3 November 1999
The train ride to Cluj was fantastic... we had 8 people in the compartment... two very trendy young women (one may have been German -- there is a large German minority here), a mother and son about 12 or 13, a mid-30s guy, a beautiful very old grandmother in traditional romania dress and these two weird gawky americans. At one point the old woman fell asleep on the leg of one of the trendy young women... she just smiled and we all chuckled a little along with her.
We saw factories and farms, gorgeous mountains and hills and forests and wow. The Romanian countryside is beautiful... there were thousands of the traditional haystack made to stand up with some kind of sticks (how DO they do that?!?!).
Cluj is an industrial town in the mountains with a large University. It is EXTREMELY polluted. Cough, cough! It is also another old Hungarian city with stunning squares and boulevards. The great Hungarian King Mathias was born here and it he is EVERYWHERE, including on a gigantic equestrian statue in the middle of the town square. The Romanians added the Napoca to the name when they received the territory 50 years ago to emphasize the Dacian (pre-Roman) origins of the city.
We wanted to stay near the center, but the hotels there were more expensive than what we could really afford -- but we booked into the Hotel Continental (which was also yellow), right on the square, anyway. Inflation is so bad that the price posted in LEI changed every day. You could pay in dollars, but we were afraid because of the things we had heard about clerks pocketing the money and not giving receipts. We later were told by a reliable source that it DID happen at that hotel. We were a little frustrated, but it was a VERY nice hotel, by our standards. Also, Cheryln was sick -- so it was nice to have a decent place for her to nap during the day and get a good night's sleep. She had been feeling a little bit down, but the extreme pollution (car exhaust) the first day we were in Cluj really took her down. After that it was less foggy and less polluted, but still really bad. Due to our floundering and fear and her not feeling well we wound up spending 3 nights at the Hotel Continental -- paying England prices, not Eastern Europe prices!!
We walked around a lot -- explored the historical sights of town, wandered around the University area (near the center) hoping to find someone to chat with, walked up into a residential area (down an extremely polluted street), looking for a hostel (which we never found), found and sent postcards, went to a GREAT Ethnographical museum, rode a tram to the end of the line, spent a lot of time in the area of the main square... and it is great to just experience Romania. We had hoped to find a way to get out into the countryside and had addresses of several university affiliated groups that might help, but none exist anymore... we've kind of floundered, but I felt (and still feel) very lucky just to be in Romania.
We also spent A LOT of time at the WONDERFUL Internet Club called Codec. It was very fast, cheap, and friendly and even had a webcam too! At one point we passed a used computer store and went up to the second floor where it was and asked about an accessory that I badly need for my palmtop computer -- they were very friendly and searched and searched but couldn't find it. The funniest part was when she was asking me about the machine and I told her it was very old, from 1991. She looked at me and sighed, "Oh... this is Romania." Meaning that they only have the newest and most popular computer things! It was strange!
There is a strange juxtaposition here -- we saw it in Hungary too, but it is much more pronounced here. There is the old and the new. Both are complex and full of powerful issues.
The old is often beautiful old buildings in terrible disrepair (on the outside), falling apart infrastructure... dirty, dusty and plain... worn paint and few signs. There is a calm peacefulness to it... but also a despair. Romania is very poor and has been for many years. There are many old old store fronts (or more like counters) selling western products.
The new, often right next door to the old is shiny bright stores that look like they belong in a brand new Mall in the USA. (We described walking down the street as Bellevue meets Moscow!) Almost all of the storefronts are American, German or Italian companies. AT&T. McDonalds. etc. It drips wealth. Nike is everywhere (and the shoes cost several months salary!) It reminds us of a comment a friend in Germany made: "How come when people try to adopt 'western' culture, they invariably adopt the WORST of it!" The evening in Oradea we were on a somewhat deserted street near our hotel and we passed a guy in his early twenties staring in the window of a Nike shop almost visibly drooling. He didn't move a muscle, just stared into the window longingly for the entire time it took us to walk a block and a half. He was still there when we turned the coroner.
While we were riding the tram, in the middle of the city, we saw a woman leading her cows down the street. On the return trip, we saw the cows grazing in a city park! We later heard stories about people leading their cows while talking on cell phones. I saw a schoolyard with kids playing in it. The school was ancient, the clothes were typical of any agricultural society. It could've been 200 years ago. Then one of the kids pulled out his pager. We were looking at a beautiful 300 year old Orthodox church, but couldn't miss the microwave tower with cell phone antennas that hovered directly over the church. We were waiting for a tram at the edge of the city of Cluj (second largest in the country). In one direction was city packed houses, in the other direction, barren brown hills. One of the many horse carts drove up, a guy got off and jumped on the electric tram. These kinds of sights were common in Romania.
It's very frightening seeing these things side by side... you can't escape the feeling that something is being lost. Obviously something bad is being lost -- but there is a lot of history and a lot of work and a lot of real life that is being thrown out with the bath water, and replaced with... McDonalds and German cell phones.
Most of the food that we have found, not all, but most, is pizza, burgers, maybe some spaghetti! They do have nice pastries though!
The Romanians are very thoughtful about their looks and this is an interesting time to be here. Everyone over 45 or so dresses fairly traditional, and looks weathered and REAL. Everyone under 25 is trendy and very made up... look like they stepped out of the trendiest streets in West London. And those in between... The only people flaunting wealth (other than they kids clothing) are the 30 to 45 year old men. They have the big German luxury cars, rings and suits and are CLEARLY the power class... the future magnates of Romania.
We haven't been able to really have any long conversations with people, but they are helpful and friendly... except when driving! They drive Dacias, like Ladas but they pollute more, and there are no stop lights or signs, it's everyone for themselves. They WON'T actually hit a pedestrian, but they will make it look like they are going to!!!
There is so much more to say about Romania, but I haven't even digested it all yet!
More adventures will surely follow!
© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000
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