It’s snowing outside as I write this. It’s been a wacky winter season so far. One day it feels like spring, the next it’s winter, the next is autumn and it’s raining and then it all freezes and winter moves back in.
I’ve been going through some old photos, taken back in 1998, when I made a trip to Romania in December, to spend the winter holidays with my grandparents. I’d graduated from college that May and I hadn’t visited Romania in eight years. It had changed a lot since 1991. It’s still changing, with each year.
The photos were taken with an APS film camera, the first generation Canon Elph, which I still have. If you remember APS film cameras, you’ll know they had an on-camera switch that would modify the FOV (Field of View), letting you take landscapes (like the photograph you see below) or regular photographs (like the second photograph you see below) or portraits — which was a setting I seldom used. When you developed the photos, the store would automatically crop your photos based on the setting you chose. The landscape-format photos would be printed on wider paper. It was a nice system, for its time.
That winter was a real winter: cold, lots of snow, ice on the roads, winds that chilled you to the bone — fun stuff! I drove my grandparents’ Dacia 1310 to see the country, and it was an adventure to get it started every morning. Sometimes you had to pour boiling water over the engine. Sometimes you had to push it. Sometimes you had to get a mechanic to open up the carburetor and clean it, because the fuel quality was so bad that it would constantly get dirty.
There’s the Dacia, parked on the side of the road in this photograph.
I remember almost getting stuck in a field in the middle of nowhere that year. I took a country road after topping up the tank, because I wanted to help a couple of people get home to their village. Unbeknownst to me, the gas station had added water to their gasoline. A few kilometers into an open field, with no settlements in sight, the engine started to choke. It was freezing cold outside, so cold that my nostrils would clog up with icicles when I breathed. We started to panic. At the time, cellphones hadn’t yet reached Romania. There was no one we could call.
We pushed on, hoping we’d make it. Unfortunately, the engine couldn’t handle the crappy fuel. The prospect of walking 5 or so kilometers through deep snow, in the freezing cold, was beginning to weigh heavily on our minds. I kept revving up the engine, keeping the rpms high, hoping I could keep the engine turning. If I let my foot off the accelerator even for a bit, the needle would immediately drop and the engine wanted to stop completely. Then it stopped. I got it going again. It stopped once more. I got it going again. It stopped once more, and it didn’t want to turn any more. There we were, peace and quiet all around, our breaths fogging up the car windows, unsure what came next.
Then one of the folks got a bright idea. They’d bought a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Why not put it in the tank, maybe it would mix with the water and help it burn? We poured a bit in, and after 5 minutes of alternately trying to start the car via ignition or pushing, the engine started puttering away. We reached the village shortly after that, and my first stop was at the village store, where I bought three bottles of rubbing alcohol. That winter holiday, whenever I drove anywhere in Romania, the car was stocked with rubbing alcohol, and it saved me time and time again. There was no point relying on the quality of the fuel, because all gas stations would “multiply” their fuel reserves with water. Some added more, some added less, but you could count on it being in the gasoline, wherever you bought it.
Let’s get back to the photographs. They have a yellow color cast. It’s not a film effect. It’s simply a matter of the photo paper yellowing with time. I scanned the printed photos instead of scanning the film negatives, so the “vintage” effect is physical, not digital. I hope to scan the negatives at some point, so I can archive and edit these memories properly.
That winter, I visited my paternal grandparents in Maramures (my father’s parents). I visited them with my maternal grandfather (my mother’s father). He took this photograph of the three of us.
Here’s my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandparents (or “tataia” as I liked to call him).
Both my grandfathers are gone now. My maternal grandmother is also gone. Only my father’s mother is still alive. Some day, I too will be but a memory, a face in old photographs. Memento mori.
My grandparents had a wonderful dog named Rex, a very smart German Shepherd. You can see how intelligent he is right away when you see him in old photographs like this one. It’s amazing how some dogs shine brighter than others, right away.
Rex is gone as well, and we have yet to find a dog as smart as he was. Our new dog, a Romanian sheep dog (“Ciobanesc Mioritic”) is still a baby, but she’s showing signs of being fairly smart. We’ll see how she develops with time.
So there you have it, dear reader: a glimpse into my past, into a beautiful, almost magical winter, a time I remember with joy to this day, because it was spent with family, with people I loved and who loved me back.
I’m always more aware of the importance of loving relationships during winter. When you’re out there in the cold, traveling, the prospect of being welcomed into a warm home where you know you’ll find love makes that time magical. It makes every second worthwhile, it imbues the very cold air you breath with the hope that there’s something even better right around the corner, that life is worth living.
It’s one of the reasons why I love winter. I love to curl up on the couch with a fire in the stove, a book in my hand, a cup of tea in the other, and look out the window, taking comfort the fact that while it’s cold outside, I’m warm and my life is made wonderful by that simple realization.