I just spent a weekend near Sighisoara in the heart of Transylvania. It was a homecoming of sorts to a place I never thought I would see again. I was there once before, 33 years ago to the week in August 1978.
This brings me to the second passion of my life, one that helped me to survive and find meaning when I was not yet ready to come to terms with myself. When I left UVa in 1976, I was at the start of my first great personal purge even if at the time I did not know that this was the term. Having failed to overcome my fears in college, I decided I could will this away if I just worked hard enough at it. That would be much simpler, wouldn't it, than coming out and dealing with the consequences? Over the next two years of graduate school at Yale, I was able to keep that resolve, more or less, but my interest in astronomy and in almost everything else waned. After two years, I decided that was it, that I was not PhD material. I took my MS degree in the spring of 1978 with no clear idea what I would do next.
What carried me through were things Russian. Incurable romantic, I first fell in love with things Russian when I saw the movie Doctor Zhivago in the late 1960s. Then I read short stories in translation in high school and began learning about Russian history. How strange, I thought, that a country and a people could evolve to be so different from us in the mid-20th century USA. When I entered UVa in 1972 and was told I had to take a language, I chose Russian.
I regretted my choice a few times that first year. Russian was far harder than any of the physics or math courses I took, but after two years I realized I was starting to get somewhere. It took me two months to work through Turgenev's First Love (Первая любовь) on my own, but from there I kept going. I wanted to read Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Bulgakov in the original. By the time I took my UVa degree in 1976, I had a double major: physics-astronomy and Russian language and literature. At Yale there was a young émigré actress who tried to put together a small amateur theater group. I was to play Bayan in Mayakovsky's The Bedbug (Клоп). We never did get that production to stage, but I still remember some of my lines. Олег Баян от счастья пьян. I also learned that as shy and scared as I was, there was at least one forum where I could lose my inhibitions.
At loose ends in the summer of 1978, I heard of an eccentric Russian language professor from Boston College who ran a small touring company called Pioneer Travel (www.pioneerrussia.com/about_pioneer.php) that ran summer driving and camping tours across the Soviet Union from the Baltic to the Black Sea. I got the last seat available on one of the four VW minivans that were to set out that summer, and I camped out in Boston's Logan Airport to get a $99 first come, first served ticket on PanAm to Amsterdam.
|Part of our Merry Little Crew, 1978|
From the Netherlands we made our way through Germany and Scandinavia, finally crossing into the Soviet Union from Finland. A few hours after crossing the border, I found myself walking the streets of Leningrad at this, the height of the White Nights. I felt I had landed on another planet. Everything, absolutely everything was so different from what I had grown up with. I remember clearly trying to explain to one of the first Russians I met what were the strange things, such as driver's license and a checkbook, that I was carrying with me. I remember how hard many of the people I met tried to explain to me their reality. It was the beginning of a love affair that has never died.
|Transylvania by Train & Bike 2011|
I have come to think of the transgender journey as one of transitioning cultures, traveling from one country to another. We grow up in one culture and are expected to abide by its rules and strictures, but if we prepare ourselves well enough for the journey, we can live in another culture and come to feel as comfortable in it as in the culture we were born into, perhaps even more so. It was walking the streets of Leningrad in the summer of 1978 that I first came to feel on my own skin that the reality I had been surrounded by since birth was not the only reality. I knew and could see with my own eyes that the Soviet system was deeply flawed, but I also saw that there was a positive side I had never known about, a side that was missing from my own society.
|Transylvanian Country Roads|
I will have cause to come back again and again to things Russian and the role they played in helping me find my way both then and later, but for now let me return to Transylvania.
We crossed the border from the Soviet Union into Romania on August 17. My friends in Romania may be particularly surprised to read my first impressions from my journal that day:
It was perhaps 6:00pm that we entered our first large Romanian town, Bacau. I must have forgotten what life was like outside the Soviet Union, for I was shocked at what I saw here. The main street was clean, wide, and modern. The buildings were new and stylish, unaffected by Soviet instant aging. Store windows were filled with consumer goods; the people were well dressed. Most surprising, there were no long Soviet lines.
|Clock Tower in Saschiz|
The next day we drove on to Sighisoara and wandered the ancient, non-touristed streets of the old town in the fading evening twilight. I felt I had gone back through the centuries. We camped that night under a full moon.
|With Ancha, 2011|
What would I have thought then if anyone told me I would return to Transylvania exactly 33 years later? More than this, at that time when I was doing my best to bury my transgender side, could I have imagined that on this return visit I would be betwixt and between, but more Robyn than my former self? It was a beautiful, tranquil weekend of riding my bicycle through the lush, rolling hills, enjoying long talks with the inn-keeper Ancha, and just being at peace. The moon was full. Another circle had closed.