The 10-hour train ride away from Bucharest was either a trip back in time, or a view beyond the apocalypse. Angry faded graffiti covered the overpasses and returning train cars. Decimated factories groaned through glass-fanged window panes. These gave way to abandoned vehicles, piles of rubble and trash. Finally, finally, vegetation and even trees claimed more of the view. Solitary single-story homes were brightly painted and surrounded by overgrown gardens. Sunflower fields kept a uniform watch on the progress of the sun. Then there were honest-to-God peasants. And they walked in front of sway-backed horses that pulled rickety carts loaded with firewood or hay.
I sipped on my Coke, imagining the reception I would receive if I stood surrounded by a group of these peasants, bringing them into the 21st century with gifts of iPhones and tractors. Usually I saw grateful gap-toothed grins and baskets full of fresh vegetables held by trembling children, but the fantasy ended with a trio of hunched crones spitting hate-filled curses at me.
When the train arrived in Arad, an orderly cue of taxis waiting to carry passengers to their final destination and clusters of eight-story cement apartment buildings killed my illusions about Transylvania. I’m not saying that I expected a mythical land populated by vampires and gypsies with magical powers, but I was hoping for a few weeks of freedom from scurrying around in a big city.
I had convinced myself (and eventually my wife Monica) that I needed to spend a few weeks alone in the countryside. Monica and I squinted at the thumbnail pic of a cozy looking villa located deep in Transylvania (home-cooked meal included daily) and I booked it. Fresh air, fresh food and friendly people transported straight from the Shire that thought my American accent and atrocious Romanian was adorable. It was just the sort of comfortable adventure I needed to appreciate Romania again. And ideally, I would finally make some progress converting a writing hobby into something more meaningful.
Beyond the train station, crowds of people rushed ant-like in and out of the same shops found in Bucharest. I began to suspect that I might have benefitted from a bit more planning when a man approached me.
“Are you Gabriel Burkhardt?” he asked in English.
“I am. And you must be Dragos Alexandrescu.” The owner himself offered to give me a ride when I booked the villa, which I took as a reassuring omen of better things to come.
“Bine! Come. Please, let me take your baggage. We have many kilometers to reach our villa.” The man was short and spherical, with a full head of iron-grey hair and a craggy face. He flicked his wrist towards the back passenger window and an old woman got out. He made no effort to help with my luggage or to introduce me to the old woman.
The old woman fussed in a language I vaguely recognized as Romanian while two dogs tried to sneak past her. She managed to keep them pinned in the car before closing the door. Her red-knuckled hand touched mine as she reached for my suitcase handle. It felt as dry and callused as a piece of driftwood.
“No. It’s no trouble. These bags are heavy,” I said, but she was already hefting my suitcases into the trunk with ease.
The drive out of Arad wasn’t as dramatic as the train out of Bucharest, but the demarcation between city and countryside was very distinct. Eight-story buildings became three-story buildings, ground floors were still cluttered with shops and restaurants, and intersections transitioned from stately round-abouts with fountains or austere statuary to parallel streets with traffic lights.
Then, a gas station on a landscaped elevation dominated by a squat RomCom marquis dared us with its smiling blue and yellow logo to proceed at our own risk. There was nothing but undeveloped field on either side of the two-lane road beyond it. Dragos didn’t slow his monologue about local sights and history, or his little red Dacia, as he swerved up to a fuel pump.
“You should get what you want now. There are not so many choices near Villa Alexandrescu. But that is what you need for your writing yes? No city distractions and busy people? Yes?” He pushed his paunch in with a hand to clear the steering wheel and got out with a grunt.
The old woman sat scrunched and silent between two dogs, one a German Sheppard puppy with huge twitching ears and the other a grey-snouted Border Collie. If they moved, she snapped in rapid and unintelligible Romanian. I couldn’t remember how to ask her if she wanted my seat in Romanian aside from saying “you want” while gesturing at the passenger seat I was in. She scowled at me, but didn’t respond. I realized then that asking her if she wanted while gesturing animatedly at my lap could be interpreted in more than one way.
I couldn’t make my exit any more awkward, so I just got out of the car and headed in to stock up on junk food. The food selection was impressive for a gas station, and Monica would have cringed to see the pile of comfort foods I scored: Pringles, Snickers, Coke, Haagen-Dazs. Anything I recognized as a product also available in the states. I also grabbed two Davidoff cigars and a bottle of Jack Daniels (maybe there would be something to celebrate).
“Villa Alexandrescu is 25 kilometers from here. Here is nothing except unused Gypsy land,” Dragos said once we were back on the road.
I felt an uneasy vibe coming from the back seat. It may have been the dogs panting on the back of my neck, but just in case, I asked Dragos to tell his mother that I didn’t mean to offend her when I offered her my seat. He flipped his wrist up in annoyance and said she wasn’t his mother, that she was his girlfriend’s mother, and that she was where she belonged.
I asked him how long he owned Villa Alexandrescu. There was quite a bit of hand waving as he explained that there was some legal dispute over the ownership of some of his property, and that he could only raise fowl, but once the courts settled the case, there would be sheep too.
“Villa Alexandrescu is also a working farm?” I asked. The scenery passing my window was so rugged, I had a hard time imagining anyone bending this land to his will.
“It is certain!” he said. “There are fresh tomatoes and cucumbers even now, and fruit trees and chicken and geese. This is a surprise for you, but these are American Geese! You know them yes?”
I wondered again if my expectations for a quiet countryside bed and breakfast were unrealistic, but I kept an open mind. An adventure was part of what I needed anyway.
I started to spot deserted buildings that were being reclaimed by trees and shrubbery when he turned off the pavement onto a packed dirt road. I was surprised to see these cement shells so far from civilization and wondered what purpose they had served.
In answer to my silent question, a child rode an oversized bicycle out of a doorless opening in a building surrounded by vegetation. I wouldn’t have noticed him if it weren’t for his bright clothes. There were more bright clothes draped from a line between two trees.
“People actually live in these buildings?” I asked.
“It is certain! The Funar family lives here since my grandfather. It is not so good as it was. There is no money for repairs.” He looked at me quickly then returned his attention to the narrow dirt road. He slowed to let a trail of chickens cross. “Do not worry. They will not trouble you. They do not like the dogs.” I didn’t know if he was talking about the Funar family or the chickens.
Then he stopped for no reason. There was a scrunched line of sentinel pines to my right that I couldn’t see behind. What looked like a huge cinderblock, split in half and separated by a stone path, blocked my view to the left. We had to be close and I hoped that he wasn’t trying to give me a tour of the local ruins before checking in at Villa Alexandrescu.
Before I could phrase a polite deferral on the unscheduled tour, the old woman and dogs got out of the car. She went straight for my bags. No fucking way. Dragos performed another exit maneuver and said, “Come! Let me show you Villa Alexandrescu. I must return to the city soon. My girlfriend makes dinner.”
The dogs had already scouted the path, both marking the same spot before disappearing between the buildings. I heard chickens clucking excitedly and a rooster crowed. No fucking way.
“This, this is the same villa that I reserved? From the website?” I asked.
“It is certain! A peaceful, secluded, rustic getaway. And home-cooked meal included daily!” he quoted from the website.
I was standing outside the car, too stunned to stop the old woman as she struggled to get my luggage up the path between the buildings. I held on to the car door and pulled my cell phone out. “There is no service here.”
“Come! Let me show you.” He bent slowly at the waist while making a wide scooping motion with his arm. I followed, if for no other reason than to get my suitcases back from the old woman before she scavenged them.
The density of chicken shit on the path increased as I walked between the buildings, making it impossible to avoid. The structure on the right had two waist-high openings pocked with glass shards. Debris covered dirt floors. He noticed me trying to look deeper into the darkened recesses. “That was the store rooms for winter. We don’t use that now,” he said without slowing. There was a faint but pungent smell of rotting meat.
Just get your bags back and make him take you back to Arad. And hope that there isn’t a gang waiting to mug me.
I didn’t try to hide the horror on my face as I turned the corner. A flock of chickens scampered over bare dirt. The Collie herded them while the German Sheppard puppy chased behind, learning the ropes. No sign of the old woman.
Dragos was demonstrating the hand-crank for the well, then pushing aside a mildewed curtain to show me the outdoor shower and warning me to tell the old woman if I wanted a shower so she could heat the water. Neither of us acknowledged the miasma surrounding an isolated hut in the middle of chicken territory. It announced its own purpose with nauseating clarity. The sight and smell made everything else a little less repulsive by comparison, but not much. He identified the clumps of vegetables struggling to survive as he marched past each wire wrapped boundary.
“Stop!” I said. “This is not what I was expecting. Just, give me my luggage back and take me back to the city so I can find a hotel room.”
“I don’t have time to drive you to find a hotel room this night.” Dragos was unperturbed. “Come. Your room is ready. Let me show you. You can write and eat and enjoy the countryside. I will come back. Take you to the train so you can return to Bucharest.”
He pointed one of his square fingers at a counter beside the door leading inside, telling me to leave my snacks there in the “kitchen.” I still hadn’t seen the old woman, or more importantly, my bags.
Inside was a windowless square space. No one was waiting to mug me. And there was my luggage, unopened and next to an oversized couch covered with a pile of sheep-skin blankets. A little fire was going in a stone fireplace. Dragos began opening the doors to a very cool secretary desk and told me I was welcome to use any of the books in the “library.” An ancient grandfather clock stood guard in a corner nearest the door. Its tarnished brass pendulum dangled motionless and time was frozen at 5:37. There was a brown smoke ring on the walls about a foot from the ceiling, like a scum-line in an old bathtub- which would have been a nice addition to Villa Alexandrescu.
Dragos ushered me back outside. A campfire was flickering and crackling playfully beyond the geese pen (“See American Geese just for you!”). Dragos pointed out the servant’s quarters. It was a shack in the process of becoming one with a plum tree. Instead of a door, a brightly colored blanket hung over the opening. “Go there if you need anything. She will get it for you,” he said. Mashed plums littered the ground but I didn’t see an obvious path to the shack.
The old woman was already cooking dinner in a cauldron suspended over the campfire. She had changed into a sky-blue smock and moved with a silent efficiency that surprised me. Dragos still didn’t acknowledge her, instead he directed me to a handmade table with four mismatched chairs that was sheltered by an enormous tree with weird green fruit.
I was still watching her scurrying around the campfire, entranced by the dancing flames, when Dragos hurled one of the green fruits at the ground. Fascinated, I gawked as he recovered a walnut shell from the pulverized remains of the green fruit. He crushed the shell between his hands. Then he plucked another from the tree and tossed it to me. “You can eat whatever fruits you find,” he said as I struggled to get at the meat inside my prize. “Stay. Relax. Write. I will be back tomorrow, the day after at latest. If you don’t like it, I will take you to the train. You will return to your wife, your life, to Bucharest.”
I imagined returning to Monica, head bowed as I listened to her propose more reasonable solutions to my difficulty adjusting to life in Romania. Not an option. I can handle this.
Dragos stayed just long enough to pour two glasses of homemade wine and toast my success before turning me over to the old woman. Soon I had a belly full of fish soup, which was delicious despite the occasional stab from elusive bones, and a head spinning from too much wine. The old woman nodded at my Multumesc! Aceasta este delicios, but wouldn’t speak or join me.
My prayer that the rooster would stop its relentless nagging the next morning was the first wholly desperate and sincere prayer I can remember since I’d stopped wearing pajamas with footies. I eventually crawled out from under a pillowy pile of sheepskins to face the day. No sign of the old woman or the dogs.
I tried to write. Nothing came to mind. I looked through the tattered books on the upper shelf of the secretary desk, recognizing Romanian translations of Dickens and Tolstoy. I felt like all stories were really the same. Somebody was born, lived, and by some means, died. That was pretty much it. I stared at the dead grandfather clock, willing it to start moving again. It didn’t.
Dance for merriment’s sake
Rest my weary heart proclaims
And Beat no more
Some indeterminate time later, I left a handwritten copy of this six-line tribute (the sum-total of my day’s efforts) in the dusty base of the clock and ventured outside again.
The pens were open, which allowed the chickens and ducks and geese to congregate freely. Lots of pleasant clucking, honking and productive scavenging. The old woman had also returned. She sat at the table drinking wine from a cocktail glass and just watched me as I sat down opposite her. The dogs waited attentively in the near distance, aware but not intruding.
Now that we were both sitting, facing each other, and not moving, I noticed her skin. It was the brown of old mushrooms and hung loosely over forearms that were bigger (and probably stronger) than mine. Her face had no particular expression, though the deep and interwoven grooves had a certain pattern that seemed like it wanted to mean something. I was sure I could see laugh lines around her squinting eyes.
“You’ve got this smile,” I said in English, knowing she couldn’t understand me, but feeling the need to hear my voice after a day of silence. “Its like you’ve got your own private little joke. How do you do that? You’re in your 60’s, working for nothing, and living,” I swept my arms around, trying not to focus on the outhouse, “like this.”
“That’s the trouble with you people in the cities,” she responded in accented English.
“You speak English?” I felt betrayed.
She didn’t answer my question directly. Instead she said, “You are too busy going someplace better to notice good things, good people.”
“I notice,” I said. I felt like I was being scolded for some reason and I wasn’t going to give her the high ground by asking her why she didn’t tell me she could speak English earlier.
I poured myself a glass of wine and drank it in one pouty swallow. “When Dragos comes, I’ll have him take me to town to pick up some wine that won’t make us go blind. And maybe some better apples.” I took a mealy apple wedge from the bowl in front of her and pitched it towards the approaching flock of geese.
“Why search for fruit to buy when you can pick it from trees growing right at your feet?” She sounded irritated, exasperated. Then she made a point of stuffing one of the better-looking wedges into her mouth.
“You don’t want me here, do you?”
She managed a smile, despite a full mouth. Took her time chewing. Once she finished she said, “Go back to your life. Eat your own fruit. Leave me to mine. Yes?”