On To Romania


TIMISOARA, ROMANIA — Back in Szolnok, Hungary, after all the hullabaloo of starting this big tour, I was exhausted. Plus, it rained for three days straight. So, I hunkered down in the Tisza Hotel and slept and worked on getting this blog functional.

Hamburger Castle, Szolnok, Hungary

Driving down familiar Hungarian roads, where traffic was noticeably calmer and more predictable than in Serbia and Croatia — I was back in Europe proper! — I had time to ruminate on what it is about this country that makes its definition so slippery. It’s a pablum of very predictable and obvious influences in the region, but doesn’t neatly fit any larger pattern, either. It’s very much part of Mitteleuropa, a sort of shambolic Austria, but then there’s what four decades of communism did to it. On the other hand that was a communism that quickly evolved into one of the least-insane in Eastern Europe. Hungary is orderly and industrious and almost Germanic in many things, yet it’s Balkanic at the same time: its political class is as corrupt as ever; its gangsters, just as visible. It’s part of the Catholic sphere of things, but not in a hard-core way, and there are sizeable Protestant and Jewish populations making things even more difficult to pigeonhole. It’s a small country of little consequence in the larger European scheme, yet it has a not-so-distant history of imperial pretensions where it threw its weight around a fair deal. And the people are largely friendly, low-key, and down-to-earth, but you occasionally meet spectacularly arrogant folks who mince around like 19th-century aristocrats.

After wrestling with all these contradictions for a while, I gave up and resigned myself to simply accepting the conventional wisdom that the Hungarians have a genius for doing things halfways. As the story goes, this is how they survived in a not-very-welcoming Central Europe for so long. (But not for so long: some neighbouring Slavs tend to see them as alien newcomers and not quite European. 1,100 years isn’t such a long time in these parts.)

Then it hit me: faced with more than their fair share of hard knocks throughout their history, Hungarians — wait for it — go for comfort first. This is a country with quiet, library-like restaurants where you hear the silverware clanking. They love getting together and sitting in steaming, slightly radioactive water while gently moaning about ailments both real and imagined. After that, they sip wine spritzers — for which they’ve devised sixteen variants based on different wine-to-water ratios — while wearing slippers. Always, the slippers. Any ambient temperature deviation of more than a few degrees from 21°C tends to throw them off-balance, as does any food or drink that might be considered “hot” or “cold”. In conversation, Hungarians take turns making long, leisurely speeches at one another, those doing the listening nodding intently and rarely interrupting. They also have a whole lot of sex.

“I don't know, Tibor. This tastes more like a viceházmester to me.”

And they have no idea what a pleasant, soft-focus existence they’ve carved out for themselves. Most Hungarians are baffled by a foreigner choosing to live in their country, especially when given so many other options. When I tell them that I think they’ve got the quality-of-life thing all sewn up, they look at me like I’m nuts.

That, folks, is my honest-to-goodness attempt to distill Hungary down to its essence. I had a great run there and I hope they’ll let me back in, if that’s in the cards.

But back to the trip. I had a fun time navigating around the puszta’s back roads on my way east to the Romanian border. I’m new to this business of using a GPS, and it’s great when you ask it for the shortest route, you follow it blindly, and it sends you down semi-paved tracks in the middle of nowhere.

...and where the hell was I?

I stopped in the sleepy town of Battonya and ate my last lunch of rántott hús for a long while. I then had my final stilted, woefully inept conversation in Hungarian with Zsuzsi, who runs the last gas station before the Romanian border.

Gas station Zsuzsi

I’d been to Romania many times before. Things change enormously when you cross that border. For one, the roads, apart from the main 2-lane highways (which, it must be said, they’ve done an admirable job of getting shipshape) are noticeably worse. Everything else simply becomes much more vivid and action-packed. Horse-drawn carts start appearing, and the architecture goes crazy, some houses painted entirely in fluorescent pink or orange. The driving style turns near-homicidal. Most of all, you notice the people. Driving through the Hungarian countryside, you could be fooled into thinking a neutron bomb had gone off; you simply don’t see anybody. Where they got to, I have no idea. In Romania, everybody’s going about their business outdoors, sometimes in the middle of the road. Adults, children, cows, geese, wildly swerving rusted-out Dacias, it’s all a big obstacle course that takes some nerve to negotiate your way through.

The obligatory Romanian cow shot

While I’d already seen much of Transylvania, I’d never been to Timisoara, and was interested in its history as the flashpoint for the 1989 Romanian revolution, the only blood-soaked transition out of communism in Eastern Europe. I found my way through the industrial wastes of Arad and headed south, struggling to pass the many trucks holding up traffic on the main highway. Around sunset I finally made it, and abandoned any pretense of doing this trip on the cheap. I checked into a decent hotel downtown and decided to take it easy there for a day or two before making my way across the southern Carpathians to Bucharest.


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