home, too,” I told Suzanne, who tearfully agreed while she nestled our new daughter back in 1995.

Well, we didn’t get that boy. But it was because of that day in the courtyard, the frightening and heart-swelling mixture of emotions, that we did decide we wanted another child, boy or girl, from the orphanages that littered a land that time forgot.

That’s why three full days before I helped Emily to the top of the concrete and stone wall my family – Suzanne, me, Emily and Joe – stood in the playground of another former orphanage, now a safe house for battered wives and their children – and recalled a 1998 day in the countryside of Slobozia, about 15 kilometers outside of Giurgiu, across the mighty Danube from the high-rises and nuclear reactors of Bulgaria.

 Back then, to enter this facility -- a refuge for abandoned boys younger than 3 -- we’d had to step through the gates and wade through a sea of smiling and scruffy kids.  The boys clutched our legs and eagerly reached for the chocolate cookies – “biscuits” they called them – we handed out as we made our way through the playground to the office where we dressed Joe for his “escape” from the too-full system. “Mister. Biscuits,” seemed to be the only two words of English these boys knew.  I slipped packs of Merit 100s into the hands of the female caretakers, all of whom were dressed in bathrobes.

 A few days ago my son Joe’s eyes glaze --shock and awe or weariness?  – as we wander through the same playground where the children of the abused mothers climb on the same swing set and slide that had occupied some of Joe’s time up until that day 15 years ago.

Joe stares at the playground equipment as we re-enter the old and somewhat shabby building. Instead of rows upon rows of cribs – miniature barred prisons for Romania’s cast-off children – filling the rooms, separate suites are shared by mothers and their children, refugees from spousal abuse.

The moms and the kids smile as we wander the hallways, one of the caretakers talking to Joe in Romanian about what this building had been and what it is now.  Course Joe couldn’t understand her. But he did understand the crucifix and icon-covered walls and the new Eastern Orthodox chapel out front.

He also followed the woman as she took him across the street, where a farmer had set up a tent that he filled with chickens: Tuesday-night dinners awaiting the purchase and slaughter by area peasants returning to their one-room, dirt-floored houses after a day in the sunflower and hops fields or salt mines.

Suzanne and I both notice time had not erased the strong smell of urine from inside the building.

For the two of us, this is our third trip to Romania.  In a very real way the most important.  Our children, now nearly full-grown, always have known they were adopted from this country. And to them the words “orphans” and “orphanage” were basically concepts.  Sure they came from orphanages, but what did that really mean?

And yes, they had been abandoned by their birth mothers and stockpiled in the backward orphanage system run by the state, but where did that occur?

We knew we couldn’t offer them the “why?” of their abandonment. And since both of us came from basically middle-class American upbringings, with the nuclear family and bickering siblings, we really couldn’t fully understand what our children had gone through.

All we knew was that we loved them, that we had rushed to Romania for Emily’s adoption as soon as we could after ABC reporter Tom Jarriel, now long-retired, exposed the orphanages, hundreds of them, as he traveled with the revolutionary forces during the fall of the communist regime at Cold War’s end.

 We knew that before they left us for their own adult lives, we needed to return to Romania.  Both of my babies have scars from their orphan years that we are helping them heal even if we can’t fully comprehend the cause. The trip was designed to help them know who they were, where they had come from, perhaps give them a little closure and make them realize their lives in Crieve Hall, USA, do matter.

Sure, we had told them about the King of the Gypsys and how he and his brother had matching castle-like mansions on the road from Bucharest to Giurgiu.

And we had told them about the Gypsys themselves, back then kids who were mutilated by their own parents so they could be more successful beggars. Now they are fat and middle-aged. But still maimed.

We had told them about Bucharest and its examples of extreme wealth and poverty, a city designed  by evil dictator Nicolae Ceausescu to look like Paris. But it also resembles hard-scrabble sections of Queens or Brooklyn or North Nashville.

The fact that the streets clogged with a million cars were designed by the evil dictator to only accommodate 25,000 was the source of frustration for our new friend, Lori Erbatu, who is on the board of a Christian group home for orphans in Giurgiu.  We had hired Lori as our driver after he – on his own time – had followed up on my e-mail clues to wander the countryside of Slobozia looking for the old facility from which Joe had “escaped.”

 “You will have a good day,” he promised in our last e-mail before my family began the 27 hours of flying it took us to get to Bucharest. 

Lori offered my children a view of what is good about Romania – the people – which I hope stays with them as they continue to digest what it means to be a Balkan orphan.

The children had much to learn.  The old state orphanage system has been disbanded, replaced by private group homes.   The three boys in the group home in Giurgiu – where we dined with the orphans after visiting Joe’s old “home” – were the same age as Joe. Like Joe, they had no memories of the dirty little barracks in Slobozia.  They were among the kids who grabbed our legs and thanked us for the biscuits as we pushed through the playground, hoisting our 3-year-old son 15 years ago.

Never adopted, these boys join us on the visit to their former “home.” While none remembered the place itself, all remembered being abandoned, tucked away in cribs, forgotten children. Blank, stunned stares.

The other three boys joked about their favorite beers and Taylor Swift as we traveled to and from the orphanage.  Joe remained quiet, lost in thought, staring out the windows of the van at the one-room homes, some with straw roofs, others ceramic.   Looking for his biological mother?

Does he think too much or does he think he thinks too much? I don’t know. All I know is that he kept looking around at the horses pulling wagonloads of crops through the streets, and he was amazed by the flocks of sheep that occasionally blocked our path.

 Emily, who helped Joe’s fellow orphanage alums set up FaceBook pages back at the group home, and Suzanne both pointed out the massive water snake swimming near the Danube shore when we stopped at Giurgiu’s tiny sea port.

“A lot of people take cruises from Germany to here,” Lori explained, pointing at the passenger riverboat docked here. “They take the cruise on the Danube and then we (his company) pick them up and take them to Bucharest.”

There they visit the “People’s Palace” – built for Dictator Ceausescu … but he never lived in this second-largest building in the world (behind only the Pentagon) because the peasants and the students killed him.  A gift to the country on Christmas day 1989.

 The “old city” of Bucharest changed dramatically since my first two visits.

The once-abandoned and ancient buildings are being refurbished -- into hotels, restaurants, shops and the occasional sex shop – as a way of providing jobs and keeping the young people in the country, ending the flow of youth who left the University of Bucharest and sought work in Italy.

Churches hundreds of years old sit next to tea rooms and bakeries up and down this central city hill and its cobblestone streets.

This too – the progress, the beauty of the young people, the glories of the nation’s capital – was a very real part of our agenda in taking the kids back.

We could not and will never know what it is like to be abandoned by our mothers and brought up in relative squalor with hundreds of other diaper-dragging tots and toddlers.  But we wanted our children to know the good that is in their homeland.

And there is the matter of physical size.  Joe is 5-6 and likely will grow no taller. Emily is about 5-0.

In the States they are short people, who – as Randy Newman sang in his satirical rant -- stand so low, you got to pick them up just to say hello.

Because of better nutrition in middle-class America, my children come close to towering over their peers in the old country.

“I feel better seeing that everyone here is shorter than me,” says Joe, who adds that if he moved back to Romania he could probably be the center on the basketball team.

“I’m tired of people back home saying I look like I’m 12 years old,” says Emily, who, while hardly towering over the beautiful young women of the city, at least holds her own.

Little things like that? Mission accomplished. 

And maybe now that they have seen where they came from, the other issues of orphans, feelings of abandonment and detachment, will be more manageable. Maybe they can focus on who they are, where they are now and perhaps how they can help their homeland in the future.

Emily’s old orphanage was our last stop in Romania.  Flying from Bucharest to Timasoara (birthplace of the revolution), we took a cab that traveled 91 mph (147 kmh) on the narrow two-lane road to and from Arad.

Someplace in that city, a university town that is the “capital” of western Romania, there may be a woman who slipped from the birthing room and gave up this beautiful child of mine.

We didn’t look for her, of course. But what we did do was stay in a hotel just a few blocks from the building that was the old orphanage.  

And as we walked the streets of Arad, my children may have been stunned by some of what they saw on the sidewalks between monuments and pastry shops.

A dozen-plus Gypsy beggars -- legs chopped, cropped, bent backward, busted forward at the knee, arms or eyes missing -- didn’t slow me as we wandered the streets of Arad. I’d been here before. Many years ago. And I left with first prize.

These laughing, legless and bloated beggars seemed to trouble my children. Joe, as I said, did not listen to my advice to walk away. Instead he gave one woman some candy. She looked at it and threw it to the sidewalk.

“That’s the last time I’m going to help someone,” says Joe, almost in tears, as the woman strong-arms her way back to her huge Styrofoam takeout lunch stashed near the open-air newsstand, grabs her iPhone from her undies and begins a laughing conversation. Probably making fun of the kid who gave her a piece of candy.

“It’s Romania, kid,” I say.  Sure, it’s a dark and tired place where Vlad D. Impaler is a hero and the mutilated Gypsys provide a freak show.  But most of the people are beautiful, kind and warm…. Like my children.

“I always have this wall in my dreams,” Emily says, as she rubs her hands against the concrete and stone that supports the ironwork. “I think this is it.”

And then, as her dad helps her to the top of the wall to where she can see the stairs in the courtyard, she remembers her first few pulls up the steps to the 43-year-old guy with the long hair. The guy she called Tata as he held her for the first time.

“This helps just to be here,” Emily says. Like many or most orphaned children, there are ghosts, many that haunt them through life, causing a mixture of fear of being tossed away with long-forgotten feelings of just that happening.

“You always told me about being from an orphanage, but it’s hard to understand that until you are standing right here. There’s closure,” she says. Garlic and onions flavor the steam from a nearby iron pot being readied for an afternoon party.

Emily reaches for the hand of the brown-haired guy who sat on those steps 18 years ago. Course things have changed.  Yes, “Sympathy for the Devil” still plays in his head, but the hair is now white.  

And that old man has a family he loves more than anything.

Outside Arad orphanage.