Just watching the comings and goings

We headed back from LA to Columbia on a muggy Fri morning. This made us feel a bit better: the weather we were leaving behind was not remarkably better than the one we would find home. We took the plane direct to Kansas City: Southwest is a very good airline to fly with a 4-month old. A lot of gear is needed and it can be packed in two big suitcases that they check for free. Although we didn’t really buy anything in LA, we managed to go over their weight allowance, but they let us be. We got off with a warning.

The plan was to land in KC, buy some sandwiches, pick up our rental, and drive for 2h to Columbia. Alex went to get the car: Luca and I stayed behind with the luggage. Alex texted me shortly that they gave us a truck. And, boy, did we really have a truck? Oh yeah, with a Texas plate to boot!

We got in after A threw the bags in the back and on we went. Luca didn’t enjoy the truck more than a regular car, although it was a smoother ride on the Interstate. We had to stop after about 40 min. We did, at a gas station. We were hoping to get to the nice rest area, midway between KC and CoMo, but Luca needed a bum-bum change before then.

We parked the truck, changed her, and I started to feed her. We finished one side, I turned her upright to have her burp and continued to walk about. At that point, someone started to engage me in conversation, by asking me how old my LO was. I looked about and saw that the car parked next to our truck was talking to me. More precisely, the white haired woman in the driver’s seat was trying to catch my attention to have her questions answered. Now, I’m not one for talking to strangers: I like to mind my own business and would be happy if everyone else did the same. But I know people enjoy looking at babies and Luca is especially fun to look at, so I went over to the car and made introductions. Or, I just said my daughter’s name, how old she was and started going away. 

But the lady was insistent: she wanted to know where we’re from. I told her. And why were we there? I told her. And what job we had. I told her that, too. At that point, I went and handed Luca to A and went to the restroom. When I came back, A was spelling my name to the woman. I didn’t like that. I said we needed to go and we went. 

This was a bizarre experience. This is a way of making small talk that all Americans learn and they probably think it’s rude not to engage in this way. To me, it sounded like the third degree, for sure. This is not the first time I get a barrage of questions, but it is the first time to happen in the middle of nowhere, along the Interstate. It made me feel vulnerable. The whole thing was the same shade of creepy as David Lynch’s mundane is. I can’t exactly say why, but it felt like I was back home trying hard not to answer the persistent questions of “Nea Titi”.

Nea Titi was the opposite of my neighbor Totoro. He was my neighbor, true. We lived in a block of flats in communist Romania and Titi was a retired guy who spent his days looking out his window and trying hard to learn everything that everyone did. He was one of the informers, I have no doubt in my mind. I probably didn’t doubt it even then, although I probably was too little to understand what that was.


The universal symbol of surveillance

So, when I asked the white-haired lady who she was, where she lived, and what she did there at the gas station, and when she replied that they are “just two sisters watching the comings and goings”, I immediately felt itchy, sweaty, and hot. To me, this sounded like a very dubious form of people watching. There is no Securitate (the Romanian secret police) around, so who were they spying for?

“Good thing I don’t own a typewriter!” was  my immediate thought. Securitate (Romanian secret police) used to keep close tabs on everyone who owned a typewriter. Apparently how one types is as individualized as how one writes in cursive, so it’s easy to track back documents typed on a particular typewriter by a particular individual. Nowadays the surveillance game has become a lot more sophisticated. They know everything: there is no secret about this; not that there was anything secret about Securitate to begin with! This seems to make little spies like the two sisters redundant, just like the typewriter is obsolete. But are they?

To make me feel even more paranoid, we met this lady again. This time, we were going to KC from CoMo. Again we were changing Luca, but this time we were in a hurry, because it was hot and her sensitive skin needs air conditioning.

Despite our obvious rush, she started asking the same questions again. Then, she recognized us! The whole thing made me so uncomfortable and even more paranoid than before. This time, she was driving the truck: we were in our white Toyota.

A and I were taught not to talk to strangers, of course. Above all else, we were taught not to answer questions. But here, we let our guard down. We will remember Prof. Moody’s dictum: “constant vigilance!” and travel under assumed names from now on. All we have to do is to remember who’s who and our made-up story. We will be the useless spies, then!

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