The taxi, an old Dacia, made quickly for the curb and squeaked to a resentful halt. It was raining in Bucharest, and it had been hard to snag a cab. My wife, Naomi, opened the door and poked her head in, asking the driver what the fare would be to our destination.
"Whatever the meter says," was the smart-aleck reply.
"Excuse me?" she asked in her politest Romanian, the language she's been speaking since childhood.
The rejoinder was louder this time, and agitated. "Whatever the meter says!" the net-shirted young man barked. The drops were coming down hard, and with no other cabs around we got in.
"Stupid country," my Romania-born wife muttered in English.
That was our second day there, and the first of many comments -- some loving, some critical and some just frustrated -- I'd hear in nine days about the land that she, in better moods, refers to as "the mother ship." The country that she left when she was 6 years old is complicated for her. She is a native, but her accent now marks her as a foreigner. She has relatives there but seldom sees them. She'd been last in 2000, with her mother. This time she took me.
I'd long wanted to go. I needed a scrapbook for my mind's eye -- images that informed me about where my wife was born. But I also had to beat the clock.
Her grandmother is approaching 96. I wanted to meet her while I could and, by happy coincidence, to share with her our news. Her granddaughter is pregnant.
My impressions of the country had begun in Bucharest. They weren't good.
Apartment blocks crumbled. Dogs roamed the streets. Scruffy Gypsy kids approached you with their hands upturned, and graying pensioners stood silently on corners, waiting for charity. Heavy rain fell. "Romania looks more like Peru or Jamaica than Europe," I wrote on a postcard.
But it didn't. Not the whole country. "I don't like that you wrote that it looks like Peru or Jamaica," Naomi told me, sitting in the post office in the town of Bran. "It does," I protested. But I was thinking mostly of Bucharest when I wrote my cards. I hadn't seen the soaring mountains or the sleepy, agreeable villages. Neither, of course, looked like anywhere in Latin America or the Caribbean that I've been.
The drive to Braila, where "Moma" lives, would take about four hours from Bucharest. Naomi's parents were also in Romania on a visit, so her father drove. We crawled our way out of Bucharest, past the dingy buildings that bordered the tram tracks, watching the erstwhile "Paris of the East" scroll by.
As ambivalent as she is about Romania, Naomi also has a native's affection. She wanted me to like the country, I think, because it was part of her. And indeed, I loved the way she fell in with her relatives when we arrived.
On the first day, in a Bucharest apartment, we assembled for a small family reunion. Occasionally I sensed that I was in California (where Naomi's parents live) and that her kin were visiting. But then I'd remember that up the street stood Ceausescu's enormous, eerie "House of the People." This is why her family had left: to forsake communism.
As the borrowed Citroen steered out of Bucharest and sped northeast to Braila, the city gave way to open roads and fields dotted with red poppies. Farmers straight from a van Gogh painting drove their wheat-laden horse carts along the narrow byways.
Looking over at Naomi a few times, I saw her aspect had changed. Here in the country, in the sun, she could breathe. Here was the Romania she loved.
Another part of the Romania she loves lives on a shady street in Braila, in a small apartment festooned with paintings of Jesus and Mary. Moma was shrunken, her eyes prominent with age. But her reaction to our news was worth the trip. She summoned Naomi and squeezed both her hands hard. "Bun," she said. "Good." She gave me a kiss for each cheek and sank back into her chair.
She looked at each of us for a long time, the old woman with a tissue stuffed in her yellow sweater sleeve. "Time passes so fast," she said softly.
If the past is another country for Naomi, Moma is the queen of the ancient state; a tether to a place Naomi once knew. Naomi's world turns; Moma stays put. But she didn't protest when we left. Indeed, she smiled as she wished us a good trip.
After two nights in the mountains in Busteni, we bought small cardboard tickets for the train back to Bucharest. We regretted having to leave so soon, but quickly settled into our six-person compartment. As we approached Bucharest, a familiar, cloudy expression appeared on my wife's face.
"I'm sad," she told me as passengers fingered their cell phones and drank beer from plastic bottles. "I always know I'm going to miss it here."
I shared that sadness. Romania, for Naomi and now for me, is a sort of distant family member, a bond that evokes the whole mosaic of family emotions. Leaving was hard, not least because we may never see Moma again.
But, speeding back toward the city, I knew that we'd be returning. If our child can't meet his great-grandmother, at least the mother ship will be waiting.
It was too soon to plan our next trip. Instead, we just watched as the fields flew by and the rain began to fall.