Next on the agenda was Romania, the biggest country in that part of Europe. I had been interested in Romania since university because it never appeared in the media. All the other Communist Bloc countries got mentioned now and again, but Romania seemed forgotten. All the Hungarians I met hitching across their country warned me about visiting their eastern neighbour:
– You go Romania?
– Why you go Romania?
– It’s on my route to China.
– China? But Romania not near China. I not understand.
– I’m on my way to China. Romania is in the way.
– You no go Romania. Not good country. No food in Romania. They steal everything. Bad people.
These warnings made me even more curious to see Romania, but I did take the advice about the food situation seriously. Could it be true that there was no food in Romania? Surely that would have been a news story at some point? I had some space in my old canvas rucksack and I went to a grocer’s shop and filled it up with tins of grim-looking beans and a big leg of smoked ham. The shopkeeper asked where I was going and shook his head in sympathy, as if I was off to the front.
The border crossing was deserted. There was space for trucks and cars and people, and men in uniform everywhere, but the only form of transport I saw going in or out of Romania that day was a single car, surrounded by armed soldiers who were patiently going through all the driver’s possessions, and a lone cyclist. None of the uniforms seemed interested in my appearance – I presume they were geared up to search vehicles and interrogate drivers and didn’t know how to deal with a foreigner who’d appeared on foot – and they seemed rather bored. I had a brief chat with the cyclist, who was an American. He was middle-aged, skinny and didn’t seem to have any luggage at all. I wondered if he was some kind of undercover missionary. I asked him what it was like in Romania and he said:
– It’s exotic.
I tried to hitchhike but it didn’t work. I walked from the border crossing point and eventually got a lift from a tractor driver, black with grease, to the nearby city of Oradea, a horrendous looking dump that had been disfigured by grotesque architecture. In fact, the whole country had been ruined by Communist architects. I walked through the city, saw greasy looking cakes in a shop – there was food but it looked inedible – and tried to hitch towards Bucharest on the road south. I stood on the outskirts for the rest of the day but none of the drivers would even look at me. On the street nobody would make eye contact and I couldn’t understand it. Nowhere else had I encountered unfriendliness on such a scale. They also looked incredibly shabby, as if they had been wearing the same clothes for months. That night I walked back into town, found the railway station and got a ticket to Bucharest and thought: What a horrendous place. I can’t wait to get away from here.
I was travelling in terra incognita and the only contact names I had were reluctantly given by the boyfriend of Gwen Hardy, the artist I had visited in Berlin who had given me the tip about the Künstlerhaus exhibition in Vienna. Gwen’s boyfriend was a dark, brooding, silent Romanian called Marian. He didn’t say much when I visited their apartment – was he jealous I had come to visit Gwen? When I found out he was from Romania I asked for some contact names, and he reluctantly gave me a scrap of paper with two names and two numbers. The names were Lolla and Vlad and there was no mention of a surname, address or any other information.
I was standing in Gara de Nord, the main railway station in Bucharest, the capital of this accursed country, holding that scrap of paper in my hand and wondering if I should call the numbers or get the next train to Bulgaria. The thought of leaving was most tempting but something made me hesitate. I found an antediluvian phone box and some grubby, aluminium coins and made the call. No reply. Vlad wasn’t in. Things were looking up: one more phone call and I could hit the road. I was keen to get away from the oppressive atmosphere of this station. And then I called Lolla – what kind of a name is that? – and a grumpy female voice shouted Alo and I was at a loss for words. I hadn’t learned even one word in the Romanian language and I had no intention of doing so. Marian hadn’t told me anything about this Lolla character. Was it male, female or animal? Did it speak English? What was I supposed to say?
– Do you speak English?
– Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
– Moment! barked the female voice. There was a long silence. After what seemed like an eternity I heard footsteps approaching the phone.
– Alo, said a male voice.
– Do you speak English, oder Deutsch?
– Ja, the voice said, followed by a long pause
I explained in my kindergarten German that I had got this number from a friend of his in Berlin, Marian Stoica. There was another long silence on the phone and I could hear a frantic, whispered conversation going on at the other end. This is ridiculous, I thought, deciding to get the next train to Bulgaria and be done with this Godforsaken place. Eventually the voice said:
– You wait in station. We come! The line went dead.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if a squad of policemen had dragged me off in the next half hour. Maybe it was true what the Hungarians told me, that half the population were informers for the dreaded Securitate, the secret police. Had this Lolla character called them up and told them there is a dangerous foreign spy lurking in the station? And was Lolla the woman or the man? Maybe Lolla was the acronym for the Secret Police? Should I go and get my ticket to Sofia now? What was I doing here?
The scene that followed could have been from a romantic film. I was standing in the station looking at the collection of people walking by, wondering why everyone looked so depressed, as if we were in a massive psychiatric ward not a busy European railway station. And then the sun burst through the gloom, lighting up the station for the first time and, just as the orchestra struck up, a handsome looking couple appeared. It had to be Lolla and his sister, or was it Lolla and her brother? I just knew it was them as they looked so different from the mentally disturbed crowd that I had been observing.
– Guten Tag, I said, addressing the tall and handsome man. I was so pleased to meet normal people that I couldn’t get the huge smile off my face.
– I am Laurentiu. This is my sister Cristina, introducing me to a beautiful young lady who had a perfectly formed round face and long, flowing black hair. Her smile was enchanting.
– But who is Lolla?
– I am Lolla. My name is Lolla. And Laurentiu.
– Aha, so Lolla is a nickname?
– We must go from this place.
– You speak good English, I said to Laurentiu on the way out of the station.
– I do not speak English. I speak German.
– But you are speaking good English.
– I never speak English before. I watch English films.
Laurentiu was a maths teacher and a film buff and he had watched all the classic old films at the National Film Archive, the Cinemateca, learning English, French and Russian in the process. German was the only language he had studied formally and he knew it so fluently that when I tried to speak it he would wince in pain as he knew my pronunciation was appalling. He was incredibly good looking but seemed a bit sad and I presumed this was to do with the repressive country he lived in. Why didn’t he go to Berlin like his school friend Marian? But he didn’t want to talk about Romania, emigrating, the Securitate or the dictator who overshadowed everything – Nicolae Ceausescu. In fact, he didn’t want to talk about anything – but he was warm and understanding and silent communication worked fine.
We drove off in their father’s Wartburg, an ancient East German car with a two-stroke engine, leaving behind a cloud of blue-grey smoke. We went to their house in the old town, an apartment in a street of elegant nineteenth century town houses. They welcomed me in and fed me. I handed over the leg of smoked pork I had carried from Hungary in my rucksack but they refused it. I insisted and so did they, but when they weren’t looking I put it in their ancient fridge and it wasn’t mentioned again. Later on I learned that Romanians are the most welcoming people in Europe and if they take you into their home they will refuse payment and share all their food with you, however little they have.
Bucharest felt scary, especially at night when each street seemed to be lit up by a single street lamp. It felt good to have a friendly base in such a hostile location. The next day I walked the streets alone and saw the biggest queues in my life. I passed what seemed to be a grocers shop but noticed that instead of fruit and veg on the tables outside the shop they were displaying books. When I looked closer I noticed they were all the same books, all with the name Nicolae Ceasescu on the cover. This was strange; I understood the Communist Party urge to sell the great words of the leader, but to sell them on the street like fruit and veg? Didn’t that lower the tone? Later on I came across the Museum of Romanian History, one of the few buildings with an English sign on it, and noticed that the whole upper level of the building was dedicated to Nicolae Ceausescu. There was a big sign that described in glowing terms his personal contribution to Romanian history. This didn’t feel right, the creep wasn’t even dead yet and already he’s got half the National History Museum. Needless to say my new friend Laurentiu didn’t explain any of this.
But he did take the weekend off and show me round town. Gradually, I realised it wasn’t as grim as I had first thought. We met with Victor, his sister’s boyfriend, who had smiling eyes, a stylish 1930s moustache, a devil-may-care attitude, and a car. We went to a park that was wrapped round by a lake, shadowed on all sides by trees, where we played ping-pong on concrete tables outside and drank strange fizzy juice from glass bottles. Laurentiu took me to a screening of a new Russian film called Come and See and we sat in a small, grimy but totally packed cinema watching scenes of butchery as the Nazi army invaded Belarus and proceeded to burn, shoot and destroy the local population. The film was in Russian, the subtitles in Romanian, but I didn’t need to know a word of either language to understand it. Never before or since have I seen such a powerful war film. I later found out that the director of Come and See, Elem Klimov, decided that all he wanted to say was in that film and he never made another.
This is an extract from 9 Months in Tibet — the eBook — which will be published soon. If you’d like to reserve a copy just email me at email@example.com