On the corner of Strada Brasilia and Strada Bruxelles, just across the street from our house, there's a walnut tree. It grows in the corner of a garden, behind a cast-iron fence. But its branches arch out over the sidewalk and the street.
Two years ago, at the end of our first summer here, we saw an old woman and an old man out collecting walnuts. Alan was a toddler then, 18 months old, and David was a tiny baby. The old man and the old woman had very long sticks, fifteen feet (5 meters) or more. They hit the branches with the sticks and the walnuts rained down on... on the garden, on the sidewalk, and on the cobblestones of the street. Then they got bags and collected them. Last year, we saw them again. Whack, whack the sticks. Patter-patter, the nuts. Alan was two and a half, David fourteen months. This weekend, we saw the walnut collection one more time. I was taking Alan and David for a walk down Strada Brasilia, to look at the motorcycle shop. (Wow, do they love the motorcycle shop.) But walking down Strada Brasilia is always interesting in its own right. There are dogs both friendly and not so friendly; big old houses with overgrown gardens behind fences; cats zipping across the street, or basking on top of concrete walls; snails hiding in cracks, waiting for the rain so they can come and raid the gardens; abandoned cars slowly rusting in place. Always something to look at. And this morning, there was the old lady again. The old man wasn't there this time. I don't know why. But she was still going strong with that stick. She had opened a second floor window and was attacking the top of the tree. Alan is three and a half now, all scraped knees and wild hair. David is just past two. We were walking slowly up the street, looking at fuzzy caterpillars -- there were a lot of them suddenly, fallen from the treetops I suppose -- when we heard the whacking. The boys rushed to the fence and clung. (Alan had to be firmly dissuaded from climbing over it into the garden.) Eyes wide, they watched the nuts falling, bouncing, the green husks breaking open to show the fresh brown nuts. After a few moments, the old woman came out of the house. She immediately began smiling and laughing with the boys, chattering away in rapid-fire Romanian. Alan and David were a little shy at first, but this just made her more enthusiastic. She filled their little hands with walnuts. The boys, excited, passed the nuts back and forth, stared at them, tapped them against the ground, stuffed them into their pockets and mine. She gave them more. I finally had to leave -- to flee, almost -- because there were so many walnuts. And she wasn't going to stop giving them to the boys. As soon as a hand was empty, another nut was pressed into it. By the time we left, their pockets and mine were bulging. We all waved goodbye (which felt a little odd, since we were just crossing the street) and left with many a "la revedere!", "multsumim!" and "traiasca!" We sat on the kitchen floor with Claudia and cracked the walnuts open. Fresh walnuts are a little softer than the ones you get in stores, and the nutty taste is much stronger. There's a little skin, right by the flesh of the nut, that you can peel off; if you leave it on, it's edible, but adds a bitter aftertaste. The boys broke shells, picked through the bits, dug soft nut-flesh out, and laughed and laughed.