In the Foreign Service, it’s easy to calculate who your best friends are. They’re the people who will come visit you in places like Khartoum, Yekaterinburg or Bujumbura. Diplomats who get posted to London, Paris, Rome and a handful of other cushy places find themselves running informal bed and breakfast operations, as marginal friends and distant relatives come out of the woodwork to claim a free place to stay.
We had several friends tell us that they planned to visit us in Macedonia but none made the trip. I expected an uptick in business when we moved to Budapest, but my first visitor wasn’t interested in the typical grand tour of Central Europe.
“I was thinking we should go to Romania,” said Ian, a good friend from St. Louis who had never been to Prague, Germany and a host of other far more celebrated European destinations.
“Why Romania?” I asked, more than a little surprised.Ian’s logic was that he could easily visit Prague or Vienna with his wife and perhaps even their three small children, but Romania would be a tougher sell. So we made a vague plan to spend a weekend in Budapest and then take a four- or five-day road trip to Transylvania and Ian was on our doorstep weeks later.
As we motored through the grubby, Americanized suburbs of Budapest on a Monday morning in March, heading east toward Transylvania with no set itinerary, we both realized what a rare treat it was to have a men’s getaway.
“It’s Monday morning and instead of being on my way to work in St. Louis, I’m here driving through Budapest on my way to Transylvania,” Ian remarked. “I like it!”
Our progress east was slow, on a two-lane road clogged with slow moving trucks, passing through forlorn little towns with homes built seemingly right on the road with no setback. As we neared the Romanian border, we passed ramshackle gypsy settlements and saw a few haggard looking prostitutes working the side of the road. I felt lucky that our greatest concern in life at that moment was who the Cubs would choose as their fifth starter for the upcoming season.
We were two married American men in a Toyota with diplomatic plates slowing down to get a better look at roadside prostitutes near the Romanian border on a Monday afternoon. Good times.
Romania had just joined the European Union less than three months before our visit and it was still a matter of speculation whether hordes of Romanians would vote with their feet. We saw many of the same major European chains present in Hungary, but the roads were dicier, there were a lot more farmers poking around on horse drawn carriages and there were plenty of old Dacia’s left over from the communist era sharing the road with souped-up Mercedes’s and BMW’s piloted by kamikazes who thought nothing of passing on blind curves, shoulders or simply right into oncoming traffic.
The roadside villages en route to Oradea defined unremitting rural poverty, but the soul crushing Soviet era apartment blocks that dominated the gloomy outskirts of Oradea seemed even worse.
The center of Oradea looked more promising, but even the colorful baroque buildings all seemed to be in need of a coat of paint. Oradea had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary until the conclusion of World War I, when Hungary lost a massive chunk of its territory, and as recently as the 1960′s, there were more ethnic Hungarians than Romanians in Oradea. But on this day, I didn’t hear any Hungarian speakers.
We had lunch at a garish looking Italian restaurant and on our way out of town, a gypsy gave me the finger after I took a photo of him hollering at his recalcitrant son.
It was dark by the time we reached Cluj-Napoca, a thriving metropolis once known as the Hungarian capital of Transylvania. We stopped at a shady looking hotel and a short young man in a vest showed us a cold, depressing room that was outfitted with what looked like prison furniture. According to our guidebook, the place featured an “erotic show” in the basement.
“What time does the show start?” I asked, even though we had no intention of checking it out.
The young man appeared confused so I re-phrased the question.
“What time do the girls start dancing?”
“No, no,” he said, “We don’t have girls here any more.”
A second hotel seemed even worse and they wanted 80 euros – a princely sum for a dump in Transylvania. We finally landed at a surprisingly posh hotel in a residential neighborhood that also provided some sort of vague “business solutions” and “consulting.”
“Where can we find the boyhood home of Gheorghe Muresan?” Ian asked the pretty girl at the front desk. “You know the basketball player, I think he’s from Cluj, Gheorghe Muresan!”
She eventually registered that Ian was referring to the bizarre looking, 7-foot-7-inch Romanian giant, who is one of the tallest and least talented players in NBA history.
“I think he lives in New Jersey,” she said.
We had read that Cluj was a happening town with 70,000 students and a thriving club scene; but we didn’t expect much on a Monday night. The first bar we hit was a stylish place that would not have looked out of place in Berlin or New York. It was about nine o’clock and the place had a smattering of customers.
“What time do you close?” I asked the barkeep.
“Six,” he said.
“Six?” I repeated, “As in six in the morning?”
He nodded his head.
“And does it get busy on a Monday?”
“It is getting busy all of the days,” he remarked.
We hit a stylish basement bar on the recommendation of a group of young women we met on the street and as Ian and I were chatting about our respective lives in St. Louis and Budapest, a woman came over to the booth and, before I knew what was happening, kissed us both on both cheeks, greeting us as though we were long lost friends. It took me a moment to register that it was one of the young ladies who had recommended the place to us.
The most outgoing of the group, named Adriana, wanted to know why we were in Cluj. It was a good question that I had no coherent answer for.
“In America hardly anyone parties on Monday nights,” I said. “So we had to come to Cluj.”
Adriana looked puzzled.
“I would think in the States you could party every night,” she said. “People have more money there than here, so why not?”
“Well, we could go out every night, but we just don’t,” I said before entering into a rambling discourse about how many channels most Americans get and the high cost of beer.
Ian and I hit another bar and somehow managed to stay out until almost 4 a.m. The place was still going strong when we left and I’m quite sure that the students danced until sunrise, if not later. An ordinary Monday night in Cluj is a lot like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, without the beads and flashing.
In the light of day, Cluj seemed like a city in transition. Sidewalks were being torn up, students and beefy gangsters in matching sweat suits hung out in trendy looking cafés, and we felt that it probably wouldn’t be long before the city became a popular spot for backpackers. Yet just minutes outside of town, there was no escaping the Old Romania and the generation that still made its living off of the earth, plying their trade with ancient looking farming instruments and horse drawn carts.
We had no reservations for Sibiu, our next stop, and were shocked that the first two hotels we tried were both sold out. We finally found a motel on the outskirts of the old town but had to park the car several blocks away, after trying in vain to navigate the city’s ancient street plan.
Sibiu is a strikingly beautiful town that is set right in the heart of some incredible Alpine scenery. It had just been named a European cultural capital and much of the town’s historic center had received an impressive face-lift.
The atmospheric streets all seemed to radiate out from a colossal square that was dotted with colorful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style buildings in keeping with the town’s Saxon heritage. Unlike Cluj, Sibiu was dead at night. Each night we ended up at the only place that seemed to be open late, a little street side kiosk that sold cold drinks and phone cards.
An enterprising young college student named Elena, who sat bundled up in the cold booth, worked the overnight shift.
“I work here at night because I’m saving up to buy a computer,” she explained.
“But when do you sleep?” I asked.
“I go straight from here to class in the morning, and then, if I can, I try to sleep after classes, if I don’t have too much work to do,” she said.
Ian and I were taken aback. In our culture, if you want something, you just go out and buy it. We pledged to return the following evening with a small contribution toward her computer purchase, but we returned the following night to find that she had the night off. The older woman who was there in her place seemed suspicious when we asked how we could contact her.
We thought about leaving the cash with her but decided not to because we didn’t want her to get the wrong idea about why two American guys were leaving cash for a young woman.
As we left town the next day, we talked about Elena and I felt like her willingness to stay up all night in a freezing cold kiosk was a reminder of how lucky we were to be American men on the loose in Transylvania with no reservations or responsibilities.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, CamilG on Flickr (Sibiu)]