I have been in Cluj, Romania for 5 days now. I have walked 31 miles so far. I have taken 188 photos. I have had conversations lasting more than 2 minutes with 5 people: A Hungarian, An Austrian, A Polish person, one Romanian, and another who considers themselves Transylvanian. I have spent a lot of time alone surrounded by strangers speaking in languages I do not understand. I feel a bit like I am underwater, yet able to breathe.
The restaurant was perched on the edge of the canal just before the bridge that would lead me back to the central district of Cluj. It looked humble from the outside with soft pastel golden walls of stucco, chipped and peeling. Wooden framed windows revealed the building’s days of weathering the elements, chipping a different color of forest green. One could tell though, that there was great care involved in the fleeting, yet present moments with the blooming geraniums the color of blood huddled in the corners of each window. Well watered and plucked clean of any dead blossoms.
The wrought iron gate to the entry was half open. I slid through without touching it and turned in to the dining room. A crystal chandelier hovered above a grand piano with two chairs perched in front of the keys awaiting a romantic couple in love to play a duet for the patrons. Couples are always romantic in these eastern countries it seems. You will notice their hands always intertwined, his hand around her waist, her head tilted into the crook of his neck. Little kisses and whispers in each others’ ears. On the bus, the metro, in the restaurants, along the street, public displays of affection for the heterosexual is over the top in Hungary and Romania..
The waiters, all men, were dressed in black slacks with thin leather belts, starched long sleeve shirts buttoned up to their throats and down to their wrists. Two stood at the bar waiting for me to look their way. The older one approached and opened his hand towards me as if asking me to dance, but just as I was about to give him mine he swayed his arm to the left pointing to the deck that overlooked the canal directing me to take a seat at the corner table for two although I was one.
I wanted to imagine a new me this day, at this moment, in this restaurant, all alone and free. One where I let go of my righteousness, my pushing up against all that is unjust in the world. I wanted to live in the world where others lived.
Where I smoke long thin cigarettes, sip glasses of white wine in the afternoon, where I can love eating steak and aged cheeses, where there is nothing that needs recycling because containers are made from glass and paper, where there are no factory farms, where everything is still small and there aren’t too many people in the world, where all species thrive rather than go extinct, and I and we are free to live, where our living causes little harm.
So I order an espresso with warm milk and a sparkling water. When he returns with the libations I have decided upon the trout with grilled polenta, steamed greens, and a rosemary pesto with baby tomatoes. ‘Very good’ he says with a subtle bow as he steps back away from the table and turns.
I watch the older woman at the table ahead of me with bejeweled fingers and striking jaw, her ruby painted lips draw on her skinny cigarette. When she pulls the fag away, she lets a little smoke run out the door of her mouth, but then sips it back in like a seductress dragging a shy man in from the night. As she speaks in a Hungarian tongue, the smoke abruptly kerfuffles out with each rough edged syllable. I watch the young gentleman, who most likely is her son or perhaps son-in-law, hold the fragile stem of a wine glass and lift the massive parabola containing the white wine up to his sipping lips. As he drinks the wine, the glass consumes him. All of it looks pleasant, enjoyable, liberating... even...the essence of happiness, right? A cigarette and a glass of wine and all is well.
My meal has been prepared and the lovely man who I thought was asking me to dance brings the dish in for a gentle landing. I look upon a dead fish cut in half and bones removed, grilled with the skin intact. This fish body is laid over a square of grilled polenta like a cross and circled by the rosemary oil, small cherry tomatoes and pink and black peppercorns scattered around the white plate. At first I am sure that my face shows a bit of shock, eyes wide, eyebrows lifted, and a whisper of a gasp emitted, but I can do this. I gather my composure and pretend like this is nothing but normal. I look up and smile. He leaves. I say ‘Okay’ and grab my weapons. Linen napkin on the lap, a silver fork in the left hand, the knife in the right. I think, “Should I take a photo?” I answer, “No, this is nothing out of the ordinary, play it cool.” I don’t know if I am supposed to eat the skin or not. Well, let’s assume they gave it to me for the eating, so I cut into it with the side of my fork I cut the polenta with the oversized butter knife with no blade and push it all around in the mote of sauce and lift it to my mouth. The flavor is amazing. I imagine that I can feel as I consume this meal, the energy and power being absorbed by my body, as if protein could be calculated by my taste buds and chewing teeth. I have great faith in this intelligence that can transform this fish body into mine. I eat it all and am grateful.
The plate is empty and I lean back in the chair and look across the canal which is banked by a forty foot crumbling wall with vines crawling up and bits of trash trailing down. The waiter approaches to take the plate away and at that moment we both notice a gypsy on the bridge fishing. In synchronicity our gaze follows the long pole out and the long line down leading us to the water where a fish dangles, being lifted up as if on a carnival ride, yet it is a hook in the mouth of a doomed fish, up and up 40 ft into the hands of his captor. The man slips this living body into a plastic bag to suffocate. He tucks the bag into his satchel that lays on the ground under the bench where the garbage, cigarette butts, and dog shit lingers just a curb up from the gutter in the busy road where people walk and cars honk and sirens wail. He pulls a red rag out from his back pocket and wipes his hands, one upon the other being pulled through the cloth until he is satisfied they are dry enough to take the cigarette out of the breast pocket of his stained button up shirt and lights it with a match. The smoke leaves his mouth in one expansive cloud and it floats quickly along in the same direction of the water running below. He picks the pole up with one hand and sends the hooked line down into the channel again.
The waiter looks over to me and asks if I would like dessert. I tip my head to the left and with a habitual wink I shake my head slightly and ask for the check. I cross my hands in my lap, look down and study the pattern that they weave. There is a fish in my belly. There is a fish in a satchel dying, there is a fish in the river swimming free. Which one would I want to be?
When I was on the plane flying over the north pole to get here from the States I watched a documentary about the animals in Africa. There was a scene where a family of Jackals take down a full grown Zebra. One of the jackals is hanging from her nose as she swings her head and the body of the jackal back and forth. the dogs leap on her back and bite into her velvet stripped skin of black and white. Her ears are pressed hard against her body and her eyes are full of fear, wide and petrified, lids pulled back showing the whites, pupils dilated. The next scene flashes to the zebra laying on her side and the jackals feasting on the torn open belly, blood covering their faces as they lift their heads and look around in a frenzy that emanates off their standing hackles of fur. I can not tell if the zebra is still alive, but regardless she was for a long time through this slow death ritual.
This process must happen for the survival of a hyena family. The gypsy, he fed his family this night. The waiter made money to buy food. And I chose to eat a fish today. I am a privileged human hovering, at the moment, above the food chain.
We can pretend that life is clean and controlled with porcelain plates and silver sticks that keep our hands clean. But are they clean? We can pretend…. until we can’t.