My former husband was born there, but his family sent him to study in Italy. Before he left, his mother told him, "As long as I write in pencil, don't come back. When I write to you in pen, it's safe to return." She never wrote in pen.
So, like the boy in Vittorio De Sica's film "The Bicycle Thief," he lived a rag-tag life in Italy. He applied to go to America, but there was a quota and he was rejected. He was accepted by Canada, though, and from Calgary he hopped a train to San Francisco. There he stayed – illegally. He became a US citizen when we married. By then he was a charming European with a Continental accent and the manners of a prince.
Seven years, a US passport, and two children later, he felt it was safe to visit Romania. He hadn't seen his mother, two sisters, and two brothers since he was 16.
We flew to Munich, Germany; picked up the Volkswagen we had purchased in the States; and drove to Romania via Austria and Hungary.
When we reached Bucharest, his family was waiting outside his sister's house to greet us. After lengthy hugging, kissing, and crying, his family also embraced me, the American wife with two young children.
They were in awe of me. Few Americans visited Romania at that time, and most Romanians had neither the permission nor the means to travel.
I had brought an English/Romanian dictionary with me and managed to communicate, albeit without verbs. My Romanian improved, and the family's stock of English words increased, but mostly I spoke in broken, Brooklyn-accented Romanian.
The sisters loved their gifts of pantyhose and purses, the brothers loved the radios, and the children loved the candy. We made side trips to the Black Sea and the Carpathian Mountains. Dining at outdoor cafes to the sound of gypsy violins was exotic, but nothing was as distinctive as dinners en famille.
Romania didn't have many dry cleaners. Most homes had old-fashioned washing machines but no dryers, and it was a hot summer. My husband's relatives didn't want to risk staining their clothes. Their solution was as simple as it was startling: The women dined in their bras and slips. The men were shirtless. They all had jobs, so time was precious. Disrobing for dinner was a small inconvenience compared with the effort of doing laundry – at least in their household, and perhaps all across Romania.
I, of course, having just met them, ate fully clothed. I washed my clothes by hand and hung them outdoors to dry.
On the last night of our three-week stay, we had a large family dinner. I was tired of washing my clothes. So I pulled my dress over my head and placed it on the chair behind me. The table broke out in applause. Even with my poor Romanian, I understood that they were saying, "She's part of our family now."
My children were 4 and 5 at the time, but they still have memories of that trip. They know how to say, "Good morning." and "There are apricots on the tree." I can still say, "Do you speak Romanian?" and "I swim in the Black Sea."
But most of all, I remember sitting at a long dining-room table in my bra, supping on meatballs laced with a heavy dose of fresh garlic. When in Romania, you do as the Romanians do.