Borderlands: Bird Watching in Dobrogea, Romania
The Ferry at Braila
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1. Across the River
We crossed the Danube at Braila on a flat-pack ferry like something you might find in the shelving section at Ikea. It had an embossed steel deck, shiny from years of being buffed up by the wheels of the vehicles as they loaded on and off.
Szabi waited in line with the van while Kinga and I waited on the jetty.
The deck was about seven or eight inches above the level of the jetty at first and the ferry would reel and judder as the cars and lorries lurched on board, dipping to take the load and then bouncing back once they passed over onto the deck. One of the crew was bent over on the jetty and watching as the wheels came in contact with the edge of the deck, making circling motions with his arms to show the driver when it was time to pull forward. He loaded the lorries on first and then the cars. Later, as more vehicles piled on, the level sank lower till in the end the ferry was seven or eight inches below the jetty, jerking about in the flapping waters like an animal on a leash waiting to escape.
After that, with a shout from the crew-member on the jetty as he unleashed the rusted steel cable and jumped on board, followed by a burst of smoke and a roar from the engine, the ferry broke free from the tangle of waters by the shore-line and was out into the open river, heaving its way through the dark heavy waves, making great sucking and slapping noises as the water hit the square-cut prow.
The river was a deep sea-green and the air smelt of ozone mixed with diesel-fuel. We stood on the prow to feel the welcome coolness of the wind on our faces as it scurried and raced along the Danube, chasing its tail down to the mysterious sea.
It had been a long, hot journey so far, and it was certain to get even hotter. We’d driven down from Transylvania in the heart of Romania, to Dobrogea, near the border with Bulgaria, between the Danube and the Black Sea, a journey of some six or seven hours.
I’d met Kinga for the first time at 4am that morning when they’d come to pick me up from the Pensiune in the Transylvanian mountains. She’s Szabi’s girlfriend, a very pretty Hungarian girl with shining eyes and a small stud in her lip. She spoke no English and I spoke no Hungarian, so hardly a word passed between us. But when I climbed into the van – which had two seats in the front and none in the back – she insisted that I take the passenger seat, while she sat on a little camping chair which she unfolded and set low down on the floor between the two fixed seats. Later on I had a go. It was very insecure. Every time the van veered one way or the other the little seat would lurch and you would have to catch hold of the chairs in front to stop yourself from collapsing in a heap. She spent four days in that seat – as a gesture to my extreme age I guess – and I am grateful to her for that.
Szabi is tall and dark with a hooked nose like a bird of prey. There’s something of the wild about him, something watchful and alert like a hunter. He would be our guide.
So – now – we were over the river, bouncing up a dusty road from the ferry-stop, and into Dobruja, heading for the Macin Mountains. It was an expedition to scout out the birding in the area so that Szabi could take one of his groups there next week. He wanted to find out where the best sites were and had invited Kinga and I along for the ride.
As a consequence of this he was constantly stopping the van and leaping out with his binoculars to catch sight of some bird or another, which he would then name for me, while handing me a the binoculars. It didn’t take him long to realise that I was entirely ignorant when it came to birds.
“I think you not know what I am say,” he said, in that weirdly upside-down version of English of his. “But it not matter. I tell you anyway.”
So that was it: me Szabi and Kinga on a birding expedition in which at least two of us knew nothing about birds. But Szabi was right: it didn’t matter. Szabi’s enthusiasm made up for our ignorance, and there were plenty of other things to see and do while we were here.
Eventually we got to the Macin Mountains, through a little village called Greci. There’s a National Park there, which seemed to come as a great surprise to the people of Greci, since when we stopped to ask where it was, no one could tell us. Now this was odd since it was clearly marked on the map as bordering the village. The people knew about the mountains, of course – actually more like large hills - only no one knew it was a National Park. But, no matter, after a few minutes stirring up dust along the unpaved roads, we were out of the village and looking up at a bank of crags like the battlements of a medieval fortress around which various majestic looking birds-of-prey circled.
We were looking for Shaker Falcon which someone had told Szabi were nesting nearby. We didn’t find them, though we chased up and down along the base of the cliffs for twenty minutes or so, bouncing along on the unmade track, getting out every so often to look up at the walls of the cliff to watch a variety of magnificent predator birds wheeling about on the airwaves, riding the currents of the wind like winged surfers on the ocean of the sky. I forget what birds now, though Szabi named them all for me.
After this it was back through the village to another set of cliffs on the other side and it was here that I had my first great tingling sense of wonder.
We emerged into a wide open landscape, with the green mountain slopes on one side overlooking a vast, unfenced plain stretching off into the hazy distance. There were no houses, no villages, no signs of civilisation anywhere in sight. No roads. No electric pylons. No factories. No cars. No fields. No fences. No hedges. No barns. No walls. No TV masts. Nothing man-made. Just this undulating mat of green emptiness rolling slowly downwards towards the far horizon, through which two chariots were racing, kicking up trails of dust.
Yes, chariots. At least that’s what they looked like. They were about a mile away. You could see the horses pounding, heads down, straining against the wind, while the riders whipped them from the two-wheeled carriages behind. They were definitely racing. And then it was as if we were suddenly sent whirling back through time, watching this scene, as the two racing chariots pulled against each other in the shimmering light across a half-remembered landscape, as if at some time in the past I had observed this scene before, in a dream perhaps, or in another lifetime.
Where were we now, at what point in history? Were these Dacian chariots, or Scythian chariots or Greek chariots racing across this mythic landscape? Were they Roman? All of these peoples had chased across this region at one time or another, had left their tracks in the dust and their blood on the battlefield, had waged wars against each other, had fought to live and to die.
Perhaps the chariots we were seeing now were based upon designs handed down by ancient artisans, long since forgotten.
There’s a kind of archaeology of the soul. It was like we had tickled away the layers of time to reveal the primal culture beneath, a culture that we all share. Perhaps Szabi and Kinga had seen this before, and weren’t so surprised. But I was surprised. I was surprised at how familiar it looked. Not only the spacious empty landscape, free of fences, free of limitation; not only this ancient technology, used for thousands of years and – so it seemed – still in use here today; not only the sense of freedom and excitement of a chariot race, of risk and pleasure and heart-pounding exhilaration. All of these things of course. But also by me too, the remote viewer, distantly involved, in whom something was touched, something almost, but never quite, forgotten.
2. Rose-Coloured Starlings
That night we slept in a quarry.
Szabi had told me this earlier in the day – “tonight we sleeping in quarry” – and I imagined some abandoned working, long-since returned to nature, with trees and undergrowth and bushes to hide behind, with a bed of grass covering the rocky floor. There are many quarries like this in England. What I saw instead, as we approached along the long straight road in the fading russet light of the evening, was a nasty scar on the landscape, a raw gash of pink, pink in the pink of the sunset, sheer pink cliffs rising up, pink streaked with white like a recent wound, and not a sign of life anywhere.
We had something to eat in a nearby restaurant at the crossroads on the turning before the quarry, drank a few beers and watched a football match on the TV, and then we drove on to the quarry. It was dark by now. The quarry was huge, digging deep into the hillside, criss-crossed by battered tracks of compounded dust, with abandoned piles of scabrous-looking rock scattered about, flashing in the headlights, with the cliffs rising up all around, rugged and broken, framing the darkness as we drove deeper and deeper into this dead place, weaving and turning about along treacherous paths.
It was at this point that I realised that the rocks themselves were pink. It wasn’t just the glow of the sunset. The whole quarry was pink.
It was like a scene from Doctor Who or Star Trek. Science Fiction films always use quarries as their backdrop for scenes of alien planets. Which is exactly where we were now: cast adrift in time and space, on an alien pink planet without mercy.
Szabi and Kinga slept in the van, while I slept on a mattress in a sleeping bag under the stars covered by the flysheet of a tent.
The following morning we were woken up by shepherds shouting to us from the cliff-top high above. I had no idea what they were saying. Then Szabi got up and was talking to them. They were asking where their sheep were.
How would we know where their sheep were?
Then they were asking us what we were doing in the quarry.
“We’re sleeping here. What does it look like?” said Szabi.
“Well you shouldn’t be here. It’s dangerous. Are you sure you haven’t seen our sheep?”
“No we haven’t seen your sheep. We were asleep until you started shouting at us. Do you think we’ve got the sheep hidden or something? Where do you think we’re hiding them? In the van? Under the van? In my sleeping bag? Do you want to come and take a look? Anyway it’s your fault if you’ve lost your sheep. You are the shepherds after all. You should take more care of them. It’s your job to look after sheep, not ours.”
Of course, this was all being shouted in Romanian, and it wasn’t till we got in the van that I heard the story from Szabi.
After this we went back to the restaurant on the crossroads where we’d watched the football match the previous evening, and drank Turkish coffee while Szabi told me this story.
It was about the first time he’d come to this quarry.
This was about ten years before. He was working as a lifeguard in the swimming baths in his own town in Transylvania at the time. The owner of the swimming baths was a friend of his father called Laszlo Szabo, the founder of the Aves Foundation which was the organisation for which Szabi now worked.
As well as being a swimming baths owner, Laszlo was a wildlife photographer and a conservationist. He was down inDobrogea on a bird watching expedition, but his vehicle had broken down. He rang Szabi up and asked him to bring some tools, but by the time Szabi arrived Laszlo had already fixed the vehicle.
“It’s all right,” he said. “Since you are here, you might as well stay.”
They were camping in this very quarry, sleeping in the car. It was early summer, May-time. They were on an expedition to watch the Rose-Coloured Starlings that were nesting here in vast numbers that year. Literally in their tens of thousands. There might have been fifty thousand birds in the quarry, maybe more. It was Szabi’s first experience of a bird-watching expedition, and it changed his life forever.
Rose-Coloured Starlings are a migratory bird which winters in the Far East, but which comes west in the spring to nest. It feeds on grasshoppers. Usually it only gets as far as Central Asia, but in a good year, when the grasshoppers are in abundance, it will penetrate deep into Europe, including into Dobrogea.
This particular year the grasshoppers were in abundance.
They are called Rose-Coloured Starlings, naturally, because of their colour. Black head and wing-tips and tail , but a rose-coloured breast and body. Very distinctive.
Rose-Coloured is just one way of describing it. Another might be “pink”.
So they are bright pink birds who occasionally nest in this bright pink quarry.
Laszlo and Szabi spent ten days together in this unforgiving Star Trek landscape watching the behavioural patterns of the Rose-Coloured Starlings in their magnificent abundance, watching their mating habits, their feeding habits, their hunting practices, the comings and goings of their lives. Not a dead place at all. Very much alive.
So this was their lives: sleeping in the quarry in the night, in the eerie silence, until the birds started to awake. Then the first stirring of the morning, just before dawn, the occasional notes of song. One bird would awaken, and then another, and then more and more and more, till suddenly it was this wild, chattering cacophony of song, like the play-ground sounds of school children on their morning break, rising to a crescendo before the birds began to move off to hunt. And Laszlo and Szabi would follow the flocks as they headed off into the fields, several thousand at a time, driving in a straight line through the crops in their four-wheel drive vehicle. And then, the remarkable thing: watching the hunt, which was a display of organised precision on a vast scale. One flock of several thousand would hover above the crop-line, maybe just a few inches above the heads of the crop, beating with their wings, while another flock was on the ground: the first flock driving the grasshoppers into the waiting mouths of the second. And then, when the first flock had collected two, three, or four grasshoppers each, and had flown off, the second flock would land, while a third would take their place and act as beaters for their leaping, chaotic prey. And on and on and on like this throughout the day, one flock landing, one flock beating, and one flock returning to the waiting mouths in their nests. Highly evolved group behaviour with clear communication between the birds; perhaps, even, an organising intelligence.
And isn’t this magic? Isn’t this the magic of nature? We can talk of instinct and evolution and a host of other such words, but none of them measures the wonder of the experience. The truth is no one knows how the birds do this: how they organise themselves like this, why they come and why they go, and what the organising principles are behind their behaviour. They do what they do, and it is remarkable, and obviously intelligent, and that is as much as anyone can say.
Even more so than this, Szabi told me: the displays of intelligence go on and on. For instance, once the young birds are fully fledged the majority of the older birds will depart, so as not to put too much pressure on the grasshopper population. But a few older birds will stay, firstly to guide the young birds in their hunt so that they can build up strength, and then, once they are strong enough, to guide them home to where the rest of the flock has already flown, several thousand miles away. How remarkable is this? Who chooses which birds will stay and which will go, which will be teachers and which will return home without their young?
This is a secret that no amount of human observation will ever learn.
So then, in the evening, once the hunt was over, the birds would return to their nests, and slowly quiet down, and once they were quiet and at rest, Szabi and Laszlo would go down to that restaurant and take a beer and take a soup (as Szabi put it) before finally retiring.
They found the restaurant together too.
So they were living with the birds, according to their rhythms, following the birds in their daily routines; sleeping with the birds, waking with the birds, dreaming with the birds, breathing with the birds; watching as the young developed, as the older birds looked after them; watching the hunt; collecting water for the birds so that they could bathe and drink; filming the birds, photographing the birds, taking notes on their behaviour, absorbing the birds’ very being into their being; being alive with the birds as the birds were alive, on a scientific expedition into the very heart of the natural environment.
You might say that Szabi fell in love in these ten days. He fell in love with bird watching. He fell in love with nature. From this moment on, bird watching became a passion in his life, a desire, a need, something which consumed him, which motivated him, which gave him a direction and a purpose which has lasted to this day.
3. Radical Birdwatcher
Some words on Laszlo. He is the “Radical Birdwatcher” of the title. Szabi often spoke of him. It was he who had started the Aves Foundation. “Aves” is Latin for birds. He had died very suddenly of a mysterious illness only a couple of years before. It was obvious from the way Szabi talked about him that he was very important and that Szabi was at something of a loss without him.
Officially he had been Szabi’s employer. But he was more than this too. Szabi had known him when he was growing up. Laszlo and his father had been partners in business together, running Transylvania’s only discotheque during the communist era. Maybe it was the only discotheque in the whole of Romania; certainly it was the best. They used to get all the latest American sounds hot off the press. They had access to MTV-style music videos which they got as illegal imports from the Romanian national football team. Szabi said that when he was a kid they had the first JVC front-loading video player in the whole of Romania. It cost as much as a four-bedroom apartment.
Szabi described Laszlo as a “hippy” and this is partly true and partly not. What Szabi meant was that he had access to all of the latest American gear, that, for instance, he wore a pair of Levis at his wedding. But this is an example of where he was not like a hippy. The hippies wore Levis as an act of solidarity with the American working man. Jeans were work gear, cheap and hard-wearing, but the pair of Levis that Laszlo had on at his wedding were an American import: very expensive, a status symbol. He was pro-capitalist whereas the hippies were anti-capitalist. He was a fan of Western culture, whereas the hippies were trying to undermine it.
But at the same time he was a nature conservationist, an ecologist, one of Romania’s first. He was outside of conventional Romanian culture, not a political dissident, a cultural dissident, a member of Romania’s counter-culture. In this sense he was like a hippy. He was fighting the status quo, trying to move the world on a little, waking it up to what it needed waking up to. And he identified with the hippies, with their aims and their ideals. He too wanted to change the world. And though he embraced capitalism and wealth and was, in relative terms - both before and after communism - a very wealthy man, he was also, once the communist system had faltered and died, a thorn in the side of the new elites too, consistent in his desire to protect the environment no matter what the cost to himself.
Most of all he was a lover of the wild and of wild nature in all of its glory. He was consumed by the same backwoods spirit on which the hippies drew. Back to nature. Back to an original state of innocence. Often, when he and Szabi had been working together in their office until late in the afternoon, he would suddenly say, “I’ve had enough of work. Let’s go to the forest.” And he and Szabi would take a ride out to see some creatures and to take some photographs: to watch the eagles and the bears, the owls and the wolves, stalking them like they were hunters. He was a mountain man, from Harghita County, Transylvania, wise in the ways of the forest. This is true of most people in Transylvania, but with this one difference: most of the Transylvanian men are hunters. They use rifles. They hunt to kill. Laszlo was a conservationist. He used a camera. He vehemently opposed hunting. He hunted to protect. To protect and preserve.
He was also a scientist and in contact with other scientists throughout the world, making detailed observational notes on bird and animal behaviour, and with several articles in prestigious publications to his credit. But most of all, he was a birdwatcher, one of that rare, strange breed of human being who likes to spend their time looking at little feathered creatures through binoculars, more at home in the world of birds than the world of men. Well not so rare - not in the UK perhaps - but fairly rare in Romania during the communist era. And even then he was taking people out on unofficial tours of Dobrogea: his international bird watching friends, his scientific acquaintances from around the globe.
So this is the background to the trip we are taking to Dobrogea right now, Szabi, Kinga, and I, finishing our coffee and conversation, and getting back into the van on the start of our trip around this distinctive region of Romania. It was in emulation of a series of trips undertaken previously by Laszlo, both illegally and informally during the communist era, and later, legally and for profit, with Szabi by his side as his guide-in-training. And everywhere we went there was a reminder of this man and of his abiding presence in the world. It was as if this very landscape had encoded him into its DNA, as if the trees and the air and the water were remembering him: the plant life, the bird life, the animal life, all involved in a process of reminiscence, as if he was too important to forget.
We were driving about all over Dobrogea in the stifling sub-tropical heat, leaping out every now and again to watch some notable species of bird. Usually we were watching with the binoculars, but sometimes Szabi would set the telescope up on its tripod, and we would peer through the lens, one at a time, queuing up for the privilege. I remember some of the birds. I remember Bee Eaters particularly, those vividly overdressed birds, as brightly coloured as a flock of circus-school clowns at a carnival, darting in and out of holes in a cliff-face. I remember a Purple Heron looking like some creature from outer space. I remember a flock of White Pelican wheeling about in the sky from a distance. There were hundreds of them, and it was hard to picture their size from so far away. I remember a small sea bird with red legs and a black body beside a brackish lake in the shimmering afternoon sunlight, which I was watching through the telescope. It wasn’t a noteworthy species. But as I was watching it took on a peculiar erect stance, and was moving its neck up and down rhythmically, rubbing itself against another bird of the same species, and, before I had time to think, it had leapt upon this other bird’s back and was having sex, a few intense frantic thrusts, before leaping off again.
That’s the sort of thing I remember: not whether a species was rare or not.
In fact I have a whole list of the birds we saw in my notebook. This is because Szabi made me write them all down. It is the bird watching practice, the numbers of species being a measure of success. There were 130 of them. Most of these I don’t remember.
But I‘m conflating several days into one here. It doesn’t really matter what the order was. We did some driving and we saw some birds. We saw snakes and tortoises too. We ate rustic food in the open air – bread and salami and tomatoes and tangy village cheese - in the overhanging shade of the trees. We always looked for trees to eat our lunch under. We felt the sun on our faces. We breathed in the air. We got sunburnt. We watched the sky as it turned from blue to red to orange and magenta in the evening. We lit a fire. We cooked sausages on sticks. We drank a lot of beer. We slept under the stars. We awoke to the sound of the birds.
I’m not a bird watcher, but if this is what bird watching is all about then I would recommend it to anyone.
It was a great holiday.
4. Swimming in the Black Sea. Some Reflections on Ceausescu’s Legacy
So, now – it doesn’t matter which day - one day we went swimming in the Black Sea.
This was a most extraordinary experience, for a number of reasons.
I won’t tell you where it was, as it’s a secret I want to keep.
It was the longest, loneliest stretch of beach I have ever seen: at least 20 miles in either direction, and not a soul in sight. Just a few fishing nets on poles in the hazy distance, with a cormorant perched on top, frozen like a statue.
And the Black Sea itself: surely the strangest stretch of water on the planet.
It’s hard to convey the atmosphere. It’s like a prehistoric ocean which has been stranded in the middle of a continent. You expect to see an Ichthysaurus rising up in the distance. It has a smell. It is too salty. It has no swell, no tide. It is weirdly empty. There are no shipping lanes, no ships. It feels half dead. There’s a stillness, a quietness, a hush, as if the sea is waiting for something. It’s like you are listening to someone talking and suddenly they pause in the middle of a sentence, and then don’t say any more. It’s like that. You are waiting for it to end its sentence. You see a sea and it looks like a sea, but there’s something missing, something incomplete about it. It’s old. It thinks about the past a lot. It has its stories, but it doesn’t want to tell you them. It’s avoiding your gaze, looking inward on itself, like an old man at the bar too tired to engage you in conversation. Too weary and too bitter. Too full of regret.
It is a hollow sea. It has hollowness at its heart. It seems to draw you in to its emptiness like a lonely spell cast into the wind.
This stretch of beach was through some reed beds along an old military road. You went though a small town, through some dunes, past a disused factory with all its windows missing, along a track, past some concrete bunker-style buildings, and onto this single track concrete road which bumped along through the ruffled reed beds for twenty five kilometres or so before, eventually, emerging onto a sandy track, then past some fishermen’s cottages, beyond which lay sand dunes, and then onto the beach.
One of the bunkers had a house inside of it. It was a huge concrete cube with one face missing, and inside of it someone had built a cottage. So it was this weird anachronistic military-style cube, with steel reinforcing rods sticking out, with a quaint little medieval shepherd’s cottage nestled inside.
Szabi told me that the factory had once been a silicone factory. It was Romania’s only silicone factory, built under orders from Ceausescu. Szabi said an interesting thing then. He said that the silicone it produced was three times more expensive than silicone you could buy on the world market at the time, but that this didn’t matter, he said, parodying Ceausescu, “because it is our silicone, Romania’s silicone”.
I realised something then. What Ceausescu meant was it was his silicone. It was part of his madness that he conflated his own desires with that of the country: that in his own head he was Romania.
And then, as we were driving down the single track concrete road, the tyres beating over the joints between the concrete slabs in a regular thud, ker-thud, ker-thud, Szabi said that Laszlo used to come here too, when it was a military region. That’s what all the concrete bunkers were for, and the road. At one time Ceausescu had feared invasion through this area and there were military bases all around here.
I laughed when I heard that. Who was he expecting to invade? The Bulgarians?
Szabi said that at one time there were barriers across this road and armed guards and that Laszlo used to bribe the guards with a bottle of vodka so that he could walk down its length to go to the beach we were heading for now, carrying all his equipment, and all his supplies for a ten-day stay: twenty-five kilometres each way. He would post all of his equipment down from Transylvania to the nearby town, drive down on a moped – maybe a ten hours drive - pick up his equipment from the post office and then walk the twenty five kilometres down this road, just to see a lot of birds.
It was at this moment that I had a little revelation.
This is crazy, of course, completely insane, and yet deeply sane at the same time.
In human terms it is crazy. In planetary terms it is sane.
What better reason for human existence than to watch the migration of species? To know that you share a planet?
Szabi said that the birds that passed through the region on their migratory journey were so tired by the time that they got here that they would just flop on the ground, unable to resist, and that you could pick them up from where they lay, little panting, shivering bodies on the ground, and that they were passing through in their hundreds of thousands, in their millions. The air was full of birds. The sand dunes were full of birds. The beach was full of birds. Everywhere was full of birds.
This is what Laszlo came to see. Not just birds. Millions of birds.
And I had a parallel revelation which went along with this – it was like the two things clicking into place at the same time, as if they were connected in some way - that just as Laszlo was essentially sane, so Ceausescu was essentially insane, building a silicone factory as an act of vanity, not because he needed it, but because it was his silicone.
Somehow hearing this put all the other things I’d heard about Ceausescu into place. In this moment I felt I had an understanding of the man.
You can’t understand Romania without understanding Ceausescu.
A friend of mine told me that during his time every town, every village, every street, every apartment block, every floor, every family housed an informer. Everyone was informing on everyone else. Brother would inform on brother, sister on sister, children on their parents, neighbour on neighbour, work-mate on work-mate.
No one trusted anyone else.
It was a country of gloom and suspicion in which the shadow of the Securitate, the secret police, loomed over everyone’s life.
You talk to Romanians and they are divided amongst themselves about Ceausescu’s legacy. On the whole they are glad that the nightmare is over, though there are still a number who would say that life was better. The poorer people were better off under Ceausescu. But – a bit like Vlad the Impaler – they can’t help admiring the man.
So they are proud of their monstrous, ridiculous parliament building, for example, even though Ceausescu made half of Bucharest homeless to build it, and unleashed packs of wild dogs into the city, and that it virtually bankrupted the nation: even though it is a stupendously ugly building and an act of vanity on a terrifying scale. It is the same vanity every Romanian shares.
You have to see it to believe it. It is about the size of your average city-centre. When you first see it in the distance, it doesn’t seem so big. It’s only as you approach it and approach it and it doesn’t seem to get any bigger that you realise just how far away it is, just how ponderous and huge: a great, sprawling, gothic-communist wedding cake with grim grey icing smeared all over it.
The second largest building in the world, as any Romanian would be pleased to tell you. Only the Pentagon is larger.
This, of course, is the fault of the communist system which purported to represent the dictatorship of the proletariat but almost invariably turned into the dictatorship of a proletarian: in Ceausescu’s case, of a proletarian with almost supernaturally bad-taste. And him and Elena, his beloved wife, were like a comedy couple, The Nicholae and Elena Show, ridiculous but dangerous in their vanity, from whom a whole nation hid in fear.
It’s the problem of dictatorship, regardless of the qualifications you attach to the word. One man’s ego to guide a nation. One man’s opinions, one man’s beliefs. It was like a medieval court but without the jester to cheer things up – or if there was a jester it was Ceausescu himself - him and his blousy wife, often wearing only an unbuttoned housecoat which would fall open at inopportune times, wandering around in this never-finished dog’s dinner of a building – this “people’s palace” – half-drunk, making up policy for a whole nation, surrounded by sycophants and arse-lickers and conniving yes-men working to secure their own ends. And everything was on a vast scale. Everything that was done was done to reflect the vanity of the man who conceived it. Vast projects. Cutting impossible roads through the mountains. Huge dams, giant canals. Draining the Danube delta to make way for agricultural land. Silicone at three times the price, “because it’s our silicone.” Crazy, dumb, overblown, damaging, egotistical statements of will and of power: of the will to power.
How anyone ever mistook this for communism is another question. It was a feudal system but without the grace or the patronage. It was medieval not modern. Regressive not progressive.
The only wonder is that it didn’t all fall into a muddled heap decades earlier.
5. “A Great Slimy Mass of Sexual Oozing”
That night we slept in a gorge. Green rolling hills cracked by this gash of grey tumbled rock. We were driving through it when Szabi suddenly said: “Hungarians!”
There was a tent parked on a rolling bit of hill over looking the gorge.
Szabi said – words to the effect – “you can always tell Hungarians because they put their tents high up. Romanians always put their tents in the valley.”
This seemed a very precise observation to me: to differentiate between nationalities by where they park their tents. But we drove up the hillside to where the tents were situated, and they were, indeed, Hungarian. They had a large receiving dish attached to some recording equipment. They were recording birdsong.
After that we drove on to this rolling bit of valley hidden by the hills through which a little stream tinkled and played.
The stream was full of frogs. Every so often they would start to croak, this high-wired, weird, wild, hysterical chatter. One of them would start, and then they would all join in. It was like they were squabbling violently amongst themselves.
“No you’re fat. And you smell.”
“No you smell like a fart. And you’re ugly.”
“Well I’m not as ugly as your mother.”
“You want a match? Your face, my arse. Ha!”
“No you bog off.”
And on like this, all of them screaming increasing levels of maniacal abuse at each other before suddenly falling silent again.
I thought, “these frogs need psychiatric help.”
The gorge was in a place called Cheia. The word “Cheia” sounds a lot like the frog’s cry to me. Perhaps this is associative. Every time I see that word I think of those frogs. Or perhaps that’s why they named it, after the frog’s cry: “cheia, cheia, cheia,” rising to a loud, echoing, slurping hysterical frenzy, before quieting down again, and allowing silence back into the world.
I think they were having froggy-sex orgies in there, a great slimy mass of sexual oozing, while squabbling over who got to get sloppy one hundredths. The whole stream was probably wriggling with milky strands of froggy sperm.
Szabi and Kinga had promised to cook me smoked pig fat that night. It is one of the Transylvanian national dishes. We all went scattering about to collect firewood before the sun went down. Unfortunately this was a popular area for Romanians to make their grills. This is a Romanian pass-time: Sunday afternoon grills in the open air. Most of the trees had been ripped down for their wood, and there was virtually no dry wood available. Almost every tree in the area had been smashed to bits.
Also the stream was full of plastic beer bottles. The Romanians have no idea about looking after their countryside. I’m sure the frogs were delighted, however. More smooth slippery objects to have sex with.
But – eventually – we got enough firewood together, after which we ate our smoked pig-fat crisped on an open fire. It was delicious. Better than bacon.
I was very, very tired by now. I just lay down on the wet ground and was instantly asleep. Szabi woke me up. “You will be cold,” he said, “I think we get you to bed.” I was in a kind of daze. I put my mattress on the ground, slipped into my sleeping bag, and was instantly asleep once more. Even the frogs couldn’t keep me awake.
Actually that observation of Szabi’s about Hungarians making their camps on the tops of hills, and Romanians making theirs in the valleys, brings to mind another thought I had while on this trip.
It’s about national and cultural identity.
Everywhere we were driving Szabi would be pointing things out to me. It wasn’t only about birds. He was showing me aspects of Romanian cultural life too. So we would be passing through a village, say, and Szabi would point to an old man with a beard. “A Lipovan,” he would say. “This is a Lipovan village. All the men have beards.” And I would look, and sure enough, all the men had big, bushy beards. Or, in another case: “see that colour blue.” - pointing out a building painted in a particularly vivid shade of blue – “that is the Ukrainian colour. All the people of this village paint their houses that colour.” Or again: “Look, a mosque. See the minarets? This is a Turkish village.”
In another village earlier on I’d noticed that all the men were wearing wide-brimmed felt hats, all in the same style, and that they had on smocks. I’m not sure what nationality they were – Lipovan maybe: they all had beards too - but it was obvious that they were making a display of who they were.
Partly, maybe, it was just that someone knew how to make these hats and these smocks, and, because the village economy during the Ceausescu regime was based on barter - there being very little hard cash around - if someone had a skill, then everyone in the village would tend to acquire some of their wares. Thus the men in the village would all end up wearing the hats.
But it was also a clear statement of identity.
This seems very odd to a Western European. Why should it matter what hat I’m wearing? But, then, as a German, as an Englishman or an Italian, I am surrounded by other Germans, other Englishmen, other Italians. In Romania – in Dobruja particularly, but in other parts of Romania too – the nationality changes from village to village. You go from a predominantly Turkish village, to a Romanian one, to a Russian village, to a Ukrainian one, in the space of just a few short miles. And if a significant minority in the village are of one nationality or another, then they have to write the name of that village in that language on the sign as you enter.
Just how closely defined this cultural specificity gets is particularly shown by the Lipovans. Russian Old Believers who moved here because they didn’t like the reforms being imposed upon them by the Russian Orthodox Church over 200 years ago, they hold rigidly to their old faith and to their old traditions, wearing their old styles, bearded not clean shaven, crossing themselves with two fingers rather than three and sticking doggedly to the Julian calendar that preceded the Georgian calendar we currently use. At least ten days out of synch from the rest of the world and 200 years out of date. So they are culturally inert Russians with a very particular identity, with very particular habits and behaviours, with a very particular language of cultural identity.
You begin to wonder what secret it is they are preserving.
In the same way the Ukrainians mark themselves out, as do the Turks, as do the Gypsies, as do the Hungarians and the Saxons in Transylvania, as do the Serbs and the Croats, as do the Tartars, as do the Bulgarians, as do the Greeks, as do the Jews. As do the Romanians themselves. So Hungarians set up their tents on the hills and Romanians set up their tents in the valleys. So every Hungarian village in Transylvania has carved wooden posts at its entrance, like runic totem poles, and a particular style of carved gate, while every Saxon village has a fortified church. Gypsy buildings are marked by elaborate pressed tin roofs, and Gypsy women all wear headscarves, long skirts and golden earrings, while the Gypsy men wear wide-brimmed hats and brightly coloured waistcoats.
Borders within borders within borders. Where does Romania begin and where does it end? Where are its borders? There are external borders, but there are internal borders too. Various tribes have washed over this region in successive waves leaving their mark in pockets of cultural identity. How do you know when you have crossed from one country into another? You know by the beards.
In this kind of atmosphere it is important to be very clear about the signifiers: the most important signifier being language, of course.
This became particularly obvious to me when I realised that Kinga couldn’t speak Romanian. Or rather: that she had great difficulty understanding what Romanians were saying to her. We went into a shop to get some sun-screen, and she was almost as hesitant, almost as foreign and as out-of-place as me.
Actually, this is something that Romanians don’t understand. Every Romanian I’ve met is essentially racist towards the Hungarians, and they all have one basic complaint: they can speak Romanian, but they refuse to. But this isn’t so. It wasn’t that Kinga was refusing: it was that she actually had a great deal of difficulty understanding Romanian. In Oderheiu, where Kinga comes from, 97% of the people are Hungarian, the rest are Gypsies. When do they have cause to speak – or hear - any other language?
6. The Dome of the Arse
I’m still thinking about borders.
Dobrogea is a distinct region of Romania, but it crosses over into Bulgaria too. Put it another way: Dobrogea is not Romania, or Bulgaria, it is itself. So you have a country within countries divided by country.
We were getting very close to the Bulgarian border by now.
We went for another swim in the Black Sea, this time in the border town of Vama Veche, a hippie haven with a number of wooden structures overhanging the beach. The structures were, in fact, a ramshackle line of bars and discotheques.
It was a nudist beach.
When I was contemplating this story the first image that came into my head was from Vama Veche. It was the first thing I saw on approaching the beach: a very large brown and shapely female arse laying prostrate on the sand, with a little skinny guy on his knees nearby devotedly rubbing oil into it. The owner of the arse was obviously very proud of her appendage, and the little skinny guy was obviously a devotee. I was thinking of titles. The first I came up with was The Dome of the Arse . It was clearly a religious experience for all concerned.
I was not nearly so comfortable, being a repressed Englishman who doesn’t like to show his behind, or any other part of his body very much.
We all changed behind the van, which Szabi had parked on the beach in front of a row of decrepit-looking beach huts. I was pleased to see that Szabi and Kinga, being Hungarian, were just as repressed as me.
The Romanians seemed to have no such inhibitions. Almost everyone was nude. Maybe you consider this a good thing, the human body being a thing of beauty. I can assure you that it is not. The human body comes in all shapes and sizes, and there were some samples of it on that beach that ought to have stayed covered up, looking more like great blobs of jellified gravy than anything resembling a human being.
It was also clear that the culture of Vama Veche is based upon exhibitionism not swimming. They took off their clothes, not to go into the water, but to prance around on the beach, naked for everyone to see. The only people in the water that day were two Hungarians and an Englishman, all of whom were wearing swimming costumes.
After that we continued on along the Bulgarian border. We were stopped by border police. They searched in the back of the van and found Szabi’s telescope. They were not convinced at first by Szabi’s explanation, that we were merely bird-watchers. But there was something comical in this. I mean: it was the border between Romania and Bulgaria. Why the suspicion? Both of them are in the EU now. Even when they weren’t, no one can claim that either of them was ever of any major significance. I suppose this was a residue of that old communist paranoia. But even as communist countries they didn’t matter all that much.
I‘m not being dismissive here. It’s just true. When was Bulgaria ever a threat to Romania? When was Romania a threat to Bulgaria? Even if the two did go to war, who would notice?
But – well – I suppose it keeps them in work, and in the end they waved us on our way.
After that we came to another border.
There was a disused factory off a beaten up track, with a few sticks tied together across the road to act as a barrier. We drove up to the barrier and a security guard came up to us. He was playing with his truncheon, jigging it about in his hand, patting his palm with it. Szabi explained what we were doing and the guard lifted up the flimsy barrier and let us through.
Why was there a security guard there, I asked, once we were passed.
It was because if they didn’t have a security guard, Gypsies would come at night and steal the factory, Szabi told me. They would take it down piece by piece and sell it for scrap. The factory was made of corrugated iron.
After that we drove up a track and into the woods, then out of the woods again and into…..
It was a circle of wooded cliffs surrounding a meadow and bordered by forest. Between the trees the crags of the cliffs peeked out, looking like faces in the rock. It was quiet except for the bird song. I could have sworn that the birds were speaking Romanian, and that they were all saying “buna ziwa” to us.
That’s where we ate our lunch, in that meadow surrounded by cliffs. Later I took a walk into the forest. It felt like I was in a cathedral, hushed and shady, with dappled light streaming through the leaves like it was coming through stained glass.
There was one memorable bird: a Booted Eagle. I was watching it through the binoculars as it sat on the wind currents and waited, poised on ruffled wings. Suddenly it folded its wings and dropped, swooping down in a great swift arc to lift some small creature from the undergrowth, after which it jerked back into the air with a flurry of wings and was away into the distance. Fantastic!
After that we continued up the line of the border till we came, once again, to the Danube. There was a town which seemed to consist entirely of grim-looking tower blocks. “Communist architecture,” I said, and wondered how people had ever become so unimaginatively utilitarian. But Szabi pointed out that it was, in fact, across the border. The town was in Bulgaria, not Romania. We had been squeezing ever closer to the Bulgarian border without knowing it, and were now perched on a thin spit of Romania between Bulgaria and the Danube.
We were waiting for the ferry. The ferry was there but the captain had decided he needed a break for a beer. So we all sat in the stifling heat and waited. There was a Romanian flag flapping lazily in the breeze and a dog cooling off in the water. And, in the Bulgarian town nearby – I looked it up later, and it is called Silistra – tucked between the high-rise blocks, an airplane with silver wings. It was obvious that the airplane had come first, since there was no room for it to take off or to land. They must have built the tower blocks around it. And all of a sudden I felt warm towards these grim communists. Not so unimaginative after all. Who would have considered it in the West? To have built a housing estate around an airplane. It seemed like a wonderful thing to me.
7. The Borders of the Wild
Laszlo was an anarchist of course, not a capitalist. Show him authority and he would have to undermine it. That’s why he identified with the hippies. It wasn’t just jeans and rock music. The hippies were anarchists too. Communism said that we all had to be equal so he made himself rich just to show them they were wrong. He opened a discotheque. He had a front-loading JVC video player and a colour TV. Show him a barrier and he had to cross it. Place armed guards on a road, and he would have to bribe the guards, just so he could walk down that road. Tell him not to go somewhere and that’s where he wanted to go.
If we live in the human country and the wild is another country, then Laszlo was an ambassador from one country to the other. A human ambassador to the wild. A wild ambassador to the human.
This is why communism had to fall, why it had to be destroyed. Not because people shouldn’t be equal – they should - but because it attempted to overcome nature. In the name of humanity, it attempted to destroy the wild.
That was its vanity and that was its stupidity, and that, in the end, was its downfall.
Capitalism, too, will go the same way.
It is just as vain and just as stupid, just as destructive and just as meaningless, and in the end the wild will bring it down too.
This is a promise.
Our last night was spent just outside Dobrogea, a few miles from the Danube, on a flat verge beneath some trees near a field full of corn and insects. It was agricultural land, not wild. In the morning when I woke up I had 26 mosquito bites. The only surprise was that I didn’t have more. Dobrogea is famous for its mosquitoes.
I said, when I got up in the morning, “when you get bitten by a mosquito it’s because the land wants your DNA.”
Szabi laughed. “The land must like you very much,” he said.
I had my shirt off and I was counting all the lumps. I had lumps along my hairline and lumps on my eyelids and lumps between my fingers. Lumps melting into lumps melting into lumps all over my back. Lumps on my cheek, lumps in my eyebrows. There were even lumps on my scalp. They must have run out of good places to take blood.
Actually that line about mosquitoes and the land was given to me by a friend of mine. It puts a very weird picture into your head: of an intelligent landscape with these little zipping, buzzing creatures as its agents.
The mosquitoes take your DNA. The mosquitoes are eaten by creatures. The creatures stay on the land. The creatures die on the land. Thus they land gets your DNA.
Why would it want my DNA?
After this we packed up and started on our journey back to Harghita.
There are a few things that I’ve missed out in this account of our journey. Bits of it have got out of sequence.
We went to Constanta, the city on the Black Sea where the poet Ovid had been exiled during the reign of Augustus, and from where he wrote a series of grumpy poems bewailing his loss of status and in mourning for his beloved Rome. They are interesting because they tell us something about the Dacian culture which surrounds him at the time, though Ovid is very dismissive of it. The women are all ugly, he tells us. And the wine stinks. And it’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
I think his Metamorphoses poems were probably more inspiring.
We also saw an Egyptian Vulture which is very rare, apparently. Szabi got very excited and was making phone calls to all sorts of people. It just looked like another predatory bird to me.
We drove back along one of the few Motorways in Romania, an almost brand new stretch of road between Constanta and Bucharest, and then on to Transylvania. When we got into the mountains the air started to cool down. Szabi said that he loved Dobrogea, but he loved the mountains more.
“You can smell the air,” he said.
Then we were on a back road rising up through all the mountain villages: the Saxon villages with their fortified churches, the Hungarian villages with their totem poles and Szekely gates.
There was one Saxon village which was very run-down. Most of the Saxons – actually German-speaking Romanians – had gone to Germany in the years after the fall of communism, lured there by money and by the German nationality policy which gives a tenth generation German speaker from outside Germany more rights than a second generation Turk. Thus many of the Saxon villages have been deserted and taken over by Gypsies. That was true of the one we were passing through now. It was very decrepit, with crumbled walls and peeling paint, with sagging roofs and broken windows, and was full of Gypsies. But they were very bright in their distinctive attire: the men in their cowboy hats and waistcoats, with their striped trousers and their moustaches, the women in their long, flowing skirts.
There was one Gypsy girl who caught my eye. She had very black hair and a Bindi mark on her forehead and was wearing a colourful skirt down to her ankles. The Bindi is a sign of their origin. But what struck me – the reason I found her so unforgettable – was the look in her eye. It was bold and assertive and warmly defiant. It was like a challenge and an invitation at the same time.
I thought, “one day I will go back and find that girl.”
After that they dropped me off in the Pensiune once more and we said our goodbyes.
Later I was thinking of something that Szabi told me Laszlo had said. He said, “when you see donkeys you are on the borders of the wild.”
He meant that on the edges of the modern world, where donkeys are still used for transport, that is where the wild lands begin.
There weren't any donkeys now, of course. We'd left the wild lands a while back.
But the wild is another country.
It too has its territories. It has its crossing points, its customs and its border patrols, though you cannot see them. The borders of the wild exist in the human soul. We are in one country, the wild is in another.
It is where we come from originally, though we left it many aeons ago.
One day, perhaps, we will be granted a visa to return.
More about Romania by CJ Stone
- Beyond The Forest: Journeys to the Heart of Transylvania, Romania
Transylvania is a country of miracles, of legends, of strange tales, full of mystery. CJ Stone discovers scepticism and the Milky Way and meets a statue of a multi-armed goddess-tree with a macabre tale attached.
- Bear Nation: Looking For Bear in Harghita County, Transylvania - Part 1
At one point he was struggling for a word. "This is not good for the bear... the bear..." He was trying to find a word to describe the family of bears as a whole, frustrated at his lack of English. He said: "This is not good for the bear nation."
- Bear Stalking: hunting with a camera in Romania
There is now an alternative way to shoot bears. With bear stalking, the camera takes the place of the rifle, and the photograph takes the place of the trophy. And a picture of one of these magnificent creatures is an incredible prize.
- Landscape and Possession
It is a landscape without possession. The land doesn't appear to be owned by anyone. Perhaps it is the landscape that does the owning: perhaps it owns all the creatures, human and otherwise, who dwell within it.
- Vlad the Impaler
Read the story of the original Count Dracula, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, also known as Vlad Tepes, the Implaler, famed for this most sadistic form of punishment.
More by this Author
Transylvania is a country of miracles, of legends, of strange tales, full of mystery. CJ Stone discovers scepticism and the Milky Way and meets a statue of a multi-armed goddess-tree with a macabre tale attached.
He was trying to find a word to describe the family of bears as a whole, frustrated at his lack of English. He said: "This is not good for the bear nation."
This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance....