EXCLUSIVE. A story from a weird Romanian train station. Neither “mititei”, nor the beer of Lehliu is what it used to be during the time of Tanta and Costel
Lehliu town has become famous owing to the writerly grace of Ion Baiesu. The very popular TV series “Tanta si Costel” originated from here, from the railway platform of the thistly Baragan. Actors Coca Andronescu and Octavian Cotescu were those who played memorably the lovely characters.
Tanta and Costel represent the perfect incarnation of a jaded and nice couple, whose life fails in routine, formalisms and conveniences. He cannot abandon his old daily habits, his only source of joy and pleasure being playing backgammon and occasionally sneaking into the stadium for watching his favorite football team playing. She is not interested in anything else than recipes, the petty neighborhood gossip and the obsessive daily question “what am I going to cook today?”
“Do you still remember, Tanto?”
What better place could have been chosen for such people to meet than just a modest railway station in the countryside? On Lehliu railway platform, those two people have a few mititei and a pint of beer, chitchatting about life.They fall in love at first sight, set the date and the menu of the wedding in the smallest detail and take the last train – the real one with train cars and locomotives – to Bucharest. The existential one, they lost it for good. Innocent anniversaries of their wedding would always start with: “Do you still remember, Tanto, how we first met at Lehliu railway station?”
How does nowadays the famous station look like, what is that the town knows about Tanta and Costel and, not lastly, how is life on a countryside railway platform?
That is how long the train stops for at Lehliu station. You barely have time to get on or to drop off your suitcases, bags and carboys.
The train leaves behind a gray, lonely railway platform. The six tracks suffer from … provincial parallelism. Nothing disturbs or animates them. Nobody crosses them randomly, taking the risk to be surprised by a train whose rare passage, as you could understand, is a true event. On the other side of the tracks, lies a field as large as the eye can see, why would anyone cross?
When I arrived, it was 13.00hrs. On the rain- scratched benches,there were four people dozing: three men, one woman and a table leg tall kid. Four and one fourth people are patiently, flatly waiting. I stared at them for about ten minutes. First train would arrive in Lehliu at 15.36hrs, a high-speed train from Constanta. One hour and a half to go. Why would this people come so early?
It was like I was living in a novel of Rebreanu with some peasants who, worrying that they might be missing the train, went to the station five hours in advance. And they still missed it as they were run over by the last minute stampeding passengers.
I did not get immediately into a conversation with the not at all hurrying railway platform mates. I got caught in that Lehliu temper and stared lengthily at the station and its surroundings. The tall building vehemently contrasts with the small houses in the neighborhood. It looks like an utilitarian replica of the silo that is visible in the background, beyond the rails, deep in the field.
The station looks much better from inside than from the street. It is so well hidden to the eye that you can hardly find it if you are not from there. The plucked plaster, broken windows and stinking garbage complete in thick contours the station sketch. Hanging on the walls of the signalman office, the local rules set the number of animals that passengers are allowed to take on the train –hunting dogs maximum two – and which ones need tickets or not.
In contrast with the bleak image of the station, across the street, two fancy terraces hold funny names: “At Tomcat SRL” or “Simply – billiard, pizza, cold refreshments and spirits”.
I get back on the railway platform rushed by an urgent, physiological need. An impressive swarm of beetles and the terrible smell that could get sick even an urologist made be abandon the station WC’s services.
“At the Culture House, we rarely organize shows, depending on the budget”
The Mayor of Lehliu is proud of the characters that have made the town so famous. “Nobody knew about Lehliu until Ion Baiesu’s series came out.” The writer must have been here as he knew too well specific details such as the self-service grocery, the mititei (traditional Romanian dish of grilled ground meat rolls) and the beer on the railway platform.
If a miracle happened for our spiritual literary father to hear me, I would tell him that poverty in Lehliu is terrible, mititei got much worse and so did the beer. We have tried to preserve the cultural –humoristic tradition in Lehliu as much as we could. Eight out of nine people of the town know who Tanta and Costel were. At the Culture House, we organize shows as we can, depending on the budget availability. We are lucky with the folkloric groups from Bulgaria and Turkey, who are still coming to Lehliu. Otherwise, we would be dead. We thought about hanging a memorial plaque on the railway platform reading “That’s where Tanta and Costel met”. That’s the minimum we can do as we do not have anything else to be proud of, says Mayor Iulian Iacomi.
“Tanta and Costel”? Never heard of, buddy, if you tell me the village and who are their relatives, I might know them”
The woman with the baby doesn’t count among the nine out of ten people of the Mayor who have heard of Baiesu. She is not more than forty. That’s what she is, she shows me her ID, noticing I was in doubt. Worries, hard work and pain made her look over sixty. “My name is Stroe Maria, mister, massa, sorry, am a country side woman and I don’t know how to call you. Am from Argova Valley, nearby Lehliu. I am going to Bucharest with Nelutu, my youngest son. It seems like God thought I did not have enough on my shoulders with five children and a drunken unemployed husband. My little son must undergo heart surgery, doctors told me he had some kind of meat grown in there and, if we delay it any longer, they won’t be able to do anything anymore. I’ve heard that people pay some two-three hundred dollars for such an operation, but where the hell can I get this money from? We’ve got some land, my man has a truck and he works occasionally for other people, we sold the calf , but we could not get more than a hundred dollars. I bought a goose, some eggs and cheese, a carboy of wine, may God help me sort this out. I got early here as I am not used to travel and I rather wait myself for the train wouldn’t wait for me. Tanta and Costel? I haven’t heard, buddy, but if you tell me the village and who are their relatives, I might know them.”
I wish Maria good luck, she thanks me for the good words and hands me a bundle of walnuts. I don’t want to take them, but she says that if I do not want to get anything from her to remember her when eating, the luck I wished her will turn against her, as she wasn’t able to thank a stranger who wished her well when she was in trouble.
Half a pig for a bed in the dormitory
From the three men, only two are still on the railway platform. They are going to Bucharest too and also with trouble, “annoyances” as one of them says. “I am Stan Dumitru, he goes, and I am from Lehliu-village. My daughter is at university in Bucharest, her mother’s wanted her to become an economist as holding a hoe would make her hiccough. Actually, the woman is right, if thistles grew in our soles, at least the child should be better off. Just that she kills me nagging. She nags all the time about money, don’t you understand? When she sought a place in the dorm, she asked me for half a pork, a gift for the administrator. Every two weeks, she nags me to send her food and money, as at the canteen they saw nothing else than cabbage and potatoes. Now I am really pissed off. She sent word to us to bring her money for boots as winter is coming and it’s shameful to wear the same ones as last year. I know it’s winter, but does the money fall from the sky as snow does? On the wheat, we did not even get as much as we spent to plow and sow it and so on. In the countryside, we work like foolish, not to let people say that we’re lazy, but we make almost nothing. Now I am taking her godfather with me to Bucharest, so that she nags him too as I am fed up with her.
Neither Tanta, nor Costel and their spiritual father exist anymore. Lehliu station is still there. The town railway station is back into what it was before the talent of a writer ennobled it, a place where nothing and everything is equally happening. People with their typical provincial annoyances live their simple, linear lives as perfect incarnations of the two fictional characters.
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