The Price of Bread in Romania

    In Romanian, the words dog, bread and tomorrow, are spelled and pronounced the same, except for the first letter. While I walked to the bread vendor, I would always make a joke, “Tomorrow, the dog bread.” I’m pretty sure my declension was wrong, but I laughed nonetheless. I would eat tomorrow’s dog bread today, and when once I tried to keep it until tomorrow, I actually cut myself on it, deep enough to bleed. That’s right, I cut myself on a loaf of bread. Old, it could be used as ammunition. But new, fresh, yes! That’s what I was walking for, what I was willing to burn my hands for.

     It was about two weeks into my stay in Romania when I discovered the bread, and the jam. And when the jam ran out I would simply dip the bread into a small pile of salt. I actually started eating it for lunch, every day. Sometimes the people with whom I was staying would cook chicken and I can’t eat chicken. It’s not like I don’t like the flavor. If I eat it, if I so much as smell it cooking, I break out in hives, and some other nastiness that should be left unwritten ensues. For a replacement, there was bread.

     The fall of the U.S.S.R and its little communist spawn meant a whole lot to the world. What it meant to Romania, other than a fine chance to kill off their dictator, was that the value of their currency went through the floor. When it first began in 1989, the exchange rate was about one U.S. dollar to four or five lei. When I was there in the summer of 1994 one dollar bought 1,500 lei. I went back two years later and it was almost 1/3000. The people who had retirements in lei were now, functionally broke.

     While trekking across the country with some friends of mine, I came to a small city with an orphanage. The children were filthy and I couldn’t tell male from female. There were also tales of sexual abuse and neglect. Later that night, we were having dinner. The hostess asked us if we had a place to stay, and gladly offered her and her brother’s home. When I got to her brother’s he fed me and my friend a dinner of Coke and cheese, salami and bread. He brought us back to his sister’s house in the cab he drove for a living. That dinner must have cost at least a week of his wages, and he was glad to give it.

     It was a generosity I had never known--doubly so because it came from a man whom I had not seen before that night and would probably never see again.

     A few weeks later I was back in Timisoara, sitting by the river Bega, watching the water serenely amble by. A former Romanian police officer and I began chatting. He told me that, since “the fall,” the city had become much dirtier. I found that strange.

     For me, Timisoara had a mystique about it. The notion that the city had been standing there, in one form or another, for over 2000 years, stunned me whenever I thought about it. That Romania is a derivative of “Roman” and that Romanian is the closest living language to Latin, reinforced my feeling. Yet, the former policeman could only think of its filth.

     The collapse of the Romanian currency meant terrible things for the country: Gypsies maiming their children and using their new impairment to beg, blatant piracy of music and movies, corrupt government officials who made bribery a part of the standard cost of operating.

     But for me, it meant I could get a loaf of amazingly fresh baked bread for less than twenty cents. When I was in Romania that was a blessing. When I returned to the States, with all its opulence, it meant everything got weighed against the scale of “the price of bread in Romania.” I can’t think about buying a single thing without the reality of “the price of bread in Romania” pounding against the inside of my struggling mind.

     Bread and jam, and tasty mineral water. That was my diet as I rediscovered myself. I lived on the meal of prisoners as I learned about freedom, in a place that still had bullet holes from the revolution. And they were meals I remember with fondness. I haven’t yet found bread as good as I had in those days. Or maybe it wasn’t the bread at all. Maybe it was the whole thing, the revolution inside myself, and the bread was its flavor.