Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Great Transylvanian Experiment, Take Three

Day Zero - Inauspicious Beginnings

The first leg of the journey, for me at least, was getting from Szolnok to Budapest. Normally, this is not at all problematic, but since I had the grand idea that arriving into Nyugati would simplify my inter-Pest traveling, it became more complicated. Not the least of my problems was that the train was 45 minutes late. Anyway, I arrived in Pest, and arrived at the Kollégium.

And arrived at the second problem. Or, if “problem” is too strong a word, maybe I could just say “situation”. I met the other Americans. How? By standing in my room and listening for other American voices, which drifted loud and clear down the hall. I poked my head in and asked, “Are you Hajni’s Americans?” to which they replied in the affirmative. I had found the group of Lexia students.

Let me clarify this. In addition to CETP, Hajni also runs the Lexia Student Exchange Program, which I did in 2003. When we went to Transylvania in the fall, the entire trip was CETP teachers, but for this trip, in addition to 6 teachers and one teacher’s boyfriend, we also have Lexia students from Krakow, Budapest, and Berlin.

Right, so I met up with the bulk of the students, who are from the Berlin leg of Lexia. Two things which occurred to me after meeting them: one, that I need to stop teasing Janos about being the old man. Two, a memory of a conversation we had some weekend, I think in Tiszaújváros, when we were all together and discussing the upcoming trip. Someone, possibly Liz, said something about how not fun the trip would be, to travel around on a bus with a bunch of rowdy college students. Someone else, possibly me, came back with, “How bad could they be?” because really, we’re mostly only a couple years removed from them. Ha ha. I’m eating those words now.

Day One - Nagyvárad and Bánffyhunyad

Today we drove a lot and visited two churches.

Despite a late start, due to flood-related transportation problems, we were on the road by 7:30. My fellow travelers this time around are:

The Adults are almost the same as last time: Hajni; András, our translator; Péter, our bus driver; unfortunately this time our guide isn’t Sándor, but instead we have a quiet young woman named Ildikó.

The Teachers: myself, Nicole, Jess, Jenn, Jillian, Tara, and Tara’s boyfriend Tom.

The Kids (the Lexia students): one from Krakow, Mike; one from the new Hungary-and-Romania program, Meghan; and a whole large group from Berlin. Their names escape me, and until any of them do anything to distinguish themselves from the group, I’m just going to refer to them collectively as The Kids.

We drove across Hungary, past Szolnok and eastward. We made it to the border and across without major hassle; we were through by 2 o’clock. I had a brief reminder of my earlier feeling of inauspiciousness as the first sight I saw in Romania was a dead sheepdog lying in a ditch (a sight which, sadly, was not a singular event). We stopped in Nagyvárad to see the a church. After leading us to the main walking street, Hajni let us loose for half an hour to exchange money and scavenge up some food. On the way back to the bus, Jillian and I walked past two younger girls who made a comment about Americans, then turned around to see how we would react. Unfortunately, at the same time Jillian and I turned around to see where the group was. The girls started cracking up, we started cracking up, and when we meandered back towards the group, they started following us. They followed the group for a couple of blocks - unlike so many people, ranging from sketchy to sad, who would follow around a group of Americans begging or pick pocketing, these were just two bored girls. So all was well, until we got back to the bus, when One Of The Kids thought it would be a nice parting gift to make idiot faces at the girls. At which point, they started sulking, and The Kids started snapping pictures. Not that I didn’t have the same impulse. But I didn’t.

After Nagyvárad, we headed into the Kalotaszeg region. When we came over the Királyhágó pass, Hajni announced that we were officially in Transylvania. We applauded tiredly. We stopped in Bánffyhunyad to visit the 13th century Protestant church there. András told me I should give the speech, since I’ve heard it twice before. Actually, I was proud of how much of the speech I could understand in Hungarian, before András translated it.

The first evening was, as it has been on my two previous tours, the village of Kalotaszentkirály. We all had dinner together in one room, at two tables to which we automatically separated ourselves: Kids at one table, Teachers at another. Jillian said she felt like we were the camp counselors of the group. Dinner was a veggie and meat soup, followed by rice and veal, and a pastry for dessert which was sort of like a powdered-sugar-covered, light, spiral donut. Plus palinka, of course. Amazing.

After dinner, Hajni divided us up into groups for the night, and although we schemed to all be put together, we were split. After the Dividing, we all sat around for a while, until we staged a coup d’état by standing up and putting on coats under the pretense of huddling around the stove. It worked; everyone stood up and started moving towards the door. Good job, Teachers - way to instigate some social change.

Day Two - Körösfö, Kolozsvár

Today we drove a lot and visited one and a half churches.

This morning, we three girls (myself, Jess, and Jenn) walked back up to the place we had dinner for breakfast. It was the traditional spread of bread, meat cheese, rosehip jam tea and coffee. Mmm, coffee. At breakfast, we plotted our attack on the bus - we were determined to snag good places and let The Kids share seats today. Success! The bus picked us up first, and Jillian and Nicole were the only two on time to the meeting places, so we staked our claims.

Our first stop of the day was Körösfö, which has nothing in the way of tourist attractions other than dozens of tiny shops and stands lining the single street, which is actually a highway with cars and semis rushing past. So in my mind, it will always be the Highway Mall village. This time around, I managed to restrain myself a bit, and despite much drooling over embroideries and pottery, I got back on the bus having only spent 55 lei ($18) on two rugs. (And yes, I know that it was only a couple weeks ago that I spent $35 on rugs at Ikea. I’m sorry, I’m developing a new obsession or something. But there are far worse things I could be spending money on. At least rugs are practical.)

The next chunk of the day was spent in Kolozsvár. We saw the Farkas utcai Reformist Church and part of the medieval town wall. We walked past the Babes-Bolyai University, which in a past life was the Franz Joseph University where my great-great grandmother Katalin earned her degree in midwifery. We wandered around the town, saw the main square, the statue of King Mátyás and the Szent Mihály Church, but only from the outside (hence the “half a church”). We listened to Horváth István’s speech about the problems of the minorities in Transylvania, which was informative as always (I’ve now seen it four times). After the speech, Hajni let us loose in the town. Jillian, Jenn, Nicole and I immediately headed for coffee and pastries, followed by a toothbrush-hunt (successful) and a bathroom-hunt (also successful) before we hopped back on the bus.

As a final note, I have to say that the best part of Kolozsvár was when Péter ran a red light and got pulled over by the cops. Nothing came of it, because Ildikó jumped out and saved us with protestations of, “We’re just a bunch of American tourists; we need to find food and bathrooms and exchange money and we only have one hour in your beautiful town...” But it was funny anyway.

The planned final stop of the day was the Torda Canyon. Thankfully, it was drizzly all day and Hajni and the driver decided not to risk the possibility that the muddy roads might swallow the bus (not to mention us walking). So, hooray, no canyon. It was beautiful last time, but the walk back up nearly killed a good group of us. In fact, I seem to recall Hajni vowing never again with the canyon... but apparently her memory isn’t as good as mine.

The back-up plan was a tour of the Torda Salt Mine. Words fail me. Salt is beautiful. It forms in waves and swirls, it drips down in massive stalactites, and it grows to cover the cut walls and underground buildings like delicious crystal barnacles. Mmm, salty. Yes, I licked one of the walls. And broke chunks off the ceiling. No goiters for me!

Our overnight stop was in Torocko, the village where the sun rises twice (because of the giant mountain. Remember the giant mountain?) Once again, we had dinner together, and once again, we self-segregated. The Teachers sat on the left, the Kids sat on the right, and the Adults sat in the middle, joined by a couple of the less-bubble-headed Kids. Dinner was a creamy meat-stock soup with carrot pieces and rice, followed by noodles and pork in a paprikás sauce, and something like cinnamon cake/bread for dessert. Because we were following the local tradition, we had a pálinka as an aperitif, in addition to as a palate-cleanser between courses.

In the evening, after dispersing to our houses to drop off luggage, we reconvened in the town square to search out a bar. The Teachers plus Ildikó ended up at the same bar where last time a farmer invited Laura for a ride on his tractor, and other such shenanigans. It was interesting to talk to her (Ildikó, I mean). She’s Hungarian, of course, living in Satu Mare with her husband and two small sons. She said that this is actually her first tour, which surprised me because although she is shy around Hajni and András, it’s obvious that she knows so much about everything we see and do. I like her - if I come on this trip a fourth time, I hope she’s our guide again.

Day Three - Marosvásárhely and Korond

Today we drove a lot and visited one church, one museum, and a culture house.

After a group breakfast, we toured the Torocko Ethnography Museum. I’ve only been there once before, and I was just as interested this time. Too bad others didn’t follow my example.

After the museum, we hopped on the bus for the long ride to Marosvásárhely. As yesterday, it was rainy and yucky, but nevertheless we tramped through the city to visit their Orthodox church. The iconostasis and sheer level of opulent decoration was almost enough to make me convert.

Continuing the day’s theme of overwhelming opulence, our next stop was the Kultura Palota to marvel at the painted walls (I’m thinking about doing some folk-style embellishment when I do my hallway) and stained-glass windows.

Our last stop of the day was the pottery-making village of Korond. As usual, after a brief tour of one of the pottery-makers, we and our cash were let loose on the village. I made a pre-planned purchase of two vases, one blue and one brown & green. The most exciting part of the trip was that for a brief few minutes in Korond, a tiny village in the Carpathian foothills, my laptop picked up a wireless signal. But not long enough nor strong enough to get online.

The evening we spent in Zetelaka. Tara, Tom, Nicole and I were together in a house, owned by Lukács Erzsébet and her husband Tibor, and daughter Annamari, who was dragged out of her comfortable position glued to the computer to speak some English for us. Erzsébet cooked us soup, stuffed cabbage, and dessert, and filled and refilled our glasses with homemade pálinka and homemade wine. Oh, wonderful. I could have stayed forever, but retreating back upstairs to a warm, downy bed had it’s own appeal.

Day Four - Segesvár and other things

Today we drove not as much an usual and saw two churches and a castle.

The theme for the day had to be something along the lines of “so close, yet so far away.” Example number one: on our itinerary, all it said for day four was Segesvár, and spending the night in Zetelaka. Since the two places are relatively close, and having done Segesvár twice now, I knew it wasn’t going to take all day, I was wondering what we were going to do with all the extra time. The answer: we took the long road and made various side excursions, to Nagygalambfalva to see the Reformist fortified church, and to Cris to see a Renaissance era castle that belonged to the Bethlen family.

Example number two is more personal. We were so close to both Bögöz (where as a Lexia student I stayed with the Demeter family, my favorite memory from that trip) and Medgyes (near to which my family came from, a few generations back), but obviously we didn’t stop in either.

Segesvár is important for two reasons: it’s the city where Dracula was born, and it was formerly one of the biggest Saxon towns. We used the restroom in the café next to Vlad’s birthplace before visiting the Saxon Monastery Church. The speaker about the church spoke German and Romanian, which made for some interesting translation work. After an attempt for her to speak in German for one of the Lexia Berliners to translate failed miserably (she made it three sentences, but I knew it was doomed when she mistranslated Wilkommen. And apparently her German is the best of the group. Honestly, what do these kids learn?), the church lady switched into Romanian, which went through Ildikó and András to become Hungarian, then English. Ever the linguist, I was fascinated by the process, but I may have been the only one.

After the church, we walked up the Covered Steps to the Church on the Hill, and then Hajni released us for the day. We had an unheard of two hours free, so I stuck out with Nicole, Jess, and Jillian to find lunch. It was a bit of an adventure, first to find a restaurant, and then to order. Three of us opted for what appeared in English as “Frankfurten with bread and mustard,” which we assumed could only be bratwurst. Wrong! They turned out to be nasty, pale pink, bologna-like hot dogs. Despite trepidation, we ate them. They lacked any flavor outside the mustard, so I guess the best thing about our “bratwurst” was that none of us got sick. Yet.

The days’ third and final example of “so close, yet so far away,” is in the situation of the gypsy beggar children which abounded in Segesvár and the roads to and from. Their physical proximation (close, very close - they run up and grab at you, or knock on the bus windows) contrasts with their social distance from us (far, obviously far. I can’t imagine what they think of us).

The evening we spent again in Zetelaka. Dinner was subdued, despite Erzsébet’s attempts to ply us with food and drink. We ended up not going out to the disco as planned, but instead Tara, Tom, Nicole and I sat around upstairs and played cards and drank the two bottles of water they gave us. Yes, we sat around drinking water. It was great. One of the bitchier things we did was go over The Kids and try to figure out who was who. Since none of them will ever read this, and I think it’s funny, here’s the descriptions we came up with:

Josh - surfer who wants to be a doctor
Sean - the one with the beard
Michael - nice kid from Krakow. As smart as the rest put together
Meghan - the Budapest / Romania program
Ursula - trendy beyond belief, maybe not in a good way. Iowan
Aurora - dumb as bricks. Asked, “What’s hay for?” Wears leggings and moccasins
Anya - chubby, sweet face like a cow, and personality & brains to match
Stefanie - quiet, loner, takes a lot of photos
Kelsey - the screecher. Fashion major, wears the tucked jeans
Leah - quiet beatnik. Looks “like a New York poet”
Erika - has a cool scarf. Artsy, in a good way. Bought a porcelain Milka cow
Colleen - small loud Irish girl

Day Five - Communist Buildings, and Nature

Today we drove a lot, up and down mountains, and saw two churches with much embarrassment.

The theme of today was nature, namely in the form of water (the Killer Lake) and earth (the Frags’ Canyon). But before we would get to that, we stopped in Máréfalva to look at the painted gates, in Lövétebánya (I think) to taste the mineral water, and in Csikszereda. Csikszereda is a marvel of communist architecture (much like Szolnok; I felt at home). After we saw the Clapping Square, where crowds were forced to stand for hours and clap for Ceausescu, we moved on to see the Roman Catholic church designed in the new Organic style by Makovecz Imre, a friend of Hajni and András. The fact that it was Palm Sunday was a bit awkward, to say the least. There we were, indifferent group of 20 Americans, standing in their courtyard listening to a lecture while they were trying to conduct a service. It was worse when we got back on the bus and drove up to see the bigger Csíksomlyó church. It was surrounded by hundreds of cars and thousands of people, who stared at us passively as the bus made two passes by the church, driving slowly through the crowd.

Finally, we left the crowds behind and headed nature-wards. We saw the Killer Lake (frozen) and Frags’ Canyon (cold but sunny), but since I’m getting lazier and lazier, I’m going to skip over elaborate description. One is a lake, with a bunch of petrified trees in it, and one is a dramatic rock canyon. You can guess which is which. More important than describing either of them was the fact that Hajni moved to the back of the bus (she hates heights, so driving over a narrow mountain pass isn’t her favorite part of the trip) and we got to talk for a couple hours. So this was definitely my favorite part of the day.

The last night we spent at the Motel Dorina, which is not the hotel the group normal stays at. After a mediocre dinner made better by the Teachers splitting 4 bottles of wine, I got ready for bed, but was sucked into playing cards and drinking with some of the Kids. And I discovered that, who knew, some of them are actually cool people. I mean, with brains and all.

Day Six - Marosvásárhely, and homewards

Today we drove a lot, a lot a lot, and saw some gas stations.

After an even-less-than-mediocre breakfast (veto on the Motel Dorina), we backtracked a few minutes to Marosvásárhely to listen to a speech by the Hungarian vice-mayor of the town. It was interesting, but not worth reiterating here. After the speech, we settled back on the bus for the nearly 12-hour drive back across Romania and Hungary. We stopped in Kolozsvár to drop off Meghan, and in Satu Mare to drop of Ildikó. András and Hajni tried to spice up the journey by teaching us Hungarian folk songs (anyone from last time, remember the cinege-cinege song?) and András gave a quiz about the things we had learned in Transylvania, the prize being a can of authentic Transylvanian beer. But it was a long day.

Finally we made it to Budapest. I spent the night at Jess, came back to Szolnok, canceled my private lessons, and am sitting here now typing these final thoughts.

Speaking of final thoughts on the trip, here they are: Transylvania is the same. It’s beautiful, and I know I will go back again and again. The people were different this time around, and I can’t say for the better. This wasn’t just the fault of the Kids; there just wasn’t the group chemistry of the October group.

But overall, good trip. I’m looking forward to trying again next fall.

1 comment:

jrj said...

Wow, Emily. You are thorough... Perhaps a bitch to people you don't like, but thorough nonetheless...

We're good folk, and we shared experiences together. That makes for good times. In our case, real good times.

have a good time next year, too. i'd encourage you to "mix it up a little," but that might fall on deaf ears. Wanna hike next weekend?