[For the version in Romanian, visit DOR]
In 1987, the year I was born, my sister, Ana-Sînziana, was one month shy of six years old. Our doctor parents had carefully calculated the births of their children, navigating between the important milestones in their careers. Which is why the age difference between us was the size of a Romanian medical residency – and was going to keep us out of sync for a long time.
In school, I permanently had this bitter-sweet feeling − this mixture of pride and annoyance − about the fact that my sister had already been wherever I wanted to go and had already conquered everything there was to conquer. We went to the same primary and secondary school and then to the same high school, but we almost never crossed paths. I was only starting 3rd grade when my sister finished secondary school and was top of the admissions list at Şaguna, the best high school in Braşov. I was in the 7th grade when she left for Bucharest to go to college. And, although she had chosen the longest possible study program, by the time I was signing up for my college admissions exam, she had already passed her final exams in med school. I always felt like I was just one step behind her, chasing her relentlessly, never catching up.
I know I was a difficult little sister. I followed her around and went through her things. I needed help annoyingly often, especially when it came to my math homework, which made me call out imperatively, “A-naaa”, stressing the second “a”, for her to save me. I was a tattle-tail. I formed alliances with the family friends’ children, whose ages were closer to my own, starting crusades against the adolescent enemy, whom we bombarded with Lego pieces and forced to navigate perilous paths rigged with Rubik’s cubes, slippery magazines and bathrobe-monsters stuffed with socks. I recorded myself booing like a ghost over her favorite rock music cassette. I operated on the plush animals she received as birthday gifts. One year, after a particularly heated argument, I pushed her towards the door of our wardrobe so hard, that her butt went through the boarding and she fell inside, in a pile of clothes. Mom came, she saw, and she punished. My sister. Because “she was older and smarter”. That evening, when we were lying in our parallel beds − me, hidden in the forest on our picture-wallpaper, she, with her back turned towards me − I heard her cry and I apologized. As always, she immediately said she forgave me, without sparing a thought, though she continued to sniffle under her blanket.
When our parents decided to split us up, giving each a newly refurbished bedroom of her own, I was excited about my new-found independence for a while. Then I started to feel like I had picked the short straw. The same logic that saved me from the harsher punishments made the older sister get the bigger room, while I was left with a tiny square one. I craved for the elegant wallpaper, with flowers on a pale-yellow background − much more dignified than the one in my room, which looked like a bunch of raspberry foam clouds. For the shelves filled with “grownup books”. For Ana’s large desk, made of real hardwood − a giant compared to my yellowish, old and squeaky secretaire, bearing the ink stains left behind by two rounds of ABC-learners. Yes, that was a real desk, complete with drawers and awesome little doors − not to mention the shelf hidden on the side turned towards the wall, where you could hide your diaries or other contraband (like Nirvana cassettes, the “dead man’s” music that scared my mother so much, because, as a suicidal maniac, he was not exactly a good example for her daughters). That room held all of my older sister’s secrets, so, in my mind, it also held the key to adulthood. When Ana left for college, I exulted at the thought of finally conquering the coveted territory, but, in the first night I spent there, I found it too large and filled with mysterious nooks and corners. The bed was in a position from which I could no longer see my mother’s reading lamp, like I used to in my small room, and I was lost in darkness and solitude.
I feel like Ana has been gone ever since she left for the first school trip to Europe, when she was around 16. She spent two or three weeks in France and Germany, while our parents and I stayed home, writing a collective letter on our first computer. We weren’t going to send it anywhere (in Romania, mobile phones hadn’t been invented yet, let alone the internet), just show it to her when she got back. We wrote in turns, almost every day, as if to pass around the responsibility of keeping in touch with the travelling child. My mom wrote long, dreamy paragraphs, a bit confusing because she could never find the correct diacritics. She imagined my sister in all those foreign cities and wavered between anxiety and pride when the older child called on the landline and told us stories about how, for instance, she managed to guide the entire group through the German metro system. My dad, mysterious and pretentious, as always, only contributed the occasional poem. Meanwhile, I made note of the everyday hassles of school life and camouflaged my longing to see her by personifying the objects in her room, who – they, not I – were deeply saddened by her absence. My mother finished her letter with the words: “Come home, baby, I’m sick of knowing that you’re out there amongst strangers.”
But her true departure happened about two years later, when Ana sat for the admissions exam into med school and moved to Bucharest, where she also registered with the Goethe Institute, perhaps a sign of guessing what she was going to do next. As it happens, when my sister started college, my mother had to leave, too, because she wanted to get specialized in cardiology. I stayed home with my father and the grandparents, who took turns in visiting Braşov, so they could take care of me. It was nice to be spoiled by the most recent visitor. Still, Bucharest began to seem a lot like the room that I used to crave for a few years back. Only now I was longing for an entire city filled with wonder, where my sister and my mother studied together, went to the movies and to the theater, went through all sorts of adventures and continued to work on their already special bond.
How disappointing it turned out to be, when I finally moved to the capital! By the time I got there, the city had already been left by everyone in the family. My grandparents had moved to Braşov, due to my grandfather’s worsening diabetes, my mom had long returned home and, in 2003, Ana had decided to leave for Marburg, on an Erasmus scholarship, for three months. Followed by another three months. Then another year in Germany and the decision to stay there for good. Just when the time distance between my sister and I had started to contract − as time is known to do, when you grow up − its place was taken by a spatial distance, which kept growing and growing, to thousands of kilometers, like some sort of counteractive force.
The truth was that the thing I yearned for most wasn’t the bigger room, nor the wonderful city, it was the feeling of being where my sister was. In the same place, in the same time. In the same life. Ever since childhood, when we used to spend the Easter holidays in the village in Oltenia where our grandpa had been born, my mind had sprouted this idea of an idyllic future together with my sister. I dreamt of building a big family, like the one our grandfather’s sister gathered around in her yard in Afumaţi: grandparents, parents and children, noisier and more numerous each year, passing on the roles of “big kids” and “small kids” and teaching each other the “family” games − like climbing on the roof of the rickety old cellar, hunting for frogs in the cement water basin or stealing goodies from the kitchen or the small village shop my grandpa’s sister kept, filled with wafers and chocolates. We all knew the heirloom stories about the weddings and unforgettable parties that had taken place in the same yard, back when our parents and grandparents had been young and restless. We knew that they’d signed their names on the cellar archway, to be remembered forever, on a night of late drinking and laughter. We knew about the wonderful, innumerable golden pancakes our great-grandmother Paraschiva used to make in the mornings. About the great earthquake in 1977, which had been witnessed by all our people here, when the roof was shearing from side to side and the earth seemed ready to crack open. For me, this was what family and home meant: this great bunch of people and stories. And all I wanted for us, the child-sisters, was to take over the adults’ roles and keep gathering children in this, or another, similar yard − under an arch of grapevines, to keep us safe.
In the first years after she left, mostly due to the internet, I talked to Ana more than ever, as if we were both trying to laugh in the face of that growing distance. I went to her, open-heartedly, shamelessly and probably exasperatingly, every time I had a problem. She always answered, without delays or criticism.
Ana never looked through me, she never scanned me in search of answers and, most importantly, she never looked for her own reflection in me. She has a way of making me feel more substantial, somehow, and of supporting me, by simply accepting who I am. My sister’s love for me has always been a life vest. There have been so many times when uncertainty, disappointment and pessimism filled me up to the brim, and she was there every time, to remind me to stick my head out and breathe. She was the one who taught me that even when I am alone, when there is nobody there to help me, I can still take a break, turn on my back and just float for a while. I may not get anywhere that way, but at least I won’t drown. It’s such a valuable lesson, especially when everyone else tells you that you have to keep swimming and struggling, even when you feel you can’t do it anymore.
One time, around 2009, I started interviewing Ana for a project I never finished, about brothers and sisters. I had talked to all the people I knew who had siblings, starting with my grandmother and ending with my friends in college, and interviewing my sister was a given. After reminding me once again that she was so excited on the day our parents brought me home from the maternity ward, that she spiked a fever, and that she was the only person in the family who defended my oval head and frowny eyes in my first days of life, she told me: “I have to admit: ever since you came into my life, I felt grown-up, although, looking at the photos, I can tell that I wasn’t actually that grown-up, after all. Where should I begin? From the way I always had to clean up after you or from the punishments I had to put up with for things you actually did? Explaining all the great mysteries of life to you, holding your hand through those depressy teen years. It feels like I raised a child, though you were not my child.”
As our relationship got richer, it also got harder to shake the feeling that her leaving had left my soul in pieces, that part of my life had been stolen, even more than that, a whole other reality, a world where the two of us were living in the same place and raised our children together and met every day and hugged as often as we wanted and quarreled as often as we needed to. Ana was the pin holding up my entire map of the world: I was Ana’s sister, and she was mine. My selfish love told me that her mission in life was to be my superhero, my teacher, my doctor, my friend, all of these roles she played for me even when it was hard. I never wanted to share her with anyone else. It’s a shameful feeling that keeps coming up, like an unwanted, disgraceful hair you carefully pull out every time, which keeps popping up in the same place, over and over, as vigorous and as disdainful as ever.
Haunted by my own ghosts, I thought about Ana’s departure from the point of view of my losing her, never stopping to think about how, in fact, she must have found herself. Because, naturally, her mission was to be someone for herself, to find the things that made her happy and complete. Whenever I asked why she went so far away, she told me that people in Romania were just too sad. They never smiled on the street, just wandered the gray Bucharest streets with sulky, worried faces. It was too dreary for her. It sounded like a ridiculous reason. I was just a child back then, still a cog in the comfortable mechanism of external rules and codependencies. I didn’t yet feel the intrusive pressure of Romanian society, where everyone always seems to try and stick things down your throat, from food to certainties about how you should do things. Where people incessantly try to feed you whatever they think is best, completely blind to the fact that you might find out what’s best for you, yourself, if only they’d let you. I didn’t yet understand that Ana had chosen to run to a society Romanians deem cold and unfriendly, because the people there let you be who you want to be. Last but not least, to me, the child of a couple of doctors, hospitals felt like a friendly, favorable place, where my parents and their friends would always help me and protect me from anything bad. I had no idea what it would later feel like to fear the Romanian medical system, even less so, what it was like for a young resident to try and learn, grow and find their place in that diseased system.
I visited my sister in Germany many times. The first time I went alone, I travelled more than 40 hours by bus and felt horribly sick all the way, though I’d never before suffered from motion sickness. I’d just started to go to the Faculty of Foreign Languages in Bucharest and I didn’t yet have the courage to speak German to the German driver and ask him to please have a stop-over. In Marburg, I spent the nights sharing my sister’s dorm room and bed and, during the day, when she was busy at the hospital, I spent the time in the university library − the only thing I remember about that place was that it had scandalously modern shades that moved automatically depending on the sunlight. I can also remember how I felt extremely guilty because I had left my boyfriend, Cosmin, who was also a fresh student in the big city, back in Bucharest. Another time, I brought him with me and the three of us wandered the streets of Stuttgart together. My sister laughed at a couple wearing matching training clothes and to me it felt like she was laughing at me and Cosmin. We, too, were very much in love and spent all our time together. It seemed as though we would soon start a family, children and all, while my sister looked more and more like this modern type of person who’d chosen to live alone in that modern country, away from us and our traditional lives. I settled the score by making her cry, telling her that she’d left us all behind and, because she did, she would not even get to know my children − this is the only episode she still holds against me, she says it felt like twisting the knife in her wound.
We’ve all grown up since then. There were lots of other, more pleasant visits, and marriages on both sides. I don’t have any children yet, she already has two, a girl and a little boy. I see them every couple of days on Facetime, although they don’t always have the patience to talk to their aunt whom they dubbed, in turn, “Miua” and “Una”. Almost every time we meet face to face, my sister and I invariably start talking about our past and our future together. She says we are now so close, that when we walk down the street and one of us says “Check that out”, the other one knows precisely what it’s about. We also talk about who was our parents’ favorite, and always disagree. Ana says: “You were the cute one. You were funny. You were the little, adorable, talented kid our parents always praised.” I, rather, remember mother’s endless boasting about her daughter whose “best friends” were Eliade, Patapievici and Cărtărescu. (Nope, that wasn’t me.)
I sometimes end up picking at that old, painful scab:
“Do you ever feel sorry for leaving?”, I ask her.
“I’m sorry I left you in Romania”, she answers, confirming once again that she feels responsible for me and that I am a special type of monster for going back to this question over and over again.
It’s now been more than a half a year since I, too, am living abroad. Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d be writing, but, hey, life is never what you expect and always a bit ironic. It is now and here that I finally see how complicated it is to wish to be home and not to be home at the same time. And what it’s like to equally miss the things the new world promises to give you, and the things you left back in your country. I live with my husband in the Netherlands, a country where everything works much better than in Romania, in the smallest, apparently irrelevant, yet overwhelmingly numerous ways: from public transportation to the number of times the streets are cleaned, to the frequency and speed of roadworks, to the health system I don’t fear, to the respect and friendliness of all government officials or the simple fact that every single time you walk down the street you inevitably see something pretty to look at. However funny I once found it, I can now confirm the difference my sister talked about: people here smile all the time, you meet them at the traffic light and they smile at you, you knock against them in the rain and they smile. Even the bus drivers smile and always say hello. At the same time, I’m still processing this “better” life in my head, while my heart is still at home − though I must admit I no longer know how to define this word anymore. I see this in other expats around me, who are all stubbornly looking for small bits and pieces of “home” on these foreign streets. Kilos of pasta ordered from Italy. Polish borsht for a sour soup like the one they had at home. A shop that sells the kind of beef you only find in Brazil. That American bar.
Ana, her husband, Peter, and their two children, the five-year-old girl and the two-year-old boy, came to visit us a mere couple of weeks after we arrived in Amsterdam, even before we had found a permanent apartment. We lived in the temporary accommodation offered by the company who had hired Cosmin, in one corner of the city, while they had rented an apartment for a couple of days in the farthest possible place. We wandered the streets chaotically, in a city that was still foreign to us all, having no idea where to eat or where to find something fun for the kids, who were both excited and confounded by the landscape with boats, canals and many, many tourists.
In the evening before they left, before they put the children in bed, we spent a couple of hours in the living room of their rented apartment. Peter was cooking dinner: he made a salad and cheese sandwiches, something we could eat quickly, because you never know how long the young ones are willing to stay around the table. Cosmin had just come from work and was having fun with our little nephew, “reading” with him from a photo album, in a mixture of Romanian and German, and playing with his favorite stuffed toy, a ram the little boy takes with him everywhere (“Wo ist Wider?”).
Meanwhile, I was happy to spend some time with my sister and her girl, who is at times so gentle and affectionate that she makes you melt through and through. Sometimes, for instance, she combs my hair with her fingers, then ruffles it up. Then she carefully and patiently starts looking for my eyes below the strands of hair, which she moves to the sides, one by one. And when she finds them, she keeps looking for something inside, looking me straight in the eyes, quiet, waiting. Ever since she was only a couple of days old, it dawned upon me that she looked a lot like me, especially in the shape of her eyes and her mouth. Later, everyone started to see the similarity − someone even told me on Facebook that she looked like she could have been my own child. This child, who could have been mine, is the daughter of the person who was my second mother. And the fact that a “mini-me” is close to Ana every day makes me finally feel a bit more complete, as if it’s no longer necessary to feel split between my inconsistent “here” and the “there” where she is.