Breb was the second protective space for me. It was a village in northern Maramureş, not far from Ocna Şugatag. I got there for the first time while doing field research in a team of close ethnologist friends led by anthropologist Mihai Pop. Afterwards, I would leave for Breb all by myself, every time I got the chance. I had an allowance of five lei perdiem from my Institute. I would add ten or fiteen more and pay for my room and board to Anuţa Ciombului. I knew the room I was staying in by heart, as if it were my own. I was walking in it in the dark, completely sure of myself, just like home. Upon my arrival, Anuţă would put on a tray a piece of lard and half a liter of pear brandy. In the cellar I was allowed to sample the blueberries collected there to be exported in Germany. From time to time, in the evening, I would eat balmuş in the summer kitchen where Anuţă?s father, old Ciombu, slept during the night. Every time I came to Breb, moş Ciombu was happily crying, he had lived to see something happen again, when I left he was crying again, convinced we would never see each other in this world. And days were all mine, with rushing to talk to my favorite informants: Tiran Irina lu Dobâc, Ană Bud, Dotia Berbeşteanului or Maria Frunzălesii, and thinking at length of the big and small differences between the lives of people living in the same country. Back then I had decided (and I haven?t given up the idea) to write about the oral institutions of the village. About the way the inhabitants of Breb remembered, even after two generations, a well-put thing said by somebody, or a happily-turned hore (văjită was the local word for making the verses rhyme successfully in such lyrical songs) and the circumstances in which they had been produced. And about the ?written acts? prepared by the young deacon to settle arguments between wives and the husbands who measured their food and locked up the staples, or the ?life story? to be sung after the forgiveness funeral ritual called iertăciuni, that the same deacon was composing in versified form, patiently negociating with the client and asking the beneficiary to ?ratify? and pay for while still alive. That is when I discovered that in Breb lyrical poetry was a female thing. That woman chanted or hollered it at dance before marriage and, once married, would sing it in the house, ?publishing? it only in the field, during summer labor, or at weddings, when they parenthetically escaped from the gloomy interdictions that usually defined the status of a wife. In exchange, satirical poetry was masculine, giving rhythm and impetus the Sunday dance or ?hollered over the village? (in what people called strigatul peste sat) to comment on the young women who had stayed unmarried one more year. In those troubled times, Breb gave me the feeling that one could still have a normal, self-contained life and that there were still many interesting things to be done at home. Maybe that was why, when I wasn?t allowed to go to a conference in Amsterdam, organized by Sorin Alexandrescu, where I was to deliver a lecture on the life of words in Breb (I thought and still believe a live book will come out of this), the fact, completely ordinary ? in fact I had stopped counting the rejections of my passport requests long ago ? revolted me unexpectedly and really marked the moment when I began to truly imagine leaving Romania.
A few days after I first returned to the country in 1989, I went to the Library of the Academy. The building had gone through a lot and had grown desolated. Reading Room 1 was dark and gloomy, subaquatic would be the appropriate word. To avoid getting discouraged without trying to do something, I proposed one of the Directors to allow me to contribute to the cleaning expenses. I wasn?t luckier than in the case of the earthquake. This time I was dryly told to mind my own business. Although I had reacted with the simplicity with which one tries to meet basic needs, pitching in whatever one can, something in my proposal had offended. Reading Room I kept hiding the face I once knew, with its torn linoleum, the peeled off paint or veneer on the tables and the metal chairs which were by now scraching the readers.
I got back to Breb only two years ago. I met again and recognized immediately some of the people I used to listen to, all ears, for so long. The socăciţa (ceremonial cook) Ana lui Ştefănuc, with whom I had stayed for three days, from dawn till dusk, ceaselessly writing down everything she was saying while preparing the funeral knot-shaped bread and the repast for the old deacon?s burial (attended by almost five hundred people). Anuţă had died a few months before. Dumitru Gogea, her husband, with whom I had imagined many times the future of our planet and Ionuc, their boy whom everyone in the Folklore Institute had taken for a wheel-barrow ride in the orchard, was gone to work in Italy like many of the young men in the village. The very people from whom I had tried, ages ago, to learn stability and calmness were now emigrating. They were emigrating temporarily, in their typically well-thought manner, coming back with savings to add a new room (a hole, o gaură they?d say) to the house and leaving again for the ?warm countries? once the reserves were out. If both the researchers and their informants go through the equally confusing and enriching experience of breaking off and returning, it is clear that it must be seriously studied by anthropologists, I thought. It is by now no longer a marginal phenomenon, but part of the core texture of Romanian life.
Since, once you have tasted the apple of inner exile, you get into the habit, here across the Ocean, in Providence; I have found an equivalent refuge, this time in teaching. The true gift of my American days is the joy of seeing the enlivened eyes of youths at the age of confidence and audacity. In the darkest years of our childhood, after the death in prison of my father, my mother had written a poem which started with the verse Clasa mea de elevi e patria mea (My class of students is my country). In the sober years of living away, my classes and students were and have remained for me a true recovery space.
Shepherd?s dish made out of unsalted green cheese boilt in milk (or butter) with a little corn flour.