Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Last Days in Romania * Shabbat, July 14th and Departure on the 15th

Shabbat in Cluj promised to be a respite from the constant pace of our car trip, and perhaps we would even come face to face with Jewish residents of Romania on our visit to the synagogue in Cluj.  On short forays into a distant land, it is far easier to move over the surface of the foreign society: to visit the tourist sites, sample the cuisine, take note of the ridiculous in the externals and in one’s own management of the challenges of the journey.  In fact, we didn’t arrange in advance to have meaningful interactions with Jewish community members.  Because there are so few of them and those few have chosen to obscure their presence to outsiders, we didn’t come across any – or, if we did, we were unaware of them.
This used to be a Cluj synagogue.
Notice the windows.
The one functioning synagogue in Cluj actually appeared on our city map and in the guidebook.  It goes by two names, the first representing the synagogue’s ideals before the Holocaust.  Built in 1887, it was called the Neolog Temple, since the congregation regarded itself part of the larger Neolog – “new law,” that is, Reform – type of Judaism that first made its appearance in these parts at the 1868 Hungarian Jewish Congress.  In this decidedly ethnic Romanian territory, the Neologs would have emphasized the Romanian nationality of the Jewish members and fostered the Romanian language over Yiddish.  

The Markovits family, from pre-WWII Cluj
from the photo archives of the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum
Andre, back right, survived.
The patriotism of the Neolog Temple’s Jews, however, was no match for the ultra-nationalism of the extremists who were becoming more numerous.  While there were liberal political parties and leaders in Romania during the 1920s, they competed for control with home-grown Romanian fascists.  In 1927 a political party was founded named the Legion of the Archangel Michael – its members were called Legionnaires.  The Legion was unique among the fascist parties, historians tell us, for its overtly religious ideology.

symbol of the Iron Guard as found
 on a North American “New Right”
 (White Power) website
 Its leaders and followers embraced the Romanian Orthodox Church, religious language and symbolism permeated its speeches, poetry, and songs; and the youth movement was organized out of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Bucharest.  The paramilitary arm of the Legion was known as the Iron Guard.  The party regarded Jews and Romanian’s presiding, moderate political leaders as insidious enemies of the Romanian people, and one of the initial acts of the Iron Guard was to vandalize the Neolog Temple.  The more temperate Romanian government repaired the damage shortly thereafter.  But Romania’s liberal constitutional monarchy gave way to a dictatorship in 1938, and two years later Romania’s leader, General Ion Antonescu, officially joined the Axis powers.  In Cluj, many Jews were deported and murdered.  Antonescu and his fellow Romanians, without any Nazi officials or soldiers calling the shots, murdered between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews in the areas under their control.  The Neologue Temple fell into ruins when Romania was bombed by the Allies.  I don’t know why, but in the peace treaties at the end of World War II the Allies did not acknowledge Romania as a co-belligerent nation.  After the war, it became a communist state, part of the Eastern Bloc.
Apologies don't bring anyone
back to life.
dedicated in memory of the
tens of thousands
How do you reconstruct Jewish life in such a place?  As I have pointed out earlier, the vast majority of Romania’s surviving Jews immigrated to Israel.  I’m not sure what type of community life was established.  The post-war communist government restored the synagogue in 1951, and the remnant of the pre-war Jewish community renamed it the Synagogue in Memory of the Deported.  Here is an awesome photo from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum collection, showing 6 Hungarian members of the Romanian Parliament apologizing in 1991 to the Cluj rabbi at the doorway of the Synagogue in Memory of the Deported.

photo from the web

There was no missing the synagogue, its Moorish style and silver cupolas towering alongside a main street just across the river on the edge of the downtown appearing quite exotic.  We had planned on going inside and staying for about 15 minutes, and I had thought it might be possible to chat with some congregants.  That was not to be.  The place was locked up, and the worker plastering the inside of the next door school building couldn't tell us anything.   More helpful was a man who was beating a dusty rug hung over the adjoining chain-linked fence, a resident of the apartment on the other side.  He explained that in the summer the Jews often pray in a room in the Jewish community building about a quarter mile away.  It was not marked on our map, and we set out to find it by following his vague and confused directions.  Did I mention that the day was scorching hot?  Still, we were determined.  We wandered around those streets for about a half hour and only succeeded in alarming the residents of the building courtyards we entered.  Back in Los Angeles I discovered the Jewish community building’s address (Str. Tipografiei 25), and I’m sure we walked right by it in our fruitless quest. 

It was easier to find the remnants of the ancient, pre-Roman residents of Cluj.  After abandoning our search for the synagogue, we wandered into a part of the city called museum square, home of an awesome archeological site.  The oldest strata consisted of “remnants prior to the Roman conquest of Dacia,” and the lower walls of a house were evident.

It had been the abode of people that the Greeks called Dacians, whom the Greek historian Herodotus identified as possessing the area in and around the Carpathanian Mountains and east of there to the Black Sea.  From this plot of dirt, archeologists had extracted all sorts of stuff now on display in museums.  A bit boring, less painful to contemplate.

And nearby we managed to meet some Jews!  I heard them from a distance, women gabbing away in Hebrew.  They were doing what many Israelis do on a Shabbat summer morning, sip iced coffee and iced mint tea in the shade of the cafe umbrellas.  I walked over to say hello.  They looked at me like I was a bit deranged when I told them I had been trying to find the Jewish prayers, but since I spoke Hebrew they didn’t shoo me away.  One of them, now a teacher in Safed, had earned a Ph.D. in sociology at University of Cluj and came back with her friend to visit her old school chums.  Lucyna walked over to us and I introduced her, but they didn’t warm to her either, so we left them and went back to our own table.  Lucyna got a glimpse of normal Jewish life: Three Jews = two synagogues.

sound stage
On the way back to our hotel to change out of our nice clothes, we ran into a demonstration – hundreds, thousands of Romanians were wearing Shabbat whites and walking through the streets carrying placards.  Even to our illiterate eyes they sounded noble and righteous: their signs proclaimed that they were defenders of the constitution, pro-democracy, and opposed to returning to the political illiberalism of the pre-EU era.  Yet, the very erudite and hip young friend of the Central Hotel desk clerk was irritated by the whole thing, explaining that it was a silly rally on behalf of the suspended president who was clashing with the prime minister over a matter of no great significance.  Later I went online to research for myself and I decided he was correct.  I was amazed, though, that a political party was able to roust people out from under their shade trees and convince them to walk through the city in the heat of the day.

A significant minority of Cluj Romanians stayed away and attended weddings.  We spent the afternoon exploring the sites along the remains of the old city walls, and alongside every picturesque stone facing was a bride, groom, and photographer.  Saturday is wedding day, Lucyna told me, because then you have Sunday to get over your hangover before you return to work.  How romantic.  We walked through the neighborhoods, wall after wall draped with brides and grooms, until we reached the other corner of the city where there was a tower and large, high, barricade.  This had been beautifully restored by the municipality and developed into a conference space.  Brides and grooms were coming and going under the archways.  I asked the woman at the reception desk how many brides she had seen that day.  “Too many,” she said, sighing wearily.  She had been part of the reconstruction team and was chagrined that her work was regarded as little more than a portrait backdrop.
Outside again, we walked down the street to see the magnificent orange and yellow national theater building.  Across this was a huge square with a Romanian Orthodox church on one end and a statue honoring Avram Iancu at the other.  His statue is really interesting: he seems to be wearing modern clothing although he's wielding a sword, standing on a vertical pile of squared stones, and he's surrounded by heralding angels blowing horns.  Turns out he was a Romanian nationalist who burst onto the scene during the 1848-1849 revolutionary movements that threatened to dissolve the Habsburg Austrian Empire into autonomous or independent separate national states.  Neither he nor they were successful back then, and he was harassed and publically humiliated until he suffered a nervous breakdown and died.  Why the prominence in this square?  We couldn’t find a single plaque describing his accomplishments.  My guess, based on the tooting angels and the nearby Orthodox Church, is that the liberal Avram Iancu was resuscitated and transformed by the Legionnaires into an early nationalist hero.

We walked into the Orthodox church to find a wedding in process: a bride and groom were getting talked to by a priest, and about 15 friends and family in nice outfits and sundry tourists like us were looking on.  When he finally stopped talking, everybody filed out but the bride and groom, who were standing around looking a bit bored.  This was strange, I thought: Shouldn't they be smooching?  Dancing for joy?  Smiling at each other??   Lucyna and I walked outside and realized that the wedding party was assembling for a ritual in which the bride and groom would soon play a role.  Family and friends were arranged in two rows, and finally the bride and groom walked through and were hailed.  Then everyone rearranged themselves on the staircase and were handed placid and beautiful white doves with perky tail feathers. 
On cue, they all tossed up the birds, which soared aloft (and returned to the dove keeper, out of photographic range).  Love makes the world fly?  Marriage spreads peace?  I’m not sure about the message.  I am certain, though, that this picturesque scene would be followed by a ceremonial stroll of the bride and groom and photographer to an ancient city wall.  Then they’d go party. 
We walked into town and found a place for a late lunch.  Another day, another Greek salad for me, and Lucyna once again lapsed into meat eating.  Then we went to explore the town’s botanical garden.  This took some effort because it meant climbing up a hill in the burning heat.  Inside it was unkempt but pretty and cool, with a small river running through the length of the arboretum, much lower than the hill surface, surrounded by overhanging trees and vines. 
He'd show those weeds
a thing or two.
Lots of the plants were growing wild, and I could tell that the initial variety had been lost by overgrown aggressive plants.  The display of annuals was colorful, but the cactus garden was a sorry group of 20 Sagauro cacti and prickly pear.  I longed for my flowers, vegetables, succulents, and compost heaps back on Hi Point Street.   

That evening was uneventful, consisting of a desultory restaurant dinner and preparation for our 3:30 a.m. wake-up call and drive to the airport. 
The return to Poland went more pleasantly than expected.  I snoozed through the short flight from Cluj to Bucharest, and the Bucharest airport terminal was (to our great surprise) clean, cool, and comfortable.  We settled ourselves down on chairs next to a full grocery store, and I recorded several days' worth of events into my journal.  Eager for a change, Lucyna found us a nice restaurant with couches and tables, and we sipped on tea and spread our legs.  We covered a number of topics thoroughly: Lucyna’s research into American Jewish attitudes toward Poles and Poland, possible sites for next summer’s trip in chilly places – Iceland?  Norway?  Finland?   “Did you feel that your time in Romania shed light on your grandparents and your ancestry?” Lucyna asked me.  I don’t recall having a clear answer, but I think I told her no.  We eventually checked in for our flight to Warsaw, flew there (more snoozing) and took a taxi into downtown Warsaw.  I bade farewell to Lucyna and embarked on the next phase of my trip.

Romanian-born bride and groom,
Grandma Rosie and Grandpa Isadore

But now that I am back in L.A. and it is months later, I can say, definitely, no, this trip didn’t shed much light on my Romanian Jewish heritage.  Okay, so I understand better why my Polish ancestors ridiculed Romanian Jews.  I also understand better why my Romanian ancestors scorned Polish Jews.  None of the European Jewish national groups respected each other – that is the European way, says this American Jew.  But there is not enough preserved from the lives of my grandparents, even had I actually visited their home towns, to get a sense of the Romania of their childhood.  Their Romania had already vanished before I was born. 
They were among the lucky ones: they left Romania for the U.S. prior to World War I when they were teenagers, and while I thought of them as indelibly marked by “the Old Country,” their characters were probably shaped more by their experiences as Jewish American immigrants than they were by their Romanian origins.  And me, their grandchild, I am thoroughly American and Jewish and fortunate, and grateful for my chance to travel with a friend through distant lands. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sighisoara and the eventful return drive to Cluj * Friday, July 13

Friday was to be our last day driving through Transylvania, and our plans were rather modest.  We wanted to find the nearby village of Sighisoara, tour there a bit, and then return to Cluj by 5 p.m.  We’d hand back the shiny red car to Daniel our car rental agent, and then – okay, this was my unspoken plan, one I hadn’t shared with my calmer, irreligious partner – I’d let out my breath in relief at being safe and sound, and fall on my knees at the nearest cathedral.  We loaded the car and went merrily on our way. 
Sighisoara photo from a website
promoting monastery life
We chose to stop in Sighisoara because it is a UNESCO world heritage site, so chosen for this august distinction because it is a village on the top of a steep hill surrounded by 16th century walls – they call it a citadel – and in it are all these equally old and charming buildings, towers, town squares, and so on.  Were you to be flying through the air like a carefree stork, you can see from this photo how Sighisoara appears from afar.  We drove up the cobblestone road to the citadel walls, squeezed through a narrow archway, and on the other side was a charming late medieval tourist trap full of souvenir booths.  Everybody wants to see this place because it is so beautiful and well-preserved.  Let’s not forget to mention that Sighisoara can boast of being the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, the creep who was immoralized as Count Dracula.  On the car ride to the town I read about the horribly sadistic real acts of Vlad, and it still puzzles me why this is such a draw to people.  But Sighisoara is gorgeous when you peer over the teeming hoards of visitors, for you can see picturesque scenes of the town square, wiggly narrow streets, colorful buildings, and a view toward the cathedral and school buildings that sit even higher up the hill. 
normal Sighisoara
a passive-aggressive fish-eyed photo
We climbed the clock tower.  This one contained display cases on each floor filled with tools, vases, and other daily items; and the clock on top was cleverly designed so that a different figure emerged out of the window every day of the week, such as “oh there is Mars the god of war so it must be Tuesday!”  We went to the very top to see the terrific view. 

the well-dressed tourist
We passed up a visit to the Torture Room Museum.  Instead, we walked around the square and searched the souvenir shops for something worthy.  Lucyna had gotten into her head the idea that I needed a patterned shirt or blouse and was determined to find it in Sighisoara.  My clothes were pretty boring, consisting entirely of plain colored shirts and plain colored capris or pants.  She, in contrast, had these lovely flowered or plaid tops with coordinating bright necklaces.  I imagined that people saw us together and thought “butch and femme,” but it was still no reason to buy a shirt decorated with the picture of a vampire.  Walking around the square we found a team of artists who work in wood and finish each other's work – this one carves, that one paints, the other one calligraphs. They are devoted Christians and so, sadly for us all, I passed up all their beautiful bowls decorated with the words of John or Luke about keeping the faith.  We did buy some of their beautiful carved wooden spoons, though.  We were hungry after viewing these eating implements, so we compared the menus of the village square's restaurants and ate in the place that served cherry pie.   

always a teacher
It was very hot and sunny, and at first it didn’t seem so daunting to climb up the hill by way of the covered long staircase.  I remember it being nearly endless.  A little gypsy boy with a sad face whisked up and down the staircase trying to sell little bunches of wilted white flowers to everyone who stopped to take a breath.  At the top of the stairs sat a gypsy teenaged girl who begged for money, a little baby in her lap.  I didn’t pay much attention to the church that was up at the top, though I found an avid student in the museum memorializing the school that used to be there. 

gypsy king's house
Time to go back to Cluj.  We drove down the hill to the main road, once again encountering road work, once again establishing ourselves as the slowest-moving car in Romania.  We passed a memorable site, a house, all bright and glittering in the sun, unlike any other structures we’d seen.  Lucyna surmised that it must be the house of the leader of a gypsy clan, and sure enough a man guarding the front door came lurching toward us when he saw my pointing camera.  Lucyna managed to press down the gas pedal without hesitating to ponder how to change gears, and so we got away in time. 

Nevertheless, a different authority put a shocking halt to our car a few miles later.  To our astonishment, the police waved us over for speeding.  “Radar – 81 km per hour,” the man in blue said.  That's 50 mph, according to my handy dandy cell phone conversion program.  Frankly, I was amazed that we had reached that speed.  But we had been going down a long hill, and four other hapless drivers were pulled over right in front of us, the same cars that had zipped past us, so it was clear that we had all gotten caught in a speed trap. 
countryside full of hidden snares

The policeman listened patiently when Lucyna explained our experience of being the foreign tortoise pressed from behind by the Romanian elephants.  Although he seemed a bit sheepish after hearing her story and looking us over, he did, after all, have a quota to meet.  While he filled out about 5 different papers in triplicate, we sat and tried to keep our exclamations of incredulity quiet so we wouldn’t be thrown into a Romanian jail.  I called Daniel and told him we’d be late, and we agreed to meet next to Hotel Melody where we’d originally picked up the car.  After making our 210 lei donation to the Romanian state, we drove away in freedom.  For a few minutes Lucyna actually followed the posted speed limit (30 kph = 18 mph), causing a great deal of distress in the drivers behind us and not a little terror in me that they’d roll right over us in frustration.     

The last part of our road trip was less costly but even more harrowing: the drive into Cluj, that city full of cars zipping around one-way poorly marked streets divided by confusing round-abouts.   At every intersection, Lucyna asked me which of the three options she should take, and I frantically tried to match the street markings with the map.  Good thing we could see, miles away, the central cathedral in the middle of the town square, and we remembered that because every single vehicle that enters the town zooms by Hotel Melody, it would be inevitable that we’d get there, too.  As we neared, Lucyna wisely ignored my ambitious but highly unrealistic driving suggestions of stopping by the side of the street – surely we would have been mashed to bits. 

Cluj cathedral from the square edge
Instead, she coolly steered us to the parking area next to the cathedral in the midst of the Cluj town square.   How convenient for my plan to fall into worshipful thanks!  But no, although I let out a big sigh of relief, the sight of an actual cathedral dampened my religious fervor, and I called the car rental agent instead.  He arrived a few minutes later and drove us to the hotel we would be staying at for the next two nights, Hotel Central.  

This new place was a vast improvement over Hotel Melody.  On a quiet street, each room looked out on a leafy tree.  Every room had a separate air conditioner that was controlled by a remote, and the desk clerks were very nice.  We showered and got dressed for dinner.  Lucyna nearly fainted when I appeared without my t-shirt and capris.  In honor of Shabbat I wore tailored long pants and a cream-colored jacket.  “Butch and femme,” I thought, when she walked into my room with her pretty top, twirly skirt, and necklace.  It seemed like a good idea at the time to eat dinner at Cafe Andalusa, the place we had dined our first night in Cluj, until I heard again those two Romanian folk songs that continued to play unremittingly through the meal.  But there was that little glass of vodka, and this time I managed to get it all down.  I got back to the hotel room, changed into my PJs, and exhausted from the day, I slept so soundly that I didn't even hear the thunderstorm that crashed through the night.      

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sibiu and Biertan, southern Transylvania * July 12

They watch you wherever you go.
Another day in Transylvania, another medieval walled city – though by the end of the day we’d be in two.  It didn’t take us long to arrive in Sibiu, pronounced si (as in sit) - byew.  It is a modern city of just over 150,000 with an old walled town in the middle.  We headed past the new buildings to the inner, old town, where the buildings sport windows that are topped by roofing that makes them look like hooded eyes.  This style is apparently unique to Sibiu.   Everyone else found it just a tad too creepy to imitate.   
Transylvania was governed by many rulers over the centuries, controlled at various times by men and women of various nationalities and tongues. Sibiu is the current Romanian name evoking the old Romanian village name of Cibinium.  German-speaking people (so-called Saxons) from the northwest moved into south Transylvania in the 12th century and by the 17th and 18th century the region was in their hands.  They called Sibiu Hermannstadt and gave it high walls with 39 towers and four corner structures called bastions that were each guarded by members of the town’s 19 guilds.  The town fell under Habsburg rule for periods during the 18th and 19th centuries, and these rulers placed the  

governor of south Transylvania safely within the walls.  Southern and northern Transylvania were separated and together from the late 19th century until right after World War II when they were made part of modern Romania.  The guide books and posted historical narratives don’t mention the Jews in the pre-19th century, and that’s because there were just a few entrepreneurs who wandered through – the rulers weren’t inclined to allow them to settle, and perhaps there wasn’t enough of a town life for their occupations. 

fish-eyed view of Sibiu

These old medieval towns have museums full of all sorts of tchotchkes we were not interested in viewing, especially in the heat.  We walked up a long staircase that brought us to one of the large town's three interconnecting squares.  I paid a small fee for the privilege of climbing up to the top of the town council's clock tower to see the 360 degree view.  Lucyna, meanwhile, sat at a cafe and drank iced drinks, and once I came down and wrung out my shirt, we set out for the synagogue that was just outside the old town walls. 
Sibiu synagogue on Constitution Street
looking up at the inside
The woman at the tourist bureau told us that the synagogue was accessible only for groups that arranged in advance.  We were bad and didn't plan ahead, but we went anyway, walking there at a snail’s pace.  The synagogue is on Constitution Street and surrounded by a locked gate, and we peered through the fence like wistful orphans.  Fortunately, a woman on the sidewalk walking toward us returning from her lunch inquired as to whether we wanted to go in, and before I could give her my Jewish credentials (she didn’t care) she said she’d show it to us but only “quick quick!”  What a treat that was!  It's a very pretty synagogue, lots of gorgeous tile work and cleverly patterned wall paper.  Go to the top of this page to the tab, and you'll see more photos, including one of Lucyna pretending to be a cantor at the bima.  It was great to learn that during World War II no Jews were deported from Sibiu!  How lovely not to have a Holocaust memorial display right in the synagogue.  Although there are community classes and cultural events, it is a tiny and shrinking community.  After World War II, most surviving Romanian Jews decided they should leave while they could, and when Zionist emissaries beckoned, about 120,000 moved to Israel. 

We returned to our car and drove to the Astra Museum, an award-winning outdoor museum of Romanian village life.  There is a little lake in the middle, and peasant homes and farm buildings and sheepfolds and various kinds of mills are situated all around it, with inadequately short descriptions in Romanian and English.  But it was really pretty and green, and though it was very hot it was cooler than it would be anywhere else but our car.  At a food area under the trees, Lucyna had a dessert that she recalled fondly every day after: they were called pancakes, but really they were freshly baked cake donuts stuffed with fruit jelly and slathered with whipped sweet cream. 

deep in prayerful thanksgiving
As we were leaving, an American woman corralled us and tried to get us to agree that it was a good idea for her to start a tourism business featuring hired drivers to take people around Romania.  She was tall and strong and was raised by Romanian-speaking parents so the language was not a problem.  “Why not drive yourself?”  I asked her.  I was pleased to hear this Amazon passionately declare that she could never drive in Europe with all the confusing international signs and strange driving practices, since I had been secretly worrying that Lucyna would want to hand over the wheel to me. 

After going to the park's "Popular Art Gallery," which doubles as the gift shop, we set out on the road again.  The plan was to stay in a nice place, preferably another pensiunea, preferably one with air conditioning.    
Easier said than done!  We could not get out of Sibiu: there was major road construction, and no matter where we turned or what sign we followed or what directions people gave us, we kept getting back to the old town.  Finally we found a nice guy who spoke German I could understand who drew us a picture of how to drive 10 miles west out of the city so we could circle the construction areas and go the north.  We breathed easier when the spires and towers were in the far distance.  But out in the countryside on the highway, there was road construction with frequent stops and starts and daredevil Romanian driving antics.  The good news, though, was (1) the car has excellent air conditioning, and (2) we saw gorgeous scenery and even gypsies on the side of the road selling their shiny copper pots and pans.  

the view outside the pensiunea window

roofs and hills of Biertan
Who needs copper pots when you can visit Biertan, a UNESCO World Heritage site boasting a 15th century double-walled fortified Saxon cathedral and monastery?  We parked the car in the town center and walked into the “medieval restaurant Ungerles,” and they told us they had rooms available in the pensiunea down the road.  A young woman led us down the street into a beautifully reconstructed medieval building with huge pretty rooms suitable for Saxon princesses.  No air conditioning, but thick stone walls promised a cool night.   
 Back in the rooms after a lousy dinner at the medieval restaurant (no complimentary vodka, a sure sign), we each determined to take advantage of the gargantuan bathtubs in our rooms.  They were so high and long that, filled up halfway, I couldn't really find any way to anchor my feet and I kept floating down into the tub.  It was lovely to be clean.  At the end of the room was the window with its exquisite view of rooftops and the fortified church.  Serenaded by a yowling cat, I went right to sleep. 
an early morning scene
And I woke up early the next morning from the sound of a horse clip-clopping down the street pulling a carriage.  After our breakfast, we walked through the cathedral.  Like virtually all of the churches we'd seen on this trip, it was just a place of show.  People don't worship in them anymore, and there didn’t seem to be a town church, either.   

From what I saw of Biertan’s religious legacy, I could understand why people might be inclined to abandon religion.  There is a door in the cathedral’s sacristy that has earned much attention for the 17 locks guarding the treasures within.  And one of the town bastions was used to discourage couples seeking a divorce.  According to legend, the clergy would confine for several weeks the quarreling couple to a room containing only one set of cutlery and one narrow bed.  Did it succeed?  “Only one couple decided to go through with divorce in 400 years,” the tourists are told.  I, for one, don’t believe a word of it.  Were human beings ever so uncomplicated that this could be thought to be an effective strategy for marital bliss and not the road to murder and rape?  A better explanation for the low divorce rate might be the storks who nest on a building in the midst of the town.  All day long during this season you can see mama, papa, and two baby storks hanging out enjoying the breeze.   We walked through the beautiful village, packed up, and started out on the last day of our road trip.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Wednesday, July 10 * Transylvanian Road Trip, day one

Lucyna at Hotel Melody
the view out the windshield
With the help of an energetic Hotel Mercury clerk, we found a local car rental company that would supply us with the perfect car for our 3-day, 2-night car trip.  Into the lobby came a young man named Daniel, and outside he had a shiny red Ford Fiesta with air conditioning and an automatic shift.  I told Lucyna that there was no way I could drive in Europe, with all these strange international signs that were not at all obvious in their meaning, bizarre modes of traffic control like round-abouts, and street light signals that permitted left turns but without a guarantee that oncoming traffic would remain in place.  Lucyna, on the other hand, didn’t know how to work an automatic.  Daniel was remarkably calm: he drove us to a big, empty parking lot, gave us a map of Transylvania, and stepped out and away into the sunshine. 
our car
For the next 20 minutes, I gave Lucyna directions on the complexity of not ever having to shift gears with the right hand while pressing down with the left foot and releasing gradually while simultaneously giving the car gas with the right foot.  Imagine how hard it would be to give that up and simply turn the car on, put it in drive, and press the gas pedal!  And when you want to slow down, think of how tricky it is to simply take your foot off the pedal and press the brake!  After practicing these demanding routines several dozen times, Lucyna was ready to face the Romanian road.  Looking back, I have to say that she handled it all quite well.  It is true that I was on guard to quickly intercede when her right hand began to hover over the automatic shift as she slowed down.  And she never did master the intricate maneuver of putting the shift into park before turning off the engine with the key.  But we got there and back safely, earned only one ticket (more about that later), and very few people yelled curses at us.
Romanian gas station store.
The fact that Lucyna’s fearfulness made us the slowest car on the road suited me just fine.  First, as all my children and acquaintances can attest, I am a nervous passenger and am known to frequently clutch the door handle and push down on an imaginary brake when objects appear alongside or a half mile in front of the car.  Second, it made it easier to view the lovely countryside and to find, read, translate, and interpret the road signs.  Third, Romanians drive like maniacs and it is best to convey to them that one will always allow them to dominate the road.   
After driving a bit, we stopped for gas and I learned another astonishing thing about my travel partner: she likes to drink Red Bull.  This is the sickly-sweet poisonous beverage that I will occasionally imbibe to keep awake on the freeways.  I drink it while sitting in the driver’s seat: just 1 teaspoon and I’m instantly revved and am good for the next 100 miles, when I take another sip.  Lucyna, however, brought the purchased bottle to the picnic table, poured it into a glass, and drank it all down while sitting there quite elegantly in her pretty blouse.  We’d get into the car, she’d gingerly put the automatic shift into drive, and we’d still be the slowest car on the road.  
We drove to Turda, a small town about an hour away that boasted an extraordinary salt mine.  The thick mineral deposit was first exploited by the Romans, and more recently it was upgraded to accommodate lots of tourists who want to get out of the heat -- it’s about 55 degrees underground, requiring sweaters and socks.  I was pleased that the salt mine was so wide and expansive under the ground that even people (like me) who dread being closed up in a tomb can breathe easily.  It was a huge hollowed out expanse shaped like a small-mouthed vase, seeming to be about 15 floors deep.  You can descend via stairs or an elevator, but we took the stairs so as not to wait in line.  The cavern was lit up by long, hanging florescent lights that, because of their shape, seemed to be windows to the outside world, but of course we would have been in total darkness without them.  Halfway down was a wide area with squash courts, ping pong tables, a ferris wheel, and the types of chairs and tables that could be used for picnics, party spreads, or Bar Mitzvahs. 
expert rower
underground salt-water lake
By then, though, we could see to the bottom, and we were determined to get to the lowest level with the salt water lake.  It was pretty awesome down there in the black water in a bright yellow row boat, the water divided into segments by the bridge-works and walkways.  I rowed, Lucyna sat and called out words of encouragement and praise (happy to be out of the driver's seat), assuring me that it was against the rules for us to switch places.  When we had our fill, we took the elevator up to the top.  We peeled off our extra clothes and socks and returned to our car. 

monastery near Torocko-Rimetea
 We headed toward a village that our tourist guy and Lonely Planet had recommended, a little Hungarian village with two names (apparently quite common in this ethnically-divided region), Torocko and Rimetea.  On the way there was a monastery so beautifully constructed and nestled into the greenery that I felt like moving in.  Too bad that some of the portraits were of men who, like many Christian saints, did heinous things to Jews. 

Torocko/Rimetea faces gorgeous bluffs and beautiful sloping fields upon which sheep graze and crops are grown. The big event occurring in the middle of a clearing in the town was laundry. Water poured out of a pipe into a huge basin in which the village women were scrubbing clothes.  They'd scoop out the liquid soap, throw it onto the clothing, and attack the cloth with a scrub brush.  It didn't really make sense to me, because alongside the women were their little children who were, of course, getting all their clothes dirty as they played in the dust and water.  We walked through the streets and looked into the tourist shops, and I bought a necklace made in Hungary.   
haystacks alongside the road
 By then it was mid-afternoon, and we planned to find lodging just outside the big town called Sibiu.  We were looking for what Israelis call a pen-see-own, what Romanians call a pensiunea, and what Americans call a Bed & Breakfast.  We didn't make very good time, but we didn't care. Lucyna drove slowly – that is, at the posted speed limit or just under – and cars and trucks would nose up to us until they finally passed in what always seemed to me to be dangerous maneuvers.  It would be played out in front of us, too: on a two-lane highway, there facing us up ahead in our lane would be a car passing and getting out of our lane just seconds before our approach.  The highway signs were confusing, of course, and we drove through village after village (the highway goes through the villages) without seeing possibilities.  The sounds of the traffic outside Hotel Melody still fresh in our memories, we were determined to get far enough away from the highway so we could have a quiet night’s sleep.  
Transylvanian farm and village
Saliste stream
I finally spied a village way about 2 miles off the highway at the base of the hills, and I convinced Lucyna that we'd find our pensiunea there.  It was a lovely village called Saliste that appeared to have been designed for the tourist trade.  According to the big village map displayed in the town center, it had 5 or 6 pensiuneas and some were even set alongside the little stream running through the village.  But it took us about a half hour to actually find one of them.  The streets were confusing and didn't seem to match the map.  A stern-faced woman was standing in the yard of a building labeled “pensiunea” scowled at us and said “full.”  Then she asked us how many days we wanted, so I guess the place wasn't really that full.  Did she know of other pensiuneas, we asked?  No, she said, which was an absurd answer considering that the village economy seemed to be based on it.  We persisted, and she suggested that we try (and here she sneered) Domnescu, which was down the road.  This was the place we had been seeking anyway.  We managed to find it, parked, and after being shown the rooms we agreed. 
 The Domnescu pensiunea consisted of several structures.  There was the main house with the guest rooms and a huge dining room, attached bar, and a laundry area with a modern washing machine and drier.  It opened out the back into a yard with several tables and chairs under the trees, with a parking area next to a coop with a dozen pigeons and doves.  The yard backed up into a hill, and trees and vines shaded the patio.  The front opened to a garden with tomato and cucumber plants, and next to that was a newly built house where the family owners lived and prepared the food.  There were at least 10 other hotel guests.  I had the first floor room, with a window that faced the garden, and Lucyna had a room on the second floor.  No air conditioner, but it looked pretty nice.  

Jody at Domnescu
Mrs. Domnescu was the only one who knew English, but you only need one, and her husband prepared us a nice hot meal.  They were delighted that I eagerly requested mamaliga, the national staple that is corn meal mush.  Lucyna told me that Poles use the term mamaliga disparagingly as a synonym for “mess.”  Nevertheless, she was a good sport about it, having declared that she was once again a vegetarian, and we ate it along with sour cream and cheese and vegetables from the garden: tomatoes, cucumbers, and pepper with a light vinegar dressing that was delicious.  To Lucyna’s delight, Mrs. Domnescu gave us little glasses of vodka.  I managed to drink a bit more than the night before.  I fell asleep promptly at 10 and awoke at 7.  Not so my travel partner.  Most comfortable with the frigid climate of Bialystok and probably haunted by the terrors of the road, she reported the next morning that she had been too warm and had heard the highway.  There’s always Red Bull!  We had a nice breakfast and set off on another day’s adventures.