After the back-to-back touristing with Mom and Dad (and very fun touristing it was!), Luke and I were happy to slow the pace a bit when we arrived in Oradea, Romania. Rachel’s partner, Manny, spent most of his childhood in Romania, before immigrating to Australia. Him and Rach were visiting family for a few weeks, and so we joined them at the house of Manny’s parents, Maria and Garby. I’ll tell you all about that in this post, but I’ll also briefly touch on: Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Russia. More later.
Romania: really quite nice
First of all, Romania, especially Oradea and even more especially Maria and Garby’s place, is lovely. As we found out, Romania is wooded and full of character. Oradea, a city I had never even heard of, has narrow tree-lined streets, an old town that has both quaint and grand sections, lots of bath complexes, all the services you need, and plenty of
old communist buildings to keep things, hm, interesting. Maria and Garby’s house is on a quiet suburban street (quiet when the neighbourhood guard dogs aren’t having a chat with one another, I should say), with a garden that Luke and I freaked out over. Rows and rows of plump grapes, trees bursting with plums, chickens running around. It was like Eden.
Romania: Taking care of business
We did more than our usual amount of sleeping, but we also managed to achieve many chores. This is a fabulous way to get to know how a community works, as we learned in Louth with Nick and Louise. Post office, doctor, translation service, supermarket, car repair shop (6 times), shopping mall… Manny generously translated everything for us, and sometimes Garby ferried us around, too.
Romania: Millions of Mannies
Manny did a count and thinks he has about 150 family members in Oradea. Sadly, we only got to meet a small proportion, but that was still a lot. Rule #1: Romanians will feed you. Sometimes chunks of pig fat. (Luke reports that this was delicious.) Sometimes, a full meal at midnight after seeing a movie. Orange soda seems to be a constant, to which I give my stamp of approval. Manny’s family was warm and inviting and just generally good eggs.
Romania: A hare is spared, this time
Perhaps our quirkiest visit was with Trian. He and his wife, Stella, have a house in town, but they spend most of their time in a hut in a managed forest where he was a forest ranger during his career. He jumped in our car and directed us into said forest. Upon reaching his house, we were greeted by his 7 dogs (ranging from an itty bitty one to an enormous one), who all like to get in on the hunting action. In fact, at one point during the visit, the boys had gone off somewhere and I was standing by myself (happily, I should add). I heard a soft rhythmic thumping and looked around to find a hare, running like lightning, right down the dirt road. Seconds later two or three dogs appeared in the frame, silently chasing. Apparently they didn’t get it because a couple minutes later they ran up to me, hareless and wiggling for a pat.
Romania: Luke gets peed on
The house’s other inhabitants included a flock of hissing geese and a couple of teeny-weeny-tiny-baby-puppies (one of whom decided to pee all over Luke’s shirt). The neighbourhood was also fascinating: the only neighbour for miles, right across the road, was a vacant house that used to belong to Romania’s dictator during Communist days. Apparently the ruler only came once, but his soldiers used to hang out there and hunt boars. The house also hosted secret meetings of the nascent communist party, then rebels trying to figure out how to take over the government. They succeeded, clearly.
Romania: We learned stuff
Oradea, and Romania in general, is a fascinating blend of leftover communist-era relics (both physical and social), old stuff, and modern capitalist stuff. Our favourite supermarket was bigger than a Walmart, and the shopping mall would pass for a Westfield any day. And we saw Ghostbusters, which we are thankful to report was NOT dubbed into Romanian. All of that is interspersed with evidence of the communist past: monolithic apartment blocks (to better keep watch on the inhabitants, Manny says), the labyrinth of enormous steam pipes for heating said monoliths, the building in town where people were “questioned”, enormous disused factories. Manny patiently answered our invasive questions and explained the difference between the Warsaw Pact (to which Romania was a party) and Soviet Union (to which it was not).
Romania: We did stuff
Of course, we did manage to take a lil’ mini vacation during this holiday within a holiday. Rach, Manny, Luke and I hit the road for 4 days, heading down to Retezat National Park, a few hours south of Oradea, with a few stops along the way. This trip included:
Two nights at a mushroom farm, or, more accurately, a mushroom depot. People find mushrooms in the woods and bring them here to be exported. We got a little tour from the owner and ate our meals on the back patio with what seemed to be workers and family, and a few stray Retezat hikers.
- A very intense and incredibly beautiful full-day hike towards, but not all the way to, Mount Retezat itself. This involved scrambling up and down steep slopes, waiting for sheep to cross our paths, and mentally preparing for a bear and/or viper attack. (Last one is just me, I think.) We also found a fantastical red polka dot mushroom, which, upon being shown the picture, our host declared as perfectly deadly. One lick and you’re toast. Good thing we didn’t give it a bite.
An introduction to the flamboyant, over-the-top houses of the Gypsies. When Sasha Baron Cohen used a (real) poor Romanian Gypsy village as his setting for his repulsive but guiltily hilarious movie Borat, he conveniently left out these grandiose, sparkly mansions.
- Checking out a major tourist attraction: bison. These bad boys drew the crowds, comparatively speaking for rural Romania. They just stood there, but they were fuzzy and Luke and I have plans to get a friendly one and cuddle with it on chilly nights. It will take up about one quarter of our tiny house.
- Popsicles. This is the new name for Romanian haystacks, rechristened by Rach and Manny. We enjoyed watching them being built; it’s a family affair with Grandma standing on top and smooshing while others toss.
- Unending road works. For some unknown reason, the powers that be have decided the best way to “fix” a road is to demolish one lane, dig a meter and half down, and leave the long pit there for a few hundred meters. Cultural relativism shield, engage.
In general: We are awkward
On a different note, it turns out that a major barrier to cultural appropriateness for Luke and I is the feeding of animals. We do it, usually from the table, and people think we are weirdos. At the mushroom farm, a toddler shooed away the dog we were feeding with our leftovers, so that smarted a little. Toddler has better manners than us. But they are just so darn skinny and adorable, we can’t help it.
Now, for Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia
We left Romania a bit later than we had hoped (blame the car mechanic, as always), so we only had 5 days to get through 6 countries on the way to Russia. This meant several hours of driving a day, and not much time for touristing. We did stop in Krakow, Poland, and also in Riga, Latvia, both of which are lovely. We camped most nights. The campgrounds were more or less like those in Western Europe, with a few quirky ones. The campground in Riga, for example, was an empty field behind a convention centre, with temporary toilets and several massive Iveco trucks kitted out for some serious, Sahara-style overland. At a beautiful lakeside campground in Poland, where we were advised by a friendly neighbour to definitely not drink the water, we noticed a proliferation of number stickers saying, “Cholesterol ’15”, “Cholesterol ’08” and the like. Very curious as to what sort of annual bash might be named “Cholesterol”, and why.
And finally, Russia
I’ll delve more into Russia in our next post, once we’ve had a few more days here. In the meanwhile, I’ll just give a few tidbits:
- The border was surprisingly easy. We did make a reservation online, (oh Estonia, you’re so efficient), but were the only car waiting, and were called 15 minutes before our time slot. We only went through 4 checkpoints, and I had been told to expect 7. The guards seemed tickled by us. Once again, hooray for an Aussie passport. They didn’t even really check our car thoroughly – they had us open all the doors, but seemed too overwhelmed to do anything further. I guess that’s a good reason to not do any housecleaning for a few days before a border crossing.
- There is NO English here. Not only that, but people are totally boggled by the fact that we don’t speak Russian. “Why the heck not??? Why are you here, then?” I can hear their internal dialogues asking. Most just continue speaking to us in Russian.
- No one smiles. We’re at a cafe right now, and I just saw a lady smile at her friend’s comment. Once, a guy in a phone shop giggled when he couldn’t speak to us in English. Otherwise, no smiles. After listening to 30 hours of Russian history on audiobook as we drive, I can see why. I probably wouldn’t be smiling either.
Our new friends
Now that we are a bit more of a novelty item, we’ve attracted some delightful people. Gas stations seem to be the place for this to happen. In Latvia, a tour bus pulled up behind us at a gas station while we were chopping up a salad in the back of the car in the spitting rain. A lady practically ran over to us as soon as the bus stopped, and excitedly peppered us with questions. Turns out she’s French, but speaks excellent English. She was doing a bus tour through Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. She was very excited to hear about our trip and take a look through the car. What a lovely character. Joelle, if you are reading this, hello and lovely to meet you! Maybe see you in Mongolia some day!
The most intriguing couple we’ve met were in a parking lot in Russia, near Pskov. They were in an RV, and we realised with astonishment that they had Chinese plates! A large sticker on the side of their camper told us they were driving from Beijing to France and back. We interrupted their lunch (chopping onions in the van) to exchange our stories in charades and map-pointing, plus a little google translate app action. Their van says, in Russian, Chinese, and English, “Hello friends!” and “The world needs us to know each other.” They were like perky, smiling apparations of the spirit of world peace.
We also had a good “chat” to some fellows in a market in the rural Russian town of Ostashkov, who were convinced that we were English (“Tony Blair! Tony Blair!” they suggested enthusiastically), until we showed them Australia on google maps. They then got excited and took pictures with us. And tried to sell us vodka.
That’s all for now
Tomorrow, we’re off to explore Moscow, and will attempt to find the Mongolian consulate and get a visa. We will also be attending a Russian mechanic for an emergency fix-up (more later). We welcome you to perform any superstitious rights you wish to help us through these tasks.
Romania: In and around Oradea
Romanian road trip
Back on the road: Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and a tiny bit of Russia