Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

Stylist to the Gypsies October 10, 2008

So every country has its class system. Sometimes it’s overt (take for example, India), and sometimes you have to read between the lines. A few nights ago, I was talking to a man from Malmo, Sweden (I’ve actually met three people from Malmo in the last week…and they’ve all been delightful, but that really has nothing to do with my point). Anyway, Rob was telling me that a lot of the Swedes go to Norway to work because the pay is so much higher. And then he added, with a particular glance in my direction, “We’re the Mexicans.” Touche.

For better or worse, where America has its huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the Balkans have the gypsies. In the various warnings I received to minimize my time in Bucharest (if not avoid it altogether), I was told in hushed tones, “It’s a town of 2 million people…and 500,000 of them are gypsies!!!!!!”

They stand out a little without even trying as they have a darker complexion than many of the Romanians and Bulgarians. This probably poses a challenge to any tourists with a St. Tropez tan.

However, it”s not all brown skin and black hair. What makes the gypsies notable is their fashion sensibility. If you ever wondered what happened to the hideous clothing of the seventies…look no further than Romania. Essentially, think about the ugliest couch you ever saw. And then imagine the polyester afghan your threw in the dumpster after the aunt that made it finally died. Throw in some fluorescent colors, bad mattresses, and maybe six or seven competing floral patterns. Don’t forget to use a large plastic bag as a suitcase! Now your gypsy look is complete.

So I started wondering, WHY ARE THEY DRESSING THIS WAY!? If you knew your blond hair and all-denim outfit made you the target of racism and prejudice, wouldn’t you maybe consider some black slacks or perhaps a subtle pair of khakis with a turtleneck? Would you still slip into the acid wash jacket with the same cavalier swagger?

And that’s how it happens that I find myself walking down the street behind a couple women looking like a 1972 flea market. and it dawns on me: THEY NEED ME. And if things don’t work out with my would-be illustrious and award-winning writing career, I’m thinking there could be a niche market as a  Gypsy  personal stylist? I could be their Coco Chanel. My mission would be to teach the value of flourescent floral patterns as an ACCENT. Sure a hot pink paisley head scarf is kicky, but maybe it would be better tied around the neck of your dog? Just a suggestion. No need to pull a knife. Maybe sleep on it?


Things that go awry when you fail to read the fine print October 8, 2008

All right, kids. Tonight’s post is going to be a bit abbreviated.

‘Why?’ you ask. Well, first off, tomorrow I am getting on the ‘local’ (i.e. stops at any field with more than five sheep or a petulant rooster) train from Brasov to Bucharest at 6:40 a.m.

And then – owing to Bucharest’s glowing reputation as the @$$hole of Eastern Europe – I head to Sofia, Bulgaria a mere two hours later . All told? SIXTEEN MOFO HOURS OF TRAVEL. The upside for you, loyal readers, is that I will have scads of time to share my deep thoughts (or not) and catch you up on my activities of the last few days. So long as Susie’s battery holds out, I’ll be typing it up. Anything to distract myself from the numbness in my butt.

The second reason for tonight’s brevity is what I’ve taken to calling Comaneci’s Revenge. Nothing against Nadia, but apparently Romania is one of those “don’t drink the water” countries. Oops.

Not sure how other people figure this kind of thing out, but I need to join that mailing list. I tend to operate on the ‘experiential learning’ model, which is fine so long as your digestive system doesn’t get a vote.


Incognito no more October 7, 2008

I’m going to venture a guess that there is no such thing as the Romanians with Disabilities Act. Or if there is, its enforcers need to host a fund raiser tout de suite. I draw this conclusion based on the fact that getting onto a Romanian train is about as easy as climbing a tree. With no branches. And with one hand tied behind your back. While being attacked by bees. And climbing onto a Romanian train with 40 pounds of luggage strapped on your ailing shoulders borders on impossible. And I say this as someone relatively youthful and in pretty good shape.

In the same vein, I don’t know why, but I’ve been found out. Throughout my travels I have blended in remarkably well. I am often mistaken for German or Italian or French, and more than one American has said that I “don’t look American,” whatever that means. Regardless, it seems I have something of a “generic European” face that somehow always looks local…except in Romania. The Romanians are quite dark, and blond hair is a relative rarity. Thus, for the first time, I am attracting scads of attention, which manifests in young men sitting all around me on the trains, engaging in a wide variety of antics in order to gain my interest.

The antics involve staring, shrieking, singing, clapping, hissing, raucous talking and laughter, more staring (standing up to stare over the seats even), drumming on the windows, and – during one unforgettably surreal hour – blaring Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” from a cell phone over and over and over. Yesterday, I tried changing seats (in an empty car, they will always sit next to and behind me), but they move too. It’s not a problem per se. I don’t feel threatened, just annoyed.

To be frank, I don’t understand the motivation. I suppose my obvious foreignness is fascinating somehow. They don’t speak English, so it’s a pointless effort, but what can you do?

I am going through some of this right now on the train from Sighisoara back to Brasov. Today it’s seven guys in their early twenties, and they are playing what I can only imagine is some local “rock’ music. It sounds an awful lot like a mix of polka and the background music at Indian restaurants…which I suppose, geographically speaking, it about right. One of the guys is wearing a red nylon jacket with a dozen Vodaphone, Bridgestone, and Shell gas patches sewn on it. I don’t know if this is an attempt to look like a heavily endorsed Nascar driver or what. I would hope if Shell and Bridgestone were paying his way, they’d at least put him on the bus. Meanwhile, they’re clapping and foot-stomping and staring at me, but that seems to be par for the course.

Otherwise, I’m hopeful of getting off at the right stop the first time around, and getting a day off from the trains. Riding the Romanian rails is rough. The heat is cranked up incredibly high, cigarette smoking is allowed, and there is no ventilation whatsoever. Plus, the seats are hard as a rock. After a few hours of it, you feel like a piece of beef jerky. I got to my guest house yesterday with a seriously sore butt and stinking like a pub.

I am staying the next couple nights in Brasov, Romania in the heart of Transylvania. The whole area is a strange mix of an over the top “Dracula” tourist trap and the Kazakhstan of Borat. The ‘real’ Dracula (or as close as it gets) was born in Sighisoara, where I stayed last night. Actually, he was born in what is now the “Casa Vlad Dracu” restaurant, where I ate my not-very-good but quite overpriced dinner. I was given a 50% off ‘coupon’ (something written on a scrap of paper) by my guest house and options were extremely scarce, so I figured why not. If you ever have the opportunity, may I suggest not.

Meanwhile, let me catch you up on little Transylvanian history: Vlad Tepes, a local governer in the area in the mid-1400s is the man known has Dracula. His father was called Vlad Dracul (dragon) for his membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (or devil. Apparently the word is interchangeable). As a young man, Vlad Tepes was sent by his father to the Ottoman Empire as a hostage. There he learned the art of impalement (inserting a large wooden stake into someone, intentionally avoiding the vital organs, so that they suffered a slow agonizing death), which he brought home with him. During his rule, Dracula (known as Vlad the Impaler) killed murderers, thieves, political rivals, the destitute, and the crippled this way. In short, he wasn’t immortal, he never sucked anyone’s blood, and he probably couldn’t turn into a bat, but he was still a bad dude.

Why Bram Stoker decided to write about a real guy, but change it up such is a mystery. Similarly, Bran Castle (apparently denoted as Dracula’s home in the novel) is outside Brasov, but the only thing Vlad the Impaler had to do with it, is that his grandfather had lived there and ‘Dracula’ himself was once imprisoned in the basement by the Hungarian king. Nonetheless, I may take the bus out to castle and the Rasnov fortress tomorrow, in large part because there really isn’t that much to do. The day after is the dreaded, all-day train ride to Sofia. If only they provided plugs or my computer battery lasted more than 2.5 hours. I might not be considering buying coloring books or Sudoku puzzles or whatever sad entertainment is available to me.

On the other hand, no need to focus on that just yet. I still have a full day in Transylvania ahead of me, and who knows what kind of wonders await!?


No need to worry. The chaos is going exactly as planned. October 6, 2008

Greetings from 1759. Also known as Sighisoara (with a funny little symbol under the second “s” that causes it to be pronounced ‘sh’), Romania. This is a part of the world that time forgot: where people ride to town on homemade-looking wooden platforms drawn by horses and the locals marvel when they learn you’re from America. After getting over the initial shock, this is, if you ask me, what it’s all about. A man looked at me and said today, “You must have big courage to come to Romania alone,” but I think they’re selling themselves short. Things have gone wrong, and then some, but all in all it was just a series of mistakes and accidents, and I’m still happy to have made it.

As for the sordid details, if there is one lesson I can share from this journey, it is to expect the unexpected, and be ready to roll with it. And laugh at it. Water off a duck, baby.

Last night, after posting the blog and sending a quick note off to my hostel in Brasov (who hasn’t written back), I headed to the train station. It was a nice night, I had time to kill, and Budapest is lively and safe, so I had no worries about walking late at night. It was probably about 2 kilometers to the train station, and I got there half an hour early. I noted that my train was on Track 11. and I wandered over and waited with about 20 other people. I was sizing up the crowd for would-be robbers, and had my eye on a threesome of 50-something men with one empty-looking backpack between them. There was an empty train adjacent to the track, and an employee came by searching underneath it (for what, I don’t know) with a flashlight.

Around 23:15 the train pulled up, and I began my search for car #417. There was a 415, a 414, and a 413….and I could only assume if I kept wandering to the left, the car numbers would continue to get lower. I found an employee and showed him my ticket.

He studied it for a moment calmly, and then exclaimed what I quickly interpreted as “Sighosora is the train to Bucharest. This is the train to Beograd! You need to go over there!!” He pointed three tracks over.

I glanced at my watch – 23:20. My train would leave the station at 23:25. So I did what I have to do all too often – run like a wounded hippo with a giant weight encumbering my ungainly eforts. I ran all the way back to the main station, looked at the board and saw that they had either switched tracks (which they often do, although I can only understand the announcements if they’re in English) or I’d read it wrong originally. Either way, I needed to get to Track 8. NOW.

I ran down the the platform and jumped into the first car on Track 8. There was a young guy with dread locks standing there. After confirming he spoke English (he sounded British, actually), I asked him, “Is this train going to Bucharest?”

“I have no idea where this train is going,” he told me while I noticed that all of the compartments were seating, and not sleeping berths..

“Good luck with that!” I said to him, and jumped back off.

I found a conductor, and he motioned that I needed to go up several cars. On this particular train, they place the engineer between the passenger cars and the sleeping berths so that people who haven’t purchased berths cannot get to them (they would have to get off the train completely and re-board further up the train)

Anyway, I could see that I needed to cover about 500 meters “Is there time?”, I asked him. “Not much.” He said, so I ran as fast as I could. Literally, and no exaggeration, I opened the door and my hand grabbed the railing as the whistle blew. It was one of those trains with the super-high step up, so I tossed in my day pack, braced myself, and lifted off the ground as the train started moving. Talk about skin of my teeth.

But I made it! And if you ask me, that’s all that matters. However, I’m starting to learn that I’m in the minority in my point of view. Not to side track too much from this story, but since I’m alive and well and (obviously) through the part of my trip that was causing me some concern, I’ll share the following harrowing little tale.

A few nights ago at a hostel, a bunch of us were watching a movie starring Liam Neeson where his teen daughter is kidnapped from her swanky Paris apartment into a sex slavery ring and he has the cahones and the skill set to go and save her all by himself. Due to my well-vocalized concerns, there was some teasing that usually they grab their victims on Romanian night trains, but all in all it was kind of a dumb film. No harm done.

Regardless, one of the guys was reminded of the following story: He’d met an English woman who spent a week in Amsterdam on vacation with her friends. One night, she got together with a guy in a club, and he tried to get her to go home with him. She didn’t want to do that to her girlfriends, so she declined. She got his cell phone number and they hung out together the next day, and went to the club that night. Again, they hooked up, and he tried to get her to go home with him, but she declined. The next day she flew home to England.

She’d been home a few days when she started to develop this white rash above her lip. She went to the doctor, and as the doctor examined it, he became very serious: “Who have you slept with recently?”
“No one,” she told him, “I met a guy in Amsterdam, but I didn’t sleep with him.”

“Do you know who he is and how to find him?”

She had the name and cell phone number, and told the doctor as much.

“What you have is called black mites, and you only get it from contact with dead people.”

When the Amsterdam police got to the home of the young man from the club, they found the decomposed bodies of two young women he had killed. The guy who told us this story now said, “SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN NEXT. SHE WAS ALMOST KILLED. THAT GUY WOULD HAVE KILLED HER NEXT.”

And I thought about it for a split-second and said, “If that happened to me, all I would be able to think is, “I’m ALIVE! I DIDN’T get killed! I got through this unscathed, AND the guy was caught! I think I’d be elated.”

One of the other guys said, “That’s very ‘glass is half-full’ of you,” and the original storyteller said, “No. Don’t you get it?!? She would have been killed!” And I do see that point of view, and I certainly undesrtand that, but what I think is more significant is what actually happened – she lived. Somehow she was spared, and her interaction with him prevented anyone else from being murdered.

Now I have no idea if this story is actually true. although I can vouch that the Australian guy who told it to me believed that it was. My point is rather that the way we choose to interpret things becomes our world. That girl could spend her whole life stuck on the horror that she was almost murdered by a serial killer, or she could tell the story of how she was spared, and he was captured. They’re the same facts, but very different stories.

I’m really starting to think that this is one of those ‘key to life’ insights. There are people that might argue that it’s rationalizing to focus on what went right (instead of what went wrong), but if only you can live your life, then does it matter? I mean, if you choose the interpretation that leads you to feel blessed and grateful instead of vulnerable and afraid, it’s kind of the same difference, and nobody gets hurt. And I’d be willing to bet that a person would be far more capable of helping other people and doing something positive with their life – not to mention feeling a hell of a lot happier – if they just changed how they interpret the facts.

Okay, so thanks for bearing with me through that!

As I was saying, I made it into Sighisoara-bound car #417 in the nick of time. I found my cabin, but it was chained shut. At first I thought someone else was inside sleeping, but then I noticed a small post it note with #62 (my bed) and an arrow to the left. I walked down several rooms, until I found another post it note with #62. I opened the door, and met my roommate, Tom of Bavaria. He has been teaching German in Brasov, Romania, and had taken this train (which originated in Vienna where he was visiting friends) many times. Normally, the couchettes are same-sex (in fact, it said on my ticket it was), but obviously the staff didn’t want to deal with having to open a second room for me.

Speaking of which, when the engineer came by to check my ticket, he immediately said, “Lock the doors. Don’t let anyone in. We have police on the train. Everything will be fine.” I said to Tom, “They must know they have a bad reputation on this route!” He told me that he’s never had a problem, but the hype was typical: The Austrians warn everyone about the Hungarians, the Hungarians talk trash about the Romanians, the Romanians look down on the Moldovians. And so it goes.

The engineer clarified that I was getting off at Sighisoara and said he would come by to wake me in the morning. I changed the time on my cell phone to one hour ahead (I am GMT +2 through the end of the trip), and set my own alarm, but I wasn’t sure it would have enough battery power to make it through the night. However, Tom set his phone for me as well. T

Minus the fact that the stink of his shoes made our little room smell something like a pig farm and after I laid awake for several hours waiting to see if someone would try to get into our room or Tom would emerge from his sleep to root through my stuff, he was a nice enough guy. And he didn’t snore. Customs came by at 2:30 (Hungarian) and 3:30 (Romanian), but despite Tom’s predictions that they would search my luggage (I strongly visualized the OPPOSITE of that), they didn’t. After that was over, I fell asleep as best I could.

At some point in what still seemed like the night, my alarm went off. I set it for ten minutes later. This time, seeing as the conductor hadn’t been by and Tom’s phone hadn’t gone off, I asked him what time it was.

“8:10,” he told me.

My phone said 9:10. But I had changed it right after leaving Hungary. It had probably dialed into a local network and added an additional hour. This had happened before. I changed the time on my phone, re-set the alarm, and went back to sleep.

At 9:00, Tom’s phone went off and I got up, packed my bags, and waited for the Sighisoara stop. I was happy that I’d made it through the night with no problems whatsoever. Tom crawled down from his bunk, and we were chatting about this and that. And waited. And waited. And waited.

Around 9:45, the conductor from the night before (the one who never came to wake me), walked by. “Is this train running late?” I asked him.

“What do you mean?”

“Is the train on time?” I said

“To Brasov?”

“No. To Sighisoara.”

At this poitn, he started laughing. “it’s 10:50,” he said, “Sighisoara was well over an hour ago.” I could hear him retelling his encounter with me to someone else in Romanian, and laughing hysterically.

I looked at my watch. 9:452 Budapest time. I had not switched my watch forward. My original alarm had been right. and I missed my stop. Consulting my train schedule, I could take the 12:45 back to Sighisoara and get in at 3:15. Not exactly my favorite way to spend a day, but so be it. Without even trying to convince myself, a small voice said, “Everything happens for a reason,” and I was resigned to it.

Tom, for his part, went into fervent, unabashed denial. He had changed his phone. He knew he had. it was only 9:50. We would be in Sighisoara soon. And as the train rolled on and on and never came close to stopping, this started to seem ridiculous. I finally had to tell him, “It is what it is. It’s fine. And nothing can change it. STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS.” He agreed, and started railing against the conductor. He said he would wake me. He FAILED. The conductor did not live up to his responsibilities. It was all the conductors fault. If only for the conductor…

This was a really weird situation for me because

a) I was the only person suffering here

b) I had come to terms with it pretty much immediately

c) In the past, I was the one who would’ve obsessed on blame and responsibility and shortcomings, but today it was clear to me that none of that mattered. It wouldn’t change a darn thing. I’d missed my stop.

Nevertheless, Tom still brought up his rage with his phone and the railway employees – even once we got to Brasov. I told him for the tenth time to just let it go. Things go wrong, and such is life. And he stopped suddenly, looked at me, and commented that I was really laid back about this. I explained that you had to choose your battles, and in this case, there was nothing for me to fight about. What’s done is done. Figure out a new strategy and move on.

Again, I can’t stress enough that this is NOT the person i was six months ago. But it’s apparently the person I am now. And hallelujah.

Nonetheless, this attitude would be put to the test one more time. I got on the 12:45 train back toward Sighisoara. And not to pick on the Romanians, but it kind of looked like something you’d get sent to a Nazi work camp in. It was HARSH. And hot as hell. And filled with cigarette smoke.

It also stopped in the middle of nowhere. Seriously. The train would come to a screeching halt in the middle of a field with a rooster standing nearby or maybe a couple sheep in the distance. It was the strangest thing ever.

And I suppose this is why I developed a misguided faith that Sighisoara was the end of the line, and the train was just running late, and we’d get there when we get there. I’m realizing this story is running WAY TOO long, so let me just jump to the punchline: I missed Sighisoara in the other direction, too!

After much painful inquiry, I found a semi-English/semi-German speaker, who was very kind (everyone has been super nice here) and instructed me to get off at a ‘big station’ that was safe, and wait for a train in the other direction. The big station meant it was an actual outhouse-sized station with a human employee, rather than a mud puddle with a guardian rooster.

It was there I encountered a woman with about six original teeth waiting by the station. I said ‘hi’ to her and smiled. She had seen me get off the other train, and when she asked me something, I decided to go with the only thing I could think of, “Sighisoara,’ I said. And pointed to myself.

She nodded and held up four fingers. I took that to mean the train in the opposite direction would be here in four minutes or at 4:00 p.m. Good news either way. I’ll take it.

Then she asked if I was German (and I trust me when I say, when you’ve been traveling this long, you learn to pick up syllables that make sense and otherwise read between the lines. I couldn’t tell you what she asked me per se, but I know that was the question). I said, “No. American. America.”

At this point, she lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. She pounded on the chair next to her, “Sit next to me, American!” and began flagging everyone else over. Once it was clear that I had come to Five Sheep Railway Outhouse, Romania from America and a suitable crowd was gathered, she began to pet me like a collie. It started with my hair.

She kept saying “America” and something that – I swear – sounded like “freak”. I figured this could be interpreted both ways:

  1. “Freak’ means something nice in Romanian, like “pretty” or “your hair is soft like a well-nourished dog”

  2. Americans do not show up at this train station very often, and for that I was a verified freak.

Then the petting moved to my cheek, and under her gaze I become uncomfortably aware of my straight teeth. What was extra uncanny is that several nights ago I had a dream that I was somewhere and I felt conspicuous for having full set of straight, white teeth. So it was a weird deja vu. Nonetheless, and despite treating me a little like a show dog, she couldn’t have been sweeter. She explained to me through pantomime that she had two children, a boy and a girl, and when my train showed up, she gave me a hard slap on the arm and indicated that I needed to run across the tracks (in FRONT OF IT) to board it.

Then the real fun kicked in. THE FREAKING TRAIN DOORS WOULD NOT OPEN. And as kind as she had been, the thought of sitting with my new friend for an additional hour was not appealing. I ran from one carriage to the next. And after a couple failed attempts, I started pounding furiously on the doors, like an inmate trying to escape from prison.

At this point, one more car up, a door opened and the conductor emerged. He motioned to me. “I’m sorry!” I yelled, as I ran toward him. When I got there, I was appalled to see that the step up (to the bottom step) was a solid two feet. It was RIDICULOUS. I threw my day pack in, and braced myself. My first attempt failed. Then I grabbed onto the bar with all my strength, screamed “Oh my God!” and hauled myself in. I could have sworn I heard the conductor giggle. And I joined in. Actually, I collapsed into a seat and had a good, long laugh at the insanity of it all.

But like I said, in the end I made it. And on my third pass, I actually managed to get off the train in Sighisoara, a mere seven hours behind schedule.