Who needs vampires?

So by now you may be thinking: this guy’s been to Transylvania so he must have a story to tell about eating real chimney cake. Nope. I never saw one while I was there. In fact I hardly saw any food at all. Life was tough for Romanians in 1986. Even tourists like me had a hard time procuring steady meals. I had the hard Western currency to pay for them of course. Yet it wasn’t unusual to show up at a restaurant only to find they didn’t have any food. Black bread, scallions, cucumbers and the odd tomato or hard boiled egg made up the bulk of pretty much everybody’s diet. Things like sugar and white flour were in very, very short supply. Nowadays I understand that chimney cakes are sold by street vendors all around Cluj. Back then the dusty streets didn’t contain much besdies backfiring little Volgas and horse carts

No, the most interesting thing I did in Cluj that spring was get arrested. It happened one sunny morning while I was strolling the streets in the western part of the city, trying to figure out how to get up a hill that appeared to have some castle ruins atop it. Cool, Dracula! I thought. But as it turned out Transylvania was about to get scary for me in a way that had nothing to do with Bram Stoker.

A pretty Russian girl who was walking some yards ahead of me — I was NOT following her, alright, let’s be clear about that — stopped to take a quick photo of a white embassy-sort-of building with a garden in front of it. I’d been warned ahead of time not to go taking pictures in odd places, since as I mentioned, totalitarian East European governments were touchy about Westerners, especially the camera-toting type. I simply happened to be passing in front of the place when the guards came running out. They nabbed us both and I spent the afternoon living out a scene from a bad spy movie, sitting under a hot lamp in a dark room while plump guys in brimmed caps and jackboots asked me questions in French.

French? Indeed. Romanian isn’t a Slavic or Serbo-Croat language like most people think. It’s a Romance language that sounds quite a bit like Italian. I found that Romanians who didn’t speak Russian as their second (or third) language spoke French. My French is and has always been terrible, but it was darn good on that day. I sat there for hours while good-cop Lieutenant A and bad cop Colonel B asked me repeatedly why I was traveling that spring. What was I going to tell them? To drink beer and meet girls? Anyway I was still fuzzy on how to pronounce both of those infinitives. I said I was on my way to the coast to see Romania’s famous Black Sea “Riviera.”

Now people say that French is the most beautiful language spoken on Earth. I don’t have an opinion about that, however I do know that three of the most beautiful words anyone has ever said to me were in French: vous êtes libres. I was to be brought back later that evening for further questioning, but for the moment I was being released on my own recognizance. I ran back to the hotel and ate every scrap of food I could find, certain I was headed for a detention facility. I stayed up all night waiting for a knock on my hotel door.

It never came. The next morning, bleary-eyed, I lit out for the train station checking over my should every other second for a man in uniform. Unfortunately for me, everyone from police and soldiers down to civil servants and school principals wore military-style uniforms in those days. So my blood pressure was high all morning. To my great relief I managed to blow town without being re-detained.

I made it to the coast but didn’t stay there long. It was cold for one thing, but the entire town of Constan?a seemed to be abandoned. A week or so later I learned why: some reactor plant a couple of hundred miles away in the Ukraine had had some sort of an accident.

12 thoughts on “Who needs vampires?”

  1. That’s a scary story. My best friend was born in Romania (Transylvania, actually!) in 1985, and lived there until he was 11. Things were rough for his family before they moved to Canada (and for a long time afterward, I suspect). If I remember correctly, his parents commuted across the border into Hungary to find work before they emigrated.

    1. It was probably a lot easier to cross the border in the 90’s, after Ceau?escu was deposed. It’s beautiful country but didn’t seem to have a particularly thriving economy. Also I understand that relations still aren’t great between ethnic Romanians and Hungarian-speaking Transylvanians. Thanks for the note, Tori!

  2. With each of these posts I regret more and more my decision to not go to Europe while in college. Yet another fantastic story, Joe. Got any more?

  3. Romanians never spoke Russian as a second language.For a short period in the 50s during the Soviet occupation the study of Russian in schools was compulsory but without much effect.After 1958 when the Soviet troops were retired ,once again,the study of French and from the 70s ,the study of English, became compulsory in Romanian educational system.I am 46 years old and I learned both French and English in school during the communist regime.The situation was different in the republic of Moldova,annexed by Stalin after WW2 where Russian was an official language and the Romanian was subjected to a strong program of russification.The Latin alphabet was replaced with the Cyrilic alphabet and most French ,German and Italian neologisms were replaced by their Russian equivalents.After the iron court fell and the republic of Moldova regained its independence ,Romanian language was reestablished in its natural form,yet most people there are still bilingual .Russian is the communication language between Romanians ant the other Slavic minorities there.You should visit now and see for yourself how the place has changed.No more nightmarish totalitarian experience for American visitors,except for their self induced delusion about vampires ,creatures that Romanians never heard of.Best of luck from Romania

    1. I’m very pleased to hear that. I’d love to visit there again, it’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen. As for the totalitarian experiences, as I said, they were twenty five years ago. They certainly made an impression though! 😉

      Great to hear from Romania after so many years!

      – Joe

  4. And ,by the way,…A lot of chimney cake available at any street corner in Romania and especially in Transylvania.Relations between Romanians and Hungarians are quite good these days.The Hungarian party was continually in the governing coalition in the last 15 years and the extremist parties(both Romanian and Hungarian)didn”t made it to the parliament anymore in almost a decade.Both Hungary and Romania are EU members and there are no real borders anymore.In addition,as from this year the Hungarians from Romania have the option to get the Hungarian citizenship in parallel with their Romanian one ,due to their Hungarian ancestry.So as you can see,no real problems that can not be solved here.The University in Cluj is both Hungarian and Romanian.The ministers of culture,health care and environment in the present government of Romania are all ethnic Hungarians.I would say that all this hardly describes a “not so great relationship”.What do you think?

  5. Your adoring public is glad you survived your trek to the other side of the iron curtain. And thus have great cocktail circuit tales.
    But now for something completely different.
    What about the Rigo Yanci (sp?) cake (the one referencing the (in)famous fiddler)? Is it worth schlepping out all my equipment for? Did you have the foresight to acquire some super secret recipe?

    1. Rigo Jancsi cake. It was an infamous, torrid love affair. Nothing but a cake came out of it, or so I recall. That might be a fun way to spend a week. Let me see if I can find a recipe!

  6. Do you remember the Two Fat Ladies (Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Patterson)? I was such a huge (heh heh) fan of them. They did a version of the cake. Perhaps that could be a starting point for a recipe?

    1. Interesting idea…I always thought those two were fantastic. Occasionally I felt they lathered on the fat and bacon just because they could. But there was no denying their appeal. They made amazing pies.

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