6th November 2007 Bucharest.
I’ve always liked the Jim Bowen joke; ‘I’m not scared of flying, I’m just scared of crashing’. But I'm not sure fear's the reason I left it so long before I flew. It's more that when I was at an age to start travelling flying was more of a big deal, a rarity.
But my first flight was less nerve-wracking than it could have been. I think the tedium of hanging about after check-in must have had some sort of anaesthetic effect. Perhaps that’s why they make you wait so long. That’s not to say I didn’t have the odd moment of panic. Waiting for takeoff I misread some labelling on the wing. I now realise it said ‘hoist point’ but I initially read it as Hotpoint. For a few nervous minutes I was convinced I was about to go up in a plane that was either made by people more used to making domestic appliances, or worse, a craft that was actually knocked together out of old washing machines.
The second frisson of concern came when, just after take off, the pilot announced we were on our way to Budapest, when I’d booked for Bucharest. Luckily, it was a slip of the tongue, otherwise things might have taken some fixing. It’s not like when you get on a 21 bus, forget to get off at New Cross, and end up having to walk back from Lewisham.
In the week leading up to the holiday I’d had a heavy cold and was quite congested. As we came into land, my ears popped with a sharp pain. I immediately remembered a friend's account of somebody she knew who flew with a head cold and whose ear drums burst, leaving her permanently deafened. I didn’t panic immediately but started worrying when, on disembarking, it seemed the cabin crew were far more quietly spoken than before. I tried to put my anxiety out of my mind and get on with the holiday.
I'd been seriously looking forward to Romania. For a while I went out with a Romanian woman. I ended up loathing her but I've retained an affection for the idea of Romania. She grew up there under Ceausescu. She told me how there was almost no conception of marketing or advertising in her country. There would be one shop for vegetables. That would be where you bought your vegetables. It’d be called the vegetable shop. Something about the lack of choice enchanted me. I think we fetishise choice too much in this country, speaking as somebody who plans his social itinerary by looking through Time Out magazine and highlighting the free stuff.
The other thing I was looking forward to was the prices. I’d got off on the right foot by booking ahead in a hostel which represented the Holy Grail of backpacking holidays – it was actually cheaper than staying home! It was perfectly located amidst a batch of six or seven fleapit cinemas whose admission prices ranged from 95p to a still-bearable £1.90. Arriving at the hostel I drew up a provisional to-do list for the next day and went to sleep happy.
On the second day I started my customary trawl of art galleries and museums. Everywhere in the city was in walking distance which was lucky as the metro system smelt of farts. Unfortunately the city seemed to have the builders in. The streets had a touch of the Somme about them as they were riddled with trenches. These weren’t the relatively neat affairs you see in London and were unadorned by anything as poncey as barriers or warning lights.
I spent the day at the National Art Museum. Standout was the work of Nicolae Grigorescu who is a bit like a soft focus, less weird Van Gogh or a glummer Monet. The museum itself was worth a visit for the beautiful spiral marble staircase alone.
Shamefully, after returning to the hostel I defaulted to the nearby McDonalds for my evening meal. It turns out that McDonalds have not only trade-marked the term happy meal but have also registered the use of the word ‘happy’. Hopefully this only applies in Romania, and only refers to use of the actual word and not the concept.
The night life on offer was limited. A bar near the hostel advertised itself as offering jazz, blues and silence. I didn’t mind the blues and silence but I didn’t want to risk being subjected to jazz. Instead I went to the nearest cinema. I turned up 5 minutes before showtime. There was nobody in the box office but a woman was mopping up in the lobby. Despite my limited grasp of Romanian I managed to ascertain that the showing wasn’t going ahead as, unaccountably, nobody else had turned up to see the sequel to ‘Van Wilder, Party Liaison’.
As it turned out there was a last minute rush of five potential punters so we were ushered into a draughty barn of a cinema which resembled a village hall gone to seed. The movie’s poster featured the bloke who played the original Van Wilder but he wasn’t in the film. Perverse but understandable, I thought. The premise of the original film was that Van had managed to extend his time at college well past the customary graduation age in order to pursue his predictable extra-curricular interests. Judging by the poster the actor in question was probably knocking fifty by now so his participation would have stretched the already flimsy premise beyond breaking point.
The chief satisfaction the movie offered was that it gave me an excuse to look up the word execrable. Verily it was a dog. One review I later read said this film was a vast improvement on the original but concluded that it was ‘still shit’. I was moved to note a fairly typical line of dialogue; ‘Provost, I do believe he’s just knocked out that girl with his schlong.’
On day two it struck me how used I am, walking round London, to placing people socially by their clothes and appearance. In Bucharest that was almost impossible. I think a city dweller’s instinct is to look out for signs of potential threat. Without the usual clues I was at a bit of a loss, although I did give a failry wide berth to the bunches of teenage lads striding purposefully along inhaling lustily from carrier bags of glue.
First port of call was the National History museum. It was full of bronze age bling. It scrubbed up suspiciously well and looked oddly contemporary; if I’d seen it on the Elizabeth Duke counter in Argos I wouldn’t have turned a hair.
Then it was off to the museum of Romanian Literature. Literature museums always seem to be flogging a bit of a dead horse. At the Amsterdam Eduard Douwes Dekker museum I was the only punter and had a full guided tour from the curator. I could have happily skipped it. When he asked if I was a fan of the writer I felt it would have crushed him if I’d admitted I’d only gone because it was free to get in. Curating a museum like that probably isn’t as cushy a gig as it might seem – a bit like being a lift attendant where the lift keeps getting stuck.
The experience at the Romanian museum was similar. I managed to persuade myself the woman who talked me through the exhibit was flirting with me but I think she was probably just embarrassed. At the end of the tour she asked if her English had been okay and whether she’d got any phrases wrong. At one point she'd indicated my jacket and asked if I wanted to take my clothes off. I didn't have the heart to correct; that was my favourite bit.
When I’m travelling I’m occasionally chastened by the realisation of what a cringing introvert I can be. Lots of people go on holiday to meet people, I think I travel to avoid them. This attitude doesn’t sit well with the atmosphere in backpacking hostels, places apparently swarming with the gregarious. My normal avoidant behaviour was exacerbated by the fact that everything still sounded as if my head was in a bucket of cotton wool. Any conversation just served to remind me of my conviction that my hearing was ruined forever. In the evening a gap year nineteen year old from Andover wanted me to accompany him to an ex-pat pub called the Red Lion. It seemed a pretty redundant venture, but his clingy air of desperation made it even less appealing. I made some vague excuse and retreated.
I gave an equally wide berth to a gaggle of Californian travel jocks who seemed as if they’d just walked off the set of the horror movie ‘Hostel’. Late that night I heard them outside drunkenly chanting USA! USA!
Bucharest has some fantastic architecture, but I don’t take much notice of that kind of thing. I notice other stuff. I noticed, for instance, that the green man on the pedestrian crossings moved exactly like the star-kicker figure at the start of the Old Grey Whistle Test. The fact I stopped to take a picture of it seemed to prompt some curiosity from the locals. Haven’t these people seen tourists before?
I sometimes feel I’m looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope, but fuck it, it’s my life and it’s my telescope, I can do what I like with them, I reckon. I noticed that Bucharest has female street-sweepers and that I never saw anybody pushing a pram in the city. In my entire stay I saw two cyclists, three black people (all men), and one woman with a tattoo.
She was working in Springtime, a healthy fast-food outlet which I couldn’t walk past without thinking of Mel Brooks. It had a fantastically complex ordering system, a bit like the daft one that Foyles’ bookshop in London used to have. It involved queuing up to pay a cashier, who gave you an itemised receipt which you took to a counter where you presented your receipt to the assistant who prepared your order. The assistant would then serve you your food, and issue you with a new receipt. I’m not sure if these layers of bureaucracy were a hangover from communism, or an attempt to clamp down on salad-related staff fraud.
Around this point my notes get sketchy as I became increasingly preoccupied by the state of my hearing. It’s weird how these things affect you. Near the front of my mind was a frustration that I’d recently bought a digital home-recording set up that I hadn’t even taken out of the box yet. And now I was going to be too deaf to use it. One of these days I’ll get knocked down by a bus and my last thought will be a bitter regret that I’ve just wasted a tenner getting a big shop in.
After days of frantic Googling where I turned up account after account of people deafened by air travel I discovered some advice on the Valsalva manoeuvre. The Valsalva manoeuvre is a bit like the Heimlich manoeuvre but for shifting snot. It involves pinching the nose shut and gently trying to exhale. The keyword is gently, otherwise you can end up wearing your eardrums as epaulettes.
In the empty TV room I tried it. There was an immediate improvement in my hearing. I wasn’t completely out of the woods but there was enough of a change to make me dance to the television for a few brief moments. I felt like James Stewart at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life.
The museums were mostly closed so I had a quiet day, but in a good way. I went to the geology museum. None of the displays had notes in English, and frankly it lost something by the lack of translation. Loose ended I spent more time than usual in the hostel, which gave me time to ponder the tension between the growth of cheap international travel and the decline in people’s ability to rub along with others.
The previous night a new room mate insisted on opening all the windows in the room, despite it being the depths of winter. As me and the receptionist whiled away the afternoon in the lounge watching a bootleg of some dumb action movie he came in and began to cook, bringing with him a portable radio which he played at full blast, apparently oblivious to the fact other people were watching a film.
Another new arrival seemed to be a career insomniac. He decided to do his laundry overnight, and put one item of clothing in his locker at a time. He banged in and out of the room at intervals of a few minutes all night. In the morning he recounted how he’d been robbed in the street and had all his belongings taken. I found the news strangely satisfying. Later on he brought in a fish for his tea that was so fresh I swear I saw its gills twitching. It was too big to gut in the kitchen sink so he disembowelled it in the shower tray. Nice. He made a fish stew which hung around for another three days.
13th November. Sinia.
The next morning I spotted the fish gutter helping himself to the last of my milk from the fridge. Misanthropy here I come.
I headed for Sinia by train. A quirk of the rail system was that you had to book your ticket at least an hour ahead of travel, a rare example of vestigial Eastern bloc style bureaucracy. Rather than bothering me, this actually made me feel quite nostalgic for the 1970s in the UK when life was full of random and intractable awkwardnesses like this, before we got addicted to convenience and started expecting to be endlessly indulged like whining children. Besides, the whole Romanian set up was still streets ahead of the Kafkaesque nightmare of Virgin trains booking system. And some of the difference is purely about presentation. In Romania you're obliged to book a seat with the result that everybody gets a seat. On Virgin trains you’re given the opportunity to book a seat, but if you choose not to, your chances of getting a seat are negligible. But hey, you exercised your freedom as a consumer!
The atmosphere in the waiting room was thick with foot odour. A man was circulating, trying to sell hats, without much luck. Seems they haven't fully grasped the concept of the market round here. If he’d been selling air freshener he’d have made a fortune.
I’m always sceptical when people talk about universal truths, but my conviction wavered when I went to my seat. Regardless of the infrastructure, sure enough, someone else was sat in my seat and got all snotty when I tried to reclaim it. It was a front-facer though, so I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. ‘This is seat 46,’ I said.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘Just wait a minute,’ she snapped.
Once rightfully seated she apologised, saying she wasn’t angry with me but with the system as she and her friend had missed their original train and they’d had to rebook at great expense. We chatted briefly and I was just beginning to warm to her when she pointed out of the window at some tatty houses we were passing, laughed and said to her mate, ‘Gypsy country!’
Her mate with the glasses said, ‘We’re not racist but it would be better without the gypsies.’ I gave my best tight-lipped, backing away from a bigot expression. Her voice faltered. She mumbled, ‘Or maybe not.’ Maybe not? What did she mean maybe not? Was she still mulling the idea over? Was she toying with the idea of being a gypsy-hating fascist but thought she’d run the idea up the flagpole first and see who saluted?
I had a near-identical experience on the train back from Brasov. Either a lot of Romanians hate gypsies, or a disproportionate number of Romanian people who use the train network hate gypsies, or I look like somebody who hates gypsies and gypsy-haters gravitate to me because they see me as a kindred spirit. I’d like to return to Romania, but if I do I’m seriously considering making up an ‘I heart gypsies’ badge. It’ll either secure me some peace and quiet on train journeys or it’ll get me lynched.
I came back from Sinia on the oldest train I’ve ever been on, 1950s vintage at a guess. It was divided into the sort of compartments I haven’t seen since the 1960s, each of which had brown vinyl seats with antimacassars. There were two older women in the carriage. One had her feet on the seat opposite, but she had spread a tissue there to protect the seat. Just like people do in the UK. Ha! The older woman inspected my ticket and said something quick in Romanian which presumably indicated I was in the right carriage. The carriage was warm enough to bake bread in, but I was glad of it after a day in the mountains. I settled into the cosiness and looked out at the snow-crusted valleys.
As we pulled out of Sinia a young woman, apparently deaf and without speech came along the carriage dumping handfuls of twee tat on each table; toy donkeys whose noses lit up, playing cards and torches. I decided to pass.
That night at the hostel a group of Australians moved in. They spent all night complaining loudly about the snoring of the Pole in the next bunk. The Pole was barely breathing heavily, and was nothing like as loud as the arseholes complaining about him. In the morning I woke to find the loudest Australian who’d spent half the night exclaiming of the Pole, ‘I’m going to strangle the cunt in a minute!’, spark out, snoring fit to rattle the windows.
Ploieste. 14th November.
Maybe I ought to take this travel writing lark a bit more seriously. Or take better notes. Or write sooner after trips. All I’ve noted about my daytrip to Ploieste is that yet again I had the experience of being the only punter in a museum. In both the art and the history museum a member of staff did the usual and followed me round turning the lights off in each room as I exited. I admired their attention to energy conservation but it didn’t feel very welcoming. The art museum was wildly overstaffed. In the ticket office, four large women were sat knitting. They looked surprised to see me. I’m assuming they all worked there, although it may be that only one of them did and the others were friends who’d come in to get the benefit of the two bar fire they were huddled round.
From memory, Ploieste was an unattractive and unpretentious industrial town which didn’t go out of its way for visitors. The train station was a twenty minute walk away from the city centre through run down streets of decrepit housing where traffic signs warned of approaching horses and carts. After I’d done the museums I ran out of stuff to do with a couple of hours to spare. Romanians have no conception of the charity shop as we know it, so I went to see the matinee showing of Knocked Up at the cinema. There were the typical five people in the audience. It was so cold in the auditorium that I could see my breath. By the end of the first reel I couldn’t feel my feet. Fearing frostbite I left twenty minutes before the end, reasoning that the walk back to the station would be easier if I still had toes.