About the longing / Despre dor (2/3)

  By Dan Lazar Trifan

English translation: Dan Lazar Trifan

English editors: Nancy Meshkoff (Vermont, USA) and John D. Powell (Vermont, USA)

Interview published in the book “At the roots, at origins … Talks at Subcetate” by Doina Dobreanu and Vasile Dobreanu, Publisher: Cezara Codruţa Marica, 2014

Romanian title: Dan-Lazăr Trifan –Despre Dor (Dor: Romanian word for longing, yearning)

DD: How did you pass the various seasons in Subcetate?

DLT: Hmm… Seasons! Vivaldi, in a previous life, was certainly Romanian and was raised in Subcetate- it’s a personal belief of mine. But let’s keep it just between us, so that the world doesn’t laugh at us…

Spring always starts, at school and at home, with the story of the “Mărţișor” (pro. Mârtzishor), the red and white string to which a small decoration is tied, worn by people on the first of March, to bring strength and health during the year. That’s the Allegro, Largo, and Danza

1'st of March
1’st of March

Pastorale in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  Snow began to melt, the small stream behind the house grew, sometimes reaching into the yard and garden, and we walked barefoot through water and mud that were still cold.

A true story: One spring, the stream that ran behind the house flooded our courtyard and garden up to the knee, and entered the house. Grandfather and grandmother, who lived on the hill, came down through the water to get us out. Grandmother, with her long dress rolled up, entered the house, took the pot of cabbage rolls from the stove, and left. Grandfather shouted after her, “What about the children, Ioana?” to which she replied, “Children have to eat, Ioane!”

Later, I remember walking with the other boys and girls in the meadows, picking snowdrops on the other side of the Mureş River, where they first appeared.  By April or May, when everything started to turn green again, when the ground was steaming, breathing, waiting for the plows, the farmers’ plows were repaired and sharpened in my father’s yard, and when they were ready, they were lined up neatly by the fence of the little garden. On sunny Sundays in May, when the apple and cherry trees were blooming, we were out in the fields playing tzurca, a traditional game using a bat and a ball, something like baseball.

I remember going out to plow, on the surrounding hills, for the villagers, with the tractor and the plow my father had built. Hard work, but I enjoyed it. Sunday mornings, when it was quiet and the villagers dressed in their Sunday clothes headed to church, I remember my father reading the newspaper at the kitchen table, and my mother sharing stories with us, rambling on about everything.

In the summer, we had a little bit of school and then the summer holidays. Vivaldi’s three movements include Allegro non molto, Adagio e piano–Presto e forte, and Presto.

Children’s holidays were different then, generally made up of working in the fields, in the garden, and around the house, helping their parents. The lucky ones (like us!) could go to a summer camp, somewhere in the mountains or by the sea, for one or two weeks. Later, when I grew up, summer meant working in the sawmill in Hodoşa, to earn some money for clothes. It never seemed difficult; this way of life was normal, accepted because there wasn’t any other. I was pleased with myself and with it.

July was intense heat beating down on the fields; (I hear the Presto e forte now!), and the rainfall of St. Ilie (Elijah), who makes corn grow and ripen.

I once heard a story about St. Ilie. He kept asking God to provide rain, lightning, and thunder for his feast day. God kept saying, “Well, wait. Not yet. You still have to wait…” Then one day God said, “But your day has passed.” After this, to make sure, St. Elijah provided rain both before and after his feast day!


After July came August, and a favourite event of mine: all of us, or nearly all of us, going to fields near the Gălăuţaş Forest, to make hay, in the Dobreni garden. A week of life in the wild, in nature, with demanding work, but enjoyable. My trouble was in trying to sharpen a scythe that never cut properly. When a scythe does not cut, you pull till your muscles nearly burst! Finally, one year I had a large, wide scythe that cut like a razor. It’s a feeling beyond description—in the early morning, with the dew on the grass, advancing in line, step by step, furrow to furrow, one after the other, brothers and father, cutting grass without a word, silently, as if performing an ancestral ritual learned somewhere, somehow, leaving behind long rows of heavy furrows and grass with a fresh and beautiful scent. The sound of the sharpening of the scythes, the song of grass falling to the scythes, interrupted by breaks for a solo of the whetstone passing gently over the edge of the scythe, grasshoppers leaping in the grass. Bringing the hay home after a few days, in the big, full, heavy wagon pulled by our tractor, usually towards evening, on country roads full of rocks, potholes, and other obstacles. But it was worth the effort, in the evening, after everything was finished, after a dip in the cool water of the creek behind the house and dinner prepared by my mother, to have the sense of a job well done, finished, feeling fulfilled, pleased with ourselves and with what we’d done.

Autumn—Allegro, Adagio molto, and Allegro again, but with a different message—when I was still in school, and even after starting school for a while, during the threshing of the grain. I remember going around to different villages with my father during the harvest, after the grain had dried and was ready to be threshed, and how he gradually assigned me to different tasks. It would be too much to tell here, all the impressions and some funny and beautiful stories with the two handsome men, my father and Ilie.

Threshing campaign
Threshing campaign

For some time, however, after collectivization, it was not so nice. Wealth became poverty, courtesy became indifference and bitterness. We’d once been received, hosted, nourished like special people, but after that we got to sleep in the stables, until my father gave up the business. Subcetate escaped collectivization, due both to the opposition of its people and to its hilly topography, which had few large areas for farming.

I remember not only the work in the fields and the harvest, but going through empty fields afterwards, when we children took the cows to graze, without restrictions as to where or when or on whose land.

Towards the beginning of winter, I had a period of another type of work with my father, splitting logs for the villagers with a mechanical circular saw he built, making firewood or lumber, moving the heavy logs people had brought from the forest at the end of the preceding winter by hitching them to horses and sliding them along the snow. Allegro, Adagio Allegro molto—these tempos perfectly describe serene and festive December and the calm, white tranquility of January and February’s harsh cold.

Winter holidays? They’re like stories from fairy tales—tales that we lived. Christmas, the beautifully decorated Christmas tree; carols with the voices of children sounding so beautifully in the crystalline winter sky, breaking the silence of the night here and there; cakes, my mother’s cakes, stuffed cabbage rolls, the traditional Christmas pork specialities. It was the time of year when we were most often able to gather all together at home, to our stoic mother and father’s disguised (but eventually obvious) contentment. A holiday of joy, reunion, the refreshment of the mind. Over the years, however, we lived in more distant places, and we were less and less often able to enjoy being all together for Christmas or New Year’s Eve in our parents’ home.

Winter brought heavy snow in the fifties and sixties. White winters, with tranquility falling on the village. Activities in the countryside are less intense in winter—skiing, going out with friends over the hills and forests, having all sorts of adventures, ending up with broken bones or injuries, or going out skating with skates we’d made. We improvised, and it created unforgettable memories. It was a season for reflection, I would say. Our village was set in a bowl among the hills, which blocked the wind and made it much easier to bear lower temperatures. My parents bought me my first overcoat for my first year in high school, in Târgu Mureş. Until then, in the winter I’d worn a thick wool sweater, hat, gloves, and winter boots.

DD: Childhood spaces and feelings of home… Do they make you nostalgic?

DLT: Nostalgic? Sometimes, yes, when my preoccupations lift and I have the time for my thoughts to wander free. During long trips, for example. Then, yes, I miss that sense of being “at home,” a place that in fact does not exist anymore, but of which we carry a bit, wherever we are and whatever we become. At other times, life, in its difficulty and continuous passing, faces us with different realities and the truth that the past cannot ever be relived. Everything changes. Everything has changed today—places, people, and habits. What remains is the spiritual heritage, the one that helps us find our inner selves, anywhere, anytime. If we keep this feeling of being “at home” in our minds and souls, we feel at home anywhere in the world, on any shore. We integrate our past into our day-to-day present, into our everyday achievements. We hurt when people we cherish are no longer with us.

Yes, I miss seeing my mom weaving at her loom or coming down the street with her hands folded under her embroidered sheepskin vest, as I’ve known her to do for a lifetime. I miss listening to my dad telling the story of when he defected from the German army, stories from the war, or working with him in the smithy.

Nostalgia? Yes, I do have it. During the long winters in Quebec, when I’m tired of shovelling the snow blocking the windows so that I can have light in the house, or on the plane to Kigali, or during my long waits in airports in Nairobi or Paris—yes, I feel nostalgia. It sweetens some moments. I’m lucky to have it.

DD: And your life path or “existential track”?

DLT: That’s an interesting term you use. On a track, on a route, a person passes through a succession of distinct points. Yes, I move in space, but in time… I feel, rather, that time passes over me, and that my time walking is continuous, not in a series of discrete moments, not composed of points. Time goes through me, and I try to brake, to slow it down, and to make the most of every second that passes through me, to savour it, to feel its color, taste, trends, and effect, to delay the death of every second, to postpone its disappearance. Hmm… Too much philosophy, right?

Danutz in the 60s
Danutz in the 60s

Okay, let’s start at the beginning, which of course can only be in Subcetate. I have many memories, but let’s start with the institutional life of the kid named Dănuţ when he had an excellent start in kindergarten, but kindergarten ended for him on the first day. Life outside it was more interesting. Then school, where I was late for the first day. I was late and couldn’t find any place except in the back of the classroom, and of course I fell in love with the beautiful Elena. (That will be our secret, okay? No one knows about it, not even Elena!)

I recently learned of something I did the summer before I started school, when the building was under construction. (The fact that we were getting a new school was thanks to the irreplaceable Professor Andrei Cotfas, who tricked the Communist authorities and obtained funds to build the high school by pretending that our small village was actually another, larger one with the same name.) I gathered stones from the road, put them in my pockets, and carried them onto the construction site, where I told the workers to hurry and finish building the school because soon, in the fall, I was supposed to start first grade.

The school had teachers and professors with big hearts and great human qualities! I was usually among the best students in school, (even the first in my class), except for the years when my grades were lowered for misbehaviour.

I followed with high school in Târgu Mureş, taking advantage of the re-establishment of industrial high schools, living with my aunts and later with my brother, Ilie, or, in the last year, in the high school campus. The change from village life to city life had its events, even shocks, which have strongly marked me. Adapting to city life came at a price, and I paid dearly, but, as they say, what does not kill us strengthens us. I was among the best students here as well (with the same exceptions for misbehaviour), and I studied all subjects with pleasure and in depth, from industrial classes to literature. This propelled me to contests in mathematics, physics, Romanian literature, or activities like ham radio operation, “orienteering sport”, gymnastics, and judo. So as not to burden my parents too much with the expenses for my studies, I tutored younger students or worked with my brother Ilie repairing cars. Ilie deserves a special book, a whole novel, but there’s not enough time in this interview for all the stories I could tell!

At the end of high school, after years in which I saw my future in industry, aviation, and electronic engineering, I decided to change course. I chose astronomy and applied for admission to the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Bucharest. But astronomy ran away from me. Each year, it was moved to the next year of study, but I caught it in the final year, just for a trimester. In the meantime, I chose computer sciences, advanced study in theoretical mechanics and magneto-hydrodynamics, ending with cutting-edge research in the theory of shock waves in plasma. But it seemed that the fate of the students of my generation had already been decided. One of my teachers, Mr. Ioan Roșca, a famous mathematician and a former classmate of Doina (my sister) in Subcetate, told us at one point, “All of you will be swallowed up by computer science!”

And so it was. I ended up at a factory called Electronica, a manufacturer of television sets, in the computer department, where my path took me from programmer to systems engineer, to team manager, and by the end, to head of the computer department.

I forgot to say that, in my last year at university I married a Bucharest girl, Virgilia. We were colleagues. She is a math teacher, passionate about mathematics and especially passionate about teaching kids. Virgilia is the mother of my three children, Mircea, Alexandru and Ileana, who are the major achievements of our life.

In thinking about the future, I meant to avoid certain things. I would not live in a big city, would not become the head of anything, would not live on an apartment block, would not work in industry, and would stay away from Bucharest girls. Well, it was completely futile. I did the opposite of all of them! I lived in Bucharest for 28 years, I wasthe boss in most of my positions, we bought an apartment in a 10-story building, I worked in industry for 24 years, and I fell in love with a Bucharest girl. Perhaps it was meant to be. Perhaps your destiny is already written, marked on your forehead!

I had the luck of having three very special children, talented, hardworking, and intelligent. As for my profession, I had the luck to be among those chosen to lead major projects on a national scale— pioneering, I’d say.

The first personal computer for the general public in Romania, for example, was put into production by a team I led, where my contribution was a major one, getting all the official approvals, passing through all the Communist filters, and doing the paperwork. We had to call it not a computer but, ridiculously, a “programmable device for assisted learning” because the Communist authorities did not allow ordinary citizens to have such a thing as a “computer” at home.

I led two large information system projects, pilot projects in real-time production management, when they premiered in Romania: A German-inspired one and another designed in Romania, both implemented at the Electronica plant where I was working.

The 1989 “revolution” (in quotes, of course!) found me on the frontlines, one of those naïve people who believed that something could change from one day to another. The events pushed me into a leadership position again. I was the one who had to do some backstage organizing for some major changes at the plant where I worked. We changed some things, we forced changes, but I realized after a while that all we’d done was to cut off the top of the iceberg. Everyone in the “Communist mafia” pyramid just moved up a level and everything was left in place. (We should call it an octopus, not a pyramid.)

Later on, with a few collaborators, I established WDS Software House, one of the first computer firms in Bucharest. In less than a year, we built an information system for a hospital, one of the first systems on a PC network in Romania. There followed years of hard work, intensive development, business trips to customers across the country, to Constanta, Brăila, Tulcea, Galaţi, Bacău, Baia Mare, Turnu Severin, and Craiova, and then I formed a second company, and a third one. We developed computer applications in various fields, from accounting to the food industry to aircraft manufacturing.

Our children grew up, and society evolved. The Information Technology market was still new and competition was not always fair. After a while I gave up my private enterprises and joined an insurance company as the director of their computer department.

Québec, Musée de la civilisation, 2006
Québec, Musée de la civilisation, 2006

At one point, my second son, Alex, began to suggest that we emigrate. I did not want to at first, but I tried once and was refused. Alex continued to insist. After deeper reflection, we decided to leave, not for my wife’s and my sake, since we had already established ourselves in good careers, but to provide our children with more opportunities.

Thus it was that on August 8, 2000 we landed in Montreal with Canadian permanent resident visas in our hands.

After 10 years in Canada at the same firm, an IBM company, I decided to  return to running my own business, so I incorporated and started working as an independent consultant. I was able to gain enough North American experience to maintain a variety of clients in Canada and Europe and also obtained a few contracts for World Bank–funded projects for countries in Africa. Currently, I find myself with my own consulting firm in information technologies, plus a small music agency, providing contracts and gigs for a few musical groups.

My family? That’s another long story… Together, scattered, partly reassembled, rebuilt in another form and broken up again, major health problems for some— fortunately resolved or almost resolved. Our children are grown up, independent, and I sometimes feel strange because nobody needs me like they used to, but that’s part of life, right? I do find, from time to time, someone who needs back-up, someone I can help; I am a kind of “life facilitator”, as they say. Some live for themselves, others are cut out to live for others and this is the way I feel good.