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Stories from Romania

Bucharest, Romania

By the Book

timI can not imagine calling Bucharest a picturesque town, but nor is it ugly - just a town full of large boulevards and hulking concrete buildings topped with company logos. Most of this ungainly architecture can be blamed on Nicolae Ceausescu's outrageous spending and failed plans to shape the capital into a grand Communist showpiece.

Nowhere can his overspending be seen more clearly than the People's Palace, now the Palace of Parliament. This massive building is second in size only to the Pentagon, yet unlike most of the architecture in Bucharest, the Palace of Parliament is more attractive and ornamental. Even the entrance hall is spectacular with glassy stone floors laid out in patterns of five colors, enormous carved marble pillars, exquisite gold and crystal chandeliers, and a gilded wood ceiling.

A huge marble stairway climbs up to the second floor, but sadly I never made it up there. Instead I fought with a tour operator who demanded that I ruin my expensive roll of 3200 high speed film by exposing it to their x-Ray machine. She was the first person in 13 months of travel to refuse my request for a hand search. I left the Palace fuming, having just paid money for a tour I couldn't take.

So much for freedom. top

Words of Wisdom

timRomanians have lived through some tumultuous years since 1987 - years full of political disarray, riots, strikes, food shortages, revolution, and the executions of former leaders Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife. And though more recent times have brought stability and relative prosperity, petty crime, and street scams still curse parts of the country.

These facts buzzed through my head when I entered a Bucharest camera shop and struck up a conversation with the clerk, who warned me about the unsafe reputation of the neighborhood. But when I mentioned that I lived in Washington, D.C., he awoke to a whole new level of fear and told me that Washington was a hard place to live - that it is REALLY unsafe. I laughed and realized, as I have so many times this year, that he was probably right. So many would-be travelers fear crime abroad and choose not to leave home, when all along they would probably be safer here than in their own backyards. top

A grand boulevard built as part of an ideal Communist city by former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.  Ceausescu and his wife bankrupted the Romanian economy and were executed by firing squad in 1989 during the Romanian revolution. The fountain remains dry.XXXXThe Romanian Parliament building (Parlamentul Romanie), formerly known as the People's Palace, is the legacy of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Its rich interior includes heavily polished marble floors and columns, exquisite chandeliers, and gilded wood ceilings, and holds the record as being the second largest building in the world after the US Pentagon. Its construction wasted millions of dollars at a time when Romania suffered from food shortages. Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad in 1989. The Romanian Parliament building (Parlamentul Romanie), formerly known as the People's Palace, is the legacy of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Its rich interior includes heavily polished marble floors and columns, exquisite chandeliers, and gilded wood ceilings, and holds the record as being the second largest building in the world after the US Pentagon. Its construction wasted millions of dollars at a time when Romania suffered from food shortages. Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad in 1989.

Sinaia, Romania

Moving On

timFate swept me quickly out of Bucharest. From trolley bus to rail station to ticket vendor to departing train, yesterday's departure conspired to whisk me away to Sinaia without delay.

Sinaia was everything a skiing town should be in July, full of bustling cafes and the feeling of leisure, but surrounded in green forested hills and the festive colors of summer. I walked through the town's center to its cable car and spent the night up high at 1400 meters in a nearly empty cabana. My only companion in the quiet 8-bed dorm room was a gas furnace hissing away in the corner of my room all night and warming the cold mountain air.

I hiked for a short while in the morning, near the 2000-meter terminus of the cable car. After soaking in the impressive 360-degree view of the surrounding Transylvanian mountains, I headed back down to town to see the Pelis Castle.

Pelis Castle is relatively modern, built between 1875-1914 as the summer residence of King Carol. But what impressed me most wasn't the castle's history, but its luxuriously rich decoration and architecture. I could see none other than a king walking over those plush red carpets, around the dark wooden walls carved with detailed ornamentation, and under the stained glass ceiling in the center of the room. (The ceiling actually slides open, aided by electric motors installed all the way back in 1883.)

Wood murals hung on the walls next to woven tapestries. The armory brimmed with antique guns, swords, and suits of armor. A beautiful wooden ornamental spiral staircase wound its way up to nowhere. Teak furniture and brilliant stained glass windows colored one room red, while a nearby room featured a gilded Arabesque ceiling and decorations modeled from Spain's Moorish Alhambra.

I left the castle impressed and headed off to the train station, where I waited hours due to a broken down train. Off to my next destination! top

The Pelis Castle, the summer residence of German/Romanian King Carol.  Built in the German-Renaissance style between 1875 and 1914. The Pelis Castle, the summer residence of German/Romanian King Carol.  Built in the German-Renaissance style between 1875 and 1914. A statue stands out front of the Pelis Castle, the summer residence of German/Romanian King Carol.  Built in the German-Renaissance style between 1875 and 1914.

Brasov, Romania

Dog Days

timI checked into a marvelously depressing one-star hotel in Brasov, where an old man who smoked quietly by the light of a TV set handed me my key. My single room hid at the end of a long dark hallway, the dismal surroundings reminded me of Van Gogh's famous painting of his rented room in Arles. Any week-to-week pensioner or starving artist would feel at home here, with a creaky wooden bed, aged wardrobe, lone chair, small writing desk, and sink all crammed into a tiny area.

Lucky for me, Brasov's streets excited me far more than my old hotel room. I spent hours in the central square, surrounded by the muted red, green, and orange colors of the nearby shops and open-air restaurants. The piazza swelled with community in the evening and provided me with free entertainment, watching young lovers share ice cream, men drink beer in cafes, and old ladies chat.

A small terrier and a large curly haired mutt ran through the piazza together, biting and snapping each other in play. They barked from time to time, but kept quiet for the most part. Then all at once, the small dog started a five-minute wild chase after the big one, running in between bystanders and circling around benches to catch up. The accompanied high-pitched yelping gathered the attention of the whole square and every head turned to watch the show. What was once a collection of small individual groups was now one large audience.

The two dogs flew through a leftover rain puddle and sent a plume of water up into the air, like a water-skier pulling through a tight turn. People comically dove out of the way to avoid being hit by the spray. The crowd erupted all at once in applause and laughter. Then as abruptly as it started, the show was over and the individual groups resumed where they had left off. top

A quaint cobblestone street in medieval Brasov, a town of over 300,000 located in Transylvania (Romania).

Sighisoara, Romania

Vampires

timI settled into an excellent room in Sighisoara, happy to rest in a peaceful little medieval town for a few days after too many days spent traveling.

The town's slow paced calmed me down perfectly, asking nothing from me than to admire its well preserved surroundings. I took a stroll through the bright streets of the walled in old section, looked down at the 360-degree view from the top of the town's clock tower, and read outside on a bench surrounded in sweet summer air.

But this little picturesque town has a darker and more interesting side, which I found with the help from a Brit named Jonathan.

After dinner, Jonathan and I drank a beer in the birthplace-turned-restaurant of Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula. Vlad was born here sometime in the early 15th century and earned his "Impaler" notoriety with his favorite torture method for Turks - driving stakes though their spines to assure long tortuous 48 hour deaths. His "Dracula" nickname merely means "son of Dracul", after his father Vlad Dracul.

They say he is wasn't a real vampire, just the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. But I wasn't so sure. Jonathan and I left Vlad's home to visit a thriving local disco, where we stayed out till almost 5 AM. We returned to our guesthouse only after the disco emptied. Just like vampires, everyone fled just minutes before sunrise.

Coincidence? I think not! top

New Ideas and People

timTraveling frequently turns out to be an endless succession of meeting new people and entertaining new thoughts.

This morning a 10-year old gypsy girl approached me on the train platform and asked for a 500 Lei coin. She was a mess - dirt covered her clothes and her unwashed blond hair stuck heavily to her head. But her smile radiated hope and her eyes shined with the brightness of intelligence. Her inward appearance cut right through the filth of poverty and made me see nothing other than an extremely cute kid who could grow up to be successful if given the proper circumstances.

But as a gypsy, she will no doubt be treated like the rest of the people in her ethic group. As far as I've seen, that is about as well as African Americans were treated before the civil rights movement. The gypsies frequently are blamed for society's problems and resigned to the lower ranks of the socioeconomic ladder. On several occasions, I've been warned to stay away from them, because they will "lie, steal, and double-cross you without hesitation."

I peeled a 2000 Lei note from my wallet, four times what she was asking for, but still under ten cents. Her eyes bulged with amazement and her face lit up with emotion. Starting with an introduction in broken English, she then talked with me for the next ten minutes. I was looking in my bags for an orange to give to her when my train pulled up to the platform. As I ran down the track to find my compartment she ran along side me and then waved me off with a smile that could melt the most cynical person's heart.

Minutes later I started a conversation with a Romanian on his way home from Libya, where he worked as a chemical engineer in a fertilizer plant. With eight weeks in Libya and three weeks at home, he spoke highly of his working conditions, but was nevertheless anxious to return home to his wife and children.

His English was excellent, allowing our conversation to proceed farther than the basic, "Where are you from?" line of questioning I've become so used to.

Both the man and his wife lost their jobs with Romania's foray into the free-market economy, when former state sponsored business that relied on cheap oil from the Soviet Union shut their doors. Our train rolled by the chemical factory he previously worked in - the huge complex now laying in ruins, a communist dinosaur.

Though he considered himself lucky to have such a good job, he stressed that the transition to a free-market economy might not be the best thing for Romania. Crime and unemployment are up. Traditional values are disappearing. And while foreign goods are readily available, they are too expensive for a country whose average salary is just $100 month.

Not that communism was best. The man hated how they experimented with mind control, but added that the communists never succeeded in crushing the freedom of the individual. No matter what they tried, true freedom always existed in the mind - the communist games always remained external.

In many ways with mind control, capitalism succeeded where communism failed. My compartment mate reminisced about a time shortly before the communist fall, when an English friend forgot about Easter Sunday. Even with the communist state sponsored crushing of organized religion, no Romanian would possibly forget such an important Christian celebration. Capitalism crushed religion more ruthlessly by accident than communism did on purpose.

As my train passed though the rural towns of Romania to the cosmopolitan city of Budapest, the landscape whirred by like a chart of economic growth. From bucolic villages with red tiled roofs and fields of bright sunflowers, to advertisement ladened rail yards defaced with spray paint graffiti.

I pondered the path these countries decided to follow. The free-market brings riches, and with it the troubles of a consumer driven culture. Advertisers fill the streets and airwaves with messages promoting needs the people never knew they had. They now desire things that they can't obtain, or if they can, their satiation lasts only until the next desire takes its place.

It seems the nature of happiness doesn't lie in accruing the most stuff, but in learning to see beyond your manufactured desires and by living simply. Somewhere along my train route from rural Romania to westernized Budapest, there existed a happy medium between communism and capitalism, between simple and complex.

The trick is finding the balance in your life. top

Transylvania's Sighisoara clock tower, a 14th century building overlooking the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula). A window in the picturesque Transylvanian town of Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula).