Epiphanies on the Danube

Pablo Martín Ruiz

Photograph by Kevin Kunstadt

Let's just stick with Ismael. That it goes by the name Izmail or Ishmail in some places and can be spelled with Latin or Cyrillic characters (Ізмаїл or Измаил, for example), that at different points in history it's been called Ishmayl or Itzmayel (or, surprisingly, Hacidar), is irrelevant for us, and can be attributed to the successive crossing of the region by the Bessarabians, the Genoese, the Ottomans, the Russians, the Moldavians, the Romanians, the Germans, and the Ukrainians.  But Ismael, with an 'e', is the name that my great aunt Luisa remembered in Buenos Aires some time in the eighties, and that's the name I'll continue to remember.  That, and Anchekrak.

I arrived in Odessa one overcast morning in July having barely slept on the night train from Kiev. Every guidebook available was written in Russian, which I don't speak, and all I had with me were some phone numbers and addresses I'd culled from the Internet.  It took me almost an hour to figure out how the public phones worked, after the several people I approached had ignored my questions. When I finally got in touch with a hotel, nobody there spoke English, and then when I showed up in person after a long and expensive taxi ride, all the rooms were booked. With some extra effort, I managed to get the details of another hotel that was within my modest budget. They gave me a room that was a bit decrepit, but boasted a large window with a view of the Black Sea. Everyone knew of Ismael, the port at the mouth of the Danube delta, but no one had heard of Anchekrak.

I arrived in Ismael two days later. That wasn't easy either, but there I was at last. In the early afternoon on a day of dense and shining sun, I got off the bus with my backpack and my disquiet, and without the slightest idea of what I was going to do for three days in that town, not even knowing if I was going to find a place to stay.  I walked up to a taxi driver and offered the only word that I figured could help me just then: "hotel."  It was a word that, minutes later, left me at the door of an old building, grey and crumbling, which lacked any outward sign that might identify it for what it was.  I still didn't know what I was going to do in this city, but at least I now had a mattress to sleep on.

One of the two names my Jewish great aunt had uttered in that recording in the eighties just before she died—the name of the town that, one hundred years earlier, still a girl, her mother, the mother of the mother of my mother had come from—had now taken the form of concrete streets with real houses and real people, trees and street corners, sewers and sidewalks to touch and see.  A statue of Lenin still standing firmly in the plaza, little old ladies selling fruit from wooden crates on the sidewalk, multi-colored worn-out soviet cars, similar to the old Fiats of my childhood in Buenos Aires—that's what I saw in my first stroll around the hotel. But there was nothing that could pass for a tourism office; in fact, my hotel, where no one spoke English, was the closest thing to it.  There was a filthy little shop in the lobby that sold candy, cookies, pens and some postcards from the town. I asked if they sold any maps of Ismael. Two strokes of luck: the word for "map" in Ukrainian and Russian is "mapa", and they did have them, but in Russian. I bought one and opened it up. Since I'd at least learned the Cyrillic alphabet, I managed to make out the names of the streets and figure out that the hotel was on the main avenue.  In one of the corners of the map, I saw a Star of David.  Could this be the town synagogue?

The long blocks that I walked along to reach the star that was guiding me, blocks of pavement that soon turned to dirt road, were lined with stout houses topped with wooden A-frames and hugged by fruit trees: plum trees, apricot trees, apple trees, pear trees, their fruit at an arm's length, grapes, orange trees, fig trees, like some kind of Eden reincarnate, a gift of the Danubian waters.  I finally arrived at the spot marked by the star, but didn't see anything resembling a synagogue. Instead, I found a few wastelands and a long fence made of dull and rusty sheets of metal.  I walked around a bit.  Eventually I went up to the fence, looked through a gap between two sheets of metal, and saw a cemetery.  I understood the map.  I rang a bell.  A dog barked.  A man appeared and opened the door.  Do you speak English? He responded with an emphatic no.  Argentina, I said.  Babushka babushka.  Ismael.  I uttered the first word while pointing to myself, repeated the second (about the only Russian word I knew) while moving my index finger in a circular motion above my head, and said the third while gesturing to the floor.  He understood immediately and let me in.  He suggested with his hands that he'd phone someone who could talk to me.  A minute later, I was speaking with his wife, Olga, in English.  She would come over in a little while to get me; at the Jewish institution where she worked, there would surely be someone who could help me.  With Olga on her way, I decided to go for a walk around the cemetery to look for a Liberman or a Litvin grave, to walk among the dead.  I would find out later that this cemetery had been constructed recently from the remains of one that had been destroyed, along with the synagogues and any records of Jews, by the Nazis.  Built with the remains of the cemetery that had come before it, this was also a cemetery of a cemetery. Olga, who would hardly leave my side over the course of the next three days, brought me to the Jewish organization where she worked.  The director asked a few questions, among them whether I was familiar with Russian writers.  I said that of course I was, and even though I assumed he was asking me about Jewish Russian writers, I began to list the Russian writers I knew, Jewish or not.  From my list, he held onto Mandelstam alone, and began to recite him from memory in Russian, entire Mandelstam poems that he knew by heart.  They took down all the information I had with me and we agreed that I would come back the next day.  By morning Olga was already at my hotel, and had brought along a woman from the local synagogue. We all had breakfast together. The woman hadn't heard of Anchekrak.  Later, they brought me to the office, told me about phone calls they'd already made, and made some more.  An elderly woman remembered some Libermans who had a photography studio in the twenties, and some Litvins who used to own a bookshop.  But no living person in the city had either of the two last names.  They took me to the archives, a decrepit building where I fingered the pages of some manuscripts from the sixteenth century in a library eaten away by humidity.  The staff came to see me, brought out photos and old written records, offered their help.  No one had heard of Anchekrak.  Later on, they took me to the town museum—a shining new building.  There were photographs from the turn of the century on display, there was a school desk from that era, there were coins from the time of my ancestors.  After treating me to a lovely dinner, they dropped me off at the hotel.

I was elated.  I'd arrived with nothing, a South American from a faraway port, a different delta, and I was being met with unexpected generosity.  It was Saturday and I wanted to keep taking Ismael in: it was turning into a good luck charm for me.  I set out to explore the night.  I walked into bars, wandered the streets, and ended up at the docks.  I talked to a young man in a bar who'd spent time in the US as a student.  He recommended the nightclub at the harbor to me, the best one in town.  The girls, their carefully pressed clothes, those long legs, seductive smiles and seeking glances, their bodies dancing amidst flashing lights, libations and sounds fit for a kind of happiness that wasn't always fake, a happiness adorned with the biting beauty of the women, a nocturnal spectacle that I watched for over an hour. I left and headed back to the village, stopping at a few bars along the way but hardly taking a drink. My curiosity sated, I decided to go back to the hotel. The maiden approached the genteel young man and asked him something in Russian. The young man, surprised by the maiden's beauty, by her unbelievably white skin, apologized, explaining that he didn't speak the language. "Oh, you're not from here. You don't happen to have a cigarette for me, do you?" She asked in perfect English. The young man apologized once more, explaining that he didn't smoke. "How about a drink so we can get to know each other a little better?" The young man couldn't believe his good fortune and happily accepted the proposal from this young lady of unforgettable pallor. At a nearby bar, they met friendly and welcoming regulars who, upon seeing the man from out of town come in, slowly began to approach his table. They asked him about his background and his adventures in the area, giving him sweets and heady concoctions to drink. The following day Olga and her husband came to get me at the hotel. I mentioned meeting the girl and our conversation at the bar. I told them that when I realized they were being too friendly and generous with me, I figured it was a con and that I had to get out of there. I knew the bathroom was outside the bar, so I got up and excused myself for a few minutes. When I left the bathroom, just as I'd feared, two of them were waiting for me. I put my hand out to say goodbye and one of them grabbed it and pulled me towards him. We struggled. I yanked my hand away and as soon as I'd set it loose, I started to run. They followed me, but didn't make it as far as the hotel. It would've been too risky for them. A night watchman opened the door for me and I sat in the hotel lobby awhile. I was given a glass of water to drink before heading up to my room and falling into bed. I went over the whole episode in my mind, my stupidity and my luck. I wondered how I would write it if I ever had to, and I played with the idea of it as a children's tale, a horror story, a religious allegory, a parody of Perec. I wrote down a few pathetic lines that I might use the day I did write it, or that I might just scrap. "And I, an idiot, who thought or felt that, being in my mother's mother's mother's village, I could encounter nothing but good fortune, that reaching the limits of my family's memory would somehow render me indestructible or immortal, endow me with a beneficent life force, magically make me invincible and omnipotent, etc., etc." They told me about a German guy who'd been sauced up in a different bar and robbed clean a few weeks earlier. He was beaten so badly that his face was disfigured. The white zahirs of Ismael.

We had to go to the archives: in the pages of an old Romanian encyclopedia, an employee had discovered that, up until eighty years ago, the region just north of Ismael used to be called Anchekrak. It was referred to by the Germans as Ackerman, and today goes by the name Tarutino. The employee gave me an old Romanian map with the name printed on it. I thanked her, several times. The three of us went walking around the village. We strolled for hours, ate, chatted, and wandered some more. I bought my ticket to Kiev for the following day. By late afternoon, we'd reached the harbor and decided to sit down and have a drink in silence. I looked around. The clean air, the river passing by with the tranquility of the ages, sand crisped by the sun, long-legged women coming back from the beach, all of it became a cosmos unto itself, a startling and immediate cosmos before my eyes. I'd come there not knowing what I was looking for and now I was leaving without really knowing what I'd found, but I had the sense that it was made of a material that everything was a part of. There, in that swath of Black Sea and the Danube. Anointed by history and myth, these waters seemed to possess a benevolent will. As though in its winding path the Danube carried oozing residues, sparkling leftovers, memories refined by history, and deposited it all in the mouths of its muddy delta; as though its sediments had absorbed all imperfections, and all they had left on the surface of the waters were the tangible silhouettes of nymphs, of the ancient offerings of the gods, of the adoring love of the dead, so that the river would drag them and drop them at the ends of its course, like a whimsical homage to absent gods, and they would all be reincarnated in the form of the fruit, the women, the shadows, and the joys of Ismael. The sun lingered on, babbling its light. A girl came running toward me from the beach, got close, looked at me, and went running back to the river.

translated from the Spanish by Daniella Gitlin

This travel memoir won first prize in the 2007 annual literary contest organized by Fundación El Libro in Buenos Aires, Argentina.