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11/10/2004 Archived Entry: "Vacation"

I love this story: "Dog Calls 911, Opens Door for Police." The most difficult aspect of going on vacation is parting even temporarily with our two dogs, Sam and Fiona. This, despite the fact that our doggerels are well cared for in our absence. The kennel, which is their second home, has a huge indoor enclosure where they are `housed' together; it is heated in winter, air conditioned in summer. During the day, the enclosure opens to a nice-sized outdoor run. Whenever we pull up to the kennel, our dogs get excited and can hardly wait to bound out of the truck to see what other dogs are inside.

And speaking of our vacation....

On the 27th, Brad and I arrived at Ferihegy International Airport in Budapest after an unexpectedly comfortable flight on Malev Hungarian Airlines. Not only did we managed to sleep most of the way, Brad was also able to stretch out because Malev provides more leg room than North American carriers do. Ferihegy is rather drab by North American standards - at least, that is true of the area in which we waited for our connection to Bucharest. There were a few shops and a Sbarro serve-yourself eatery. We immediately changed a modest amount of money to Forints (about 200 to the US $1) in order to buy a T-shirt and something to munch. (The T-shirt was necessary because I had dressed warmly - not only because we'd departed from the cold clime of Canada but also because it was the end of October in Eastern Europe for goodness sake. Little did I suspect that the weather would be unseasonably warm, T-shirt weather, up until the last two days of our trip.)

The flight to Bucharest took a little over an hour. We were met by an aggressive taxi driver - sent courtesy of Company of Mysterious Journeys, which organized the tour. BTW, I highly recommend the Company and the tours, which are amazingly inexpensive. (Contact: Nicolae Paduraru at cdt@art.ro) Brad wanted to pause and change money at the airport but the driver virtually insisted on leaving, claiming that the rates at the airport were "very, very bad"; we could stop and change money in the city, he assured us. Well, he never stopped or even tried to and we learned a valuable lesson. Don't listen to taxi drivers in Eastern Europe.

The drive to our hotel for the night took quite a while as it was on the opposite side of Bucharest from the airport. Indeed, the airport itself is outside of Bucharest, in a neighboring community. Labada - the hotel - embodied much of my general impression of Romania. It was clearly a luxury hotel and one that I presume was used by communist officials or other VIPs during the Communist dictatorship of Ceausescu. Perhaps this is why it seemed a bit isolated from the city proper. A guard waved us through what looked like a military gateway and we drove down a long winding lane to a huge, rather beautiful building that bordered a small lake.

(The next day, Brad & explored the grounds and found that the "lake" served as a moat that isolated the hotel. The two cement "land paths" that crossed the moat were both blocked by high fences topped by spikes. Labada was obviously a "protected" area.)

The lobby was beautiful with marble floors, a sweeping staircase, regal chandeliers, and very friendly people in attendance. Indeed, thorough Romania - with the one exception of the taxi driver - people treated us with exceptional courtesy and friendliness. But the incongruities were also apparent. For example, plaster on the walls was obviously cheap and beginning to crumble. Expensive carpets on the marble floors were almost threadbare. Water pipes lay visible on the floor beside ornate wallboards. When we walked the grounds the next morning, we were surprised by the untended gardens that were so overgrown with weeds as to no longer be really gardens at all. We strolled to a nearby locked building and, peeking through the windows, we were able to ascertain that it was an "recreation center" with pool tables, etc. But the one-story building had been left to decay so that the roof had caved in and broken windows were boarded over.

Our room was comfortable. But again, for a luxury hotel, it was an odd mixture of very cheap furniture with doors and drawers that did not quite close and, then, marble floors. The shower had no curtain or doors but merely a shower head under which you could stand in the bath tub. A drain in the middle of the bathroom floor proper took away the water that did accumulate outside the tub. (This was the most common arrangement in the several places we stayed.) The room was hot and not controllable on a room-by-room basis. In fact, the first thing we did upon arriving at every venue was to open the window because we could not sleep in such sweltering heat. Admittedly, being used to Canadian weather may have been a large contributing factor.

When we first entered the hotel, we met the tour guide and organizer Nicolae Paduraru who greeted us most cordially. We had no more than an hour before the group was meeting for drinks in Labada's bar, he advised us. After an orientation session, the entire group - about 17 people in all - would leave to dine at Club Dracula. In short, there was no time for jet lag. We quickly changed some money at the front desk - and at a ruinous rate! - then hustled upstairs to shower, happy in the thought that we had just become multi-millionaires because of the huge discrepancy in the exchange rate.

The bar was a dim, pleasant place which some of the group got to know quite well in the brief time we spent at Labada. (I cannot regret getting a good night's instead.) Neither Brad nor I knew what to expect from the others in our group. Would they all be dressed in black? Wearing fake fangs? For the most part, they were exactly like us. Well educated, friendly people who looked like the average tourist on a vacation. What we are shared was a love of Hallowe'en and a sense of adventure. There were two Australians, several Brits, a few Americans and, then, us.

From Nicolae's presentation, it was easy to discern a certain tension in the themes that would come to dominate our tour (not `tension' in an unpleasant sense). This was a "Dracula" tour - that is, we were to retrace the route taken by Bram Stoker's character Jonathan Harker in his novel "Dracula," taking time to visit sites of special interest such as the birthplace of Vlad Tepes - the hisotrical figure upon whom some believe the fictional character Dracula was based. And, so, there was much talk of "frightening events" and mysteries to be uncovered. At the same time, however, it was clear that Nicolae - who is a scholar - wanted to impart as much historical knowledge and perspective on Romania as possible. I sometimes suspected that he used the dracula myth as a hook in order to interest us all in Romanian history and culture. Given that I found both topics fascinating, I had no objection whatsoever.

Club Dracula was a hoot! We sat with two British couples, who were charming, and we all dined on the sliced tomatoes, spiced meats, cheese and bread that I came to expect with virtually every meal. And, of course, there were wonderful wines and beers. when Brad & I learned that there was a bssement floor, we both jumped up and almost ran down the stairs that led to a very dim, candle-lit room large enough to seat three private tables-for-two. On a landing halfway between the first floor and the basement, Court Dracula stood watching us. That is, a heavily made-up actor in Dracula drag. He dramatically came down the stairs directly toward me and wished us "Good Evening!" He stroked my neck with one finger and complimented me on it. And -- then -- I probably did the worst thing possible. I got the giggles and (I'm sure) offended him. At least, he went away and when he finally made it upstairs to flit among the tables and guests there, he made quite a point of shaking him finger at me and saying "this is not funny." Happily, Julie -- one of the British ladies -- went down to have her picture taken in the coffin on the landing from which Dracula had emerged when we went down. Happily, she screamed bloody murder when he swept his cape around her in a menacing manner.

The dinner entree was both entirely a success and entirely a failure at the same time. A success: it was a breaded chicken breast formed to resemble a rat, complete with a tail, a snout and little ears. this was undoubtedly meant to invoke images of Renfield, Dracula's half-witted assistant, who ate flies and rats, etc. A failure: when you cut into the 'rat,' the filling -- a thin red juice of some sort -- spurted out at you as tho' you had severed the rat's artery. About 1/2 the people lost their appetite then and there. Alas, I was among them. Fortunately I had pigged out on the preliminaries and, so, did not go hungry. (BTW, food was always plentiful. I say this because the guide book we purchased in advance cautioned tourists to take spare food with them because, in some areas of Romania, food was scarce and shelves were bare. That guide was dated 2000. Apparently, the situation has changed in the intervening 4 years.)

We arrived back at the hotel to find a music video being shot on the outside front steps of Labada directly below the window of our room but, since it was just photography and no music, our sleep was not disturbed.

The next morning, we arose bight and early in order to gra some breakfast and explore the hotel's rather extensive grounds. The breakfast room was filled with a Chinese tour group and, so, we ate in one of the other restaurant rooms. The food: tomatoes, cheese, spiced meats, scrambled eggs, sausages that resembled hot dogs in appearance and taste, hard-boiled eggs, breads, yogurt, cereal, milk, orange soda (not juice), coffee...this was typical of the breakfasts we ate in Romania. The food was bountiful but the buffet itself seemed strangely stark and Brad said it reminded him of the breakfast set-ups he experienced during a business trip to China. There was no one iota of space or consideration given to making the room or food "pretty." I don't know how else to say it. The spread was luxurious in quantity and the quality of the food was generally quite good; but it was luxury presented in as utilitarian a manner as possible. For example, the napkins were small squares of cheap paper...and they were scarce commodities at that!

During our post-breakfast walk, we encountered the first dog. I saw "the first dog" because Romania -- and especially Bucharest -- seems to be overrun with stray dogs, many of whom appear to be on the brink of starvation and exist only through the mercy of strangers who feed them scraps. When that damnable Ceausescu was in power, he threw a large percentage of resident of Bucharest out of their homes; he demolished huge tracts of the city in order to build socialist-drab apartment buildings into which former home-owners were forced to live. In the process, they were forbidden to keep their dogs and cats. People who could not bear to put their animals to death let them run free. The result: there are now an estimated 500,000 stray dogs that wander the streets of Bucharest. Some of them broke my heart. I began to pack food along with me wherever I went. I kept a plastic bag full of bread, boiled eggs...whatever I could filch from breakfasts, lunches etc. and I fed almost every dog I saw.

More later...but now I must work. Drat! No even time to proofread what I've just written.

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