In French, from which we borrowed it, essil is attested in Chanson de Roland with the double meaning of ?misery? and ?expelling? (and subsequent variants essil or eissil referring to ?banishment?). The state of extreme material, symbolic and existential poverty, specific to the beginning of any exile, when it is not enhanced by ?advancement? plans (the Romanian word is propăşire, ?stepping forward? if I translate it etymologically) naively ruminated in spite of everything. I remember the grocer I worked for during a month or two in Ithaca, N.Y., who was haunted by the idea that I could secretely treat myself with the hams and cheeses I had to bring out of the frigidarium, the commedia dell?arte scenes when he was sneaking up hoping to catch me ? far from amusing in those days. Or, the raging helplessness when once, in Rome, words failed me. The ?instrument? to express my revolt about something I no longer recall was missing. I can still see myself standing opaquely, in a kind of bad absent-mindedness, and searching in my memory for the offensive retorts Don Lazzario had never taught us in the University and I had never encountered in my Italian readings (but I had never looked for them on purpose, I was reproaching myself). And, many years after this episode, on an empty day, as I was taking a walk on a green alley of Providence, where everyone in the neighborhood was jogging, with, in my gaze, something unknown that could yet still be recognized and which I did not control at that moment, the two passers-by vehemently exclaiming ?look at her? several times, outraged, and still loudly commenting on the unbelievable face as they were slowly moving away. I was not ?composed,? ?self-composed,? I had not put on the social gaze, the walking face required by the local canon. Back home I looked in the mirror and saw nothing unusual. I had simply met some most demanding physiognomists, I concluded, not knowing, practically, what to make out of the incident, like I never could hear my foreign accent and understand why everybody kept asking me where I came from. And before that, at Cornell University, where I had taught Italian, fearing I would be inadequate and dreaming, by night, unknown words that I would search for in huge dictionaries, I remember my initially absurd relationship with a student who kept interrupting classes by ostentatiously taking off his sweater and shirt or noisily entering the classroom. When I asked him what was going on he answered that I never smiled and that made him tense. ?Do I look sad, gloomy?? ?No,? he said. ?Then, why do I need to automatically laugh and smile,? I asked him, ?when I come from a world which tolerates those who laugh and smile only when they feel like laughing and smiling, according to the state they are in, requiring from them only not to freeze, by their behavior, someone else?s smile or laughter?? This time I had the needed words, our relationship brightened up and this vulnerable and fretting kid became a warm and close student.
Once borrowed from French into Romanian, the words exil ?exile? or a exila ?to exile? with the local derivative exilat ?exiled? do not gain many new meanings. I am reading the entry on exil in Dicţionarul explicativ al limbii române: ?1 (in some states) Punishment, usually having a political character, consisting of obliging the citizen of a country to leave it; banishment; 2. Voluntarily leaving one?s country due to political reasons; 3. The condition of an exiled person. In some states seems to imply ?not in Romania?. The exile in another country is presented as a political punishment. The 1848 Romanian revolutionaries, ?48ers? (paşoptişti) as they are usually called, maybe, I learned in pain as a child about Romanian historian Nicolae Bălcescu, not allowed to return home and being buried in the graveyard of the poor in Palermo, Italy. Domestic exile, banishment to unwanted places was, not so long ago, a common practice in our part of the world. Disobedient boyars were banished on their estate, under various interdictions (not to change clothes, not to cut their hair). Deportation to Siberia for the Russians and, after 1947, deportation to Bărăgan in communist Romania. By the time I came to face the word exile, the situation was already fixed in absurdity. What used to be a punishment was now a thing desired a situation some were striving for years in a row. At times people were acting so as to be expelled. Writer Paul Goma?s adepts at the end of the seventies were young men whose decision to assume the risks of an open war with the authorities was animated both by authentic political opposition and by the dream of departing.
Even when exile means leaving your native country at your own will (therefore splitting into one who exiles you and you the exile), it still presupposes major political reasons that force you into it. Exile is not the equivalent of a simple emigration when, regardless of age, one youthfuly goes to look for one?s fortune ?in the wide world? (în lumea cea mare). Dissatisfactions, torments and aspirations beyond the day to day life interweave among its motivations. Regardless of age, exiles are old, worn out by their feelings of powerlessness whenever they try to translate them into adequate action. Political as well, but limited to a domestic inhospitable or far away space, banishment (named surghiun in Romanian, with a word of Turkish origin that refers to ?deporting,? ?the condition of being an exiled or an outlaw,? and figuratively to ?alienation? or ?wandering?) does not seem to have ever been used in the active sense of ?exiling oneself.? Its core revolves around the idea of externally imposed violence: political power exiles, deports, or outlaws you; it chases, pushes or sends you away; you don?t banish yourself.