The Second Life of Jennifer Hill.
This blog post could just be pictures and stories and a recitation of places I went and feelings I felt when I was in Romania last week.
But it won’t be.
Because Romania means too much to me. And some of you don’t know why.
And though it’s hard to be vulnerable, and to share the why of it, I think it’s important. It’s part of my warrior’s path, to be raw, and open, and vulnerable, even if it’s scary to put it up here for the world to see.
So here goes.
There are times in your life when everything that is old and familiar suddenly stops, and everything new and scary begins. It is a death and a rebirth, and I believe we can have several of them throughout a lifetime. This is why I identify so strongly with the phoenix, which passes through fire before it is reborn. (I’m currently on my fifth life, here in Prague.)
My first death and rebirth took place when I went to Romania at 21 years old, in 1998. It was the beginning of my second life.
I was sent there as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. My job was to preach the gospel and support the growth of the Church in the new country. My first apartment was in the city of Bacau, and it was there I got sick.
And stayed sick, for the remainder of my mission. In fact, for the remainder of my life. I’ve been in pain every day since then. But don’t worry – it’s much better now than it used to be. It’s just background noise for the most part now, with an occasional flare-up. I would need an entire blog post to talk about the necessity of pain and how it has enriched my life, so I’ll save that for later.
Why tell you all of this? To set the stage for why it was so hard, yet so necessary, to return to Romania, even these 17 years later.
You see, I didn’t get to complete my missionary service. My health deteriorated to the point where I had to be sent home early. I was given only a few days notice. Leaving so suddenly, and for such a hard reason, left an emotional wound that has been there ever since.
Not only that, I have since left the Church. I am no longer a member. I respect the Church and appreciate what it does for my family, but it is no longer part of my path.
So the prospect of returning to a place of such raw emotion, with such still open wounds, knowing I have left behind the very institution that had been my entire life while I was there, was daunting.
My dad told me to just go. I’m here in Prague, Romania is relatively close, I don’t have a job yet, but I still have some funds, so I should just go.
So I went. I booked my flights, got some hotels, and I went. And I went by myself. It was very important for me to be alone for this first trip back to Romania. I knew I could have some issues to work through. I knew how raw and open those wounds were.
I left Prague on December 28, and flew through Vienna. When I arrived in Bucuresti, I got a cab and made my way to Old Town. I hardly recognized anything along the way, though I was incredibly pleased to realize I could read the street signs and billboards. My Romanian hadn’t left me completely.
I got to Old Town and realized that I had never been there as a missionary, so it was also unfamiliar. But then one of the greatest blessings of my return to Romania manifested itself, and that was the language.
It flooded back. It was like some sort of osmosis, with all the Romanian people around me speaking and thinking in Romanian, and by my second day in the country, I was almost conversational again. I could understand far more than I could speak, and yet I could speak! It was wonderful.
That first night I went to a restaurant and ordered a traditional Romanian meal of sarmale and mamaliga (sour cabbage rolls and polenta). It was so delicious I actually got all welly in the eyes. It was even better than I remembered. Isn’t it amazing how food can give us such strong memories?
Over the next few days in Bucuresti, I walked my legs off. I wanted to see everything, to see if I could remember it from 17 years ago. I walked from the university all the way down to Piata Sudului, taking all day to do it. When I saw Casa Poporului (now known as the Parliament building), I got all welly again. That, I remembered. It’s rather imposing, as you can see below.
It was a cold, windy and rainy day, so I made multiple stops for coffee throughout the day. I also had to use some public toilet facilities, which were questionable to say the least.
Then I started walking the paths of Parcul Tineretului, and I started to remember more. This is close to where I used to live, off Soseaua Oltenitiei in Sector 4 of Bucuresti. It was there in the park that I realized that Romania had truly been the beginning of my second life, and that my Romanian experience was incredibly rooted in my identity as a Mormon missionary.
It was a strong marker for how far I feel I have come in the intervening years. Shedding my Mormon identity meant I had to construct a new one, and one that I chose for myself. These last ten years, in particular, have been a constant path to self-discovery and awareness. I am happier, and more fearless, than I have ever been.
What a wonderful realization to have while in the park! Here’s a picture of Tineretului.
Onward I went, stopping at the cemeteries. The first was the cemetery for the Heroes of the Revolution (in December of 1989, their communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, was overthrown in the revolution), and the next was the Orthodox and Catholic cemeteries.
And even though I had lived in this area for five months, it still wasn’t all that familiar to me. I did recognize the metro station (Constantin Brancoveanu), and then my old apartment building. I remember how I used to look down on the little play area from our balcony. From the very next street over I could hear roosters crowing in the morning, but on this trip I didn’t hear any roosters. I kept walking, because a bit further on was Piata Sudului, where we had done all our grocery shopping in the outdoor markets. I had a huge smile on my face as I recognized the piata, especially the place where we had eaten really good shawarma.
The rest of my time in Bucuresti was quite nice. I met up with an old friend who I hadn’t seen since leaving Romania 17 years ago, and what a blessing to have it seem as if no time had gone by whatsoever! Mihaela and I had tea in an awesome café and caught up on lots of years of experiences. The next two days I went to a bunch of restaurants, worked on my writing in my hotel room, drank Romanian beer (not quite as good as Czech beer), and generally enjoyed myself.
Then it was off to Constanta! On New Years Eve I left Bucuresti and took a train for 2.5 hours to Constanta, which is a port city on the edge of the Black Sea. I was very deliberate in choosing to go on New Years Eve, because I happened to be living in Constanta exactly 17 years ago for New Years of 1998/1999. The train ride was a bit anxiety inducing, as was checking into the hotel, but then I went for a walk, going straight to the Black Sea. And it was as large and noisy and beautiful as I remembered (and empty, because it was a cold winter day).
I made plans to go to Revellion (the New Years party) in Old Town of Constanta. So I waited until nearly 11:00 pm at night and then got a cab and went, by myself, to Old Town. Down in Ovid’s square they had a stage for a band, and thousands of people were all outside with me, cheering for the band (who were singing in Romanian, yeah!) and waiting for the countdown to midnight.
The fireworks at midnight were amazing. They must have gone on for at least ten minutes, up over the square and over the Black Sea. Everyone around me was kissing and laughing, though the crowd actually wasn’t very loud. At that moment I made a vow that I would be here again for New Years 17 years from now, in 2032. Which sounds light-years away, but isn’t, really.
That’s also the night my phone died. Dead died, as in caput, finis, totalled. It made for a rather anxious morning the next day when I tried to chat with phone support (which didn’t work, either). For a moment I was afraid. Here I was, phoneless, in a really foreign country. After an hour spent calming myself, I finally just left it in the hands of the gods, and asked for an actual map made of paper when I left the hotel to go sightseeing that day.
Again, I spent hours roaming the city of Constanta, stopping for a cappuccino every time my legs got too cold to continue. I was only in Constanta for three months when I was last here, so the city was even more unfamiliar than Bucuresti was. I eventually found the street where I had lived, but I couldn’t pinpoint the actual apartment building. Everything had changed so much. Oh, well. I kept roaming, and saw the Opera Building where I once saw La Boheme, and old ruins from the ancient Roman empire.
My last day in Constanta I spent a few more hours outside doing a free walking tour with a delightful woman named Diana. She told me all sorts of interesting things about the city as we meandered through the back streets of Old Town. I learned why some buildings seemed abandoned and ready to collapse (had to do with town bureaucracy), why there were so few street dogs, and where all the beggars had gone (all the homeless Gypsies had been forcibly relocated to a container slum outside of Constanta).
On January 3, I left Constanta for Ploiesti. This is a city about 45 minutes north of Bucuresti, and was the last city I had lived in as a missionary before coming home. It was a last minute decision to include Ploiesti on this particular trip to Romania, and I’m very glad I did.
I took the train from Constanta to Bucuresti, and then transferred trains to Ploiesti. I walked from the train station to my hotel in Ploiesti as well, as it was sunny out, even if it was still cold. After getting situated at the hotel, and still being without a phone, I asked for a map of the city, but they didn’t have one available at the front desk. Okay. No map. No phone. I can still do this.
I walked one block, and then stopped in amazement. There was my apartment building. I remembered it as clear as day. It was across from the post office and Piata Central. That one traffic light, it used to play ‘I’m a little teapot’ as the walk signal. I turned around and walked without hesitation the four blocks to the Church building in Ploiesti. I remembered exactly where I had once been caught in a rainstorm on the way home from church. I got to the church building and recognized it, too.
How heart-warming it was to finally have such confirmation that I had been here! I had lived here, and my brain didn’t forget all of it entirely. I walked to the Piata where we did our grocery shopping, and remembered how the awnings looked over the stalls. I once got a marriage proposal there, by an old man who had brown icicles for teeth (I turned him down). I stopped by the little outdoor fair and had a hot wine (vin fiert) while just breathing in the fact that I was so happy. So happy to remember so much.
The next morning I was back on the train to Bucuresti and checked in to my final hotel for my last night in Romania. My friend Shannon had let me know that there was an incredible bookstore in Old Town Bucuresti, so I went to see that. It had also started snowing, which meant a beautiful outdoor scene.
My last day was one of the best. I checked out of the hotel, left my backpack with them, and then went to meet up with Mihaela again. We went back to her mother’s apartment, where her niece was also staying with them. I had to use all the Romanian I could use (though Mihaela translated for me as necessary) to converse with her mom and her niece. Her mom is just as lovely and sweet as I remembered. We played card and board games with the niece (she was a delightful eight years old), and then had lunch together. Her mom made us carrot and apple salad for the first course, ciorba (sour soup) for the second, sarmale cu mamaliga (cabbage rolls and polenta) for the third course, and orez cu lapte (rice pudding) for dessert. Oh my god, it was amazing. The company, and the food.
It was a perfect ending for my time in Romania. They walked me back to the metro, and then it was time to start my journey home to Prague. A cab to the airport, waiting in the airport for the flight, getting all anxious about my short layover in Vienna, running through the airport in Vienna to make my connection (I had to get through passport control and through another security checkpoint), only to find that my last flight home to Prague had been cancelled. So I got a hotel voucher and stayed overnight in the airport hotel in Vienna.
It was beautiful to finally get home, to Prague. To come up the sidewalk to my apartment building on Sobotecka, and see the park across the way. To look up at the beautiful buildings, with their carvings and their iron-wrought balconies and their muted shades of colour. To feel like I was actually coming home.
I am incredibly grateful I had the opportunity (and the courage) to go back to Romania. It was a hard trip. Not much of it was very easy at all. I had a lot of feelings to process, and a lot of memories to sift through. It was all worth it, though.
I feel that I have put Romania back inside me. For so many years I always said I was going to go back someday. Back then it was just this dream, and part of an open wound. It’s not a dream anymore. I have made it reality. The wound is still open, but that’s okay. I think Romania is meant to be my sore spot, my little piece of rawness. The mirror I use to reflect how far in life I have come. It will always be precious to me, and beloved for its roughness, its hardness.
How grateful I am for all of life’s strange meanderings, which bring me to moments of hardship and beauty. Thank you, Romania.
This post is dedicated to Bibi Bobeanu. You were loved far more than you realized. I waited too long to see you, my friend, so I’ll see you in the next life. Te pup.