Friday, February 21, 2020

A #FearlessFriday Adventure (or just business as usual) by J. Arlene Culiner


Please welcome back J. Arlene Culiner to Fearless Friday. She always has a good story for us on Discover... and today is no exception.

Having Friday the 13th as a birth date, got me off on the right foot. Since then, I’ve spent my life getting into (and out of) tricky situations.

On this day, I was in Romania, and the snow was falling heavily, obliterating everything. Snow in front of me, snow behind, snow on either side: a landscape without accent, without shadow. Even huge snow-covered stray dogs curled desperately against walls and doors.

I had just arrived, via ancient rattling train, in the city of Piatra Neamt, and was on the trail of the long-forgotten Jewish rebel poet, Velvel Zbarzher. Zbarzher was born in former Austrian Galicia in 1825, and for fifty years, he sang and caroused his way over Ukraine and Romania. Since I intended to write his biography, I needed to find his trace. Of course, I speak only a few words of Romanian and no Ukrainian — how’s that for a successful way to start?

I was now looking for the local synagogue, just in case anyone there had information about Zbarzher (although, since any information would be around 170 years old, it might be a bit shaky.) But how to find the synagogue?

One building had a sign reading, Tourist Information, but it was merely a lure. Inside the small communist era shopping mall there was no further chitchat of tourism. I entered a bar, ugly and modern, with a hostile waitress and a large screen television showing semi-pornographic video clips featuring huge-bottomed women in stretch elastic. Two men, dark, sinister-looking hoodlums of some sort, but beautifully and expensively dressed, were hunched over a table, having a sotto voce conversation. With my usual ghastly mixture of odd Romanian words, French, and pidgin, I approached them: did they know where the synagogue was?

They stared at me for a few astounded seconds (who the hell was I? What did I really want?) Then looked at each other, faintly amused. And, in a mixture of Romanian, French, English, and German, told me to take a seat. Ordered me a coffee. And, albeit very disturbing-looking men, they came up trumps. One began making phone calls. “To the president of the local Jewish community.”

I could hardly believe my ears. “You know him?”

Both looked scornful. “It’s our business to know who everyone is,” said the one with a deeply scarred
cheek (a knife wound? A bullet hole?), and he handed me his phone.

But the president (who, fortunately for me, spoke fluent French) was impatient. To him, I was just another tourist, a foreigner, a nobody. No, he couldn’t see me today. He was busy. I’d have to come back another time. He broke off the connection.

The two men looked at me with pity. Obviously, they considered me a loser: tough guys and probably packing guns, knives and knuckle dusters, they’d never accept cavalier treatment or an unequivocal “no”.

“This part of the world…” said the unscarred man. Regretfully, he shook his head. “People in here all think they’re superior, and that makes them unfriendly. But they’re fools. There’s no work, and there’s no money here either.”

“What about all those big houses I saw on the outskirts?”

“Black market money.” His grin was a proud one. He loved being part of the illegal world and wanted me to know it.

“We do business with all of Europe,” bragged the other.

“Okay,” said Scarface getting to his feet. “Come on. I’ll drive you to the synagogue.”

Should I have been wary? Should I have hesitated before clambering into that man’s new black mafia Mercedes? Should I have questioned his motives, or considered I was taking a risk in this country where I knew no one, and no one anywhere else knew where I was? Perhaps. But I followed that man like a lamb, and snuggled happily into the passenger seat. I was feeling extremely grateful to him. Besides, I’m far too old and ornery to be white slavery material.

We slalomed over black ice and deep snow for a while, then skidded to a sideways halt on a hilly back road.

“That’s the Jewish community office.” Scarface pointed to a long, low building. “Go ask for the president.”

“He said he couldn’t see me.”

Scarface shook his head dolefully. Clearly, he thought I was pathetic. “This is Romania,” he said with calm patience. “Just knock on the door and walk in.”

So I did what I was told, and the president I spoke to on the phone — the same man who, thirty minutes earlier, had refused to see me — was utterly charming.

So Scarface was right after all. And taking risks is a highly profitable activity.
Perhaps my very favourite literary heroine is Felicity Powers. She charges across countries fearlessly, volunteering in emergency situations, rejecting middle class comfort, and ignoring risk.

She has stood up to armed soldiers in a windy desert, corrupt police in Turkey, and seen tragic battlefields. Now, she is in San Francisco, the same city she abandoned forty years before, and is determined to again take up the long-ago romance with Marek Sumner, the delicious man she once loved so dearly.

Okay, I admit that some of those adventures I mentioned and put into the book, Felicity’s Power, are ones I experienced — doesn’t every author put a bit of herself into everything she writes? But even if I’m as resolute and daring as Felicity, I’d be lying if I said I’m as fearless.

Blurb for Felicity’s Power

San Francisco, 1971: hippies in the streets, music and revolution in the air. The evening Marek Sumner opened his door to the wild-looking Felicity Powers, he knew nothing would ever be the same. But even love and passion couldn’t keep them together.

Forty-three years later, having lived in the world’s most dangerous places as an aid worker, Felicity is back, still offering love, passion, and adventure. Now a well-known author, Marek loves his calm life in an isolated farmhouse, and he knows their relationship would never work : he and Felicity are just too different. Besides, why risk having his heart broken a second time?

But Felicity is as fascinating and joyful as ever, and the wonderful sexy magic is still there too. Can love be more delightful the second time around?


Writer, photographer, social critical artist, musician, and occasional actress, J. Arlene Culiner, was born in New York and raised in Toronto. She has crossed much of Europe alone on foot, has lived in a Hungarian mud house, a Bavarian castle, a Turkish cave-dwelling, on a Dutch canal, and in a haunted house on the English moors. She now resides in a 400-year-old former inn in a French village of no interest and, much to local dismay, protects all creatures, especially spiders and snakes. She particularly enjoys incorporating into short stories, mysteries, narrative non-fiction, and romances, her experiences in out-of-the-way communities, and her conversations with strange characters.


  1. What a fascinating lady with such amazing stories to tell! I enjoyed this post, thank you.

  2. And thanks to you too, Brenda, for having me on your blog.

  3. I wish I could sit and listen to you for hours telling me about places you've been and things you've done. This story is priceless!

  4. Thanks,I'd love to. But where shall we meet? Halfway is somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. However, I do have a podcast where I tell a few stories:
    Thanks for your comment. It cheers up a gloomy, cold night.

    The rest, I write.

  5. You are one adventurous woman. I loved your true life account, but I also enjoyed your blurb and the excerpt I read on Amazon of Felicity's Power. I'll bet there's a lot of you in that book.

  6. You guessed correctly, Melody. And the secondary characters in that book are also drawn from real life, as are the landscapes. However, Felicity's story is all her own.