In Romania I grew up in one had no choice but to live inside; of himself that is. Freedom was just a word locked in the dictionary with no meaning on the streets. My grandfather did twenty years of political prison and labor camp for expressing his opinion freely; at age of twenty-five my grandmother lost all her teeth in the interrogation room for refusing to divorce him.
I chose to be an actor to be able expressing what otherwise I could not say. After the crash of communism in Eastern Europe another replaced one dictatorship; Romania stayed the same: corrupt, miserable, incapable of change. I had once more to dig inside and seek the truth trough acting. In 1991 I enrolled at a private conservatory in Bucharest, school paid with the money earned as a postal worker. Four years later I had the chance to audition for Aeschylus’ first play, The Suppliants, an international theatre project under the direction of one of the greatest names in European theatre, Silviu Purcarete. The audition was held in French (fortunately I speak the language well,) and after being accepted a three months intensive rehearsal period started followed by a year of European touring that included Paris, Wien, Amsterdam, Avignon, Rome, Birmingham, Glasgow, and Dublin. For a year I was on top of the world, performing in places I wasn’t even allowed to dream about, immersing myself in the cultures that surrounded me, and fulfilling a long awaiting passion. The first rude awakening came after the last performance in Ireland, in September 1996, when I decided to get a taste of the free world and play my chances. The company returned home while I stayed ready for everything.
Dublin was a tough place to survive considering my very limited English, no work permit, nor family contacts. For nine months I washed dishes for cash and learned what it felt to be a stranger. To stay sane I wrote poetry and read. In May 1997 I heard that the company was regrouping for a tour at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City.
I packed my old suitcase, went back home, rehearsed and one day after the Independence Day, I saw the Statue of Liberty before landing at JFK. My second dream was sweet and short: for three weeks I was myself again, doing what I wanted my whole life, acting and being rewarded for it. At the end of it I made the most difficult decision of my life: to leave my family behind again, this time with no way of knowing for how long. My Irish experience helped me overcome the emotional scare of being alone 5000 miles from them, but I knew that I had to take the chance and bite the dust again. My only connection was a phone number of a Romanian family somewhere around Boston that could host me for a short time. I made the call and a few hours later a Greyhound bus started my American odyssey.
I remember Brockton, Massachusetts as a small colonial town that taught me how to pump gas and slice salami. Nothing spectacular, just the memory of my first jobs in the land of Lincoln, great improvement from washing dishes just a year before (here my sarcasm should be noticed, especially because it will grow steadily during my next fifteen lucky years of going for the American dream). After two months, I had the option of renting a bad smelling room in the basement of the house or closing the door from outside. I chose to go back to New York, met an old college friend and flew to LA. Another short chapter of hope, ended ultimately in a miserable tone.
I went back to my first “love” by washing dishes after walking to the place for three miles each way (no driver license = no car). A month later I had almost no money left and I had to make another radical decision before joining the bums on Sunset Blvd. I landed in Detroit in a freezing November day of 1997 at a helping hand of a member of the theatre company that decided to stay as well at the mercy of some very distant relatives. For room and board I worked the dough for their bagel family business from 4 AM to 2 PM, then helped with the landscaping business until evening. Two months later I got my first job in a restaurant as a busboy and cleaning person, eventually becoming a waiter. It’s what I do now still, thirteen years later, a “proud” representative of a first generation of emigrants with no real chances for a real life because real opportunities are not quite that real for him. To be honest, I don’t believe in the old say that I have to sacrifice myself so that my children will have a better life; bullshit, I saw my father’s sadness when he had to give up his dancing career only because it was his time to have a family and raise children. His life was shattered, his dreams drowned in his daily bottle of vodka, his energy focused in beating my mother every day after his miserable day at the glass factory. Unfortunately, I understood his pain long after he was gone, but I got the message and it stuck with me: “Never betray what you’re made of, keep going, and have faith.”
In 2001, I enrolled in Oakland University’s dance performance and choreography program and in 2005 I graduated with Magna Cum Laude. The university did not recognize one credit from my first college (Hyperion University, a private conservatory in Bucharest,) so I had to start all over again this time choosing a parallel field of performing arts (dance,) so that I could have a broader perspective of what it means to be a better performer. Another audition in the summer of 2005 gave me the opportunity to become a member of a professional contemporary dance company, Detroit Dance Collective, with whom I performed for the next four years. In all this time my restaurant jobs paid everything: tuition, rent, bills, credit cards, car payments, immigration fees. I could not get out of it, it was like a disease plaguing my soul, and the more trays I would carry the further away I would be from what I wanted to be. With two degrees in arts one would say: enough, I have to jump out there and risk it. In reality, when you’re alone you can’t. The next first of the month comes, rent has to be paid, and this vicious cycle continues at infinitum. It’s all on your shoulders, you can’t stop and one year follows the next in a cruel reminder that you’re nothing but a loser with a dream. The few creative endeavors allowed by the restaurant schedule that governed my life in the past ten years (directed a short film, acted in a few smaller independent projects with minimal or no budget at all, danced with DDC,) did nothing but emphasize my incapacity to break free and just BE.
In the winter of 2008 I rebelled once more and swore that I would never ever work in a restaurant again. Decision based on a lack of horizon, a sense of wasted time, and creative energy bubbling inside for long time, it felt the right thing to do then. I packed everything in a Budget truck, put my Jeep on the trailer behind, and drove alone 2300 miles back to LA. Six months later California crushed me for the second time. With no jobs of any kind in sight (with the exception of a temporary flower delivery opening for $7/hr and not enough hours to cover even my rent,) and the gallon of gas topping $5, my savings evaporated so fast that in June I was back in Michigan, emotionally exhausted, physically drained, and bitterly disappointed. On top of everything, I was financially in a deep hole so I had to get my old job at the restaurant back, because, guess what, every month has a first when the rent is due and Michigan’s winters request a roof that is not free. Instinctively, I knew that if I wanted not to lose my mind I had to go back to school so in the fall of 2008 I enrolled for a Masters degree in Theatre at Wayne State University in Detroit. It helped because the intellectual strain kept me busy, while the physical work at the restaurant gave me a sleep with no dreams at night. In May 2010 I got my Masters (another piece of paper resting on my desk,) great achievement – 3.9 GPA (sarcasm included here!!) and now I’m free to dedicate my talent to satisfying hungry customers because, as I said before, I can’t break away from this cycle. Or, at least, I don’t see how anymore. I feel like a lion trapped in one of those deep holes dug in the jungle by hunters to catch the beast alive for the next available circus. I can’t get out by myself; I have been waiting for that soothing hand for fifteen years now. Maybe I should search deeper inside; maybe I should stop asking for that extra hand that obviously is never available. I know it must be a solution to this; after all, “there is a will is a way” is my favorite say, so characteristic of the American spirit, which I love for its openness to the everyday. I have no choice but keep my dream going; I owe it to my father and myself.