Well, now. How to best describe my weekend in the mountains...
It is now 02:30 in the morning. Suddenly I am awakened to unfamiliar surroundings and the feeling of the bed shaking. Is this an earthquake? Is the ground about to rend asunder and I plunge into an abyss? No, it is my colleague in the bunk above descending to the floor on a foray to the bathroom. She is young; she is on a diet in a quest to 'become slim'. She is already as lean as a broom handle, with a sallow, unhealthy complexion brought about by too many late nights, too little sleep, too much make up, and binge dieting. For the past ten days she has been on some bizarre regime during which on one day she only eats meat, another only vegetables, another only fruit, another only bread. This weekend she is on dairy products and water only. Not a good idea if one is attending a 'meat-fest' barbecue in the mountains. Especially not a good idea if one is the occupant of an upper bunk in a lodge in which the nearest bathroom is a twenty metre walk away! The bed wobbles and shakes as she descends and quietly opens the door. A couple of minutes later the door quietly opens and the bed wobbles and shakes as she ascends again. This process is repeated twice more before dawn.
By dawn, I have abandoned the land of nod and, just as my colleague is settling down for her next hour or two of fitful sleep, punctuated by dreams of food I suspect, I quietly rise, grab my clothes and toilet things and make my way to the bathroom. I forego a shower... the trickle of water emerging from the taps and shower make it an exercise in futility, so I hastily perform a 'lick and a spit', get dressed and, in stockinged feet, pad down the two flights of wooden stairs to the ground floor. I make an investigation; people are still abed, but the doors are open, the terrace awaits and the sun is peeking above the rim of mountain peaks outside.
I step outside on to a lightly, sun-warmed wooden deck, breathing in the clean, fresh air. Sitting back in a chair, I decide there are lot worse places to be, close my eyes and let the rising sun spill over my closed eyelids.
After a few moments, however, the smell of freshly brewing coffee assails my nostrils and I set off in search of the source. I walk inside to the restaurant which appears deserted; I turn a corner and come face to face with the gaping jaws of a black eyed, black furred bear with an extremely good dentist. In a millisecond, I realise that the head is actually attached to only a pelt which is mounted on the wall but, as my eyes range upwards to the ceiling, I realise that it must have been a very, very big bear indeed. Now, there was no fitting epitaph for this once magnificent animal whose skin now adorns a wooden wall. Stag heads adorn other walls, their large sorrowful eyes reflecting the moment of their demise.
A smiling youth emerges from the depths of the woodwork... 'coffee, simple eggs, orange juice, toast, honey' - no problem. I return outside and moments few pass before a tray bearing my breakfast is brought outside. The eggs have yolks that look almost saffron coloured, so deep and rich is the yellow. The toast is made from home made crusty bread, thick and tasty and the honey tastes as if the bees are still exhausted from its production. The silence is profound, the view majestic.
The sun is now well over the peaks and I can hear stirring from within. Soon, I am joined by Brendan who admits to being slightly the worse for wear and full of abject apologies for anything he may have said or done the night before... I assured him his behaviour had been impeccable for someone in their cups. 'At least I didn't chunder' was his grateful response.
One by one, the four other bleary eyed members of our little party descend and order breakfast. Brendan, in his quest to cushion his hangover has ordered pig's trotter and beans... Not what I would choose, but he seemed to enjoy it.
An avalanche of gravel in the car park heralded the arrival of two four wheels drives from the homestead – our chauffeurs come to pick us to so that we continue where we had left off earlier in the morning. Only two of us availed ourselves of the transport, the other four decided to walk off their hangovers.
Back at the homestead, the barbecue was already well under way. In addition, there was also a cooking pot hanging from the hook above the hearth from which wafted the most mouth-watering aroma.
Out came the Palinka again, although this was described to me as a 'day time Palinka'... not as savage as the 'night time Palinka'. To thee and me, it would be Schnapps rather than neat wood alcohol. My head, remarkably clear because of the combination of fresh air and abstinence the night before balked at the renewed assault on my liver... I opted for some more home made wine instead.
Gradually, more dismembered meat began to make its way from grill to platters. The cooking pot was removed from the hook. Lashings of a rich red stew were piled on to plates... and then someone remembered that the bag sitting by the kitchen door contained the potatoes that should have accompanied the feast. Never mind! There was plenty of bread!!
Machismo to the fore, in alcohol infused bloodstreams, shirts were stripped off and an impromptu log cutting contest was started. Marks from the British Judge for the Romanian Artistic Style... Not a lot!! Marks from the United Nations for Achievement... Zero!! Then it was the Australian entry – Artistic Style 9.9, Achievement: A perfect Ten. Despite the handicap of a hangover, a couple of beers had done wonders to restore Brendan's good humour and, it turned out, we had a ringer in our midst... He had spent much of his youth and early adult-hood in the outback cutting down the dead trees on his Grandmother's property and turning it into logs for her boilers. The Romanians agreed that, as City Dwellers, they had relied far too heavily on the State to provide their central heating! Several small trees disappeared rapidly under the onslaught of Brendan's axe before a halt was called. It was nice for the more mature woman, to sit in the sun, supping a beer, regarding, with an experienced eye, the broad shoulders and slim waist and hips of a young man rhythmically reducing wood to matchsticks...
As the 'morning Palinka' and beers disappeared down throats dried by conversation, laughter and singing, I kept a weather eye on the young man I knew to be responsible for driving me back to Bucharest later in the evening. Much to my gratification, not a drop of alcohol was passing his lips. Between him and the trusty little Dacia, I stood a chance of seeing another dawn rise.
As the sun once more nearly completed its traverse across the sky to slip slowly behind the mountains, shirts were once more donned. Debris was cleared away, water put on the embers of the barbecue to prevent a conflagration that could deforest most of central Transylvania, vehicles were loaded with bags, bottles and occupants. Driving back down the dusty track to, relative, civilisation I asked for the vehicle to be stopped so that I could take a picture of the last rays of the setting sun gilding with flame the highest, snow covered peak in the mountain range. Sadly, the time taken to extricate myself from the back of the trusty Dacia was longer than the fading sun was prepared to wait for my Kodak Moment. What it revealed, however, was something I might not otherwise have noticed. In the middle of a field some hundred or so metres away was a farm house. Simple in lines and as neat as a new pin, the land around it stretched lush and green to the trees at the bottom of the mountains. What held my eye was the massing of birds on the roof of the farm. Not sparrows, thrushes, swifts or other such small avian types; no, these were pea-cocks and pea-hens. Dozens of them settling down to roost for the night on the roof of a farm. Some of the pea-cocks were still adjusting their tail feathers and the huge fans of emerald green and electric blue eyes winking in the sunset lent gaudy brilliance to this surreal scene. Did they roost there to protect themselves from nocturnal predators from the mountains, I wondered.
My travelling companion in the rear of the little white Dacia was not the 6' 2" beanpole of the journey northwards. Instead, as we headed south, I was travelling with a slight, small, tousle haired girl whose lack of size was made up for by her large personality and the decibels at which she could speak. She was an apparent expert on every twist and turn of the road, every building, bar or town through which we passed. Grateful as I was for the dissertation on the Romanian Monarchy, I began to feel that King Carol's son, Michael, was probably wise to remain in exile not least to protect himself from the noise levels of at least one of his potential citizens.
Philosophising about her Government and her country in general, she was forthright in her opinions about the corruption rampant in her country's leaders; she was fatalistic about the impossibility of any one man, with honesty and integrity, making it through the Machiavellian machinations that keep the wheels of Romanian Politics turning.
She expressed doubts that any money, be it from EEC or international investment, actually makes its way to serve the purpose for which it is intended without being skimmed so thoroughly that it has little power left to benefit. She told of stories of friends, family, who had tried to enter public service with honourable motives, only to be threatened, side-lined and passed over for promotion because they would not join in the common game.
So our journey back through the darkness passed as I listened to the observations and crushed aspirations of Romania's future. Eventually conversation turned, in Romanian, to work issues. I tuned out and watched the approaching glow of Bucharest in the distance.
As the kilometres sped past under the wheels of the little Dacia and hovels, humble dwellings and partly built grand modern houses whizzed by outside the windows, I began to understand why so much vitality and joie de vivre had been poured with so much enthusiasm into our twenty six hours in the mountains. There, they were truly free to be themselves, to enjoy themselves, without having to witness daily the despair of those less fortunate than themselves, or rant against the avarice and selfishness of those in power over them.
As we thundered down the long cobbled boulevard leading to the Victory Arch, which is an almost exact replica of L'Arc De Triomphe in Paris, I wondered what surprises and education the next three months would bring to my British, complacent, comfortable existence.
I was dropped off outside my apartment with fond words and good wishes until we met again, in the office on the morrow.
The drive notwithstanding, I needed a drink. My trusty little Dacia had brought me back to reality.
And that concludes the tale of my trip to Transylvania.