When she was a teenager Misti Traya travelled from America to spend three months working in an orphanage in Romania. This is what happened to her…

When I was 15, I went on a mission of mercy.  My mission was this:  Dear God, please let the Ivies have mercy on my mediocre SAT scores and please let it be Harvard or Brown.  And so I put on my most altruistic face and most sensible shoes and spent 12 weeks working in an orphanage in Transylvania in the tiny town of Făgăraș.

This trip was not part of a program where I’d meet kids from around the world to celebrate diversity even though everyone’s parents only ever stayed at the Four Seasons.  I would not have a Parisian roommate who wore Lanvin by day and slept with a stuffed toy frog at night.  I would not play lacrosse in lightning bug lit fields nor flirt with boys in the common room.

This was not rich kid summer school.  This was post-Ceaușescu Romania and this goodwill tour was the price I had to pay for not being shiny enough on paper.

My parents organized my travel via my aunt’s former facialist, Monique.  She had recently left America to go back to Romania.  During Ceaușescu’s Communist regime, her parents were thrown in jail.  She and her siblings were put in different orphanages.  In the mid 90s, the Romanian government tried to redistribute the wealth to the rightful owners but there was one caveat.  You had to be a citizen.  That’s why she returned and that’s why for a sum unbeknownst to me she told my parents she’d be my cultural attaché.

The first morning I awoke it was not because of church bells but because of a ranting Romani woman who had broken down the door.  She accosted me on the sofa where I had been sleeping and screamed at me.  Monique rushed out of her room, grabbed a mop and forcibly pushed this woman out of the flat.  Still wielding said mop, she turned to me and casually asked if I wanted breakfast.

Our meal was an aspartame based instant coffee mix prepared with goat’s milk.  Sickeningly sweet yet stinkingly goaty.  Monique explained that she had given this woman, this tzigane, some clothes and that now she kept coming back demanding more or complaining about the quality of what Monique had charitably passed on to her.

After she washed our mugs, Monique gave me a key and pointed out the window.  “Town is that way.  You should be back by dark.”  She was leaving me.  What did she expect me to do all day?  I was 15, still technically a child.  In an apartment with a busted door.  In a town where I’d never been.  Without a map.  In a country where I didn’t speak the language.  I thought this had to be child abuse.  At least in the Western world.

I decided to wash off the staleness of two days’ travel.  Of course, there was no hot water.  Later I’d learn there wasn’t ever.  I had to be washed cold in the tub just like my clothes.  I worried about the freshness of my socks and under things.  I wondered how long the scent of Snuggle fabric softener would linger.  And whether or not the creases Lucy ironed into my trousers would stay.

In town everything looked bruised.  The people.  The land. The scant rotting fruit vendors were selling.  Smoke rose in the distance and a wind from the north brought the stench of molten tar with it.  I felt sick.  Still my stomach rumbled.

I saw a corner shop and went inside only to discover there was nothing to buy.  I had never conceived of such a situation.  For a moment I thought I’d died and woken up in an Ionesco play.  But there I was very much alive and wearing a money belt stuffed with cash that couldn’t buy me a thing.  I left disheartened and hungry and in search of the orphanage.

At the Casa de Copii, I met Maria.  She stood out from the others.  Not just because they were all Roma and she wasn’t but because of her hurt.  It was new.  She never cried but I saw it flood the pools of her fathomless blue eyes.  She had only been at the orphanage a month.  Where the others had grown up there and couldn’t remember any other life, Maria still had memories outside those walls.

One evening, by the orphanage’s gates, there was a girl slightly younger than me.  She was very interested in what I was doing.  She spoke Romanian, German, some English and some French.  Between the last two, we understood most of what the other said.  Her name was Ella and she became my friend.  She lived with her grandparents who never left their home as her grandfather was one of Ceaușescu’s right-hand men and thought it safest to live out his days in isolation.

Ella started going to the orphanage with me and it was she who told me about Maria.  “Maria says her father died and her mother couldn’t afford to keep her.  First she sold everything, including Maria’s father’s piano.  Then she took her here and promised to come back when she had enough money.  But Maria doesn’t think she’ll return.  She has a baby sister and her mother didn’t give her up.  She thinks her mother’s boyfriend didn’t want her.  He’s the baby’s father.”  Maria’s story was a child’s nightmare or the narrative of a Roald Dahl book.  It wasn’t supposed to be real life.  I decided she was my favorite.

There was a piano at the orphanage.  Old and out of tune.  Lots of girls banged away at its keys.  Maria never played.  Then one day during lunch, she did.  She just got up from her place at the table and walked to the piano.  There was no stool so she stood and started playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune.  The way she played it was like listening to something beautiful get swept out to sea.  When she finished, she looked up and smiled.  At me.  It was the first time I ever saw her happy and I’m ashamed to say I left for home in a flood of tears.

Monique’s apartment smelled of sulfur when I entered.  She had found a red coiled thread in the kitchen that afternoon and knew it was a gypsy curse.  She went to Brâncoveanu Monastery in Sâmbăta de Sus and sought the counsel of a monk.  He told her to visit a yelle, a witch, down the Olt River.  The yelle instructed her to urinate on the string and burn it then bury the ashes.  I came home in the middle of this procedure.

By the end of my trip, I had dispensed of almost all my money.  I spent it on trinkets and clothes for the girls.  I spent it on berries if I was lucky enough to see Rom selling them at extortionate prices on the side of the road.  I gave it to Roma children whose parents forced them to beg and would slap them in front of you if you didn’t give them enough as a ploy to emotionally manipulate you into giving more.  I spent it on a train ride to Budapest the day I was so overwhelmed I needed to run away.

On the train ride back, I sat next to a doctor.  She was a literature professor and she told me that Romanian witches’ curses cross seas.  She asked if I wore a charm to ward off evil.  When I said that I did not, she took off her necklace and gave it to me.  On it was an amulet in the shape of a fish, gold and lapis lazuli.  I wondered how someone so educated could be so superstitious.  Then I thought about all I had seen.  And how perhaps when there is no explanation for the circumstances around you, it’s impossible not to question the existence of God or why he plays favorites and why none of them live in Romania.

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About Author Profile: Misti Traya'

Misti Traya is an actress and writer living in London. Her recipes and ramblings can be found at Chagrinnamon Toast.

15 thoughts on “Mercy

    April 8, 2015 at 11:27

    Excellent stuff, Misti, if a tad depressing.

    With regard to the superstition displayed by all and sundry; you only have to live outside of the developed world for a while, in circumstances where your control over life and (usually awful) events is next to nonexistent, to start grabbing at any and all means, natural and supernatural, to recover it. I saw that after three months in Western Uganda in the mid-Eighties.

    April 8, 2015 at 15:25

    Thank you. I know it’s a bit sad, but so was my experience as were most of the people I met. Somewhere in storage in Los Angeles are prints from the 40 rolls of black and white film I took with me. I mostly photographed dogs, Vlad Dracul’s castles, and the girls at the orphanage, especially Maria.

  3. Worm
    April 8, 2015 at 16:38

    very beautiful and very sad! Romania is a country i’ve always wanted to visit since reading PL Fermor

      April 9, 2015 at 11:12

      I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read any Fermor though he’s my aunt’s favorite writer. If I were to start, which of his books would you recommend?

        April 9, 2015 at 12:11

        The trilogy that takes him from London to Constantinople: A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road.

    April 9, 2015 at 13:29

    Thanks. I have just ordered all three.

    • Worm
      April 10, 2015 at 10:32

      You’re in for a treat! (and also likely to get a major travel bug…)

      • Brit
        April 10, 2015 at 12:03

        I must be the only Dabbler who can take or leave Fermor. I found him a terrible show-off.

        • Worm
          April 10, 2015 at 13:52

          oh he is! But there’s something all Miss Havisham about the cobwebbed faded aristos that he visits in their crumbling castles that I like.

    Jonathan Law
    April 11, 2015 at 12:05

    Until Brit mentioned it a few months back, I hadn’t picked up on PLF’s mastery of the humblebrag, but once you begin to notice this it becomes really terribly funny. Here he is in A Time of Gifts, plodding wearily through Swabia and wishing he’d taken the trouble to get a bit more poetry by heart:

    The range is fairly predictable and all too revealing … There was a great deal of Shakespeare, numerous speeches, most of the choruses of Henry V, long stretches of A Midsummer Night’s Dream … a number of the Sonnets, many detached fragments … Several Marlowe speeches … and stretches of Spenser’s Pro- and Epithalamion; most of Keats’s Odes; the usual pieces of Tennyson, Browning and Coleridge; very little Shelley … Nothing from the eighteenth century except Gray’s Elegy and some of The Rape of the Lock; some Blake; The Burial of Sir John Moore; bits of The Scholar Gypsy; some Scott; fragments of Swinburne, any amount of Rossetti … some Francis Thompson and some Dowson; one sonnet of Wordsworth; bits of Hopkins; and, like all English people with any Irish links, Rolleston’s translation of The Dead of Clonmacnois; a great deal of Kipling; and some of the verses from Hassan … passages from Donne and Herrick, and Quarles, one poem of Raleigh, one of Sir Thomas Wyatt, one of Herbert, two of Marvell; a few Border ballads; an abundance of A. E. Housman … stretches of Chaucer … a lot of Carroll and Lear … Prose writers would have been Aldous Huxley, Norman Douglas and Evelyn Waugh … If the road stretched interminably longer pieces would come to the surface; all Horatius and a lot of Lake Regillus … Grantchester; and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – intact then, now a heap of fragments …

    My bridgehead in French poetry didn’t penetrate very far: a few nursery rhymes, one poem of Theodore de Banville, two of Baudelaire, part of one of Verlaine, Yeats’s Ronsard sonnet in the original, and another of du Bellay … large quantities of Villon ( … I had translated a number of the ballades and rondeaux from the Grand Testament into English verse and they had turned out more respectably than any other of my attempts of the same kind). Most of the Latin contribution is as predictable as the rest: passages of Virgil … the second and sixth books of the Aeneid, with sallies into the Georgics and the Eclogues … Catullus – a dozen short poems and stretches of the Attis … Horace … a number of the Odes … (One of them – I. ix. Ad Thaliarchum – came to my rescue in strange circumstances a few years later … among the crags of occupied Crete …)

    Hotfoot on Horace came Hadrian’s lines to his soul … and Petronius’ ten counter-balancing verses … some passages of the Pervigilium Veneris … one or two early Latin hymns and canticles … the Dies Irae and the Stabat Mater … a smattering of profane Medieval Latin lyrics, many of them from the monastery of Benediktbeuern … the opening movement of the Odyssey … snatches of Aristophanes; a few epitaphs of Simonides, two moon-poems of Sappho …

    A give-away collection … backward-looking, haphazard, unscholarly … But there are one or two beams of hope, and I feel bound to urge in self-defence that Shakespeare …overshadowed all the rest …

    I mean, fancy getting to 18 and being able to recite only two poems by Baudelaire, a dozen by Catullus, and a few Border ballads (those things have about 80 verses each). Brave, too, to admit to having only a smattering of profane Medieval Latin lyrics at your command…

    • Brit
      April 11, 2015 at 15:43

      Doesn’t he also casually – almost accidentally – seduce lots of beautiful women along the way, too?

    • Brit
      April 11, 2015 at 15:46

      PS – there’s surely a brilliant (and gloriously contrarian, given how fashionable he is currently) article waiting to be written here on The Humblebragging of Patrick Leigh Fermor?

        Jonathan Law
        April 11, 2015 at 16:08

        I particularly like that “all English people with any Irish links”. I mean, if there’s one thing I remember more than others about my Irish great-aunts and uncles it’s the way you could never get them off the subject of Rolleston’s translation of The Dead of Clonmacnois. First great-aunt Kathleen would venture a little shy allusion, then great-uncle Ted would chip in with his booming Cork accent, and before you knew it we’d have the whole thing through in both English and Irish, several times, all from memory of course.

  6. Brit
    April 11, 2015 at 15:55

    Ah right, I’ve found the stuff I wrote about Fermor now – it was actually in Oct 2013 (tempus fugit etc):

    “Perhaps that’s why Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to wait until middle age before writing his teenage journals. Reading A Time of Gifts – the first volume of his account of his youthful adventures walking across Europe in the 1940s – I was dazzled, of course, by his sublime prose (described very well by Douglas here), but also something was nagging at me. The wicked little satirical man who lurks in the bad bits of my brain wouldn’t stop sniggering. The moment of realisation came on page 54, when Fermor describes a drunken night out in Cologne with some trawlermen, where he ends up dancing with a girl who was “very pretty except for two missing front teeth” (these having been “knocked out in a brawl the week before, she told me”); and then in the next paragraph he goes to a bookshop because “it had occurred to me that I might learn German quicker by reading Shakespeare in the translation.”

    Upon reading this passage, the penny dropped that A Time of Gifts is best understood as the most brilliant and sustained work of one-upmanship in the history of literature. Imagine being one of Fermor’s ‘friends’ and reading that? You’d have no chance. Once you see the book through Stephen Potter’s eyes, it all makes sense, especially the ‘humblebragging’ opening letter which introduces the author and his tearaway schooldays (“Dear Xan… It is hard to believe that 1942 in Crete, when we first met – both us of black-turbaned, booted and cloaked in white goat’s hair, and deep in grime – was more than three decades ago.”). As every lifeman knows, being expelled from a series of posh public schools is the most effective educationploy in the book.”

    and Gaw commented:

    “Here’s a letter to the editor in the latest TLS from a Mr Leach, who’s similarly appreciative of PLF’s ‘lifemanship’:

    Sir, — Ben Dowling’s admirable review of Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s The Broken Road (September 27) could hardly be fairer, but I wish he had found room to mention the author’s occasional hidden jokes at the reader’s expense: “In the cafes would be Armenians reading from pages of their fascinating script, which to inexpert eyes looks so similar to the Amharic writing of the Ethiopians” (page 30: my italics). Who among us has not made that silly mistake?”

  7. Worm
    April 11, 2015 at 16:43

    Brit and JL – seriously I concur with what Brit has said above, your conversation here would make the beginnings of a first rate (and very funny) article about PLF for the Spectator…

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