Wait! Don't Fix it Too Quickly
In 2006, Arthur was invited to conduct the Transylvanian State Philharmonic Orchestra in Cluj, Romania. What did I know about Romania? Well, a few small things. That Dracula was from Transylvania, of course, but something else stood out in my mind. Christmas Eve 1989.
I had watched with the world throughout 1989 as the countries of the Warsaw Pact had toppled their communist dictators one by one, and Romania’s Ceausescu was the last man standing. In late December, revolution broke out in Timisoara, and spread through the country. People were dying. It was a mess. Going to bed on Christmas Eve, my thoughts were not on sugar plums, but on the Romanians and their uncertain future. Christmas morning brought a new era. Ceausescu and his wife had been executed. The revolution was over. Romania was on new and unsteady feet.
We flew into Budapest in November 2006 and drove the remaining distance to Cluj in a rented Smart Car. When we drove past schoolyards, children laughed and guffawed as they pointed at us. Maybe ours was the first Smart Car in Romania?
The western world of highways comes to a grinding halt just past Budapest. From there, on to Cluj, single and double track roads, lumpy, patched and uneven, weave through tiny villages and skirt big mountains. Romania was subject to one corrupt government after another throughout the 1990’s and into the new millennium, and thus progress has been slow. Money has gone into pockets rather than infrastructure. It is clear there has been no funds for road improvements in the past 17 years. Have you ever driven a Smart Car? The short carriage can be jolting when driving over a small stick. Our 500 kilometres took us two long days. We shared the road with older model Dacias, Romania’s production car of its communist days, barrelling along at 50 km’s per hour, and with horse-drawn wagons, trotting along at about 15 km’s per hour.
After Arthur’s Cluj gig, we pointed our miniature car to the north, eager to explore for a few days. We stopped at a village market and bought fresh bottled milk from a vendor with shining eyes, her face lined with years of experiences I will never understand. We wandered through the tables, filling a cardboard box with sheep cheese, smoked sausage, veggies and fried flatbreads and drove on. A couple of hours later, ready for a break from the bouncing, we turned onto a dirt road that led into a clump of dusty little bungalows. In the centre of this hamlet, wooden poles were propped up in the middle of a crossroads. Speakers resembling something from my elementary school years were bound to the tops of the poles with rope. Upbeat marching music blared from the speakers out over the rooftops and further, out across the fields. It was December 2nd, National Day in Romania.
A horse, pulling a rough wooden wagon shaped like a large, shallow trough, and mounted onto four worn car tires came trotting toward us, and then past us. A man was seated on a bench at the front of the wagon, holding onto the reins and driving the horse forward at a slow trot, seemingly in time with the music. In the trough sat a man and a woman, both middle-aged, he dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a black vest, and she in a brightly coloured skirt, blouse, and headscarf. The duo faced each other as they bounced along, each holding tightly to a computer monitor, the sort that was new in Canada in the early 1990’s, two feet deep, faded yellow with a tiny screen, and weighing in at about 30 pounds. I glanced at Arthur. Toto, I whispered, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.
We stayed in pensions; small rooming houses run by families. One evening, we sat around a table in dim candlelight with the proprietress of our pension, Anna, and her brother Viktor. An unidentified roasted beast lay the middle of the table, and the family invited us to join them in cutting away slabs of meat for our dinner. Oh, no thanks, I smiled carefully, I just ate... I patted my stomach for effect. Viktor poured himself a tumbler of palinka - homemade plum brandy - from a two-litre plastic water bottle and then poured a glass for Arthur. He looked up and raised his eyebrows in my direction. I suspected women were not required to drink tumblers of 100 proof brandy and shook my head, raising my glass of water to show him I was just fine. Viktor’s words were beginning to slur, as he asked in a thick accent, Djou like Romania? He waved his glass around the room to indicate the Greater Romania. It’s fascinating, I said slowly. I was fascinated, and I was thoroughly enjoying discussing past and present day politics with anyone who would humour me. Viktor, though, seemed bitter, and a wee bit dangerous. I was cautious. He sloshed more palinka into his glass. I dunno, he sneered, what country shoot hees own prezident? Right. Time to change the subject.
The next day we rescued a group of four nuns who had crashed their car into a barrier high in the Carpathian Mountains 30 kilomtres from the nearest civilization. They were uninjured, but their car was completely disabled. How do you rescue four nuns with a Smart Car you ask? Well, the passenger steps out onto the cold and shoulderless hairpin corner to spend an hour or so with three of nuns, with whom she shares no common language, while the fourth nun jumps into the warm car to drive for help.
And so the week went.
I've been hooked on Romania ever since that December road trip. The Romanian people never cease to astonish me with their diversity, their resourcefulness, and their kindness to strangers like me. I have returned for a few weeks every year since 2006, and as a matter of fact, I have spent more time in Romania than any other country aside from my two home countries. The European Union has arrived with transport trucks and big box grocery stores. Restaurants and hotels are becoming commonplace, and Smart Cars abound. A few highways have been built between the larger cities to facilitate the import and export of goods, but for the most part, the roads are still narrow and winding and frequented by horse-drawn wagons. I still shop at the markets to fill the box on the back seat, and in the winter, when it’s too cold to sleep on the roof, we stay in pensions.
Hover over the pictures (or choose landscape on mobile) for more Romanian impressions.