My buzzing phone interrupts my thoughts. It’s George Lulelaru. He always has something to ask, something to say. He has the energy of a nuclear plant. This morning, he wants to have a coffee.
“But it’s seven o’clock in the morning, man!”
“So what?” George replies.
It takes me half an hour to make my way to Rue Hortense. George and his wife Didina have a strong coffee ready for me, a welcome break from the weak, brown broth served in Canada. Good country, bad coffee.
My first thought of the morning continues to lurk. It makes me look differently at George, who I’ve known for a month. I suddenly feel intrigued about his decision to stay in Canada.
He shared a lot during the week we had spent fishing at Lake Baskatong.
He lives in Laval, a city with a population of half a million, adjacent to Montreal. George is one of the many Romanians in Laval whose Canadian dream has become a reality. He introduces himself as the oldest real estate agent in Laval. He tells everyone that his career is the most beautiful in the world:
“What more could I ask for? I wander through the streets and make money.”
He came to Canada in 1985. Why did he leave Romania? Why did he choose to stay here in Canada? And why has he only returned to Romania once in 32 years? He had a good life in Romania. He was a technician at IIRUC and was repairing everything from calculators to small electronics, which were then making their first appearance in accounting firms.
His wife, Didina, had an even better position. She worked at “Vanatorul”, the celebrated store in Piata Romana, where the Securitate, the militia and big players in the communist system would stock up on their luxury goods. This meant George and Didina always had food on their table during a time when most people stood in line to get bag full of chicken claws.
George Lulelaru was a part of this social milieu. He had his own table at Athénée Palace, his own table at the COS (House for Scientists), a new Dacia car, a color TV and a VCR. Yet something was weighing on him, suffocating him.
“It wasn’t enough that I was living well. I saw the pain and misery of those around me. This had an impact on the quality of my life. You want those around you to have a sound existence! You don’t want to see them crying, starving and freezing all the time. I wanted to enjoy my life among happy people. All my privileges made me feel guilty!”
He was 30 years old when he escaped from Romania in 1985. Using the wild boar salami from Didina’s store as a bribe, he was able get permission to take his wife to Yugoslavia on vacation. They left their eight-year-old daughter with her grandparents.
“Didina really believed that we were going on vacation. When we arrived in the former Yugoslavia, I told her that we wouldn’t be returning to Romania. She immediately protested because we had left our child behind.”
WHAT CONVINCED HER?
“You’re going to laugh. For days on end I nagged her about leaving Romania, but she wouldn’t budge. Then one evening, we saw a Formula 1 race on TV. She loved it! And she was convinced!”
On February 20, 1986, George and Didina arrived at the Montreal Airport in -26 degree weather. The immigration officials were waiting for them with down jackets, hats and boots.
“The jackets they gave us were made in Romania. I can’t explain how I felt when I saw the tags on those jackets. They didn’t give them to us because we were Romanian. These were the jackets they were giving landed immigrants at that time. Didina still has her jacket.”
George becomes emotional when he remembers Didina’s “Made in Romania” jacket. Otherwise, if you ask him about Romania, he will say that he doesn’t miss it. His life is in Canada. He only went back to the old country once in 1991.
“And I won’t be going back. My son, who was born here, has never gone to Romania. I’ve discouraged him from doing so because it doesn’t help him with anything. He was born here, was raised here and will continue to live here. On a practical level, there’s no benefit in visiting Romania. Canada is the country that welcomed us with open arms after arriving from a country that pushed us away. Canada is the best country in the world.”
After our coffee, George and I climb into his tractor- size SUV. He wants to show me the cemetery.
The tombstone of Paraschiva Ghem, George’s mother, is right at the entrance. George kneels on the ground and piously rearranges the tombstone flowers that have been knocked over by the wind. There are no crosses, just simple tombstones, upright and cold, with the names of the deceased engraved on them. They are aligned in perfect order.
And among all these tombstones, that are colder than death in their mineral numbness, a cross rises up. It resembles the ones I’d see in our cemeteries in Romania. I move in closer.
A Romanian rests there. Vasile Hulban. And a little further, under another cross, rests Ioan Constantinescu. George begins to points to various crosses and tombstones.
“Look at the Romanians here. Zorila. Alexandru. Sinu. Popescu. Avram. Iorgu. Remember what I told you? This is my village!” yells George, as his eyes well up with tears. His lips tremble but he hides his emotion by pretending to fix his sunglasses.
“I have met people who told me that they’ve eaten this cheese in France, this exact one. But this is pure Romanian.”
Continuing on with the theme of death, I unexpectedly find myself at a wake for a Romanian musician from Montreal that same afternoon. Ion Mărunțelu was 61 years old when he died.
The sign that leads us to the chamber the wake is held in reads Monsieur Jean Maruntiel.
25 years ago, Mărunțelu arrived in Canada together with a folklore music group. He never returned to Romania. The repeated attacks of the miners on Bucharest as well as the underground secret police were the reason.
Ion Mărunțelu never adapted to his new life. What need did Canadians have for his folklore music? Up until he died, he worked in a factory that made brake pads. Using a drill, he made holes in the pads.
He didn’t really like Canada, but stayed because “the bad in Canada was still better than the good in Romania.”
Thirty or so people are gathered around the coffin. Each person has their hands resting on the shoulder of the person on either side, creating a chain of Romanians saying goodbye to a brother.
After the funeral, “Jean Maruntiel” finally returned to Sibiu by plane. He now rests forever in his native land, reborn as Ion Măruntelu, a small Romanian soul who could break ties from his country for a lifetime, yet could not break them for an eternity.
Daniel Lazar, the friend who had brought me to the wake, is a man made out of the same material as George Lulelaru. He’s the man who lends the Energizer Bunny some of his own batteries when the Bunny’s batteries run out.
He’s a musician turned truck driver. Once he took me on his daily route: a 1000 kilometer round trip from Laval to Saint-Louis de Kent in New Brunswick. We drove across Quebec, which is 5-6 times bigger than France.
A picture of Laval city, taken on the Arthur Sauvé Bridge.
We arrived back at 2 a.m. I was exhausted. Daniel, however, was just as fresh as he had been that morning. And he does this every day, Monday-Friday, and sometimes Saturday. 1,000 kilometers per day, for the past 20 years. Soon he will turn 50 years old.
Daniel is not unadjusted in the way that Ion Mărunțelu was, but he’s also not a happy man like George Lulelaru. He’s somewhere between the two. He’s the most common type of immigrant you’ll come across here. He lives in Canada but is somehow incomplete apart from his motherland.
He has twin sons born in Canada but sent them to attend grade school in Romania so that they could learn the language. He continues to send them to Romania every summer to stay in the countryside in a town near Cluj-Napoca.
This is all very costly for a man living on a truck driver’s salary.
“I didn’t want to cut them off from their roots,” explains Daniel. “I wanted them to know where they’re from. I believe that it’s important for them. If you don’t know who you are, you’ll melt here in this big pot of humanity. Without roots, the wind will blow you away.”
He came to Canada in 1993 to perform in a concert and he never went back. In fact, Ion Mărunțelu was the one who convinced him to stay.
At the time, he was an active non-commissioned officer of the Gendarmerie and had obtained special permission to attend a festival in Canada led by the folklore singer Zamfir Dejeu. After the last performance he grabbed Laura, who was one of the dancers in the ensemble, and snuck out the back door to find a new life. It was not difficult for him to obtain political asylum. There was a small industry of Romanians that would take care of everything for just 300 dollars.
Daniel just needed to sign a document that stated he was one of the army members who had the intention of overthrowing Iliescu, the President who was ruling Romania with terror tactics. It was the same document for Laura. It was all very easy. The two of them got their papers and were soon married in Canada. There was just one more detail.
After Ion Mărunțelu’s wake, Daniel invites me to a party. It was Gabriel Paculea’s birthday. He is also a truck driver. Since Daniel drank a few shots for the repose of Ion’s soul, his cousin Iuliu Pop drives us there.
Iuliu is also a truck driver. He was an engineer in Romania but that didn’t carry much weight with Canadian employers.
“I would go home to Romania right now if I could. I’d even walk there if I didn’t have a daughter attending university,” says Iuliu while driving towards Paculea’s house. “My daughter is studying medicine and still has another year to go. Once she finishes and can support herself, I won’t be sticking around, I’ll be going home. We are slaves here. We are also slaves in Romania too, but at least we’re at home there.
Daniel agrees with him from the back seat. He’s getting his violin ready. He’ll be playing at the birthday party. That is what he enjoys most in the world! When he puts his violin on his chest and begins to play, he is transfigured. In fact, when he’s playing the violin, his mind travels across Romania.
He sees himself on the hills of Faureni where he spent his childhood. He imagines himself in the courtyard of Sfârnaru din Băbuț at the “Sigismund Toduta” School of Music in Cluj-Napoca. He is transported to the country roads, keeping the rhythm with the help of horse carts carrying piles straw and then drawn to the tumultuous waves of the Someș River.
He taps the Canadian earth with his foot so his music might echo across the ocean, to the land that he deeply misses.
When we arrive at Gabriel Paculea’s place, the festivities have already begun. Daniel makes his debut with a Transylvanian folk song while those sitting around the table, all from Mediaș, encourage him with shouts.
In Romania, Paculea was an ambulance driver and his wife was a nurse.
“If I had stayed in Romania, I would have been okay. But what options would my child have? I wanted a future for him and that’s why I came here. We had everything we needed at home.
Everything but a future. And look here, in 16 years, I managed to buy a house and in two years I’ll be done paying the mortgage for it. I have a car, I have my own truck. I don’t stand in long lines or have to bribe people.”
I end up sitting at the table with Nelu Suciu, organizer of cultural events in Montreal. I find out that he also works as a truck driver.
I notice a dark-skinned, timid man in front of me. I think I know him from somewhere. I look at him from the corner of my eye, trying to figure out where I’ve seen him before.
No, it can’t be! Is it him? Yes, it is!
It’s Crinu Olteanu, former world boxing champion. And now look at him here, the champion himself sitting in front of me, sipping from a tiny beer bottle. He tells me that he’s not drinking much because he has to go on a truck route in the morning.
A Romanian gold medalist, now a Canadian truck driver. While speaking to him, a very modest and exceptionally well-spirited man – different from the thug who was raised in a boxing ring – I was proud of our culture. We all share a common struggle.
I get back to my friend’s house after midnight. I don’t want to stay in Canada. I would die of hunger here in a country where the grocery stores are full.
I was not meant to live far away from home. I don’t have the courage, or the desperation to make such a move.
And I don’t have a truck driving license.