On the three hour drive through the Carpathian mountains to Sighisoara, Laci, the driver, was giving me a glimpse into Romanian life and the split between the Hungarian and Romanian population and some of the tensions that exist between the two due to their history. Harghita county and Transylvania used to be part of Hungary until after WWI when it became Romanian territory and the Hungarian people were forced to adopt the Romanian language and culture and abandon their Hungarian heritage.
Laci wasn’t the first person to tell me that Romanians have a bit of a bad reputation throughout the rest of Europe. A lot of that is due to what they call the ‘gypsy population’ who are stereotypically lazy, work the government welfare system, resort to stealing and have children they can’t afford, hence burdening the already overloaded child-care system.
As we drove past a group of gypsy men gathered on a street corner, Laci asked if I could see their skin tone was a darker color. I looked at the men and then at Laci and other than their clothing, they looked the same. The gypsy men typically wear wide brimmed hats and the women I saw wore long flowing skirts like a folk dancing costume.
I ate a bag of paprika potato chips on the drive and Laci stopped at a natural water spring where people drove from miles to fill up plastic bottles of the mineral water. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have had the water; it smelled off, was a light brown color and had a slightly fizzy consistency. I wondered if in this fairy-tale region, the water really did have the mysterious healing powers people spoke of and perhaps my stomach pains were the release of toxins in my body, but I think it just didn’t agree with me.
Laci went on to tell me the Romanian Government is still trying to distribute property back to its rightful owners after the fall of communism in 1989. It’s a slow process and one that invites some people to file false property claims and in other cases it may be difficult to track heirs of prior owners.
As we drove through a larger town I saw a long line of people waiting to get in to the Penny market grocery store. I wondered if the line was just due to the holiday or if it’s still a remnant from the communist era. We passed a gas station where cars were lined up waiting to purchase diesel and my thoughts traveled back to the 70’s when my mom and I would wait in line for gas in her convertible Mustang.
When I asked Laci about the high number of orphaned children he explained that adoption used to be very easy but then rumors spread that children were being sold for body parts. I laughed, but Laci’s serious expression told me he believed this rumor, adding, “Well, a lot of children simply disappeared and no one knows what happened to them.” It evokes yet another mysterious element about Transylvania like the tales of Dracula and wild dogs.
I spent the night in Sighisoara and arranged to take a bus for the hour drive to Targu Mures where I’d catch my flight to Budapest. I’d heard several people speak of how terrifying the drive to Targu Mures was due to maniacal drivers who take the route back and forth every day, speeding and dangerously passing cars on the windy road. The front desk clerk of my hotel told me he was scared to death the last time he took one of those busses.
I recalled the bus I took on a small Greek Island to get to a remote beach off a steep dirt road and figure if I survived that, I could survive this bus ride; hopefully.
Friday morning, several people were waiting to board the bus when the driver suddenly appeared, flicked away his cigarette and quickly took his seat. A toothless gypsy woman helped lift my bag onto the bus. As I paid 9 Lei, about $2 U.S. dollars to the driver, I thought I smelled alcohol on his breath and I feared I was in for a death ride.
Imagine my relief when the drive turned out to be slow and steady, no hairpin turns at high speeds. Perhaps it was the alcohol that made him drive more slowly, at that point I didn’t care.
The small airport in Targu Mures where I arrived two hours before the Malev airlines ticketing agent, was a ghost town. The snack shop was closed, the upstairs restaurant was closed and it was briskly chilly as I sat and waited for my ticket to be issued.
I was the only person to walk through the security checkpoint, passport control and customs. The customs agent asked me if I had anything to declare to which I replied, “no.” He mumbled something to a colleague as I walked to the seats in the gate area.
Just as I opened the small container of ham spread for my Christmas Eve lunch, he motioned for me to follow him. He led me to a small room where my bag was on a table, unopened. For some reason I now believed that I was a drug smuggler in an episode of ‘Locked Up Abroad’. My pulse quickened.
He asked again, “You have nothing to declare?” and I shake my head no, now scared I was supposed to declare the two bottles of wine that are stuffed in my boots.
“You’re not carrying more than ten thousand Euros?” I quickly tried to calculate Euros to dollars and quipped back with a smile, “I wish I had ten-thousand Euros.” Instead of laughing with me, he motions for me to open my bag. My hands were shaking. Why didn’t I just declare the stupid wine?
He barely unzipped the suitcase, pulled out one cosmetic bag and said, “Thank you.” He left me to zip up the bag and I carried my container of ham spread back to my seat where I waited for my heart to stop racing.
There was only one other passenger scheduled for the flight to Budapest, which was running an hour late. She had on a brown version of my coat and I wondered what her life circumstances were that brought her to fly on Christmas Eve day from Targu Mures to Budapest.
We got to talking and shared stories. Her father had just died on the 18th and she had gone back home for his funeral. I share my situation with her and told her that my father had died years ago on December 17. Eniko and I bond quickly.
I told her of my experience with the kids and she shares with me that she’d thought of adopting but doesn’t think the Hungarian Government would allow her to adopt from out of the country. She adds that her ‘boyfriend’ is 20 years older than she is and he doesn’t want any more children. She describes his personality as ‘difficult’ and when I ask in what aspect, she laughs and says, ‘everything’.
The two of us take seats across the aisle from each other as the crew of six swirls around us preparing the plane for take-off. The pilot invited us to look through the cockpit window before take-off and even though it’s the same sky from the window where I’m seated, it looked much more amazing and vibrant.
The flight attendant asked what we’d like to drink and I ask if they had champagne. She smiled and says it’s usually for business class as she hands me a small bottle of bubbly. Eniko and I are offered as many bags of peanuts as we want, and small wrapped chocolates that I assume are also only for business class.
Eniko confides in me about the complex and sometimes trying relationship she and her father had. I heard the regret in her voice and I tell her even if he was still alive it wouldn’t change the past or what the relationship was and even though it wasn’t perfect, they had love for each other. She glanced out her window at the sky and tells me she feels like she is closer to him.
Toward the end of the flight the flight attendant speaks in Hungarian to Eniko who translates to me the pilot has invited one of us to sit in the jump seat of the cockpit for the landing in Budapest. There is only room for one. She offers up the opportunity to me because she has a friend with a small plane she gets to fly in often.
I became a giddy schoolgirl as I got settled into the jump seat. The feelings of self-pity I’d had just hours before seem like a world away and I’m reminded that life is truly an ebb and flow of all things opposite, just a pendulum that we swing on day to day, year to year as we navigate through our lives and all the complexities of being human.
The rest of the travel back to LA had its challenges, but I arrived safely and made it home to face my new life, an ending and a beginning.