One of the difficult things about being Romanian is that our version of “Happy Birthday” has this very challenging bit at the end. You need serious range (and lung capacity) to get through it, which is why it’s good that you sing it as the party is about to finish, because someone (usually an uncle) will typically be tipsy enough to attack the ending in Pavarotti style, while the rest of us mumble through gratefully.
I’m not quite sure why, but when I turned 35 I suddenly decided that, no matter what, I wanted to be able to sing that stupid song all the way to the end. I found a music school (chosen based on its proximity to one of my favourite cafes, of course) and started taking weekly singing lessons from Angelica, an opera singer whose name belies her robust teaching methods (but is a very accurate reflection of her angelic patience). I can still see myself there on a spring morning, in front of the open window, with Angelica standing next to me. She has her hand on my stomach, to make sure I’m breathing properly, and she’s shouting: “Louder! Louder! Open your mouth! What are you afraid of? Come on, louder!”. Before I can do that, however, I have to forget a few lessons I learned decades ago.
I’m in primary school. There’s 44 of us in the classroom (this is Communist Romania) and the girls constantly have to be told to speak up – most of them are small, skinny and their little wisps of voices barely make to the kid in front of them, let alone to the front of the class. I mean the other girls, of course. I’m tall, big-boned and I have no problem making myself heard. I take up a lot of space and I make a lot of noise. I’m told to speak softer. And, if possible, less. It’s a lesson I’m keen to learn, because I really want my teacher to like me – although she never does give me a distinction. I’m already old enough to walk back from school by myself: I cross the marketplace, then pass the pretty apartment building with the beautiful magnolia in front, and I’m home. I sing as I’m walking, because I enjoy it and because all those unsaid words have to go somewhere. Until a man stops me in the street to teach me a lesson: “Little girl, if you want to sing, go join a choir, ok? One doesn’t simply sing out loud in the middle of the street, do you understand?” I decide to listen to the man, because he’s older than my parents, so he must know what he’s talking about. But all of these songs have to go somewhere, so I start whistling. My mum hears me through the kitchen window: “You can’t do that, sweetheart! It’s impolite, young ladies don’t whistle!”. I slowly learn the cardinal rule of well-bred young ladies: we’re not supposed to bring our own voices out, but to bring others’ voices in. The voices that teach you how not to disturb, how not to seem odd, or rude, or (God forbid!) loud. It’s easier and safer to learn how to deliver a version of yourself that is as close as possible to what everyone else expects. From the age of about 12, I internalise the lesson perfectly: I only sing when I’m alone, and even then only in a whisper. But when, years later, I find myself holding my baby son, a screaming ball of colic and nerves, who only falls asleep if he’s carried around the house for hours, I make up a lullaby and I sing it to him (still in a whisper). And I want to be able to sing “Happy birthday” for him too. To the end.
That spring morning, with Angelica in my ear, all I wanted to do was cry my eyes out like a child who’s being scolded for forgetting her times tables. Because “louder” was much too dangerous, “louder” was wrong. But she asked again “What are you afraid of?” and I knew the real answer was “of what people will say”. And suddenly, listening to the foreign voices inside my head, invited in so many springs ago by a little girl who just wanted her teacher to like her, seems a lot less important than letting my own voice out to play, no matter the result.
I’m still struggling with the Romanian “Happy birthday”, and you’ll never catch me doing karaoke (there may have been that one time during the MBA, but hopefully all those present were too drunk to ever remember it). But my children don’t know the girl who never sang in front of anyone else; they only know the mother who sings along with them everywhere – and even launches into the occasional dance in the middle of the mall, much to their embarrassment. A couple of summers ago, crowded in the back seat of our friends’ car on the way back from a seaside trip, the three of us sang along to all the summer hits on the radio. Then an older song came on, one that my kids didn’t know. We stopped singing – then I felt my son’s warm little hand on my arm: “This one’s beautiful, Mummy. You sing.” By myself?! I looked at the front seat, at my friends with whom I’ll never go to karaoke, I opened my mouth and I sang. Out loud.
A Romanian version of this article was published in Forbes Life Magazine Romania, 2019.