I was surprised by how many women in Bucharest did not believe I was American. I’m a short and stocky woman and at the time my hair was black and cropped short. Being from California where no one looks like the person next to them, I never thought about places I might blend in. So I was delighted by their insistence that I was Romanian. I would walk into a shop or sit down at a restaurant and the would speak to me in Romanian. I would awkwardly scramble to ask them if they spoke English, because I can’t speak a lick of Romanian. They would laugh at this for they were all kind women, some of the kindest I’ve met.
Many spoke beautiful English and carried out long conversations with me, asking me questions and teaching me all sorts of things. They would ask if I was from Romanian decent, visiting family or tracing my heritage.
Before I visit a new country, I like to perform a little research about the history and culture there. In the months before my trip, my research of Romania had led me to fall in love with a traditional blouse called the ie (pronounced ee-eh). The symbolism and history of this style of dress resonated with me. I shared my admiration of their beauty with one of the women I was conversing with in a shop. Her smile in response was so large and genuine; and she took my hand and lead me to a rack.
She pulled an ei out and handed it to me, “Do you feel the fabric? It’s handmade.”
I ran the translucent white material through my fingers, admiring it. It was coarse yet soft, light and breathable.
“Let me show you how to tell.” She flipped the sleeve inside out, showing me the seem of the cuff, “See how the edge is jagged? That it is because it was made with one of those,” she pointed across the shop to a weaving loom.
I asked her if she knew how to make the fabric.
She nodded and smiled, “I made all of these, by hand. Here’s how you tell.” She pulled the sleeve up, exposing a diamond patch in the armpit. “See this shape? You find this on all handmade ie. You don’t see this with a machine.”
“Do you do the embroidery too?” I asked.
She turned the blouse over to show me the underside of the red and black floral embroidery. She lifted a small loop with her fingernail, “This is how I started. See? I start with a loop to hold the flower in place.” She motioned for me to follow her to the counter where she picked up an incomplete pattern. She then demonstrated how she made the flowers and leaves.
The demonstration lead into a conversation about art and she requested to see some of my work. She was very kind when I showed her, though I am an amateur painter. I spent the better part of two hours in the shop chatting with her about my journeys and about life. She had such great advice to give and a smile that touched my spirit – I carry it with me still.