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The International Writers Magazine
: Winter in Romania

Peter Robert Dew

Bucharest. It is always the same the first time you visit a new place. A longish flight or two, a wait for the bags, fingers crossed and then thanking yet again a God none of us believe in, everyone has got everything. So straight into it, a melee, a brouhaha, a hubbub, a fight over which taxi. Not us fighting, but the cabbies, attempting to out do each other in the Fleece the Tourists Stakes. A kind of primitive race day. Money to be made and safer than gambling. So we are forced into bloody currency conversions, all very glad we took maths at school and can count in our heads. Yeh right!

Euro, Lei, Kroner, Dollars (Aus. for this story) and Pounds. The Romanians insist on giving all prices over a certain amount in Euro, while refusing to tell you what this is in Lei. This may be very handy if you have Euros or know what a Euro is worth, but having just removed a couple of million from the cash machine I am guessing these beauties are not Euros. Oh stuff it! We’ve all had enough, let’s get out of this hellish place! Pointing, poking, prodding, preaching, and, he’ll do. Finding out afterwards that you have paid four times the normal price. Well, it was to be expected and it’s still cheap. Promising ourselves that this will never happen again, we get gradually better over the next few days, almost feeling Romanian. The only downside being that you can not smile in public and the Western European clothing tends to stand out in what must be one of the last bastions of mid 20th century fashion.

The cabs got us where we were going at least. Straight to the train station and another fight. Over us! The rush, is it rush hour? It’s raining, and there are a whole trainload or two of people in the queues. Nothing is in English, where shall we stand and then mister helpful, again, ripping us off. Still cheap we philosophise and we just want to get the hell to where we are going. Queue here, now there; we will have to check that again sir, and all the stupid, no, moronic bastards down here with their watches on, phones in pockets, wallets in pockets, belts on, handbag in hand. It’s a metal detector stupid. These people, no matter what they are, are not terrorists; they are just stupid! Not liking to generalise, of course, some are actually quite intelligent, and pleasant, as we were to find out during the week. Just not the majority!

What a train though! Compared to these modern trains that get us everywhere quicker than we actually want to get there and are so clean and cool and trendy, Romanian trains still have a touch of character, class, an anti-modern bravado if you like, plus a rather interesting aroma and cheap beers. And you can smoke on them! The only rule seems to be that one must show a bit of respect for your fellow passengers, which surprisingly nearly all the smokers did. Step outside the compartment to smoke and what’s the problem? Really? Didn’t see anyone getting lung cancer on the way to the toilets? Another thing I had forgotten about trains was that it used to be possible to open the windows. These people, Romanians that is, still trust one another, and themselves, not to stick their heads out the windows to have a look around! Hence windows that open are still allowed! Crazy I know, but rather refreshing with a bit of fresh air now and then. Gets rid of the cigarette smell as well, which I admit in enclosed areas can be rather, well; smelly, gross, disgusting, obnoxious, can a smell be obnoxious?

Something to note though; the Romanians did seem to have a lot of respect for their fellow man; I am not saying that they were not rude, dirty and obnoxious, (this time in the right context) because they were! But they didn’t seem to have that I am better than everyone else here, snobbish bullshit attitude affected in western countries.

Almost getting ripped off, (got to watch the sneaky buggers, although I think it was less than 50 cents?) buying platform beers on tap, makes us all smile, skål, noroc, cheers! The groove is found that will last for the next nine days, incredible to say but almost no arguing, fighting, bitching or sniping in the next week. Could be the prices? At less than a buck a beer, (I think? Still getting used to converting), what is there really to get upset about? Well, the lack of drugs perhaps? Probably just as well, we said to ourselves at the end of the weekend, after asking just about every person we met if they had drugs. The looks on the faces of some people made you really glad you couldn’t understand what they were saying. We got a lot of skiing in instead of partying all night. Smuggling drugs into Romania just doesn’t make sense no matter how good a relaxing joint in the evening is! Not to discourage a visit, I am sure that there are plenty of drugs in Romania if you get lucky enough to meet the right people. We just didn’t have the luck, the time or the energy, and one can live without! (Quite well in fact!)

Back to the train, that still hasn’t left, I have been rambling. Lots of friendly Romanians trying to help you with your bags, if you are old or just pissweak then this could be recommended. Think we gave our guy a rather measly sum, about 5 cents or so. I would have felt a little guilty as this guy obviously needed every cent, but then you can not help everyone! He got something and it wasn’t like we had asked him to help us, ardently discouraged more like it. A bit of rationalisation there and thanks anyway mate, you know who you are. So a quick dash down to the platform shop, another ten beers and some very interesting chip flavours, well interesting for someone that doesn’t often eat chips, not that I ate any of these either but the names amused me, for a while. The beers were much more interesting from a personal perspective! Warmish surprisingly as they came straight from the fridge, or quite chilled once informed that the fridge was not turned on! Strange people here, but it is cold outside and at a bit less than one dollar if I calculated correctly I can handle warmish beer. At least we got the Romanian beer. Was somewhat of a shock to be informed on the way to the station, (Aussies will always ask the question!) that the taxi driver’s favourite Romanian beers were Tuborg and Carlsberg. I am pretty sure he knew they weren’t Romanian at least. Can you recommend any Romanian beers then please sir? And Ursu it was, although I think we tried most of them in the end. Besides being financially viable, the Romanian beers were also hangover cheap. I do not remember anyone having a blinding headache any mornings; mind you I was blind most mornings so…

Back to the station and the train has started moving, we are off. The international train to Venice, hope it is the right one? Sure, I checked the board! Confident Pete! It is only three stops and we are there! No one believing me but they have got beers and chips, we have our own compartment and you can smoke on the train, (if only we had some green) what luxury, we’ll stay on board and hope. Three stops later, halfway there and having already made sure the train is going the same place as us (half right?) it is time for more beers. Come on! We are on holidays, from Norway and the beers are cheap. Need I say more! Five cars down to the restaurant though and the train is packed. Not everyone can afford to travel second class obviously, although sitting where we are sitting now I cannot imagine anything better. First class probably takes you the whole way to Vienna and provides you with a new life, job and Austrian citizenship. Problem being, no one that really needs it can afford it. Next station (No.4 already? Have we gone too far? I do not have a visa for Hungary!) I jump off and mumbling something to the conductor, begin a five car sprint along the platform. Well not really a sprint, a fast’ish jog. Halfway there and I hear someone yelling something in a language that could be Romanian. To be quite honest it could be anything, but as I turn and see the conductor frantically waving, I make the logical jump in my mind. No time for contemplation of my unique dexterity of thought as by the time I have thought this and got around to thinking about what he might want with all the yelling and the whistle blowing the train has started moving. Another logical jump, the train is leaving perhaps? Fortunately the doors are still open and I manage to grab one as it goes past. Right, better to struggle with the crowds than to be sitting in the middle of a Romanian nowhere town as the sun goes down!

Ten beers please sir! A curious look. But, with the language problem and all, there is really no use explaining that there are five of me. Well, us, but then he might think I am just making up friends to hide the fact that I have a drinking problem. It is all so complicated in a foreign country! In the end I say nada, get the beers and struggle back to the warm and cosy atmosphere of friends (they do exist, thank god I was beginning to doubt myself) and second class. Upon reaching Brasov (stop five or six in the end) it becomes apparent that five or so beers on an empty stomach will make a H___ rather giggly, but that’s ok. Easier to fit the five of us in the four seater cab with three sets of skis and 90kgs of bags, girls being, as is well known, quite squashy when half gone. Until of course halfway up the mountain (only 16km’s) disaster strikes! One needs to go to the toilet. Not me, but rather a nicer way of referring to the one that needs to piss, as in: One member of the party found the pressure being brought to bear upon the bladder simply unbearable and began to express a desire to submit an application for urination. What? H___ was asking for a piss stop. Not surprising really, being squashed into a space that I would hesitate to entrust to a three year old, could possibly bring quite a lot of pressure to bear. Well that and the five beers aforementioned. But as mother said, you should have thought about that before you got in the car!

The cars in Romania, following the recognised Romania fashion that is to be found throughout most of the country, are still stuck somewhere between 1950 and the present day, a bit of a hodgepodge if you will. This particular cab was tottering up the hill at a steady rate of about 25km’s an hour, it was dark, had started snowing, the suspension was hitting the roof… in short there was no way we were taking a piss stop. Please forgive my lack of faith but that cab was never going to get going again! So its;
Hold on mate!
I can’t.
Oh yes you can.
No, I really can’t!
And then the helpful Romanian cabby had to put his two cents worth in with a;
Shall we stop for the lady?

A definite yes from under the skis in the back seat, and an unequivocal and resounding NO from the rest of the car as we felt the cab begin to slow down. The matter was settled. Pissing would occur upon arrival, and as often happens, no sooner than it was decided, we arrived. All in one piece, a little pissed and, speaking for myself rather anxious to see how accurate the internet description of our cabin would be. It turned out they had understated, something we were all rather pleased about, if a little shocked. Well until we woke up to no heat and no hot water. But four double rooms, two toilets with showers and a little kitchen, plus three TV’s which only managed a single half hour between them in the next 8 days. Must be some kind of record? The hot water was fixed by day two or three. We were right next to the slope. There was snow. The beer is cheap. Have I mentioned that? And best of all a great bunch of people along (another two turned up the next day), a new country, language, customs, not that the Romanians seemed to have many left after the commies. Bastards! The commies I mean, although some of them were probably good blokes as well, it is just so hard to hate! It kicked of like this and got better. A week later we were struggling but no one was complaining, much.
© Peter Robert Dew March 2005

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