Marking Time

I drink and smoke errday while you travel the world. FML.
—Sissy Katy


A great sign of white letters propped up on the hilltop like Hollywood told us we were in RASNOV, south of Brasov on the road to Bran. Although Vlad Tepes, or Dracula, never lived at the Bran castle and only maybe visited, it has become the penultimate site of his legend and absorbed Bram Stoker's character and a tourist flair.

The castle would be better called a palace or a country manor, with its peaceful inner courtyard of white stucco and many quiet rooms. There were no spiked pits nor slag piles, no dungeons, no sulphurous smoke, not even a cemetery; just this little castle on a wooded hill over a pleasant village and its knick-knack market, peddling masks and Dracula shirts with images from every film adaptation and also Blade. It had a high tower, but this was closed off by a gate, which we slid under so we could get a few pictures.

Out in the market, Marty saw a stand of Romanian instruments that he compulsively wanted. The woman there had learned to play them from her father when she was 12, and she showed off her acumen on Romanian bagpipes and on the ocarina, both the ovoid Legend of Zelda kind and one shaped like a flute. To our pre-emptive annoyance, since he failed in practicing to get anything like a tune out of it, Marty bought the latter for 35 dib-dubs.

Marty followed another Aussie in calling all foreign currencies dib-dubs. This fit well the Romanian scrip, once called leu, then lei, and now officially the roni. Nearby nations have similar names: Bulgaria's lev, Turkey's lira, Albania's lek. Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia all use the name dinar for their entirely different currencies, while Macedonia has the denar, all inheriting the denarius of the Roman Empire, just as Spain did with the dinero. West of the Dniestr are the rubles, and east of the Atlantic come the dollars. So it really makes sense to just call the lot of them dib-dubs.

Romania's dib-dubs are worth mentioning. Perhaps in response to their inherent corruption, the country prints a paper money which is made of plastic fibers, making it indestructible and impossible to counterfit. In Varna we had a full circle of guys try pulling 1 roni in half and succeed only in stretching it, although we did light it on fire eventually. Like the euro, ronis come in different colors and sizes depending on denominations. In all ways but value they are superior to the American dollar.

My flip-flops had fallen apart, so I spent a few dib-dubs on some new ones, made of action-figure blue plastic that made me feel like a Japanese robot, and we drove off toward Brasov. The city should not have been hard to find — like Rasnov and Hollywood it has a great white sign proclaiming its location from the hill above, this one supposedly constructed using some of the letters that once spelled STALIN — but it took us a while anyway.

We tried to kick each other's feet out on the way to the gondola station, and then took a cable-car up to the top of the hill where the Brasov sign stands. The old town is wedged between two such hills, with the sign on the eastern and two towers, the White and the Black, halfway up the western. The town is of old Hapsburg architecture, all fine stonework and red rooftops. The two chief attractions are the Black Church, a great Protestant cathedral scorched without by a 17th century fire, and the narrow Rope Street, which is just an alley but famous as Europe's skinniest street. We saw these and a cafeteria very quickly.

Jezz and Marty set off back to Bucharest, for a train to Sofia and a longer journey to Corfu's Pink Palace, while Alan and I stayed to find our own lodgings. Alan had made a booking; I was stuck with scraps, and finding the Kismet Dao and Rolling Stone hostels equally full, I went to one of the guesthouses managed by a Romanian named Gabriel. The apartment was between the hillside and the cobblestone pedestrian street, the Strada Republicii, which ran up from the Black Church and the Plata Sfatului past a mall of cafés and boutiques. I had a small room with three beds, and a balcony that looked down on the little backyard, where the owner, a shrunken old woman, had once seen bear cubs.

I shared my room with a Frenchman named Chilly, and nextdoor was a Swiss couple, David and Rosanna. After I had taken a shower we went out to a restaurant called Sergiana for traditional Romanian food. David and I got glasses of palinca, which tastes like rakia but is yellowish in color instead of clear, and I ate a stew with beef and sausage and corn dumplings, and a salad of summer cucumbers, which I was sad to learn just meant sliced pickles.

Afterwards, while walking around the city, and to the consternation of his girlfriend, David and I started talking about computer games: Time Commander and Sim City, his favorites, and mine, Age of Empires and Heroes of Might & Magic and Civilization. He mentioned that eternal sound of the priest, which echoed across all continents in those days of the early '90s, to the equal annoyance of parents of every nation. David told me, "My Dad would always shout, 'Wah-noh-noh! Wah-noh-noh! What is that Wah-noh-noh? Can't you turn that off?'"

In places with weak currency, prices suddenly seem much greater than they really are, and the $2 price tag on the White Tower museum seemed to me offensive. Alan and I refused it, on our Wednesday wander, and the same price at the Black Tower, although we accepted the student discount at the Black Church since they did not check for cards and got in for about a quarter each. We got pizza, and then I went to take a nap.

That afternoon, when out looking for a grocery store, I ran into a great group of people whom I had met at the Flag Hostel in Varna, for Black Sea backpacking is a small community with only a few routes. Assuming we head north, everyone goes from Sofia to Varna, from Varna to Bucharest or Istanbul, from Bucharest to Brasov or Budapest, and from Brasov to Budapest or, be they adventuresome, to Moldova or Odessa or Kiev, and because there are but few hostels you continually see the same faces. I went with this band to walk up the mountain and see the sunset.

The over-enthused manager of their Rolling Stone hostel, who sticks her head out the window and shouts "Reservation?" when anyone rings the bell, warned them severely of the brown bears that infest the woodlands, and who not one year ago killed a drunk who fell asleep on one of the trails. I received similar warnings from Chilly, the Frenchman, who said the bears in those hills killed one man every other year. Ceauşescu loved the dire bears and bred them around his woodland retreat, so that now they number 6000 and are commonly hunted to maintain that number. The hostel offered a bear-watching tour, wherein a driver took a group up to a pile of trash in the woods and waited for the hungry bears to emerge. "There is the bear," he will say. "Take a photo, and then we go."

Anyway, we couldn't find the trail so we just sat on a bench near a park, looking out over the city wall at the sunset which struck the hills through the low dark clouds like a bomb, and when it started to rain we moved up to a concrete buffer under some trees on the slope. A car of the politia drove by, and the officer said, ignorant of his humor, "You don't have to drink here! It is forbidden!"

A group of four old Romanians followed the car on foot, and one of them asked us, "What did they say to you? Don't drink?! They drink all the time! They are just jealous of you." The man's name was Chicha, and he was Romanian-Mexican, his three companions being Romanian-American. Chicha complained about his European nation and told us some good places to eat; his wife, a high school teacher, complained about the dislocation of the spine which afflicted her black and female students with superfluous and impertinent nodding of the head.

We went out to a restaurant near the two hostels, then to the Rolling Stone to watch a group of 37 students straggle in with all their bags, while the owner threw mattresses down in every available spot, and we talked incessently about Dave who ran the hostel in Varna, and all his strange English ex-pat mannerisms, and how on the last day he was to be seen at five in the afternoon mopping the kitchen floor in nothing but a towel.

Thursday: Alan and I went to the train station, but the train to Sighisoara was too much. We followed road signs out of town and hitched a ride with one of the many Hungarians born and raised in Romania, in those Hapsburg territories given away after World War I. He drove us all the way to our destination, through open fields and Saxon towns, the flat lines of red rooftops broken only by white Lutheran towers.

Sighisoara is reputed to be beautiful, but actually looks like the apocalypse, or maybe a Victorian set for a rendition of the War of the Worlds novel. First we passed through the Lower Town, the old buildings filthy and collapsing, crowded around with gypsies and beggers. Young mothers cradled sleeping children in one hand and stretched out the other with some muttered request for alms. This scene persisted all along the switchbacks of stairs until we passed through the walls to the Upper Town. As part of Romania's refurbishment, construction crews had torn up all the streets and left them piled in corners. This made it look as if a bomb had gone off, and made the distant tractors sound like tanks. We climbed the covered stairway, saw a church, drank coffee in Vlad Tepes' birthplace, now a menacing medieval café.

When ready to leave, we started walking east on the highway along the river, but it went on forever without a good spot for hitchhiking. Finally we got on a city bus — but bad luck! for though we only took it a few stops, we were ticketed! Luckily our prosecutor spoke no English, so I played the confused tourist and kept demanding to buy a ticket, which in that country can only be bought from the ticket stands at major bus stops. Then he wrote down on a piece of paper 10 ronis, which was $3, and an outrageous sum for Romania. I said No and that I no longer wanted a ticket at all, and I tried to get off the bus. The back doors wouldn't open! Finally I gave him 3 dib-dubs for both of us and brushed past his bulk.

This effort had taken Alan and me to the edge of town, where after a few minutes of hitching we boarded the sedan of an Italian mafioso. His illicit employment was obvious: slicked back hair, two mobile phones, gold chain, platinum watch, and snazzy clothes and car; he had taken trips to New York and Miami, but spoke no English, nor any Romanian. It was unclear what the aged Italian had done to earn such a distant deployment, but he did not appreciate it. He kept honking at random parties of locals at the side of the road and waving like he knew them, then laughing with us at their ape-like behavior. His opinion of the Romanians was obviously very low, but we could not tell whether he was calling them Animals or Allemanes, the latter being the French word for Germans, and that region of Romania being a Saxon colony.

I wanted to know where the Italian was from, so I listed a few cities: Roma, Florence, Venizo, Neapoli—. "Neapoli!?" he cried. "Milano! Milano! Neapoli no productivo. Neapoli, Albania, Yugoslavia, Romania: no productivo!" He went on to tell us, through miming, that Neapolitans just play mandolins all day and live off welfare, and that all real industry is in Northern Italy. He was very good with the pantomimes, which he used to tell us that Romanians with breasts are prima bella, and was otherwise as physically exuberant as any Italian, dancing around the driver's seat and asking us to sing. Whether by olive oil or wine or proximity to the sea, that race is truly an ageless one.

It started to rain, and the Italian's home in Rupeea was still 40 miles from Brasov. He told us that hitchhiking was not possible, and I asked him about a train station, or gare, to which he kindly drove us. From there, it was still two hours to Brasov on those slow trains, but quiet enough to sleep.

We tried to find some chicken place called Ando's, where you can get two breasts, fries, and salad for $3, but ran into problems when a block away from the place I asked for directions. Romanians, like Greeks, will not say so if they don't know how to get where you want to go. They'll just chose a direction at random, and with a confident swagger tell you exactly the wrong way to go. A series of this led us away from our prize and then in circles until we settled for pizza. That night I got a weird kink in my neck, and the next morning my arm hurt so I woke up early and could only roll around on my creaking bunk. This made me so angry that I got up and in five minutes was packed to leave the country.

What a thing travel is! Anger, frustration, embarrassment — why endure it? Just leave, and none can call it an escape, for movement is necessary in this business, and sometimes all you need is a reason to slough off that mess. New worlds await!

A bus left at noon for Chişinău, capital of Moldova. It rumbled back up into the western Carpathians, through haunted vales as sinister as the stories, where headlights bob like wisps in the misty and daylit gloom. We emerged into a field that rolled like the ocean — forest here, marsh there, corn and grain, city and factory — all as impermanent and alien on those waves of grass as any ship at sea. Lines of telephone poles and railways faded into the haze of a shower, while turn your head the other way and see blue sky, so vast is the distance of the great Scythian steppe. The steppe! A dreamed of place: endless, savage, and free.

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