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.