For a long time the only things I knew about Romania were the following:
• In Romanian households there will be a cruet of chicken fat on the table, as a condiment. I know this because my little sister once went to Romania with her high school chorus for the purpose of singing popular prep school hymns to Romanians eager to hear such things. While visiting Romania, she was proposed to on six separate occasions; she received several offers to buy her blue jeans directly off her body; she drank Romanian champagne in a bathtub; and she experienced the culinary delights of chicken fat.
• When Ovid was banished in 8 AD for writing the scandalous Ars Amatoria, he was sent to Tomi, a half-barbaric outpost of the empire on the Black Sea; it would have been known as the Siberia of the Roman Empire, but the Romans were then unaware of the existence of Siberia. Later, Siberia would be referred to as the Tomi of Tsarist Russia. They didn’t even speak Latin in Tomi. The weather was wretched. It doesn’t bear thinking of the plumbing situation. Tomi is now the city of Constança, Romania.
• For a very long Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled Romania, and for most of that time he was so unpopular that one can only wonder how he woke up each morning and looked at himself in the mirror. While it did not take long to execute him by firing squad on Christmas Day of 1989, it took a much longer time, many months, to topple, dismantle and remove all the statues and portraits of Ceaușescu that blighted the Transylvanian landscape like strip malls In Yosemite.
• Somewhere in Romania there must be a national School of Cosmetology & Discipline that produces the legions of sadistic cosmetologists who now ply their trade in America, which apparently is populated by thousands of unsuspecting women seeking facials.
That was the sum total of my Romanian knowledge until the other night, at the PEN World Voices Festival, when I heard the Romanian poet, Mircea Catarescu, read a poem about an obsession with Natalie wood. He read the poem in Romanian, so I only knew that it was about a Natalie Wood obsession because the translation was projected on a nearby screen. He could have been reading aloud a newsy Christmas letter or a report on his elevated cholesterol, and it would not have mattered much to me. That is how much I enjoyed the sound of Romanian. From the very sound of it, would I have known that Romanian is among the very first Romance languages to split off from Latin, that it is descended from Proto-Romanian and that on the Latin language tree it is lateral with Aromanian? Indubitably. About Aromanian, also called Vlach, I know somewhat less. Mostly, it is just like Romanian except that it has more Greek words. Nor would I have been able to distinguish that Romanian has preserved only three of the six Latin cases. Don’t ask which three.
How would I describe the sound of a Romanian poet reading his poem?
Closeted. Edible. Ancient. Secret. Underground Italian. Mushroomy. Like musical fifths.
I have since learned that Romania is a big supplier of edible mushrooms to Western Europe, also of snails.