25.05.2013 - 02.06.2013
As a very young boy my parents encouraged me to read. They knew that reading was, and is, the basis of all knowledge and one is more likely to prosper if able to link up the little black marks in a coherent manner. They also instinctively knew that any reading was good, and, 50 years ahead of their time realized that comics offered the same value as Enid Blyton. My earliest vocabulary included words like Kapow, Zoink, Kerplunk and Varoom. I’m thrilled to be using them again. Given this period was about 15 years after the end of WWII, war comics were popular. One of my favorites was Spy 13. This, much better, forunner of James Bond had many personal run-ins with Adolf Hitler and always escaped by the proverbial skin of his teeth. As a result I am well aware that Hitler was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria. Following a final night in Germany at the lovely Danube town of Passau, we passed through Braunau am Inn. My own run-in was with a guy who exhibited all the traits of a Hitler descendant, but was easily dealt with. He didn’t realize he was dealing with a student of Spy 13.
On the rear of HeeHaw is a spare wheel that is fixed to a tubular frame that swings aside to allow the tailgate to open. We stopped in a carpark to overcome a squeak in the luggage area that was out of phase with the ‘Oompah’ music on the radio. The open swinging spare wheel frame caught the eye of a policeman that was far too young to shave but I feel will one day feature a toothbrush mustache. He squealed to a halt and proceeded to remonstrate in ‘Germish’ (of which we are fluent) to the effect that the frame was protruding into the path of other passing vehicles. After looking closely at the offending projection I held up my left little finger – horizontally – and cocked an eyebrow … in the manner of Spy 13 when he was planning his escape. The length of my little finger signified the distance past the defining white line and therefore the magnitude of my crime. I then solved the problem completely by closing the gate. Hitler’s probable Great Grandson was satisfied with his days work and drove off. I stood wondering and desperately trying to recall – did Spy 13 offer another finger at that stage? Probably. I made do with escaping over the boarder to Hungary.
Hungary is a misnomer. The country is mostly a large flat food bowl. There are food crops growing over the horizon in every direction. No one should be or even looks hungry at all. The remarkable thing about Hungarians is that they very normal and very nice. Given this was our first stop in Eastern Europe I had a sort of nagging idea that they would be carrying daggers in their belts, barbequing stray children, casting spells on tightwads and planning the next popular uprising. (It turns out this is the next country – my mistake) During our 2 days in Budapest only 2 things worthy of mention occurred. At the conclusion of the romantic evening Danube River dinner cruise, (this IS true) Flypaper declared that the citrus cream with a raspberry mint mouse floater was the finest soup she had ever consumed. This pronouncement from a woman who reads recipe books like novels. (We are now on a mission. Please send your citrus cream soup recipe to email@example.com ).The other, even better occurrence, was that our City Tour bus was involved in an accident. Some of the passengers murmured to the effect that their holiday was destroyed as they would now be late for the changing of the guard at Buck House in 4 days time, but I found it to be the highlight of our journey to date. Being witness to someone else’s disaster is much better than inadvertently arranging your own. The gnashing of teeth was only bettered by the exasperation of astonishing volumes of paperwork completed in triplicate on the crumpled bonnet of the aging Ford Focus that I have a sneaking suspicion was being hopefully sacrificed towards the owners next bet on the football results … or perhaps a few cases of Tuica (52% proof plum juice). Actually, it doesn’t surprise me there was an ‘incident’ on this tour as I had noticed the bus driver wore hair gel.
Hungary is now very European and we found it delightful. Some will find that complimentary while others will say they hoped for better. However, one kilometer over the boarder into Romania was a leap backwards in time. Much of the past 100 years has stood still. Imagine late 19th century buildings occupied by 1950’s people talking on cell phones while driving frenetically. On the Hungarian side of the boarder everyone drove in an orderly leisurely fashion. Once in Romania they instantly grew horns and careered along as if they were late for their own funerals. It’s really good. While we oppressed Westerners’ who suffer from ‘those who know what is best for us’, are shocked by these driving habits and feel sure the offenders have failed to attend their therapy appointments, the fact is, they are driving normally. They demonstrate astonishing skills of judgment and have no greater accident rate that those who obey dictatorial rules established by those who were not allowed adequate time in their peddle cars when young. Flypaper and I measure the value of the entertainment in Euro’s. It corresponds to the value of the vehicle that nearly joined the ranks of the car wreckers stock found every 25 kilometers along the highways (just as they are in our home country). Used car parts are big business here and some of the recyclers are very professional.
The police are out, often with radar, but doesn’t worry us because it seems they only take an interest in really expensive vehicles that appear worthy of the fine. On the subject of law enforcement we had occasion to witness it in action. We encountered large organized protests in some of the towns and cities we have visited. We don’t know their cause but one protest is much like another so it doesn’t matter. Hang on, Flypaper tells me that one protest was, “Stop the Gold Mining”. Whoa! Run that past me again. The one thing these people look like they could really do with is a bit of gold. Sometimes the protesters have evidently broken some law (probably verbal abuse of authority) and are taken in for due process. Add to this the knowledge that here in Romania they have a domestically manufactured car called a Dacia. These were made internationally famous by the Top Gear team who unanimously voted them among the world’s worst cars. What would they know? I think a Dacia is really just an old Renault in a Halloween costume. The smallest model is understandably used by the police as no doubt they are available at the right price. We saw a ‘Laurel & Hardy’ team of policemen crammed into their Dacia, leaving no room for the arrested offender. He had to walk along in front. By the time he arrived at the station I imagine everyone along the way would be willing to vote him for president.
Romania is a country of contrast. Ancient dilapidated buildings from which the occupants trot in old horse drawn carts alongside huge modern industrial centres with carparks’ festooned by BMWs and Range Rovers. A million dollar combine harvester will toot to shoo away an old woman carrying a few sticks or load of hay on her back. The centre strip of the motorway will be mowed by someone with a noisy weedeater contemplating his salary while the outer edge will be harvested by a man with a scythe considering his few cows. On reflection, should there be another revolution; the man with the scythe will be better able to defend his castle than he with the weedeater.
We regularly leave the main highways to sneak around the rural communities. This is the place to observe the true character of a country. Romanian secondary roads are very like rural roads throughout much of the ‘emerging’ and ‘developing’ world. Usually covered in assorted manure that is fast eating away the ‘Marmite’ spread as a token political gesture towards luxury sealed access for farmers. One doesn’t maintain a very high average speed on these roads. Here’s the bizarre juxtaposition. Almost every town and village muddy main street is gaily decorated with ornamental lights strung from the power poles. I can imagine the meeting of the town councilors considering the priorities. “Will we patch up the shocking main street or deck the place out with bright lights just like the next door town”? Just like our very own councilors, they will vote for the lights to be like ‘Jonestown’ every time. Bling … the aphrodisiac of the poor.
Another thing of interest. I suspect Romania holds the world record for rubbish bins. Rubbish bins per head of population. Rubbish bins per square kilometer, gross rubbish bins – they will get the gold medal in every class. Bins hang from every power pole, stand on the sides and corners of every street and are provided by every business. Strangely, they are all empty. Furthermore, there is rubbish all over the place – as far as the eye can see. Paper, ciggy buts, plastic containers – it’s all out there waiting to be put into those bins. It does get me wondering. Who says we have to collect our rubbish if we happen to enjoy living with it spread all around? Isn’t this just another example of those who know best for us wasting both our time and money? When Flypaper scurries around sweeping up the leaves at home I sometimes put down my drink (and comic) and call out the window … “Leave them alone. They’ll go away by themselves pretty soon”. She never listens. Another thing … I hear locals here calling to each other as they walk about. I think they are saying, “Watch where you walk”. It’s a peculiar phenomenon all over the world that poor communities have lots of dogs … and these ones are not potty trained.
We passed through the region of Transylvania. You will know of it for one reason – the place made famous by Count Dracula. He’s the guy whose story is based on the role model of Vlad the Impaler. Vlad coined the phrase, “Revenge is sweet”. It seems he lived much of his life on a sugar high. I’m not going to tell you about Vlad except to say that in a popularity pole he would probably fit snuggly down among the politicians. This makes sense because he was one – although he wasn’t democratically elected. I will say however – and you can research this yourself – he could do amazing things with a greasy stick.
There is a serious rivalry between Hungary and Romania. It extends way beyond football, the size of their buildings and the size of their gross national debt. Each has depreciating jokes about the other. The Hungarians tell about Dracula. They say that he lived on the blood of virgins … but finally died of thirst. If you don’t get it, don’t worry. It’s in poor taste anyway.
The jewel of Romanian roading infrastructure is the Transfagarasan Highway. (Closely followed by the Transalpine Highway and a couple of others) I don’t accept the Transfagarasan is the worlds finest driving road … but it is up there. (Check it out on the interweb thing - http://www.losapos.com/transfagarasan ) It’s a road best enjoyed in a high value supercar. HeeHaw is no thoroughbred and not my steed of choice for this drive. On the other hand, a thoroughbred would not have made it where our good sturdy workhouse went today. It’s still too early in the summer for the road to be transited by the hoons but a few were out having a go in the snow. HeeHaw easily saw off a gaggle of Dacia’s, a Volvo and a couple of vans of unknown parentage. The most popular Dacia model is a ‘Logan’. I knew a Logan during my National Service period in the Army. One morning in his usual haste he wore his dress boots for a 25km route march. In fairness, it was always difficult to tell Logan’s good gear from his working clobber. He was constantly on report following parade thereafter. I don’t know what happened to Logan but these things don’t look good on ones CV and I suspect he made a fortune from being a scruff ignored by the establishment. I am reminded of Logan because the Dacia of the same name was the wrong thing to take on the Transfagarasan the day we were there. Heehaw’s high ground clearance, abundant torque, diff locks, meaty tyres and 4WD made it the beast to beat. In spite of the signage, we made it through the most spectacular section almost up to the summit at 2050 meters before 2 meter snow drifts and a blocked tunnel forced us to retreat around an alternate and worthy ‘scenic route’.
To Be Continued Soon
(in the next installment that sums up our thoughts about Eastern Europe)