Volume 3
An Online Literary Magazine
November 18, 2009


Bullets And Sausage


Claudia Serea


Group of Romanian revolutionaries celebrating the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu. Source: www.flickr.com/photos/Romania mea http://www.flickr.com/photos/32417027@N08/3126478032/.

ome of my memories resemble black and white photographs, while others are in color. Some are blurred and out-of-focus, others are clear and vivid. Most of my memories growing up in Communist Romania are in shades of gray, probably because all the photos and TV images from that time are black and white. My parents didn’t own a color TV until the 90s. They had an old black and white Venus model that had a lamp in the back. When the TV was turned on, the lamp glowed red and it could overheat. With only two hours of TV programming available per day, the danger of overheating was minimal, though. My mom sheltered the TV set beneath a cloth cover that she sewed and decorated with handmade lace and two brown embroidered bunnies.


I was twenty years old, in my third year of studying chemical engineering in Bucharest. I lived in girls’ dorm P1 on the Regie campus, which was as gray and drab as all other Socialist buildings in Bucharest. I shared a room with three other girls and we were busy preparing for the end of the semester. The winter break was near and there were last minute projects due, papers to write and technical drawings to draft.


It was the evening of December 18, 1989. We had a small radio in our room. It was pocket-sized, white, with a black wheel we turned to search the waves. The options were limited, since the radio didn’t have FM. We listened mostly to Radio Romania Actualitati broadcast of the official, censorship-approved news.


Rumors circulated in the dorm that something was happening in the western Romanian city of Timisoara. At school, a colleague had told me she heard from someone who listened to Radio Free Europe that people were protesting in Timisoara and the army and militia troops were shooting at the protesters. I didn’t know if it was true and I was reluctant to talk about it with any of the girls for fear word would get out and someone would report me. So I kept quiet and concentrated on my school projects.


The next day, we were told at school that winter break, set to start at the end of that week on December 22, would start a few days early. Later, I found out that the government was afraid of student-led riots and decided to send everyone home earlier for the holidays and close the dorms. We didn’t ask questions. We were happy to go back to the dorm, pack and leave.


I went back to my hometown of Târgoviste, two hours north of Bucharest. That night, when I listened to Radio Free Europe, I heard the real news for the first time in months. They broadcast a tape recorded in Timisoara and smuggled out of the country. It was harrowing. Alone in my room, I cried as I listened to the voices of men and women chanting for freedom and pleading with the soldiers: “You are our children! Don’t shoot us! You are our sons! Don’t shoot!” followed by the noise of many gunshots.


“Run! Run!” someone screamed. I could hear people crying out in pain.


“The Army is on our side!” some people chanted in an effort to persuade the soldiers to join them. Others started singing “Romanians Awake,” a patriotic song banned since 1947. On December 16, the protests broke out when the authorities targeted Lászlo Tökés, a Hungarian pastor in Timisoara. His congregation gathered around his house to protect him from harassment and forced eviction. Spontaneously, many passers-by joined in and the crowd defied government orders to disperse. The people began calling for an end to the Communist regime. When President Ceausescu found out about the protests, he ordered the use of deadly force to stop the demonstrations and then left on a three-day trip to Iran. The tapes I heard on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America were recorded when unarmed protesters clashed with the army, Securitate (secret police) and militia (police), in downtown Timisoara. The confrontations tore the city apart with wild shooting, fights, cars burned, and scores of victims. That night, lying on my stomach with my ear pressed against the speaker to catch every word, I held my breath and listened for hours, turning the volume up when the signal was fading.


My aunt and uncle lived in Timisoara. My father called to make sure they were okay. It’s bad. It’s very bad. They are criminals, my uncle said. A long silence followed. Fearing the phone was tapped, my father didn’t ask for any details.


“They’re fine,” he said when the short conversation was over, but I could see worry in my parents’ eyes. We didn’t discuss it. My brother and I didn’t comment: we were used to not knowing much, being protected from the truth. My father went to the living room, where he had another radio on, and closed the door.


Alone in my room again, I was certain a bloodbath would follow in Timisoara. All the protesters and their families would be arrested and severely punished.


My brother and I spent the following days helping my mom prepare for the holidays. His high school was also on winter break. At that time, there were severe food shortages in Romania. Bread, sugar, oil, and flour were rationed. Meat was impossible to find, as were other common necessities, such as gasoline, toilet paper, batteries, and pretty much anything useful. For two months, my mother saved sugar and wheat flour so she could bake some goodies for Christmas. While Mom was at work, my brother and I scoured the neighborhood’s grocery stores and waited in long lines for hours to get eggs, yeast, and butter.


My parents were fortunate enough to have bought a house near Târgoviste and raised a pig and some chickens in the yard. Everyone who had a house or relatives living in a nearby village or small town raised a pig. They loved the pigs and fed them scraps from the table. Some even had names, like Gica, Florica or Costica. All our successive pigs were called Ghita. Each year, like all the other pigs, our Ghita was sacrificed when it reached about 250 pounds.


Slaughtering the pig about a week before Christmas is an old Romanian custom, probably dating to before Christianity. Four or five men walk in the pigsty and catch the animal. One cuts the pig’s throat with a big, sharp knife while the others hold the animal down so the blood won’t spatter around the yard. Then, the pig’s body is covered with straw, which is set on fire to bake the skin and remove the hair. My father, however, places the pig’s body on a metal bed and uses a small gas burner instead of burning straw. When the skin is blackened, it is scraped and scrubbed until it’s white again. My father likes to cut small pieces of skin and eat them right away with salt. It’s called sorici, a little tough and chewy, with a roasted taste, the perfect companion for hot homemade plum brandy, tzuica fiarta, spiced with black peppercorns and cloves. The women cut and portion the meat, slice it, grind it, and prepare it for various uses. The hostess throws some fresh steaks in a pan right away and serves them to the men. It’s called “the pig’s funeral feast.” Everyone eats and drinks homemade red wine. They toast the pig’s soul, grateful for the plentiful meat.


My father and a few neighbors had sacrificed the pig just before I came from Bucharest and now my mother and I had to prepare all the meat. It was a lot of work, but we were glad to have it.



"Here People Died for Freedom Plaque" in downtown Bucharest.
I spent a lot of time in the kitchen because it was the only warm room in the apartment. I helped my mother portion the meat as we followed the news broadcast by the forbidden foreign radio stations. I had brought the Phillips radio from my room and made an improvised antenna from a long copper wire wound around the cold radiator pipe until it almost reached the ceiling. We kept the volume low, for fear the neighbors downstairs would hear it and would rat us out to an informer.


The news was grim. After coming back from his visit to Iran, Ceausescu found the situation deteriorating rapidly. He gave a speech on December 20, calling the protesters “fascist elements” and “hooligans” and spoke of “acts of external aggression against Romania’s sovereignty.” Soon after the speech, we switched to Radio Free Europe and listened to reports about trains loaded with workers armed with clubs being sent from plants in other regions of the country to help with the repression. The turning point came later when these workers and the army joined the protests. We couldn’t believe our ears.


It was a mild December and the kitchen was filled with sun. My mother and I spent half a day grinding meat for the homemade sausage. Every year, my mother uses the same meat-grinding machine. It’s very heavy, made of cast iron and painted with red enamel. The inside is white. She clamps it on the table and rotates the handle, proud of her muscular strength.


My job was to feed the meat into the machine’s open mouth, careful not to catch my fingers inside. I alternated the pieces: red, lean meat, followed by chunks of white fat, then red meat again.


“If anyone finds something crunchy on their plate, it’s probably the fingernail I broke,” I joked.


Next, I peeled the garlic cloves while my mother ground the pepper. The black powder teased our noses and made us sneeze. My mother sneezed many times in a row; she couldn’t stop. She had a sensitive nose that reacted to any strong smell. We laughed.


It was December 21. On the radio, the only broadcast available was that of Ceausescu’s meeting in Bucharest, supposedly to condemn the events from Timisoara. As with all the official meetings, it was staged to perfection. Thousands of workers from various plants were equipped with party slogans, red flags, and Ceausescu’s portraits. They were bused to the square in front of Bucharest’s Central Committee Building. Ceausescu addressed the crowd from the balcony, talking about the “great achievements of the Socialist Revolution.” The speech was televised and broadcast live on the radio. I turned it off.


“Claudia, Mom, come quickly!” my brother yelled as he burst into the kitchen.


“What happened?”


“Come! Mom, Claudia, you gotta see this!”


We ran to the living room, where the TV was on. We saw a pale, disconcerted Ceausescu trying to control the protesting crowd beneath the balcony: “Hello! Hello! Stand quietly in your places!”


The masses below were moving and shouting something I couldn’t understand. The TV camera was shaking, as if the wind was blowing.


Suddenly, the broadcast was interrupted and we realized this was the sign we all had been waiting for. We looked at each other in silence.


“This is it. It started in Bucharest, too,” my brother said.


My mother mixes the ground meat with both her hands. She puts all the ingredients in a large plastic tub. She adds salt, the crushed garlic, the pepper, sweet paprika and a mix of spices. To this day, I don’t know what is in that secret mix sold in the market as “sausage spice.”


Her hands are contorted by arthritis and reddened by the cold meat. They look like roots, as they sink and lift, turning the red and white meat mixture. Roots, deeply veined red roots.


Târgoviste is an industrial town, population about 100,000. Very little is left from its past glory: the castle’s ruins, a tower, several churches. It was a former capital of Wallachia, the southern Romanian country where princes such as Vlad The Impaler ruled. The town is quiet and gray, with sprawling residential areas of Socialist apartment blocks whose dust engulfs the few historic buildings. It’s the kind of town where nothing ever happens.


On the night of December 21, while we ate dinner, less than two hours away in the streets of Bucharest, young people faced the mayhem of Communist repression. I went to my room and listened to the radio late into the night. Afraid and hopeful, I felt close to those who were fighting in the streets. I fell asleep with the radio on while tanks crushed the unarmed protesters who built barricades that stood until after midnight. The intense shooting continued until 3 a.m. Early the next morning, sanitation trucks washed the blood from the pavement of downtown Bucharest.


On December 22, I woke up to bright sunlight. My father was already at work, and my mom was waiting in line at the store to get bread. The radio announced that martial law was in effect, and any gathering larger than five people was banned. Later that morning, an official communiqué on TV stated that the minister of defense, Vasile Milea, was found to be a traitor and had committed suicide. Then, the broadcast was interrupted.


My brother and I were very excited. We sensed that the situation was changing rapidly, yet Târgoviste was as quiet and gray as ever. Bucharest seemed so far away. Not knowing enough was unbearable, almost painful. We searched the radio waves for foreign stations’ broadcasts, but we couldn’t find any.


My mother came home. “Calm down,” she said.


The radio suddenly announced to stand by for an official communiqué for the country. We ran to the TV and turned it on. It took forever for the red lamp to heat up. The images were unbelievable: no news anchor, no desk. A group of unknown people in gray sweaters and unkept hair talked rapidly, excitedly, all at the same time.


The dissident poet Mircea Dinescu came to the front and said: “Brothers! God will thank you! We are free! The dictator has fled! We won, the Revolution has won!”


We jumped for joy. Mom had tears in her eyes. We cried and embraced. We listened to the people on the TV screen who were as happy as we were. They were making victory signs, crowding in front of the cameras to say who they were, what they had been through. “Romanian brothers, we won, we are free.”


The phone rang and my father’s voice was emotional, but firm: “Stay calm. Don’t go anywhere until things clear up. Wait for me to get home.”


But who could stay calm and wait? We couldn’t.


“Mom, I’m going out to see if I can find any newspapers,” I said. My brother met a couple of high school buddies, and we all headed for the center of the town, but we got separated in the thickening crowd. Later, he told me how they stopped to watch the Revolution on the TV screen in the window of a repair shop. They started singing “Romanians Awake,” but went silent when a group of militia recruits passed by in their gray uniforms.


When I got to the center square, the crowds were gathering: young men, high school students, women, even kids about ten years old. Some people waved red-yellow-blue flags with the Communist symbols cut out from their center. There was chaos, shouting, people crying from joy.


I was trembling inside, watching the crowd’s reaction. People climbed on top of the cars and drove around honking and cheering as if their team had won a soccer game: “Olé, olé, olé, Ceausescu is no more!”


As they left work, more trucks loaded with workers came to the square. The crowd swelled by the minute. On a balcony, someone put a TV set with the volume turned to maximum. We listened to the broadcast of the Revolution in Bucharest. A man in a gray sweater read “The Declaration of the People’s Unity Front,” and the crowd quieted, listening.


It was announced the Ceausescu couple was caught near Târgoviste. The crowd gave a howl of joy. They danced and chanted “Death to the Dictator! Death to the murderer!” At first, I was afraid, and I looked around to see if anyone was watching us. Then I felt protected by the others. I raised my fist along with them and felt I was part of a huge tide. This wave of energy and hope made me high with excitement. I was at a turning point in my life. For the first time, I was ready to take matters in my own hands.


Groups of people marched toward the military barracks where the dictator couple were supposedly being held. I watched as others broke into the County Party Committee Building and started trashing it. Out of the windows they threw Ceausescu’s portraits, writings and banners. Soon, a large mound of propaganda materials was gathered in front of the building and someone set it on fire. The flames licked the Communist slogans, happy to rise. The crowd cheered and danced. A guy with a bullhorn announced the army was on our side, that it had joined the Revolution. A wild, exhilarating celebration followed.


I ran home to find my brother and tell Mom the news. My brother and I were shouting instead of talking. We wanted to eat something quickly and go back to the crowds in the square.


“Oh, no, you’re not,” my mother said. “You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying home to help me make the sausage. When father comes, he’d better find you here.”



Cakes for the soldiers fighting against the terrorists, December 1989. By Denoel Paris.
At nightfall, we heard the first gunshots. Who was shooting, we wondered, since the army was on our side? No one thought much about that until later; there were too many things happening.


Soon, the media reported heavy attacks from a new faction quickly labeled “terrorists,” an elusive enemy, loyal to Ceausescu. Fierce gunfights broke out in all the major cities. In Târgoviste, rumors circulated among the neighbors that the “terrorists” were trying to free the Ceausescu couple and that the local army unit was under attack. On TV, there were calls for citizens around the country to arm themselves and come to the areas of conflict to help in the fighting. The public television, radio, the airports, many locations reported they were under attack. The population was advised to stay inside, turn off the lights, cover the windows and stay away from them, and boil the water before drinking it, for fear it was poisoned. No one verified the rumors. It was total chaos.


My father didn’t come home that night. He called to tell my mom he was okay, he just had to stay at work. He was a chemical engineer in Romlux, an electric bulb factory. He was in charge of the section that housed the glass-melting ovens and the assembly lines that dripped the glass, blew air inside it, rotated the drops until the bulb was formed, then cut and cooled it. The ovens and lines worked 24-7. If they stopped, the glass would “freeze” into a block and would render the lines useless. My father always worked long hours. Some workers didn’t show up for their shifts and he had to be there.


I was alone with my mother. My brother had left us to see the Revolution on TV with the neighbors downstairs. My mother covered the kitchen window with a blue wool blanket with white stripes. We had the radio on low and kept the lights off. We could hear gunfire outside, though far away. My mother lit two long red candles and set them on the table. “Now, let’s roll out some sausage,” she said.


My mother was a French teacher, petite, but a strong-willed woman who believed nothing could stop her. She designed and sewed clothes for herself and all of us, as well as curtains, table linens and bed sheets. She was a great cook. She knew all about pickles, preserves and canning any fruit or vegetable. She taught herself masonry and could build a house and plant a garden around it, complete with grapevines, apple trees, and a strawberry patch. She could most certainly butcher a pig and prepare all the meat. She didn’t always let me help with cooking because I slowed her down. But she loved having company, so many times I ended up hanging out in the kitchen. I used to sit on the broken couch and read aloud novels I had borrowed from the library, anything from Jules Verne to Raymond Chandler mysteries to Gone With the Wind. She would stir the food on the stove, give me a taste, and I’d read. When the suspense thickened, I’d stop reading aloud and silently leap ahead.


“Hey! Go back, go back, I wanna know what happens next,” she’d say, when she noticed my long silence.


We lived at the edge of the town. From the kitchen window, the view was unobscured by any other apartment building. Right across the street, was the parking lot of the local public transportation company, full of buses. Behind it was a cement factory, with mountains of sand and rusty mixing towers. Farther away was a field edged by the forest Priseaca. To the right, I could see the lights from Romlux, where my father worked. To the left, more apartment buildings stretched toward the steel plant that was always shrouded in a reddish dust cloud. That’s where the gunfight was going on. The entire neighborhood was dark, small lights blinking only around the industrial areas. Behind the steel plant, the night sky was intermittently lit, as if by lightning. We could hear the guns talk, sometimes with isolated shots, punctuated by rapid fire or larger booms. “Get away from the window,” my mother said. “Here, help me with this.”


The meat-grinding machine was now equipped with a long spout that had what looked like a white rolled pantyhose on it. Looking closer, I discovered it wasn’t pantyhose, but a thin, almost transparent intestine. My mother used sheep intestines and the pig’s own to make the sausage. She had washed them inside out, first with warm water, then with a vinegar solution. She rolled the intestine over the spout like a sock and tied the end with cotton thread.


“I’ll push the meat into the machine,” she said. “You hold the sausage and make sure it’s even, with no air pockets inside.”


Mom started rotating the handle. Outside, the gunfire seemed to get closer. She rotated faster and faster. I could see the white tracers through the blanket in the window.


“Look at what you’re doing,” she said with her stern voice. The meat pushed into the casing and it suddenly looked alive.


“Mom, this is gross,” I muttered.


“It’s food,” she replied. “Make sure the sausage is firm and full. Take the air out with your hand.” I cringed, but complied.


The elongated shadows were dancing around us on the yellow walls. “We look like two ghosts,” I said. “The entire town is dark. We are the only ones working.” “If anyone could see us,” I continued, “how we are making sausage in the candlelight, with a blanket over the window and gunfire outside. It’s pretty funny, Mom.”


“Better making sausage than waiting for Godot,” she smiled.


A large boom rattled the window. The candles shook on the table.


“What was that?” I asked. “It sounded really close.”


“An explosion,” she said. “Maybe a grenade.” We stopped to listen, but nothing followed. “Maybe it’s not so close,” she said.


Our laughter disappeared. We rolled the sausage in silence, listening to the noises outside. Coiled in the plastic tub in its own reddish juice, the sausage looked naked. Helpless, a newborn. My mother tied the cotton string at the end. “Done. Now, I have to hang it to air on the balcony.”


“Are you crazy?” I shouted. “No, no, I won’t let you! There might be stray bullets. Don’t do it, please don’t! Let’s leave it for tomorrow, maybe it will be quieter.”


She looked at me calmly. “Don’t worry. I’ll be quick. And besides, the fighting is far away.”


I watched as she opened the balcony door. The cold night air rushed in. The shooting sounded far away, a storm at the edge of the town. She hung the sausage on wooden bars across the shelves in the outside pantry. “Tomorrow, your father will take them to the smoker,” she said. She had built a smoker at the country house. “Smoked, they’ll be great to eat with beans and cabbage. They will be enough for the entire winter.” She beamed proudly, closing the door: “Don’t they look good? Just like in the store, if the store had any food.”


“They look great, Mom,” I said.


Over the next few days, the shooting continued in various parts of the town. My father heard from someone at work that a militia sergeant started the shooting in the apartment buildings near the steel plant. The sergeant went on the roof with his gun and opened fire at every light he could see, yelling “Death to the enemies of the people!” until an army unit and some neighbors went on the roof and disarmed him. That could explain the gunfight my mother and I heard, but not the explosions and machine-gun rapid fire. The next day, Mom heard news about Mrs. Coman, an elementary school teacher, who was hit by bullets while hanging wash on the balcony. My father, too, came into crossfire in broad daylight while he was driving to work in his old, white Skoda car. Someone was shooting from an apartment building, aiming at all the moving targets on the street. My father told us he stopped the car and curled down until the gunfire stopped. Then, hands shaking, he quickly drove off.



Claudia Serea’s mother cooking squashes stuffed with ground meat filling in tomato sauce, a summer favorite.
On December 25, the Ceausescu couple was summarily tried, sentenced to death and executed by firing squad inside the army barracks in Târgoviste. We watched an edited tape of the trial and execution on TV. Soon after that, the shooting stopped.


Twenty years later, the identity of the “terrorists” remains a mystery. No one knows who shot my mom’s colleague or who opened fire at my father’s car. Some journals wrote about a conspiracy theory in which rumors and gunfire simulators were used to frighten the population and cause chaos. In Târgoviste, there were 13 deaths during the Revolution. Country-wide, 1,104 deaths were reported. 942 of them occurred after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu.


Târgoviste soon returned to being a gray, dusty provincial town, where nothing ever happened.


I never made homemade sausage again, although my mother, still in Romania, makes it every Christmas. After the Revolution, change happened at a rapid pace and I ended up immigrating to the U.S. in 1995.


The Christmas of 1989 stuck in my mind not only because of the Revolution, but because it was a time I felt so close to Mom. On that occasion, I learned from her that even in uncertain times, when bullets fly down the street and everything around comes apart, I can still pick up the pieces, grind them to a paste and make the tastiest sausage ever.


CLAUDIA SEREA grew up in Romania and moved to the U.S. in 1995. Her poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Mudfish, Main Street Rag, Oberon, The Comstock Review, Harpur Palate, Exquisite Corpse, The New Verse News, and in various other anthologies and journals. She also writes creative non-fiction, most recently published by The Rambler Magazine. Her chapbook Eternity’s Orthography was selected as a contest finalist and was published in September 2007 by Finishing Line Press. She lives in New Jersey and works in New York for a major publishing company.


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