25 October 2017
A trip to Romania’s not easy. It’s not mint julep country…feet up, poolside. It takes work getting to know it, even superficially, especially for a visitor with nine or ten days to spend there. And what you pick up is more your own observations rather than the self-reveal of the people. Though the Age of Anger, after decades of political repression, seems gone, a quick smile isn’t quite ready yet, certainly from older Romanians. The lingering of long soviet over-lordism ensures a memory of the way things were.
For instance, the depressing, sameness of housing blocks, imposed in parts of most cities and larger towns (the larger the city, the longer the run of these blocks). Eastern Europe was not an architect’s paradise…one design dictat and like Chia Pets thousands of look-alikes grew. It was the same design I saw in Slovakia three years ago. In the countryside small towns are not ‘towns’ as we know them with a commercial center and radiating residential neighborhoods, but a string of houses parallel to the roadway, one house deep on each side. These ‘long’ towns flash by, because there’s no place to stop and walk, no roadside shoulder to stretch your legs or take a picture. It’s hard to build walk-around neighborhoods on a straightaway…and maybe that was the idea. (To be fair, we stayed in a neighborhood of newish houses in Suceava, laid out like suburbia here…with folks on a stroll, talking.)
But Romanians are, never-the-less, driving headlong toward the middle-class, literally. There are new car showrooms everywhere, mirrors of ours…huge parking lots for the cars, high overhead lights and tall blowup cartoon figures that flop in the wind. It works…there are Audis, Mercedes, Volkswagons, Fords, Opels, Fiats galore, sharing the roads, of course, with more than a few horse-drawn wagons. But there is a setting sun on the horse and wagon set in this year of 2017 I.C.E. (iPhone Common Era). The old ways don’t have a chance. Picture three toilers of the fields…a father, mother (a babushka) and young girl, bouncing along in the wagon’s passenger seat, overlooking posterior equine elegance, pulling a load of dry corn stalks for animal feed. The girl, however, seems perfectly detached… talking on her cell phone. Apple thankfully has leap-frogged a century for countries with few telephone land lines.
One last P.S. on the asphalt life of Romanians. A lot of them hitchhike; men, women, old, young, babushkas, pensioners…a fluttering hand, palm down is the signal…not thumbing.
I said Romania wasn’t easy. It’s like an enticing cold beer, but the cap’s on so tight, it’s hard get off. There are towns and cities with landmarks to find. But don’t be in a hurry, because street signs (and parking), for the most part, don’t exist. Having an address is no promise you’ll find it. In Radauti we wasted daylight trying to find our hotel’s street by listening to the silky voice of Google Maps, leading us. but in circles. (Otherwise, Google Maps was extraordinary.)
Finally in darkness and frustration, we pulled over, asked a man getting into his car, if he knew where the Hotel Fast was. Dumb luck, he was an English speaker, an Irani, living in Britain, who spent time in Radauti and knew it like the back of his hand. Except he couldn’t tell us how to get there…no street signs. So he said, getting into his car, follow me, I’ll take you to it. Google had neglected a couple of turns, but, hey, with Iranian help, I did eventually get the cap off that cold beer.