You can’t make sarmale without fresh cabbage.
You can’t make a creamy vânătă without fresh eggplant.
And making tocană de miel without fresh onions? Heaven forbid.
These dishes are just a few of the many that characterize the cuisine of Romania, the land my ancestors call home. It is a country that is characterized by its culture and the fastidiousness of its people in upholding it.
A large part of Romanian culture is the value we place on fresh produce, the kind that starts with the seeds in your hands and ends with the vegetables in your family garden. The times I spent in my family’s grădină make up a large part of my childhood, so it’s no surprise that one of life’s most important lessons came to me while I sat there planting onions.
Within a rusty metal encasement, my mother and I toiled. Rows upon rows of plowed dirt lay before us, awning stripes awaiting their chives beneath a hazy May sunlight. Holes needed to be made for the arpajic, which we accomplished with our bare hands. I remember complaining about the chalky dirt and my mother insisting that I leave the gardening gloves behind. This gardening tip wasn’t the first one I had heard over the years. I deemed it and its millions of accompaniments to be the seedlings of old Romanian culture, passed through each generation by word and practice, eventually germinating in my childhood. This theory of the origins of our family’s strongly instilled ways, however, was proven to be entirely wrong by my mother, who proceeded to explain to me the true origin of these traditions. She told me about her grandfather.
A man that passed away many years before my birth, Gherasim Muresan was mostly a stranger to me, a materialization of whatever happened to have come up about him in conversation. Growing up in Romania when it was still a kingdom, Gherasim dreamed of American agriculture. For a man that had never breathed American air, it seemed like an unusual passion to be sure, but Gherasim knew every tip in the book when it came to the farming practices of Native Americans. I found out, sitting in the garden that day, he never did make a garden on American soil. The chains of communist rule that would spread across Romania after the Second World War kept him from ever coming.
My head was as empty as the little dirt holes that surrounded me as I tried to make sense of such an unfortunate circumstance. If this world is at all just, I thought, why couldn’t my grandfather have his garden? My mother’s reply to this explained that for me.
“You’re sitting on American soil, aren’t you?”
I realize now that my sitting in that garden meant he had achieved his dream. Despite the setback he faced, he taught his daughter, my mother, everything he knew about America and its ways of agriculture. He toiled in the confinements set around him, hole by hole, seed by seed, until he waved my mother goodbye as she boarded a plane to America, where she would later make a garden on American land.
His soul now lies decomposed in the soil that gave life to his dream. From this soil I came, sprouted from years of meticulous work and endless determination. Planted in a country that I would have to discover for myself, I found my roots loose and billowing, finding myself more and more different from my peers every day. I dreamed of a bachelor’s degree, but I didn’t see that in store for a boy from a family with no diploma on the walls. That is until I discovered what it meant to be a first-generation American. My story does not restrain me but molds me; the strength and dedication my family has shown through cultural setbacks has inspired me to work at anything I want to achieve, because my story does not stop at “first generation.” I know this because my grandfather’s story did not stop at “Romanian.”
Like my grandfather, I’ll ignore the pesky dust under my fingernails and keep on planting my chives, knowing with all my heart that with the new season will come vegetables.
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Paul Popa is a Trinity junior. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.