I was planning on going to La Mara all day. I was planning even yesterday on going for my last meal, as soon as I found out that Anthony and I would be parting ways and I’d be leaving Romania soon. I knew it would be a good way to remember the nights we spent eating ciorba. It was also pretty much the only thing my stomach could take during my sickness.
Now typically I’m not much of one for going back to places, but every now and then you find somewhere so good and close to where you’re staying that you have to return. The first night we went there after I tried leading us to an Italian restaurant the hostel had recommended. I missed a left turn, taking the man’s directions for granted without looking at my map, and we spent another fifteen minutes looking for the damn place. I was so satisfied and eager to sit down when we finally found it, and it was so nice, with its bruschettas and Italian music and tiny marble statuaries that I was ready to pay 5-8$ per pasta dish. But Anthony, more fiscally conscious than I, said “I’m not paying $5 for pasta,” as though I had asked him to buy me a Cadillac. So he led us, and I felt a rift between us, the first, which I tried to attribute to hunger and oncoming sickness.
After walking three or four blocks we entered La Mara, which we had seen earlier and decided to return to if we couldn’t find the Italian place. Inside was a big Romanian mama and I knew what I wanted, despite the deal she offered us, pointing at all the dishes, showing us half-off on her chalkboard. I feared that with my sickness I’d be unable to eat such a meal, so I just ordered soup since that was what I’d been craving. I watched her spoon four meatballs into my bowl too, making sure I was getting fed right. I was afraid this was just an appetizer and that she’d bring out the other courses for our half off meal. But we paid when she served us, roughly a dollar and by the time we were finished, we were full.
She did bring out four little apple cinnamon cakes for desert. All of it was four lei. We loved her so much we tipped her one lei each. Then we returned to the hostel to tell the hostelier about our find. He said, “Oh yes, it’s very good, everything is half off after 6:00,” which is what the words on the blackboard meant.
The next day after I’d taken some medicine, we went there again and I felt good and ordered another soup as Anthony ate a heaping platter of sausage and cabbage and potatoes. At the end of our meal she showed us the two lei we had left from yesterday, along with my map, which I hadn’t meant to leave at all, and we tried explaining that the money was for her but she scoffed and refused. Anthony wondered if she found the amount insulting but I pointed out that it was 25% of what our meal cost and that silenced him.
The next night we were in Brasov for dinner and one night Anthony made us leek and potato soup. We walked by La Mara and I photographed it for memories, knowing I’d be back.
Last night, I hurried there around 630, tummy rumbling, and ordered a ciorba and some penne, heavy with cream and chicken and pork. Then three or four men walked in and it was the most crowded I’d ever seen the place. As I waited for a different woman to finish serving my soup, a husky glum child with shinguards and red socks walked right past me like a cowboy would a new person in town, and around the counter into the back of the store. I knew he was the mama’s son; they had the same pouty mouth. Then the mama came out and she was glad to see me, real pleased. The woman serving me my chicken penne conferred with her, pointing to her watch, and the mama shrugged. I knew that the woman had said something like, “Should we give him the half-price discount?” to which mama replied, “I don’t see why not, we do it for all the other customers.” And this moral logic worked and she served me with a smile.
At the eatin’ counter the boy was at my left, eating a ciorba with a piece of bread, which I had foregone this meal. I went bite of delicious sweet chicken vegetable noodle soup, bite of creamy hearty penne with chunks of bacon and chicken. The boy and I looked at each other awkwardly for split seconds at a time. I ate about half of my plate and became really full, which I attributed to my slowly recovering stomach. But the kid had polished his soup and most of his bread and was ordering more. I at least had to finish the soup, I couldn’t let this ten year old eat more than me.
The lady brought him a schnitzel and a couple pieces of fried chicken and a cup of ketchup. I nodded at him as he chomped happily, and said “Schnitzel,” which seems to be the way to say it in all languages. He smiled, and all of our previous tension evaporated. I asked “You play football?”
“Yes,” he said, so casually that I assumed he must know English pretty well, they must teach it in the schools, post-Soviet curriculum, his mother doesn’t know a lick. So I tried again. “How old are you?” “Alex,” he said, and I said, “Daniel,” in a tone that made him think I was correcting him, so he said, “Uh, ten.” I looked down at my soup. I hadn’t meant to sound like an adult, but there we were, unable to connect because of a tone, and his judgement about my age. To him I was like all the other older men setting a masculine example. But it was okay. I’d try again. I pointed, “Your mom?” He nodded, pointed at the man to my right, talking in low tones to two other men, “My dad.” I nodded. We ate.
Then he said “Dad” in Romanian and his old man, just as fat as the mama, came over and took the other half of his schnitzel away. Ah but I saw that behind his bread the boy had hidden one of the chicken fingers he hadn’t been able to finish! That made me feel better because there was no way I was going to be able to eat the rest of that penne. So I stood, and asked for a take-away, which the other woman behind the counter understood and which the mama heard and repeated, attempting to retain some English. She foil wrapped and black-bagged it for me and I turned and walked out the door, saying goodbye, see you later, even though I wouldn’t and they couldn’t understand.
But Alex didn’t hear me. I closed the door and was outside and turned and he saw me and we waved and smiled goodbye. I walked underneath the pointy eaves and the aqua sky and the black silhouetted branches and was glad that I didn’t feel sad being alone.