I was cycling down the hill so fast I thought I might fly, like those kids in ET – Steven Spielberg’s classic film – when the alien enables the kids to fly their bikes through the night sky. It’s incredible what speed you can reach when going downhill on a good bike, even without pedalling.
Everything at that moment was perfect: the speed was exhilarating and the bike was handling it well (Bromptons are great at speed). The combination of cool autumn air and sharp sunlight marked a point of perfection in Romania’s calendar when the weather is just right – as if it’s recovering from the crushing heat of summer and preparing for the relentless cold of a long winter.
I was also in a beautiful spot. Surrounding my downhill piste was a thick pine forest that has not yet been pillaged by the Austrian timber companies (every Romanian knows that it’s the Austrians, and their “timber conservation” charities, such as Schweighofer Privatstiftung, who are de-foresting Romania).
And then I nearly died.
The road I was cycling on was the main route between Iasi and Botosani, two cities in north east Romania. I knew the drivers were annoyed, as they are all over the country, for their governments failure to build more than a few token miles of motorway – and in this part of the land there are not even the patches of motorway you find in Transylvania. My impression is that the drivers get their revenge on the system by driving as fast as they can, particularly those people who own the big German cars which are so powerful, and comfortable inside, that driving at high speed doesn’t feel dangerous at all.
There was a column of big cars heading my way, accelerating hard out of the village below and taking advantage of the forest cover ahead to make up for lost time. Suddenly a big BMW sharked out of the column, dropped a gear and put his foot to the floor; the car surged past those ahead and within seconds he was ahead of the pack and ready to get back in lane.
The fact there was a lone cyclist – i.e. me – on the other side of the road, directly in the path of the hurtling BMW, didn’t seem to have registered with the driver when he made his millisecond calculations about the risks of overtaking.
I’ve been cycling on Romania’s roads for over 20 years and it’s been a remarkably safe experience – even though many Romanians have told me “You’re crazy to cycle on our roads because our drivers are all insane,” (a comment which says more about how Romanians regard each other than the actual safety of the road. The fact is that no driver wants to run down a cyclist; not only on humanitarian grounds but the legal punishment for killing someone on the road are severe). In general, I’m very grateful for Romanian drivers for giving me space and letting me live.
But different rules apply to drivers of powerful cars that overtake in remote country locations: when they see an opportunity to overtake, they don’t seem to see cyclists; we become invisible. There is another insidious effect at work here, unique to countries like Romania where a macho driving culture prevails – it’s common to overtake and force oncoming drivers to pull over, slow down or just get out of the way. Truck drivers are prone to this kind of bullying behaviour, as well as beefy businessmen in their black muscle-cars.
In my case, it was all over in milliseconds. I wasn’t particularly aware of the imminent danger to my life but my subconscious (my Guardian Angel) was: I swerved towards my side of the road and the BMW rocketed past. When your life is on the line and the danger is imminent, instinct can kick in and save you. This has happened to me several times (here’s a story, in podcast format, of when I was attacked by three big dogs in Tibet).
I was still moving at what felt like high speed – maybe 30 km/h – and soon enough I was in the village that nestled at the foot of the forest: Copălău, location of a military base and an annual Garlic Festival. The column of big cars was long gone and I doubt that the BMW driver even registered the incident. I pulled over and it was only at this point that fear caught up with me; I had just had a near-death experience!
Enter the film crew
If the incident had been filmed it would have made the most incredible piece of TV footage. Imagine how delighted a TV news editor would be to get high-resolution footage of a road accident; not only would they play it on the news for days – even in slow motion – but they could have sold it abroad and whipped up moral outrage about reckless drivers, bad roads and the dangers that apparently surround us. It would have fed seamlessly into the media’s insatiable hunger for death, depravity and horror – a grotesque form of reality that is surprisingly addictive.
Well, guess what: the whole thing was filmed! I was on camera for most of my downhill run – not on some roadside camera or dashcam on one of the German cars, but on a high-quality lens on a filmmaker’s drone that was flying just ahead of me.
Why the hell, you may me wondering, was a filmmaker flying a drone in front of me as I tore down a country road in north east Romania? A fair question.
The answer is that I’ve been helping make a documentary film about the changes that took place over the last 30 years, since the Romanian revolution. The narrative follows what I did in 1990 (observing the aftermath of the revolution in Bucharest, helping a kids’ home in a Botosani village and working with the Roma minority) up to the present day. I’ve been in Romania on-and-off for most of the last 30 years, working on some really interesting stuff like Roma and child rights, journalism, regional development, helping Romania into the EU and, most recently, as an evaluator for EU projects. I also produced a couple of documentary films, including one about what people were talking about just After the Revolution.
Our new film is being produced by Mihai Dragolea and he’s using some of the footage that was shot by my old friend Laurentiu Calciu, whom I’ve known since 1986 when I first came to Romania; it was he who shot the After the Revolution material as well as my work in the kids home and with the Roma minority. He’s a great documentary filmmaker, but far too modest for his own good. You can see his showreel here.
I tried talking to the two filmmakers about my near-miss but they didn’t really take it in, as they had been so focussed on driving the car in front of me and operating the drone. This was totally fine by me as the last thing I wanted was to make a big deal out of it. The fear that I had felt after the incident soon left, as if part of that convoy of speeding cars.
A couple of hours later the filmmakers were driving down to Bucharest and I had decided to get out of the car at Targu Frumos and hop on the train to Iasi, the former capital of the ancient kingdom of Moldova – a city I wanted to discover. The incident with the BMW in the forest was being filed in my head as a non-traumatic memory.