The Peanut Butter Crisis

“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for flying with us.  Please get ready for landing.  In approximately five minutes we’ll be on JFK!”

I peeked out the window and the view of New York City  changed within seconds from small dots, into larger circles and into buildings at last.  I was landing into my second life, the one the gypsy predicted in the Bucharest Train Station, as I was leaving Romania.

I stood in a long line and the customs officer pointed me to a special window, in charge for checking the visas of political refugees.

That line was much shorter.  I handed the officer my papers.  He looked at them, at my picture and lifted his eyes to examin me.

“Okay, Miss, please sign here, here and here, where there is an X,” He said and handed me a bunch of documents.

I looked at the small print and the letters danced in front of my eyes, a disorderly movement, up, down and to the sides. My hand was shaking.

People were now lining up behind me, but the letters on the documents kept on dancing and my hand shook.

“Miss, sign here…” He pointed exactly where I was supposed to sign.

“I am sorry,  I can’t sign an important  document like this before reading it first,” I said, as the letters kept dancing their insane dance.

He looked surprised:

“Then please step to the side and let me take care of these people.”

My heart raced for a while,  the letters slowed down their dance and finally stopped. I leafed through the papers and pretended to read. When my hand stopped shaking I signed and handed him the papers.  He stamped everything and handed them back to me:

” Welcome to America!  I must say, I’ve been in this job for almost twenty years; You are the first person who asked to read what she signed! Good for you,  you are a responsible person, we need more like you!”

Should I tell him about the dancing letters and the shaky hand?    The smarter side of my brain decided to keep quiet and I entered the United States as a responsible person. This was a good beginning, I thought, and  walked away in search for Cassandra who was waiting for me somewhere in that colorful sea of people on JFK.

Hugs, kisses, more hugs and smiles.  She looked little changed, as if the eight years we were apart went over her, not touching or wrinkling her skin or the brightness of her blue eyes.

After a few hours of driving we turned into a long driveway on the Philadelphia Main Line.

The Ludington’s house was how I imagined the gingerbread house in the Grimm Brothers’ story of Hanns and Gretel.  The outside was painted light green and the windows’ frames and sills as well as the doors, bright white.  The  pink dogwoods and red and white pots of geraniums on each side of the main entrance added more charm and warmth.  The livingroom was rather narrow and long and French doors opened to a large, red-brick patio in the back.  A winding  brick- path led to a kidney-shaped swimming pool.  Many of the things in the living room looked familiar. I touched one of the four Windsor chairs we bought together in Bucharest for $16 to discover they were worth $2,500 each! Did chairs, like people, have destinies or a hidden value that needed discovered?  Cassandra had a unique gift to match the unmatchable and somehow her home, no matter where she made it, whether in the States, Romania, Turkey or Cyprus, had a unique charm,  was a sophisticated mixture of antique furniture, modern paintings and oriental rugs.  One would have thought they wouldn’t fit together, but they did and if I wouldn’t have known she decorated a place, I’d have guessed. Her style was unique and recognizable.

On my first evening in Berwyn we talked until 2:00 AM.   The boys were now teenagers, very different from the blonde innocent kids I babysat in Romania. Nick, like Cassandra, was unchanged, only that he took a break from journalism.  He was working for the Eisenhower Foundation. So much to talk about, so many memories and plans for the future. We talked until I felt my eyes closing and the words weren’t coming out in English anymore, but half in Romanian.  Cassandra showed me to my room.  I unpacked slowly. The next day I didn’t have to pack up again and leave. I could call the Ludington’s house a home!

My luggage still carried the familiar smell of milk and dried flowers from Bucharest, which brought back images of Cristian, passion and hope. I called him. I imagined how happy he’d be I had arrived in America and was staying with the Ludingtons. He knew this was a huge step, I thought, he’d be so happy.

I heard his flat, unemotional voice which didn’t match my expectations:

“Okay then, you’ll let me know ….you’ll call me again.”

I chased away the thought that his voice was distant, that he really didn’t seem to care anymore.  It must have been my imagination, I was tired…

For the following few weeks Cassandra took me everywhere, from the supermarkets to the the thrift stores to the sophisticated Main Line parties to meet their family and friends.

I wouldn’t call it a cultural shock, but an economic shock, especially that I still had fresh in my mind the empty shelves in the Bucharest grocery stores and the greasy, ugly signs in the stores’ windows: Governmental Decree to Rid Bucharest of Rats!   By contrast, in America there were endless isles with a variety of products, some of which I never knew existed.  There were several brands of  coffee and fresh fruits and bananas, mountains of bananas, which we, Romanians, were able to taste once a year, before New Year’s, by standing in endless lines, if the supply wasn’t finished by the time we got at the front of the line. Oh,  and rolls of toilet tissue in unlimited supply!  I could have bought as many rolls as I wanted, I wasn’t limited to two, as in Bucharest.  I could stop carrying toilet paper in my purse, I thought when I soon discovered all public bathrooms had plenty of their own.

And the television… the nature programs, the music, the shows, the  political jokes the comedians made openly, and no one was arresting them!  America was definitely shocking and hard to believe.  In Bucharest, there was a story circulating about President Ceausescu and his wife when they visited Macey’s in New York City.  The story went, the Ceausescus were so shocked by the plenty and the elegance of the famous department store, they thought it was a “show” the Americans put together to impress them.  Ceausescu asked an aide: ‘How long do you think it took them to put together this show for us?”

And there were the Main Line parties, and people asking questions and I, trying to explain the impossible. How could anyone used to so much  plenty everywhere  imagine that in many parts of the world people starve or stand in endless lines to get milk, bread and eggs, if they were lucky enough and the supply didn’t end by the time their turn came.  Most people shook their heads in silence and admitted it was hard, if not impossible to imagine.  But not everyone lacked imagination, and at one of the parties, an attractive young blonde asked detailed questions and listened to my stories for well over half-an hour.  She shook her head in understanding and that encouraged me to tell her more.  That was  someone who understood how lucky people were in America, I thought, and continued to tell her stories about the empty stores, the decree to kill all rats and the lack of basic human freedoms.

I was done my stories and she was still nodding in agreement.  She was in deep thought for a while, and then concluded:

“Yes, I do understand! I know exactly what you mean. A few years ago, we had a shortage of peanut butter here in America.  Can you imagine? NO peanut butter for a whole month! I didn’t know what to do…  It was horrible! The kids went crazy…”

…and so did I!


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