Deeper Into The T-Van


PETROSANI, ROMANIA — Timisoara isn’t the most beautiful city in Transylvania, nor the most prosperous, but it’s big enough to give the impression that stuff actually happens there. Also, unlike so many Romanian mid-sized cities, it’s not emptying itself of young people; rather, it attracts lots of kids from the surrounding area, mostly for university, and many end up staying. I met up with one such young person via Couchsurfing who gave me a tour of Timisoara’s harder-to-find dive bars (her idea — not mine!) which was especially enjoyable because they really were genuine dives. She had spent a year working in Branson, Missouri, and judging by her stories that place is as alien to her as it is to me. The next day I met up with another pair of Couchsurfers who gave me a much more salubrious tour of the city. I have now seen the university campus in Timisoara, and walked the length of its river, which is a fine river indeed.

A dubiously-named establishment in Timisoara

Violeta and Adina are two local girls both with gub’ment jobs, and the big story of the week was the 20% pay cut the Romanian government had just dumped on all employees of its enormous public service. Later this week, a 6% VAT increase is on its way, effectively slashing the purchasing power of all cops, teachers, bean-counters, etc. by a combined 26%. Tough break for a country that was hit especially hard by the credit crisis. All the same, they were cheerful and hospitable and it took little convincing to get them to pose on my Vespa.

Violeta and Adina

Timisoara (Temesvar in Hungarian), was very much part of the much-bigger Hungary prior to 1920, and the Hungos left behind an impressive legacy of Hungarian secessionist architecture. Stuff on this scale is hard to find in Hungary proper these days.

Victoriei Square, Timisoara

Besides the massive budget cuts, one other story was on the lips of everybody I spoke with in Timisoara, and everybody told the exact same version of events. It goes like this: gypsy, or Roma, families are busy taking over all the apartments in the centre of town, with the tacit approval of Timisoara’s shady mayor, who may or may not have some Roma blood in him. (Oooo.) The gypsies allegedly do this in a slow war of attrition with the locals by moving into one apartment and then making life unbearable for all the neighbours. Intimidation of elderly tenants is a key feature of their strategy, and it all leads to a sort of Romanian “white flight” to the suburbs. I can’t comment further on this, not just out of fear of sounding bigoted or cheesing off all my crusading friends at the European Roma Rights Centre, but also because it’s hard to tell how much of this is true. One thing’s certain: in Romania, there’s no love lost for dessicated pop queen Madonna, who earlier this year wagged her finger at a Bucharest audience and told them to leave those gypsies alone. “Madonna should adopt the gypsies and bring them to America,” said one wag I met. “If she loves them so much, she should live with them!”

It was time to get moving again. My friend Alex, who’d relocated to Bucharest around the same time I left Budapest, had a big weekend planned. I got out the map and made the same mistake I’d made several times before on road trips in Romania: I chose to try and beeline it, instead of taking a more roundabout route on major highways. The road east to Petrosani turned out to be wretched, under construction most of the way, and it felt like the fillings in my teeth would shake loose long before any more accessories shook off my bike.

It was scenic, though

I decided to stop in Petrosani, what with the sun setting and all, and easily found a fantastic guesthouse. 10 Euros’ worth of Romanian lei for a regular room, 15 for the matrimonial suite. I went matrimonial.

Next stop: Bucharest!


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