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Twenty-three hours in the air sitting next to a guy chewing gum and coughing all the way from Paris to Atlanta will make a crank out of a saint, but here I am, quite calm, not knowing which way is up. What I mean is, I spiraled and spinned through my native Romania for three weeks, and a very quick debriefing yields the following: Romania is a collection of sentiments loosely organized around sodalities kept together by low cash flow and a flood of language and sentiment. I know you don't know what I'm talking about, but close your eyes and see: a huge wooden angel with legs swaying in a violent wind by the Danube River wide as the Mississippi at New Orleans; a barbecued goat carried into a princely dining hall by burly peasants; the queen of white magic of Romania descending a marble staircase in gold shoes that weigh four kilograms each; a right-wing presidential candidate with an Elvis-like charisma standing inside a tower in Dracula's castle by a fountain where a princess drowned; a dignified old woman with a bandaged hand and two teeth who starves on tea and potatoes in a magnificent mansion; rugged mountains covered by dense green forests; diesel-spewing ancient trucks crawling up rainy roads; vast fields of sunflowers past their prime waving their bent heads; mountains of watermelons guarded by babushka'd grandmas living in tents by the road; the sound of languid Oriental pop coming out of staticky loudspeakers through the smoke of meat frying roadside; young girls ruined by Britney Spears with snow-white butts hanging out of short shorts; a wall of photographs from the early days of the 20th century featuring the lights of Dada and absurdism in a chic nightclub; women with a Parisian bounce to their walk and black eyes full of shipwrecked dreams; polite skinhead rappers who kiss ladies' hands and wait with you for the taxi; pretzels made fresh with lines of people waiting for them to pop out of the oven; old cities surrounded by peeling commie towers with clotheslines in every window; depressed writers essaying in the night for no readers; Internet cafes full of young kids checking out pornography and means of escape; intelligent students wearing jeans and T-shirts bargaining for second-hand books at outdoor stands; patriotic strippers who travel abroad to save money to return and open a club; a man in the streetcar hiding inside a newspaper from old people holding dazed plastic bags; a policewoman leading sub rosa tours to the grave of a dead dictator; a pervasive sweetness of speech and manner in the countryside; a jaunty and slangy though still somehow sweet abruptness in the capital; narrow streets with small shops predating communism: watch repairers, tailors, bridal shops, hatters, photographers; a Pavarotti-like businessman explaining that in Romania there is no Mafia, only small mafias like his own, sodalities (like I said) held together by relationships formed outside the (changing, unenforceable) laws; the lack of a unified distribution that might bring T-shirts from Dracula's castle to the capital, or simply a market where all Romanian products might share shelf space; an evident lack of a sense of what is valuable and local and an overestimation of Western styles and junk; a good, hard rain outside the windows of a room filled by passion and melancholy; dark beer and chocolate fondue in a Belgian restaurant; a Turkish coffee in a Swiss restaurant; a cheap brandy in an Irish bar; a late-night wedding in a Romanian restaurant where strangers are welcomed with pungent appetizers arranged around a huge knife standing still vibrating on a wooden platter, served by a fierce waiter with drooping mustaches; a revolving table with small steaming dishes in a huge and empty commie-style Chinese restaurant in a medieval burg. To wit: a lament and a longing underneath it all, like the mating call of a lonely animal starving on principle in a beautiful landscape full of game and goblins. And then there are the stats, but I'll spare you.

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