Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

The Second Exodus – Canada – CCCXXVII. Difficult Beginnings (10 of 15)

Among my most cherished memories of those faraway days was a Rumanian restaurant on Bleury, not too far away from Ste. Catherine Street East.  I went by many times and only noticed it when I spotted a sign claiming that it had “The Best Karnatzel in Town.”

And so, one day, I stopped by to verify that claim.  The inside was dimly lit and it conveyed coolness, certainly not what you would call a “cosy atmosphere.”  There was no sign of life except for the light filtering under the kitchen door.  I sat at a table, and waited patiently.  When it became apparent that I would have to announce myself, I knocked on the kitchen door; eventually, an old man emerged, introduced himself as Radu, and proceeded to declaim the specials for the day, but before he had finished, I advised him that I was here for the karnatzel and the potatoes in the oven.  He nodded and advised me that it would take a bit of time.  It was not an auspicious beginning, but I did not jump to conclusion.

I waited patiently and read my newspaper.  When I had almost given up, the door of the kitchen opened, and out of it emerged one of the most beautiful women I had laid eyes upon.  She was willowy, had a gypsy look with piercing green eyes and a perfectly symmetrical face.  I thought I was looking at a painting rather than at a sentient being.  And was she ever haughty; she didn’t look down at me, but rather at the whole place, as if asking herself what she was doing here.

She placed the plates, glasses, and cutlery on the table, went again in the kitchen and came out with a plate that included the karnatzel and the potatoes in the oven, but she was not quite finished, she came back a third time with a small salad and advised me that it was “on the house.”  Finally, she gave me a half-smile and disappeared, this time for good.

When I proceeded to eat my meal, I quickly forgot the strangeness of that outfit.  The karnatzel were the best I had ever eaten, they beat the ones I had in Israel, they certainly deserved the top prize; the gold medal for the potatoes in the oven was, however, still retained by that lady in Israel.  The salad was delicious thanks to its intriguing dressing.  To make a long story short, when the time came to pay, my plates were completely clean, and there were no crumbs to be seen anywhere!

Towards the end of the meal, my waitress came out of the kitchen and left in a hurry; it would be the last time I would see her.

This was my first visit to that place, but certainly not my last.  By my third visit I would become more than a habitué; a friendly connection has been established.

Since I was always the only one there, I began to wonder as to how such a restaurant could make it; and so I asked Radu.  He told me that his busy time was lunch, and most of his orders were takeout.  He used his evenings to cook his food.

One day Radu asked me if I was in a rush, when I answered in the negative, he looked at the empty chair across from me; the message was clear, he wanted to talk, unburden himself as it were; and so at pointed at the chair, and asked him to join me; but he didn’t do that right away, he disappeared in the kitchen, and came back with two glasses of wine.

He began by asking about my life; but I kept it brief; for he was trying to be polite.  I then devoted my full attention to his account.  This is what I remember some 50 years later:

“My daughter is beautiful on the outside, but ugly on the inside; she gave me nothing but trouble.  I need help to run the restaurant, but she assists me reluctantly.  She had a string of boyfriends, one worse than the other; the present one has connection to the underworld; I don’t need trouble, so I told her to leave and to never come back again.”

This was not the main story however, and so he proceeded:

“During the war, when Germany invaded Rumania, I was taken to a concentration camp and was ordered to perform hard physical labor.  I was outside exposed to the elements, and was given very little food.  I would surely have died had I not spoken to the commandant and told him that I was a very good cook.  That saved my life; I was now spending my days in a warm kitchen, and had more than enough food to eat.  And to top it all, all the high officers were complimenting me on my culinary talents.

Alas, nothing last in life.  One day, together with many other detainees, I was freed.  No explanations were given.  It was a disaster, for I was now on the outside with no home to go to, no food, and no warm clothing.  But God was on my side; as I walking aimlessly, I met one of my neighbors, a wealthy man who owned a factory.  I told him of my predicament and begged him to help me.  He agreed and indeed used me as a cook; the workers were not paid, they contributed to the (Nazi) war efforts and in exchange were fed, and slept in the factory.  The food was good for we were doing important work for our enemy (Rumania and Germany were supposed to be allies, but strangely enough, the “ally” invaded Rumania!).

There was something really ironic here, this neighbor was Jewish and would have been destined to a death camp; but he managed to save his life and that of his family by doing two things:  Pay money, and offer to do important work for the Nazis.  And it worked.  (This was confirmed by a Rumanian friend in Israel; his family was wealthy and paid the Germans money to allow them to survive.  This happened in Rumania only; in no other country could Jews pay to save their lives.  Why?  Nobody knows).

At the end of the war, I was again lucky, this time on two counts:  I applied to immigrate to Canada, but I wasn’t the only one; Europe had countless refugees dreaming to go to a place such as Canada; but I was lucky, and I got an immigration visa.  But this was only round one, for to leave a communist country you need an exit visa; and here again, the Lord smiled upon me and I got my visa.  Mind you, to go to Canada I put my best foot forward and exaggerated my capabilities; to exit Rumania, I presented myself as a burden to society who had little to offer!

I am now an old man, and I’ll be closing my restaurant by the fall.  I have more than enough to live on for I used to own a very popular restaurant.  I thank God every day for watching over me.”

You probably noticed that Radu never talked about his wife, the mother of the young lady referred to previously; and being the soul of discretion, I never asked.

A few days before he closed, I went there to enjoy his karnatzel (I never ordered anything else!) one last time.  When I was finished, I shook his hand and wished him good luck.  Finally, I asked for the check; but there was none!  “It’s on the house,” he said.  My protests were in vain, for he did not accept my money.

It was a last generous act on his part before we parted; I had shared his story and in exchange he had shared his food.

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