It’s been quite some time since I have posted, but I just can’t quite get my feelings for Romania to come out right. My feelings for this enigmatic country are so complex that apparently even I can’t tease them out. But the show must go on…
I’ll start by saying that, not surprisingly, Transylvania is not like the stereotypical Transylvania of horror movies. First, it was sunny rather than pouring rain. Secondly, most places you encounter are cities and towns, not solitary castles on hills inhabited by mad scientists. And despite the fact that we were there on Halloween, we didn’t do anything special. Transylvania doesn’t rise up and collectively celebrate October 31st. I hate to shatter any illusions, but I think anyone would find that Romania is still worth visiting even if there are no regular vampire or werewolf sightings.
Even though Romanian is a romance language and it was a welcome change from Croatian and Hungarian in that sometimes we were at least be able to read it, we were still far from being at ease with it. It is influenced by Slavic languages, but not enough to render it totally unrecognizable. Occasionally when someone spoke it was so similar to Italian that I could at least make out some of it. Still I found myself in front of the computer with the menu from the pizza place translating word for word. Sauce. Cheese. Chicken. Ham. Corn. Corn on pizza is astoundingly good.
Our first taste of Romania was Brasov which is a highly likable city. The majority of Brasov has been built to resemble any other medium-sized city on the face of the earth. But all of a sudden you turn a corner and there is the old part of Brasov which is so charming that you forget about all of the rest of it. Old Brasov shows off its medieval roots with well-preserved defensive walls, watchtowers, churches, and guild houses. If you can ignore the giant white Hollywood-esque “Brasov” sign on the top of the hill that looms over the old town, you can get an excellent sense of the city’s history.
One thing that I found intriguing during our exploration of the city was the parking system. Apparently there is no place in Romania where you cannot park. As long as there is empty space where vehicles are not passing and you can get to that space, it’s fair game. The sidewalk is as good a place as any. In fact, it seems as though the sidewalks in Romania were built not for people to walk on, but for cars to park on. I almost took out several cars’ side mirrors trying to avoid a head-on collision with other pedestrians on the narrow strips of sidewalks that were vehicularly occupied.
What was spectacular about Romania in general is that I never had to feel self-conscious about carrying weird things because everybody carries weird things in Romania especially on the trains. Everyone has numerous giant cloth bags that they use to haul everything from hay to cutlery.
Another selling point was that Romania was relatively cheap. After Denmark everything seems cheap, but Romania really gives you value for your money. Our second night there we decided that we were going to go out to dinner. Not like grabbing a couple of gyros from the stand on the corner like usual. We were actually going to sit down in a restaurant and order food to be brought to us. It was good food, Italian, but what made it really monumental was that A) we bought a bottle of wine with dinner which we hadn’t done the entire trip and B) we paid more for this bottle of wine than we have for any other on the trip—a whole $17. And it was good. Unfortunately it was also a reminder of how crappy some of the wine we’ve been drinking really is.
On our third night in Brasov, the owners of the guest house that we were staying in who were a husband and wife, invited us to hang out with them in their sauna. I was a little taken aback by this invitation, but as we didn’t have any other plans, we couldn’t very well say no. I was immediately filled with anxiety. I had terrible visions of our hosts sprawled out naked in the sauna while Adam and I in our bathing suits sat cowering in a corner. I had no cultural compass for this place. What did it mean to “use the sauna” here? As the evening wore on, the husband confirmed with us several times that we would be there. He seemed very concerned as if the whole night would be ruined if we were not present. Now bathing suits weren’t my only worry. Was this some kind of code for swingers? Were we walking into a orgy of some sort? As the appointed hour neared, I opened a bottle of wine and drank a couple of glasses to try to calm my nerves. At 8:00 Adam was still on the phone, so I took a deep breath and walked outside to tell them that we would be a few more minutes. I found our hosts plus another couple and two other men all in the sauna…all with bathing suits on. Only one of the men had on a speedo, the rest were clad in swim trunks. I breathed a sigh of relief. For now we were safe.
As we went between sitting in the sauna and cooling off on the patio, we learned a bit more about everyone. The wife was from Estonia and made us feel incredibly welcome and incredibly inadequate at the same time. She spoke at least 5 languages and as far as I could tell she spoke all of them rapidly. Whether speaking English or Romanian, her speech galloped along at a pace that was sometimes difficult to keep up with. She had gotten a job on a cruise ship as a young woman in order to get out of Estonia. That was how all of the party knew each other and how she met her husband. He was from Romania, so they settled down to live there 6 years ago. I asked if she had just learned Romanian when she moved there. She said that she picked up an old Communist text and started studying it so when she got there it was very easy. In fact everyone in the party could switch with relative ease between Romanian, English, Italian, German, and French.
On the patio I sipped some beer at the insistence of our hosts. “You don’t drink wine with the sauna. We drink wine later. You must drink something when you come out of the sauna.”
I hated to offend them, so I put my distaste for beer aside and had a glass. Luckily it was cheap beer that didn’t taste like much of anything. After that glass, the woman from the other couple poured me something different. “It’s ladies beer,” she said.
It was sweet and lemony and fairly decent. A definite improvement. I watched as crazy people—including Adam—came barreling out of the sauna into the 55 degree swimming pool. No thanks. The sauna was quite enough for me.
After everyone was finished we went downstairs to sample some of the hosts’ homemade wine. They and two other people buy their own grapes in bulk and make enough wine to last them the whole year. In the basement the husband sat taking occasional hits from the large hookah that filled the room with a not unpleasant strawberry-like smell. There was salami and cheese and crackers along with fruit and plenty of wine. I told myself to be careful and drink slowly. You never know how much alcohol is in homemade wine. Between glasses of wine (which tasted fairly decent) the husband insisted that everyone take shots of schnapps. I took one to be polite and choked it down in four gulps, and Adam had a couple more. The conversation was moving, we were laughing, we were having an unexpectedly good time. So we kept going. And going. Until I finally felt that if we didn’t make a move this would go on all night and I didn’t think that one more drink would be wise. We stumbled out of the basement (you never really realize how drunk you are until you stand up) and went back to our room. I tried to stay awake for a while to sober up a little, but I lost the battle with sleep momentarily.
Hangovers. I’ve had some bad ones in my life. This one probably ranks in the 95th percentile. I woke up with a ridiculous headache, but at first it wasn’t so bad. I was more worried about Adam because he was writhing around in bed like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. As the morning wore on Adam expelled the demon and it must have taken over me, because my hangover got worse as his got better. You know, I miss the days when a hangover was straightforward. You knew the minute that you woke up how bad it was going to be and how much of your day was screwed. But when you get older you get those creeper hangovers. You think you’re getting away with it and then all of a sudden you’re getting intimately acquainted with every contour of a new toilet.
We lost a day due to our night of fun, but the day before we left we took a train to Sighisoara, another medieval city that is famous for being he birthplace of Vlad Dracula. Ever since I read The Historian I have been interested in Vlad, the man, the myth, so I wanted to go and check this place out. (There is another town close by to Brasov called Bran which bills itself as being home to “Dracula’s Castle,” but the thing is that the real man never lived there. The castle looked nice and all and we were going to go see it anyway, but the hangover episode kept us from being taken in by what I’m sure is a touristy nightmare).
Sighisoara is touristy, yes, but it was rather devoid of tourists the Monday that we visited. I know it was a Monday, because everything is closed on Mondays. We had to content ourselves with walking around and looking at the outside of things. There’s the outside of Vlad Dracula’s birthplace. There’s the outside of that church. Hey, look at the outside of that museum. I bet it’s nice inside. The part of the town inside of the citadel (which is the part that is of interest) is so small that we had explored everything in the span of an hour. Then it was back on the train for nearly 3 hours to get back to Brasov. On the way back on the train we got a good view of some of the countryside. The way that I would describe it is picturesque poverty. The tiny towns and ramshackle houses look so quaint, but at the same time you realize that you wouldn’t want to live there yourself.
About a week before we left for Romania, my mom had sent me an email telling me that some guy who “sounded like a vampire” had called for me and left his number on the machine but she couldn’t get his name. She was understandably confused as I had not told her that I was using her contact information to book all of the hotels, houses, and apartments. I had a good chuckle thinking about what would have happened had she been there to answer the phone. The vampire-sounding gentleman was the owner of the apartment that we booked in Constanta which is one of the cities on the Black Sea. Adam had expressed his desire to see the Black Sea, so I picked a spot on the map that the train went to and booked a place.
The old part of Constanta is a ruined city that is just now starting to be rebuilt. After picking us up at the train station, the owner of the apartment explained that the area didn’t look very nice because of the effects of the Communist government, but they were beginning to get better. And there was construction going on everywhere. But the most charming parts of the city were those places that still had identity. They were run-down perhaps, even halfway destroyed, but they were so much more interesting than the “modern” buildings that were going up all around. And this is what made me sad about Romania: modernity means homogeneity, there and everywhere else. It means boring office buildings and strip malls. It means razing history to make things pretty for tourists. The old part of Constanta may be dirty, it may be tired, but there are buildings and structures of profound beauty even if they are crumbling. We stayed in the main square of old Constanta, Ovid square, where the poet was banished and eventually died. At night his statue was back lit by the old archaeological history museum and it gave the square a stately air. A short walk in one direction brought us to a beach with rocky outcroppings that jutted out into the sea. A short walk in the other direction took us to a boardwalk with views of the port and a beautiful (even in its state of disrepair) art nouveau casino from the turn of the (19th) century. The sun barely breaking through the gray afternoon gave the scenery the look of a black and white movie and gave me the distinct feeling of having traveled in time a brief distance. I hate to think that in another five years all of that may be replaced by Marriott hotels and TGI Fridays.
The only thing wrong with our stay in Constanta is that in our otherwise wonderful apartment, I learned how to suck all of the joy out of cooking: Obtain a suspect electric cook top. Put it on the top of a small, unstable refrigerator. Break the heat controls so that you no longer are able to properly control how much heat the burners give off. Get the most ridiculously tiny pieces of cookware that you can find. Make three separate batches of pasta instead of one and then heat up the sauce to pour over the lukewarm pasta. Be sure to burn some of the pasta so that it sticks nearly irrevocably to the bottom of the pot. Caution: look out for overheated bacon pieces that tend to jump out of the tiny pan and cling to your unprotected skin.
After all of the experiences we had there, I really want to feel an unfettered love for Romania, but their railway system does not allow me to. I know that I just railed against progress, but it’s not so much progress that the system needs as: A) Realistic time tables – every train we took was WAY off of its schedule, sometimes almost two hours late. I don’t mind “slow” as much as I do “late.” B) Some comprehensive system of showing when the trains are actually departing and when they arrive, even if it’s a person standing on the platform wearing a sandwich board. As of now it is based on some sort of “lucky guess” system C) Someone to mop up the bathrooms once in a while. I can deal with a neglected bathroom to a point, but poo on the seat is just not OK. How do you get poo on the seat anyway? As far as the train stations, well, what can I say? They have a certain “old-world” charm. I read somewhere that the Bucharest train station looks like it’s located in the middle of an artillery range. Try checking out the Constanta station. But none of these things require more than a little bit of organization and cleanliness.
Despite the transportation issues, I ended up with a real fondness for Romania. I’m not sure why I took to it so heartily, but I have a feeling that it will stick with me in a way that other places won’t. I have a strong desire to go back and see all of the things that I didn’t get to see. I would do things differently, though. Renting a car seems to be the only way to really see Romania – it’s a large country with magnificent things spread all throughout. We got to see only a small portion of what it has to offer and I would like to see more before Romania is turned into McRomania like so many other places have been.