Words of Exile
Sanda Golopenţia

            From the Indo-European root *el-, a variegated mass of other Latin, French and Romanian words evolved, that come our way like unexpected presents. Thus, preceded by the root amb- which means ?around? and followed by a durative prefix, it gives in Latin the word ambulare, with the classic meaning of ?to go around.? In popular Latin, ambula! was the military order for ?forward, march!? and ?march on!? From ambulare evolved in French the verb aller and its derivatives allée, allure, préalable, from which Romanian got alee (alley), alură (aspect, look), prealabil (previous, preceding), as well as the verb a umbla (to go, to walk) with derivatives such as umblare (walk), umblăreţ (walking, walker), umblător (walking) and the irreverent, in this context, umblătoare (WC), umblătură or umblet (walk, stroll, gait, running about), all still keeping the initial meaning of ?to go from one place to another, to move.? Starting from ambulare, French also produced a multitude of learned terms surprisingly related to the word exile: ambulant, ambulance, ambulatoire, déambuler, déambulatoire, funambule, préambule, noctambule or somnambule. And we have in our turn in Romanian words like ambulant (ambulant), ambulanţă (ambulance), deambulatoriu (ambulatory), funambul (tightrope walker), funambulesc (bizarre, excentrical, exrtravagant), noctambul (sleep walker, party animal) and somnambul (sleepwalker).

            Alleys (alei) are not necessarily connected with exile for me. Although in canicular Rome, during the summer of 1980, I was perplexedly walking the Pincio alleys, balmed by the green or dry needles of some tall but unprotective pine trees, no shadow whatsoever, no help, just like the useless poplar in the legend with Holy Mary. In exchange, alură as in ?carriage, gait, bearing, aspect, look,? is definitely an exile word. We had sunk into ourselves, dully walking among the dream buildings and palaces of Rome, ghosts of a new sort. We were looking in astoundment at each other or in the mirrors, wondering if we?ll remain like that forever. I can trace my ultimate fear of pictures back to those days. Pictures always give you away, the camera is unforgiving, it permanently fixes on paper your fallen shoulders, bent head, the hesitating smile undermined by inner doubt, the gaze where a distracted something just won?t go away, your unsure gait. When I first returned to Romania and had pictures taken for an interview, I saw myself in the newspaper, with exile eyes, looking with no rhyme or reason, nonsensically. Beforehand (în prealabil) are still key words, although I don?t know what exactly should take place before we could truly belong to the States or before we could have again a place to call home in Romania. Ambulatories (I quote from the dictionary for those who never encountered the word: ?A space continuing the side naves, behind the altar in the central apse of a Roman or Gothic Church?), I strolled them in Rome for more than a month, while we were waiting for the American visa. Cool and quiet, churches always helped us. There, in those with ambulatories, but especially in the smaller, non-touristic ones, we stopped more than once to read in a Bible placed at hand. In one tiny church I read for a week from a book by Thér?se de Lisieux, left there by who knows who. We needed those sober and substantial readings in those days when we couldn?t buy newspapers, watch TV news or enter museums which had an entrance fee, and therefore couldn?t avoid thinking about the great unknowns of our uncertain transition from home to nothingness. Tightrope walker (funambul) I was for over one year, dancing on rope the unknown dance of job applications. I wrote more than a hundred then and when I finally got a job, I did not burn them as I had bragged. One couldn?t endanger the unexpected success by a careless whimsical act. Bizarre, eccentric, extravagant (funambuleşti) we are, since then, in countless circumstances of our lives, no longer noticing it. We are however neither party-goers (noctambuli), nor sleepwalkers (somnambuli), since we?ve been here we are spending evenings like during childhood and go to sleep early, rarely attracted by a concert, a movie or a conference. We live and we lived, in Ithaca or Providence, in small puritan towns with quiet streets where birds only or, during the night, the remote noise of the highway, of an airplane or of a train can be heard. We turned from fierce cosmopolitan Bucharest noctambules into unconvinced ?provincials.?

            Dictionaries are good, however, only up to a point. Words live within us, they charge themselves with connotations according to our linguistic biographies and gravitate around the semantic whirlpools of our personal myths and obsessions. I started getting closer to the word exile, as if it were a word directly concerning me, in the seventies. I was in Romania and exiled at the same time, permanently banished, in a daily invention of self-banishment I never got over since then, daily making negative resolutions (not to do this or that) in order to be able, some time, to return to a normal way of life in which you act as you please, according to the drive of the moment. I had by then two favorite places of domestic exile: the Library of the Romanian Academy and field research (most of the times in a village called Breb, in Maramureş). I had started going to the Library of the Academy ever since I was a college student. In the sophomore or junior year I would first look myself up on the lists with students expelled for political reasons, in the morning, then go to classes and afterwards happily rush up Calea Victoriei, to the extraordinary Reading Room 1.  Back then it was a bright tall room with the sun shining on the simple, yet elegant, tables. I was reading freely, wildly, uncommitted, in all directions. During the breaks one could see Tudor Vianu, the distinguished theorist of literature and Director of the Library, solemnly passing by, in later years I would watch his successor, literary critic Şerban Cioculescu, lustfully and meticulously mixing up truffles in his Turkish coffee, at the basement C.O.Ş. cafeteria (C.O.Ş. was short for Casa Oamenilor de Ştiinţă, or Scientists? Club), where they had divinely cooked dishes and pastries. I was talking at length daily to two wise friends who are now in France or walking the alleys full of mulberry and lilac trees, taking the time to reflect in no hurry upon what I had just read or what I would like to find out further. Sometimes, during the summer vacation, I came in the morning, ate lunch at the Library and went home around 10:30 in the evening. Days were made out of books.  Later, when I got a job as a researcher at the Institute of Phonetics, I was checking out and again hurrying for the oasis where I was used to discover infallible comfort for any trouble. I was so grateful to the institution that, after the 1977 quake, first thing in the morning after checking on my mom and discovering she was all right; I went to the Library of the Academy. I wanted to help put the books back on the shelves or do anything else I could. The door was locked. When, after a while, someone opened and I named the reason why I was there, everything looked both weird and out of place. For a long time after, my friends kept making fun of me, who, they were saying, went to read at the Library of the Academy the day after the earthquake.

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