Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Romania, Translvania & All That Jazz

Crossing the border from Yugoslavia to Romania was like, well, leaving one country and entering another. Although all countries bear distinct and unique characteristics, in many border areas these transitions are gradual and subtle. Between Yugoslavia and Romania it was as if someone had painted a line in the middle of the road. The ragged feel of Yugoslavia was immediately replaced by an almost intimidating level of cleanliness and order. Neat, tidy houses lined the roadway. The trees which  also lined the road had been painted white to the exact same height on each trunk and the grass around them trimmed to a evenness whose precision bordered on obsession.

It was a campground night. My sisters and I went off to do hand laundry. Washing machines were rare, dryers even rarer. While my mother began to put dinner together, a tall, muscular, extraordinarily handsome young Romanian boy approached my parents. He was perhaps in his late teens or early twenties. He wore the extremely short basketball style shorts and tank top popular among U.S. youth at the time. Hearing my parents speaking English to one another he asked "Are you American?" When my parents answered yes he looked about and after assuring himself that there was no one around to hear the conversation, began to talk to my parents about life in Romania behind the Iron Curtain. What he stressed most was that the people were not to interact with or speak to foreigners, particularly Americans. He also mentioned how much Romanians desired American and Western European goods.
 We experienced this later in the trip when stepping out of our car in a city. The people were pawing us, offering to buy our clothes off of our backs. As he departed, he said he would stop by the next day with fresh picked berries.

True to his word, he returned the following morning with a country style jar filled with berries. My mother later said that she liked the jar more than the berries. When my parents asked how much he replied "Three American dollars." My father took the bills out of his wallet. The young man lifted up the corner of the napkin lying in the bottom of the basket he was carrying and my father slipped the bills underneath it out of sight.

During this period in Eastern European Iron Curtain countries, their currency was valueless outside of their borders. When traveling you needed to take notice of how much you carried as you were preparing to depart the country since exchanging it for another currency was not possible., Some countries, Poland, Hungary, the former Chekoslovakia, required tourists to exchange a certain amount per person per day as a way to get "hard" currency into their economies. Certain state run tourist shops would give you a discount based on proof of how much you had exchanged while visiting.

Before departing, the young man asked where we planned to go while in Romania. When my mother replied Transylvania, he was insistent that we should go to the Black Sea instead as it was a much more scenic and beautiful region. We were unsuccessful in translating "Gothic Horror" into Romanian

Transylvania appears much as it does in horror films, mountainous and rugged. On the day of our visit to Castle Bran, we were greeted by heavy black clouds, hard rain and nearly constant thunder and lightening. The storms intensified the atmosphere of the already rather macabre proceedings. We all returned to the car dripping wet. My mother, dripping wet and happy at having fulfilled her desire to visit "Dracula's Castle".

We found a meadow to park in that night. We could see a gypsy wagon on a hillside in the distance. The next morning found me and my sisters picking wild berries with local women in their kerchiefs, hand knit cardigans and ankle length skirts.


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