I loved music from an early age, when my parents listened to bootlegged Beatles and Boney M in Romania. There’s a story my dad loves to tell that I love to hear. When I was about two years old, my dad was recording something on his reel to reel and had to go to work before the recording ended. I volunteered to change the tape and proceeded to thread the ribbon into the machine correctly. And thus began a lifetime of figuring out technology and dancing.
My mom was born in February 1952 in Timisoara Romania. They named her Iboyla (EE-boy-ya). Ibi for short. Which means violet. In that era in Romania, minorities like the large Hungarian one we were a part of, weren’t allowed to name their children in their own language. Why? So that when you looked at the names on the roster in a town or school, it looked like everyone was Romanian. Why? Because much of Romania was newly Romania, the borders were redrawn after ww1. Timisoara (or Temesvár in Hungarian), was right on the border and was Hungary until 1918. We didn’t cross the borders, the borders crossed us, as they say.
But back to my mom. So her Hungarian name is Ibi, but on her papers she had to be Viorica, a Romanian name. Which I always thought meant Veronica but I just looked it up and it does translate to Violet. Her whole life she was Ibi to friends and family and Viorica at school and work.
When we left Romania and she had to get new ids and papers she showed her old ones and was Viorica in new countries that didn’t know either of her names. Here she is holding up her Austrian papers showing her refugee status.
We came to Canada and again she showed the papers she already had. So in Toronto and Hamilton she dragged around this Viorica name that wasn’t really hers and people couldn’t pronounce. She was still Ibi to family and friends but she became Vicki to her new Canadian colleagues and classmates.
My dad was born in 1949 in Cluj Napoca (or Kolosvár in Hungarian) in northern Romania. He was named Árpád Toma. I don’t know why he got to have Arpad on his birth certificate. It’s a Hungarian name. But not a very popular one. (Sidenote, I’ve always seen it without the accents here in Canada. Sidenote part two, my mom often remarks that it’s funny that she’s surrounded by Arpads, it’s her dad’s name (officially the Romanian Arcadie on his papers) and her half-brother’s name.) Anyway. Toma is Romanian, so I’ll guess he went by Toma in school, but I’ll have to ask him.
When we came to Canada, he got a job on the assembly line at Ford and was dubbed Andy for a while, but he’s been Tom for as long as I can remember.
So what are my parent’s names? Tom and Vicki. Ibi and Arpi. Mom and dad. I often don’t know how to answer this question. I looked up the meaning of their names and found out Arpad means Barley. Violet and Barley. Don’t you just see the communist coat of arms with the sheaf of barley and flowers and the happy workers in that saccharine glow that my activist friends like to think of when they think of communism? I do.
My name. It’s Hungarian. My dad had to weasel the Hungarian spelling onto my papers in 1977 instead of the Romanian Cristina. They said they wanted a name that would be the same in most languages, so I wouldn’t have the translation problems. Unlike my cousin Csaba (CHA-ba), who had such trouble with his name he changed it to Rob when he was nine.
My sisters also have names that are the same in English and Hungarian. But I’m the only one with the silent z, which I often have to explain. Whenever people see the spelling they remark on it and I always say “It’s Hungarian”, wondering if they think I made it up to be original or my parents were hippies. My sister was born here and got the Canadian spelling of her name instead of the Hungarian version with a z. When I asked my mom why she didn’t spell it the Hungarian way she said “Oh! I forgot!”
Our first first time back was in June of ’93. I was 16 and at the end of grade ten.
I don’t remember much from that trip but I have a vivid impression of going from technicolor Hungary with its billboards and American stores to dusty Romania washed in sepia tones. In my memory it was like the Wizard of Oz movie going from colour to black and white – this impression lasted for many years – until I returned as an adult almost 20 years later.
But to be fair, I still think of Romania as sepia toned. This last time I was there, we took a train from Timisoara to Budapest and entering the train reminded me of a train I took in India and exiting took me to a new subway line that emerged at the centre of town and made me think of American excess like Times Square. I had only been in Romania for a week and already I was excited about the availability of cheap burgers and idea of the Body Shop.
But back to 1993.
We crossed the border to Romania and I was like “I’m from here?!” It was so foreign. I couldn’t imagine the person I would’ve been had I grown up there. I couldn’t even speak the language. We visited my cousin on a farm and I was struck by the rural poverty of it. The lack of knowledge of bands and shows I was into. I remember she was in grade six or maybe grade eight and she was stressed out about an exam she had to take that would determine which high school she went to which determined the trajectory of her career: academic or trades. So much pressure! What kind of school system made you decide your career trajectory so young? Thank god I didn’t grow up there.
Other things I remember from that first trip back:
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I brought all four books of the trilogy with me and over three weeks I read them twice over.
- A feeling of remembrance on the street and in the house. Like I had been there before. The foreign and the familiar at once.
- Two black kittens I named Simon and Garfunkel. I loved hearing my grandma say “Gar-fin-kel” in her heavy Hungarian accent.
What did my parents and my grandparents feel? As a teenager, I was oblivious to the adult dramas around me in that three room house. I spent my time reading, missing my friends and watching MTV out of London. Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train played endlessly and REM just released the video to Everybody Hurts and we all agreed it was very good.
My grandparent’s house is on Strada Galileo Galilei, and the cross street is Emil Zola. I’ve always loved this. I wish streets in Canada were so literary and scientific. There’s a tram line that goes down Victor Hugo, a couple blocks away, with old trams that well-off Western European countries disposed of when they upgraded.
The trams go by and I’m struck by the fact that most of the drivers are women. Middle-aged women. I ask my mom about this and she’s nonplussed.
Well yeah, she says. Everyone had a job in communism.
Okay sure, but how many women do you see driving buses at home? Not many.
It’s hot and there’s no shade. It feels like it’s 40 degrees in the sun. But at least it’s not humid. We walk to the corner store that’s closest to the house and are greeted with shelves and shelves of cabbage and cauliflower. It’s delightful. And jarring. Not what I expected to see in a corner store. We are looking for a treat, so the cabbage, while quirky, does not meet our needs.
We landed the day before. My parents drove for five hours in a borrowed car to pick us up at the Budapest airport. We flew in from Vancouver, with a three hour layover in Amsterdam, and then drove the five hours to Timisoara right after landing.
Just after crossing the Romanian border, we pulled over at a gas station in what felt like the middle of nowhere. I remember sun and a lot of dust. A flat landscape. I went to use the bathroom, but there was an out of service sign strung up blocking the hallway. Then a man came out, obviously having ignored the sign. So, I thought, this is a semi-lawless country, I’ll be like the locals and ignore the sign.
Everything was in working order, until I tried to leave and the door wouldn’t open. The lock was jammed. Oh shit. I was stuck. I banged on the door, but it was around the corner and away from the rest of the store so no one heard me. The out of service sign blocked others from coming over. I waited. I banged on the door some more. I yelled. Surely someone from my family will come and rescue me. I just had to wait for enough time to pass so that they went from giving me privacy in case I was having travel related stomach issues to coming to see if I was okay. That took about ten minutes.
My mom came and saved me. She got the gas station attendant to jimmy the lock and let me out. They both pointed to the out of service sign, they must have thought I was a dummy from the new world who didn’t know how these things worked.
I got myself a dark chocolate caramel Magnum ice cream bar as a reward for surviving my first Romanian bathroom and sat on the curb in the hot sunset light and tried to eat it before it dripped and pooled at my feet. Then we all got back into the car for the last leg of the long trip home.
I had never noticed Magnum ice cream in Canada before and thought it was a Romanian thing until I came back and saw them everywhere. Now when I eat one, I think of the time I got locked in a gas station bathroom within 5 minutes of entering Romania for the first time in my adult life.
Let’s begin at the beginning, or ending, depending on how you look at it. It’s Sunday December 7th, 1980. We’re in Timisoara, Romania, standing on the stoop of my grandparent’s house, where I live with my parents.
A snow storm has hit.
Here is my mom and my uncle Sanyi who is visiting from Sate Mare, a town 300km to the north. That’s me in the snowsuit.
Where are my mom and uncle looking? At my grandma I think, my dad’s taking the picture and my grandpa’s in the house.
Unbeknownst to my grandparents, we leave for good tomorrow. The three of us got passports, which is unheard of. A lucky stroke of luck. My grandparents think we’re going to a resort town in Romania for a winter vacation. We’re really taking a train to Bucharest, another train to Sofia, then on to Istanbul and eventually to Vienna where we’ll claim asylum and apply to go to Canada.
I, of course, know none of this. I am three years old.
The climate in Romania is such that anyone can be an informant. Even your parents’ parents, who could take extreme measures to keep their only grandchild close. Best not to tell them.
In fact, my mom has left a note on the back page of the calendar in her room. In a couple of weeks, she’ll call the neighbours from Austria (my grandparents are still on the waitlist for a phone) and tell my grandma to go look in the calendar. It’ll say something like: We are not coming back because we are trying to escape from here and if we are lucky we will go to Canada.
Imagine that phone call.
Imagine this moment when this photo was taken – the day before we left. Who developed the film? My parents didn’t take this camera with them. It must have been my grandparents and at some point, years later, they must have given the photo to my parents who have it in the family album. Now it’s just a bit of trivia, how this photo came to be in Canada. But for years, it would’ve been the last remnants of us.
I was driving down Clark the other day, pouring rain, winter darkness, and Radiohead came on the radio. Exit Music (For a Film). Do you know that song? It’s so good. And dramatic. And it made me think of my parents and how it must have been to wake up that morning and leave for good.
Wake from your sleep
The drying of your tears
Today we escape, we escape
Pack and get dressed
Before your father hears us
Before all hell breaks loose
Breathe, keep breathingExit Music (For a Film), Radiohead
Don’t lose your nerve
Breathe, keep breathing
I can’t do this alone
Update: February 2020.
I’m at my parent’s house in Hamilton, going through old photo albums and we found a couple more photos from that day. Here we are, my mom, my dad, and me. None of us looking at the camera. From this vantage point, 40 years later, I can almost see the imminent departure written all over our faces.