The family tree

The hostel in Sighet is a bit hard to find and it’s desert. No other guests in the rooms, I am the sole occupant of the portion of the house destined to guests. The floors are wooden, the beautiful dark-haired landlady simply charming.

In the garden there is a wooden table with benches and an ornate wrought-iron gazebo which tempts me to carry on reading my novel Le procès-verbal, the unconventionally written story of a psychiatric patient who behaves in an erratic fashion until the reader discovers his condition in the last chapters when he’s faced with a team of housemen interrogating him under the supervision of their training professor.

The calm is supreme, at least until the neighbour’s mongrel starts yapping lastingly at some unknown danger he feels called to defend his master’s house from.

“Hello, bonjour”, comes a voice from an old man. “Do you mind if I sit here?”, he asks.

“Of course not”, I reply.

He would be inclined to instantly become absorbed in his number puzzles (whose name I’ve never learned), but I try to engage him in conversation. He speaks French and, as it turns out, he’s Canadian, which accounts for his drawling accent, although his pronunciation is also made particularly difficult to understand by some other physiological reason.

He’s here in Sighet for three months and it’s not the first time he’s come to Romania, following the hobby of learning the language. I thought I was the only guest here, but his presence is proving me wrong.

As we talk on, I find out he’s also working on a family tree, which he can’t properly attend to while he’s away from home since he needs specific equipment to pore over his sources. I wonder what can possibly be the interest of carrying out such a research, so I enquire tentatively. The enthusiasm with which he tackles the subject is a clear indicator of the passion that inspires him to genealogy and would in itself be a reason for anyone to give oneself up to it. After all, aren’t there plenty of other hobbies that demand from us a bulk of activities carried out just in their own right, without a real external goal other than the self-referential effort they imply?

I sneered at looking after a tamagochi a few years back, but come to think about it, how much of our tinkering with our laptops and mobile phones comes from their mere existence rather than serve the purpose they were invented for: maintenance, customisation and setting in a obsessive way that wouldn’t be needed were it not for the devices themselves. Take sports, for another example: how much time and money people spend not practising them, but going after the latest gear or piece of equipment that if you didn’t have the world might crumble.

So from this viewpoint, genealogy may not be the hobby I’ll ever give the hours of my spare time to, but I allow it the right of existence. Besides, it is the occasion to learn not only about one’s family’s past, which I find rather narrow-scoped, but also about history in general, for this man followed the generation thread across the Atlantic to France and back again to the Acadian settlements in present-day Canada, then down the continent to other French possessions of the time along fur trading routes.

I wonder if this hobby is special to northern America, as in my country it’s quite rare. I wonder if living in an environment that has a short-lived historical memory makes one particularly prone to go in search of their roots up the branches of a family tree. Europe has for the most part cities to remind people of their past, and our family trees are in the old stones that make up our towns. However as people turn to newly developed settlements to set up their house and to the temples of consumerism to spend their time, we may all soon be stricken by an acute form of social Alzheimer disease that will end up making all oblivious of the past, blank-minded to our heritage and we shall need family trees to bring us back to some resemblance of history to remind us where we come from. At least this has not yet happened in a country like Romania which has luckily preserved its peculiarities and I’m here to enjoy them while they still exist.