Klim's Great Escape from Communist Romania

Part-16: Chicago --My First Love!

After descending from "cloud nine" I had to face the insurmountable obstacle that continuously was looming on my horizon: my horrendous accent. I was afraid that when I began working at Britannica my heavy accent, in no time, would bring me down. Thus, my plan for Britannica was as follows: when I would arrive I would say to everybody "Good Morning", when I would leave I would say "Good Evening" and, in the interim, I would bury myself in my work and to everybody and everything that came into my way I would use only the "ah-uh" routine. But this plan never materialized!

It was Monday, April 20, 1970 --my first day of work at Encyclopaedia Britannica. As I arrived there and I was shown where my desk was, minutes after I sat down, a guy came to me and stated:

"Hi, I am Marvin, I am an Editor in Egyptology and I am a homosexual!

To this, following my script, I said: "Ah-uh!". But the guy did not let me off the hook as he again stated:

"Hi, I am Marvin, I am an Editor in Egyptology and I am a homosexual!

From Romania the only thing that I knew about this subject of homosexuality was that those people were treated in various psychiatric hospitals. Thus with this knowledge and understanding of this subject and, recognizing that I could not get rid of this guy with my "ah-uh" routine, I stated:

"Marvin, you are very lucky that you are here in America. I am sure that with proper medication and therapy you soon will be back to the mainstream of life."

Absolutely stunned and transfixed by the whole thing, he became almost instantly transformed from a lively person into a statute-like figure. As he was still staying motionless and speechless, I stated:

"Marvin, I think that we should keep the proper distance between us, as I heard that many homosexuals have this neurological reaction of jumping on people without knowing what they are doing."

To this in disbelief and laughing rather hardily, he asked me in total bewilderment "Are you OK?" to which I said: "I am fine. Are you?" From that very moment my enlightenment period in America began! I realized soon that he was a normal human being and that what he did in his bedroom was his business. We became friends, but we always kept, just in case, the proper distance!

Soon, I recognized that my place of birth, Communist Romania, where I had been locked up until I was 24 and was able miraculously to escape from, was in fact a very different place from the real free world. It was this new free world that now I had to get accustomed to. For the next two (2) years, there was not a day that I would not have a question to ask as the contrast between where I had been and where I had landed was indeed immense. And fortunately for me I was in the best place on earth to ask questions. There was no imaginable question that could not have received an authoritative answer from the 11th Floor of Britannica where the Research Department was located and where also was my place of work.

Almost every morning when I arrived at Britannica my friends and colleagues would ask: "Hey, what's today's question?" Some of my questions were downright funny as the episode described below.

Soon after my arrival in Chicago, I noticed a rather large sign not far from where I was living stating "We Sell Hot Dogs." Looking in my small pocket dictionary, I saw for the word "hot" one meaning and for the word "dog" also one and only one meaning! I knew that in China and other parts of the world people ate cats. That sign for me automatically triggered the reaction: "Oh, my God!" In fact, I remember writing home to my mother this: "You may not believe this, but in this great civilization there are places where people eat hot dogs!"

For weeks and weeks I avoided passing near that place as the whole thing made me sick just to think about it. One day, a neighbor with whom I became recently acquainted, teased me by saying "So, you are from Romania. I have never heard of that country. Do you have hot water there?" to which I responded "Of course, we have hot water. We have TVs, we have everything, perhaps not the latest models but we have them." After that, this dialog took place:

[Neighbor]: "OK, OK, I got the picture. Let's go across the street and have a hot dog! It is on me, and we can chitchat more..."
[Me]: "Are you out of your mind? We would rather die of starvation than eat hot dogs! What do you think we are? Look on the map: Romania is part of Europe. No matter how poor we are we do not touch that stuff!"

Baffled by my answer and recognizing that perhaps I did not understand his question, the neighbor asked me: "Why don't you look in your dinky dictionary and see if you find an entry for franks or frankfurters? To this after looking in my pocket dictionary, I responded: "Oh, we have those in Romania. They are delicious with sauerkraut and mustard. But why do they call them Hot Dogs here?

[Neighbor]: "Beats me! I do not have a clue."

Unable to get an answer from my neighbor to my Hot Dog question, sure enough on the next day when I went to Britannica, that was the question that I wanted to be answered. After I told them of the story with my neighbor, everybody including my boss was laughing almost uncontrollably. Then, I said:

Hot Dog

“OK, you had your laugh. Is there anybody here who can tell me how the word Hot Dog become part of the English language?”

To this, an English Editor (for whom I had the greatest admiration and envy of his mastery of the English language) replied: "We are pleased to let you know that the word Hot Dog has been coined in Chicago!"
.In disbelief, I interjected by saying "No kidding!" to which he continued:

"No kidding is right, and this is the official story of the word 'Hot Dog':
.At the turn of the century the fashion for ladies in Chicago was to wear big hats and


walk along the street with dachshunds --small dogs with long bodies that were extremely popular at that time. And when this item, which we call now the Hot Dog, was first introduced at Wrigley Field with baseball games, kids who would sell it called it the Hot Dog to parallel it with the popular dachshunds. Thus "hot", in this context, was referred to as an item of fashion to be seen with, and not as something that was spicy or hot in terms of temperature. Similarly as dachshunds, hot dogs were portrayed and marketed as a "hot" item to be seen with!"

Thanking him for the explanation, I began wondering how many people from Chicago, from America, or for that matter from the entire English speaking world knew about the "official" story of the Hot Dog! I was happy and fascinated to know the story behind the story! And speaking of the story behind the story, almost all Americans know that the nickname of Chicago is the "windy city" but very few know how and why it got that name. The great majority of Americans believe that Chicago got its "windy city" nickname because it is windy out there...! In fact, however, Chicago's nickname has nothing to do with the weather. As I was told at Britannica, the name was coined in the 1920s with politicians "blowing hot air!"

Fascinated with having at my disposal the story behind the story of every imaginable question, I was confident that I had a question that no one from Britannica could answer. Boy, how wrong I was! Pall MallAs I have mentioned in my story, Pall Mall cigarettes with no filter were by far the most famous American cigarettes in Romania. On the other hand, here in Chicago, I noticed that the Pall Mall brand was one of the many brands of equal "stature" with many other "Class A" cigarettes. In fact the cigarettes with filters, as a general rule, were more popular here than the ones with no filter. All this baffled me as to why in Romania, Pall Mall cigarettes with no filter were reigning supreme. I was confident that no one from Britannica could have a logical explanation for this but, to my surprise, someone from Britannica had the answer right away! I was told that for a number of decades Pall Mall cigarettes with no filter were the cigarettes of choice among American sailors. And when an American ship entered into a port anywhere in the world, sailors, as was customary, exchanged their cigarettes for the ones offered by the locals. And this is how Pall Mall cigarettes became synonymous with the American cigarette! Wow, I liked that answer. Day by day my appreciation for Britannica grew, myself being happy to be part of this unmatched center of knowledge.

With the help from Britannica, it took me some two (2) years to get integrated into this great American city --Chicago which is by far the most American of all American cities!

Go Chicago!

Not many people recognize that anything, but absolutely anything that has to do with mainstream American culture was either born or cultivated in Chicago. Look at these items one by one: Jazz, Blues, Mafia, Hot Dogs, Politics, Baseball. Each and every one of these items is synonymous with Chicago itself! When you talk about each of these items you also talk about America at its core. Anything that you want to study of "pure" Americana you will find it in Chicago in its "purest" American form. Do you want to study American architecture? Well, there is no better place than Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out the entire city which was rebuilt from scratch the American way! And in that American architectural revolution, the skyscraper --this American architectural wonder was first introduced here in Chicago. You cannot study American politics without studying Chicago politics. You cannot established yourself in Jazz or Blues without making a name for yourself in Chicago. In short, Chicago is and has been for a long time the epicenter of the entire mainstream American culture.

This American culture many times conflicted with my own culture as illustrated from this example of the many available. In Romania since you were 3 years old, you were taught that when you saw a woman in public transportation to offer her a seat. You did not size her up if she was old or not, you just simply gave her the seat. Well, here I was in a bus in Chicago and I saw a woman standing not far from my seat. Upon seeing her, immediately I rose from my seat stating to her in my heavy Romanian accent: "Please sit down." The woman came to me in a charging fashion with one of her arms placed on her waistline and stated: "Don't be funny!" Bewildered by her behavior and recognizing that somehow I had offended her, when I went to Britannica, I wanted to have an explanation for this and said: "I clearly have offended that woman, but I have no idea what I did wrong."

Someone from Britannica upon hearing my story came to me to console me with this explanation:

"We are glad that you came here to tell us about that experience as we want you to know for the rest of your life or for as long as you will live in the United States that it is the cornerstone of our entire American culture to mind your own business! We all applaud you for the fact that you felt compelled, for whatever reason, to offer your seat to someone else. But this is where you need to stop. You never ever give a command to another person as to what to do! And your heavy accent may have indeed sounded like a command!: You better sit down, or else ..."

Enormously grateful for the explanation, I began appreciating the fine tuning that was needed on my part to complete my integration into my beloved city of Chicago --a city with c h a r a c t e r  like no other city in America. Yes, more than anything Chicago is first and foremost a city of great and unmatched character! As in humans, the character is not something that you are borne with.

Chicago Skyline

The character is the result of a particular struggle that shapes one's character. And in a way, it is like a piece of marble that is continuously chiseled to its present form. Thus, to understand, to see, and to appreciate Chicago's great character --as a city, you need to look at Chicago's entire history. And that history, is a history of continuous struggle to catch up with New York for the supremacy of the greatest American city.

Chicago, in that contest, was always the underdog and, that struggle to catch up with New York gave Chicago its extraordinary character. If you live for a while in Chicago, you will hear Chicagoans saying "Whatever New York has, we are going to have it but BETTER!" It is this continuous struggle of Chicago to not only catch up with New York, but to do it better that has shaped the character of Chicago as no other city on this planet. I remember in the seventies when New York was bragging and bragging about its Empire State Building as being the tallest building in the world. Chicago had enough of it: its answer was the Sears Towers which was made to be sure to be taller than New York's Empire State building!

I was privileged and happy to know and be part of Chicago --unquestionably the greatest American city, a city which was so good to me and opened so many doors for me. Like any first love, Chicago will always have a special place in my heart as it was this city that made me love America for what it is and for what it stands for as the greatest experiment in democracy ever created by mankind.


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 Because of its unprecedented democracy and freedom of expression, America has become not only the envy of the world but also the principal target of those who cannot stand its success. We saw this envy unleash itself with an unprecedented fury in the heinous terrorist attack on America of September 11, 2001 -- a day that will enter into the world's annals of infamy and evil. It is with enormous sadness to see my beloved country changed forever as a result of this terrorist attack inflicted upon its magnanimous and ever encompassing soul.
May God have mercy on those who attack or plan to attack America because we do not!

It is perhaps fitting to single out one Romanian, Mr. Cornel Nistorescu --the managing editor of the Romanian daily newspaper "News of the Day" (in Romanian "Evenimentul Zilei") who created a true sensation in the United States through his stunning essay entitled "An Ode to America" published on September 24, 2001 in his widely known Romanian newspaper. By clicking on the memorial picture below you can see for yourself that truly beautiful article.

S p e c i a l   L i n k s :

My First Job in America:
Research Editor in Astronomy
 for Encyclopædia Britannica in Chicago 

This "Pure" Americana City was My First Love with America