Have you ever come across something that so completely exemplifies the essence of something else - a person, place, thing - that it strikes you all at once and all you can do is conclude, "Yup, that is it EXACTLY!" An example so perfect from all angles that when presented to others, no further explanation is required? Here's what I mean: I had a close friend in college who read ferociously and collected books to the point of possibly needing an intervention. One day, when asked how she liked a recent visit to a mid-western state known more for corn than for literature, she wrinkled her nose and said simply, "I went into a book store and there was nothing I wanted to buy." With that one image - I knew all I needed to know about the place.
I had this very experience recently that summed up my experience of Romania thus far.
Last weekend, my husband and I took advantage of a Romanian holiday on Monday for an overnight trip into the mountains. Specifically, to the Făgăraş mountains via highway 7C, called the Transfăgărăşan, that climbs steeply up the southern side of the Transylvanian Alps and then drops into the heart of Transylvania. Started in the 1970s under Ceauşescu, this two-lane "highway" winds to a summit of 6600 ft in a series of curves and switchbacks which were clearly constructed to mimic Christmas tree lights still in their packaging. Here, see for yourself this snapshot of the highway map:
But don't take just my word for it, the guys at Top Gear also declared it one of the most spectacular roads in the world a few years back. You should see for yourself here.
We got an early start from Bucharest, driving across the plains carpeted in corn and sunflowers, skirting the industrial city of Piteşti with its cooling towers on the horizon, through Curtea de Arges that just the day before had hosted the royal funeral for Queen Anne, and up into a series of foothill towns. Here the road was lined with small farms and mom-and-pop pensions offering beds to the hordes of travelers coming from all over Europe to tackle the Transfăgărăşan. The scenery was worthy of Van Gogh, with hand-scythed haystacks in the fields and in front of every farm, small stands offering whatever is in season and manned by the weathered land owner. At this time of year, it's melons, peppers, apples and pears, and with each farm having seemingly identical harvests, I wondered how one would choose where to stop and buy? Is it the most attractive display? The most colorful shade umbrella? Perhaps just the easiest place to pull the car off the road? (Note to self to never buy a farm on a dangerous curve.)
Just after clearing the foothill towns, the road began to get serious in the gorge below the Vidraru Dam. Which, as someone with a phobic reaction to dams, looked as massive as Hoover Dam but turns out to be "only" the 20th largest dam in the world. Still.
We passed under a triumphant Prometheus as the highway wound along the shaded shore of Lake Vidraru. We had peeks through the trees to the expansive surface of smooth, blue water without a speed or houseboat in sight and only a few lazy sightseeing ferries cruising the circumference.
See that peak in the background here, above the tree line? That's where we're headed. And to get there, we'll go through some (see below) "particularly dangerous curves." I love that - not just dangerous, or very dangerous, but particularly dangerous. They say that the average speed over the Transfăgărăşan is 25 mph. Clearly Top Gear had the road closed for their filming as they exceeded that average velocity just a wee bit.
Just past the lake the highway climbs, climbs to an unmistakably Alpine altitude. The traffic begins crawl and bunch up here as people pull off to wonder at the views, taking pictures and buying sausages and cheese.
This is where I had my first realization of something that so perfectly encapsulated Romania that I could only smile and shake my head. See, given the vertical topography, it's only natural that waterfalls will dot the vistas. One such waterfall, and not a particularly awesome one but pretty enough and earning points for accessibility to the roadside, brought all forward vehicular movement to a standstill. Probably without exception (us included), every car stopped to park along the shoulder, and then as that filled up - in the lane, and then in both lanes, to discharge all passengers for a spree of unadulterated selfie-taking beside the waterfall, IN the waterfall and at the edge of the cliff. But also, directly In front of the waterfall on the shoulder were umbrella'd tables of sausages, cheeses, jars of honey and other treats for sale by enterprising locals. My husband surmised that probably years ago some folks, upon noticing the irresistible attraction of the waterfall, said to themselves, "You know, people really like this spot. I bet they'd like some sausages while they're here. Or cheese, or even honey." So now, with a shoulder about three feet wide, along with the natural attraction, there is thriving commerce that brings - and keeps - the entire highway at a halt.
After satiating their picture-taking urges, the visitors then plunk themselves down in the gravel just feet from the road's edge for a family picnic. Sure, why not? After all, we've just bought all this lovely sausage! And later, after leaving their lunch wrappings in piles on the ground, with bellies and cameras full, they get back in the car and muscle their way back up/down the highway using whatever road space they can find. Naturally, it's no problem for the motorcycles, who don't even downshift as they whiz their way through this quagmire.
Which brings me to the second example in my story, a snapshot that embodied an essential aspect of this country, which sadly must be acknowledged - the feeling that the adults aren't watching and so the kids get to do what they want, even while knowing it's not what they're supposed to be doing. I present to you camping in Romania: in the heart of this natural beauty we find families and groups of friends sharing full meals on proper tables and chairs they've brought from home, complete with tablecloths, plates and cutlery. This isn't grab-a-hot-dog-and-eat-while-standing American style, no sir. There are circles of conversation over the tables; someone erects the tricolor above a tent; there's an impromptu game of badminton over in the clearing... how civilized indeed!
And then the camera pans out and we see MOUNDS of garbage piled meters from the dinner table. Plus, behind every bush or tree, a semi-circle of toilet paper "flowers," or wet-wipes in various states of disintegration marking makeshift bathrooms. Frequently including diapers, feminine products and condoms. Nice, eh?
ALL of this is Romania to me.
Incredible natural beauty. That entrepreneurial spirit. Engineering marvels such as the Transfăgărăşan highway and Vidraru Dam. But combined with more than a pinch of childlike silliness of people doing whatever they want, when they feel like it, without regard for the long term or the effect on others. Complaining about political corruption spoiling their country and then throwing their garbage in some of the most beautiful environments you'll find and parking in the middle of the road.
Oh Romania, so often you make me smile.
And other times you've taught me to turn down the corners of my mouth, shrug, and say "Ce să fac?"*
*Roughly translated as: What can I do? The frequent response to difficult situation.