"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Love Behind The Iron Curtain–Dangerous, Hurried, And Unforgettable

William Farthing had spent a considerable time behind the Iron Curtain, able to do so because of questionable but plausible family connections.  He claimed a bloodline to Petra Popescu, a feminist heroine of the Romanian Communist Revolution, and was admitted because of her iconic status in Bucharest – paintings on the walls of the People’s Museum, patriotic poems written in her name, and tales of her valorous flight from Timisoara from the anti-revolutionary forces of Albescu.

His claim was not entirely fictitious.  He indeed had a passing genetic association with early 15th century Romanians, notable because of his family’s imperial ownership of one the great castles of Transylvania, but he knew that entry based on this personal history, especially in the days of Soviet communism, would be a failed attempt to pull the wool over the desultory eyes of Romanian immigration.

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Farthing was at home in Romania not only because of his distant Transylvanian past but more so because of his mother’s Mediterranean heritage.  Romanian was a Romance language after all, even though it had been ‘deviated’ with Slavicisms; and Romanian culture, despite Bulgarian, Turkish, and Hungarian influences, was still very much Western European.  The women, as independent as  Catholic Poles who refused to give up their faith and their traditions, were runway-ready – jet black hair, tinted Eastern complexion, classic Greek looks, and Parisian attitude – and never gave an inch to Ceausescu and his moral enforcers. This was not Teheran with its bagged, clotured, invisible women; nor was it Stalinist Russia.   This was Europe, even though Ceausescu and his henchmen insisted it wasn’t; and so the love affair between Farthing and his Romanian princess was supra-national and above all, not Communist.

The Romanian secret police was not as well-organized as Stasi or Sevak and having, like all Romanians, Italian roots and at least some Casanova in their blood, turned a blind eye to what what otherwise might have been suspicious East-West compromises; and therefore Bill Farthing and Doina Moraru were given a pass.  Of what possible political importance between a low-level American bureaucrat with albeit historic pretensions and the daughter of former Timisoara nobility could there possibly be? Whereas their counterparts in East Germany might have looked askance at this improbably love affair, the Romanians looked the other way.  Love, after all, knew no geopolitical frontiers.

Bill Farthing had met Doina at a multi-national, cross-cultural, international event celebrating Women. The Communist East had been particularly proud of Romania’s championing of women, leaders of the Revolution, and the future avant-garde of the socialist transformation of bourgeois society.  He, carrying  credentials provided by the European International Socialist Committee as well as the World Bank, had been quickly given a temporary visa, and left, surprisingly, to his own devices during a week-long conference on the Black Sea.

Bill’s purposes were neither socialist nor exploitative, but as an eye-painter, an observer, and a  cultural opportunist.  He was in the Soviet imperium to watch, and to see.  A love affair with a beautiful Italian-Slavic beauty, connected to he Party by family associations, not far removed from the authoritarian government in Timisoara where her uncle was magistrate, under surveillance by Ceausescu thugs at the height of the dictator’s paranoia and not long before his deposition and killing was unlikely and dangerous, but welcome and more than he could ever have expected.

Graham Greene, author, secret agent, converted Catholic, and moral adventurer wrote in his memoirs that he had often flirted with death.  He would take out his father’s revolver, put one shell in the chamber, and play Russian roulette – not because of depression or psychosis, he wrote in his memoirs, but because of the terrible burden of boredom.  Life without the constant, imminent threat of death was pedestrian, predictably flat and purposeless.

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His travels to West Africa, a pit of disease and tribal warfare, the white man’s grave, were an extension of his desire to challenge Fate.  He, like Nietzsche, believed that the only validation of individual value was the expression of absolute will.  Nothing else mattered.  The herd thundered along on the plains willy-nilly, changing direction because of a gully or arroyo, spooking and stampeding at a bolt of lightening, regrouping into the same, predictable patterns, and plodding along in the dust, the rain, and the snow.  Bill Farthing’s step into Communist-land at the height of the Cold War and at the apogee of the punitive dictatorship of Ceausescu was his own timid step from his own corralling, inexpressive life.

He was a romantic, a dreamer, a fabulist, and a hopeless idealist.  Love – in the main common, prosaic, dutiful, and predictable – could have its epiphany, its Lawrentian moment, its perfect symmetry and consonance; but rarely, and only under the right circumstances.  Greene’s Mr. Brown defies the Tonton Macoutes, the diplomatic husband of his lover, and Papa Doc’s thugs for a romance impossible in Piccadilly or South Kensington.  Martha would never have been so desirable outside of Haiti, far from Gonaives and Petit Goave.  She and her love were part and parcel of Haiti, the Oloffson, Petit Pierre, and the voodoo tom-toms in the hills above Kenscoff.  His pursuit of Doina Moranu was in equal measure inseparable from Romania, impossible in Bayonne or Springfield, only real in the tropics, spied upon, insecure, and temporary.

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Love in foreign places has always had an allure for travelers.  Its irresponsibility was distant and removed.  An affair a few miles from home was too close for comfort; too adulterous, and too demanding; but one in Dar-es-Salaam, Bamako, Buenos Aires, or Bucharest was untethered.  No one would ever know; and both lovers were complicit in their deceit.  Her husband in Bonn and his wife in Wellfleet would never know or never suspect; but for the affair to have any meaning other than happenstance, it had to have another element of the unexpected.  A knock on the door could indeed be that of the Secret Police.  Their affair could be one of interest to the State.  Despite the casual demurral of Romanian immigration and police, he might never leave a Romanian prison.

Nietzsche, Greene, and Lawrence all knew that love and being could be hopelessly tiresome affairs unless they were made otherwise, challenged, defied; and Farthing implicitly understood this.  He knew that he and Doina  were meant for each other only under certain circumstances, but neither questioned the alignment.

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In Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel, a collection of reflections on the seduction of travelling alone, he writes that travel encourages a willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary pause in rational judgment, an irresponsible dive.
To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values (Vladimir Nabokov 1982)
One can never reinvent oneself. We are all programmed and conditioned to such a degree that what we were, we are; but at the same time, it is hard not feel that it is possible.  Conformity can only be a social construct as easily defied as it was adopted, we think.  There is no reason why not to live in another place with another person, in another life.
No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service.
The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention”, Theroux writes, “that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.”

A number of years before meeting Doina Bill and his Canadian lover were brought together by Haiti. There would have been no lovemaking in his balcony room at the Toulon; no dark night with only the Chinese coil burning to keep away the mosquitoes; no breeze from Kenscoff blowing the wide open windows if it hadn’t been in Haiti.

There would have been no sexual intimacy without the voodoo drums, without the scent of jasmine growing in the gardens of the estates above the hotel, or without the rancid smell of the port that drifted up from the city in the early morning when the air pressure and the direction of the breeze changed.  They danced in Carrefour, spent weekends in cabanas on the beaches of Les Cayes and Macaya, and drove up north to Gonaives and Cap Haitien; but never would have had they met across the mountains in the Dominican Republic. Haiti was their go-between, their matrix, their enabler.

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They never talked about Haiti, Duvalier, the Tontons, or voodoo.  They only shared experiences from New Brighton,  Harvard, and Spring Valley; or Radisson, Fort George, or Nemiscau. Haiti gave their stories a common context. New Brighton and Fort George would now only be remembered as not Haiti. Not hot, tropical, gingerbread, threatening, ominous, passionate, and violent.

Haiti, his Baie de James love, and Bill formed a trinity.  Their love could never have been possible without Haiti, the Tontons, the heat, the drums, and Duvalier.  Had either one been diffident about Haiti, their love affair would never have happened.  It was the pouring, incessant, pounding rain of Moroni in the empty hotel of a stateless Italian that an affair between him and his Senegalese lover could ever have been possible.  It was Ceausescu in Bucharest.

He and Doina chanced the Secret police in Bucharest, Timisoara, the Soviet spas of the Carpathians, on the Black Sea, and in the sanctuaries of the painted cathedrals of Bukovina.  There were no promises of return, only extension of mission.  Three weeks turned into four and then five before Farthing returned home, his name now on the watch list of Romanian authorities.  Letters were few, all read, he assumed by Ceausescu's agents, and ideas of meeting in Moldova or Bulgaria quashed by his Bank handlers or by her government overseers.  The affair was brief.

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Bill always returned to his wife; but since passion had been displaced by Doina, Berthe, Usha, and Emriye, their marriage stumbled rather than thrived.  His fault entirely, but with no regrets.  Men especially are heir to Nietzsche, Lawrence, and Greene and that will always be that.

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