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[JM 26 May 2002: The following, slightly edited, is Jessica Long's account of her Odyssey to Romania, emailed to me Fri, 03 May 2002 and posted to the web after my return to the States. See also my account of much of her visit to Bucharest.]

Jess's Journey (Odyssey to Romania)

Ich begrüsse euch alle meine liebe Freunden,
(I greet you all, my dear friends... it sounds far more formal in English than it is in German... but what can you do?)

Well, I have survived my Eastern European whirlwind tour, and come away with many stories and adventures to tell... of course this means prepare yourselves for a very long email (if you can I'd suggest printing it and reading it on a long bus ride, or while sitting on the toilet or something because I don't want to be responsible for anyone getting an eye condition from staring at a computer screen for four hours reading my rambling tales!) [...]

I had the good sense to write a lot during my trip instead of trying to put it all together after I got home, which makes it longer I suppose 'cause I was pretty bored on the train sometimes and really went for detail and tangents and ranting etc... nonetheless I hope it's enjoyable so I'm transposing the journal entries for the week of my trip. If you're not interested in the play-by-play of my solo train adventure to Budapest then you may want to zoom ahead [...to...] the tales of my adventures while actually in various towns around the region (and of course a few train journey tidbits as well, I didn't teleport around y'know)... Guten Appetit.

Saturday, April 13th: Day of Many Trains

(written on train #3 from Brno to Breclav, Czech Republic)

The bus ride last night from Berlin to Prague was horribly uncomfortable, the seats lean back far enough to crush my legs but not far enough to sleep. The Argentine couple behind me were careful to whisper very quietly but somehow neglected to notice how excruciatingly loud they eat, and the woman savoured a chocolate bar for a painfully long half hour, carefully un- and re-folding the foil wrapper for each square.

The train station in Prague was easily reached by Metro, the cash machine in the bus station was easy to find and deserted at 5:30 a.m. so no problems gettin Czech money. The train ticket to the Slovakian borer cost me around 100 Kronen more than the price on the Internet, but seeing as that's about US$3.50 I wasn't complaining.

I was able to find my train platform, deal with paying the toilet lady (it costs about 20 cents to pee...), and even had a nice croissant and Turkish coffee in the classy joint upstairs (for US$1.50) before heading out.

My first stop was Kolin, where I came very close to missing my next train but luckily wandered to the right platform accidentally instead of searching for the central timetable to find out where to go... I came down the stairs from the platform I looked up at the sign for the platform next to me and saw the city I needed written there (Brno) and ran up the stairs just as my train prepared to roll away!

Then came Brno, which apparently has 2 stations, the first of which is in the middle of nowhere industrial land but fortunately even though I did get off the train there I was genius enough to look around for 1.5 seconds and decided it was an unlikely place for a major train to connect from the 2nd largest city in the Czech Republic and swiftly hopped into the train to ride to the next stop which was the main station... another close call!

Although this was undoubtedly now the main station and Brno is really a large and seemingly metropolitan city, the train station is totally puzzling. It really is just a few tracks with cement platforms alongside. And for some reason the 2 platforms where trains begin the branch Southwest are only found by walking between some freight cars and across a gravel lot to the back of the building. I would never have found it (I found it hard to trust the 500-year-old seemingly acid-washed, cardboard, magic-marker-written sign with the platform numbers and an arrow pointing at the freight cars!) but I saw some other folks going that way and followed them.

The train from Brno to Breclav is very slow, and stops at lots of nearly non-existent places, goes through beautiful farmland and a huge stretch of vineyards. The vineyards look very cool at this time of year when they're barren. Instead of a Christmas tree farm it looks like a Halloween tree farm!

The countryside is covered in mist today, and fairly warm which is a spooky combo (especially when going past the Halloween tree farms...)

Train #4: Breclav to Kuty, border crossing between Czech Republic and Slovakia

The Breclav train station has hiding platforms too. The key to these places seems to be walking very quickly through the entire station while reading absolutely everything you see whether it looks like an important sign telling you where to go or not... eventually there will be a sign with weird words and a big number which is the number of the platform you're looking for and if you're lucky there's an arrow that actually points in a direction you can walk towards (instead of at a wall or a freight car...)

The biggest plus so far in taking this wacked out route (aside from the cheap price of course) is the mind boggling population of extremely attractive young men swarming the countryside... something in these people's gene pool has made very good evolutionary choices (externally at least... now if you're not into guys then please forgive me while I indulge in some gushing...). On the train from Brno to Breclav, for example, I saw the HOTTEST man on the planet! Big (like 6'5"), dark (both grimy and gypsy-tan), with those lovely bright green eyes that only South-eastern Europeans have, big nose, shaved head, big combat boots, funny red neckerchief, silly red windbreaker, filthy white canvas hobo-sack, and a gorgeous German Shepherd!!! Daddy take me with you!!! He got off in a town which consisted of 3 buildings, God only knows what he's doing there (it's not the kind of place you see lovely traveling punks in the US that's for sure!) but when the city life is finally too much for me I just might land myself in that 3 shack village and shack up in one of them with that lovely man...

Train station in Kuty: first town in Slovakia

Another travel myth disproved... the # by your train on the departure board telling you where to catch your train does not necessarily indicate something resembling a platform...at the Kuty train station the #2 next to my train means track number 2, there are 5 tracks running past the station and the good people of Kuty have built little wooden ramps for smooth traveling across each rail (for wheelchairs and rolling luggage I suppose) an you must only hope that while you're walking across the tracks to get to yours you don't get run over by someone else's train (a Slovakian variation on the Cure song?)

Kuty is really small... but they have a gambling room I the train station which seems to be more a venue for local drunks than for tourist entertainment. When I walked out the front door of the station for a stroll the 3 people were around looked at me like I stepped out of a spaceship... like no one had ever come OUT of the station before, people just go in and are never seen again! (probably close to the truth, I imagine this place has a similar youth retention problem to American nowhere town like Dickens, Texas...)

Nonetheless, the folks here are nice, the bathroom is the cleanest since I left home (actually I think their bathroom is cleaner than mine...) the Pepsi is warm but costs about 40 cents a liter and there are chickens serenading me (cluck cluck).

Train #5: Kuty - Nove Zamky (which means Newcastle in Slovakian!)

Alas, my visit to Kuty is done, and now I'm aboard the EC Polonia, which will take me to Nove Zamky. I'll only unfortunately be on this train for approximately 1.5 hours, then boarding another slowpoke regional train to the Slovak-Hungarian border crossing at Komarno and my (hopefully) romantic stroll across the Danube to catch the last train of the day into Budapest.

Let me take a moment to make a very strong suggestion for anyone planning this kind of super economy train adventure in the future. Find a few places along the way where a segment is ridden on a luxury line (Intercity or Eurocity) for an hour or two! Yes this small part of my trip is costing me about 3 times as much as would a regional and it's really a matter of timing that led me to choose this train (because it makes less stops it makes an earlier connection in Nove Zamky than the regional train which left Kuty around the same time). But what a wonderful feeling to get on this lovely train after the cramped bus all night, 4 shabby train stations and quickly declining train quality as I move south! I, even on my tight-ass budget, would never question for a second the US$6 difference was entirely worth it to be able to step into this compartment where I can smoke (strangely not allowed on the crusty regionals) and sit on fuzzy plush seats with a compartment all to my self (no compartments on regionals, just rows of schoolbus-style seats) and write this in peace while we ZOOM through the Slovakian countryside. A few hours respite quite needed. I should also say that contrary to the extortion horror stories I read, in guide books and online, the Czech and Slovakian train conductors have been polite and charming, the border controllers coming into Slovakia didn't even ask to see my return ticket (the info online says without a visa US citizens must prove they're leaving within 30 days) and although the staff at the main station in Prague are grumpy (can't blame them really, it's stupid tourist hell there!) the staff at all the other stations have been super great!

Nove Zamky: waiting for train #6

The peaceful compartment to myself portion of my journey on the Polonia came to an end when we reached Bratislava and 2 kooky Slovakian middle aged guys got on and joined me in my compartment. One spoke no English or German, the other (Gerard) spoke some (pretty good) German and we chatted for a while. Gerard paid for his ride by giving the conductor a roll of (already open) Mentos, which I'm pretty sure weren't really Mentos at all... then told me that the conductor was a "comrade" of his... I also think he tried to tell me that he would pay 1000 marks (about 500 bucks) for me, but his demeanor wasn't sleazy so I assumed I misunderstood. Regardless I ignored that part of the conversation and had a nice chat with him... I think if someone was going to attack me or rob me on this leg of my journey it would've been those guys but as far as I can tell nothing's missing from my stuff (I'm pretty well locked down anyhow, all my important things are in a little corduroy pocket down the back of my underpants!)

Nove Zamky is a funny little city from what I can tell. There is a lovely plaza in front of the station (where I am writing this) and an apartment block district around it which is the nice end of Socialist nightmare architecture. I bought a pack of Chesterfields for US$1, they're midget sized and taste pretty good although for US$1 a pack they could be a centimeter long and made of dirt and I couldn't really bitch! When I first asked the lady at the kiosk for them she didn't know what I was saying so I said "Sheh-stair-feeldz" like an exaggeratedly dramatic Slovakian and low and behold she knew exactly what I wanted!

I also bought a bottle of mineral water which is from a Slovakian spring, there's even a little map on the bottle showing you where it bubbles up from the radioactively health-stimulating bowels of Mother Earth. Nonetheless it was bottled by the good old Pepsi-Cola company! Viva global industry and corporate colonialism! Enter the new dawn of bottled-drink-world-unity!

Train #6: to the Hungarian border

Now I'm sitting in the train which will go to the Hungarian border at Komarno and to my horror\delight it has just been mopped (seats as well as floors)... I managed to find a compartment in which the worst smell was the disinfectant and now I'm sitting out the long wait till we leave (somehow at this point in my journey I'm happy to sit in this smelly box or the 40 minutes rather than be paranoid on the platform that I'll either be robbed or space out and miss my train)...

Everything seems to be going quite smoothly so far, all that's left is my short half hour trip to Komarno, walking across the Danube and rolling into Budapest...

I have done a very good job of packing light so walking across the bridge within the 30 minutes before my train leaves on the other side shouldn't be such a drama... however I did space out on bringing the directions on how to find the bridge from the train station on the Slovak side, I'm hoping Komarno is a small and short-buildinged as Kuty so I'll easily be able to meander towards the Danube, which isn't exactly a babbling brook after all...

"I'm a cowgirl. In a steel & naugahide stinkbox I ride. And I've made it (maade ih-ih-ih-it) through 3 countries on six trains in 10 hours alive!" Bon Jovi can try to top that!!!!

Hungarian interlude

...At this point I stopped writing for about 5 days, busy running around with my friend Misha who met me in Budapest. For an update on the rest of that evening: I did manage to cross the Danube, only found the bridge because some drunk kid I met on the train, who also spoke no English but ok German (thank god I've been living in Germany for 7 months before this trip!) happened to live two blocks from the bridge and walked me there, I never would've found it without him! I was the only one on the bridge, the sun was setting over the Danube, it was gorgeous [...]

I missed the train I was supposed to be on because the train station in the Hungarian town of Komarov has no ATM, no money exchange facilities, and rude counter staff who think that sending me up a hill and for a 20 minute walk through town searching for an exchange office which is not closed at 7p.m. on a Saturday evening to finally find an ATM and drag my ass back to the station 10 minutes after my train has left is an experience which can be described by writing "30 meters" with an arrow pointing towards town on a piece of paper!!! Anyhow, I did hallucinate a bit from sleep deprivation, hunger (no place to feed yourself at the station either) and exhaustion from running with my backpack up the 30 meter long hill at the top of which I expected to find a money exchange office, but I was able to cross the rolling waves of platform (I was really hallucinating) to board my train and pass out until Budapest and Misha was at the station waiting for me and led me to our hostel.

Journey to the East

take a deep breath...

Saturday April 20th On the train to Sibiu, Transylvanian Romania

I last wrote just before reaching Budapest and that leaves me in the unfortunate predicament f needing to recap a very full week of traveling...

Saturday the 13th: Budapest day 1

When I arrived in Budapest Misha took me to our hostel, the Yellow Submarine, which was (not surprisingly given the name) a hippy heaven which seemed to belong better in Amsterdam. Actually many things about the scene which caters to expats and tourist in Budapest seem reminiscent of Amsterdam (minus the dope of course, but hookers are a big industry here as well...). We went to a gay bar called Heaven 54, a really cool place which sported a very strange show tranny-lesbo-goth-fag cabaret interpretive and club dancing performances along with several pop songs sung karaoke style...weird! Budapest is gay friendly, to the extent of having a gay guide for tourists at the hostel and a gay section in other club listings... this is an extreme contrast to very homophobic Romania where homosexuality was just decriminalized several months ago, only as a concession to their desire to join the EU at some point... rural Hungary is probably much the same in sentiment, the Socialist regimes around here weren't so friendly towards queers and of course the Eastern Orthodox church which rules this region isn't warm and fuzzy about gayness either...

Sunday the 14th: Budapest day 2

Walked all over the city today, it's really beautiful [...], surprise monsoon drove us into a restaurant which dished up some yummy goulash (US$3), went to the Castro Bistro for dinner of Serbian cheeseburger, forty pounds of ground beef stuffed with cheese and bacon on a pita, and were driven homeward by a loud obnoxious expat showing off to newcomers at the table next to us... this day was boring without visual aids, mostly just looked at buildings and ate...

Monday the 15th: on to Romania

Tried to catch a train to Oradea, Romania, thinking we'd spend the night in Vlad Dracul's birthplace Sighisoara in the center of Romania... unfortunately none of the ATM's would give us cash for the train, we finally cashed in some Euros and made it to the ticket counter 10 minutes before the train left but the grumpy granny at the counter refused to even attempt to fill out the necessary paperwork in time and simply would not sell us a ticket... so I took control of the chaos and decided that we would simply do the trip backwards and start our Romania visit in Timisoara, the town I had planned to visit on the way home which is close to the South-western border with Hungary... thankfully I memorized most of the maps for these countries before I left, and brought simple rail maps with me so I quickly plotted a course for us through a town called Szeged, to which a train would leave in an hour... we bought a ticket which would take us all the way to Timisoara (you just get tickets for a certain distance, paying by the kilometer, and then take whatever trains you can to get there) which turned out to cost more than we had but lo and behold Misha's ATM card was accepted at the ticket counter!!! That's right, we could have paid by card and caught the first train instead of running around to three different ATM's trying to get money and encountering the time-obsessive grumpy granny obstacle!!! Fate works in strange ways though, and I wasn't arguing by this point after my providence led trip on Saturday so we hopped the train to Szeged... of course the wackiness couldn't possibly be over... The very nice and no-English-speaking conductor explained to me that in fact there is no train line connecting Szeged to Timisoara, the train line which crosses the border closest to here is the one to Arad, and we should get off at the next town and take a train to Szolnok, where we could meet up with a train which would leave Budapest in 3 hours going directly to Timisoara... you may ask yourself why we didn't just hang out in Budapest for the morning and catch this other train in the first place? well, first of all the other train clearly left from one of the other 6 train stations in Budapest, therefore it wasn't even listed on the timetable we looked at, also we just didn't want to be in Budapest anymore, we thought we could get out to a small town work our way to Timisoara simply and without losing too much time... of course we were wrong in some ways but it turned out ok, mostly due to a gift of mine which I must now take a moment to rave about.

I can now officially join the ranks of the Superfriends, X-Men, Fantastic Four becomes Fantastic Five because I have discovered my superpower!!!! I am "Telepathic Translator Girl" or, as my mother and other Douglas Adams fans would say I have a built in Babelfish... For some reason this gift does not work for German, although I have had flashes of it when dealing with various foreign language speakers in need in the US, but during this trip it kicked in full force... (much to the amazement of my traveling partner Misha, who I think was a little freaked out about it by the end of the trip). Yes, I am able to understand people speaking languages I have never even heard before, beyond the things indicated by drawings and hand gestures I was able to translate Hungarian and Romanian enough to get by extremely well and get advice about complicated train changes and such... later in the trip this gets totally out of control...

So back to the trip to Romania... we stopped in two small Hungarian towns for an hour or two each, shopped at a Hungarian "dollar store", which is a 100 Florint store, which means it is for me a 30 cent store, and bought things a traveler really needs like moist towelettes and bright purple styrofoam shower shoes and tin hair clips and knives for cheese and bread all of which rang up to about 3 bucks... in the second town I ordered one of the two dishes offered at a little restaurant, my favorite dish of course: goulash! this turned out to be goose liver goulash which I normally would never touch but what the hell I was on the road so I ate it and it was good if a bit overpowering and chewy... I also got a T-shirt with a picture of the Earth as seen from space and twinkling stars on it which I found funny and ironic traveling to Hungary I buy a shirt with a picture of the Earth on it "I went to the planet Earth and all I got was this stupid T-shirt"?

We finally rolled in to Timisoara around 9 p.m., went to the hotel we wanted to stay at, it was full, found another one which looked more like a university library than a hostel, seemingly deserted, found someone doing construction who looked intensely into our eyes and said simply "come" and led us by the arm up some back stairs to a strange little bar where the counter guy led us to a middle-of-remodeling area where there was a dorm room with four beds and a bathroom just for us, (US$6 a night)... we wandered towards the town center looking for a party, found a gas station and bought a bottle of nice white wine (US$2) and then wandered into and dorm complex for the university where we found a student bar... the bar had four levels each with a different decor and type of music, they were very nice and the people sitting by the bathroom cheered for me when I was able to find the light switch on the outside of the doorway!...

Tuesday the 16th: to Bucuresti we go...

In the morning we went to the lovely historic city center of Timisoara [...], made the mistake of thinking we could eat a quick meal which didn't end up arriving at our table until 30 minutes before our train was to leave on the other side of town... nonetheless I once again went into turbo mode and took control of the situation, at this point I was accepting no more reroutes so we hopped a cab to the station and against the fretting and lack of faith of Misha I sent him to the luggage counter to get our bags and went to the counter to buy our tickets 7 minutes before our train left... fortunately the counter staff in Romania are the opposite of the grumpy granny in Budapest... This woman said "you've only go five minutes" and flames leapt from her pen as she filed out the 500 pages of bureaucracy at the speed of light, gave me the tickets and as I hurried away she shouted to me "platform 5 car 1"... she was truly an angel!

The train ride to Bucuresti is lovely through the south past the border with Yugoslavia, through the Transylvanian Alps, and meets the Danube as it comes out through the mountains... the whole southern region is full of small farms, horse drawn ploughs and old women in handmade outfits hoeing the field, goatherds and shepherds chilling out in meadows with their flocks and floppy dogs, every little house has chickens wandering around next to it, (no yucky coops and stock yards here!) (for those of you who know this jargon: it was a heaven of spook shacks, the most cozy spook shacks in the world, they have big spook shacks for the people and little spook shacks for the farm equipment and the sheep and dogs...)

This was the point at which I fell completely and totally head over heels in love with Romania... I had heard such horror stories of industrial wasteland, pollution and Calcutta-level squalor... but in these small farming regions I saw the kind of life I have been hankering for, a place to go raise some kids someday... just a reassurance that there are places on Earth, in Europe even, where the farms don't have tractors, people who live out in the country don't all think they need cars, and you can be a goatherd and chill out on a hillside eating cheese and smoking a pipe all day... some of you would think it was kitschy or boring or whatever but for me it is good to know that (without permaculture classes or commune-building drama struggles or any of the things we western civilization kids go through in searching for an agrarian paradise) these folks are living what I consider to be "the good life" right next door!

This romantic dream is of course totally smashed to bits in Bucuresti, which is a very nice city but a totally different world from these rural areas... on the train there were lots of young women in Nordstrom's Rack style hip chick clothes, dressed like Britney Spears in tight flared jeans and spandex shirts with marabou trim and stiletto heel ankle boots... I couldn't help but wonder what the grannies in the field in hand made goatskin farm boots and head scarves think when they see these girlies...

Which leads us to ...

Wednesday the 17th: Bucuresti day 1

I was visiting my friend Joe [JM: Hi, Jess, now you're visiting me on the web!] in Bucuresti, and we got up and left Misha at home this morning to go for a long walk around some very beautiful parts of Bucuresti. Now Bucuresti has gotten a really bad rep, even the Eastern Europe Lonely Planet guide lists Bucuresti as one of the five sights of Eastern Europe which is not worth seeing... I find this unfair and rude, I had a great time there and would've really liked to stay longer... Of course there are large areas of Socialist nightmare apartment block slums, but that was really the only thing about the city I found unpleasant... and of course I had a guide who has been living there for 7 months [JM: actually, about 5 at this time] and is the type of person not afraid to walk all over a place looking for good stuff but hey, the city's definitely not a nightmare and I have to say I enjoyed the less stressful feeling of it not being a super gorgeous tourist center like Prague and Budapest. I just didn't feel as stressed with the need to see all the beautiful stuff and I could spend more time enjoying stuff like going to the Opera and Ballet and shopping in the market and eating great food and walking around without being overwhelmed by 400-year-old architectural majesty looming over me on all sides.

That said, I had a lovely walk around several areas of Bucuresti, the first was an old quarter [JM: Lipscani] which is run down in what I find a very nice weathered way, lots of galleries and we actually found one which had an exhibit of photos with a distinctly gender-bender homoerotic thing going on which was shocking to us both considering the nations shady stance on homos... we had coffee and walked some more, this time through an area of old mini-villas covered in vines and stray dogs which were cute and scruffy... This area reminded me very much of some of the older Spanish-style areas in the East Bay and LA suburbs such as San Bernadino and Redlands... Some of you know enough of my history to realize that this made me feel quite at home and I chalked up some more points for Romania in the "country I'm most in love with" contest...

We spent the evening at the ballet, the only one I've attended since the Nutcracker when I was a wee lass... which was truly affordable for the first time in my life and was nonetheless, as Joe put it, "world class"... It was an adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, set to various Tchaikovsky pieces and truly they couldn't have prepared something more suited to me if they had known I was coming! Afterwards we ate some dinner at the Count Dracula Club restaurant, and I ate (thank god for the joys of unintentional translation-mistake puns!...) "sucking pig" with mashed potatoes... I'm really not sure how our room fit into the Dracula theme, granted it was supposed to be the dungeon or whatever but it was more like a kinky disco with its iron chain suspended benches and iron grill work chairs all with heart shaped red plush pillows for your bums... I honestly doubt it was a historically accurate replica of dungeon or else he would have a much cuter reputation!

After the fuzzy love torture chamber dinner we went to a disco-bar, which played a cool mix of old Brit-rock, 80's college/alternative tunes, and modern Brit- and rock-pop... I must also say that Romania is also chock-full-o-babes and they flirt...blatantly... which was a very welcome change from the shy uptight cliquish Deutschlanders who have been causing my oh-so-lonely-and-a-bit-insecureness all winter (it's been along time since I went for 7 months without a really good flirt!!)... although I must admit I didn't pursue my hankering to get a little romance in Romania, there were just more important things to do and time was short... but I know that if I were to move there... watch out boys!

Thursday the 18th

Today was market day, first we had sweets (yummy rice pudding custard sweet sweet sweet with filo dough and chocolate truffle stuff and mmmmmm...) and coffee at a patisserie, then went to huge market [JM: Obor] which was mind blowing... I got some super cool shoes for US$8 and some Romanian techno music and we ate yummy pickles and hot pretzels and I bought some handmade temple incense and saw baby chickens and ducks and oh my so much.....Then we split up and Joe and I went to the Romanian Peasant Museum... the museum rocked too, lots of icons, and badass embroidered cloth, and pottery and most of all these wacked out costumes and masks for people and sheep to wear during their nutso festival remnant of paganism where they get drunk and funky in the cold winter... The masks were so crazy I just can't explain them, kinda like cargo cult style junked up African masks with pieces of tin can and buttons and bottle caps and all kinds of stuff making big freaky faces with shell-bean-and bone teeth and feathers and goat fur for hair and who knows what... it was my favorite exhibit ever!

Then we went to the opera, The Marriage of Figaro, also world class and dirt cheap, and opted for going home early (midnight ) after the computer timetable told us our train would leave at 8 a.m. the next day.

While I'm writing this it seems like i was there so short a time but actually I am amazed it felt so long and i did so much while I was there. Three (hundred) cheers to Joe for being an awesome tour guide, picking great places to walk and eat and shop, encouraging me through his emails to see some super opera and ballet while there (something i would never have thought of on my own) and for great, and sorely needed, conversations in fluent flexible wiley and well-informed English!! [JM: Thanks, Jess.]

Thursday the 19th

Morning goodbye to Joe, then a good smooth transition to the train station and no problem we got tickets to... well we decided to go to a town called Sibiu, totally skipped the birthplace of Dracula (after all we already ate dinner in his S & M love dungeon!) and decided to got to Sibiu...it's closer to the border which means easier to get home on Sunday, recommended by Joe's boss as the one city outside of Bucuresti not to be missed, and an exchange student who stayed with Misha's family in high school was from there so he was hoping to find her... on the train to Sibiu we shared a compartment with a mother and daughter from Sibiu, and this is where my translation super powers really kicked in... the momma, Anna, started talking to me in sentences composed of about 10% totally wacky English 2% German and the rest Romanian... somehow I was able to have this conversation with her: She and her daughter, Bianca (age 21) had come from Bucuresti where they had operations at the hospital... Bianca on a scar in her eye which was caused by an accident when she was 6 years old, mom on some varicose veins in her leg... The doctor won't let Bianca have the Ibuprofen I offer even though she is clearly in serious pain... Anna has another daughter, aged 18, at home who speaks English... Anna used to work at the big hotel in Sibiu but she got fired because she is too old and has medical problems... Anna is a Christian, lives in Sibiu with her daughters but no husband, her mother lives in a small village in the mountains we are passing, and she wants to invite us to stay with her family in Sibiu... She thinks it's stupid to stay in a hotel for only a few nights when you are only two people... She doesn't think the hotel we have chosen from the guide book is any good anyway and she wouldn't like us to go to the big hotel because her boss there was a real asshole... She has only one bed for us to sleep in so she wants to know if it's ok for us to share... I happily accept and tell her many things about our trip and myself as well...

This whole conversation happens while Misha is in the next compartment taking secret photos of the peasantry and various ugly factories we are passing because he is embarrassed for anyone to think he is patronizing or whatever if they see him photographing things they aren't necessarily proud of... When he returns to the compartment to find momma and me chatting away I tell him we have been invited to stay with her and that I have already accepted... I won't attempt to describe the look on his face...

So needless to say we went home with these ladies to their fabulous house in Sibiu... The neighborhood they live in is over 300 years old, small winding cobblestone streets and very Mediterranean looking every house along the street is just a set of shuttered windows and a big wooden gate in a wall which opens into a courtyard off which several doors lead to individual homes... Sort of medieval triplexes sharing a garden courtyard... Their flat was lovely, and the decor was a near exact replica of my grandmother's home in Texas... As a matter of fact the family itself was so like the good parts of my own clan that I felt right at home with these folks from the very beginning and Momma said over dinner the first night "she's just like us!"... I spent a lot of time laughing and gabbing with the ladies, talking about men and school and shitty bosses an minimum wage and government bullshit and all kinds of stuff...

I became good pals with the younger daughter Anca who is 18 and isn't into all this western capitalist crap at all. At first she couldn't understand me at all, wondering why an American would be in love with Romania and all since even most of her schoolmates don't like the place and want to wear high heels and Britney Spears clothes and stuff but she's happier in sweatpants and sneakers and wants to stay in her town forever so she was a wonderful surprise and she was equally excited to meet someone from my side of the world who could relate to her so we really hit it off...

The second day I wanted to make dinner for the family and although they suggested I go to the supermarket around the corner (the only one in town). [JM: Hmm, I think there are several supermarkets in Sibiu. I found one right by the Piata Mare and another a little out of the center which was open 24 hours and which just might be the one Jess is describing.] I insisted that they direct me to the market to buy fresh stuff from the locals... this is how I ended up buying meat from a butcher for the first time in my life... in a Romanian market square where they spoke no English... Of course the place really stunk and everyone is touching the meat with dirty hands, the vendor tried to sell me an entire sheep corpse, I finally chose a piece of beef (thank go the word for cow in Romanian is the same as in Spanish: vaca... Then I bought veggies and rice and went home to cook fajitas from Romanian market food, yes that's right I cooked Mexican food for my lovely Romanian hosts!!!

On the topic of food: momma has several supplies of homemade schnapps, all of which are super deadly in alcohol content but so clean and smooth that you don't mind, except for the fact that we had (and I mean HAD to drink it... mom left us no choice) before each meal... supposedly as a digestive aid... this includes before breakfast, which really confused me the first morning when I'm facing a glass of 4000 proof schnapps at 8 a.m., and I tried to explain that I don't think I need a digestive aid first thing in the morning, but then I saw what was for breakfast (mayonnaise mixed with pickled eggplant, pickled tomatoes, cottage cheese, strange salted cheese like feta, and salted pork fat...) and decided maybe my stomach need a little boost after all! After each meal, and for most of the day in my case, there was homemade wine from the grapevines in the courtyard, which was the most delicious thing ever, and to my delight they sent me home with 2 liters of it which I have been enjoying ever since I got back! I spent my last night there cuddled up with momma on the couch watching a Fleetwood Mac concert on tv... what a crazy life I have, who ever could have guessed??? The second morning I had to leave and it was really sad, I must say I could easily have stayed with them forever and they insisted that I should come back for a longer stay as soon as possible also suggesting that I should bring as much of my family as possible with me... so I guess it's safe to say I have been adopted by a Romanian family and I couldn't be happier about it!

Sunday the 21st: a long train ride to Prague

I took a train to a small village, Medias, to get a direct train to Prague... I really didn't feel like hopping trains anymore so I dished out the remains of my budget for a direct ticket to Prague (about US$50) which took about 18 hours... I spent the morning lazing about this small village, and since it was Sunday morning I got to see all the people going to their various old and gorgeous churches which each had a bell serenade all of which were competing for attention so it was a surreal and fabulous send off for me... the center of town had a beautiful square with a fountain and the sun was shining and I ate chocolate and said my silent good-byes to the country which has stolen my heart completely...

On the train platform a Gypsy couple asked me for money but instead I shared with them the lunch Anna had packed for me, after which the man spent a painstaking 15 minutes writing his address down for me... I gave them my address in return and they smiled their faces off... I guess that was the very thing to make my trip complete after hearing so much slander of the Rroma people the whole time I was in Romania of course I had to make friends with some of those folks before rolling out and I didn't even do it on purpose just to be contrary!!! I love how this stuff happens to me!!! (since I am writing this two weeks later I can share the news that to my delight two days ago I received a letter totally in Romanian of which I can read just enough to know that it's a basic hello from this Gypsy family, telling the ages and names of their children and god knows what else, I have to get it translated but the handwriting is pretty crazy so I guess when I'm finally able to decipher what the words are I'll send it to Joe for a translation... totally cool though, eh?!?!?) Then I got on the train and slept all the way to Prague, except for a portion of Hungary where I watched the biggest wild rabbits I've ever seen hop through field along with lots of small bouncy deer with big white asses, I've never seen any like them... does anyone know what kind of deer those are?

And now we come to the last day...

Monday the 22nd: a day in Prague

12 long hours to kill with US$10 in my pocket during tourist season = nightmare!!!

4:15 p.m. : Eating at some small Czech pub, I've been walking with only small breaks since 7 a.m. and my legs are going to fall off... I feel like I walked through all 4 countries the past week, especially in Sibiu, Budapest, Bucuresti, Timisoara and Prague... wait, those ARE all the places I've been!! Yes I have been walking an average of about 15 miles a day, more on some days and less on days where I'm on a train for a long time... Today wins the prize by a long shit! Prague is just really an exhausting city, and I didn't have enough money to take a cafe break every 2 hours... anyhow I really just can't wait to be in my flat again and fall down...

I headed first thing this morning up to the old town center, had coffee and pastry, then took a tram up to the Strahov monastery which was really gorgeous (more photos)... I walked down the path behind the cloister (this was a traumatic point because the city had been pretty empty before this since it was so early but lots of tours start at 10 so I walked into the monastery grounds in peace at about 9:45 and then after a while I turned around to see about five herds of tourist being led towards my quiet bench where I had been enjoying an apple and a panorama view of Prague!!! NIGHTMARE!!! Thus began a long day of trying not to kill any tourists... The path behind the cloister wound down a long hill through a nice park and into the embassy district and emptied into the little streets below the castle... this of course meant I had to cross the Charles Bridge (the one on which I spent New Years getting a champagne-ice hair treatment) which I had no desire to cross today with 5,000,000 Italian, German, British and American post-lobotomy gawkers... somewhere along the way I picked up a flyer for the Mucha museum (he's the art nouveau artist who did the famous JOB rolling paper ads and also most of Sarah Bernhardt's posters...) so I decided to go there... I have to say that considering the volume of work the man put out the collection was way too small, especially for the US$4 admission fee, however it was beautiful and inspired me to buy a pencil and sketch pad and spend the rest of the afternoon sketching the various embellishments of buildings in this way-too-embellished city... I really think Prague is way too much of a good thing, but especially after Romania... what a contrast!! (like Tammy Faye Bakker compared to Venus De Milo... actually Venus is a good metaphor for Romania, a lovely lady with missing limbs...)

I just got totally lost looking for bar which was advertised in one of the English-language weeklies (The Pill, which is the first European paper to feature "Savage Love"!)... when I finally found it it looked dull and furthermore closed so although my feet feel as though they are leaving a river of blood behind me tracing my path through the city, and I think I must now know how those barefoot pilgrims feel when they climb stony paths to some hidden shrine in the Himalayas nonetheless I dragged my tired ass further searching desperately for one last helping of goulash and a nice Czech beer for under 50 Kronen... alas I found it at last and here I am, tummy satisfied with yet 3 and a half hours before my damn bus leaves to Berlin!!

Later...

I finally get to go home... only after being harassed by a stinky yucky drunk at the bus station who insisted on rambling on in Czech and trying to lay his nasty head on my shoulder until I unless the hellhounds of my exhausted irritable totally-over-it-all anger on him after which he had the sense to shuffle away as quickly as he could...a yucky (although cathartic) end to a wonderful trip...


To Joe's writing on Jess's visit to Bucharest >>>



Originally written: May 3, 2002 - Jessica Long
Last modified: May 26, 2002 - Joe Mabel

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