Monday, November 13, 2006

Chicago Business Online: From Brasov with Bwahahahaha!!!!

From Brasov with Bwahahahaha!!!!
A Personal Random Walk to Transylvania
Krisztina Kohlhaas, '08
Issue date: 11/9/06

Did you notice there were practically no 3rd round admits on the Random Walks? That's because we slackers got shut out. We are the waitlistees and procrastinators, the people to watch out for as you form your study groups. Usually we are pretty good bs'ers, too, as this tactic has often bailed us out of last-minute situations in the past. But in the case of Random Walks, no schmoozing, groveling, or bribing was going to buy us a spot to any of the coveted destinations our more prudent colleagues would be visiting. So, this summer, while half my GSB classmates were serving as defenders against crime worldwide, I decided to take a Random Walk of my own to Transylvania.

Vampire jokes aside, Transylvania is a part of Romania that I had wanted to visit for decades. As a Hungarian-American, I have long been fascinated with this region that for over 1,000 years belonged to my native country but after World War I became part of Romania. My grandfather's heritage stems from Transylvania, as does that of many Hungarians. In fact, there are still over 2 million ethnic Hungarians living in Transylvania today. Needless to say, this dynamic makes for strong tensions between Hungary and Romania. Stereotypes abound and many Hungarians believe that visiting Romania is a recipe for disaster. That is exactly why I wanted to go.

After a brief blip through Budapest (say that three times fast!), I caught the train to Timisoara to begin my Romanian adventure. My hotel, the Cina Banatul, was a monstrous communist relic, one of its three stars having been crossed out with permanent marker either because of a crumbling interior (likely) or elevated standards (less likely). Timisoara was a rough landing. I struggled to find people who spoke - or admitted they spoke - any language other than Romanian. There was a hard line approach to pretty much everything. Service most definitely did not come with a smile and a few hours after crossing the border, I suddenly felt very alone. With ten days ahead of me, I found myself questioning whether I had made the right decision to come to Romania. I knew that Budapest was only a 6-hour train ride away, should I have second thoughts. But then all those nay-sayers and skeptics would be right! I ordered myself to pull it together. "You have traveled to 30 countries and speak 4 languages," my fight ordered my flight. "GET A GRIP!"

The truth was that despite my extensive traveling, this was the first time I had backpacked to a completely unknown land entirely on my own. I was intimidated and overwhelmed, but knew that I was not going to impart customer service lessons to some 22 million Romanians in ten days. I quickly realized that if I were going to enjoy this trip, the attitude that needed adjustment was mine.

Once I opened myself up to Timisoara, the city revealed its beauty to me. A unique blend of Hungarian, Romanian, and Serb influences, Timisoara was evidently at one time a great city. It was a tranquil summer evening, which I spent wandering around Timisoara's handsome squares, taking in its baroque and neoclassical architecture clearly worn by less peaceful times. Under Timisoara's fa硤e lay a dramatic history of war and revolution; it was there that Lászl󠔶k鳬 then pastor in the Hungarian Reformed Church, spoke out against the Ceaucescu regime and ignited the 1989 Revolution that overthrew the dictator. I stopped for a beer in one of Timisoara's pleasant outdoor bier gardens, watched locals stroll by hand-in-hand, and let the city's serenity and pride convince me that it was right to come to Romania.


I pulled into Sibiu the next day at the stroke of midnight ready to ward off vampires. I was deeper into Dracula country, the rain was pouring, and I was homeless. My third-round-admit slacker ass had once again failed me by not reserving in advance and all hostels were full. As a knee-jerk reaction, I decided to splurge on the best hotel in town. Still inexpensive by Western standards, the Hotel έpⲡtul Romanilor was a tribute to yore in its gold leaf kitsch and overly exaggerated rococo interior. After a soaking hunt for cheap accommodations, I gave up, crawled under my red velvet blanket, dimmed my crystal chandelier, and passed out.Saxon-founded Sibiu is a charming town of cobblestone streets, great squares, moving churches, and perfectly intact city walls dating from the 16th century. Its 1906 Orthodox cathedral is a replica of the Aya Sofia in Istanbul, homage to one of the world's great cities despite leftover resentment of Ottoman occupation. Sibiu is undergoing a complete facelift, as it has been chosen to be European Capital of Culture in 2007. I highly recommend a visit next year to see this flower in full bloom. Thanks to my breakfast companions, I got the tip that there would be a New Orleans Jazz concert that night in Sibiu. Bingo! It was Friday night and, after a few days on my own, I was ready to hit the town. Dolled up Euro (trash)-style, I got started at The Classic Bar, an old-fashioned piano bar where a blob of a man reminiscent of Jabba the Hut sat oozing off a piano bench, music shooting out of his fingers like lightning bolts. Simply looking at this ginormous man, you never would have guessed his ability to light up a room with such dulcet energy. I almost did not want to tear myself away from his unique medleys and expert improvisation, but I had a date with the Big Easy. And Jabba's persistent gaze was beginning to creep me out. I paid my bill just as he finished his set and started to blob towards me, the only single woman in the room, visions of the gold bikini in his mind. Yikes! I made it out just in time!The jazz club was packed when I got there. I took the only available seat next to two German guys, Martin and Eberhard, who were on a 3-week motorcycling trip through Romania, I soon learned. They had such fabulous yarns to spin that at first the music took side stage to their adventure. It was only after we chatted for an hour that Martin pointed out to me that the bandleader was blind.Holy cow! This band was friggin' phenomenal! They played everything from experimental jazz to Stevie Wonder to Romanian folk songs to a Hendrix medley, with down and dirty N'awlins sprinkled throughout. The bandleader, probably in his 60's, sported a sequined American flag visor and a miniature red trumpet dangling from his neck. It was not until further scrutiny that I realized that his left hand was completely deformed, a far too common story of Eastern Europe's toxic past. And yet here he was, this Blind Boy from Romania, leading a 5-person band, having the time of his life.My new German friends took off but I was nowhere ready to go, the band was just too fun! I soon started chatting with my next companions for the evening, Andreea and Marina from Bucharest. They were young Romanian ladies who had just finished high school and were on their big graduation trip around the country. Like me, they were crazy over live music and we became instant friends. Marina talked with the band members during their set breaks and informed us that the old man spends about 6 months out of the year in New Orleans studying the music and picking up the vibe. It reminded me of the German movie, "Schultz Gets the Blues", about an accordion player from Bavaria who goes to Louisiana and finds his calling in Zydeco. Andreea, Marina, and I talked and danced and sang and clapped as one beer turned into two then into many until we shut down the bar. Wild-eyed and bushy tailed, I bid my Romanian friends adieu and stumbled down Sibiu's cobblestone path back to my hotel. It was almost 4:00 AM and I needed to be up soon to catch my train to Brasov at 9:00.

My eyes popped open at 8:40 AM. SH*T!!! What happened to my alarm?! SH*T!!! Set for PM?! SH*T!!! SH*T SH*T!!! I flew out of bed, threw on the first thing I found, shoved my explosion of clothes into my pack, and ran out the door. I did not pass go, did not collect $200, did not shower, and did not brush my teeth. I sprinted a kilometer to the train station, 40 pounds on my back, and jumped through the train doors just as they were slamming shut. Whew! I barely made it. At least I didn't have to worry about having to ward off vampires. I smelled GREAT.


Having learned my lesson in Sibiu, I pre-booked my accommodations in Brasov. My email confirmation from the Kismet Dao Hostel advised me to look for "Dave from California" when I arrived at the train station. A Bay Area native, I assumed finding my own kind in the middle of Romania should be easy enough, right? Well, aside from the fact that he was cooped up in a very unobvious booth wedged underneath a staircase, Dave was impossible to miss. Turns out, Dave from California was more specifically from Hayward, and he screamed it. Literally. He was sporting a custom-made shirt with "Hayward" emblazoned on the front, a gold ring on each finger, and a beard in the style of Vlad Tepes (Dracula's inspiration) as a tribute to his Romanian heritage. While we obviously came from other sides of the Tunnel, I knew when I saw the Raiders cap that we were going to get along just fine. After all, I went to high school in Oakland. Within minutes of dropping my pack at the hostel and showering off my Sibiu revelry, Dave, some fellow hostelers, and I were on our way to lunch. The next thing I knew, we were doing tequila shots over ice cream and then it was on to beer. The hair of the dog was threatening to grow wild.

It was sometime during this afternoon respite that Dave and I discovered many commonalities, including a strong first-generation identity and a mutual love of dominoes. So, after wrapping up our siesta, we went on a mission to find some bones. Third time's a charm, they say, and after trying two stores with no luck, we struck gold in the third. Dominoes in hand, we headed back to the hostel. Since I had to be up early the next day, however, we opted to postpone our domino showdown until the following evening. The next morning I awoke early for a tour of Peles Castle, Bran Castle, and the Rasnov fortress. Despite our maniacal driver on the verge of spontaneous combustion, the tour was amazing. I have visited my fair share of castles and I can easily say that Peles was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. As the Lonely Planet puts it, "Most visitors are led through here with their jaws scraping the floor in amazement… the effect of wandering through the stunning halls and rooms listening to the guide rattling off an endless list of exotic materials used to furnish them (alabaster, gilded linden wood, mother of pearl, Turkish silk etc) is dizzying." All rooms are furnished in a style of a different country and in the entryway alone there are 49 different types of wood. King Carol I built Peles in predominantly German-Renaissance style between 1875 and 1914 and it was the first castle in Europe to have central heating and electricity. In later days, Ceausescu used the castle to entertain leading communists and foreign statesmen, including Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Moamar Gaddafi, and Yasser Arafat. At least he had some sense not to barrel it over like he did many other architectural gems of Romania.

After Peles Castle, Bran Castle was totally anticlimactic. Tourist mecca of Romania, it is fallaciously associated with Vlad Tepes and therefore bears the misnomer "Dracula's Castle". The castle was actually built by the Saxons in 1382, and the closest it may have ever come to Dracula is that Tepes might have sought refuge there for a couple nights to escape the Turks. Maybe. Bran castle was a good pit stop to pick up a Dracula magnet and get some lunch. That's about it.Our final stop was the 13th century Rasnov fortress. The fortress is very much still intact and has a 146 meters deep well - the deepest in Romania - that took two prisoners 17 years to dig! The summit of the fortress offers a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the surrounding mountains and valleys. It was a wonderfully bright and sunny day and the view from Rasnov was the perfect finale.

Back at the Moontower, Dave and the troops were rallying for the domino match-up. We wasted no time getting started and many of the hostellers joined us for a few friendly games. As one person after the other dropped out, Dave and I were left head to head. Tossing back a couple tequila shots, we decided to make it interesting. We each threw 10 lei (about $3.50) on the table and took off. "Domino, Mo Fo!" I belted out within minutes, slapping my last bone on the table. Another shot of tequila, double or nothing, I offered. Dave accepted the challenge. BAM! I had him again. The night flew by and before we knew it, the sun was coming up, and I had swept him for all he had. That included winning back the freebie I had given him with my own made up game of "What Time is It?", which involved guessing the time without looking at the clock and closest one wins, Price-is-Right rules. By dawn Dave was playing me on credit and we decided to call it a night; we were in vampire country and sunrise signaled the time for bed. I scraped myself up the stairs, many lei richer, basking in the glory of my undefeated streak.
The following day, originally intended for sightseeing in Brasov, was a complete wash. It was afternoon by the time I made it out of the hostel. I tried to go up the cable car to the top of Mount Tampa (whose hillside sign proudly declares "Brasov" in an obvious nod to Hollywood) but missed the last ride by a hair. I then tried to go into the "Black Church", but missed the final entry by 15 minutes. While I had most definitely been on top of my game the night before, I was certainly not on it that day. I resigned myself to a peaceful night in Brasov, already sentimental about saying goodbye to another new friend.

I realized in Brasov that my decision to come to Transylvania was as much a search for my own Hungarian roots as it was a quest to breakdown lifelong stereotypes. Dave and I whiled away hours discussing our identities as a Romanian, a Hungarian… both European, both American, yet fully neither. And it occurred to me that if I had been in California, I probably could never have even given Dave the time of day - at least not without betting first - mainly because while our East Bay towns are only a few miles apart, our worlds span light years. Yet across the globe in the heart of Transylvania, we became the best of friends. In the quest to break down my stereotypes of Romania, the ones I helped defeat were those of my own American backyard. And together Dave and I learned that a Romanian and a Hungarian can be friends; the Caldecott Tunnel is not the infinite divide; and you can never beat a GSB'er at a game involving math!


My Transylvania Random Walk led me out of Brasov and another step closer to my roots. Next stop: Sz髥ly country, primary home of Romania's Hungarian minority, the reason I had decided to come to Transylvania.

I made a short stop in amazing Sighisoara, the quintessential Transylvanian town. Replete with a clock tower, citadel, and castles, Sighisoara was perhaps my favorite city in Romania. Unfortunately, I was sick there thanks to the vampire lifestyle I had adopted in Brasov. There was a strong Hungarian presence in Sighisoara; I heard lots of spoken Hungarian and felt like I was getting closer to what I was looking for.

Knowing that my destination for the next couple days was off the beaten track, I rented a car in Sighisoara. Now, this was no easy task. It wasn't like you just walked into your local Avis or Hertz office, slapped down your credit card, and 'poof!' you had a car. OH NO! When I inquired about it in my hotel, the concierge made a phone call. Within moments a lovely young woman appeared carrying a brochure with pictures of four cars on it. She said she had one car available and that I could have it if I wanted. Success! We agreed on a time to meet and sign the paperwork. Our meeting took place at a cafe in Sighisoara's main square. As it turned out, the so-called "rental agency" was really her boyfriend, who had over time acquired a fleet of low riders of various sizes. Hidden behind his aviator sunglasses, the guy spoke no English and did not exactly present an aura of reliability; his 5 o'clock shadow seemed to be going on its second day and his left hand was completely bandaged up, probably from whacking the last guy who brought his car back late. The girlfriend attempted to translate in broken English, but by then I had gotten comfortable with Romanian, managing to pick my way through it with Spanish, Italian, and hyper-gesticulation. We signed the contract, which was entirely in Romanian. I crossed my fingers that I had accurately determined its credibility, but of course, who really knew? I had to pay for the car up front in cash, including a 300 euro deposit, which I would supposedly get back. Since I am American (at least for right now) and always carry around 300 euros cash (NOT), we negotiated a lengthy transaction of dollars, euros, and lei, I signed my life over to the Romanian mob, and I was on my way. I hopped in the low-rider and took off, reggaeton pumping, two rosaries and a tannenbaum air freshener dangling from my rear-view mirror. Rock on.

I had made arrangements to stay with a family in a town called B?? just outside of Sz髥ly Udvarhely (Odorhieu Secuiesc in Romanian). The drive there took only about an hour from Sighisoara, and I arrived just in time for lunch. The family was absolutely lovely! A retired lady, her two daughters, and adorable grandson ran the pension out of their home, and for two wonderful days I enjoyed authentic Hungarian meals of stuffed peppers, cabbage, the works, along with the unparalleled hospitality of the Ilyes family.Unlike Romania's traditional backpacker route, which attracts mainly westerners, I would say roughly 90% of the tourists to Sz髥ly Country are from Hungary. The night I arrived, there was a group of about eight other guests from Budapest at the Ilyes house. It was their last night there after a week in Romania and they decided to celebrate with a cook-out. I joined them and we had a great time grilling miccs, a local sausage specialty, drinking Romanian wine, and having the inevitable discussion of the decades-long thorn in the collective Magyar side: the lost Hungarian minority in Romania.You see, for over 1,000 years, Transylvania was associated with Hungary. It was only after WW1 that the Treaty of Trianon carved Hungary into 29% of its former size, handing Transylvania and over 2 million ethnic Hungarians to Romania, along with many bits and pieces of land, culture, language, and soul to Hungary's other neighbors. Even though almost a century has since passed, Hungarians on both sides of the border have never gotten over this. Many have argued for the re-annexation of Transylvania. In 2004, however, Hungary turned down a referendum to grant dual-citizenship to all persons of Hungarian decent, thwarted mainly by twisted campaigning, threats from Bucharest, and a desire to comply with EU regulations that prohibit the favoritism of any ethnic group or minority. This referendum is still a matter of huge debate, as many Hungarians feel that it would have allowed them to achieve in practice what they have demanded for almost a century. While the rest of Romania largely ignores them, these issues are very much alive and kicking in Sz髥ly country. They are evident in everything, from conversations with locals to the numerous roadside stands selling maps of former Hungary and other anti-Trianon propaganda. Despite Ceausescu's attempts to eliminate Hungarian identity in Romania, Sz髥ly territory has remained steadfast. The entire region functions fully in Hungarian, with Hungarian schools, Hungarian newspapers, even its own Sz髥ly national anthem. And the most amazing part about it is that this area is over 500 km from Hungary! It's not like the Sz髥lys are lined up on the Hungarian border waiting to be let in (like Canadians). They are hundreds of miles away, living in the most well-maintained, clean, and orderly cities in Romania - as described by Lonely Planet.After a wonderful evening with the Hungarians and the Ilyeses, I took off early the next morning for my drive through Sz髥ly country. I first stopped in Korond, renowned for its green, blue, and brown pottery. I spent hours wandering through the shops examining the beautiful ceramics, embroidery, and wares. By the time I finished up it was time for lunch. How could I resist the alluring smells emanating from the lángos trailer?Lángos is the equivalent of a coronary on a plate. It is a large donut of fried bread about a foot in diameter that usually comes covered in cheese or sour cream and in most cases both. There is an art to cooking lángos, just a minute too long and it's no good. This trailer lángos was bordering on well-done. I ate it anyway.Then I was off on my road trip through Sz髥ly country. I drove through beautiful mountains and valleys, passing gypsy camps along the way, until I hit my end destination, the Red Lake. This lake bears a much more ominous name in Hungarian: Gy?ost󬠯r the Killer Lake, named for the various legends surrounding its formation. Gy?ost󠨡d the rugged evergreen feel of Yosemite, with people rowing on the lake, picnicking along its banks, and enjoying fresh-grilled miccs. I stayed for a while and took in the scenery, then made the enjoyable trek back to B??.I called it an early night, the lángos, miccs, and other very notably unhealthful cuisine taking a toll, and I still was not fully recovered from my Sighisoara cold. The Hungarian group had already left, so I chatted briefly with the Ilyes ladies and hit the hay. I had to be up early to meet the car rental mafia at the train station, fingers crossed.

Amazingly, Mr. Low Rider was there. Early even. He handed me my deposit back, every single dollar, euro, and lei of it, and helped me load my bags on the train. With that, I said goodbye to Transylvania, its wonderful people, scenery, and memories, and boarded the train back to Budapest. My Transylvania Random Walk was over, but its enrichment of my life and identity had just begun.


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