All accounts here below are true and accurate to the best of my memory
I remember my first flight, and the take-off trauma. Not mine, by any stretch. The British lady next to me was in too much of a state to swallow her Valium pill. Until, of course, they brought out a nice glass of Scotch, and then it seemed to go down with a shudder and a sob. I just sat there thinking "I'm flying. I'm on my way to Romania". I tried to imagine flight without the plane, but having a hysterical woman sitting so close to the emergency door made the image slightly uncomfortable.
The transcontinental DC-10 flew me from Memphis to Amsterdam, that night. We flew for an hour into the sunset, the clouds looking like the sun had set the horizon on fire. We landed in Amsterdam, Holland and boarded what I could only describe as "jalopy-air", to Budapest, Hungary. Of course, they lost my luggage. Gone was my giant red duffle bag, comparable in size to a bodybag for Sam Adams of the Buffalo Bills. Within were my treasures and enough underwear to last me the month. Finally, with a voucher and the promise of a phone call upon the recovery of my bag(wink wink), myself and my group of 28 others boarded a bus that would take us to Timisoara (Timi-SHWA-ra), Romania. As we pull out, I am informed that Timisoara lies about 40 miles South of the Hungarian border, on the far West side of the country. I am Hungarian, so I press my nose to the glass in fascinated wonder as the country flies by like a slideshow out the window.
I remained rapt, as we crossed into Romania. I could see my reflection in the bus window as we rode. I could see myself amongst the scenery. The most startling element was the age of the place. Wherever you looked, the brushed and beaten face of time settled old and heavy. The homes looked like stoop-shouldered old men. The cathedrals were pious, and impotent to all but those as pious and impotent as the structure itself. Best of all were the fields of gold, sunflowers, countless and stunning. They were everywhere you looked, politely inclining themselves in greeting as you passed, flirting timelessly with the wind. I fell in love with that place before my feet ever touched the soil. We reached Timisoara in the middle of the night, and set up camp in an unoccupied dormitory for a German technical institute.
The next day birthed the start of the most extraordinary month of my life. My reason for going was simple enough. To work in an orphanage. Things like that always seem simple in the telling, while reality tastes so much more like sweat and tears. Our first day was reality. The city is saturated in history, being the home of the Romanian revolution, which served to topple the country from the gruesome grip of Communism. We walked every place we went in Timisoara, that month, with relatively few exceptions. The busses are too dangerous, the men are too intrigued by american women and american money. On the streets, we are crowded by gypsies, some curious, some devious. "Buna Zewa" - "Good afternoon", they solicit us with a bright greeting. They all want to touch. They look just like you imagine, with the scarves over their heads, the bright colors, the smudges on their faces. Everything, except the bangles. On the smallest children, I could find no shoes. When we broke around the corner I had to stop. This was Victory Square, cobbled and gracious. At one end sits the opera house, refined and worldly. At the far other end stands somber Metropolitan Cathedral, it's beautiful, imposing spires preside mysteriously over the square. Our guide gives us the relevant history as we stand on it's steps...
It was there, he says, on that very spot that a few young revolutionaries took up arms against Communism and most specifically Nicolae Ceausescu, the cult-mad party leader. The man was poisoned by power, and obsessed with blood. His sick brand of pathology lead him as far as the murder of infants so he could substitute their blood for his, a futile attempt at immortality. There are still bullet holes that sign their name to the blood that was shed for the cause of removing the regime. It was December 22, 1989, when the revolt occurred. Ceausescu and his wife Elena were imprisoned and executed three days later... on Christmas. It was a bitter gift to the country.
We toured the war cemetery that afternoon. The eternal flame and the 60 open, empty graves next to hundreds that are full, they entreat us not to forget the sacrifice required for freedom. It is a macabre garauntee that no one underestimates the cost of succumbing to such a thing, again. The Romanians do not forget. Their hands are weary from rebuilding a nation.
We finish and walk through Roses Park on our way to the orphanage. There are men at tables, playing chess. They're just like the men back home. We were not allowed to step on the grass. We wouldn't want to, anyway. It seems God's thumb was especially green here. There is a play-park for the children, one far superior to any I have ever seen. It owns huge metal "hot air balloons" that you must climb up ladders to play in, and slides that put all of ours to shame. We stayed and played, all of us grown-ups did. We ate peanut butter and jelly on fresh bread. We all spend 1200 lei (about $2.50) on buttons or puppets or some small souvenir. All I could see was beauty. But beauty was all I was looking for, that day.
We went to the orphanage after that. There's beauty there. Miserable beauty. The attendants don't touch the children, they bind them with cloth diapers so tight that their bottom ribs are bent inwards. There are 3 year olds who cannot walk. And how would they, they've never left their crib. The babies startle themselves with the sound of their laughter, because they've never heard it, before. The flinch when they shouldn't even be old enough to know what pain is. They are so solemn, like very small adults who've had their money gambled away before they even knew they had it. My favorite is a girl with casts on both feet. She is nearly one, and the casts have been there since she was born. It's the orphans cure for club feet. My, but she's exquisite. Dark curly hair, huge grey eyes. I don't discover it until about the second week, but she has dimples when she smiles. Her name is Ramona. I am begining to redefine my definition of beauty. On our way back to the home, that day, I see soldiers walking with machine guns strapped to their backs. And in the middle of the street, a gypsy boy sings with is hands outstretched. He is blind. I discover...he is beautiful, too.
The days unfold, along with surprising aspects of my discovery and awareness. Every day we walk back to the orphanage, confronted always with something new. In the Summer, the windows are open, but the air is sticky and hot, and the children lie listlessly in their beds, powerless against the heat. It's funny that I say we went there to work, because they have attendants there, capable of keeping the children alive. If you don't count the fact that mentally and emotionally they're starving. We bring them things and take over changing their diapers. We're not allowed to bring in extra food, or take their picture. I do, anyway. There are about 30 rooms, all crammed with 12 cribs, and it seems like each of us adopts a room. On the third day, though, an awful scream penetrates the walls. I scoop Ramona into my arms and rush down the hall. The scream is coming from beyond a door we have not visited. I open it and step inside. I choke on the smell. There must be 30 cribs here, but these children are sick. There is vomit dripping off of one crib and onto the floor. There are drug babies rocking back and forth, their eyes crossed, unaware of the heat, the spittle on their face, their wet diapers. There are two babies with AIDS. Their eyes follow me as I enter the room. At the back corner there is what looks like a cage, a huge crib with a roof. There is a girl inside, she looks to be nearly 6. She has chewed a hole into her lip and it is bleeding on her hands. I approach her, but she screams, and throws herself against the bars of her cell. My group has found me, along with a stern looking attendant. She complains loudly in Romanian and our translator tries to pull me from the room. I hear sobbing, and I look down at Ramona's face. My tears fall on her cheeks. Her little brow creases, she's such a worried little soul. But she only lays her head on my shoulder, as if to say "It's just the way it is". I bribe the attendants over the next week, and they allow me back into the room. I divide my time, so that I can hold the ones in there. They like it when you sing to them. I file everything I see in memory, each one a new favorite or moment deserving to be immortalized. I saw Ramona's first smile on our last day at the orphanage. I couldn't help it, I told her I was coming back.
With only a few days remaining in our stay, our group decides to take a train through Transylvania into Brasov (Pronounced like "brush-off") and on to Cluj-Napoca. It's a 10 hour trip just to Brasov. The geography of our tour is that we are traveling due East, across the Transylvanian alps to Brasov and then North-West, to Cluj. The Romanian triangle.
I discover that I love to travel by train. We are given two compartments for our band of 28. We are given little croissant-like pastries, filled with a champagne mousse. In humorous contrast, the lavatory is a seat with a hole that falls onto the tracks. Sources reported that it was a chilly way to do things. The Transylvanian countryside, however, was spectacular. Our journey started at a low altitude and progessed up into the Carpathian mountains.
After departing the train in Brasov we experienced a Romanian resort. The rooms were 12x12, with two beds, old-fashioned door handles and windows that open outward, allowing you to sit on the sill and overlook the city. The greatest part was the showers. You shower in a large, unlit tile room. You must climb onto a 3 foot high platform to actually be directly under the water. You must do this in the dark... with no help... where it is wet. And you must bring your clothes or walk through the hotel in your towel.
Ahhh, adventures in nudity.
They serve you espresso and honey'd pears for breakfast, and we have the Eastern European version of pizza for lunch. It tastes more like stromboli. Brasov is a rich cultural center and a historic national landmark. After touring the city, we take a 4 hour bus ride to Bran Castle, the home of the infamous Count Dracula. Construction began on Bran in 1377, on an unattackable cliff. It is built entirely from river rocks and brick. There are, of course, secret passages. Though I know it is not, the whole place seems to be enchanted and mysterious. A well sits in the center of the inner courtyard. Finely crafted wrought-iron scrolls gracefully over the top, marrying into an intricate finial. We all sing into it. I am making wishes like mad. The doorways are all very short and I begin wondering if Dracula was related to the seven dwarfs. I am conciously aware that this place is not fictitious in origin. Still, here I stand, an ocean away from home, in a castle with turrets where a legend once lived and I have great difficulty extracting fact from fairy-tale. We pass seven locked doors, durring our tour, and I am relatively certain that the best wonders lie beyond them, but I remain a victim of suspense and curiosity.
After leaving Bran, we traveled on to Sanai, residence of Peles Castle, home to King Carol I. This is undoubtedly the most extraordinary structure my eyes have ever seen. The royal home was built between 1875 and 1883. It contains 106 rooms and almost 800 stained glass windows, including scenes from age-old Romanian fairy-tales in the poetry room. There was opulence oozing out of the pores in the fine Mahogany walls. Carol commissioned that each room should be designed to reflect the taste of a different european country. Even the gardens are incomparably grand. They are manicured in true German Renaissance style. The next day, we were off again, to Cluj-Napoca.
Cluj has a population of more than 350,000, about 78% Romanians and 20% Hungarians. However, sentiments in the city are mixed. The mayor of Cluj, Gheorghe Funar, is very fervent with his anti-Hungarian agenda. He has even painted the benches that fence in Unirri Square. They are now blue, yellow and red, the colors of the Romanian flag. Our guide rolls his eyes at this, saying "He is mad, you know? Now Hungarian peasant women can place their fat bottoms and fart on our flag.". This square is guarded by a huge bronze statue by Janos Fadrusz of the Hungarian warrior king, Matthias Rex. The Romanian government is conducting an excavation directly in front of the statue. In reality it is their tactful way or removing the landmark, altogether. On our last night, we accidentally got drunk on a traditional Romanian dessert, called "Fok Strueddel" or "Fire Cake". It's saturated with hard cider, something we weren't aware of until we all saw double. I agreed with the sentiment that ignorance was bliss.
We rode the train back to Timisoara, and the bus back to Budapest. When I checked in for my flight, the woman behind the counter smiled, informing me of the good news. They had found my duffle. I looked at myself. I looked like a Romanian, in a white shirt hand made and embroidered by gypsies, a gift in exchange for shoes. A plain pair of pants. And no bangles. I shrugged, checked it for my return flight and boarded the plane. I had a window seat on the flight home, but I don't recall the view. My eyes were in Romania.