There’s a soccer field a stone’s throw away, hemmed in with a tall cage-like fence. There is already a match going on when I walk over with Ade and Cristina and Raul.
We jump over the wooden railings of the staircase that leads up to the neighborhood Dallas, then duck and slide in the fence opening that’s been bent back, careful not to snag ourselves on the metal. I sit on the side of the field and watch the boys play while the girls immediately slip through another hole in the fence into the schoolyard where they begin to pick handfuls of tall dandelions. When their fists can’t wrap around the bulk of the stems any more they run them to me, presenting me proudly with a bouquet.
I know almost all of the boys on the field. Their tight little bodies are like loaded springs, and they run with intensity and skill. They are lithe and wiry. Brash too, yelling insults at one another, spitting in the direction of their opponents. They are clad in sweatpants and sweaters, laced shoes of varying states of disrepair.
“Cioara,” one boy yells at another. “Crow.” It is a common name to call the ones with darker complexions. Some kids embrace it. A boy told me once that he has a friend with very dark skin, and when he sees a crow flying overhead he greets it with a waving, “hello, my brother!”
The mountain Parang rises in the distance behind the boys, still capped in deep snow. Closer still towers Dallas on top of its hill, the ten story blocks reaching higher than any other point of the city. We’re on the margins here. Behind Dallas is only wilderness.
The girls have finished their picking, and they along with a handful of boys who joined our little group are now begging me to make crowns of the incandescently yellow weeds. But they’re not weeds really. Darius accidentally calls them sunflowers; they are just as bright.
Christina brings over a white and puffy one so that I can make a wish. Together, I say, and we blow dramatically together at the seeds. Only a few flutter off, and so after several rounds of puffing we end up loosening them with our fingers and blowing them off of our palms.
As I’m weaving little crowns, I’m taking in this place. It is peaceful, though not without movement. My skin prickles with the beginnings of a sunburn, though the air is cool. We are chatting and laughing—an American woman and a gang of Romanian children, both sides knowing so much more about this world than the other could ever hope to. The thousands of windows of Dallas peer down at us.
Just the other day, a boy returned to his home here after spending Easter vacation in the countryside. “How was it?” I asked. “Beautiful,” he said. “Not ugly like it is here.”
What does it mean though for a place to be ugly? Because yes, this place does have a lot of objectively ugly features. The ground strewn with plastic beer bottles and wrappers and wires. Discarded clothing soaked through with rain and mud and various household appliances, smashed and abandoned. Gray, barren apartment blocks and neglected buildings lining the horizon.
But somehow, when I’m looking at it all together, I can’t call this place ugly. Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider stepping into this world. Maybe it’s because of the people I love who live here. Maybe it’s because this place doesn’t put up any facades or neat bows to hide its rough edges. Maybe it’s because this is the backdrop of these many childhoods.
You see life for what it is here. Maybe it’s not what it should be, maybe it’s not what it’s going to be, but it’s what it is now in this moment, and you just have to hold that for a while.
“On this field, I’ve lived some of my most beautiful moments and some of my ugliest,” Christina says suddenly, smiling, gazing over everything in front of us with a sort of nostalgia that doesn’t seem to fit her eight years of life. She tells me more of both, her little voice laughing through the joy and the pain. I put a crown of dandelions on her head.
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.