Arabs with Luggage in East German Trabants

12 Jun

I was eight and even then I couldn’t figure out why there had to be soldiers guarding the border of a Communist country with another Communist country. What difference did it make if you exchanged nations? The foreign land on the other side was Bulgaria. There was a concrete parapet and a barrier. The soldiers lived in a small guardhouse. From time to time they would come out and smoke Marasesti cigarettes. Neither of them ever laughed. And I watched them from the hill for days. It seemed stupid to have borders. On this side you were here, on that side you were somewhere else. It all looked the same: concrete, mud, grey. People going over the border or coming in looked the same. Long faces, coughing, cheap overcoats, dark. Most of them walked. I tried to imagine the line of demarcation. It must have been somewhere right underneath the barrier. In my head, it was drawn in chalk and jagged. Who could draw the lines and say this ends here, this starts there? It just seemed stupid. People were stupid with their lines and fences. Always looking to rule and tame geography. And other people. Later, I was to feel the same thing about state borders in America. And even later, time zones. It seemed strange to step over an imaginary line and have to set your watch back an hour. Or forward. Who said? Who made that up?

Two white Trabants pulled to the crossing. Both soldiers came out in an orderly line. They split their formation and walked up to each driver’s side. The passengers were dark skinned. They were all smoking with their windows up. Both cars were burdened with bags sitting on top, on luggage racks. Everything was grey. It looked like someone desaturated a photograph. Monochromatic. A boy on the hill looking down on a colorless landscape. Why would anyone want to cross from this country into Bulgaria? The men inside the cars looked like Arabs. They were going to Turkey. Probably. Crossing here at Giurgiu, down the E85, going through Sofia, and then on to Korfez or, I don’t know, Ankara. They must have. The soldiers stamped their papers. The sound carried up to the hill. Click-clack. Click-clack. One of the drivers handed over a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of something clear. The soldier took the bribe. And then he made a go motion with his hand, only the barrier was still down. His partner yelled at him: “Ridic-o, dobitocule!” I laughed. Our soldiers were never too bright. The cars revved into gear and trickled into Bulgaria. The men had passports. They must have been Turkish. No one in our countries owned passports.

–Come get grapes. Petru! Come get grapes from the crate. By the side door. Come on, before the flies settle on them.

Thirty years later I tell her the story of when my father used to come pick me up from kindergarten and bring the most gigantic, black, juiciest grapes in his pockets. We had to walk some kilometers to our flat, and he always brought grapes for me to have on the way.
–Nah-now tell me wha-what your daddy…what Bunicu did with the seeds, she says. She has a way of false-starting sentences; not stuttering, just quick bursts of false starts that I love. I can tell she’s getting her thoughts together on the fly, as she’s asking questions.
–He hated them. They messed up his stomach.
–I don’t know. They just did.
–Bu-but how?
–I’m not sure. Let me just tell the story. They were huge and he couldn’t stand them and so he spat them out like a machine gun. Like this: Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat. Ooo, man he hated those seeds. Yea he did. He used to say: I’m never bringing these blasted grapes ever again. But he always did. He always had them in his pockets.
–Well, he brought them for me. To have as a snack.
–Because I was hungry after school, and we had to walk.
–Because we didn’t have a car and the apartment was…
She’s happy hearing this story for the millionth time. She likes hearing stories of when her dad was a boy. She gets this strange, melancholic look on her face while she listens. Like she’s an old soul. Like she’s been there already. And after I finish, she’s still caught up in the moment and talks to herself quietly. I always give her that time. I always let her extricate herself from the story. Sometimes it takes as long as a minute.

One day there will be no more borders. Not in my time, though. Not in hers either. There will be no more parapets and barriers. Or soldiers.

–Petru! Come get the grapes, already. Did you hear me. Boy. Are you listening?

I am.


2 Responses to “Arabs with Luggage in East German Trabants”

  1. Cliff Burns 12/06/2008 at 6:15 PM #

    Ah, those classic Trabants. There’s a cab driver in Rumania right now who’s racing along some mountain pass with his car clogged with people, the rack above overflowing with goods tied and bungeed down. Perhaps they’re an Arab family, fleeing from somewhere horrific and hopeless.

    Nice one, great atmosphere…

  2. J.A. 12/06/2008 at 9:17 PM #

    The border crossing with “gifts” for the soldiers remind me of driving out of Mexico City with Sinaloa plates and luggage in the car. Police will pull you over every 500 meters; of course to get money from you! I always hated that. My father was used to do it (after all, we drove from Sinaloa to Veracruz every summer for 15 years, so he knew the drill pretty well).

    My daughters are asking me a lot about my chilhood. But the problem is, I do not seem to recall so many stories from then! In any case, I can get by with three or four of them; the feeling is awesome.

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