Out of the Transylvania Night has many layers, starting with cultural, social, mystical, and economical and, of course, last but not least, love. It represents the pursue of happiness and the achievement of the American Dream, the ups and downs of a face-paced life in the city that never sleeps - Los Angeles. It deploys the coming together and the falling apart scenes of a family of immigrants who lost the vision, love, and care in the process of blending in and keeping up with the Joneses. A story of a Transylvanian Cinderella, it is also a portrayal of life's dreams and resolutions in the New World, premonitions and déjà-vu, Transylvania’s existence and categorical life imperatives. As love furtively sneaks out when you least expect it, it also creeps in at the right time on the wings of hope. The memoir summarizes human’s desires in an ever-changing world, more demanding and strenuously competitive, where money and material possessions would, for a while, dominate Aura’s existence, only to dissipate as dreams vanish at the crack of dawn, into a more rooted and logically supported existence plagued by ethics, intelligence, charisma and sensibility.
A deftly woven narrative about a young woman’s experience of growing up inside Communist Romania, who flees to the US in search of the America dream, and discovers that freedom—in both free and closed societies—is an innovation of self. An epic tale of identity, love, and the indomitable human spirit.
To eighteen-year-old Aura Imbarus, Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu had turned Romania into a land of zombies as surely as if Count Dracula had sucked its lifeblood. Yet Aura dares to be herself: an optimistic overachiever, heiress to lands confiscated by the regime, and a rebel among the gray-clad, fearful masses. Christmas shopping in 1989, Aura and her parents draw sniper fire as Romania descends into the violence of a revolution that topples one of the most draconian regimes in the Soviet bloc. They hide heirloom jewels and build barricades against five harrowing days of chaos. With a bit of Hungarian mysticism in her blood, astonishingly accurate visions lead Aura into danger as well as a closer connection with the love of her life, handsome and sophisticated Michael Chiorean. Eventually, Aura and Michael marry and flee a homeland still in chaos. With only two pieces of luggage and a powerful dream, they settle in Los Angeles where freedom and sudden wealth challenge their love as powerfully as Communist tyranny. Aura loses her psychic vision. Heirloom jewels are stolen, a fortune is lost, followed by divorce and a death. Reeling at first, Aura and Michael find their way back to each other, this time with joy and the true freedom they discover within. They’ve paid a high price for their materialistic dreams, but gain insight and a love that is far richer. This is a this deftly written memoir of the heart, identity, and the human spirit.
Aura's courage shows the degree to which we are all willing to live lives centered on freedom, hope, and an authentic sense of self.Truly a love story!—Nadia Comaneci, Olympic Champion and Co-Founder of the Nadia Comaneci Children's Clinic in Bucharest
Unforgettable! This book gives the pioneer spirit courage and a brave heart bravado. —AdrianMaher, Filmmaker, Discovery Channel
If you grew up hearing names like Tito, Mao, and Ceausescu but really didn’t understand their significance, read this book! —Mark Skidmore, Paramount Pictures
A remarkable account erasing a past, but not an identity. Thought-provoking, inspirational, and comforting. —Todd Greenfield, 20th Century Fox Studios
This book is sure to find its place in memorial literature of the world. —Beatrice Ungar, Editor in chief, Hermannstädter Zeitung
The Eyes of Sibiu
THE TREES ON MY STREET HAD GROWN MICROPHONES. Ten million microphones—not for broadcasting, but for listening—loomed throughout my country over a population of twenty-three million, one for every two and a third people. The sense of constant scrutiny pervaded us like a ghost of old Vlad the Impaler, whose castle still stood on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains from my home in Sibiu. On the morning of December 21st, 1989, I had no sense that we’d be watched more intensely than usual, though the day would change the history of Romania. On my first day of winter break, I just wanted to eke out a little Christmas, a holiday that had officially ceased to exist over 40 years ago.
My parents and I were getting ready to go shopping in the Piata Mare, Piata Mica—plazas great and small—and Balceşcu Street. My mom had taken a day off from her job as a lab technician in a sweets factory, and Dad would be leaving for his job as an electronics technician at the Sibiu Airport. Everybody shopped early to stand in long lines before going to work, and if we didn’t shop then, everything would be gone in an hour or two. I wanted to cheer my Buni, my father’s mother, with a pretty new dress for the illicit holiday. I also wanted to look nice that day because an interesting Someone might be out shopping, and I wanted to draw an admiring gaze.
Should I risk wearing my red faux Coco Chanel, I asked myself as I admired the jacket made of material smuggled in from our German relatives, or play it safe in the black sweater Buni knitted for me? We’d worked out the design together, and she managed to turn the yarn into something fashionable. Romanian co-op fabrics tended to be gray, gray-and-brown plaid, black, dull checks or stripes, or, occasionally, a few somber shades of blue and green—never any colors that were warm or bright—all sharing a drab ugliness, as if grayness had spread like cholera, entering houses, covering our bodies, taking over lives, and dulling our minds.
“Come on, Aura, hurry up for goodness’ sake!” My dad called from the front door. “What’s taking you so long?”
“Just a minute,” I answered.
“Rica,” I could hear Dad saying to my mom, “Go to your daughter’s room and speed up the process! Ughh, women!”
Mom walked into my room to help me out with my crucial decision.
Even under a brutally strict communist regime, I was picky about my clothes and had been creating my own wardrobe since I was fourteen. I loathed the clothing from the trade co-ops, the “Cooperativa Mestesugaresca,” their dusty shelves and rusty metal hangers offering garments that look more like uniforms for prisoners or orphanage donations. Mismatched suits were either too short or too long and required an expert tailor’s skill to redesign them into anything presentable. I constantly scoured the black market for fabrics, accessories, zippers, buckles, thread, buttons, and lining. Even though I was only a senior in high school, I’d earned money tutoring during the last four years. I copied designs from catalogs sent by my relatives in Germany and smuggled into the country. I also created dresses for Mom and for Buni who rewarded me with money for every A on my report card. As a straight A student, my little “pension” would allow a few nice things—if we could find them.
“Aura, sweetheart, pick something and let’s go.” My mother was soft and round and her eyes always reminded me of Sophia Loren’s, dark and sparkling, beautifully outlined by her long, curled eyelashes and perfectly shaped eyebrows. “Come on!”
“Maybe I will just wear my black sweater with my green wool pants. I don’t think it’s so chilly outside.” It was a decision that may have saved my life.
The ice crunched beneath my black boots as I trudged with my parents across the slick walkways. Our house grew smaller behind us, and the bare chestnuts, childhood friends that harbored my shoes among their green branches in summer, blurred the house further, as if erasing our safe haven. We turned right onto Rusciorului Street and walked past Suru, the corner tavern named after a mountain peak. At 6:30 A.M. before work, during work breaks, and after work, people hung around outside, dressed in their dreary, unwashed clothing, throwing away their meager salaries on alcohol, the only pleasure that could soften the grueling boredom of working long repetitious hours six days a week. The reek of sweat and government rotgut made my nostrils sting. If they looked at me, their expressions were sulky. Most averted their eyes. Dracula’s victims were called “the undead.” These drudges could hang out with them and go unnoticed. Dad nudged my elbow to hurry me past these degraded people.
I heard a train approaching, coming from Copsa Mica. Emissions from a nearby factory that produced carbon black for dyes had earned this station the distinction of being one of the most polluted in Europe. The factory’s steady belch coated homes, trees, and even animals with soot. A smelter in the area emitted such noxious vapors that it had caused lung disease, impotence, and a life expectancy nine years below Romania’s average.
The uneven pavement and potholes made the streets a dangerous place to walk. My parents and I passed the usual houses, the paint faded and flaking, the dingy bricks chipped. Ghostly slanted chimneys loomed, as if ready to collapse on our heads. The carbon and the sickly green of moss and mold rendered a uniform drabness that extended to the discolored window curtains hanging in tatters inside dirty, cracked windows.
Dad said, “It’s going to snow again.” He nodded toward the low, gray clouds that were moving along the vast, white Carpathians just south of Sibiu. “Maybe a blizzard.”
Yesterday and all last week, the weather had been mild, the cold sun shining in vibrant blue skies, glaring off the snow on the steep, tiled roofs, melting and freezing into silvery icicles, brightening the banks along the dirty streets. This city could be a truly charming place if its old world charm were restored. Now, the leaden sky dampened my holiday mood.
I shivered. The red jacket would have kept me warmer. I tugged my black knit angora beret— which I thought looked quite flirtatious against my auburn hair—down over my ears and pulled on black leather gloves, gifts from my parents after careful saving. Despite the deprivation in our lives, I considered myself, at age eighteen, quite fashionable. By Western standards, my clothing may not have been special, but in my city of Sibiu in Transylvania, I stood out—which wasn’t exactly a good thing.
“Aura! Dear God!” My father turned to my mother. “Do you see what she’s wearing?” He turned back to me. “Are you crazy?”
I felt the blood rush into my cheeks as if they’d been pinched. I’d hoped that for once I could just wear my jeweled Byzantine cross set with diamonds, a cross no taller than the end of my thumb. I’d received it from Buni when I passed my entrance to Octavian Goga High School. It was part of my family’s heirloom, passed down through the generations in secrecy for fear or being confiscated by the many oppressive governments that held power over the years. I was so proud to have received it, and I knew better than to show it off, but it was almost Christmas, and what good was having something in a box, never publicly enjoying it?
“Cover it up. Now!” Dad said. “You already draw too much attention. Do you really want to get us all in trouble because of your vanity?”
My mother jumped in to save me, calling my father by his pet name. “Fanel, don’t make such a fuss for nothing. There is nobody around us anyway.”
“Nobody you see,” Dad said. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t here, watching, listening, following our moves. We must always be in control! Use your mind before acting, Aura!”
“Ok, I will, I promise.” I tucked in my white gold cross, so cold, so virgin to strangers’ eyes, so beautiful.
Just then two neighbor ladies crossed our path, but we didn’t exchange a Christmas greeting. We nodded, and they sort of twitched. One of the women in a threadbare gray coat eyed my beret and green pants and then murmured something to her companion, most likely critical of my attire, which defied the government-mandated drabness. Clothing that exhibited any semblance of individuality was forbidden because individuality threatened the communist agenda. I knew I was already on a black list somewhere, but the whispers of the women sent a chill up my spine. Spies were always listening, opening and checking every piece of mail. Every other neighbor became a secret agent and informant for Securitate.
If your face registered all the pessimism, sadness and pain you felt, nobody thought anything of it, but if you squinted in defiance or spilled over with excitement or laughed in merriment, someone would notice you and wonder why. He or she would start watching you. The homeland that had produced Vlad—Dracula’s prototype—had somehow inhabited the soul of our President and General Secretary of the Communist Party of Romania, Tovarasul Nicolae Ceauşescu. Tovarasul meant the comrade of comrades, the one most equal among equals—in other words dictator.
Nothing drew public scrutiny like the spending of money, and spies would eagerly report someone who might not be able to account for certain expenditures, who might have an independent thought. Some people suspected their own parents or siblings or other family members and neighbors as informants, people who’d been lured into spying on locals because of an alleged crime, usually the sort of cheating everyone did to try and support their families—such as shopping on the black market.
People of all ages, some in clusters, headed toward the town squares in greater numbers than usual—the only clue that revealed any holiday expectations. An outside observer would assume
we were on a grim march of some kind. There were no decorations, no carols playing from speakers, no gypsy music, no color anywhere. For all but a few days out of the year, there was no purpose and no future, no desire. Yet at Christmas, many people seemed to reach deep down in their souls to rekindle a reason to live. They covertly sang and danced around a small fir tree, snitched from the forests that were all guarded by government rangers. From the dank, black holes in the earth where the miners toiled, to the plant workers who labored long hours for subsistence wages, to the peasants who scraped away at their dry plots of land, the Christmas season offered the only flicker of gaiety in a country that bore the weight of tyranny.
I searched the faces of young men for the one I most wanted to see, but I saw no one else I knew that day, though I glimpsed a wary animation that morning, an occasional expression that could turn into a smile. Certainly no one suspected that the Christmas season of 1989 would be any different from those of the last five years.
We turned left onto Karl Marx Street with its state-run markets. We always hit them first before everything was gone. The basic sources of survival—bread, milk, sugar, butter, potatoes, and meat—had become increasingly scarce, and lines stretched ever longer. Only last week, my parents woke up at 3:00 A.M. to stand in line until 6:00 A.M. to get milk. My mother had saved eggs to bake a pie that would last the family two weeks. Luckily, we still owned a refrigerator with a freezer that worked, though both were often empty. The state allowed each individual to buy no more than ten eggs, 500 grams of meat (just over one pound), one liter of cooking oil, and half a kilo of sugar per month.
Mom dragged me into a government grocery store, while Dad waited outside. I stared at the gray, dusty shelves offering mustard, more mustard, and even more mustard. Jars of pickles filled other shelves, but our lives were already sour, so who needed pickles? We passed right by the dark, unrefined soy oil for cooking and the bottles of horrible-tasting cola-colored juice made from prunes. Mom bee-lined over to the produce section, only to find a display of nearly rotten apples. Though Ceauşescu had outlawed Christmas, its celebration was tolerated to some extent, so one time per year, grocery shops received oranges and bananas, wondrous flavors we would savor and remember throughout the whole year. On Christmas day last year, a working day, my parents rushed out early in the morning to queue up to buy one kilogram of each of the fruit delicacies— which, in English, I used to mistakenly call delicatessens. But on this gray morning of the twenty- first, no part of the exotic fruit shipment had arrived.
Next we tried the refrigerated section. There, a few small bricks of cheeses that were mixed with starch or flour lay aside the “Bucureşti Salami,” consisting of soy, bone meal, and pork lard, and, the piece de resistance, “tacâmuri de pui,” which meant chicken wings, gizzards, and claws.
“Pfhh!” Mom said.
Of course, she didn’t really expect much better. Our renowned Sibiu and “Victory” salamis along with high and mid-grade meats were strictly for export. Goods of any quality went out into the world, a world that was supposedly starving just like we were.
Mom and I both stopped to gawk at one display of endless bottles of cheap champagne called “vin spumos.” We thought of it as fizzled wine. Why would anyone need sour champagne? What government mockery was this? What did they imagine worthy of celebrating? Another year lived near starvation? A moment to toast the idea that under communism, equal rights meant equal misery?
We couldn’t even whisper these thoughts to each other in public, but Mom gave me a look that told me she was thinking the same thing.
Dad stepped inside and subtly tapped his watch. Since the check-out queue stretched for what looked like a half-hour wait, we left with nothing in Mom’s shopping bag. We had to meet one of her underground connections made through a somebody who knew somebody who had a supply of things the stores didn’t sell. At Christmas, people tried to buy almost anything not made in Romania, like women’s clothing and blue jeans. Any American brand cost the equivalent of between $100 and $300 for a new pair of jeans. French and German cosmetics sold well also, along with electronics from Western Europe or Japan, and any Swiss, German, French, or Belgian chocolates. Currency, gold and other jewelry were traded only on the black market, so authorities couldn’t track them. Everyone was supposed to declare jewelry among his or her possessions. The beautiful cross I wore exceeded the limit of diamonds allowed as a personal possession. Dad was right. I was an idiot to wear it.
We trekked on toward the imposing Piata Mare, where the famous “eyes” of the buildings still looked down on all who entered. Originally a grain market that began in the early 1400s, the site of beheadings, hangings, and even cages for “crazy people,” the square gave rise to a unique architecture. Its buildings featured attic windows, which peeped out of a smooth rise in the roof— instead of a gable—forming an uncanny “eyelid” that hung over dark, recessed panes. It looked as if black, unblinking human eyes, sometimes five to a single stretch of tiled roof, were always
watching. With Ceauşescu in power, this felt especially disturbing and eerie. They saw you, but you had no idea what or who was hiding behind those haunting windows.
Closer to the Piata, Mom kept looking around, subtly shifting, so she could scan for our black market man without drawing attention. She most wanted to buy items that served as a second currency in Romania: Kent, Marlboro, and Camel cigarettes, Johnny Walker, Ballantine’s Scotch, and Teacher’s Whiskey, the items that would get you what you wanted. Everyone bribed medical employees—nurses, doctors, and dentists, even the hospital security guards. To get a raise or secure a job, you bribed your boss. Bribing the City Hall administration was the only way to get a permit, approval or avoid fines. You bribed the Militia (Police) to get out of trouble—real, pending, or just imaginary. You bribed your auto shop to get your car fixed, if you were lucky enough to have one. You bribed the manager at your grocery store, so that he’d share the good news when they were “getting something,” like fresh meat, sugar, oil or any “delicatessens.” Even if you shopped in approved department stores, you had to bribe certain managers to buy the occasional imported appliance, clothing, or other goods. Romanians were forbidden to possess foreign currency, particularly U.S. dollars and German DM-Deutsche Marks. People went to jail for transactions of merely $40 USD.
I was eager to see if this particular contact carried chocolate, which I craved like an addict. We were looking for a “Gigi Kent,” part of the underground world, the one you never wanted to know about but couldn’t live without. His real name might be George, but he’d go by his nickname, “Gigi.” His specialty was his surname, as in Kent cigarettes. One Gigi Kent was a doorman at the Continental Hotel and wore a uniform. He sold chocolate, soap, peanuts, and cigarettes. If you bought a pack of smokes for ten to twenty dollars, you wouldn’t get arrested, so he was a god to anyone in a hurry for American cigarettes. There was always another side to this sort of god, however.
Anyone in uniform—policemen, postmen, anyone in security—was likely to meet many people in the course of a day, and so they became potentially valuable to the machinery of state operations. Many black market operators were also part of the eyes and ears of authority’s web. Anyone who tried to buy, say, $500 worth of cigarettes from Gigi Kent could get into instant trouble, big trouble. He or she would be arrested, held by the police or Securitate for intimidation during the night, and by next morning that “customer” would agree to become an informant. If the police determined that the new informant was well connected in his or her place of work or had a
sizable social network, he was “invited” back to the Police or Securitate, and there, in some petty bureaucrat’s office, he would “negotiates” his future “support” for the principles of communism. His future and that of his family would depend on whether or not “they” decided that he might prove valuable to them.
We kept moving toward the square to connect with our new Gigi Kent, but since we carried no bundles or shopping bags of groceries, I got nervous, fearing the consequences of the wrong attitude, the wrong comment being overheard, the wrong black market vendor turning our names over to the Securitate. If we were caught, they’d discover my cross. I must have looked frightened because Mom gave my hand a little squeeze.
We couldn’t see any morning sun at all through the heavy cloud cover, and the mountain’s icy breath left my woolen clothes feeling like skimpy summer weight cotton. On the walkway ahead of us, a child coughed, and Mom started coughing as well. We’d passed other people wheezing and coughing up phlegm behind the closed doors. My mom and I both suffered from bronchitis and asthma due to the cold temperature in our house, at school, and at work. During winter, the temperature in all public places couldn’t exceed sixteen degrees Celsius/sixty-three degrees Fahrenheit. The government rationed gas and allowed each family a mere twenty kilowatts of electricity per month. Temperatures over our long winters never reached anything like comfort.
Just inside the Piata Mare, we turned toward Perla, a bakery. No one who could be a Gigi Kent stood there smoking, though we were exactly on time.
“He’s not coming,” I said, sulking a bit. “Ohh, I could almost taste the chocolate.” “Let’s go to the Piata Mica,” Mom said. “You can get your fabric for Buni.” We started walking toward the Piata Mica. The black market trader’s failure to appear might
have been a clue that the day would not be a normal shopping day. The man might have known things we did not. Oddly, as I walked alongside my parents, I thought of the college applications and exams I’d be taking and how hard that year was going to be. An Armageddon year, I told myself.
I had no idea how accurate my prophecy would be.
As we neared the smaller square, two guys dressed in black rushed past us, speaking a foreign language. The Securitate usually wore black as if on endless funeral duty, but we rarely heard foreign languages in the street.
“Aura!” Mom said. “What were they saying?”
I had taken foreign languages since the age of four and was familiar with English, French and German. “Something in a Slavic language. I really didn’t get it.”
“Slavic? Interesting,” Dad said. “Wonder who they were....”
We were only a few blocks from the entrance to the Piata Mica. A thirteenth century Council Tower divided the large square from a small one. As we approached, I could see one of the slanted roofs, which also had an “eye” in the middle. Snow covered the “lid,” and icicles hung from its eave like hoary, defeated eyelashes. It looked weird, diabolic. “Old Frosty Man,” an imagined gift- giving figure enthroned in the Communist coup against Saint Nicholas, must have had such an eye.
It started to snow, and I felt it melting into my hair at the back of my neck and dampening my face. A cold white shawl settled on the shoulders of my sweater. The snowflakes danced in lazy flurries, reminding me not of a Christmas carol but of the delicately insinuating opening adagio of Ravel’s “Bolero.” A fragile moment of beauty and simple perfection...just before hell released its demons.
A loud popping erupted all around. People screamed and shouted as a volley of gunfire echoed off the buildings. Bullets zinged past me. Children clung to their parents.
People took cover, and just beyond, I saw that blood had splattered on the fresh white dusting of snow.
Chaos. Desperation. Terror. My God, I was scared. My father’s arm crashed against my back and I dived, hitting the ice and cobblestones in the
street. I ate snow.