Dorothea was from Germany and tutored our pastor’s daughters for a year. She was dark chocolate-eyed, with long black ringlets bouncing around her heart-shaped face. She wasn’t a classic beauty, by any means. Her hips were wide, her shoulders small. But she spoke fluent English with an exotic, guttural German accent, wore trendy western clothes, especially scented, frilly scarves that rendered our boys harebrained and tongue tied.
We adopted her in our exclusive gang, even though her presence would threaten the fragile balance of our hormone-challenged group. The boys were mesmerized by her, fighting each other fiercely over a smile, a nod or a mere look from darling Dorothea. We, the Romanian girls, became old news. Dull, stale like a slice of white bread, tossed aside for a piece of moist chocolate-rum cake.
When I moved to the United States years later, I secretly hoped I would be as exotic and mysterious as Dorothea was.
The first 6 months I hid in my apartment. America scared me, and fascinated me. I had to take her in small dozes, starting with my 2-bedroom apartment.
My kitchen sink had an evil food disposal that swallowed my teaspoons every day. I had vivid nightmares about my fingers getting sliced off, turned into mush and dumped in the American sewer.
I was very suspicious of the fans in the ceiling, blowing in hot and cold air. It reminded me of Auschwitz gas chambers. The first day my husband turned the air conditioning on, I held my breath in fright.
The windows reminded me of French guillotines. I had to be careful not to crush my fingers closing them at night.
And there was the dishwasher that shook the kitchen floor, sending me under the kitchen table every time it drained. The dryer machine, sadly, reminded me of my clothesline and my linens, scented with dew and sunshine.
I got used to paper-thin walls, neighbors showering and moaning with abandon at 3am, merciless Jehovah witnesses slipping flyers under the doormat, the garbage truck howling in the parking lot every Thursday at dawn. I got used to washing my clothes downstairs, sharing machines with faceless tenants that knew what undies I was wearing before learning my name.
When the walls closed on me, I started sneaking out at night. I hid behind the dumpster gate, holding my breath, rather than saying hello back to a startled neighbor, tossing their trash. I found Americans loud, nosy and obnoxious. They yelled “how’s it going” when spotting me grabbing the mail. I would scurry back into my apartment, as fast as I could, without tripping on my long bath robe. An awfully curious neighbor cornered me one day and forced me to face her. I listened and nodded dutifully, but said nothing. I was afraid my English was rudimentary, my galloping accent off-putting.
When I first ventured outside the property I found it aggravating that perfect strangers smiled at me and asked me how I was doing. Where I come from, smiles from people that are not your relatives, or your friends, are highly suspicious. You always wonder what they want from you.
It was eerie and exhilarating walking the streets of a small American town, on my own. I admired the manicured lawns, the exquisite holiday decorations, the variety of lamps glowing in windows at nightfall. The streets and roads were marked carefully with signs at every corner. There were no stray, famished dogs and cats roaming around, no drunks staggering home from the pub, singing their drunkard songs and waving their cheap vodka bottles. No overturned garbage cans, no abandoned car carcasses. No crippled gypsies begging on church stairs.
The grocery stores were veritable gardens of Eden. I fingered and sniffed every wondrous piece of fruit or root, for hours, until workers and shoppers alike started shaking their heads at the produce oddball.
I will never forget my first trip to the cafe downtown. I timidly asked the barista at the counter for a small coffee, with two lumps of sugar. She leaned closer, gave me a once-over, and pointed, smirking, to a station filled with assorted beverage accompaniments. I didn’t know what “half-n-half” was, and hesitated to ask a rotund lady who was pouring some in her cup. I added nutmeg – a curious spice – to mine. Then cinammon, chocolate and brown sugar, and minutes later, the deadly cocktail sent me to the bathroom, running. The door didn’t seem to have a lock, or had a smart, tricky one, but I had no time to figure it out. I jumped to my feet, screaming, when a lady barged in, then apologized, equally frightened, grabbing her neck. Now I triple-check every lock I encounter.
I took the bus to get around. The first time I rode it, I was too shy to pull the cord to signal the driver. I didn’t want anybody to stare at me. I finally got off when a rider did, 5 stops after my destination. I had to walk back 3 miles.
The library was my home away from home. I checked out dozens of history books after somebody called me stupid for not knowing how Africans became slaves in America. Also I began reading thick, scary-looking vocabularies, page by page, and learned to use words like “estravaganza” and “benevolence” in casual sentences.
I applied for citizenship, and passed the test with flying colors. Afterwards, I went to the bathroom and cried in a stall, until an older lady knocked on the stall door, lightly, but urgently, and asked if I was ok. Still sobbing, I showed her the citizenship certificate. She congratulated me, gave me a bear hug and welcomed me to America. Her warmth and generosity overwhelmed me. When she left, I went back in the stall and cried some more. I emerged smiling, taller, holding my certificate with pride.
I got a job at a grocery store. It was a humble job, but it helped me improve my English and acquire some social skills. I made friends, but felt I was different, still a foreigner, and it bothered me. My wide, high cheek bones, my small size, my lack of tact and refined manners pushed me into a lonely corner.
I enjoyed talking to customers behind the Bakery-Deli counter though. I desperately wanted to pass as an American – since I was now one – but inevitably they asked me, “Where are you from? Are you from France?” I was flattered that my Romanian accent sounded so… chic 😉 Some thought I was Russian, others Turkish. But none took me for an American, which made me clamp up, oddly ashamed, as though not being American-born made me a second-class citizen. I ran back to my history books and my dog-eared vocabularies. But I learned more about America making sandwiches, baking cookies and walking the isles of an old-fashioned grocery store.
I learned, in time, that Americans, unlike Romanians, cherish their personal space. You cannot bump into them in supermarkets, hit them with your cart, like I was doing, to my husband’s mortification. That you better say “excuse me” before walking in front of somebody. You’re expected to say “please” and “thank you,” with every breath. At first I found it phony, nauseating, but it turned out to be genuine common courtesy.
You cannot get too close to the next person in line at the pharmacy or checking lines. You cannot sit at a table uninvited, or borrow a chair without asking for permission. Under any circumstances you cannot ask personal questions like, “How much do you make?” or “What is that smelly ointment for?” or “Do you still have sex with your husband?”
You cannot stare at somebody, no matter how loud or bizarre-looking, or check out fellow patron’s plates or pay attention to juicy conversations. You have to pretend you don’t hear that hysterical gal dumping the poor guy for not noticing her new dress.
Americans are great pretenders. I’ve learned to sugarcoat everything, beat around the bush, pay compliments in order to be “kind.” Apparently my being blunt was rude and unbecoming – way too balkanic for sophisticated American company.
I learned to eat large portions, combine 3 kinds of carbs on my dinner plate – tortillas, rice and beans – a diet that would horrify my Romanian figure-conscious friends. I got used to the ice in my water glass, the potato chips that came with my sandwich. I fell in love with bacon, pancakes, hash-browns and, particularly, maple syrup. I learned to roast huge turkeys, to bake apple and pecan pies. The first year I roasted a turkey though, I stuffed its neck cavity, I cooked it breast down and left the frozen neck and giblets inside. The first crust for my pies was as hard as a rock, the apples made your mouth purse with their tartness. The stuffing for the turkey was a pathetic, mushy mess even I couldn’t look at, without gagging. But every holiday I persevered, determined to become a true American, in every way.
I learned to take showers instead of baths, without panicking while watching dozens of gallons of unused hot water rushing down the drain. I stopped turning off lights in rooms I wasn’t in. I ate out more, threw away food that had gone bad; slowly and surely I forgot all my thrifty ways. The waste around me was bewildering, yet had a nonchalant charm to it. Every single night the store threw away tens of pounds of good deli food instead of donating it to an orphanage or a local shelter. Who was I to judge? The more careless and wasteful I got, the more integrated I felt.
I called Mama every Thursday and have noticed that I had trouble remembering Romanian words. I would start sentences in English without realizing it. When I started to dream “in English” I was ecstatic. My Romanian friends were not impressed with my English-only emails, and asked me if I had forgotten Romanian in less than 7 years I had lived in US. I was on a mission though, and blew them off. Besides, I had American friends now.
I flew to Romania to visit Mama a few years ago. As soon as I put on comfy clothes, a neighbor knocked on the door, demanding to see me. I heard Mama explaining to her that I was tired and was resting, but the woman walked by Mama and marched in the bedroom. I was flabbergasted. She gave me a hug and asked me how America was. I told her that in America people call before dropping by, and never at dinnertime. She goggled at me and scoffed with disdain.
Another neighbor stopped by. She asked to see my American passport and marriage certificate. I almost choked on my food. She said that the whole neighborhhod thought that, in America, I worked as a sex slave, tied up to a pole, in a dungeon. That they had never seen any photos of me and my American “husband,” so they needed proof. I got up and stomped out the room before punching her in the face. “You’re too good now to talk to us, huh?” she yelled at my back. When she finally left, I told Mama that I didn’t want any visitors for the duration of my stay. “They are my friends,” she reminded me. “They’re not as sophisticated as your American friends are, but I’m thankful for them. You grew up with their kids. Don’t look down your nose at them now. And wherever you go, child, don’t ever forget where you come from.”
I returned to America. I resumed my English studies. I continued to receive lots of compliments on my vocabulary, my conversational skills. At work my boss asked me to write the weekly reports. I wrote statements to HR for my coworkers. The store director asked me if I was interested in a management position. Most importantly though, my accent became less and less noticeable. Nobody asked me where I was from anymore. I was elated. I was finally an American, I thought, through and through.
Then one day a pretty young lady asked for 2 salads from the Deli display. She had the most charming British accent I had ever heard. I was sudenly smitten with her. She wore a fashionable blue coat, a cream-colored top with an intricate embroidery on her chest. “Where are you from?” I asked, my cheeks flushed with excitement. “I’m from England,” she answered with a polite smile. She got the same salads, every day, for a whole week. I always rushed to help her and chat a little bit, although she was reticent, like some English people are. “I’m from Romania,” I said toward the end of the week. “You are?” she asked, surprised. “I wouldn’t have guessed.” Was that a compliment? I never saw her again.
I never learned her name, but to me, she was my darling Dorothea. Exotic and mysterious and charming, just as I want to be, one day.