Getting from my town in Romania where I currently live to the town in Indiana where I grew up is no quick trip. It involves several legs on various modes of transportation including Maxi Taxis, trains, Ubers, and airplanes, and generally an overnight stay in a hostel. So on that early morning in late December when I woke up precisely at the time I was supposed to be leaving my apartment, I knew I was in for a long two days of travel.
Miraculously, I pulled myself and my stuff together quickly enough to make it out the door only fifteen minutes behind schedule. My friend Marc, also traveling back to the States for the holidays, was accompanying me in all of my travels except for the final flight. I was grateful. Having company makes the long journey not necessarily shorter, but less tedious.
We boarded the Maxi Taxi, a sort of 18 passenger van that runs through the towns in our valley and made our way to Petrosani, where we would take the train straight to Bucharest.
As we disembarked from our Maxi Taxi, we saw another person disembarking from another Maxi Taxi: an old, shuffling woman who was methodically unloading bag after bag from the rear of the minibus onto the snowy curb. After she had finished this, she began moving the bags, one at a time, from the curb up onto the sidewalk via the meager path that had been carved through the snow. The snowfall had been enormous in the past week.
“Can we help you, Doamna?” we asked, hardly believing she was alone with all of this luggage.
“Ooh yes!” she exclaimed, clasping her hands together at her heart. “I’ll pay you! Yes, thank you, thank you!” She came to my shoulder in height and her dark coat fell past her knees. The band of her black, elegant hat sat tightly against her ears and then bloomed daintily around her head.
We assured her payment wouldn’t be necessary and, already shouldering our bulky backpacks on our backs and our fronts, we shared the load of her seven small, old fashioned duffels.
The train station is not far from the Maxi Taxi station. You only have to walk a little further down the road, turn through a gap in the shrubs, and descend a set of stone stairs, and then you see the train station and the tracks below you, on a different, lower plane of the city. To get down there, you walk across a long metal bridge above the train tracks, and then you descend a long set of metal stairs until you reach solid ground next to the station itself.
With our first step onto the bridge, all three of us stumbled and gasped. The metal was coated in a sheen of smooth black ice, more slippery than anything I had ever experienced. The bridge suddenly seemed impossibly long.
We began shuffling as carefully as we could down the long stretch of treacherous metal. It was the kind of slick that can still take you down even if you are hanging onto a railing and placing each step with comical awareness. I had visions of myself slipping massively and then, cartoon-style, propelled by the sheer force of my fall, sliding on my stomach clear down to the other end of the bridge.
I lost my footing but caught myself sharply on the rail overlooking the tracks.
Marc slipped but by some miracle of physics was able to stay upright by using the bags he carried as counter-balances.
“Lord, help us!” yelled our Doamna.
The steep metal stairs at the end of our traverse were somehow even slicker. Leaving most of the bags at the top, we carried down just one each, grasping the railing with both of our hands. The woman was beside herself.
As Marc set down his bags and turned to climb the staircase, she screamed. “Don’t go back up, boy!” She reached out her arms dramatically. “You will FALL and BREAK your legs!”
We weren’t about to leave this elderly woman’s bags at the top of the bridge to freeze over, so we slowly climbing the stairs, gripping the railing with both hands, all the time heeding her admonishments of “Gently! GENTLY! Or you will FALL! You will BREAK your legs!”
We made it to the waiting room of the station without sacrificing a duffel, encouraged along by her yelling and tutting and profuse “thank you”s. When it was clear to her we wouldn’t accept the money she tried to give, she began to rifle through her handbag. She pulled out a bunch of bananas and thrust them at me.
“No, it’s okay, you should keep them,” I tried.
“Take them. Take them and put them in your bag. Put them. Put them.” She was waving the bananas at me and so, even though I already had a bunch of bananas in my bag, I figured the best thing would be to take these, too, and put them in my bag. She nodded, satisfied, and sat back in the chair, folding her hands across her lap.
She talked to us as we waited for the same train to come. She lived in our same town, alone, and was traveling to a city an hour shy of Bucharest to visit her sick aunt. Her uncle would meet her at the station, but she had to get there alone. She talked to us about God, about her Aunt’s three children who were all living abroad. She said that God had brought us to her, that we were like her children, and that she could be like our Romanian mother.
When the time came to get on the train, Doamna was anxious that we wouldn’t make it on in time with all of her bags. She stood behind me, pushing me on the rear, urging me to get on, get on! She didn’t seem to notice or care that I was already pressed up against the man in front of me, and he against the man in front of him.
We made it on and got her to her seat. She insisted that we sit with her even though our tickets were for another car. We figured she could deal with the train control when they came by to check, and we were right.
She continued to pay us back for our help with copious amounts of food from her handbag. First pan-fried bread (still warm) for breakfast, then a sleeve of butter cookies. When I awoke from a nap she made eye contact and then immediately plopped a loaf of bread on my lap. She pulled out a large jar of zacusca and a tub of fresh soft sheep’s cheese in its liquid. She spread a cloth napkin on my lap and watched carefully as I spread globs of the roasted eggplant spread onto the white bread, topping it with spoonfuls of cheese.
“Eat, eat!” she encouraged. “Eat!”
I could not tell her that I was eating because my mouth was full of bread and zacusca, and my hands were compelled by her commands to lift the remaining slice to my face so I could take another bite as soon as physically possible.
I finished two slices and was able to convince her that I couldn’t eat any more. I excused myself to the bathroom, but not before seeing her wake Marc from his nap, plopping a loaf of bread on his lap. When I came back he was eating just as I must have been; slightly dazed, the sleep still in his eyes, the napkin tucked neatly across his lap.
Only when we had finished eating more than our fill did she prepare a slice for herself.
We helped her off the train at her station, a flurry of big hugs and kisses on the cheeks, wishing each other good health and God’s help as Romanians are accustomed to doing. We slipped back onto the train as the doors were closing.
I watched her on the platform from my window and saw her uncle making his way towards her. As we pulled away she waved and blew kisses at me through the window. I did the same back to her, and then she was gone. I did not know her name.
Jenna Griffin loves foreign music, old cookbooks, public transportation, and sunsets in new places. After graduating with degrees in writing and French, she is spending her first post-grad year as an English teaching assistant in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.