BITTER BE THY BREAD
re-written in Romanian as Arunca painea ta pe ape (Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters) . Fragments from Gabriel Plesea’s Prose.
(excerpt from Chapter 2)
The English version:
They parted, Jon remembered, soon after they finished their steaks. Their conversation began to drag on. They had nothing else to say. Jane seemed to be really lost in this new world, disoriented and helpless in deciding what to do next. Like himself, she did not know how to prove herself. He did agree. It was more than proving oneself. It was starting anew, from a clean slate. Forget what they had done before, in their home countries. Now they had to readjust here, enjoy life. On the other hand, they could not ignore past experiences — they couldn’t be all that useless or all that bad. He had heard of people who, once here, tried to forget all about their own countries, their origins, their trades and who avidly plunged into a melting pot of all nations of the world. But, again, that was another myth of the past. Nowadays, the many ethnic groups resisted the melting pot — they wanted to remain what they had always been. They had their own schools, their own churches, temples, meeting houses, their own parades, their own festivals. They wore badges stating in block letters, »THANK GOD I AM ARMENIAN » or « KISS ME, I AM POLISH. » Entire streets displayed signs in Hebrew or in Chinese; notices and posters in subway stations or on the trains read in both English and Spanish. Why, then, would they throw away their own heritage? Just because their own were not so many, so evident? Or was it because their own were not so eager to help each other out? As individuals, if not as a group, he, Jane and others like them had a lot to offer to their adopted and adoptive country. They had to fight to preserve their personal ambitions, to regain at least part of their former status. Jon had always stated that it was plain stupid to renounce being an intellectual just because intellectuals were not highly regarded in this more pragmatic country. There was nothing to be ashamed of in being an intellectual, same as the natives were not at all ashamed of starting a business or working from an early age in stores, diners, gas stations, banks and in everything else. The work ethic of the people here must be adopted by all means — one must work to earn one’s bread. But that had nothing to do with one’s personal goals. Some kind of « peaceful coexistence » must be achieved among so many traditions. Of course, there were the extremists who would insist that once here one must renounce his or her mother tongue, forget the past, forget friends, forget everything and become a born-again American. Jon had nothing against this theory either, but hated to hear how some despicable renegades said they loathed their own language, their own land. Then, there was the other lot, those who would continuously repeat, « Sir, I feel so free here, so liberated. This is true democracy! »
Jon remembered that some of these same individuals were former activists in trade-unions and the party or odious members of some dreadful government departments. They were the rats of the colony, the ones who were afraid of being asked what they had done back home and why. Jon avoided seeing any of them, to save his time and keep his good disposition. There were so many beautiful things in his new country, so many places, so many events that he had no time for trifles even if he wanted to.
For some time he hesitated to talk to the lady who came to sit by him on the bench in the park. In his lunch hour he used to go to the park to read his paper or just look at passers-by. He had always enjoyed the spectacle of the street, to watch those human creatures moving here and there, each with his own activity pattern implanted in his or her brain. He was curious to know what was crossing the mind of a particular passer-by. Why did he seem so preoccupied? He, Jon, had many reasons to be preoccupied, but that guy?
The lady next to him turned her head in his direction several times. Finally, she seemed to have gathered enough courage to ask him if he had worked at the institute. Then he remembered her. Yes, it was her all right. A little changed, but she it was.
At the beginning he did not venture too much, but she seemed quite willing to talk. There was none of the distance she used to put between herself and her interlocutor back home. She was on her lunch break, too. She worked for a dentist who was out of town that day so she could enjoy a longer break. That was good! Jon could always have a longer break, but he never took advantage of it. They started talking about people or places they both knew. And, as the place was getting too crowded and too noisy, they moved on to the streets. The walk made them hungry and they started looking for a diner or some sort of coffee place.
Jon remembered all these, as if they happened yesterday. Two weeks passed by and he did not hear from her. Then he forgot her. He had a lot of work to do at his office. The month-end was approaching and they had to close up the issue. He was doing editorial work for one of the magazines downtown — proofreading, paste-ups, layouts. They did not pay him well, but it was enough for a part-time job. He was also taking courses at Columbia and was quite happy to be able to make his work schedule around his classes. Midterm was almost here and he had to start reviewing some of the subjects he had found more difficult. Other than that, he enjoyed being a student again. It was fun and challenging. He had a good time, too. He had nice colleagues and good qualified professors. With the exception of one who taught American foreign policy. The poor guy seemed to read a course in political blunders! In fact he was not bad either, but Jon did not like his explanation of how and why Roosevelt had been duped by Stalin at Yalta when referring to the partition of Europe and subsequent Russian occupation of Eastern Europe. « There was not much he could do, he was a sick man, » the professor explained. Oh, just forget it! Better think of microeconomics analysis and that damned mathematical approach to it! Nothing like that before! Jon remembered the lectures on political economics back home; hour after hour of talk and no math. And now, after so many years without math, algebra, geometry and the like, he had to work hard on his problems of calculus! Still, he enjoyed it. He was competing with colleagues ten years his juniors and he wasn’t doing bad at all!
Jon had a moment’s respite now. It was one of those gorgeous October days, a Saturday. Although a weekend day, he had been at the library all morning to read some books for his term paper. He had plenty of time to write it, but he did not like to wait until the last minute. He was watching the news on TV, sipping at a Bloody Mary. The sun was gradually losing its brightness and was about to set somewhere behind the Manhattan skyline. Except for the bellowing of some silly TV commercials, all was quiet on the western front. His landlord had left for Florida to visit his old, aging partner. They were in real estate, making a lot of money, too. Nobody else was in the house. From time to time he could hear the boiler starting downstairs. Although only two people lived in the house, they had hot water day and night. This, and the low rent, attracted Jon to that one room apartment. Otherwise it was rather inconvenient. The room, the kichinette, the shower and a very small bathroom were all in the back of a one-family house in one of those strange Queens neighborhoods — Rego Park — a combination of family houses, apartment houses, high rises, expressways, boulevards and small back streets, all together in one place. It reminded Jon very much of one neighborhood of the Capital back home, a neighborhood where he lived through his high school days. Even now, after so many years, he could smell the smoke of burnt chestnut leaves in autumn, a smoke mixed with crisp, seasonal fresh air. He loved the thousand hues the leaves were displaying everywhere. And he liked the trip out to Jones Beach on a highway cut through beautifully colored vegetation. There he used to listen to the hiss, like a siren’s song, of the ocean whispering to his ears about the Old World, so heavy with memories and legends. Those were, he often confessed, the most difficult moments of his life here, in the New World. He had to break away, to pull himself out of that spell, away from that sweet call to go back.
He had made up his mind though, this was his new home. The price of going back would have been too high. He would have had to drink the cup of hemlock for being so eager to look for virtues outside his own world! He was here to stay and here he was to make it!
from Bitter Be Thy Bread
(GP, New York, 1989)
The Romanian version:
ARUNCA PAINEA TA PE APE
Ion isi aminti cum se despartira, imediat dupa ce-si terminasera fripturile. Conversatia incepuse sa treneze. Nu prea mai aveau ce sa-si spuna. Jenny parea cu adevarat pierduta in lumea noua, total dezorientata si neajutorata, nu stia ce sa faca mai departe. Ca si el, nu stia cum sa se afirme. Era de acord cu ea: nu era vorba numai de a te afirma ori de a dovedi. Era pornitul, iarasi, de la capat, de la zero. Trebuia sa uiti cine ai fost si ce ai facut inainte, in tara. Acum trebuia sa te readaptezi, ca sa poti trai viata de aici, in noua tara. Pe de alta parte, nu puteai arunca la gunoi experienta de dincolo: nu se putea sa fie cu totul si cu totul nefolositoare ori rea. Auzeai de oameni care, odata ajunsi aici, in America, incercau sa-si uite patria, originea si chiar meseriile, si care se aruncau fara frica in aceasta amestecatura pestrita a tuturor neamurilor de pe glob. Dar si astea, nu erau decat un mit din trecut. Acum, gruparile etnice rezistau la integrarea in acest cazan de topit: voiau sa ramana ceea ce fusesera si inainte. Isi aveau scolile lor, bisericile lor, templele, sinagogile, casele de rugaciune, propriile lor parazi si festivaluri. Purtau insigne pe care sta scris mare, ca sa se vada: SLAVA DOMNULUI CA SUNT ARMEAN! ori SARUTA-MA CA SUNT POLONEZ! Strazi intregi aveau firme in ebraica sau in chineza, in timp ce la statiile de metrou anunturile erau in engleza si spaniola. De ce sa se lepede el, Ion, ori Jenny, de traditiile lor? Doar ca ai lor nu erau atat de numerosi ori tot atat de vizibili? Ori fiindca nu prea se ajutau intre ei? Daca nu se evidentiau ca grup, oameni ca el, ori ca Jenny, aveau multe de oferit tarii lor adoptive. Trebuiau deci sa lupte sa-si pastreze propriile aspiratii, ca sa-si recapete macar o parte din fostul lor statut. Ion tot spunea ca este o prostie sa renunti sa fii intelectual, doar fiindca intelectualii sunt dispretuiti in tara asta cu orientare mai pragmatica. Nu e nici o rusine in a fi intelectual, tot asa cum nu e nici o rusine printre cei de aici sa-si deschida o pravalie, ori sa se apuce de vreo afacere, ori sa lucreze de mici in magazine, prin restaurante, la statiile de benzina, la banca ori te miri unde. Modul cum muncesc americanii trebuie adoptat, nici nu mai incape discutie, mai ales daca vrei sa-ti castigi painea in America, dar asta nu inseamna ca trebuie sa renunti la propriile idealuri. Un fel de coexistenta pasnica trebuie stabilita intre atatea traditii. Desigur, erau si extremistii, care insistau ca, odata stabilit aici, trebuie sa renunti la limba materna, sa-ti uiti trecutul, sa-ti uiti prietenii, sa uiti totul si sa devii un american nou-nout. Ion nu avea nimic impotriva acestei teorii si poate ca americanii gandeau sincer ca asa ar fi mai bine, dar i se facea pur si simplu scarba cand auzea pe vreun renegat dezgustator ca-si uraste limba ori pamantul in care s-a nascut. Nu-i placeau nici falsii, care-ti repetau fara sa clipeasca, « Domnule, eu ma simt atat de liber aici, sunt total eliberat: asta-i adevarata democratie! ». Ion auzise ca unii dintre acesti indivizi fusesera mari activisti de partid, lucrasera pe la sindicate ori pe la ministere si directii care trezeau groaza si semanau moarte. Acestia erau sobolanii diasporei, tipi care-ti ocoleau privirea si se enervau cand ii intrebai cu ce se ocupasera in tara. Ion ii evita, ca sa nu piarda timpul ori sa-si strice buna dispozitie. Erau atat de multe lucruri frumoase si interesante in lumea noua: locuri, evenimente, incat, chiar daca ar fi vrut, nu ar fi avut timp sa le acorde cretinilor alora vreo atentie.
O vreme evita sa se adreseze doamnei aceleia, care se aseza langa el pe banca, in parculet. Obisnuia sa se duca acolo in pauza de pranz, sa citeasca ziarul sau sa se uite la trecatori. Ii placuse intotdeauna spectactolul strazii, sa urmareasca creaturile acelea omenesti misunand ici-colo, fiecare cu propriul lui circuit de trasee implantat in creier. Era curios sa stie ce i-ar fi putut trece prin cap unui anumit trecator. De ce era atat de preocupat? El, Ion, avea o groaza de motive sa fie preocupat, insa pe trecator ce-l obseda?
Doamna de langa el se uita de mai multe ori in directia lui. In cele din urma prinse curaj si-l intreba daca nu cumva a lucrat la Institut. In clipa aceea o recunoscu. Da, era chiar ea. Putin, foarte putin, schimbata, dar era ea.
La inceput Ion nu se arata prea vorbaret, insa ea parea foarte dornica sa schimbe o vorba cu un compatriot. Nu mai avea nimic din aerul acela care, acasa, in tara, te tinea la distanta. Si ea era in pauza. Lucra la un dentist care participa la un seminar in ziua aceea, asa ca putea sa stea mai mult afara. Ce bine! Ion putea sa-si ia pauze lungi oricand voia, dar nu profita. Incepura sa vorbeasca despre cunostinte comune, despre locuri pe care le frecventau si unul si altul. Si, cum parculetul se cam umpluse cu lume, pornira la plimbare, pe strada. Mersul le facu foame si incepura sa se uite dupa un bufet ori un loc unde sa bea o cafea.
Ion isi amintea lucrurile acestea de parca s-ar fi intamplat ieri. Trecura doua saptamani in care nu primi nici o veste de la ea. Apoi o uita. Avea mult de lucru la serviciu. Se apropia sfarsitul de luna si trebuia sa incheie editia. Facea un fel de munca editoriala la o publicatie din downtown, in districtul financiar, ajutand la corectura, la punerea in pagina, la publicare. Nu-l plateau cine stie ce, dar era destul de bine pentru programul lui redus. Era inscris la Universitatea Columbia si-i convenea job-ul, fiindca putea sa-si aranjeze programul de lucru dupa cum avea cursurile. Sesiunea de examene se apropia cu pasi repezi si voia sa recapituleze niste subiecte mai dificile. Altfel, il amuza nespus ca redevenise student. Faptul il amuza dar ii punea si ambitia la incercare. Se si distra, nu-i vorba. Avea colegi simpatici si profesori buni, toti cu palmares academic impresionant. Cu exceptia unuia, care preda un curs despre politica externa americana. Sarmanul profesor, parea ca tine un curs de gafe politice! De fapt, nici el nu era chiar rau, insa lui Ion nu-i placea de loc explicatia profesorului de cum si de ce fusese Roosevelt tras pe sfoara la Yalta de catre Stalin, asta apropo de impartirea Europei si ocuparea de catre rusi a Europei de Rasarit. « Nu putea face prea multe, era un om bolnav », explica profesorul. « Pe dracu’ bolnav! » se enerva Ion, promitandu-si sa nu se mai gandeasca la tampenia asta. Era mai castigat daca se ocupa de analiza microeconomica si blestemata aia de interpretare matematica. Nici nu suferea comparatie! Ion isi amintea de cursurile de economie politica din tara: ore in sir de prelegere si nici un pic de matematica. Si acum, dupa atatia ani fara probleme de algebra, de geometrie si alte asemenea, trebuia sa se chinuie cu problemele de calcul diferential. Ii placeau, insa. Se lua de fapt la intrecere cu colegii mai tineri cu zece ani decat el si nu se facea deloc de ras!
Dar acum Ion se putea relaxa. Era una din zilele acelea minunate de octombrie, intr-o sambata. Desi zi de weekend, fusese toata dimineata la biblioteca sa citeasca niste carti pentru lucrarea de semestru. Avea tot timpul sa o scrie, dar nu-i placea sa o lase pana in ultima clipa. Urmarea stirile la televizor, sorbind dintr-un Bloody Mary. Soarele isi pierdea treptat din intensitate si se pregatea sa apuna undeva in spatele zgarie-norilor din Manhattan. In afara de urletul strident al unor reclame comerciale, nimic nou pe frontul de vest. Proprietarul plecase in Florida sa-si viziteze partenerul, un batran avocat. Faceau afaceri impreuna: vanzari-cumparari de case si inchirieri de imobile si le mergea foarte bine. Erau plini de bani. In casa nu mai era nimeni altcineva. Din cand in cand auzea boilerul cum porneste, jos in subsol. Desi in casa locuiau doar doi oameni, aveau apa calda zi si noapte. Aceasta, ca si chiria rezonabila, il facuse pe Ion sa se mute in apartamentul acela mic. Daca se gandea mai bine, era incomod chiar. Camera, bucatarioara, dusul si o toaleta miniscula erau toate inghesuite in spatele unei casute pentru o familie intr-unul din cartierele acelea cu nume ciudat din Queens – unul din borough-urile New York-ului -, Rego Park, o combinatie de case familiale, blocuri, vile, autostrade, bulevarde si strazi, alei, toate de-a valma intr-un singur loc. Lui Ion ii aducea aminte de cartierul de la Sosea, de acasa, in care locuise pana in anii liceului. Chiar si acum, dupa atatia ani, simtea mirosul acela de fum de la frunzele de castan arse, amestecat cu aerul piscator al toamnei. In Rego Park, ii placeau miile de nuante ale frunzelor ce impodobeau cartierul. Ca si drumul spre plaja de la Jones Beach, la Atlantic, croit printre vegetatia frumos colorata a batranului Long Island. Acolo se ducea sa asculte la murmurul, ca un cant de sirene, al Oceanului, care ii soptea despre Batranul Continent atat de incarcat de aminitiri si povesti. Acele momente, marturisea Ion, erau cele mai greu de infruntat in viata lui aici, in Lumea Noua. Ii trebuia o putere supraomeneasca sa se smulga de acolo, cat mai departe de acea dulce imbiere de a se duce inapoi.
Se hotarase ca aici trebuia sa fie noua lui casa. Pretul intoarcerii ar fi fost mult prea mare: ar fi trebuit sa bea din cupa cu cucuta pentru ca a cautat virtuti in afara propriei lui lumi. Acum se afla aici, si aici avea sa o scoata la capat!
din romanul Arunca painea ta pe ape
(Editura Vestala, 1994)
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