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11/11/2004 Archived Entry: "More on the vacation"

More on our vacation...

The second day of our Romanian vacation set another theme of the trip: that is, odd and sometimes distressing things happened all around us but Brad and I had a smooth time of it. [Note: this often happens to us - or, rather, to me. For example, on one of my last plane flights, the tail section caught on fire as we landed and the passengers were met at the plane's exit door by firemen in full regalia. Brad says I should go through life wearing a red hazard cone on my head just to warn people.] When we boarded the bus to begin our morning's tour of Bucharest before heading out to the countryside (where I hoped to find the real Romania), we learned: 1) one of the women had "lost" her leather coat by leaving it either in the bus overnight or in the hotel bar, where it had obviously been stolen. 2) one of the British women with whom we had dined the night before had been rushed by paramedics to the hospital with chest pains and would not be joining us for some while; 3) an Australian fellow (living in New York City) was being held in Munich and could not join the tour until he received the visa that he had neglected to obtain. (Canadians and Americans do not require visas either to Romania or Hungary.) Moreover, the night before, while we had been eating (or not eating) our chicken-shaped-as-a-rat dinner at Club Dracula, a sizeable earthquake had shaken Bucharest, making the table shudder and the dishes all rattle in front of us. Brad & I lived in California for a few years so we recognized the phenomenon immediately and were not frightened by it. But some of the others were. Like Brad says - a hazard cone may be in order.

In general, I did not like Bucharest as much as I expected I would. In particular, I did not like the amazing number of government buildings, one of which was said to be the 2nd largest building in the world, 2nd only to the Pentagon. (I think the reference to size must have meant "the land mass covered" rather than square footage of space because the Sears Tower would surely have ranked higher.) I have a natural antipathy toward government buildings anyway but these were built along the socialist ideal of aweing people with size, severity, and sheer greyness. We drove down the wide and obviously-meant-to-impress Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism and Brad gleefully pointed out the McDonald's signs, etc. But it all looked a bit drab and dirty, with a great many looming structures that looked like tenement buildings; I imagine they were apartments. I think it must be a depressing city in which to live tho' I should not be so quick to judge based on the impressions of a few hours.

I was more interested in a protest rally held in the area where we parked in order to better access a government monument. Apparently, a form of Yoga has become very popular in the city - we kept passing people on street after street who were handing out flyers for this brand of `religion.' The leader had been arrested on some sex charge and his followers were agitating in front of the Justice building. As always, Nicolae Paduraru provided invaluable narrative; he really is a gifted guide. But, given the political nature of the buildings we visited, there was remarkably little discussion of the communist period. I do not know whether this was because Nicolae had worked for the Ministry of Tourism under that regime and, so, felt uncomfortable or whether the communist decades were impolite topics to discuss with people in general.

What I enjoyed most of all were the plunges we took into Romanian history and culture of centuries before. We stepped down into history by going through the cellars of the "palace" built by Vlad Teppes. We walked through the gates where criminals used to be punished as publicly as possible by impaling them. Nicolae respectfully greeted the statue of Vlad that guards the entrance to the ruins; ruins are all that remain of the above-ground structure and there was some question as to whether they were safe to walk near given the recent earthquake. Fortunately, the cellars were the draw. They were cool and huge and safe from such damage. Every city or town of size seems to have these ancient cellars that run like a second city under the houses and pavement. In medieval times, the cellars were often connected to each other in order to form a network where food and goods of trade were stored. While the visible Bucharest has been largely destroyed and reshaped by politics and time, these cellars have resisted the centuries. The churches give a similar impression. They are little slices of time and tradition that endure. Again, Nicolae did a masterful job of explaining the split in the Catholic church that left Romania on the Orthodox side of Catholicism, outside of the Vatican. I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of medieval commerce while we walked through the old market places. They came alive so that you almost heard the lorries creaking under the weight of wine barrels.

We lunched modestly and on our own. Brad and I ducked down into a subway opening that had several food shops, including a McDonald's. We chose a small deli that had good food. Then we boarded the bus to leave Bucharest for the countryside.

I was not sorry to leave. I was charmed by most of Romania but Bucharest, which I had expected to be "the little Paris" of Europe" as it had been described in travel guides, was my least favorite part. As I said, we headed into the countryside and it didn't take long to reach. Fully 45% of Romania is still agricultural - a fact that evidently disturbs authorities in the European Union, with which Romania is scheduled to officially join in 2008. Unlike the topic of communism, union with the EU was a matter of hot and frequent discussion. Like so many other places in Europe, Romania seems both eager to join in the economic benefits of union and afraid of losing its identity at the same time. Certainly it will lose some autonomy. For example, farmers will have to conform to EU standards by having chips implanted in the ears of their cows and by asking permission to increase the number of pigs on each farm. They are apparently appalled by such concepts.

I found myself liking the farmers more and more. Under communism, they had functioned in a comparatively "private" manner, preserving much of their old lifestyle simply because they were the ones providing mcuh-needed food. They constituted the Romania I was hoping to find. For example, as we drove past small villages and farms, I noted that most of the horses had red tassels dangling from the harnesses near their ears. This was to protect them from the "evil eye." The theory was that someone with an evil eye was able to corrupt or sicken innocent minds, such as a child's or an animal's, but the a process required an intense gaze. The color red distracted the evil eye so that it could not concentrate. Also, as an example of why I liked the farmers: alcohol is a state monopoly in Romania but almost every house in the countryside had grapevines covering a wall or a fence, vines from which everyone openly made potent wine. The friendliness of the people was unbelievable. (Although the incident takes me ahead of my narrative, one village woman came onto the bus in order to give us a large bag of doughnuts that she had just made; they were still warm from her kitchen.)

Our destination for the evening was a small town called Aref, where we were to dine in a traditional manner in the home of Joseph and Maria Tomasco (spelling?) after attending an exhibition of dancing, singing and story-telling that was intended to reproduce the sort of gathering for which a "barn-raising" in North America might be a parallel. I discovered that two of our co-passengers had already been to the Tomasco home. It was deemed suitable by Nicolae to serve as a type of inn for people travelling in small numbers because it had indoor plumbing. Indeed, Joseph was responsible for importing running water into his area of the village by way of a pipeline that ran from a spring in the surrounding mountains.

The story of our entertainment and dinner will have to wait, however, until after I have attended to the business of every day life.

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