Letter to a Grey City

I’ve visited you five or six times now, haven’t I? Little variation in occasion, more variation in experience. My parents grew up on your streets, they played behind their apartment complex as children and walked to university on your cracked pavements as adults. You still house many people that remain close to them today. My mom’s parents, my dad’s parents, their high school friends that still run in essentially the same social circles. You’ve been a home to people I call home.

You were introduced to me when I was three years old, ignorant of the rich cultural heritage I was being brought into or how to begin to appreciate you. But you’ve never been the most accommodating though, have you? Downtown is littered, brimming even, with Stalinist architecture, a dreary sight for someone so little and foreign. It’s a muscular, gritty tangle of buildings that expose the harm you’ve endured, from war bombings to a communist dictatorship that left you torn like some ragged doll, on the shelf of Eastern Europe next to similarly ragged dolls. Even the attempts after the revolution to revitalize you appeared sort of garish to me, demonstrating new-age kitsch failures of a capitalist-driven Western world. You weren’t charming, more so harsh. It’s a style of company difficult to keep and simpler just to remain apathetic to.

I typically stay with my dad’s parents when I visit you. My favorite room in their house is my grandfather’s art studio, with its walls engulfed by his artwork, landscapes, or portraits of people he knew. There is a painting of my dad where his hair is black and his face shaved, rendered when he was eighteen. His eyes have less shadow in them than I’ve ever seen in my life and they stayed watching over my shoulder as I spent hours painting last August. A fan constantly ran to keep the European summers at bay and an espresso reliably sat next to me at all times. You provided the music through the open window. You whispered in the rustling of trees and called for my attention through the barks of stray dogs. You’re not mine to call my hometown – that title belongs to Raleigh –  although you could’ve been. Orașul meu. I wonder how you would have raised me when you taught my dad a fussy way of being and my mom what she didn’t want.

The times I’ve been to the countryside pointed out your flaws and what I felt you lacked in stark contrast to the sweet, fresh air instead of trash and mules on dirt roads instead of exhaust-releasing taxis. You could have stayed that beautiful if pervasive grey hadn’t overtaken the hills that tall grasses and wildflowers had grown in lush abundance. When the ornate, centuries-old cathedrals cradled in valleys disappeared, it must have felt like God themself had moved on.

Your personality is reserved and humble. It wasn’t even easy to understand your sense of humor; even so, I´ve adjusted bit by bit to it. And it’s an understanding that slyly crept in the more I was left alone in your company outside of the family. I consistently snuck out of the house to catch the afternoon sun most days, taking a street that led past a napping tabby cat, a small synagogue, and a bike lane so narrow it was rather useless. Spending a few lei on a Turkish coffee, I sat on a bench in the neighborhood´s densely-forested park. The tree canopy shades a lively outdoor restaurant where beers are downed and laughter can be heard most hours of the day. There is a small stage where live bands often perform traditional folk music and a dance floor where I used to play with other children in years past.

For a brief moment as earthy singing rang through the trees, everything was as it should have been all along. It doesn´t do much good to romanticize the past, but unfortunately, sometimes I think I wouldn’t be able to stand you without it. Does a traveler find you dull if they don’t know you used to be picturesque and bohemian? Intellectuals congregated in flocks, bustling with radical ideas about social order, the palace used as more than just a museum. When famous poets wrote the words that every Romanian child recites in school, I want to imagine you the way they did, sitting beneath the linden trees in your parks and observing subtle daily life.

And so thus, against all odds, you managed to pull me in with all your apathy and I have reluctantly begun to enjoy your company. You have a stubborn energy, fascinating inhabitants, and the most lovely afternoon sun. It´s almost irritating to believe for years that pretty much every root had snapped long ago only to find that thin, persistent strand still connected and refusing to uproot.

I do not expect you to see me many more times, but you meant more to me in August than you ever have before.