I stepped outside my alloted “time slot” at The Prague Revue this month with a short (700 wds.), non-fiction piece about the strange few weeks my father and I spent in Rome, waiting for paperwork to go through for our official immigration to the United States from Romania in early January, 1980.
The piece was originally called “Cornete,” the Romanian word for the spiral paper projectiles referenced in the piece. But the editors wanted the title changed to “Cleveland.”
It was weird being put up in a rooming house indefinitely and waiting in Rome, at least for me, 10 years old at the time. It felt like an internment camp of sorts. Like a weird gulag where most kinds of freedom existed, yet the place harked back to ye olde Mother Country (intermittent hot water, communal bathroom, decrepit building, etc.).
The first time I saw color television was in a storefront in Rome. My dad and I were going somewhere and we passed by a store selling new television sets. Nearly a dozen TVs were displayed in the window with the same program running. The film was, I remember vividly now though I didn’t know it at the time of course, the 1953 color version of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds.” I was mesmerized more so by the color than the narrative of the movie itself or aliens or laser beams coming out of a ridiculously looking dinner plate meant to be a flying machine. My dad went on to whatever it was we were supposed to do, and I just stood there in the street for quite possibly two hours, watching.
Despite the info in the piece (it IS after all CREATIVE non-fiction) I actually accompanied my father on his daily 9-hour-long walks to see the city. I remember whining and bitching, but I’m so grateful he dragged me around to see basically everything there is to see in Rome and The Vatican. And we did it all on foot.
Another vivid memory that has stuck for three and a half decades is my first ice cream in Rome. Dad bought a scoop on a cone, and I remember it cost over 1,500 lira. That amount seemed egregious to me at the time and I took care to savor the gift. But, considering a measly bus ticket for two stations was 250 lira, I suppose it wasn’t that expensive after all.
We were living with dozens and dozens of immigrants in that same strange limbo. Some of them had been there for over a year. My father had no idea how long we’d be there; it all depended on bureaucracy. We were ready to stay at least a few months. Our visas, however, came within a couple of weeks.
Until this past March, I never returned to Rome. Although my wife and I only stayed in the Rome airport this spring long enough to catch our connection to Naples (3 hours), I felt oddly melancholic. I had come back after 34 years to the first Western city I’d ever been, to the first color TV I’d ever seen, to the first time I encountered the idea of PAYING for every little thing in order to receive the service desired (like showers, elevators, public restrooms), to amazing history, ruins, palaces, columns, piazzas, catacombs, art.
I should perhaps one day attempt to revive my memoir of this experience that I finished in ’04. It initially gathered a lot of interest from literary agents, only to be rejected. I never followed up on pushing with it because life issues came up that had to be taken care of.
Our story getting out of Romania is quite interesting and sometimes adventurous, from the time I carried paperwork to the American consulate in Bucharest in the lining of my grade school jacket (because of my father being under surveillance by security forces/secret police), to the time the government or secret police either tried to kill us, running us down with a car, or at the very least send a strong message that we weren’t to mess with the system.
In any case, this is a very short impression that begins and ends in the same place, flirts with the idea of “The American Dream” being Cleveland, Ohio, and just sort of touches on the weirdness of the limbo all immigrants from Eastern European countries escaping to the West had to be placed in for bureaucratic reasons back then.