Friday, November 24th, 2017
Something about Iasi is tense today, as if the city is walking with hunched shoulders and hurried steps through the busy streets near its train station. A frenetic energy clouds my thoughts, or it might be the combination of the buzzing engines and puffs of exhaust as each bus that I do not need pulls up to the stop and chugs away again. My stress levels rise each time I glance down at the time on my phone: 9:46.
The decent morning spent in my tutoring session was taking a nose-dive fast; I had run to the stop just in time to see the one bus I actually needed about to leave. I had managed to catch the driver’s eye and stare at him as he closed the door and pulled away from the curb. My urge to rap obnoxiously on the windows as the clumsy rectangular vehicle proceeded to sit in traffic two feet away was drowned out by the curious stares of those around me; no, it was too early to be making a scene with the bus, not if I wanted to fit in. But if I waited, I was going to be late to my meeting with students! Two characteristics that had made a home within me after my time in Germany were wrestling together—did I make the extra effort to be punctual and risk being seen as rude, or did I let the bus go and consign myself to waiting with growing tension in my back, running late, but at least not disrupting the status quo?
If nothing else, the Politeness wins by paralyzing me just long enough for the Punctuality to miss its chance. The traffic starts moving and the number 28 bus finally pulls out of my reach. I sigh and dig my chin deeper into my jacket. Destined to be late, this time. Two and then three buses going the wrong way come and leave, shifting the huddled group of people around me. I feel like I’m a pond-hopper being stirred about on the surface of water—the other flies around me either don’t notice or don’t care that we are entirely at the whim of the elusive, fickle bus schedule. Why don’t any of you look stressed? I wonder, resisting the urge to whip out my phone again. Don’t you have somewhere to be?
I pace in a lopsided oval behind the small shelter of the bus stop, trying to beat the cold through movement. I’ve never actually used this stop before, so at least I can entertain myself by investigating the store fronts around it, most of them still closed or sleepily empty so early on a Friday morning. The colors of the German flag hanging from the back of a camo-themed supplies store gives me a shot of nostalgia, but I wince and turn away again almost immediately; it’s not the flag of the Germany I know and love, but the flag of the former DDR, Eastern Germany. A pale shout to the brand of communism gone terribly wrong that had squatted in this part of the world and sucked the colors out of the high-rises and people. Well, I guess I won’t be buying that nice hiking backpack from this place, then. Personally, I had the same beef with the failed dictatorial communist empires of Europe that I did with the capitalism that had taken its place—people suffer. If the world were a bus stop, shitty economical systems that left empty houses and broken workers behind them were the drivers who caught your eye and pretended they hadn’t.
I start to stalk in another wobbly round, but finally another bus I recognize is swinging around the corner. Bus 42, its windows somehow always misted, opens its doors to accept a handful of people. I skootch on, clutching my slim green ticket and edging in between a gaggle of tall students. The boys, young men really, smell vaguely of salami and are each at least a head taller than me. They chat to each other in casual Romanian, not seeming to mind how cramped they are by the bus doors. I tuck my ticket back into my jacket pocket and grasp the railing as the bus moves away again. It isn’t worth it to validate the little stub in the yellow box to my right, not for such a short ride when the bus was clearly too full for a controller to come through and check. Although another young woman just jostled through the throng of her fellow passengers, determined to stick her strip of paper in the machine’s coin-slot mouth and earn the official click, the sound I imagine check marks would make if they could talk, that says she was riding legally, I ignore it—riding black, with no validated ticket, for two stops up the hill would be my small personal vengeance for the day. Take that, bus 28.
(Another German characteristic, the utter horror at the prospect of being caught as a “Schwarzfahrer” and self-hatred for breaking the honor system, momentarily tugs in my gut, but another whiff of salami fills my nose as the boys renew their conversation and I confirm that, this time, I don’t care).
I feel small encircled by the young men, all in nice white polos and dark jackets left open near the top. Maybe they’re medical students, or prep school boys. Either way, they don’t take notice of me or the other young woman between us. I do, but purely because the Arabic text on her phone screen has caught attention. I glance at her again, curious but trying not to stare. She looked like she could easily fit into both worlds, east and west, with her guarded eyes and puffy, shick white vest. Any other morning, I might have tried to ask her something in Arabic, taking any opportunity I could to practice. But today, we both looked tired and annoyed, and I didn’t want to make her feel foreign. We were trying to blend in, the two of us, stuck between a gaggle of salami-perfumed students on a bus running late. Anyway, this was my stop.
The grey sky seems to bring an extra dose of chill to it as I hustle up the street. It was 9:56 now, just enough time to run to my apartment, grab my laptop, and turn around to go to my office in the university’s impressive old building. I could run and maybe be slightly less late, but all that would earn me was an out-of-breath trip down the hill and quizzical stares from students. No, it was fine, really. I grab my laptop and tote bag and march out the door back onto the street again, not bothering to put my music in my ears for such a short distance—I was now officially late as my phone read 10:00, but I force the thought out of my mind to concentrate on crowd-sharking through the flow of students clogging the sidewalk instead. Everything usually ran a few minutes late in Romania, anyway.
My landlord, another member of my department in the English faculty at the University of Alexandru Ioan Cuza, seems to be in a similar tunnel-vision rush. He opens the door to go out, and I slip in. “Hi, Stefan!” I call, then repeat his full name to get his attention, enjoying the sound his last name makes, like marbles rolling in my mouth. He jerks his head up, greenish eyes blinking. “Oh, good morning, Mariah,” he answers, peering at me as if wanting to tell me that I was going the wrong way. “Where are you off to? Class today?”
“No, just meeting with students. For the theatre thing,” I add lamely. Stefan blinks at me again, but nods and ahhs in comprehension before I need to add more details.
“Well, right then, good luck with that. I’m off. See you sometime, yeah?”
“Yeah, of course! Thank you!”
Stefan slips outside into the grey world, his neat brown coat and hat giving him the air of a professor from some old movie. I appreciate Stefan—his calm demeanor and ironic taste of humor always left me in a better mood after speaking with him, even if only for a second as we pass each other in life. This time, his concentrated manner reminds me to keep moving. In another second, I’m rounding the corner and heading up the darkened stairwell to the third floor, where a handful of my students are waiting for me.
“Sorry, guys,” I sigh as I open the door to the English department’s office. For once, I pick the right key and successfully turn it on the first try. Maybe seeing Stefan was a sign of the day improving. The students greet me jovially and file into the room, no longer as wary of trespassing into professor-territory as they had been during the first few meetings. Not all of my volunteers are here today, but I shrug it off. Better to work with those who care enough to come on a cold Friday than with those who would complain.
A few of the students have come with new ideas and they pepper me with questions about what they could add to our skeletal outline for a cabaret. What if we have Santas in different parts of the world arguing? Can they get into a rap battle? What are some popular American Christmas movies? Maybe we can watch them for some references. I give them a list of pop culture to immerse themselves in, ranging from Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer to the Tim Allen Santa Clause and that old “you’ll poke your eye out, kid” movie with the boy who wants a BB gun under the tree.
One of the students, an enthusiastic young man named Peter with a nearly impeccable accent (with a sprinkle of British inflection), smiles his wide smile and asks if he could possibly dance around in his wolf costume if we do a musical number. I like the kid and appreciate his passion for, well, the world, and at this point I’m just thrilled that the group is taking command of the project. I tell him sure, why not, as long as the musical performance itself is up to snuff. He turns back to his half of the group and the skit they’re writing, delighted. Hell, why not? What’s the holidays if we can’t get a little Furry?
And hour goes by, and in that time the group I’m working with has evolved from never having heard of Jack Frost to improving on his story for our skit. The group writing the musical number with the wolf cameo is laughing, apparently torn on the issue of why Australia still has Christmas even though December is the middle of summer for them. I type as fast I can and promise to send my group the rough draft we’ve put together so they can finish it on their own. As we all leave and I deftly lock the tall wooden door behind me again, a sigh of relief rises on its own from the depths of my lungs. I find myself smiling as I bid Peter and the other loiterers who were happy to chat with me adieu; the best way to erase the strife of the every-day motions, it seems, is simply to return to the reason you go through them.
The trek back down the dimly-lit marble stairs and then up the gently slanted hill seems shorter than my stressed rush an hour ago. I had the rest of the day before me now to cook, write, maybe get a work-out in and pack for my journey early the next morning. The sky was still glum above me, but now I could let my shoulders relax.
This would be a good day.