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Revisiting Miss Vulpe

Today it rained and we didn’t sit outside. I finished reading Miss Vulpe, and found I love it as much as ever. My aunt and I asked grandma to tell us a story. She said she wanted to die. We said we didn’t like that story, but she refused to provide us with a different one. We went to the old lizard’s room, but she was sitting in bed eating chocolate and was cross with me for mixing her clean laundry with grandma’s, so we retreated. We sat in the dining room, drank our homemade wine, and reminisced about my aunt’s one and only visit to New York back when I was in grad school. I couldn’t remember what we did together but she did, and so we pieced it all together. It turns out I took her to do all my favorite free things: sampling perfume in fancy department stores, peeing at the Plaza, visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and then some.

Tomorrow I hope that it’ll be sunny and that the covrigi stand will be open again. I’m beginning to have withdrawal symptoms!

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8 Cats and Counting

I’m trying to figure out how many cats live in our yard. I’ve so far counted 4 black ones, one ginger, two calicos, and one very lovely grey one that rarely makes an appearance. Also, I’ve noticed that the grapes in our grapevine have started to grow. Last year’s wine is surprisingly delicious, rich and full-bodied. I drink it with one of my aunts in the afternoon. The old ladies move slowly and complain of many aching bones. But they’re as stubborn as ever. Also, they eat mostly sweets. Easter lasts three days and the covrigi stand is closed. I’m rereading The Adventures of Miss Vulpe and planning a trip to Paris with my friend, the blogger behind The Amsterdamian, to celebrate my birthday.

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Easter Sunday

It got cold again today and I didn’t wake up in as good a mood as I’ve been in over the past few days. I went to the Church to get the traditional Easter bread. Then we kind of lingered, not doing much of anything. We finally cracked the Easter eggs in the afternoon. My lizard won. She knows how to pick a tough egg. I also did a bit of writing. I conversed with the cats in the yard. There are six of them. Tomorrow hopefully it’ll warm up again.

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A Visit to the Cemetery

Today my friend came to see me and we went to the cemetery. The cemetery is very beautiful and also adjacent to one of the most beautiful parks in Europe, a park with a river and magical bridge, swans, water lilies, and a vintage zoo. As a child I used to go there often with my great-uncle. We always walked through the cemetery first, and he showed me the graves he found most interesting. Today my friend and I went to light candles for all the dead people we know there. Though personally I think the souls of the dead circulate in more interesting places and don’t spend too much time in their graves. But today the cemetery was full of visitors, so possibly they came to see who would stop by. I told them we are well, and that we like it when they show up in our dreams. I also told them to get ready for grandma. She’s very eager to join them and tells us so several times a day. I frankly don’t think she has a nice time here with us anymore, so she might be happier on the other side. But she did like the Easter eggs I dyed, and she did like seeing my friend, and now she’s getting ready to watch Easter Mass live on TV, so hopefully she can still enjoy some of the little things in life.

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How to Boil Eggs

Today we dyed Easter eggs for Greek Orthodox Easter, which is this weekend. Nobody thought this task was fun, so I ended up doing the whole thing myself. Especially since general consensus was that we must wait for my old lizard to boil the eggs because she’s the only one who can boil a perfect egg. She used to do this by counting out loud, but she didn’t seem too interested in it today. Also, her track record includes, among thousands of perfectly boiled eggs, the year in recent memory when she dyed Easter eggs without boiling them first because she forgot. I declared that I, too, know how to boil eggs. This declaration was met with mistrust but in the end nobody could stop me. My dyed eggs – all of which have been boiled – look very cheerful. I showed them to grandma, who went to sit outside in the sun, and she said they are pretty. Though sometimes I think the only ones who fully appreciate my skill set are the feral cats.

Also, I’m happy to report the pound cakes turned out fluffy and delicious. My lizard is wrapping them in white paper now, and she’s talking to them, telling them she’s dressing them up so they won’t be cold.

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Let Them Eat Cake

Whoever invented the traditional Romanian pound cakes that are apparently indispensable for Christmas and Easter must have been a masochist with no common sense at all. Yellow, fluffy, scented with vanilla and lemon zest, the cakes sure are good. But I don’t think they’re wonderful enough to justify the labor, expense, and worry their preparation entails. They require tons of pricey top-shelf ingredients, vigorous kneading, over-night rising in a warm room, heavily greased trays dusted with flour, an elaborate folding process as one works in a filling of walnuts, the perfect baking temperature, a ton of patience, and even more luck, as no amount of experience or preparation can prevent them from sinking, or rising too much and crumbling onto the hot oven – not to mention other misfortunes. I also realized that none of the aunts trust their own judgment on various steps of the process, which is why they keep pestering the poor old lizard. I tried to explain that from now on they have to do it all without her. I even told them it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission, but it seems that without the leadership and guidance of the top pastry chef they are lost. Meanwhile the top pastry chef dozed next to the hot oven like an old cat. In the end she was highly dissatisfied with the pound cakes, but since she’s never happy with any baked good, I don’t see this as too dramatic. In fact, as I set out to buy covrigi and other treats I ended up taking a long walk and forgot entirely that pound cakes exist and require three days of continuous labor and worry by four assistants under the supervision of a top pastry chef.

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She’s Coming Back to Life (Maybe)

Favorite things about today: The covrig girl’s smile when I showed her the painting. Grandma sitting outside in the sun, her head wrapped in a scarf. Buying the very old children a bottle of Coke. They love soda! But most of all I loved that grandma came to sit with us on the couch in the room at the back of the house this afternoon. We had a conversation about pound cakes which was mildly coherent. She even asked to see the packages of yeast my aunts had bought. Now, at night, they are here going through the elaborate kneading process. It sounds like someone beating on a drum! I have to admit making these complicated cakes is something I’ve never wanted to learn. Though there is a pound-cake-kneading episode in my first novel, Dogs with Bagels.

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They Steal Each Other’s Snacks

Things I wonder about: Should I tell the young woman who sells covrigi that I painted her? I see her every day, and I feel like I’m harboring a secret – a portal to a magical world. I am a lot more shy in Romania than I am in my normal life – probably because I don’t fit in, people generally don’t take me seriously, and I have a slight speech impediment which is irrelevant in English, French, or German, but significant in Romanian: I can’t roll my r’s. And so I feel slightly silly when I’m here and try to keep a low profile, but tomorrow, if there isn’t a queue for covrigi, I will show the young woman her portrait.

Things I know: I bought my lizard two sesame covrigi yesterday. She ate one, and saved the other for breakfast. It disappeared. The paper it came in, I found crumpled up on the floor in grandma’s room. Apparently they steal each other’s snacks. I bought my old lizard two sesame seed covrigi today too. I will advise her on a different hiding place.

And before you think grandma gets the short end of the stick, I’ll have y’all know that I spoon-feed her foods she’s entirely capable of eating on her own. The aunt who comes by to check on my old ladies thinks I spoil them too much. But I think we might disagree on the best ways to care for very old children.

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The Woman with the Dark Eyebrows

She had jet black hair, and dark, thick eyebrows which she passed on to her three sons, who all grew up to be handsome in a dark, mysterious way. As children we all loved her because she was funny. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned that this particular great-aunt, with her dark thick eyebrows, was the one person in our family who knew the most about magic. I learned this in the context of funerals, where she knew what rituals to carry out to prevent evil spells, but I’m sure she knows a lot more than that.

I hadn’t seen her in about a decade, maybe longer, but today one of her sons came by – sporting his own pair of thick, dark eyebrows – and took me to see her. She’s married to the only surviving one of my grandmother’s brothers. He is too old to remember who I am, but he smiled at me, and told me repeatedly that I’m beautiful.

Also, their small apartment held a big surprise: there in the foyer, by the light switches, were three of my old oil paintings from when I was 16 or 17. And here I thought my old ladies had thrown them all out! But this is the magic of making art: you never know where it will end up and who will enjoy it. I love knowing that a great-aunt I haven’t seen in a decade gets to look at my paintings every day. And perhaps all the good things that have happened to me have something to do with an old witch with dark thick eyebrows liking my work and casting a good spell.

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Love, Peace, and Covrigi

“Put it in the fridge for now,” my old lizard said about the bottle of milk the milkman delivered this morning. “I’ll boil it when I get back in touch with myself.” This could be any day now. Though some evidence suggests that she’s spent nearly a century trying to achieve this. She even has long conversations with herself daily, but apparently they’re no use. Luckily some of life’s matters are not as complex: “I was hoping you’d go out and buy some covrigi,” she said. “I want two sesame ones.” I was more than happy to fulfill this request. I even dared conquer my embarrassment and took a picture of the girl dispensing the fresh warm covrigi, houses and storefronts from across the street reflected in the window. One can even see the dreadful omnipresent bridal gowns they sell in the old part of town here, and I think they offer an interesting juxtaposition to the girl in her white uniform. She was much friendlier than the woman who’s been selling me covrigi in Bucharest.

Nobody came to visit us today and though there was plenty to do – grandma’s meals, and a plethora of dirty dishes my old lizard keeps producing – I had some time on my hands to search all over the house. I like to look in every cupboard, every closet, and every drawer. Everything smells very interesting – a combination of moth balls, lavender, and Turkish green apple soap. The contents are never surprising, but still, it can be a fun exercise. I didn’t find my childhood drawings of chickens. Someone must have thrown them out, as the whole family is rather unsentimental about my art. I did, however, find some of my old school homework and one of my favorite books about a little blue pig – Schweinchen Jo. I was not a stellar student, didn’t get the awards my mom wanted me to get, but I had neat handwriting and always a lot of imagination. Also, I drew excellent chickens. If only someone had deemed them worth keeping!