Thursday, August 23, 2007

Cameron, My Partner in Crime

I’m sorry for the length of this post. It’s what happens when I don't write for a week...

As the title of this entry implies, I spend a lot of time with Cameron, the PCV in Timisoara. He happens to be crazy. But that doesn’t bother me much because I am too.

He came over to Lugoj last Wednesday because we had a big town festival, Zilele Lugojului. My gazda family had friends over and we ate a big lunch. Apparently the day is a big deal in town because it’s also the feast day of Saint Mary, and she’s a sort of patron saint for Lugoj. We ate so much food I nearly popped. It was seriously the fullest I think I’ve ever been. There was soup to start out, then a roasted pepper salad, then chicken, then a second course of chicken (prepared slightly differently), then sarmale (a sort of cabbage roll with sour cabbage, ground pork and rice), and then mashed potatoes with pork schnitzel (fried in an egg batter with mushrooms). As if that wasn’t enough, there were also two cakes and an assortment of finger desserts. Oh yes, and all the while we were drinking cognac and tuica (roughly pronounced ‘soo-eeka,’ it’s a plum brandy famous in Romania). Gelu, my host father, was proud to share the cognac and tuica because he makes them himself at home.

After being stuffed nearly unconscious, Cameron and I loosened our belts and wandered into the center of Lugoj to see what was going on with the festival. There were street vendors on every inch of sidewalk, selling everything from cotton candy to woven baskets. The closest thing I can relate it to from home might be a town or county fair, minus the tractor-pulls and country music. Just imagine all the tents and the crowds. They even had some inflatable rides for the kids. There were also two stages set up, one playing rock music, the other playing traditional Romanian folk music. We checked out both stages. At one point they had a blues-rock band that played a bunch of stuff by Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King. I thought Cameron was insane when he bought a kebob (I was still recovering from lunch).

Cameron had to catch a train before the finale, but the night ended with a band from Timisoara taking the stage. They looked like they’d been around since the 80’s (and if I had to guess I’d say they probably hadn’t cut their hair since then). It also looked like they had been living quite well since their heyday, as their stomachs seemed to attest. And, when they started playing, it was quite apparent that they hadn’t written any new material since the 80’s. I didn’t stick around for more than two of their songs. At the very end of the night they shot some fireworks from alongside the river.

Cameron often calls or texts me when something is happening in the Timisoara that I might want to check out. After all, Timisoara is a happenin’ place, as they say (although, I’m sure they say it in Romanian). So, the day following the festival in Lugoj, he texted me that a former PCV from group 19 was back in Timisoara for a visit. He also mentioned that there was going to be a meeting of the International Friends Club, a sort of loose organization for American ex-pats (as I understood it). All of this seemed interesting, so I hopped an afternoon train and got to Timisoara at about three. Cameron met me at the train station and we walked to the city center, where we were to meet Seth—the former PCV. I don’t know the layout of Timisoara very well, so Cameron led the way to Piata Unirii (pronounced ‘Pee-ot-za Oo-near-ee,’ one of the main squares, and a popular place for meeting).

As little as I knew about the city, I did know that the train station and Piata Unirii are located on the same side of the Timis River. So, something seemed wrong when we crossed the river. I brought this to Cameron’s attention, but he assured me that he knew where he was going. We walked and walked, and then we crossed the river again. So, now we were back on the same side we started. I knew this couldn’t be right. After about 30 minutes we did finally get to the piata, but it certainly wasn’t the most direct route. I wouldn’t have minded nearly half as much if I didn’t have the call of nature at the time. The call started about five minutes into the walk, and, with no prospects for relief anywhere in sight, the call grew ever louder. By the time we reached the city center, it might be fair to say that nature was screaming. It was only later that we found out about another route that would take us directly from the train station to the center in about 10 minutes. Upon this discovery I was sure to thank Cameron for our extended journey (my gratitude was peppered with a bit of sarcasm, as you might imagine). But, on the bright side, I suppose our little jaunt, agonizing as it was, did give me a chance to see more of the city…

But enough about that. We met Seth in the piata, and he brought us to his ‘secret hide-out,’ a little bar tucked away in an alley. The place is quite well hidden, it doesn’t have a sign, and I’m not sure it even has a name. We talked with Seth for a while; he was a good source of advice. He worked in the same school as Cameron, so he was able to give an idea of what it’ll be like. After hanging out at the bar for a while, Cameron and I decided to ditch the Int’l Friends meeting. Staying at the bar seemed a better option, after all the atmosphere was cozy, the wait staff were really kooky, and they had a great playlist on. Cameron and I also went to get some Chinese food that day, and it was surprisingly good. It’s kind of crazy to think I’m in the Peace Corps and yet there are Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and Lebanese restaurants, and even a sushi bar.

Cameron and I got together yet again that following Saturday for a day trip to Baile Herculane (Which means Hercules’s Baths). The town is famous for its thermal springs, which are supposed to be therapeutic. They spew out very hot, very stinky water—well over 100 degrees and rich with the unmistakable stench of sulfur. The Romans built baths on the springs, because I suppose the idea of a hot sulfur bath sounded just too good to pass up. Back then hot water was quite a novel affair. I suppose we take it for granted today. I am, however, thankful that sulfur-scented soap never caught on.

The town of Baile Herculane itself is somewhat unkempt, but the landscape in the area is gorgeous. The town is nestled in the Cerna River Valley, and towering on either side are tremendous rock faces, which rise abruptly like the white walls of Gondor (pardon my LOTR reference). Cameron and I walked the entire length of the town. We found a few swimming pools and a statue of Hercules. We heard that some of the baths were free, but we didn’t really find any buildings that obviously advertised as baths. To be quite honest, I wasn’t looking too hard. On a hot summer day the idea of a steamy bath didn’t sound terribly appealing. We walked down the main street from one end to the other. At some points it narrowed to a width that would be a challenge even for a mini. We walked and walked, and it seemed that we were heading outside the city limits. But, all of a sudden we came around a bend in the road and before us stood a massive hotel, Hotel Roman. It looked like something straight out of the 60’s, probably because it was. Cameron needed a bathroom, so we figured this was a good place to stop. While he was using the facilities, I poked around the hotel a bit and wandered into what I think was a Roman Bath museum. I went back to get Cameron and show him what I’d found. However, when we tried to go back, we were stopped by a woman who tried her best to sell us massages. She asked if we had a “program,” by which I assume she was asking if we had an appointment. I asked if we needed a program, at this point still not sure what she was talking about. “Yes, of course you need a program,” she responded. I told her, “never mind, we’re leaving.” Either she didn’t hear me or she couldn’t understand my broken Romanian, because she kept on mumbling something as she went to retrieve her rate plan and schedule booklet to see where she could fit us in. “12:00 is our next opening, is that good for you?” “No thanks, we don’t want massages, we’d rather just visit a bath.” “Oh, ok. How about 1:00?” “No, really, we just want to visit a bath.” “Oh, is that right? You should go upstairs, they don’t do the massage and it’s cheaper.” Hmmm, I was confused. A bath on the second floor? Something seemed fishy about that. The lady probably misunderstood what I was trying to say. We thanked her and left.

Having escaped from that bizarre conversation, Cameron and I continued on down the road. We finally reached the city limits of Baile Herculane. In Romania they make it quite obvious when you’re exiting a town because they have signs with a big red diagonal line through the town’s name. We stopped for a bit to dip our feet in the Cerna River and eat some musli with granola (which is surprisingly difficult to come by around here). Turning back around towards Hotel Roman we decided to check out some of the hiking trails. I had my Lonely Planet Guide with me, which is usually less-than-useful. It mentioned that there’s a trail behind the hotel that leads to a cave (we never found the cave). The rather ambiguous passage said there’s also a trail starting near Hotel Cerna (back in the center of town), but we never found that trail either. Nevertheless, we did take the trail near Hotel Roman. And, although we never found the cave, we did end up coming across a lookout from where we could see the entire valley. It gave us an idea of how far we had walked that day, which was…quite far.

My feet were quite dirty after the hike because I was wearing Tevas. Luckily, on our way back I happened upon a fountain on the side of the street. It didn’t have a valve, so I guess it flows all the time. I slipped off one of my sandals and stuck my foot under the stream of water. MAN, it was HOT! Silly me, somehow I had forgotten that we were in a place with thermal springs. Needless to say, I was a little more attentive in washing my other foot.

I forgot to mention that on the train ride to Baile Herculane Cameron and I met a fellow who had just completed a 400km bike tour that ended in Timisoara. He lives in Galati, all the way on the other side of Romania. Instead of taking his bike back home with him, he left it with someone in Lugoj. Actually, he told us that he didn’t want it anymore and had no intention of ever picking it up again. This piqued my interest because I just so happen to be in the market for a bike, especially a free bike. He gave me the number of the person holding the bike, but, unfortunately, by the time I called her, she had already given it away. Alas, it was worth a shot. Still, I thought it was cool that I should meet a guy on the train and he offers me a bike.

So, what came next? Well, there was Sunday, but I didn’t do much that day.

On Monday I went grocery shopping with my Gazda, exciting right? We bought cereal, and yogurt and fish in a can. I also bought three stamps for sending letters to the United States. And later in the afternoon I hitched a ride to Timisoara with my Gazda; they go there quite often. I jumped at the opportunity to go because, well, I’d get to see Cameron, of course. And, also becuase some PCVs were visiting (Sonny and Gloria, the only married couple in our group). It was nice to spend some time with them and catch up on what they’ve been doing. They originally started out as TEFL volunteers, but they switched sectors to get involved with more business-related activities. The switch made things a bit hectic for them, but it seems like they’re starting to settle in. They were passing through Timisoara on their way to a Peace Corps conference at the seaside. Lucky them…

After leaving Sonny and Gloria at their hotel, I went to the train station. It was about 9:30pm and much to my disappointment I had just missed the Personal train, which is the cheapest type of train. The cheap trains in Romania are slow, dirty, and have an “interesting” clientele, but, they are cheap. And, being a Peace Corps Volunteer, such things take priority. The next Personal was leaving at 1am. I didn’t feel like waiting that long, so I begrudgingly bought a ticket for a Rapid, which is a higher class, faster and more expensive train. I had an hour to kill before the train arrived, so I went out in front of the station and sat on the steps. It wasn’t long before I was joined by some young men who decided to sit next to me. One of them turned to me and asked “speak English?” I nodded. They sort of murmured amongst themselves, I’m sure wondering who I might be. They were certain I was a foreigner, but they were shocked when they found out I spoke (some) Romanian. They asked me all the usual questions, “Do you like Romania?” “why are you here?” “do you like the women in Romania?” After a while my conversation with them waned and another fellow came by, the self-proclaimed vagabond. He wasn’t dressed badly for a young man (pretty cleanly at least) and he was smoking Marlboros. He offered me some of his beer and started talking to me about Lugoj, which is where he grew up. He told me some vague story about being homeless and living in front of the train station. I didn’t believe him. After a while he left because he had to negotiate a price with the “nasu” (a slang term used to refer to train conductors, which translates as ‘godfather’). It’s not totally uncommon for folks here to get on the train without a ticket and simply bribe the nasu.

On Tuesday I had lunch with my gazda. Lily sort of showed me how to make galuste (I have no idea how to spell that one, pronounced ‘ga-loosh-tay,’ they’re a sort of plum doughnut/dumpling). Lily wouldn’t let me get too hands on because I “don’t know how to help.” I am a man after all, what can I say. The lunch was good. We had “stomach soup,” which was a first for me. Afterwards I went to Flavia’s to visit her and check my email. Her mom happened to be cooking placinta when I arrived (it’s pronounced ‘pla-cheen-ta,’ by the way). Placinta is the Romanian equivalent of pie, though its more like what the folks back home might consider pastry with a flakey crust. Isn’t funny how a lot of the content of my blog seems to revolve around food?

After eating placinta I met with Sorana, one of the contacts that the previous volunteer in Lugoj gave me. She’s a student at a university in Timisoara and a very lively, vibrant personality. She and her friends invited me to get ice cream. We went for walk afterwards and I was telling her about my interest in hiking and camping. I inquired about local spots for such activities. She knew of a few. Much to my surprise, she actually called her dad and asked him to take us to one spot. Nearly immediately he picked us up and whisked us off to an inn on the outskirts of Lugoj (I was amazed at how willing her dad was to do this for me, especially on such short notice). Sorana showed me that there were some trails in the forest behind the inn. They look like they’re worth exploring, at least once. The thing is, most of the terrain in and around Lugoj is depressingly flat, and I like the hills. It’s about a 2 hour train ride to get to more mountainous terrain. We stopped at the inn for a drink, apparently the place is also famous for its pancakes (or the Romanian equivalent thereof). On the way home we stopped by a winery. They had a wall with taps from which you could sample their stock. If you liked a wine enough, you could buy it for 5.5 lei/liter (really cheap). I tried and bought a cabernet. I brought it home and shared it with Gelu. Just as we finished it off, some friends of the family stopped by with more red wine (mind you, this was at 11pm). So, naturally, we drank more. From what I’ve experienced so far, it seems Romanians have no qualms about drinking.

So, that brings us to yesterday. I met with Sorana and her friend Claudia and we went swimming in the Timis River. It wasn’t bad, especially because the weather was so hot. I’d been dying to go swimming; it’s always been such a big part of my summer routine (I have many a fond memory of swimming in Mr. Mayor’s pond, the neighborhood swimming hole back home). But, since I came to Romania, I haven’t had too many opportunities to swim (except in Slanic, but that doesn’t count because it was in a salt water lake and wasn’t terribly refreshing). Without swimming, it hasn’t really felt like summer. But, summer finally came; I finally got to swim. It’s supposed to be even hotter today, so we’ll probably go again.

1 comment:

Cameron Wright said...

crazy....crazy as a fox who is crazy!