Why would you go there? My Polish friends questioned my reasons for going to Bucharest, Romania as an exchange student. Why did you come here? I kept getting asked this, by people I met in Romania, throughout my stay. The truth was I didn’t know enough about the city to justify my decision to be there. And that’s exactly why I wanted to go in the first place—to fill in the blank.
In my head, I named this unanswered question “the Romanian Rebus.”
Why would anyone ask me these questions? I know why. I’d wondered why someone would choose to live in Poland from abroad, too. Romanians and Poles, we share similar post-Communist insecurities, as young European democracies, trying to “prove” ourselves in the eyes of international media all the time. In our books, the grass is still greener in the West.
I guess I just needed to be alone. So alone that a stream of words I didn’t understand could wash over me on the subway, without leaving the slightest clues about their meaning. Urmează stația—Piaţa Unirii.
So alone that I wouldn’t even plug in the fridge in my dorm room, and that I’d just fry a single egg on my countertop hot plate for lunch. So alone that when my mother skyped me, my voice would be coarse from not speaking for the past two days, when I had only used my hands to explain what I wanted to buy at the open-air food market. Ce vreți, domnişoara?
Tomatoes in red plastic bags, white telemea cheese in white ones, green grapes in green ones, black grapes in black ones—Romanian goods come packed in color-coordinated plastic bags. I took empty plastic water bottles to Dan, the wine seller from the food market. Waiting for him to emerge from the back of his shop, I pondered the hidden logic of his cluttered space, organized into odd collections—carved wooden spoons here, ceramic hens there, straw hats, moldy maps, old badminton rackets, all meticulously stacked together. “La revedere, goodbye, auf wiedersehen, au revoir, mademoiselle,” Dan would shout when I was leaving, overwhelmed.
When I finally reached the park and sat down to eat, the insides of the plastic bags were warm and moist from the fresh juicy vegetables and fruits inside, squeezed in the plastic for too long.
At the beginning of my stay, I was very anxious. I’d never been abroad for so long before. I couldn’t fit any art supplies in my luggage. And I got a cold as soon as I arrived.
To fight the anxiety, I decided to treat my time there as a project. Every walk was research, every piece of trash was collage material. By the end of my stay, I knew the topography of the labyrinthine city, the best secondhand bookstores, and the range of local pastries better than many of the Romanian friends I met at the university.
Sometimes my new friends and I tried to make plans, but they rarely worked out. The weather and moods shifted. Days were foggy and rainy. People were late without letting anyone else know. Life was slow. Bucharest felt like thick pudding that I was sleep-walking through. I often wondered whether I was asleep or awake.
We never went to the port town of Constanța after all, but I visited the Black Sea in my sleep.
Despite the hazy, drowsy atmosphere, it was one of the most productive periods of my life. For the first time, I had an atelier—a big, light, inviting studio where I worked alongside a bunch of like-minded artists who introduced me to contemporary Romanian art. Surrounded by strangers, I didn’t have to fill anyone’s expectations about my work anymore, and I learned to let go of the pressure to make “pretty” work. I brought back several sketchbooks full of weird souvenirs and nonsense scribbles, thick and heavy from all the paper scraps and wrinkled from the glue.
The atelier is where I met Flavia, a fellow obsessive sketchbook keeper and diary writer. Flavia relentlessly documents her inner landscapes and collects anything that’s paper, just like I do. Even though we were just getting to know each other, we discovered so many emotional and visual connections in our creative processes. We ended up exhibiting our countless sketchbooks together in a beautiful, big old house outside the city center that served as a studio space for a group of artists.
I also exchanged lots of letters and postcards with family and friends. I found it hard to verbalize my experience and homesickness without falling into clichés, so I tried to freeze-frame important moments in small abstract compositions—and then find out what my pen pals meant through the poems, drawings, collages, and trinkets they sent me.
When the first snow fell in early November, I thrifted a gigantic, black, fake-fur coat that became my hallmark. My friends joked and called me “Poloneză Rece,” which means Cold Pole, when I entered the atelier wrapped in my bear costume, nose red from the cold. I remember how it felt to walk in my coat through ice-encased Piaţa Victoriei under the full moon. This is the kind of feeling I would later turn into a postcard.
Bucharest is known for its cheap taxis and their reckless, chatty drivers. Their carelessness was so contagious that I would often dare to hold a conversation in Romanian. I made them laugh with my accent and made-up expressions as we raced through the city. I laughed with them, trying to cover up my fear of their speeding, which only made them laugh harder.
During my last week in Romania, I took down a big collage installation of hand-me-down and found paper that I’d been arranging all semester on a wall in the university’s graphic arts department. I cut it into smaller, regular pieces, and sent those fossils of my stay in Bucharest (a fossil itself, with glimpses and crumbs of its previous layers peeking through renovated façades, and looming on its outskirts) into the four winds.
Shortly before I arrived in Bucharest, I had a dream that my flight was canceled, and that I had to go to Romania by taxi. I changed taxis at every border between Poland and Romania, always having trouble fitting my gigantic suitcase in the cars, sweating in a big fur, annoyed by the inconvenience but excited at the same time. The weird accuracy of this dream haunts me.
I keep coming back to my sketchbooks, hoping I will make sense of that dream, of it all. I still don’t know why I went there. ♦