America’s Transylvania

/ June 19, 2018

I was born in Cluj, Transylvania. In my early years, I believed that the edge of the world was where my street ended. Later on, I discovered that the world is just a wee bit bigger than I had envisioned, so I started leaping over borders like a grasshopper.

But the day I realized that there’s another Transylvania on this earth, I lost my sense of peace. So I decided to go look its people straight in the eyes.

Transylvania, North Carolina (population 33,211)

I collected photos of these Transylvanian Americans as if I were making a family collage. I gathered images of all sorts of people, from students, hairdressers, and skaters to newspaper directors, local council members, funeral home owners, waitresses, secretaries, painters and electricians who had just climbed down from an electrical pole.

Some of them invited me into their homes, others I simply approached and stopped in the middle of the street. It’s not easy for an American to be serious, to stare straight into the camera and refrain from allowing a smile to escape their spirit.

What does the Other Transylvania look like?

This place can be described like a poem or the noble beginning of a short story in prose. It resembles a forest glade, a labyrinth or a footpath. It’s neither big, nor overwhelming, it’s actually quite intimate and friendly.

You look through your windshield and see a hill here, a valley there and forest everywhere. It’s home to white squirrels, the symbol of the land. Nature is its most valuable resource and nature tourism — hiking, mountain biking, and rafting — are responsible for most of the economy.

Everywhere you go, you see houses hidden among trees and nestled between alleys, small white churches on top of hills, and in the market, quiet people who tread carefully, as if the streets were paved with the large, white eggs of an endangered bird species.

Looking in from the outside, it seems as if there’s nothing happening here, but if you come a little closer, you get the sense that everything’s happening here. Because people live here, in the Other Transylvania, and their stories live alongside of them.

Here are five overlapping fates that I elucidated during my peregrinations on a late autumn day.

The Architect

Constantin (Mike) Micuda, now 90 years old, was originally from Braşov. His life is fit for a Hollywood movie. It has everything — harrowing escapes, romantic escapades, surprising turns, good fortune and above everything else, the fulfillment of the American dream.

I was enchanted by this man from the first moment I laid eyes on him at a dinner party. Dressed in a light gray suit, he was sitting on the couch with his legs crossed and a glass of Chardonnay in his hand. He was enthusiastically recounting the story of his father’s adventures in Siberia after the Great War.

Beyond his fragile body, you could easily catch a glimpse of the charming, worldly man he had been some years back. He retained a noble air about him and the triumphant ease with which he engaged in the discourse, sprinkled with little flashbacks from his youth, was apparent.

An architect by trade, Mr. Micuda was a project director of one of the most revolutionary architectural feats of the 1970s: the famous Pontiac Silverdome Stadium in Detroit. Under his retractable dome (a world premiere), the Pope held a mass for a record audience of over 93,000 people. The Silverdome also hosted Led Zeppelin, the Detroit Lions football team as well as the 1982 Super Bowl.

If I ever make it to 90, I’d also like to have at least 1 percent of Mr. Micuda’s charm.

“You caught on that my name isn’t really Mike. My name is Constantin. But for Americans, who simplify everything, Mike is easier.

I have no idea where my surname originated but I did read that there was an aristocrat of high ranking from Severin by the name of Micud. My father, Vasile, was first a school supervisor, then a photographer and judge. He was an energetic and interesting man, a true role model to me.

When I was little, I enjoyed reading and when I was about 6, I saw ‘Architectura Mater Artium’ on a secession building in Braşov.

My father translated the Latin quotation and that’s when I learned that architecture is the mother of all arts. The idea of becoming an architect when I was older got stuck in my head even though I had no idea what it meant.

Before the war, I went to study in Berlin with three of my friends. When Romania switched sides, we went from being allies to prisoners. But even so, with the short supply of men during that time, the German women loved us unconditionally. What times!

After being in a concentration camp for prisoners of war in Vienna, I went to Rome in 1945. There, together with a group of students, we requested an audience with the Pope. I desperately needed help to finance my studies and I received it.

We spent some time in an abbey which we would often escape from. Besides having a vibrant nightlife, Rome was a feast for a young man like myself who was visually hungry. I was very influenced by classical architecture, Bernini’s sculptures and the balance between space and objects.

A priest once asked me if I wanted to move to America. I suddenly remembered a Romanian expression that I hadn’t used in many years: ‘Horse, would you like oats?’.

So I found myself in New York with 8 dollars in my pocket, fluent in German, Italian and French but without knowing a single drop of English. I had one driving principle which I lived by, and it worked: if you’re very good at what you do, you will eventually succeed. And so it was.

I worked with the biggest architectural firms and I gradually made my way to the highest level. Then I climbed down and put my feet back on the ground.

One day, out of nowhere, I was overcome by a crazy nostalgia for Romania. At the beginning of the 1980s, I went back to Romania unannounced. When I entered the barn, my mother dropped her basket of apples on the ground.

Years later, when I was thinking about my retirement, I was driving with my wife on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, when I saw a sign that said ‘Welcome to Transylvania County.’ I smiled because I immediately knew that this was where I’d be spending the rest of my life. ‘Look, Margie, they’re calling us home. Let’s move there.’

I like it here, it kind of reminds me of Braşov. To help me feel a little closer to home, I commissioned some students who are studying sculpture in Brevard to make a replica of Constantin Brancuşi’s Endless Column ensemble.

Ha ha, even though mine is endless, it’s small, standing only at 3 meters rather than 30. It’s in the garden, let me show you.”

The Mayor

Jimmy Harris is 49 years old, owner of Harris Hardware and mayor of Brevard, the largest town in Transylvania County. Jimmy has been Mayor since 1999, elected in 8 consecutive elections. He has run unopposed in 7 of his 8 elections.

Jimmy reminds me a little of JFK. Jimmy’s strides are a little longer than usual, his tone is slightly louder than the norm and his level of cheerfulness is unusual even for those whose joviality runs deep in their bones. Everywhere he goes, he shakes hands, offers smiles, and makes conversation. He knows everything about everyone. 

If you want to understand Jimmy, you have to see him work the aisles of his store. With his hair combed back and coffee mug in one hand, Jimmy gesticulates with big motions, pointing towards nails, playing with lanterns, all the while laughing contagiously and chatting with his employees, like Bob, for instance.

Wearing a checkered shirt, sporting a ZZ Top beard, and tape measure suspenders, Bob looks like he walked straight out of a fairy-tale, the fairy-tale being Harris Hardware. It’s a traditional kind of store where if you look closely and examine the nails hammered into the wall, you’ll realize that at one point, they were used to measure rope and chains.

During the local council meetings, Jimmy sits in the middle of the table. The man knows his place. Brevard without Jimmy would be like a town without its main street.

“The number one advantage of having been the mayor of Brevard is that I know where to get the best coffee in town. In winter, there are about 7,000 people here but during the summer the number doubles. Many of them have summer homes and there are a lot of tourists. So it’s not too hard to know everything. So then, let’s go grab a coffee.

Do you see these sculptures? A while back, we decided to encourage local artists so we commissioned them to make the sculptures and we placed them around town. If you don’t make something out of a small town, they can become really sad places.

In the summers, tourists walk around with a brochure in hand and look for the sculptures for the purpose of checking all of them off their list: a squirrel made out of white marble here, a scattering of butterflies made out of sheet metal on a wall, a bronze raven in a green space, an elk in an intersection…

The hardware store? It’s a family-owned store, a tradition. My father is over 80 years old and this store is still his life. My store has everything. Our best-selling item this month has been a telescopic back-scratcher. It has a little hand and a telescopic radio antenna like the ones on cars. If you pull it, it gets longer. You can scratch your back while looking out the window with half-opened eyes and think about how good life is.

Harris Ace Hardware is both a store and a confessional. People come to tell me their problems, to divulge their secrets just like to a priest. It’s a pilgrimage spot.

I enjoy listening to the people. I think I would die in a big city. Milk or sugar in your coffee?”

The Professor

Tom Bertrand was the president of Brevard College. Now, at 66 years of age, he has a private-practice office specializing in immigration. He lives in a forest, surrounded by many birds.

Tom is of French origin and doesn’t seem to belong anywhere, no matter where he goes. He gives the impression that he’s somber, with a pair of glasses usually on his nose, but in fact, his mind dances on an invisible thread. And his heart — it shelters the ineffable soul of a poet.

Depending on the context, Tom is either the main character descended from a Prussian novel or a night butterfly settling in for the evening on a balcony railing.

He reads a lot but he often pretends he doesn’t know anything. If you can pierce through the shell, you’ll uncover that he marched from Selma to Montgomery alongside of Martin Luther King Jr. and spent two months in the home of Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. He may even tell you how he became one of the advisors to the Shevardnadze family when he was a professor at a university in the Republic of Georgia.

“I was six years old when my father took me by the hand and introduced me to Martin Luther King Jr. I had the impression that he was a huge, important guy, kind of like a friendly giant.

He stooped down and looked me right in the eyes, as if he were looking at an adult, and told me something I’ll never forget: ‘Son, always try to make a difference’.

But it is not enough to hear an important person to tell you something significant. What matters is convincing yourself of it.

Hey, Bruce, how’s it going? This is a friend of mine from Transylvania, Romania who I’d like you to meet. Bruce was a Navy Seal and a successful banker from New York. Now, he’s retired in this little corner of the county where he’s trying to quietly change the world. When he takes a break from making a difference, he’s a long-distance swimmer even though our community pool is only 25 meters long.

You know, this morning I made a secret food mix for the birds using all sorts of flour, olive oil and peanut butter. Sometimes, I sit for an hour at a time and watch how they come and eat. Birds, especially the small ones, are good to look at when you’re alone. They have a fascinating dynamism.

And you know, I’d also like you to meet Carmen Kelling and her family tomorrow. She and her husband, who is an American, are both doctors here in town. She’s from Romania. I provided legal advice for her mother when she was applying for citizenship.

Oh, and before I forget, there’s a traditional music jam session tomorrow with banjos, violins, Irish inflections and stories at the instrument store called Celestial Mountain. Oh, I was just about to forget, there’s also…”

The Sculptor

You can’t just bump into Aaron Alderman. You have to look for him. It’s not easy because he doesn’t have a cell phone. If you try emailing him, he probably won’t respond.

He lives in the forest outside of town, close to a lake. There, near to the modest little house where he rests, he has a workshop where you can find almost anything, including a kayak on the wall.

Aaron, 39 years old, is a man of few words. His hands do the talking. He puts on his welding mask then puts it down, puts on another mask, grabs the flex, cuts, puts it down, picks up a hammer, then lays it on the table, puts on his glasses, takes them off, looks at the sketch and then back at his work.

He’s tall, athletic, and mysterious with a piercing gaze. He narrowly resembles the leafy forest that surrounds him. Sometimes, while wearing the different masks, he’s either Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker, but never Yoda. Even though he very well could be — he lives like a wise monk on a planet of his own.

Come to think of it, I believe Aaron is the Little Prince. One day, you might even find him building a giant flower out of steel. Or maybe even a fox. 

“I can’t imagine doing anything else. I studied sculpture here in Brevard, I’m passionate about what I build with my hands and I have sold my work in many places.

I like the quiet here, but I like to break through it once in a while with the sound of the flex, of the hammer meeting metal. It’s kind of like an aggressive dance that suddenly brings you into a trance.

I like drawing, look here. Yesterday, I watched some cows in a field, I took pictures of them with a compact camera, and then I started sketching. If you don’t know how to draw an anatomically correct hand or torso using a pencil, your chances of creating a large object out of steel are slim to none.

The work may seem mechanical and somewhat brutal, but in my mind, there are bones, muscles and joints; a living body that moves somewhere in space and time.

They key question is: How do you generate meaning by bending, welding, grinding thin metal bars? Where do sheer force and emotion intersect? Where does the marriage of these ideas and their resulting forms take place?

How do you become relevant in what you do without falling into something too abstract or elitist? These issues preoccupy me. I have plenty of time to think about them.”

The Musician

George Andrews doesn’t live in a normal home, but rather in a kind of experimental laboratory where he is both the mad scientist and the guinea pig. He belongs to the rare species of man-child, those who on the journey of life, have not lost the joy of play and improvisation.

His house is isolated on a forest plateau. To get there, you either have to climb up a huge set of stairs, like on Christian Orthodox pilgrimage, or take the elevator — a kind of electrical popemobile that brings you straight to the terrace. 

Behind the house, there’s space that’s like a stage. Apparently, it’s frequented by foxes, opossums, squirrels, wolves and bears. Seated on a huge hammock, George plays the guitar for all of them. On a pedestal is a bronze raven, his favorite bird as well as the logo of his recording studio: Raven Studio.

When he’s not on tour, he builds things with his bare hands, be it lamps out of old wine bottles, copper torches, or small vases for tiny flowers. In the midst of this perfectly balanced universe, George fills the wine glasses, slices homemade mixed seed bread into large cubes and pours Kalamata olive oil with rosemary into small dishes.

It’s pouring outside. The mist rises and gradually swallows up the forest. Small birds peep inside through the glass windows. The light dims. And all of a sudden, everything is exactly as it should be.

“For a boy, 12 years of age is an in-between age. He’s not small but he’s also not big. If he’s mentally ready and has his hands wide open, he might receive the most precious of gifts. That’s when I got a guitar. I was damn lucky.

After a week, I knew that there was nothing else I’d rather do in this life. I believe that I’m a blessed man. I’m going to play Chopin Prelude Op. 28 No. 7 in A major now.

More recently, I’ve gotten to enjoy staying in one place and cultivating simple joys. I befriended nature, birds and silence. I have a new perspective on things.

I was never passionate about extreme sports but now I’ve discovered zip-lining and I’m addicted to it. It’s unbelievable how much I like it.

My son thinks I’ve gone a little mad. Sometimes, we go together: I was secretly hoping that they would give me one free ride after I paid for ten, but no. Here, let me play something else for you: Andante in D Major by Julio Sagreras. This piece really goes well with the sound of the rain, doesn’t it?

As I was saying, now, at 80 years old, I understand things differently. I realized that I prefer the silence between notes more so than the music itself. The empty space, the interlude between the notes, is the one that fills you with meaning.

I have this maniacal preoccupation with creating this void as accurately as possible, so as to honor each and every single sound. I know, it’s complicated, but I find it so beautiful.

I’ll play you something more cheerful now: Torna a Surriento, a popular Italian song that is well-suited for this wine. Cheers!”