Romania – Part 1

Romania – Part 1

The eyes in the roofs watched us as we walked out from Sibiu rail station down the straight road, slipping on the icy slush. The car exhausts misting up further the cold grey morning air.

The eyes watched as we stopped at an open window of a patiserii to get a breakfast bun – a merdenele – Passepartout’s nicely filled with jam, mine a nasty shock filled with sour cheese.

I was surprised too by the language around us. We were back in the Latin world, with Romanian sounding Italian – with the added shock filling of Slavic words.

The eyes, the slanting windows set in the tiled roofs, watched us all the way into town.

There was a local election coming up Sibiu. I saw a stout, aproned, old woman standing in the doorway of her crooked aged house with her arms folded ordering the local MP candidate about. He carried her bin out into the street with a sad, harassed, put-upon face. We could hear her barking other orders and odd-jobs for the parliamentary hopeful following us as we headed further up into the town.

Sibiu was a handsome place. Baroque buildings, cobbled lanes, churches. It seemed proud of itself.

Men in Lenin winter hats walked round the town square. Buildings with sharp angled roofs. Past the fish-scale spired church.

But we only had an hour or so to wander. We had got off the sleeper train from Budapest just after 10am and I had noted another train was going onward to Sighisoara a little after noon. I said to Passepartout we really should try and catch it.

The eyed windows still kept watch of us, suspiciously, as we pottered Sibiu’s curving streets.

The onward train was not a new train.

Small. Packed. The windows were cracked. The floor was wet. Someone was carrying a battered cage with thin, mangy chickens inside. It was a very slow, stopping, train and lent at a dramatic angle, collapsing over the tracks as it took the slight bends.

A fat, red-cheeked woman in a rough winter coat sat opposite me, as we were crammed in our seats. She stared unblinkingly into my face. I gave brief smile, a nod – no response. Her whole family were on board, taking up the other seats. Grandparents, brothers, sisters, children, carrying bags and bags of empty bottles, piled up on their laps, spilling out over the racks.

The air was dirty with cold. Everyone on the train was ill.

I stood up to open a window, even though quite a few of them were smashed, filling the carriage with freezing air anyway – the whole carriage started shouting and howling at me in Romanian. One of the empty plastic bottle whisked past my ear, thrown in protest. I sat down again.

The land outside was bare and brown and camouflage-green and frozen solid. There were no stations. The train just stopped wherever the rails crossed a road. There was nothing at these stops.

Farmers waited with wheelbarrows to take luggage and junk and people away from the train to the small villages I could see far in the distance. Villages like distant constellations.

The landscape was like nowhere we had seen in Europe. It was exhilarating.

The train ran alongside a thin frozen river, a family of ducks stood unhappily on the thick ice. Menacing-looking broken steeples occasionally slid by. A man carrying out an axe to the rough, broken pig sty in his garden. The trees were laced with frost.

The begging trick of boys walking up the carriages putting things on the seats – packets of tissues, little plastic toys – and then coming back later to collect money for them, something I’d seen many times from the Romanians who had come to London, happens here on the Romanian trains too.

The staring fat woman opposite me who looked like she has no money whatsoever – her family were carrying these bags and bags of empty bottles to fill them up with water, I saw later, at a free well many miles from the stop she had got on – gave money. Everyone on the train gave the begging boys money. Not what you see in London.

With each village the train thinned out a little.

The train was still going at just a little over walking pace for mile after mile. The light was watery and weak outside.

We pulled in at something that could just about be called a station at Cemias. Compared to the other stops though, it was Grand Central. There was another train next to us, a large powerful freight train just starting to roll to a start – I watched as a father, dragging his son behind him, ducked under the train and ran through the wheels to get to our small train.

He joined our carriage, puffing heavily, looking happy to have got here. “Ciao” he said. Nobody replied. The fat lady still stared at me intensely, steadily, grimly.

The train continued on its slow way on the clanging rails

Eventually the fat lady and her family in their raggedy clothes and their bags of empty bottles had reached their stop. She levered herself down off that train. I could feel her still staring at me through the window, stood below the train on the other side of the glass.

I glanced from the corner of my eye and instantly the fat headcarfed lady gave me a full beaming, red-cheeked, smile and waved energetically at me as the train pulled off and we head towards Sighisoara.

Sighisoara station ticket hall had great congregations of families of gypsies camping out. One had started a fire on the concourse floor.

We left and passed the newer part of the town on this side of the river, past the snow-white church with graves for the Romanians killed in the war – by the time they were buried their county had already changed. The graves stamped with Communist hammer and sickles.

The old town was extraordinary with the ancient peeled stuccos, the turreted roofs and tiled parapets and the cobbled streets. Everything beautiful and sinister in equal measures.

We had to climb on hands and knees on the icy steep climb up to the Citadal.

In the frozen January afternoon there was no one there. We stood in the courtyard and looked at the yellow house of Vlad the Impaler – Count Dracula’s – birth place. Nothing and nobody about, just the strange sound of billiard balls clacking together, coming from a window somewhere behind us.

The tourism here, during less frozen days, must be overwhelming. But it was disconcerting to be here with not a soul around. We climbed to the grassy summit of the town, up a broad staircase with a wooden roof and stared out – as the town gave way to tree-coated soaring hills – at Transylvania. The land of half-mythical strangeness.

We headed back to the station to carry on our train journey south through Transylvania, through Romania. Hoping to get on the right route for Greece.

I asked at the ticket window about a train to Brasov. The 18.26pm.

“Is everthing ok with the train?”

“Yes, all is fine.”

“No delays then?”

“No, all is perfectly fine. It is just 20 minutes late.”

The train came in 25 minutes later. With two other trains all saying “Brasov” on the front.

We had to cross the lines, stepping knee deep into built-up snow, fighting through from one open-air platform to the other.

We tried the train on platform 2.

“No, Brasov train is platform 1. Go, go. It leaves now…” the train driver waved us on.

We ran through the high wet snow to platform 1.

“No Brasov is platform 3. Go, go quick…”

The train left, half an hour later, from platform 2.

*

Outside Brasov station. I felt we should at least try and see Dracula’s castle as we were here in Transylvania. I asked a policeman loitering outside and was told it is a good 15 miles away.

I asked what was the best way to get there and he blew out his cheeks saying we were far too late for any buses. The policeman then slipped into a low whisper, I had to lean close to hear.

“Be careful of the taxi drivers…”

He told me they will try and con me. He said this turning his head this way and that, watching out nervously. Fearful of being overheard. It seemed pretty clear who held the power in this city.

We approached one. Passepartout negotiated what seemed a good deal. Sixty leu for the journey. We clambered in.

We drove along in the dark. Conversation went nowhere with the driver. I wasn’t sure he could speak any English. Then, without warning, right in the middle of an empty dark road, he pulled to the side.

“I want one hundred leu for this…”

“You said sixty…”

“I want one hundred…”

“But you said…”

“What you going to do? I leave you here. You go nowhere. Maybe you die out here? Why do I care? What you going to do? I tell you, I want one hundred…”

I could see I had no cards to play. Still, I felt aggrieved. I didn’t want to just give in.

“Look, you said…”

“You not going to pay me? Ok, we go to police.”

“Fine,” I said, sitting back in my seat. “Let’s go to the police. I’m sure they’ll have something to say about your cheating.”

I began to work up a head of steam.

“Perhaps they won’t be happy with you perpetuating the bad name of Romanians eh? So, why not? Let’s go! Take us. Let’s go to the police…”

Doubt started to build in my mind as the driver raced towards the small village surrounding Bran Castle. He was bouncing on his seat, cackling loudly. Banging with the palms of his hand on the steering wheel with pleasure. Enjoying – far too much – our journey onwards towards the police station.

We got out at the police station, again plunging knee deep in the snow. The station was locked up and closed.

The three of us all walked once around the low one-story building in the dark, looking through the dark, barred, dirty windows of the building set down right underneath the towering gothic castle.

“Look, here’s your sixty as you first said you wanted,” I said to the driver. “Let’s forget about it. There’s no one here. I’ll just get my stuff and…”

The taxi driver sat, arms folded, on a wall, grinning. He pointed his keys at the car. ‘WHUMPH’ the locks went down as I walked towards the doors.

“We’ll wait,” he said.

Half an hour went by. Longer. As we stood under the toppling castle towers, 1000 meters above us. Eerie in the dark.

“Where you from?” the taxi driver asked me. A leer like a hyena’s on his face.

“England,” I said. “Well, I used to be anyway. I live in Greece now. We’re trying to get there you see…”

“Poor little English man, eh?” he cut in. “Living in Greece to save his money. You don’t give the Greek people their money too, eh? You steal from the Greeks too, eh?”

We continued arguing. Passepartout shouting in Greek, the driver shouting back louder in Romanian. Eventually we noticed two policemen standing watching us.

My heart sank as the policemen and the driver nodded and raised eyebrows at each other in greeting.  They were clearly friends.

I explained the situation as they rattled with the keys. How the price had gone up half way on our journey on the deserted road.

“Why you not pay the man?” one policeman said. I could see nothing but me losing this game was going to happen here.

“You come with us…” they said.

The police unlocked the doors of the station. Then I saw they were unlocking the metal barred door of a small cell they had too. This really wasn’t going well.

They pushed Passepartout and me into the stone cell. We slumped down on the shelf of a bed hanging from chains from the wall. In fact, things were going very badly indeed.

“Why you not pay the man?” they repeated.

“He said sixty…” was all I could say. It sounded rather pathetic now.

But perhaps they had never met a man as mean as me? Or a girl as patient to my meanness and as stubborn against perceived insults as Passepartout. We sat it out.

“Look, just pay the man…” they repeated once again.

I looked at them and shook my head at them sadly. As if only sadly disappointed by proceedings.

We carried on sitting in the freezing cell. The policemen and the taxi driver had gone outside into the dark night together, smoking and laughing.

“Look,” said the blonde one of the two policemen, as he came back in, kicking snow off his boots – the first to crack. “The man wants forty more? Right? What’s forty more?”

“He said…”

“Gah. Futu! I’ll pay it!” the policeman snapped.

“No!” said the taxi driver, running in from outside.

“No!” said Passepartout.

I was the one of the group who remained conspicuously silent.

Eventually I realised something had changed though. I guessed I could pay the man and save some face.

“Ok,” I said with a sigh. “No, you shouldn’t pay him. I’ll pay…”

The taxi driver gurgled in joy. “Yaaah!” he crowed at me. Scrunching up his fist. Shaking it in triumph.

I gave him his money. He did a little hop, foot to foot, in victory. And all this under Bran Castle. The sinister gothic palace watching the pantomime going on below its walls.

The taxi driver took off, banging his steering wheel in pleasure again. Beeping a farewell as the police waved their friend away.

“So can we go now?” I asked.

“Ehh…no, you wait a while, you wait a while…”

To prove a point it seemed, Passepartout and I had another 20 minutes or so in the damp cell. Passepartout glaring at me with undisguised bitterness.

Eventually the two policemen let us go.

Feeling shaken, far from home in a dark and shuttered village, we tried to find a hotel.

We knocked on the door of a small pension opposite the castle. An old couple came down and let us in. Yes, they had a room they said. We were shown up to a wood-lined bedroom. I looked out of the window. The castle glowed and glowered back at us in the darkness.

Down in the street below I could see a parked police car sitting, watching us too.

I woke up during the night, 4am, and peered out of the curtains. The castle was still there. As were the police. Sitting and watching.

Morning under Bran castle was different. The castle was still there of course, the police were gone.

Hundreds of tourists had appeared in the bright sunlit village though.

The place looked awful. Thronged with people. We wanted to get out. The castle only has a tenuous links to Vlad the Impaler, Stoker’s Dracula, anyway. What had I been thinking taking us all this way, to see this place?

Ok it was Hammer Horror impressive: climbing walls, long roofs pierced by sharp towers. But the tourist shops, the crowded themed eateries…

We wanted to leave. We wanted to be on the trains again. We needed to be on our way down to Thessaloniki.

No taxi this time though. We caught a local bus back to Brasov. Ancient. Rickety. Juddering over the road. Things falling off the racks and shelves. We passed two men on a horse and cart. The bus hit pot holes all along the way. The escape hatch in the roof fell down open. It hung, lolling and swaying all the way back to Brasov, pouring in the icy air on our slow route to the city.

I looked out of the window over the piled-up dirty peppered snow on the sides of the road, over the dead yellow fields. The Carpathian mountains stood there. Massive and severe.

*

Like the children of Hamelin we unthinkingly flowed our way into Brasov, just as they’d followed the Pied Piper into Brasov in the tale.

Brasov bustled. A world of old Saxon, pinnacled buildings above and a modern moving crowd below. And the Black Church brooding over everything.

21 meters high, foreboding sheer sides. Dark and heavy. The church was formidable. Though someone had impudently daubed graffiti  on the walls of this gothic monster – “God is imaginary.” A black bearded statue pointed out as if in horror.

The very first school of Romania built in the 1400s in the grounds of the church. A gimmicky ‘B.R.A.S.O.V’ written in big white letters like the HOLLYWOOD sign high in the hills above the town.

A Pireaus bank in Brasov’s main square seemed to cheer Passepartout. Greek imperialism! Here in Romania, at last, there seemed somewhere in Europe where Greece didn’t feel like the very bottom of the barrel.

We entered a café – Festival ’39 – and were instantly back to a 1930s Brasov. The whole bar with pictures and musical instruments and lamps and trinkets all tinged in sepia, as we drank thick, sour, smoky ciorbă soup.

We left it late and had to race back towards the station.

The 16.40 train to Bucharest was advertised as leaving on Platform 1. We ran through the large doors of the station house, past the collection of huddled taxi driver – one familiar diabolical face loomed out of the blur – and we bombed up the stairs onto the train.

The conductor asked to see our tickets. We showed them. He stared for an age before handing them back. He moved off down the carriage, checked a few other passengers.

“Maybe I think you should know,” he said, moving towards the carriage connecting door, turning to us just before he disappeared through. “This train goes to Vienna…”

We jumped off the train just as it began to pull away.

Our 16.40 train arrived shortly before 5 of course. We should have known.

Outside the window of the Bucharest train, once it arrived, a great flare of a sunset split over the Brasov. The colours of the sky running, dark blue into orange.

We took a seat. Opposite us a very tall, very thin, totally bald man with the gaunt violent face of some hired assassin sat rigidly, straight up, looking dead ahead at the wall between us. Unforgiving eyes, unblinking.

We moved to find a compartment.

One compartment was empty except for just one young man. We opened the door and joined him.

His clothes were filthy, he smelt appallingly and was obviously quite hopelessly drunk. We all sat together as the train hobbled out of the station, south, towards the capital.

A cheerful conductor, hat skewwhiff, tie to the side, smiling like an idiot, seemingly a little drunk himself came in. Instantly he cleared the boy out – the boy had no ticket for the train. The conductor batted him away, slapping at the top of his head, pushing him out of the carriage. He told the boy he would let him off, he could travel, but he wouldn’t allow him to sit in the compartment with us.

The young man apologised very quietly and very politely, in good English, for troubling us.

He then stood directly outside the sliding door of our compartment for the rest of the journey. The buttocks sticking out of his falling down jeans pushed against the door, smearing the glass, a bottle in his hand. He alternated between hitting himself on the head and shouting, admonishing himself for something, and singing Romanian songs in a beautiful high voice.

The train rounded a range of the Carpathians. The snow seemed all gone on this side of mountains, as I peered out into the now fast-black night.

As we neared Bucharest a tall, distinguished man joined our compartment – briefcase, long camel coat, black woollen astrakhan hat like Brezhnev or some military campaigner in Caucasuses. He instantly pulled the curtains over the sliding door, hiding the tottering young man in the corridor outside.

Salut,” I said. The man nodded in return. I asked him his name.

“Michael.”

I asked if he spoke English. He didn’t answer this, but instead lent forward at me, his finger raised and asked “Have you read Huntington?”

I was thrown by this. I admitted that I hadn’t read any Huntingdon.

“Shame,” he said, and let himself ease back into his seat. Opened his case.

Silence filled the compartment for a while. Then Michael, not looking up from his case, carried on.

“Huntingdon has written fascinatingly about the post-Cold War order,” he stopped rummaging and turned to look me in the eye. “Islamic fundamentalism,” he said, as if nothing more needed to be said on the subject and turned back to his case.

The train rumbled on.

“You are entering The Kingdom,” now Michael said as the train started passing the Bucharest suburbs. “Everything is different from the rest of Romania. The architecture, the people…”

I mentioned how we were looking forward to seeing Ceaușescu’s palace.

“I was there of course,” Michael said. “I was there at the revolution. I was there with a gun in my hand…“

Passepartout sat up, at last interested by this. I lent forward too. I wanted to ask him questions, but he cut us short.

“Now I would turn the gun the other way.”

“You regret what happened in the revolution?” Passepartout asked.

Michael looked at her for the first time.

“When I see what we’ve got, yes. When I see what has happened since… I was a reluctant Communist in my youth. We had no choice, I had to go with it. But now, now I would choose it!” he raised his voice, leaning towards her.

“Now I want Communism!” he said, leaning now towards me, grinning with over-large teeth.

He felt Passepartout was sympathetic to his views. “Where are you from?” he asked her.

“Greece,” she told him.

“Oh Greece,” Michael said. “I was in Athens 2 days ago. On… business….” he added, vaguely.

Michael talked about Greece’s economic problem, its migrant problem. I was surprised though when he began a rather over-elaborate snooker analogy to mark Greece’s troubles. How Europe had used her.

“You are stuck behind the yellow ball! You are down the bulk end. You will never reach the red…” he lectured at Passepartout, laughing, patting her on the knee.

Passepartout went back in her huddle on the seat, arms folded, viewing Michael sceptically from under furrowed eyebrows.

“I’m not sure she really knows much about snooker you know Michael… Is it a particularly popular sport in Romania then..?”

Michael didn’t answer me. He had gathered his things and the brakes started to take hold as we entered our eighth great city.

“They will never reach that red ball…” he said, sliding open the carriage door. “Mark my words.”

On the metro heading from the Gara de Nord station into the centre of Bucharest my nose started to bleed – a middle aged woman stood up, tried to give me her seat. She and her friends demonstrated with huge, expressive mime in the train’s gangway – repeatedly arching their backs double, hands clasped to their noses – showing how I should stem my small trickle of blood.

The metro stations had old haggard women in small huts gossiping with their friends, selling us ticket like they were selling us a live chicken. But the trains that arrived on the underground platform glided in soundlessly: sleek silver tubes, like space-aged capsules.

We travelled into the centre. Walked through Lipscani.

The old town of Bucharest is oddly beautiful. A decayed sumptuousness.

French, Parisian-looking buildings. But then cheap decorated bars under these grand buildings, Union Jacks painted up on the walls, looking to cater for British stag dos.

Stag do prime locations abroad have updated through the years. And they have also followed us down through Europe. From the original, years ago, in the Amsterdam red light district, to later the popular spot of Prague and their beer for pennies, to Budapest, and now to Bucharest – or so these bar owner seemed to hope.

Passepartout looked at the buildings and said how she thought they look like Athens’ neo-classical buildings.

“More grand, but just as faded. And the bars are tacky like Thessaloniki… That Balkan lack of style…” she sighed unhappily, as if with personal regret.

We walked into the commercial districts. Small, old orthodox churches with domes and looped crosses, smuggled in between the big building blocks.

Next day we were on the metro platform again, waiting for the space aged tube train to arrive – endlessly long snaking lines waited for the old ladies in the huts to sell a ticket. Romanians in their winter wrappings – fur-lined coats – stood with us. The locals with their heavy mouths and curiously bulbous-jawed faces.

We went to Revolution Square, where the Romanians revolted against Ceaușescu’s rule in 1989. That revolution that my father had heard over the airwaves as he drove towards Berlin and wrote about in letters to me sent from behind the rapidly falling iron curtain.

We looked at the old Communist Headquarter’s building where Ceaușescu and his wife tried to flee, taking off from the roof in a helicopter on December 22nd.

December 22nd. That date. The date we had left too. Left the UK for Greece.

Christmas, New Year, they had all passed and we were still here 500 miles away from our destination. It almost seemed pointless hurrying now.

Outside the monstrous People’s Palace – Ceaușescu’s second largest building in the world, a hideous emblem for his mismanagement and megalomania. A building which was never finished and was so vast it could never have been filled.

Bucharest’s city Christmas tree was being cut down.

One man up a preposterously long, unsafe, spindly stepladder was hacking away. We watched as the tree eventually fell with a huge smash on the unclosed road below. Great splinters and debris flying up round the cars. The Communist palace looked on the falling tree with its grim façade.

We walked past a dried up old river, past slum housing.

I liked Bucharest though. The mansions and ornate small palaces come as unexpected delights amongst the dirt and ruin. And walking through the blighted areas had an exciting feeling – like travelling without maps.

We walked out to Bucharest’s Arc De Triumph. And then down a long road. Dark, unlit. Past broken concrete homes. A melancholy in the buildings. I put the icicle of my nose in my coat as we trudged along.

Snow started falling, It built quickly. A soft patter on the settled snow squeaking under our feet. Puffs falling down the roofs of the houses.

Spotting what looked like an old café, we called in hoping for the snow to pass.

As we entered something seemed wrong. Through the old grand doors, we seemed to be in someone’s home. But not any home. There were rooms and rooms full of medical instruments, furniture from some ancient surgery. An old steriliser, other sinister equipment. A 1930s brass plate tacked on the flaking dirty cream painted walls – Dr Pavelescu: Specialist.

We walked along, opening more large wooden doors, through the house, past ornate cabinets and old ceramic heaters under peeling ceilings. Finally, there was a wooden bar with a bearded young man smoking a pipe behind it. This was Dr Pavelescu’s grandson.

We were the only people in this house/bar. We sat and had a drink on a turn-of-the-century old gynecologist table, under a dirty broken chandelier. Dr Pavelescu’s grandson told us his grandfather’s story.

When the houses of Bucharest were nationalised on Romania turning Communist – villas taken, families left with nowhere to live – Dr Pavelesscu took them in. Turned over this house and most of his surgery for homeless families to come and live. Now his grandson, Alex, told us he tries to keep this spirit alive, opening up the house for refugees, co-operative programmes. “Ok, the decor, the food might not be the Hilton here,” he shrugged. “But it is a place for everyone. Anyone who’s lost. It’s a home…”

Staring out of the window we could see the snow wasn’t letting up. It was getting worse.

We left Dr Pavelescu’s and walked down the street towards the centre streets of Bucharest.

The persistent snow whipped our faces, getting in our eyes. The statues on Calea Victoriei were getting smothered in the thick snow. The black horsed heroes wielding their axes, the preening noble boyars, all had white piling up on their Romanian turbans.

The wolves feeding Romulus and Remus weighed down with snow on their backs.

We battled, bent double, groping blindly, towards our sombre, dingy hotel by the station.

Waking the next day, the violent weather had not improved.

What were we going to do? We were in danger of being snowed in. We would need to catch a train right now, if they were running. We started to gather our things.

Passepartout complained that we had hardly seen anything of Romania. I reminded her of her appointment still waiting to be kept in Thessaloniki – the journey that I now felt certain we should have flown to rather than taking this ludicrously unpractical rail journey through Europe in the middle of winter.

Still I felt annoyed too that we had not seen enough.

The hotel staff told us that no trains would be running, that we should stay here. The manager was certain of this, holding his hand up as if he was stopping traffic and raising his closed eyes to the ceiling. “No trains,” he said.

We went back to our 1970s cheaply styled hotel room. I lay on the brown bed, in the brown room, ice and snow filling the whole window. It was like being stuck inside a great choc ice.

There was a ring on the hotel’s brown phone.

“There is somebody to see you down in the lobby.”

Someone to see us? Who? Who could know we were here? Here, stranded in this austere hotel in the middle of a storm-torn Bucharest.

We made out way down. There, waiting in the lobby – woollen skirt, thick white tights, clumpy shoes, square glasses steamed up – was Andra.

“Andra…what are you doing here?” asked a shocked Passepartout, giving the frozen looking Andra a hug.

“I made promise to the Head Father to look after you…”

“But how did you even find us in Bucharest?” Passepartout couldn’t believe this small, frowzy girl was here standing here, in a pool of slush at her feet on the hotel carpet.

“I am back in Bucharest, to see my family. You said you would be taking hotel near the station, so…I work it out. And I come here.”

“Well… it’s good to see you…” said Passepartout, opening her hands out looking Andra up and down. Not really knowing what to say now.

“The weather is terrible…”

“This is why I come to see you,” said Andra. “I have my father’s car. Come and see it. I have his car and I can take you away from Bucharest. Away from the storm…”

Outside the hotel, parked on the thickly snowed street was an enormous black Dacia saloon car.

“So? Yes? We go?” said Andra.