Sunday, December 2, 2007

in fang country

Transylvania was blood curdling. Not because demons of the night came whiffling out of the dark and crawled in the window, but because it was damn cold. Damn cold! It squeezed at least a few teeth chatters out of me. At the end of each day I was tired from tensing my muscles against the cold all day. Arriving in Braşov after a significant snowfall, I was just in time to participate in the slip sliding fun over the iced-over pavements. It was like walking on waxed glass. As a bonus, some pavements were iced, and slushied over. It didn't help that the treads on my shoes are close to gone. I reconsidered buying a pair of boots, and almost had myself convinced, since the prices were reasonable enough. In the end I decided to pass, since I don't want to be carrying any more stuff. Despite the fact that I'm wearing, instead of carrying, most of my clothes, and I dumped my old guidebooks in Belgrade (including the Turkey tome), my rucksack seems to have gotten heavier. It's okay. My shoes just need to last another five weeks, and then the soles can fall off for all I care.

The hostel in Braşov was like a slapstick stage comedy. Doors from the common room led to the foyer, one bathroom, one of the dorms, and the dining room, and were constantly opening and shutting as people went from one to another. Anyone hanging out on the couches was the calm in a maelstrom of activity. Adding to this was Diane, the manic manager, who was either doing ten things all at once, or sitting on the couch watching television. Even then, she was constantly answering questions, or making phone calls in order to get an answer. Catching me perusing the posted train schedule, she came up. "What don't you know?" Gosh, where to start? Well, I wanted to go to Sighişoara for one, birthplace of Vlad Tepes, Count Dracula himself. Perched on top of a hill, Sighişoara is a old town with a venerable history of craft. The city museum is housed in the unmistakeable Clock Tower,

and includes displays of the craftsman guilds from back in the day, who also each had their own tower in the city wall, not all of which remain; ironsmiths, locksmiths, hatters, furriers, tinsmiths, shoemakers, and coopers, just to name a few. There was a carpenters guild, but turners qualified for their own separate guild.

Sighişoara also has one of the more baffling signs I've seen. Surely this can't mean what it appears to mean. And if it does, why not?

Returning to Braşov from Sighişoara, I noticed the porters stood outside the carriages checking tickets, instead of coming down the aisles en route. Some were holding animated conversations with guys on the platform, and if I had to take an educated guess as to the nature of the conversation, it's that the guys were trying to wheedle their way onto the train for free. Since the train doors open on both sides, I saw at least one porter, or maybe he was just an upstanding citizen, standing in the carriage at the far door, keeping some passengers from piling in. The train was clearly full, so I found a compartment that had three other women, and took a seat. A few stops later two of them got out, and the other one started talking to me. After figuring out (immediately) that I don't speak Romanian, she just offered me cookies, but then really started trying to tell me something. Something about me and the compartment. On one level I think I got what she was trying to get across, but there was a hurdle in my brain that the thought couldn't quite clear. I think it's because I was actually trying to understand the words, even though I knew darn well that I couldn't. I kept saying, "I'm sorry, I don't understand," and I could tell she was getting frustrated. Summoned by the going nowhere conversation, another, younger, woman materialized in the hallway, and I asked her if she spoke English. After a pause, she said, "No." Well, clearly she knew some basics. She knew enough to get us past my mental hurdle – the older woman was telling me to not stay alone in the compartment by myself, it wasn't safe. I've never had any problems on a train so far, but it was Romania, so I went with the younger woman to her compartment (where, incidentally, she'd been sitting alone), and the first woman looks happy, smiles, and waves goodbye. The train was emptying out as we went along, and eventually we got to the young woman's stop. Picking up her bag, she gave me a last look, and took a moment to search for words. "Be careful." It was said very emphatically. I told her thanks and said goodbye. Nothing happened, nothing even seemed like it was going to happen, but it was nice having a couple of the local girls look after me.

I went on a couple of other day trips that the hostel arranged, which were both okay, but I wish I had made my own way to these places, in order to manage my own time looking around. Our first stop was Râşnov Citadel, which I wouldn't have bothered seeking out myself. It does have at least two interesting items. One is a well in the courtyard. The well itself isn't as interesting as its history; it was dug by two Turkish prisoners, who were promised release when they were finished. One-hundred-forty-six meters deep, the signage didn't mention if the two were released after 17 years of digging. The other is a chest, which has, if I'm remembering correctly, 18 locking mechanisms set into the lid. There was no mention on what treasures required such substantial protection.

Next was Bran Castle, famously Castle Dracula, although it has nothing to do with Vlad Tepes. Maybe he spent a night or two here on his conquering way elsewhere. The only creepy thing I could find inside were a number of pieces of furniture with faces carved into them. I don't care how angelic they are, I don't want chubby cherubs gazing at me when I wake up. The remainder of the decor was distinctly un-creature of the nightish, with lots of painted wood, oriental rugs, and fancy chandeliers. Classic castle elements include a secret stairway and a dramatic location atop a hill. I neglected to take a picture because I was too busy buying tacky vampire postcards at the souvenir bazaar at the bottom of the hill.

Not that I need a reason to eat, but on Thanksgiving I took myself out to a Romanian restaurant. For a starter I got chicken soup with dumplings. Dumplings in pretty much any form can always be a winner, and I was mighty pleased with my soup. For the main course I chose out of the Traditional Plates section, and ordered polenta with cheese and egg. What arrived was a C-cup sized blob of polenta, topped by a fried egg, resting in a nest of white cheese, and surrounded by puddles of sour cream. Sacre bleu. It was physically too much food for my stomach, and I believe for the first time on this trip, I couldn't clear my plate. I tried, I really did, but was obliged to leave a sizeable blobette on the plate, and at least one of the sour cream oceans. There was no way dessert was going to fit in without gastronomical discomfort, but I waited for things to settle enough to allow a cappuccino to sink in. It came with whipped cream on top, so it sufficiently dessertish to fool me into thinking I had indulged in a proper holiday meal. At least I over-ate an appropriate amount for Thanksgiving. Does anyone care about historic events in American history anymore? No, we just want to eat like porkers and then sleep it off, and hopefully get paid to do so.

I really dig a lot of the Romanian architecture. It's as if the builders took a bunch of geometric shapes, and squished them into each other, giving buildings a higgledy-piggledy appearance that is simultaneously harmonious. To top it off, they have beautiful roofs with tiles and spires. These two pictures are the extreme of the top end, being Pelişor and Peleş Castles in Sinaia.

We stopped by on a day tour on the way to Bucharest, and didn't have nearly enough time to really enjoy Pelişor (Peleş was closed, and the picture was about as close as visitors could get). Built at the very beginning of the 20th century, it's full of gorgeous Art Nouveau furniture, much of it designed by resident Queen Marie. She had a hand in quite a lot of the interior design. One of the prominent male residents, either Carol I or Ferdinand I, had what appears to be a clinical obsession with time, or at least punctuality; I can't remember exactly how many clocks they had, but the number is well over one hundred, maybe over two hundred. The ticking must have been deafening. The presentation at Pelişor qualifies it one of my best castle visits. To keep the floors clean, they make you slip nifty cloth booties on over your shoes.

I wished I'd had a little more time to spend in Braşov. The winter cold I can deal with, hyperbolic comments aside, but the one downside of traveling right now is limited daylight. All is going dark at 16:00. I like walking cities at night because not only can it give them a whole new look, area lighting can draw your attention to things that are more subtle in the daylight, and which may pass unnoticed. But four hours of night sightseeing is too much for even one day, so I'm spending more evenings inside. Writing, reading, thinking. Maybe it's some primal hibernating instinct kicking in. Did I mention it's really cold? Makes me want to eat constantly.

After Romania I wanted to go to Chișinău, Moldova. The bus service directly from Braşov sounded unreliable; if not enough seats were sold, the service was cancelled, but you'd only find out when you actually showed up to catch the bus, thus stranding you in town for at least another day. Annoying as it was, I decided to catch the more expensive, yet fully reliable train from Bucharest. A group of three guys at the hostel needed to fly out of Bucharest as well, so the hostel owner drove us there as part of the Sinaia day tour. Dropping all of us off at the airport, he told me which bus to catch to take me to the train station. I knew I shouldn't have believed him, since at least a couple of people from the Bucharest hostel, which is near the train station, needed to get to the airport, and had to take a combination of bus and metro. Hopping on the bus displaying the right number, the driver couldn't be bothered to give me the time of day, telling me to "ask someone else." Turning around, the first someone else directly behind me looked like a flight attendant, so good chance she knew some English, which she did. I asked her if the bus went to the train station, and nope, it didn't. Not knowing what else to do, I just started asking her if she knew how I could get there. I didn't need to panic yet, since I had almost three hours. If I had to, I could pay for a taxi, but that would just leave me in Bucharest rush hour traffic trapped in a car instead of a bus making regular stops. The flygirl was doing her best to help me out, when another woman sitting behind her chimed up, in Romanian. She didn't seem to know English, but she picked up that I needed to get to Gara de Nord. Flygirl told me to sit with the woman, that she'd tell me what to do. Snails were progressing down the street faster than we were, and I was staring out the window for a familiar sight, trying to keep my rucksack out of the aisle, and praying that a transit officer didn't board the bus, since I didn't actually have a ticket. At some point my guide perked up and started asking around if anyone spoke English. A woman across the aisle leaned over, and together they got me sorted out for the rest of the journey. Another guy who boarded the new bus had a travel bag, and just for a sanity check, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked "Gara de Nord?" He spoke English, along with another man standing nearby. Travel bag guy hopped off before the train station, but the other one stayed on until the end. He asked if I was traveling far, and I told him Chișinău (yes, I realize you should never tell strangers where you are going, he seemed nerdy and safe), which is at least a twelve-hour overnight journey. He recommended that I get a first class ticket. What did he say exactly? Something like, "to avoid inconveniences with other passengers." He must have been referring to the Roma. Three out of three train warnings, all in the same country. I already had a second class ticket, and made up my mind to not be scared off. Besides, the thought of going up to the international ticket window and trying to upgrade the ticket with a non-English speaking ticket seller was scarier than potentially sharing a train compartment with a Romanian weirdo.

I forgot to mention something about Bucharest, something to hold up in response to its detractors. I know I geek out about European architecture. I really love it. America's historic cities have many fab buildings, but nothing coming close to the scale in Europe. I'm not too well versed in the different styles, mostly functioning on the level of I Like or I Don't Like, but contemplating Bucharest I had a notion that it looked a little Parisian. Checking what Wikipedia had to say about the city, it turns out that Bucharest has earned the moniker of Little Paris, or Paris of the East. Somehow that tidbit never made its way into disparaging reviews.

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