Stories of ordinary people confronting everyday hardships, stories of successful people, the happy holidays of a family whose father works in a different town, life in a hospital ward... A delightful combination of autobiography and fiction, Ioana Cretoiu’s prose provides a kaleidoscopic image of a Romania familiar to many of today’s readers. Oscillating between tenderness, irony and sadness, memories of childhood at the beginning of the communist regime are juxtaposed with stories of ingenious adaptation to the food shortages and absurdity of life under Ceausescu, as well as the depopulation of the villages, students going to study abroad, and the loss of moral reference points.
Every Thursday afternoon at six on the dot, the Floricels rang the doorbell. I can’t remember who opened the front door. We children would be hiding behind half open doors, watching as they solemnly climbed the stairs. First we saw the triumphant expressions on their faces, then their young bodies, dressed in overcoats, and finally the bath towels draped ostentatiously over their shoulders. The Floricels were a couple who had recently been allocated the house’s study as their living space, the office where the former owner used to receive his clients. The living space allocated to them had a separate entrance from the street, its own vestibule, sink and toilet, but to take a bath they had to use the washroom in the semi basement. After repeated demands and written notices, the Floricels had gained the right to use the bathroom shared by the three families who lived in the rest of the house, even if it meant they had to go outside into the street, enter our yard and ring the doorbell. “Is it their turn ?” asked our parents. “It’s their turn !” said our parents, but we had no ears for what they were saying, since for us Thursday was one of the most interesting days of the week.
That day, after the afternoon nap, a terrible hubbub began, in which we enthusiastically participated. From the bathroom we removed all sixteen toothbrushes, as many toothbrush cups, towels large and small, all the soap dishes, the razors, the shaving brushes, an abandoned pair of false teeth, the wooden grate by the bathtub, and we even emptied the dirty laundry basket. We left nothing but the rag for mopping the floor and a wad of squares cut out of the newspaper and tied up with string, as rolls of toilet paper were a thing that we children were to discover only much later. When we could hear an echo in the bathroom, we knew that there was nothing else to be taken away. The adults were going about their own business, but we children were already organising the watch, under the command of the oldest among us, who could not have been more than eight or nine years old. We agreed on the hiding places and—the most important thing of all—we drew straws to decide who was going to look through the hole we had secretly made in the door. Obviously, the girls never had such luck !
After the Floricels closed the door and we heard the bolt being drawn, we regrouped on tiptoes, sitting on the steps leading up to the mansard. The lucky lad who had drawn the longest straw pressed his eye to the secret hole. We others fidgeted impatiently and we didn’t settle down until he started mimicking everything he had the privilege of seeing. Our patience was rewarded : he mimicked how the two undressed, how Floricica took off her bra and her huge breasts flopped down, how she released her broad white bottom from her underpants, how she tied her ginger hair in a bun on top of her head... we also divined that Floricel had a great big cockerel, with which he chased her around the bathroom. We heard the tap running and two prodigious plops informed us that the Floricels had seated themselves in the tub. The interpreter’s performance took on new meanings : to our amusement he rubbed himself all over his body, including the most out of the way places, he smiled, rolled his eyes, started to tremble and jerk in a way we had never seen before. We were completely silent, in a trance. We discovered that Floricica washed her hair while Floricel had a piddle, after which Floricica climbed out of the tub, but then Floricel jumped back in the water to wash his cockerel. Then they kissed, pulled the plug out of the bathtub, rubbing themselves with towels as the water drained away, they quickly rinsed themselves with the shower, got dressed, put on their overcoats, and then, as our interpreter mimed how Floricica wrapped her wet hair in a towel, we quickly hid, without seeing how they left the bathroom, as red as lobsters, how they descended the stairs and went out into the night, slamming the door behind them.
That was the first part of the performance. During the second part, we rushed like hunting dogs into the steamy bathroom, where the water was streaming down the wall tiles, and we tried to find traces of the events we had witnessed through our interpreter. We smelled the effluvia of unfamiliar rose scented soap, and the littlest children were even sent to sniff the toilet bowl, in search of eventual odours emanated by the Floricels. The sole eyewitness was interrogated in detail, made to recount in words everything he had seen, so that we could better understand the events we had not witnessed. The littlest ones kept asking why Floricel had been trembling like that, worried in case he had whooping cough. The bigger lads laughed and whispered among themselves, chasing the smaller kids away, and not even the little ones’ threat to tell their parents everything ever made the older ones divulge the secret. Our party was interrupted by the summons to supper, but we extended our meeting for a little longer under the pretext that we had to take our personal effects back to the bathroom. Finally, one of our mothers came to fetch us for supper and to open the window. The ritual lasted a few months, until one Thursday, when nobody rang the doorbell, not even after six o’clock. We waited with bated breath until the following Thursday, but the Floricels never came to take a bath again. I later found out that Floricica had fallen seriously ill as a result of taking hot baths and then going outside into the winter cold with wet hair. We felt very sorry. In spring, the Floricels were assigned to another house and we never saw them again.
I hadn’t seen him for years. I had heard that he had left the country and that’s why, when I saw my erstwhile schoolmate in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel talking to the prime minister, I was surprised. I was hurrying to the conference room where a debate was about to be held on a controversial collection of political essays by young PhD students— lads with a future, without a doubt.
“Fancy bumping into you here ! I didn’t know you were interested in politics,” I said to him when we met during the break, in the queue for the buffet laden with various culinary delicacies. “Have you been following the interesting discussions this book has prompted ? I noticed you wanted to say something, but they didn’t give you the floor. That’s what happens : after a while, people lose patience and all they can think about are the goodies waiting for them during the break.”
“I wanted to ask a question on behalf of my paper’s readers, but I still managed to form a viewpoint, and so—”
“I’m curious : what have you been doing these last twenty years ?”
“I’ve been doing a lot of travelling. I’ve worked in Europe, Asia—”
“That means you must be prepared for the changes that have been taking place around here. I envy you.”
“Well, you can never be sure,” he replied modestly.
“Do you know the prime minister ? I saw you talking to him,” I said, with a certain amount of envy.
“Know him ? I just met him at the cigarette stand in the lobby and started talking to him. When I saw he couldn’t decide between two brands of cigar, I recommended the Cubans, which are rolled on the thighs of women workers,” he replied, giving me a complicit wink.
Unfortunately, when we reached the front of the buffet queue, our conversation was cut short, and we were separated because of the people pushing us from behind.
A few weeks later, I gave a talk at an international conference and during the break I bumped into another erstwhile schoolmate, in front of another besieged buffet. He said : “A few days ago, at the French film gala, I bumped into our friend from school, the first one in our class to go abroad. I forget his name, but I think you’ll remember him. He was the chubby, talkative one.”
“What a coincidence ! I bumped into him too,” I replied, intrigued.
“I was amazed at the life he’s led—”
“I understand that he was highly prepared for the changes that have been taking place around here,” I interrupted, rather impolitely.
“That’s one way of putting it. True, essentially all the professions have remained the same and the change was more formal than anything else, but even so—”
I didn’t manage to hear the end of the sentence, because we reached the front of the buffet queue and our conversation was cut short, and we were separated because of the people pushing us from behind.
On the first of December, after I went with my boss to lay a floral wreath, I decided to walk home. In a small square, cooks wearing army uniforms were dishing out beans and sausages from huge pots on wheels. Since it was lunchtime, I said to myself that a serving of the national dish on the national day would not go amiss. There was quite a big crowd and I was about to give up, when somebody caught me by the arm and I heard a familiar voice say : “Follow me. The beans are well cooked. I’m on my second portion.”
It was my erstwhile schoolmate again. After receiving a huge ladle of beans, which contained two or three chunks of sausage, we sat down on a bench to eat in peace.
“You turn up everywhere. If I’m not being too indiscreet, what is it that you do ?” I asked, after swallowing the last of my beans.
He obligingly replied : “The pejorative term is a moocher, but that’s not accurate. In fact I’m a hunter of free meal opportunities. Hunting is the oldest and most difficult occupation, which in ancient times provided the food necessary for mankind to develop. You needed a rock, a club, a spear, physical strength and courage to kill a wild animal. Since then, everything has changed. I don’t hunt bears, but rather the opportunity to eat. You see the difference ? Believe me, it’s a profession : you have to be pleasant, you have to be able to converse in foreign languages, you have to wear the right clothes, so that the doormen won’t chuck you out... I’m not boasting, but I’m one of the capital’s top moochers, sorry, I meant opportunity hunters.”
To me that seemed an interesting viewpoint. I realised that my erstwhile schoolmate was up to date on the latest research in cultural anthropology. He told me about how the week before he had attended the international postmen’s congress, where he had had the opportunity to sample all the traditional dishes brought by the delegates. He was able to make use of the three languages he spoke fluently, and even his smattering of Hindi : Namaste ! (Greetings to you !)
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
“Lately, who knows why or how, the literary debuts that have come into my hands have all been very good. Such is the case here too. Ioana Cretoiu brings together twenty one stories in her collection Difficult Choices, stories that cover a broad span of time (roughly half a century of Romanian history), of different calibres, all seductive. The author’s decoupages are almost flawless, you can sense she has control over her prose and that she writes about realities with which she is closely acquainted. The pleasure she takes in storytelling is obvious on every single page. Read one after another, the stories in Difficult Choices are a narrative success and provide captivating reading matter.”
“Ioana Cretoiu’s style is direct, simple, without flourishes. In this collection she alternates longer and shorter stories, perhaps to give the reader a breather between two large scale prose pieces, and some of the texts stand up to a second reading. Her prose pieces are enticing, they are page turners, they tempt you to continue reading and to discover yet more characters, happenings, places. I hope that Mrs Cretoiu continues to write and publish because the way she views the world and particularly the way she describes it in writing is invigorating and touched with melancholy.”