This Great Society - Contents


This Great Society


Illustration: Joel Bentley

"Terrible" Creative Nonfiction by Joel Bentley
Illustration: Joel Bentley

Yesterday was perfect; today was riddled with flaws.

So I flew to Cluj, Romania, to visit my friend Noelle, who was in the middle of a two-year commitment with Peace Corps. She was held up at a conference and would meet me the following day. There was supposed to be a bus, #8, that went into town, but when I emerged from the little airport there were no signs, nothing that looked like a bus stop, and everyone I asked—the girl at the exchange counter, the cabbies hounding me—told me there were no buses. No one spoke any English, so I explained my situation through hand gestures and concerned eyebrows. Then a plump cab driver approached me. No, no, he said, No bus. I consigned myself to his services. How much? I asked, showing him the name of my hostel. He told me fifteen lei, about $5 CAD. Sure.

We drove into town. Cluj in September was all short shorts and tank tops, the Romanian girls with their sun-kissed hair and smooth legs. We drove past St. Michael’s cathedral, its towering edifice and the expansive square below.

The hostel was a few blocks from the square down a winding alley marked by a horse-riding knight on the swinging sign above the entrance. I took out fifteen lei and handed it to the cabby. He shook his head. Fifty, fifty lei. I stared at him blankly. You said fifteen. Fifty, he said, drawing a five and a zero on the dash with his finger. Fearful of offending my first acquaintance in Romania, I paid the man.

After checking in, I decided to seek out some local cuisine. Noelle had given me a list of restaurants to check out, but I was too shy to ask the concierge, and after searching around town for half an hour, I settled on a small restaurant not far from the hostel. The décor looked new, the tables clean, and the patrons in good spirits. Noelle’s list had also noted local food I should try, so I scanned the menu for the closest match. I ordered, and when the waiter returned I discovered it was soup. It should be noted that I am not a fan of soup, and never order it in restaurants. I didn’t know what was in it, but it had the taste and texture of chicken skin. (I later learned that it was most likely cow intestine.) I mostly just ate the bread. After I finished, I waited about twenty minutes for my bill after my dishes had been cleared. This is a long time to sit alone at a table with no one to talk to and nothing to do. I watched as every patron who entered the restaurant after me was given their bill, paid, and exited. I kept looking at the waiter, trying to say, Where’s my bill? He kept looking back at me, and the look said, What do you want? Why are you still here? I eventually waved him over and asked, but it still took him another five minutes for him to bring me the slip.

I went to buy water at a corner store, but I accidentally bought tonic water instead, which is not the most refreshing beverage on a hot day.

Back at the hostel, I asked the concierge what I should see in Cluj. He suggested the cemetery, and pointed it out on a map. I thanked him and started on my way. It was easy enough to find, but locating the entrance was another matter. The cemetery was surrounded by a high, barbed-wire fence. I followed the fence up the east side of the cemetery, tracing its border to find an entrance. This took me all the way up to the top of a massive hill, which I ascended in sandals, winding through the subdivisions that surrounded the cemetery. When I reached the top, I still had not found the entrance, but discovered I was parched and had painful blisters on the back of my heels. I drank the last of my tonic water and walked back down, back to the hostel. I took a closer look at the map and saw that the entrance was located at the bottom of the hill, a few blocks west of where I had started.

I entered the cemetery at twilight, my favourite time of day. The graves were crowded together, crumbling and overgrown with brush and small greens. It was hard to tell where one grave began and the other ended, a strong contrast to the neatly partitioned cemeteries I had visited back home. It was absolutely beautiful. I wanted to take a few photos of this beautiful place, so I walked further up and into the cemetery, trying to escape the view of Romanians there to pay homage, so I wouldn’t offend them. But every time I thought I could safely snap a shot, someone would walk around a bend and I had to quickly tuck my camera back into its bag. Eventually I managed to sneak in two or three photos, and that was enough. I left the cemetery and its fading light.

Walking a few blocks further west, I sat down on the side of a quiet road to rest. Two pedestrians walking in opposite directions passed directly in front of me. It was a magical moment. I knew right then that tomorrow would be just fine.



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