If you did not know from my surname (Davidescu) I am of Romanian heritage. My parents borrowed heavily to pay the then communist government in 1974 to allow them to leave the country with my grandmothers, great grandmother, and grandfather on my mother’s side — and they then had to forfeit their house to the government in order to move their paperwork to the “top of the pile” as it were — and on top of that, a government agent strong-armed my father into giving up his turntable. All of this so they could eventually settle in New Jersey and have and raise my older brother and I. I was raised in a Romanian speaking household — it was the more known language among my family members and therefore my first language was also Romanian. I suppose it was this way that I developed the tendency to listen whenever I heard the language spoken — it meant that a family member was addressing me, or in any case a conversation taking place that was okay for me to hear.
I now live in Kew Gardens and take an F train to Manhattan for my work. In the borough of Queens, particularly in the area known as Rego Park, there live many Romanians — enough that there is a Romanian language news program that has almost exclusive advertising from the area. I can usually expect to hear someone speaking Romanian when I go to Costco, for example — but at most I am behind them in line, and that lasts all of a few minutes on a good day. I have always been taught that it is rude to eavesdrop in on the conversations of others — but when you spend your entire childhood knowing that a particular language meant that you were likely being addressed, it is sometimes difficult to adapt to the different situation.
So it was this morning when I was on the train and happened to find a comfortable seat in between two people who were not trying to occupy my seat with bags or other such objects. Almost immediately I heard two people, seated about a foot away from me, speaking Romanian — and, judging from a few words I caught, about a personal and private subject matter. It was clear that they were speaking Romanian so that they would not be understood by strangers on the train — and yet here I was, understanding every single word! I turned up the music on my headphones and hoped that they would not notice the change in my facial expression indicating that I heard something familiar to me. Luckily, they were sufficiently engrossed in their conversation that they did not notice me noticing them.
During the occasional quiet moment in the music I could not help but hear bits and pieces of the conversation — they must have been so convinced that nobody would understand them that they didn’t mind speaking loudly and clearly. “Da, optzeci dollar pe oră!” I heard one exclaim. (“Eighty dollars an hour”, I thought to myself… for what? Never mind, it’s not my business…) Since they seemed so extremely fluent, there was a grammar related question that I wanted to ask… but that would have given me away as someone who had heard part of their conversation. Better to walk away unobserved, I thought to myself, and headed for the doors as the train arrived at Lexington and 63rd Street.