Europe | Romania – Formula 1 (and the Selmer saxophone)
I thought about sending a text message to London saying ‘In case we go missing, we were last seen heading north from Constanta in the back seat of a Dacia being driven by a Romanian’. But I did not have the license number, and most cars in Romania are Dacias, driven by Romanians. This was a new Dacia, though, one able to do 160 kph while overtaking horse and carts and old Dacias on tiny two lane country roads. And the driver was missing a finger.
There was quite a bit of farting about in Brasov, trying to work out which of several bad options was the best way to the Danube Delta. Overnight on a train with no sleeper compartments; getting up at 4 am; or going at 8:40 am via Bucuresti Nord and risking being too late for a minibus to Tulcea from Constanta. We took the last.
I’d heard so much about Bucuresti Nord I was expecting the black hole of Calcutta or at the very least Philadelphia bus station. In fact was well lit, not very squalid and nowhere near as crowded as London Victoria. As we sat drinking tiny cups of coffee I kept wondering if we were really were in Eastern Europe’s most notorious train station. That tells you about expectation and reality – you expect grim and it’s not so bad. But no one told me Tulcea was the worst communist shithole I’d ever seen – but more of that in a minute…
We caught the air conditioned express from Bucurest to Constanta, where coffee came with whipped cream and pink cocktail umbrellas. Got stung for the supplement (7 quid for both of us – the rest of the Romanian cash we had) but still it was a nice journey.
We did well at ignoring the touts in Constanta, heading straight for the information booth. The info lady spoke no English, or French (not we speak French – but its better than our non-existent Romanian). A guy in the queue seemed genuinely helpful, putting on his spectacles to read what little info I did have, printed off the internet or xeroxed from outdated guidebooks. He found out for us that there was a train to Tulcea but it looked like it wouldn’t get in ’til midnight. So we went outside to look for a minibus. There were plenty; but none going where we wanted to go.
A crowd gathered as the spectacled man talked to different people. It seemed there were no buses. Hence we ended up in the back of some guy’s car. Any ordinary citizen hanging around outside a train station is not going to offer to drive 200 km for a fee. We were in a dodgy minicab.
It all happened so fast and we didn’t want to wait around. I’m not even going to tell you what we paid, only that I hoped the price itself was the whole rip off and we weren’t part of a bigger, more sinister scam.
It’s interesting how similar Romanian driving is to Lithuanian. They should all be race car drivers. They speed, they swerve, they nearly miss oncoming cars as they overtake. Sexton thought this guy was better than the tour bus driver in Brasov though. The bus driver’s speciality was overtaking on the curve of two lane mountain roads. He crossed himself twice, both as we left and returned to Brasov. At least Dodgy Dacia Guy honked at everything before he nearly ran it over – be it stray dogs, horses, cows, pedestrians, people in old cars, people in stopped cars, people carrying bundles of hay on bicycles or on horse and carts. We tailed a Renault for some time before overtaking; the shirtless driver did not look too happy. We thought for a moment this might really turn into Formula 1.
Tulcea and the Delta were places I had almost no information about. I was relieved to meet an English guy on the train a few days ago who had a more updated Rough Guide. Via Elvis in Brasov we booked into a place called Han Trei Stele, up the steps behind the Ukrainian market. It was cheap indeed and had some sort of character, but the Rough Guide neglected to mention that not only do they never wash the floors or toilets but it seems they do not wash the sheets either. Worst of all is a dog that barked ALL NIGHT right under our window. If I’d had a gun I’d have shot it. Even Sexton agreed. It only shut up when the cock crowed at dawn.
And the town…the hotel’s matron directed us to town centre up an alley of crumbled stones more like an urban mountain path than a road. Gypsies were living in half collapsed houses. Filthy, barefoot children stared and stray dogs growled. And the high street was worse. Being from suburbia myself I can handle seeing poverty better than my husband can. Sexton was furious. “It’s a cross between Margate and the Dickens. If I wanted to see this I could go back to Gravesend.” [shitty area where he grew up]
I feel bad writing this after we met some really nice people in Tulcea. But these were our first impressions. Ugly tower blocks, cafes that stank so you wouldn’t want to eat there even if they did have food. A sense of despair that would make any Westerner with Communist sympathies see exactly why it just did not work.
We finally found what looked like cafes with outdoor tables, but they served only beer. Then we got to the central square on the waterfront, where a music festival was going on. After pizza with ketchup, things started getting good.
I came back from a long wait for a very disgusting toilet to find a guy in traditional Romanian costume sitting with my husband. He did not speak a word of English but we determined his name was Flavio and he was rather drunk. Soon we were joined by a friend of his who had a Selmer saxophone and also did not speak English. I know Selmer as the maker of very fine 1960s valve amplifiers. The sax was silver and very handsome. The player thought I was chatting him up and would break into song every time I admired his instrument. It is incomprehensible to even most Western men that a woman can be interested in pieces of musical equipment. It would be like women being interested in cars or old trains, for example.
Soon we joined also by an accordion player and the musician’s driver who was named Soloman (though Sexton thought his name started with a V). Some children, also in costume, brought Flavio his drum and the three musicians serenaded us. I fumbled with an inadequate few pages of a phrase book and the driver bought us all beers.
Eventually we trouped over to the stage area where we met Flavio’s wife and son. The stage itself was on the water, somewhat distant from the audience. There were intense security guards around the queue of performers who would mysteriously get to the floating stage. Folk groups from around the country were dancing, about 20 youngsters in each, all between about 7 and 17 years old, accompanied by a small ensemble of musicians. There was something charmingly amateurish about it all, like the recitals we would put on at the end of a year of ballet lessons when I was a child. Impressively there were as many young boys as girls.
When our friends finished we returned to find our beers still being watched by a large woman they all called “Mama.” I was a little concerned this might turn into a typical Eastern European late drinking session and we had to get up in the morning to find a way onto the Delta. It would be impolite to leave especially as they were buying the drinks. But the group seemed to think they were returning to their hometown of Brasov the same night. The driver thought otherwise, but by then we had already said goodnight to the musicians as they headed off in the crowd.
On the edge of the festival we saw our first buskers – an eight piece brass group. We figured out later that all the gypsy music we had anticipated hearing in Romania was most likely forbidden, as the Romanians and their government despise gypsies. We were very happy to finally be hearing live music.
And the next two days, the Delta tour, was to be magical, the highlight of the trip – more on that next time…It’s all about highs and lows and it all balances out in the end.