Thursday, September 18, 2008

Where the Wild Things Are?

If, as a distant church bell tolled midnight, in a room illuminated by a single candelabra, the flames causing shadows to flicker and writhe across the walls, while the wind moaned outside and rattled the windowpanes, I put my lips to your ear and softly whispered into the darkness one word, "Transylvania," what would run through your mind? (Sure, probably "What the hell are you trying here? Get the $@#! off of me!" But besides that, I mean.) Odds are that images of decrepit castles clutching at forbidding mountaintops would rise unbidden from your subconscious; or perhaps a pack of wolves stalking through a misty forest under the pales moon, a cloud of screeching bats swarming up into the night... and almost certainly a dark-haired, sinister aristocrat flashing a beguiling, hungry smile. Something along those lines, yes?

Well, the first thing I noticed as my train pulled into the city of Braşov, my first stop in Transylvania, was the giant Hollywood-style "BRASOV" sign propped up proudly on the mountain overlooking the town. I realized then that the only bloodsuckers I was likely to encounter here were the ravenous-looking taxi drivers lining up outside the train station, already sizing up me and my backpack.

Happily, I soon discovered that much of the rest of Braşov has been left unmolested by the groping hands of "Progress." Warding off aggressive cabbies with the sign of the cross, I caught a bus to the city's historic district, where, among cobbled streets winding around lovingly-preserved traditional houses, I found my hostel, all of this presided over by the Black Church, a looming Gothic cathedral (so-named because of the makeover it received from a fire centuries ago). Braşov's residents have done an excellent job of retaining its antiquated aspects, making it an interesting destination for sightseers, without going too far and turning it into a soulless theme park. The one exception here—other than the tacky sign*, of course—was the restaurant recommended to those visitors seeking traditional Romanian cuisine (if "traditional" does indeed mean jacking up the prices and dressing the waiters in peasant garb). I tagged along with a few Aussies for this experience, but our attempt to dine here was thwarted by our collective aversion to "turbo-folk," a popular style of music here that, to my ears, sounds like a Looney Tunes-inspired techno polka. After less than five minutes at our table, we all bolted while our serflike server's back was turned, and opted instead for another popular Romanian dish: pizza.

Transylvania is a region difficult to catalog; through the ages it has been claimed by numerous peoples and nations. Today is population is mainly made up of a combination of ethnic Germans, Hungarians, and Roma (the minority formerly known as Gypsies), in addition to those of Romanian descent. In an effort to better understand this melting pot—and sometimes clash—of culture, I sought aid from representatives of yet another minority group in this land, this one an endangered species: the Romanian Peace Corps volunteers. Yes, Peace Corps is here too; you will find that, if you look hard enough, we are just about everywhere. Like the American middle class, however, this brand of Peace Corps volunteer is slowly fading into myth and legend. As the countries of Eastern Europe continue to develop, or join the EU, Peace Corps is being phased out of the area. I found these guys to be an odd bunch—inhabiting apartments with electricity, running water and often DSL internet, instead of the mud-brick huts with bucket baths that I associate with Peace Corps—but very hospitable.

After my performing a sort of Transylvanian tango—sweeping around to explore medieval castles and fortresses, interspersed with visits to towns inhabited by American volunteers, but always ending up back in Braşov—curiosity led me further afield, out of Transylvania and into Maramureş, the northernmost region of Romania. This part of the country, long walled off from the outside world by the Carapathian Mountains, is one of the last areas in Europe where rural peasant culture still exists—thrives, even—and it was here that I met some Peace Corps volunteers whose experiences I could relate to more easily (with respect to isolation and limited transport). I had originally considered giving this out-of-the-way region a miss, but I am now grateful I made the effort; my flagging enthusiasm and energy were completely rejuvenated by apples plucked straight from the tree in mountain orchards and stimulating conversation with my hosts over glasses of ţuică, the throat-scorching local plum-brandy. And so I returned to Transylvania yesterday, refreshed and ready for more excursions. I am currently based in the northern city of Cluj-Napoca (not Braşov!), but come 3:30AM I will be railbound for the baths of Budapest, my romp through the Romanian wilds finally come to an end.

I should add that, although I admit to getting a thrill from riding a midnight train past the Borgo Pass made famous by one Jonathan Harker, after a few days in Transylvania you tend to forget those fanciful tales of undead fiends chasing scantily-clad maidens through the gloom. There are just so many interesting real attractions to this region, you eventually stop letting your imagination run away with you and accept the fact that vampires are simply the stuff of enjoyable fiction.

Now if only the same could be said for all these goddamn werewolves....

* In its defense, at least you are allowed to hike up the mountain and touch this sign. Some readers may recall, I got chased by an LAPD helicopter the one time I tried this with the atual Hollywood sign.

1 comment:

Dino aka Katy said...

thanks for those vivid images. One day I'd love to see it too. I have friends that go to Romania a lot as they head a charity to help HIV+ kids.