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Divergences (letter from Paris).

I got off the bus at Chatelet intending to cross the Seine on foot. Paris looked splendid at that hour. The sun was setting amid a decor worthy of one of the great Impressionist painters. The lights of The Mirage quivered on the dark water, trailing playfully behind the vessel as it made its way towards the majestic arches of the Pont au Change. I would have liked to go down on to the deck for a moment and hold a glass of champagne to let myself grow drunk on the fascinating atmosphere of that insanely tantalising world. But I quickly had to abandon that flight of fancy, since my sons were already waiting for me at a restaurant in the Latin Quarter, where we planned to eat seafood that evening.

It may seem strange to you, but the whole range of dishes on the menu at that restaurant-mussels, oysters, prawns, lobster-are in perfect keeping with our Eastern European tastes, as if the Sarmatian Sea had not yet drained away into the depths of the earth and the fishes swam even today above the Plain of Soroca.

You ought to know that we have not had the same problem as Emil Goran, who did not discover the taste of food until he arrived in Paris. With great skill and devotion, my mother took care to cultivate in us-in me and then in my own children-the pleasure of tasty eating. After she passed away, I painstakingly had to reconstruct a number of recipes that were benchmarks within the family, in order to remind my sons what it meant for there to be a woman around who could, at a pinch, cook delicious food. But that was not the case today: I would be savouring the pleasure of being served the food I ate.

No doubt you are aware that the French are currently the best in the world when it comes to culinary matters. French gastronomy has thrashed its Italian rival, leaving it with a swollen lip and macaroni stuck between its teeth. It has taken up comfortable residence as part of UNESCO heritage. Voila! And may my compatriots who have emigrated to The Boot forgive me, but French foie gras is clearly tastier than Italian pizza, even if the latter is cheaper and much handier. Let me take this opportunity to reveal a secret that perhaps you know already: the elixir of youth that mankind has been desperately seeking since the beginning of time has proven to lie hidden in a well-stuffed French duck. I read somewhere that the inhabitants of a town in northern France (don't ask me which, as I can't remember) are the longest-lived in the world. And do you know why? Because every morning they eat a slice of bread a la campagne, spread with duck grease and copiously sprinkled with garlic juice.

Duck was also behind the recent fierce controversy in the French Government regarding pension reform. After you feed him with lard, raw liver and duck, how can you let a man retire at the age of sixty, when he stubbornly insists on living to almost a hundred?' say the indignant French right. 'Let him work at least another two years, damn it, if not five!' comes the rumble from behind Nicolas Sarkozy

'But how many Frenchmen nowadays, during the economic crisis, can afford to put duck on the table?' ask the left and the unions, quite rightly ...

Leaving it up to them to count how many (the uproar looks set to continue for quite a while), let me return to our neck of the woods: Moldovan politicians can hardly be said to suffer from such headaches. Our pensioners, fed on who knows what and sifted by the hard times we have always suffered, don't live long enough to make a hole in the country's budget (which is what happens in Romania) or to hang like a millstone from society's neck. And the ones who do live are humble and content with little: give them a loaf of bread on the day before the elections and their fate is sealed. Theirs and their children's!

That's the way it is ... since we haven't cultivated, a la francaise, a taste for foie gras! Even though we do have ducks aplenty. It proves yet again that you are what you eat. Long live the national mamaliga, our rough maize porridge! But even so, let us not forget that we are living in the age of globalisation and mutual influences. Can we really be so immune to contamination?

And since we are on the subject of French gastronomic heritage: having seen its undeniable qualities confirmed, it has let the attendant glory go to its head. Armed with an array of fish, fowls and beasts (both domestic and wild), which include the aforementioned and omnipresent duck, it has shoved other French values to one side, values that are older, but no less important for that.

From what I have observed, the bloodiest such battle is being waged on that legendary Parisian hill, Montmartre. Yes, that is also where you can find the Sacre-Coeur church, impressive not only for its architecture, like a white castle floating in the sky, but also for the image of Christ within the cupola. His arms outspread like wings, ready to embrace His fellow man. His image, almost translucent at first, acquires a firmer contour as it enters the heart. A blue luminosity, it hovers above all who enter that place of worship and who feel the need to lift their eyes to on high, in order to seek and perhaps even find meaning and equilibrium. The immediate environs of the church were a hotbed of painting in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, attracting artists such as Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Modigliani, and Picasso. Even today, the Place du Tertre still preserves the same atmosphere, one imbued with art and music.

Well, the newly crowned culinary culture, raucous and uninhibited, has crowded the painters and their works onto the edge of the sidewalk, which it has shamelessly and insouciantly overrun with its open-air cafes, although, to be fair, only for the duration of the summer, i.e. from April to November. Yes, my dear fellow writers, Arcadie Suceveanu and Leo Butnaru, I regret to break the news to you, but the place that once filled you with such enthusiasm looks very different today.

I was fuming and fulminating at an altitude of 130 metres above Paris and making a three-fingered sign (albeit with my hand in my pocket) every time a languorous waiter urged me to take a seat at a table. As chance would have it, I put the confrontations behind me when, picking my way through the crush, I set eyes on a splendid painting of red poppies. Such was its miraculous power that it unfurrowed my brow and opened up a little path to nirvana. It cost 150 euros, but I couldn't just leave it there. As I already had one at home, painted by Cezar Secrieru, I thought of persuading my friend Delia to buy it. Thirty-three years old, she came from Romania to Paris and works as a doctor in an ophthalmological clinic. She is depressed and in urgent need of a boost to her morale. Do you really think that depression is only a modern disease? Not at all! Don't you remember the folktales from times long passed, in which the king's daughter is sick from sadness and her father is prepared to give away half his kingdom (daughter and all) to any man who can bring a smile back to her face? You see? Then why should you be surprised if Delia, who is beautiful and earns eight thousand a month, is faced with the same problem? Do you really think she has no reason? As the song says: Without love there is nothing. After all, we are talking about values.

But to get back to the point, my weakness for the poppy goes back a long way, and I should make it plain that I am not just talking about its beautiful flower. The time has come for me to confess to you, like a penitent to a psychoanalyst, that I have been a junkie from an early age. I took my first sizeable dose of opium from the sides of the mortar in which my mother was grinding poppy stalks for cakes. I loved the taste! I kept dipping my finger in, nibbling, until my pupils dilated and I collapsed into a sleep of vividly coloured dreams. After that, I became addicted to the sweet milk of the poppy and when Saturday came and the fire was lit in the stove, I would sit on a stool in front of the mortar-a true ritual-and impatiently wait to get stoned.

If only I had stopped there ... but no! I regaled myself with the effects of narcotics one more time as a grown-up (very grown-up, even). Somebody had given me a beautiful pair of gold earrings (don't ask who, I won't tell you, because you know him). It would have been impolite not to wear them, but that meant having my ears pierced, a sacrifice I felt was beyond my powers. And so, via her son, an anaesthetist at the Hospital of the Republic in Chisinau, my old friend Galina arranged for me to have my ears pierced under anaesthetic. To make it easier for me to gain access to the hospital, her son Liviu introduced me as a relative. All well and good up to that point, but once they administered the narcotic and began the piercing procedure, my body put on a grand spectacle, without my permission, of course ...

As I writhed on the hospital bed, bound hand and foot, groaning and trying to impart, during brief moments of lucidity, the mystery that had just been revealed to me-something to do with the blissful death of the Dacians sacrificed to Zalmoxis-the doctors split their sides with laughter at what an effect the anaesthesia had had on me, who am sensitive by nature. Poor Liviu: meanwhile, he was desperately trying to disown me, to save the honour of his family, which, during the reign of Petru Lucinschi, had provided an ambassador to Romania. A difficult task ...

And now I would like to ask your advice. Perhaps you know that Andrei Oisteanu recently published a book entitled Narcotics in Romanian Culture: History, Religion and Literature (Polirom, Iasi, 2010). It is a highly important attempt to evaluate Romanian literature through the lens of narcotic existentialism as a source of inspiration for writers. The book has garnered extensive and favourable reviews. Thank God that nobody, as far as I know, has got it into his head to accuse it of being part of some conspiracy against the Romanian people, a nation which, in the opinion of some, has always been the target of hidden forces.

What interested me in particular in the book was the contemporary period and the contexts in which a vice can become a virtue. The author reveals Mircea Cartarescu as the principal figure of the Romanian intellectual scene, who has shaped a postmodernist sensibility via psychedelic experiments, imbuing it with new aesthetic nuances. Of course, the cast of the book also includes other contemporary writers, such as Andrei Codrescu, Alex Leo Serban, Dragos Bucurenci and Marius Chivu, but their contributions cannot compare with the achievements of the author of The Levant. It is not yet known for sure (and not even Andrei Oisteanu himself seems to know) whether it was as a result of these initiatory experiences that Mircea Cartarescus trilogy Blinding enjoys the success it does in Romania and abroad, but it is a detail worthy of attention.

Bessarabian literature-the same as ever when it comes to its inclusion within Romanian culture-remains, regrettably, in a cone of shadow. Described in Pizdet, his debut novel from 2002, Alexandru Vakulovski's experiences, with travka ('grass') in combination with various other narcotics-tramadol, ephedrine, glutethimide, prazepam, etc.-have not, it has to be said, found a wider audience.

In the next edition of his book (which I am certain will not be long in coming, given that the subject matter is of interest to so many people), oughtn't Andrei Oisteanu to be persuaded to include within the range of Romanian narcotic experiences the Bessarabian phase with the pestle and mortar? Didn't the chronicler say that in years of drought what little fruit the trees bear is exceptionally sweet?

We ought to put our heads together (no matter where in the world fate may have cast you) and think about what we might do for our poor homeland. For, the thirty-six per cent of the state budget contributed annually by those working abroad does not seem to be sufficient to redress the situation. Maybe we also ought to spike Chisinau's drinking water with a little caffeine? Apart from anything else, you would think that in recent years some kind of enigmatic substance has been falling from the air down on the capital of Moldova, paralysing efforts to build and causing collective lethargy and disgust. Maybe that way we could counteract it. What do you think?
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Author:Barladeanu, Lucretia
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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