Maria Benet of alembic has a wonderful post [original link dead; Wayback link should work] describing her experiences growing up in communist Romania in a Hungarian-speaking family, where “we dreamt of travel the way Odysseus dreamt of going home. Though our borders were closed and we were shipwrecked, the world was still wide open to us in words.”
The sirens—dictionaries, primers, novels—perched on the shelves of our small bookcase, sang and lilted of enchanted sunny islands in the subjunctive of French, echoed of the cobblestoned meandering paths of German compound nouns, and spoke in clipped tones of the bright, jagged cliffs of English verbs that stood like wardens holding off the invasion of maudlin latinates.
Our passage through these worlds of words was slow and required a great deal of effort, though we traveled light and weather was never an issue. But, back then, we had time and we had plenty of energy—for we had few possessions to care for, and the exercise of effort seemed the only right to free speech left to us.
So we ventured, back and forth, between the languages, whispering words from one or the other to crack open the doors to a bit of fresh air and to another view…
Read the whole thing, finishing off with her lovely poem “A Dish of Peaches in Cluj,” which begins:
A peach is sweeter than any other
If its taste is the sun of years, the idea
Of a peach, extravagant and plump
Staked to the tongue—
The peach was on a branch, the branch was
From a tree, and the tree grew
In a town that had a name
In three languages…
The name of the Transylvanian town is Cluj in Rumanian (currently the official language), Kolozsvár in Hungarian (the official language under the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and Klausenburg in German (the main language of many Eastern European cities until the triumph of nationalism). And if you’re wondering about the url of her blog, ashladle.org, it’s from a Celan poem which she quotes at the bottom of her About page.
[First sentence of post edited for accuracy thanks to the acute eye of Michael Farris in the comments.]
Update, April 2005. I am happy to report that Gheorghe Funar was defeated in last year’s election; I have no idea whether the new mayor of Cluj, Emil Boc, is or is not a barf-bag.