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From Romania (Bucharest, Constanta, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Romania (Bucharest, Constanta, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca): The Romanian plague

Dear Friends,

I write to you from Germany, now free from the grim talons of Romania and free, with much gratitude, from all the maladies of this second-world disgrace to the EU.

I arrived in Bucharest by train on the seventh day (April 27) and checked in at the hostel. This hostel could very well have been the most worthy site in the city on that particular day, for it was the Orthodox Easter and the entire Christian capital was closed save for a small hole-in-the-wall shaworma joint owned by a Syrian Muslim. My new Australian acquaintance and I were told by a Bucharestian--in response to the question "Where can we find a place to eat?"--that we would surely starve, as nothing was open on Easter. We were lucky to find the Syrian oasis after hours of walking in the paucity of the streets. That night, I slept alone in an eight-person room while a six-person room was packed to the brim. I had hoped to meet some more people that night, but it was not until that next morning that I met a band of four German students who were making their Easter holiday in Romania. They were departing for the port of Constanta that day. I spent a few hours in Bucharest with them, in its abandoned Easterdom, walking through the park and taking pictures. For lunch, we had the traditional Romanian mici, a nasty preparation of ground "meat" dripping in disgusting fat, served with mustard and toothpicks.

I was so minded to leave Bucharest that I joined my new German friends on the bus to Constanta. The city was alleged to be good, but what I saw aside from the Black Sea was a pathetic heap of poorly maintained roads, hordes of unsanitary fast food kiosks, and child beggars.

We arrived that evening and visited a few pubs before retiring. I slept on the floor of a hotel room that night with my friends, but that did not go over well. By the next day, I was in full-fledged sickness. I had a fever, a headache, and a disrupting gastrointestinal civil war. I got my own room that day and slept most of the afternoon in the hopes of recovering. When I woke up that evening, I was feeling even worst. On top of that, I was hungry, or at least I thought so from the obscure signals that I received from my rebelling stomach.

That night passed in agony. I was constantly awoken by pain and half-dreams of swimming in a frustrating design on an expansive uncharted quilt of fabric, always unable to find my resting spot. At five that morning, I went to the bathroom and almost did not make it back. I awoke at some point with my knees on the wet bathroom floor and my head against the bathroom wall only to realize that I had fainted during my return journey. The bathrooms in this hotel were filthy: the floors had mud on them, the towels were stained (I can only hope they were washed) and the shower was just an elevated platform with a faucet so that when you tried to take a shower the entire bathroom would flood until the water evaporated or drained into the hole in the corner where strange animals tried to live.

In short, Romania had ravaged my weak American immune system. I was sick and, perhaps even worst, I was scared, because in a country so unmotivated and so decrepit as this one, I did not know whether I could trust the health care or whether I should even stay in this uncomfortable and unsanitary hotel to recover. The alternatives required long and uncomfortable travel, and I felt in no condition to endure such movement.

The Romania that I had seen until Constanta was pathetic. Nothing was properly maintained. The people were aggressive and unhelpful, and the sites were ugly, everything from the topographical nightmare on the street pavement and the shameless fast food stands to the unbecoming hairdos of the people. Romania also seems hopelessly impoverished. Poor gypsies offer directions to tourists for "twenty lei or a beer" while their children beg from passersby on busy streets. Everybody looks like they want to mug the closest person. Nobody will move out of his way even in the heaviest traffic. And when you run into somebody because you had no choice, he will bark at you as if you grabbed his crotch. Of course, it's your fault for not making way for his highness.

The tenth day (April 30) rolled around. I awoke about four hours after recovering from the faint. I was still sick. But I needed food. So I braved the metropolitan dump that the Romanians called Constanta. I visited the nearest pharmacy and the supermarket to make with the typical sick foods and drugs that are known not to exacerbate such unfortunate circumstances. I had then to make a difficult decision: remain in this city alone to recover in the discomfort of my own hotel room or take the early afternoon train with my friends to arrive in Brasov at midnight and test the comforts of whatever accommodations we could manage there. With the drugs working somewhat (they were made in Belgium; thank you, Western Europe) I chose the latter.

But the constant pain did not let me forget that I was still sick. We made it to Brasov shortly before midnight after a nine-hour train ride. Before we'd left Constanta, we had identified a church guest house in Brasov with hostel prices. The accommodations here were better than the hotel's, but it still rang true to the Romanian tune: little maintenance and no soap, where the sick go to get sicker.

Brasov, I must admit, is a decent town by Romanian standards. It marks the border between the more reputable Transylvania and the rest of Romania, a poorly maintained patchwork of disgusting mici and a dejected cycle of poverty where beggars teach their children to panhandle, and these children, as they age and find that they can garner fewer coins, manufacture their own young panhandling associates to pass on this great Romanian tradition.

We took the funicular to the top of the mountains that surround the valley where Brasov sits. We were not able to make time for Dracula's castle, but we did exhaust the little excitement that Brasov had to offer amid its traditional festival where little girls screeched obnoxious folk music and closed the act by dancing to a profane American song whose lyrics I'm sure nobody understood, otherwise they would not allow the twelve-year-old Transylvanian girls to wave their little pompoms to the tune.

I must make an important note here about my company. The four Germans that I met in Bucharest are great people and fun companions. Two of them, Christian and Andi, are German students who are now studying one year abroad at a university in Cluj, Romania. Another, Rudi, is a Romanian-born man but an ethnic Saxon whose mother tongue is German. He is studying permanently in Cluj and met the other two in their year abroad. These three were on their week-long holiday for the Orthodox Easter. The fourth, Julia, the friend of one of the former, is in an interim between undergraduate studies in Germany and a graduate degree in Austria. She joined her friends for their tour de Romania trip.

At any rate, we exhausted Brasov and I finalized my conclusion about food in Romania: it sucks without exception. Their pizzas are made with such random ingredients and disregard for taste that you wonder whether the country only has four senses. My vegetarian pizza (I did not dare touch Romanian meat while sick, for it was probably this poison that had brought on my plague) was made with red sauce, mushrooms, onions, peas, and corn, and too little cheese. I found a Hungarian restaurant and, inside, a beautiful tableau of a delicious goulash caught my eye. But further investigation proved that this insult to Hungary had no such dish. Everything we asked about, they did not have. Finally, we asked about what they did have. "Mici," responded the host. Of course. We decided not to eat shit. You can understand why the pizza suddenly became a valid option.

On the twelfth day (May 2), we departed Brasov for Cluj, where the three men studied. Rudi, however, our Romanian-speaking savior whose English was almost better than mine thanks to all the movies he has seen, parted ways to make a short trip home. The four of us that remained went to Cluj by train. That night, my fever and headache returned to join my persistent stomach pain, and I was in full-blown sickness once again. I stayed that night with my new friends in their apartment in Cluj. That night, again, passed in agony. I could not sleep beyond seven in the morning.

I was through with Romania. Afraid of getting sicker and lacking all confidence in Romanian medical care, I knew that I had to get to Germany, the pinnacle of European civilization. I had never longed for the black, red, and yellow the way that I did that morning of the thirteenth day (May 3). Julia was flying to Dortmund in three hours, a town minutes away from Köln, where I have family. I booked that flight with no time to spare, and at a reasonable price too. The airline was WizzAir, a Hungarian-Polish budget carrier. The airport at Cluj-Napoca was more of a small bus station with a runway. To check in, I showed my passport and they gave me a hand-written boarding pass on which my first name was entirely illegible. And then they quickly rescinded it, saying that I was not on the passenger list. I explained that I had booked the flight only two hours ago and they took me into a back room to check the records. I was cleared to fly. With a departure stamp from Romania, I was already feeling better knowing that I was depriving the undeserving country of tormenting my body any longer. Two hours later, I was in Germany. I had never been happier to tread German soil. I would have kissed the ground if I were not barely standing.

Julia's parents greeted her at the airport and they were incredibly kind to insist on driving me all the way to my relatives' house in Köln. There, my second cousin was very helpful. He took me to the hospital in Germany (this is customary on weekends when clinics are closed) where I had a myriad of blood tests and intravenous injections to identify what Romania had given me and to restore what Romania had taken from me. I was diagnosed with a viral infection that only time could solve.

Now, it is two days later and I am still in Köln. I am doing much better, dealing only with a maimed digestive system that is recovering from one of its worst moments. Tomorrow, I fly to Budapest, Hungary, which I hear is nice and civilized. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Hapsburgs, Hungary is now a reasonable member of the EU with a currency that is about 160 to the dollar. I'm looking forward to seeing a new country. More so, I am eternally grateful for budget airlines and extraordinarily kind people who have facilitated my escape from Dracula's fangs and delivered me into the arms of the trustworthy German health care system. I just do not know how much longer it will be before my body allows me to eat a delicious Hungarian goulash.


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