First impressions - Romanian stereotypes
Romanian stereotypes abound. Imagine my dismay when, upon arrival in Oradea I encounter a man thrashing the life out of his car as if it were an errant Victorian chimney sweep and he were its master. Diesel fumes chokes the road and pavement. The engine, (clapped-out and dating from the Soviet era, I haughtily surmise) remains stubbornly lifeless. I stop to take a photo. Unabashed, the man continues mercilessly.
The unfinished fortress
Things don’t really improve when I visit the Oradean fortress, a 16th century stronghold that has played a key role in conflicts between the Turks, Austrians and Hungarians. It’s a weekday afternoon, out of season and still dry i.e. a perfect time for construction work. But the digger is unmanned, and the paving is unfinished. They are either lazy or have run out of money, so continues my prejudice. The quality of the existing work suggests the latter but as I say, it’s hard not to buy into stereotypes.
A warm smile
Thank goodness for the warmth of a smile. Whilst buying a local flatbread snack from a kiosk in town, the young lady offers me the most beautiful example one could wish for. The afternoon lifts and I’m pleased to discover the guidebooks are correct. The Vulturul Negru (Black Hawk) Palace arcade is, indeed, marvellously restored and worthy of a visit. Said bird hovers in a pastel sky over multi-coloured fields, bordered by greenery. Some of the units in the arcade are not yet tenanted but many are - mainly coffee shops, bars and eateries. A soon-to-be-open Diesel clothes shop hints at future cliental.
The locals gather atop the only hill in town to watch sunset. We’re treated to huge skies and sun-drenched clouds. As evening concedes to night, tiny lights from homes and offices wink at us from the city far below.
Freezing by the banks of the Crișul Repede
I spend the next couple of days in a sun-forsaken valley aside the Crișul Repede. It’s so cold and damp that I can’t muster the energy to remove myself from its banks. The Romanian countryside is ruggedly beautiful and unforgivingly wild, even more so now that late-summer has finally surrendered to Autumn. The only blessing is the almost cloudless night sky, a full moon, and the opportunity for nighttime photography. Shivering in bed, I ponder the meaning of this trip and consider my return journey. When I do finally crawl out of the valley and feel the sun’s life-affirming rays on my body once more, I seek refuge in Cluj Napoca — an affluent city in Transylvania — and pray for heat.
Upon arrival at the campsite, I’m met by an ageing Italian who tells me how he is in Romania for some treatment on his teeth. “Much cheaper than Italy,” he says. It’s the end of the season and we’re the only campers on site. Nevertheless, I park up next to him in solidarity and he kindly makes me an espresso. We agree to hit the town together later to get some groceries.
I’m unpacking my things when I hear him shouting from within his motorhome. I look inside and see him wielding a fire extinguisher. Silly bugger, I think, and return to the unpacking. More shouting, louder now. When I look again, I see his curtains are on fire. Time seems to slow down and speed up at the same time; seconds or minutes pass, it’s hard to tell. I notice his roof is smouldering. The dog is barking. Woof. Woof. I freeze. I don’t know whether to help or move to safety.
Over the brow of the hill appears the campsite owner brandishing a hosepipe, huge arc of water spurting forth. I start the engine and reverse across the field. From here, the situation looks even worse. The roof is on fire and the sides are beginning to go up. The hose is ineffectual. I’m mindful of the petrol tanks and the gas bottles and decide to get the van off the site and come back to help. I’m walking back up the hill when I hear the owner shouting stay back, stay back. Then loud bangs - the petrol tank going. Thick black smoke billows into the sky.
There’s not much to do but watch and wait. The local press appear with a movie camera and the fire brigade arrive soon after. I go and get the shopping and return an hour later. Everything’s under control now and the police are milling about. The Italian is trying to refuse to be taken to the hospital but thankfully he’s too much in shock to argue effectively. The campsite owner is OK. The Italian is OK. I’m OK. Nobody died and nobody got injured. Everyone is thankful. The motorhome is a wreck though, a burned out shell of a home. I asked for heat, but not this way.
When I return a couple of days later to check up on everything, the campsite owner is wiring up loud speakers and disco lights.
“How is the Italian?”
“He’s ok. He managed to get a flight back to Italy. No injuries.”
“Good. What are you doing? Having a party?”
“Yes, an end of season party. I’m going to donate all the entrance fee money to the Italian. It’s not much, but it’s something.”
As I say, Romanian stereotypes abound. Imagine the national response should a motorhome-driving Romanian legitimately come to UK to use our health services and accidentally set his van on fire. I like to think, but sincerely doubt, that our response would be to lovingly dig deep into those rich western pockets of ours. Nevertheless, that’s the Romanian response: a small act of kindness.