ONE SIMPLE ERRAND a spontaneous beer run in the boondocks turned into one of the most poignant moments of my life.
For a few days around New Years, I stayed in an itty-bitty Romanian village, an ethnic Hungarian one at that, tucked away in Transylvania, literally and figuratively many miles away from civilization and the cover-charged, champagne-packaged revelry usually associated with ushering in another year.
Miclosoara, population 500, has no running water, only one paved street, electricity but no gas lines, and is heated only by wood the burning smell of which fills the country air. Chickens, horses and other animals seem to outnumber its poor residents, who speak Hungarian first, Romanian second. Despite their Romanian citizenship and great distance from the Hungarian border most have never been to Hungary they proudly proclaim their Magyar heritage. This remnant of history, and longtime source of nationalistic rivalry and conflict, is part of what makes the Transylvania region so interesting.
My girlfriend and I were staying at the rustic but charming inn in town, and we met a British guy also named Andy and doing humanitarian work in Romania and his visiting girlfriend. The inn had no beer, so Andy and I headed to the towns lone market only to find it closed. So we tried one of the three yes, three tiny watering holes in the village. Using a flashlight to navigate the dark streets, sliding through an icy, muddy mix, we found a log cabin-like pub about the size of an American living room. The patrons were all men, peasants wearing soiled rubber boots and the evidence of a long days work. We received odd stares when we entered, our only goal to buy some beers to take back to the inn.
As we started to leave the smoky den, one of the men spoke to us in Hungarian. I replied that I dont understand, but I speak some Romanian. The guy looked shocked and they all start to tell us to stay and drink with them. Whats the big hurry? Tomorrow night is New Years Eve. Sit down and relax.
We said, sure, well stay for one, but after that, we should rejoin our girlfriends back at the inn. Within a few minutes, the outspoken one, Gheorghe, or Gyuri in Magyar, and his cohorts were surrounding our table, grilling us with questions and ordering up shots of palinca, a fruit brandy that could strip paint off a wall. They were fascinated by the presence of an American and a Brit in their isolated village. Since Andy had been in Romania only a few weeks, I served as a so-so interpreter. Gheorghe had leathered hands and a face revealing some tough years. He told us that he is the village blacksmith. I didnt know that word in Romanian, but understood once he explained, charades-like, how he makes shoes for horses. We all laughed over this. He also delighted in telling me that he shares a name with the President of the United States. Next time I come to Miclosoara (or Miklosvar in Magyar), he said, I should stay with his family and save my money.
After another round or two, more laughs and some confusing conversations, Gheorghe turned more serious. He said that his brother left for America several years ago but had since died, leaving a wife and two children, who would be in their teens now. They were near Phoenix, Arizona, but he had lost touch. The kids only speak English.
Could you write a letter to them for me?
We agreed that Id visit his home the next day. He gave me a double-cheek kiss, a sign of affection that doesnt normally occur until much later in a friendship, and off we went back to the inn. Andy and I endured some teasing from our girlfriends and the innkeeper, whod already heard we were the hit of the pub. The entire village was talking about us. Everybody at dinner enjoyed our story, especially about the letter I promised to write.
The next morning, I found the wooden gate, on the left just beyond the creek, as I was instructed. Peering in, I saw Gheorghe and his father working in the dirt courtyard filled with chickens and junk. The surprised yet happy look on his face was priceless. I could tell he thought I wasnt really going to show up. He quickly invited me inside the house.
I have never been in a simpler, poorer home. It was just a couple of small but well-heated rooms, the wood burning smell almost overpowering. His wife, traditionally dressed with a scarf on her head, fixed a coffee for me, using well water from a bucket, and heated it on an ancient stove. The grandmother, or bunica in Romanian, was ill and covered-up on a sofa in this kitchen-living-dining room. We again spoke only Romanian though Gheorghes wife understood little. She looked down at my leather hiking boots though they were scuffed and dirty, having survived Outward Bound in Arizona and New Mexico and propelled me on hikes from the Smokies to New England, they were probably nicer than any shoes theyd ever owned.
Gheorghe pulled out a dusty envelope, though it was missing the letter the last correspondence from his nephew and niece in Arizona. The handwriting was a kids and I noticed the address, an apartment in Tempe, but my heart sank when I saw the postmark was 1995. I thought to myself, theyll probably never get this. Gheorghe didnt have the kids phone number, or I would have somebody back home make the call.
The family wasnt even sure what to say, but I jump-started them with questions on how things were, that they wanted to hear from the kids, please write, maybe they could visit someday. I began to scribble it in English, using a pencil and yellowing paper they gave me. Hello, I am an American, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania, and I met your Uncle Gheorghe . . .
I asked Gheorghe for his phone number for the letter, not sure they even had one. They did, but when I wanted the area code, Gheorghe reached for a small phone book and searched throughout. Im not even sure he could read, but I found the code on the cover. I also thought if the kids are Americans, they probably use computers and have email. I figured it was a long shot, but began to explain about computers and that I could . . . just blank stares.
I then took out my digital camera and took a few shots. I felt sheepish about displaying such an expensive item, but they marveled at seeing their photos instantly. I promised to send the photos to America, with the letter. When I said goodbye, the bunica extended her cold hand, tightly gripped mine, and pulled me down for a hug. Her eyes were welling with tears. She thanked me and wished me a healthy life. I promised to send the letter.
As I walked through the village, I was in my own zone, let alone the time warp that surrounded me. What I had just seen, just experienced, was unforgettable. A few villagers stared at me, probably thinking, What is this guy doing here? I sloshed through the muddy streets, dodging mangy stray dogs and horse-drawn carts trotting through the village, contemplating the letter to America. This, I thought, was a Peace Corps moment.
When I arrived back in Timisoara, I searched the Internet for the lost family, but had no success. Then I had the photos printed and air mailed them with the letter, all the way to Tempe, Arizona. I put Gheorghes return address on the envelope, in case the kids had moved, maybe the U.S. Postal Service would be kind enough to send it back at least he would know I tried. I put my address and email in the letter. I also sent a note and the same photos back to the family in Miclosoara. Then I waited. And hoped.
Ive since called Gheorghe. He received my letter, but hes still waiting for a reply from the kids. I hope one of us hears something, someday.