Tuesday, April 19, 2016


(Part I Easter Holiday)

I had my eyes wander over the map of Europe, looking for a country I had not been to. Romania and Bulgaria were the answer.


People tell me I am nuts, because for every trip I go online to find locals I have never met, in order to crash on their couch. I am told I will run into freaks and psychos. So let me tell you what weirdos I really meet and you can tell me what attitude I should take. My very first host in Sibiu, Romania picks me up from the airport, then takes me to his parents' place, where his mum feeds us dinner. An opportunity to see how an average middle-class family lives (small place, could have been refurbished 30 years ago, but clean and tidy, living room also serves as a bedroom, tiger print bedspread, mini plates and cups in display in a glass cupboard, some religious pictures, old television blasting). We then go to his apartment, where we talk current living conditions in Romania and he downloads a T.V.-series of my choice. Host number two in Shigisoara is a family of three, and I am offered my own bedroom. I play with the little boy and stay up far too late chatting to her about gypsies and Ceausescu. This couple makes traditional decorated wooden spoons for a living, so I get a whole look-in into that after the dinner we share. They give me the key, so I can come back any time. Host number three in Brasov is also a couple with a baby. Over the dinners we have together, they tell me the whole story of how they met and about their trips through Europe on a motorbike. All these hosts provide me with the tourist information needed and tips. This system of opening both your mind and house up to others has restored my faith in people and makes me want to be nice to other strangers. It gives me the opportunity to look differently at countries;
whilst before it was about the tourist points and perhaps how friendly the staff is somewhere, now it has become for a great deal about the people themselves. What do they tell me about growing up here? What ideas do they share? What do I learn about the culture through them?
Romania is a pleasant surprise. Transylvania offers small towns with cobblestone streets and colourful houses. The nature does not seem to differ much from what I am used to in northern Europe, except that there are a lot of bears that can be encountered in the wild. I only meet them in an enclosed sanctuary, where abused bears, prior used for performing, are held until their death and hopefully with laws being enforced this sanctuary will die a natural death.

I obviously cannot omit mentioning Dracula, whilst traveling through Transylvania. Dracula’s Castle (Bran) does not quite live up to its expectation (I circle around it until I have the right angle for a more impressive picture), but fiction always lives best in ones imagination. I read the book (from 1897!) on my trip and especially the beginning is filled with adventure. A real pageturner, which becomes more slowpaced once the wise men deliberate for hours in order to figure out what this phenomena is and what to do about it. This book must be even more exciting not knowing about vampires! What are those two mysterious red dots in her neck?

Bram Stoker based the name on Vlad Dracul, duke of Wallachia (and not of Transylvania), who had received the order of the Dragon from the king of Hungary. The word dragon found no translation in Romanian, but the word ‘dracul’, meaning Satan, sounded mostly like it, so that is what stuck. His cruel son was then called Draculea, but his other nickname was ‘the impaler’. I will let your imagination run with what that might mean. Neither Draculea, nor Stoker have probably spent time in that castle, so I consider this a very smart marketing ploy, as it has put Transylvania on the tourist map. Otherwise the story is completely made up and impressive just for that reason; today it has pretty much become a genre in itself. The first film, Nosferatu, dates back to 1922!

No such thing as coincidence?
My mother's best friend in Holland, living two blocks away from us, is Romanian. She fled the communist regime and would always speak bitterly about her country. I was therefore surprised to find so much hospitality (not just a bed, also food and long conversations- even though would not say 'affectionate' or 'warm' per se) and the towns in Transylvania are lovely. Bucharest less so. Large grey communist buildings alternate kitschy new build and most of it could have done with some restauration/paint at least 30 years ago. It does not make me feel safe at night, even if there is no reason for that sentiment.

The most shocking and surprising thing that happens, is bumping into my mum's friend, while crossing the street. She has come here, last minute, for a weekend, to look after her parents' grave. I have not seen her in seven years. We have a drink together and she points to different places, where she has met her husband, where she used to live. I ask her if her feelings have changed, she says: “they seem nice, but I know what they are really like.” Both of them being Romanian, but being part of minorities, meant their treatment was unpleasant at the best of times.

At night I go salsa dancing, but I am too tired to show off much skill. To me, everybody looks similar- whether thin, fat, tall, short- there was just no variety, no colour. Even though there is perhaps still more to see, I decide to leave the next day…..