Engines of the world

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I don’t know if this means I’m getting old or I have just been pushed into insanity by two sweet nagging children, but the world used to be so much quieter when I was little.

The days seemed fuller, too, although I cannot imagine what we could have filled them with. No TV, no Internet, no fun parks, no twenty zillion kiddie attractions to choose from. Oh, wait, I remember. I used to play with my one doll and my red doll buggy. I used to saunter through the courtyard of our building, waiting for other kids to come out and play, and in the meantime discover all sorts of dark corners, insects and holes in the ground. I used to help my grandma hoe and water her flowers, pick the sour cherries or the strawberries. I used to watch her iron those gigantic bed sheets while listening to the radio and chewing on a pancake, or I used to help her bake pretzels. In June – no sooner! – we would head down to the open-air marketplace (the farmers’ market) to buy the first ripe tomatoes, and if I was good (and most of the time I was), I would get 5 lei to buy myself a bunch of the year’s first cherries from the gipsy women who sold them squatting down on street corners. Then I would hang cherries around both my ears and pretend they’re classy earrings… And we used to stand in line. We always stood in line. I guess that killed a lot of time. We stood in line for bread, every morning, for meat, a couple of times a month, for lemons and oranges, once a year. It’s not that my grandmother was sadistic or anything, but you had to bring as many people as possible to the counter – the food was rationed and you only got a certain “per capita” amount. So I stood in lines with her. Not that it bothered me. It was the thing to do. You got to meet all sorts of other kids there, better dressed, poorly dressed, it didn’t matter. We played in shabby alleyways while the line slowly snaked forward. And then there was the constant chatter. People were lining up buildings, corners, shop windows, spilling into the street outside, like a living contour made up of gray little ants. Buildings draped in human chatter. You heard the latest gossip, the latest joke against the regime, with the usual hidden double meaning – you were around people, fighting with them, fraternizing with them. People.

Now, all you hear is the buzz of roads and the roars of engines. The Germans are all about engines. There is at least one machine for every type of human endeavor, a machine that lets people just stand there, looking lost and superfluous and so ephemeral. The machine is eternal. You don’t sweep, or dust, or wipe anymore. Instead, there is a loud machine doing that for you, while you are breathing in its poisonous fumes. People have become nothing more than the overseers of the machines. Fill up the tank, make sure it only cuts what it’s supposed to. No wonder everybody’s looking sad. Not even sad, though. Just devoid of emotion. Always active, always in motion, yet so pointless. We are becoming pointless.

I miss my old Romanian countryside. We would listen to grasshoppers and turn over boulders in the streams and the grasses and herbs and wild flowers raised their intertwined heads meter-high and smiled into the sun. And somehow, things made sense. In the evenings, when the cows came home, all you did hear were the bells around their necks, and people greeting and wooden gates being opened and closed and the milk was so warm, even if it did have a little hair and a little cow dung when it was first milked. The women used to filter it and boil it right away and it tasted like flowers, too. The cream was thick and they would bake those huge breads in their earth ovens that were just like cake, no, even better, they tasted like fresh, fluffy orthodox Eucharist bread…  Yeah, I miss that. I even miss the rust and the grit. Because you cannot fake rust and grit. Rust and grit are real. And in this world where you don’t know what to believe anymore, because every smile and every affection and every perfect cobblestone feels fake, I believe in that rust and that grit. Just find a nice place in the sun and smell the grasses and talk to a person with coarse hands, and feel alive. That used to be all you needed. Our summer vacations? We would hoard and save gas for months before going anywhere (gas was rationed too). Then we would pack up everything we needed, including food – cooked and raw – and toilet paper  – there were hardly any stores, and packaged snacks had not yet been invented, and off we went. We’d stop here and there, put up a tent, stare at the scenery, breathe. Not do anything, but watch and breathe and maybe dream a little. We would dream up our perfect little world, just the three of us: my mother, my father and I. And then, when we reached the seaside, we got all touristy and ate out and visited the colourful fairs, and frolicked in the sea, and lay in the sun. That was all. Sand castles, mini-golf, inflatable balls, nothing more.  And yet it felt good, so good, that I am even to this day trying to reproduce that feeling.

Joy came so easy back then when we had so little. We were happy for every little thing.

When I first emigrated, I was shocked at how active the Germans were during their holidays. The local attractions didn’t suffice. They had to have activities, too. We were used to much more contemplative vacations. Backpack and boots and climbing the mountain with small steps. They wanted adrenaline, extreme sports, fast and furious. It all seemed like work to me, but that is how the Germans like their vacations. They have to tick boxes. They have to do things. We were so happy just being.  Besides, life itself was an extreme sport. We just looked for inner peace.

Eating bean soup and looking at the night sky, not even counting the stars, but bathing in them. And being free inside, free to rejoice, free to not compare, free to not think about what else we could have, or should have, but instead free to simply be. So much freer than we are today… You don’t need engines to have wings.

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