Wednesday, November 28, 2012

November Postcards

It's been a very busy several weeks in Bucharest, my home town.  Several times I began writing a post for this journal only to have it overtaken by events.  Rather than throwing up my hands in despair, I'll weave together the various incomplete jottings, my postcards if you will, before December intervenes and brings the first snows with Christmas not far behind.

Riding the CfR Rails on the Bucharest-Brasov-Cluj Line

Clickety-clack, the slow CfR train just passed through Rupea, bound for Bucharest another 3-4 hours down the line.  Alexandra C., Monica, and Oana doze in our 2nd class compartment as I write and watch the Romanian countryside pass by our window, a countryside of rolling hills, farms, and woods.  It is a landscape that reminds me yet again why I feel so at home in Romania, so strong a resemblance it bears to the countryside of the northeastern United States.  We are halfway home to Bucharest even as I feel I could step out of the train and find myself somewhere in New England.

Between Brasov and Cluj
We journeyed the other way just three days ago, departing from Bucharest's North Station an hour before sunrise.  Our destination was Cluj-Napoca, eight hours and a different historical reality away.  A part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, the city still proudly bears witness to the days of grand empire.  Historic buildings carry carved inscriptions in Hungarian, and the feeling is still as much Budapest as it is Bucharest.

It's not my first visit to Cluj.  I was here in 1978 en-route back to Western Europe from the Soviet Union.  As I stood on the central square in front of the Roman Catholic Saint Michael's Cathedral on Thursday afternoon, I remembered the scared young student then deep in purge and self-denial who had stood on the same spot 34 years ago.  It was the summer when I had thrown my heart and mind into Russian language and literature, consciously telling myself that it was a socially acceptable channeling of the feelings for a different life, a different reality.

In Front of St. Michael's
How very different this visit.  The four of us had come to Cluj for Romania's largest annual LGBT film festival.  For the ninth year a small, dedicated group of volunteers working with a shoestring budget had pulled off what some now say is in the top ten of such festivals in Europe.  From Monday through Saturday, movies played each evening at three different venues, pulling a couple of hundred moviegoers and activists to the heart of Transylvania from as far away as the UK and Spain.  The movies ranged from locally produced documentaries and activist spot messages to art movies from Thailand, Israel, and Portugal.  A few played to standing room only audiences.  When the lights came back on each evening, many adjourned to Delirio, Cluj's one LGBT club, to dance the night away.  Our Bucharest foursome was seriously impressed.

With Alexandra G.
It was also a chance to renew old relationships and begin new ones.  Alexandra G. picked us up early Friday  afternoon and drove us outside the city to a mountaintop restaurant with one of the nicest views I have seen in Romania.  Alexandra and I had met last spring when she came to Bucharest for two days, but this was the first time we had truly had a chance to talk and get to know each other.  Alexandra is well progressed in her transition and quite beautiful.  It is hard to imagine her as the construction worker she once was.  Alexandra says that it was when the worldwide recession forced the closure of her construction company that she came face to face with the transition question.  As it has been for me and for many others, it was that recognition of loss that spurred her forward.

Reflections with Alexandra C.
On Saturday I met Mihai and Andy, two handsome and intelligent transgender men.  They are both university students and active with the Cluj chapter of Transgender Advocacy Organization Romania-Moldova.  They are dealing with their identity issues just as I tried to during my own university years long ago.  The longer we sipped coffee together, the more I came to believe that they will succeed where I failed those many decades ago.  They will overcome the many hurdles that stand in their way.

Living Libraries

November 20.  It was a dark and chilly evening as I made my way from our Embassy to ACCEPT, the Romania LGBT rights organization.  This is one day of the calendar known to all transgender persons.  It's the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), the day when we remember those who have died in hate murders over the preceding twelve months for the "crime" of being transgender.

What a difference a year can make.  When I went to the TDOR observance at ACCEPT a year ago, I found that I was the only transgender person who had come.  We watched a short film, and then I spoke for some time to tell the assembled cisgender men and women what it means and how it feels to be transgender. I was unspeakably grateful to ACCEPT executive director Irina Nita for holding the evening event even as I felt lonely to be the only transgender person in the room.

This year I was not alone.  In addition to myself, eight members of Bucharest's transgender community had turned out, and they had themselves planned and organized the evening.  The names of those who have died over the past year scrolled on the projection screen, and the transgender symbol hung from the wall, covered with origami flowers.  Posters announcing the evening had been hung in several locations, and thirty or so supportive LGB and straight men and women had shown up.  The heart of the evening was a living library, something I had first heard of during LGBT history month last February, in which I and the other young transgender women and men moved between small groups, told our stories, and answered questions.  When the time came to leave, we did so in groups.  We were well aware that a group of volunteers had been attacked violently in the street after an LGBT play and discussion at a Bucharest university the previous week.

Just two nights later on Thanksgiving Day, several of us did a reprise of the living library at a Bucharest high school.  Together with several LGB Romanians and expats, we rotated between small groups of students to answer questions and tell our stories.  The event began at 5:30pm with one group of nearly 100 high school students who were replaced at 6:30 by a group of another 100.  Many from the second group did not leave until well after the advertised 7:30pm end time.  A dedicated high school teacher, Roxana Marin, has been organizing this extracurricular event together with her colleagues for several years running.  If anything, this living library was even more gratifying than the one two days earlier at TDOR.  The students with whom we were speaking are Romania's future.  In another decade or two, they are the ones who will be leading Romania.


The rest of my Thanksgiving Day was spent cooking.  I had advertised a Thanksgiving Open House on Saturday the 24th, and I had already spent many a late evening preparing.

Thanksgiving, to my mind, is the best holiday that we have in the United States.  There is nothing political about it, nothing religious.  It does not commemorate any president, and it does not imply a night of rowdy drinking the way New Year's does.  It's just a day to give thanks and as such is the most exportable U.S. holiday we have.  Both in Russia and in Uzbekistan, friends marveled at the simplicity of the idea when I explained it to them.  Ever since I went overseas for the first time in 2005, Thanksgiving has been the most important holiday in my annual calendar.

Two years ago Thanksgiving was a rather lonely affair as I was newly arrived, knew almost no one, and was deeply immersed in post-divorce litigation.  Last year I had a warm and wonderful evening with several of my close friends who had been intimately involved with and supportive of my transition.  It was my chance to give back to Irina, Tudor, Iulia, and others without whom I might not be here today.  I had reason to give great thanks for the new life that had become mine just two weeks earlier on November 10.

With Embassy Friends on Thanksgiving
This year I decided to take the leap, fling the door wide, and announce a Thanksgiving Open House.  I placed an announcement on Facebook and sent e-mail announcements to many friends both old and new not on Facebook.  I had no real idea how many people might come and therefore no idea how much I should cook.  "Never mind," I thought, "Turkey, ham, and pumpkin pie freeze well."  I prepared an extra large batch of Harvard beets, and a fresh supply of Brazilian black beans just in case.

My doorbell rang for the first time just before 4pm.  It was a paper plates and plastic cup affair, but it was a wonderful evening as so many friends both from the Embassy and from the city came and went.  In the end I believe there were more than twenty friends who came through that evening, many bringing flowers, a bottle of wine, tsuica, or a dish of their own to share.  Around 9pm we turned up the stereo volume and began to dance to everything from classics to LGBT music to traditional Roma tunes.  The last guest left around 2am.

Sunday brought with it the peace of a holiday evening that had been well enjoyed by all.  Oana and I gradually brought the apartment back into order.  Another friend who had spent the night worked with us as we drank coffee and ate leftover pumpkin pie.  Later we lounged on the couch to watch a movie as the cold of a deepening autumn kept us in the comfort of indoors.

Tonight will be another evening for friends when we get together to eat the leftovers.  In Romania as in the US, it all tastes so much better the day after.

* * * * * * * * * *

Those are my November postcards from Bucharest, where all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and . . . if you are a fan of Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, you know the rest.

Belated but warm Thanksgiving wishes to all.

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