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. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca * Tuesday, July 10

amazing building front
I spent several hours on our first night in Romania trying to reach my bank, the one that I had informed oh so carefully that I would be withdrawing ATM funds while in three different European countries, until Benja came to the rescue by arranging a conference call with Customer Service.  The next morning, after eating an uninspiring breakfast at Flowers B & B, Lucyna and I set out according to the clerk’s directions to the nearby ATM.  We walked a long block, discovering elaborately designed apartments and lovely quality restaurants at the end before realizing that we had not followed the directions from the get-go. When we finally reached the ATM, the paper notes blessedly came out of the machine when prompted.  We went back to Flowers, paid the clerk, and went on our way to the synagogues that were close nearby.

Choral Synagogue, from S. Katz photo
Choral Temple is one of the grand synagogues of the Bucharest Sefardic community.  It was built in 1856 and reconstructed in 1933, and here it is in a photo I found online, all golden and shiny.

restoring the synagogue exterior

memorial with words from Genesis
  But it has been under reconstruction for some time, so all we could do was peek into the interior, and the room was swathed in plastic sheeting and dust, with workers digging up the floor.  Outside it was all covered by workers on scaffolding. The memorial in the courtyard was sad and angry: it quotes God scolding Cain for murdering his brother Abel.  Germans didn’t march into Romania and kill the Jews – the Romanians did it themselves. 

Jewish veterans from Romanian
war of independence and WWI

It didn’t seem to matter that the Romanian Jews were so patriotic that the names of their previous war dead were honored on the outside synagogue walls.  In a glass case we read fliers about Jewish community classes and an announcement of the regular prayer services that would be held at the main synagogue called "the Great Synagogue," and we strolled off to find it. 

inside the Great Synagogue

On one side of the Great Synagogue was an abandoned, garbage strewn area, including a rotted out car strewn with filthy clothing laid out to dry in the sun, and we spied Bucharestian dogs under a car trying to hide from the blazing heat.  We arrived at the same time as an Israeli family who had pre-arranged their visit with the synagogue.  We listened to the talk and guide by an old, Romanian Jew who knew well all aspects of the 20th century history of the Bucharest community.  Its demise during the Nazi era was displayed on the walls just beyond the pews, taken from newspaper articles and enlarged photographs of memos and government orders.  Really awful stuff.  The easiest deaths occurred right away, when community leaders were brought out to the park in mid-winter, all dressed up for the cold in their winter coats, and shot.  The thousands of other deaths were prolonged and utterly cruel.

We walked back to the neighborhood and turned our attention to more pleasant matters.  We made an effort to eat in the kosher cafe we had spied earlier, but it turns out it is just a grocery store filled 
which lovely color to paint?
awesome salad
with Israeli foods.  I bought hummus and we went to the beautiful restaurant we had spied in the morning.  We were cooled by a fan that was attached to a little spray of mist.  Here in Romania the quality places make lemonade very nicely: cold mineral water sweetened with sugar, squeezes of lemon juice and slices of lemon floating in the water – you can also have lime and mint added.  I had a terrific arugula salad, with very thinly sliced eggplant and zucchini that was roasted, along with sun-dried tomato.  Yum!  Greens!  I had a hankering for the hummus, though I discovered it had been frozen and all I could do was grind away some from the sides and the top.  Lucyna gave up on being a vegetarian and had some meat. 
stick your head in it
Time to fly to Cluj-Napoca, the capital of the Transylvanian region, nestled among the Carpathian mountains and hills.  We went back to Flowers and got a new cabbie, also a crazy person.  The B & B owners said it would take one to one and a half hours to get us to the airport.  This guy got us there in 30 minutes by taking streets through the neighborhood, driving way too fast and intruding into a round-about and nearly crashing into someone who had the right-of way.  We were treated to the Romanian version of road rage.  Our driver made lots of hand and finger movements and grimaces, and he then after he'd gotten his way and sped through, he turned around to us and said, with great contempt, so we’d understand, that the other driver was a gypsy. 
The airport was hot and set up to be unaccommodating to client needs.  Not enough seating or eating areas, etc.  After checking in, going through security, then checking in at the gate, we were boarded onto a bus and just stood there in the heat.  People finally got out and stood outside on the tarmac where it was slightly cooler.  Eventually we got onto the plane, I snoozed, and we flew one hour north into the Carpathians to Cluj-Napoca.  This hyphenate is either a marketing trick or a result of indecision: Cluj is the modern name, Napoca is in reference to its Roman past.  We took a cab into the city to Hotel Melody, a grand old hotel that overlooks the main square.  
in Cluj-Napoca town square

busy town streets
The desultory desk clerk was no help, and we walked out and found the Cluj municipal tourist information office.  A depressed young man gave us lots of good advice about car rental and places to go on our car trip.  We went to a traditional Romanian restaurant he suggested, Cafe Andalusa, and the food was great.  Lucyna was once again a vegetarian and we ate roasted vegetables and terrific eggplant spread, which is a staple here, with baked apples for dessert.  There was Romanian music playing in the background, with one melody sounding like a Sefardic Adon Olam melody and another reminding me of one of the folk songs from the Yishuv, though I eventually realized that these two songs were the only ones being played, over and over again.  We got complimentary vodka, and Lucyna sang its praises and I sipped about a quarter of mine. 
It certainly helped me fall asleep instantly when we got back to our rooms.  Its effect was not long-lasting though.  Hotel Melody was built in the horse and buggy era, but now its melody is the sound of trucks and cars zooming around at all hours of the day.  Neither of us slept much, and the next morning we found another hotel before starting off on our car trip. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

First day in Romania * Monday, July 9

“Your ancestors come from Romania – why not go there?”  For an entire year, I and three other CSUN faculty planned an educational trip to Berlin and Poland for July 2012, and I was eager to investigate Berlin but not too keen on chaperoning 20 college students through parts of Poland I had recently visited.  Lucyna’s transparently self-serving advice – since she would, of course, accompany me to visit the one place in Europe she’s never seen – had great appeal.  On July 3 I flew out of L.A. with 20 young adults, 4 other faculty, and 2 adult friends hangers-on; we spent an extraordinary July 4 – 8 in Berlin; and after the train to Warsaw and settling the group into the hostel in Warsaw, I was ready to go off on my own.  I would go off to Romania with Lucyna on Monday morning and re-join the group in Wroclaw the following Monday. 
I met Lucyna at the Chopin Airport in Warsaw, where we went through the many steps required to get on a Lot flight to Bucharest, Romania.  Someone forgot to tell them about the right of free movement guaranteed in the new European Union, where it is not necessary for an EU citizen to possess a valid passport or national identity card to travel between member countries.  Everybody went through three passport checks, two more than were required to depart Los Angeles.  Exhausted from the previous few days’ travel and uninspired by the airline food, I snoozed much of the way until we landed in Bucharest and tottered off the airplane into 98 degree heat.  We got a shock at the airport when my efforts to withdraw cash were met by “refused by your bank” by three separate ATMs.  I can’t withdraw cash from my credit card (never got a pin), and Lucyna’s resources were limited.  There we’d be, two feckless and Romanian-illiterate females, melting in the heat with no money! 
We found a cab and took the first of many harrowing car rides in this country.  
old residences on one-way street
The taxi driver went along
relaxed Lucyna at Flowers B & B
lawfully enough on the roadways leading from the airport, but he became frenzied and impatient when he reached the crowded urban areas.  Thank goodness only Lucyna noticed when the last few blocks of speeding through a residential area was the wrong way on a one-way street.  I was delighted with the air conditioner in my room at the lovely Flowers B & B, but the clerk informed me that my credit card would not be accepted because it didn't have the computer chip that is the norm in Europe.   
But we did manage to enjoy the first afternoon in Bucharest.  It took us lots of guessing and instructions from people on the street where we could catch the Bucharest hop-on  and hop-off double decker bus.  I discovered another major challenge of this trip with Lucyna: walking slowly.  She has this theory, which may actually have some basis in reality, that when it is very hot out one should walk slowly.  It was like walking with a 90 year-old.  There was no convincing her otherwise, not that I tried to, so I had to keep slowing myself down and that wasn't easy.  Not that I want to race around in the heat, but I do like a good aerobic walk, and my new sneakers were so wonderfully bouncy.   

glorious wiring
glorious old buildings
On the way we discovered beautiful churches, highly decorated buildings, and the craziest electrical wiring I've ever seen.  Also there are these mangy-looking dogs on the street.  According to the Lonely Planet Guide, Bucharest has about 100,000 stray dogs, a problem dating from the Ceausescu era.  Every problem in Romania can be traced back to Nicolae Ceausescu – how many years has it been since 1989?  No one’s had the time to catch them?   
Palace of the Parliament

The tour bus boasted the full employment legacy of the communist era: there was a driver and two workers to take our money and write receipts, and at the next stop an inspector came on board and asked to see our receipts and match them to the records kept on the first floor.  We went upstairs to the rooftop seating where we would bake in the sun but there was wind, far superior to the inside first level with its failed air conditioning.  The audio tape was triggered by where we were in the city, and we saw all the tourist sites from up high.  The Romanians take particular relish in recounting the awful carnage and waste that Ceausescu caused in building the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament of Romania: this number of hectares of farmland destroyed and businesses cleared away, that number of workers crushed during construction, and of course all those dogs that escaped their leashes.  It contains 1,100 rooms and a bunker underneath for the Ceausescu family to escape to in case of a revolution.  Too bad that plan didn’t pan out: in the violent 1989 revolt, Nicolae and Elena were dragged out of their apartment and within hours were tried and executed.   

new and old and wiring

a neighborhood church
Bucharest is a hodge podge of great beauty, lots of it faded, and astonishing ugliness in the communist-era buildings and the post-communist disrepair.  My eyes were drawn to the wiring.  We found an Italian restaurant for dinner.  Lucyna decided she would be a vegetarian on this trip, so she ordered gnocchi and I had a Greek salad.  We walked home and I found an excellent city map at a gas station store.  A man in a car stopped us while we were in the gas station lot and cautioned us about the dangers of the city, and could he drive us home?  We decided to walk by ourselves, and for the first time in Bucharest we trotted at a healthy pace.  We arrived back at Flowers unmolested.