Hmmmm. Where were we now? Ah yes sitting on the terrace of the pub in Satu Mare (sartoo maray) opposite the station drinking beer. The twilight was lengthening attractively and the beer was cold and very nice. That’s right. It all comes back. Our minibus is waiting for us to get on board and I’m rooting around in my pack looking for something nice to eat, as relaxed and comfortable as John Howard advised us to be.
What? Chris and Marta? What about them? Marta told Jope that we should get off at Satu Mare and we did.
The train had travelled north along the border of western Romania and the country hadn’t changed much. I’d spent most of the time with my head out the window because it hadn’t got any cooler. Yes okay like a dog in the back of a ute if that helps you. This was interesting but poor country: some dilapidated houses still in use, tumbledown farm buildings, horses and pony carts instead of tractors, long arid patches, the occasional smell of piggeries and sewage, an even more occasional village but little you’d want to go to war over.
Chris and Marta? Again? What … I told you. We left them being looked after … in custody? Well yes, in custody if that makes you happy. Custody. With the people in the blue uniforms.
The pub was a bit of a dive actually, a few blokes in the bar mumbling into their beer. Mine testy hostess wasn’t interested in euros, had no interest at all in forints and once we got some lei out of the ATM hidden in the inverted commas first class waiting room at the station, indicated fairly clearly that their denominations were too big. In this rather bleak corner of Satu Mare, money spoke only a particular dialect of Romanian.
Okay. They escaped. Chris the resourceful Kiwi had secreted some number 8 wire about her person and had fashioned first a pick lock and then a flying machine which allowed her to … aaaaah, no imagination. All right then. The people in blue stamped her passport and then dumped them both on the outskirts of town which would have been a matter of metres away. Marta, to whom this had happened before, knew the drill and they hitch-hiked to Satu Mare requiring only two rides. (Maybe three. I think the second ended up in Satu but a long way from the station.) They got there an hour after we did. I can only shake my head in wonderment.
We had started this day in Eger; we had been to Debrecen; we were drinking beer at Satu Mare and we still had a two or three hour drive in the mini bus over execrable roads. Big day.
‘Mare’ means ‘high’, perhaps ‘upper’ in this context seeing we’d been through Satu Sud (yes, you got it). Baia Mare (‘high baths’) and Tarna Mare are nearby. I’d like to have done this drive in daylight because we were certainly in the Carpathians. On arrival at about 11pm we had a delicious dinner with a glass or two of palinka which I had begun to enjoy, the bed was comfortable, the weather cool and we woke to the sound of people digging spuds in a Romanian version of paradise. We’re looking at the food we ate here.
Nicolae was there at breakfast looking chipper. An engineer by training and experience, working for a time in a senior and well paid position for Ikea, he now worked as a nurse in his wife’s medical clinic (with 2000 patients) so they could live together — a very interesting man and our guide for the day. He took us everywhere.
Where are we again? Here, the red dot: separated from the Ukraine by the river Tisa and not much else.
We bought lunch at the swish supermarket in Sighetu Marmatiei (‘siget’ to its intimates). I have an undistinguished but otherwise interesting photo of the main street which shows that in Sighetu there is a bistro called the Eldorado, a branch of Western Union and a shop that has ‘Orice produs 3 lei’, ‘All products 82.7 Australian cents’ which provides a rough idea of the exchange rate. We drove on to Săpânţa where I, at least, got a surprise — the very Merry Cemetery.
Stan Ioan Pătraş began carving these headpieces in 1935 and now there are more than 800 of them. As well as their good humour one of their distinctive features is their honesty. An 18 year old boy loved his car too much and was killed driving it. Despite her angelic nature, one woman had two gentlemen friends. And one rather grisly one talks about how the ‘bastard Hungarians’ shot the subject in the back and decapitated his friend while they were out hunting. (In nearby Harghita province more than 80 percent of the population describe themselves as Hungarian.)
Taken together they provide a strikingly honest as well as deeply affectionate portrait of a community. The farewell on Stan’s own oak marker is plangent.
Since I was a little boy/ I was known as Stan Ioan Pătraş/ Listen to me, fellows / There are no lies in what I am going to say/ All along my life I meant no harm to anyone/ But did good as much as I could / To anyone who asked/ Oh, my poor World / Because it was hard living in it.
This area is famous for its old wooden churches, in one case so grand I couldn’t get back far enough on site to get the tower (sans bell, too heavy for timber construction) into the frame. But here’s Luz recording its altar decoration.
The general cladding principle went like this. (Double click for a proper look. Beautiful craftsmanship producing fluid forms. They don’t seem to mind cracks in the timber.) One result, the convent at Barsana, is a Romanian treasure.
There’s a lot here, but I must tell you briefly about Sighisoara (siggishawra) well south of the red dot in the screen shot above and pretty close to the centre of Romania. It is famous among other things as the birthplace of the gentleman looking over Marta’s shoulder, Vlad Tepes, a member of the House of Drăculești, also known by his patronymic, Dracula. ‘Tepes’ means ‘the impaler’. If you have an interest in this particular process I direct you to Ivo Andrić’s remarkable book The Bridge on the Drina where you can get as much detail as you’d like and possibly a little more. Later I want to write something about gypsies and I note in passing that Andrić chose a gypsy to do the impaling because that way the wicked Ottoman pasha responsible for building the bridge could be sure of the lingering quality of his victim’s death. Said victim, innocent of course but a minor character, was still breathing after 24 hours. But the really dirty work had to done by a gypsy.
Sighisoara is a fortified village built on one of the rocky outcrops so beloved of the builders of medieval fortifications. It is colourful and picturesque. Here, for example, is its clocktower.
And the view from our window to the real town below.
We liked the real town. Real towns always have something to offer. We found the Orthodox basilica and, more or less on our own, attended an Orthodox version of evensong. The ‘graffiti’ on the concrete levee says, in Romanian of course: ‘Life is a necessary condition to exist, but insufficient to be. Do your duty and you will know (perhaps ‘discover’) who you are.’
Myrna turned 60 that day and we had a fine celebration under one of the roofs in the picture above, a chocolate cake produced by Marta drenched in liqueur, and happy birthday sung in five languages: English, Polish, Dutch, Indonesian and Mexican Spanish. Then Myrna, who had spent a lot of time on this trip trying to remember all the words to Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and ‘Ragamuffin Man’ (lyrics and music by Peter Callander and Mitch Murray and performed so admirably by Manfred Mann. Don’t ask. Ha ho. If you must know we heard it in the foyer of our hotel in Budapest, and it’s a Myrna kind of song: ‘As you rise in the mornin’ rain/ Take a look down that road again/ Does the thought ever grab your mind/ For the life that you’ve left behind?/ Hey Mister etc.’), yes back to where we were, Myrna, sitting within a metre or two of a giant plasma TV near silently screening the semi-porn video Kiss channel and full of very good Romanian salad and wine, stunned us all by reciting ‘The Seven Ages of Man’. For those who have recently missed its peerless sentiments, they can be found on a post below (or above or somewhere on this mysterious site). Life can sometimes be a kind of party.