Yesterday, at about 5:00 pm I arrived at a drizzly Henri Coanda International Airport in Bucharest. Anka spotted me as I made my through customs and into the arrivals hall. It’d been exactly a year since I’d last seen my Romanian friend.
Last summer we were in high spirits as we traded thoughts on the future between her long sips of wine and me poking around a plate of pasta at a sidewalk restaurant somewhere on Columbus Ave.
Her brother Adrian was waiting for the two of us in a blue Jaguar in the parking lot. I instantly felt guilty that he had to schlep across town to pick up someone he didn’t even know. Too bad Anka didn't know how to drive a manual transmission.
I liked him instantly and saw a similar temperament between the two. Both had sharp wits and a good sense of humor, perhaps Adrian’s a bit more of the self-deprecating variety. I asked questions about buildings and streets we zipped past wanting to know their names and historical significance. Both were patient as I sat in the backseat like a child pestering his parents on a long drive to grandma’s.
After Adrian let us off at Anka’s apartment, I had a few minutes to drop my bags and freshen up before being whisked away to the Teatrul Odeon, one of Romania’s best known arts venues and the reason Anka was back in the city where she spent her youth. Anka, an absurdly talented costume and set designer, had her services called upon by Andrei Serban, one of Romania’s finest exports and a very famous theater director throughout the world, but especially here. He also happened to be my former teacher at Columbia. It had been 8 years since I’d seen him as I entered the 105 year-old building and saw his tall frame sporting a green button down shirt.
“Oh my God,” he said. “How are you?” We exchanged pleasantries for a few moments and I complimented him on his appearance telling him he looked exactly the same, which he did as far as I could tell. Even in his 70s, he was absolutely tireless in his approach to the work and commitment to creating theater that said something about the world, or at least held a mirror up to it. You can imagine the influence he had on a wide-eyed 25-year old young actor back in New York.
Anka and I made our way into a beautiful but airless theater. I had been warned en route to the stage that because the theater was considered a shrine of sorts, the committee had refused to add air conditioning. At first, I accepted the reasoning as self-evident but after a few brief moments in our balcony chairs I saw virtually no honor in audience martyrdom. After all, even the Barrymore and Belasco theaters have AC.
The play was terrific. It was George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, or in Romanian, Soldatul De Ciocolata. Of course, I didn’t understand a word of it, but found it enjoyable because of the commitment and energy of the performers as well the communal experience it provided for the audience. At times I felt more like I was at a small Baptist church than a play. I smiled as I remembered many of Andrei’s signature moves. Whatever world he created on stage it was sure to be bold.
Afterwards, Anka and I took a little stroll and grabbed a bite to eat at Caru cu bere, a restaurant in a beautiful gothic revival building that opened in 1879 just down the street. We talked about the play and how surreal it was that I was actually in Romania, her country, a place we’d talked about meeting in for years.
The atmosphere and company also compelled me to thank Anka for her friendship. “I just wanted to say how grateful I am that we’ve become such close friends. When we started hanging out about 8 years ago you were there for me at a very difficult time in my life,” I said. “Thank you for that.”
She paused before sharing a shorter but similar sentiment. “I don’t make friends easily,” she said in her heavy accent. “But you’re like a brother to me.” I smiled at my all around good fortune. Here I was in this strange but beautiful city having dinner with my big sister.
Yaki, a gentlemen in his mid-30s, who worked at the juice bar I went to each day on Bograshov Street in Tel Aviv told me his best advice was, “Do just what you love. It’s good for the soul.”