To keep a promise to a reader, Christian, and say hi, wondering how people are faring out there, time to write a bit about old travel journeys. Good God, it was twenty-two years ago now, in the late winter of 1990, I went to Romania for five weeks, with a friend called Sophie Thurnam. It took us to Bucharest, the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, ‘Dracula’s’ or Vlad Tepes’s birthplace of Sigishoara, a beautiful old German town ringed by monumental housing blocks, to Brasov and up north into very snowy Moldova.
It was extraordinary for many reasons, not least because the Ceaucescus had just been shot, (there were bullet holes in our hotel lift). Yet the arrival of the miners to beat up journalists in the capital meant no one knew what was really happening, and if the old regime could reform, or who the puppet masters were. Spawning newspapers meant rumours were rife, but without the rigour or authority of real journalism. As we started to hear Russian voices on London tubes, or see Romanian gypsies begging here later, so too it was a sharp wake up call to my younger socialist ways of thinking, as sharp a lesson as seeing the terrifying, monumental Victory of Socialism Boulevard. That had destroyed half Bucharest’s churches, and created a giant avenue of ‘elegant’ apartments, with washing hanging off the balconies and nothing in the empty shops beneath. It would all somehow find its way into my fantasy novel, The Sight.
There’s too much to say in a brief blog, but many sights went deep, as war began to erupt in Yugoslavia. Perhaps, in discussions of what poverty really is, one was the sight of an art shop in Bucharest, with three plastic bottles of primary colour paints in the window and practically nothing else. In that hard winter, the imaginative poverty was just as shocking as the economic, especially with fear so long in the frame. In a country that had open ties with Saddam Hussein and seemed to have engineered some brilliant state trading coup to fill shops with boxes chinese rice crackers. Bucharest was once called “The Paris of the East”.
Then there was going to the old fashioned restaurant, Capsa, or visiting the theatre to see Timberlake Wurtenburgger’s “Our Country’s Good” , directed by Andre Sherban and feeling the physical fear in an audience. Or chatting to the bearded new Minster of Culture in the huge ‘Victory’ palace, who told me how Ceaucescu had even banned the tradition of puppet theatres, as a means of dissent, and rightly said the first thing he himself wanted to do was get rid of a Ministry of Culture all together. Too old style Communist block, or 1984 Ministry of Truth. At a Gypsy wedding a kind of local mafia were selling large tins of peaches to the guests, as they left.
But against it, enormous pollution, miners working with hand tools, an old beggar lady frozen up in the streets, the tragic story of orphanages, or the Pitest-Bucharest 3 mile stretch of motorway, which had giant potholes in it, was the astonishing beauty of the countryside. We drove towards the Carpathians, full of the stories and sensibilities from Patrick Lee Fermour’s travels, and in a haze of golden light an old shepherd flagged us down. “The King,” he said, with watery eyes, “The King is coming.” King Carol tried to get in a few weeks later, and was turned back on that motorway. Then, at a Monastery up north, we saw a world straight out of the 16th century, or perhaps 19th Century Russia, except for the wealth of the monks, whose long beards I barged in on, sitting around a polished table, watching a European cup football match. At Christmas time they were not exactly friendly, and offered no room at the inn. Then came the rumour that a Popa we managed to stay with, a priest, had links with the Securitate, the Secret Police. But we also saw the walls of the extraordinary painted monasteries of Bukovina.
It became travels in fact and in the Romanian mind, especially growing up with Bram Stoker ideas of how Transylvania is the land of vampires. Beautiful, very sad Romania. I’ve often wondered what has happened there and if people’s lives are still as hard as they were for so many.
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