Romania, May 2016
Palinka for breakfast, that’s something you don’t see every day. About as often as a free hotel room with a private bathroom at the foot of Dracula’s castle. Although, Dracula’s castle is really more of a watered down Halloween tourist attraction, but still. We haven’t slept and eaten so well since the start of our journey roughly one month ago. What brought us here was a bit of luck, but even more so the incredible hospitality of Maia and her parents, who are running a pension here. The quality of our accommodation probably only went up since we arrived in Romania.
Not long before, we were taken in by Kristzian in Cluj-Napoca, who was our couch surfing guest in Berlin roughly one year ago. Krisztian was looking after the two bedroom apartment of a befriended couple, as well as their ten cats. Which makes it even more thoughtful that he was willing to take care of us as well! Still, we decided to sleep on the kitchen floor, the only cat-free room of the house, because a war was going on among the cats. The two inhabitants of the smaller room didn’t get along with the other eight inhabitants of the larger room (not counting humans). It made us come up with a cat-deterring strategy for crossing the apartment: open the front door, sneak in, close the front door. Shove a couple of cats to the side, open the kitchen door, jump in and quickly close the door again. The same procedure for the bathroom. Made matters got worse, when we would want to go from the small room with the two cats to the larger room. Here we had to avoid cats from either side to slip through to prevent a hissing contest from breaking out. It made our visit to the botanical garden, its fresh air, and the time we spent with our private guide Kristzian all the more enjoyable.
After two nights we were on our way to the “gipsy village” Huedin, hitch hiking all the way down to our planned stay on a small farm in Rachitele. There wasn’t much traffic going from Cluj, as the city was practically deserted due to the orthodox Easter sunday. Eventually a small van picked us up. The friendly driver was making his way to Belgium. Roughly 2.000 km. without stopping. Luckily for us he was still at the start of his journey. He tried to sooth our mind, by showing us his 2 liter coke bottle, filled with strong coffee.
From Huedin we got a ride to Calata fairly quickly from a bunch of fun energetic guys on a weekend trip to the hills. For Romanian standards, we had surprisingly little competition hitch hiking. In Cluj you’ll find up to 20 people in one spot, waiting to be picked up. There’s also plenty of elderly women, well over 70 years old, waiting for a ride on the side of the road with their grocery bags. A thumb in the air seems to be over doing it around here. According to Kristzian a simple downward hand gesture is all you need for a short distance ride.
From Calata we were taken in by a couple on holidays. They wanted to take a look at the water fall in Rachitele. He was Romanian, living in England, she was Hungarian, living in Romania. We were surprised to hear that our driver gave up his career as a priest in Romania to work as a plumber in London. The reason: “wages in Romania are shit”. His Christian background came shining through though, when he tried to bring us straight to the farm. Driving us with bravoure and determination, in the squeaking and struggling Mazda of his girlfriend, up the steep rocky slopes of the wrong hill. We then decided to convince him that we would also be able to reach the farm by foot, which we regretted not long after. After the relatively light way down the wrong hill, we were left with our back packs and a 3 km climb straight up the right mountain. At the farm, preparations were being made to celebrate Easter. Here we met Guillaume, a friendly guy from France, who took part in a 2 month long shepherd program. He took his much needed socializing breaks on Sunday evenings at the farm and had hand picked a lamb, that was now slowly simmering in the oven. Our efforts to try and eat mostly vegetarian, were immediately out the door yet again. Hard labor was required on the farm and for that you need to eat well. The food was excellent, although we missed preparing our own food as well. There was a “totalitarian regime” in place, in the words of the self-proclaimed sheriff of the farm, who took responsibility of the house and courtyard, while his girlfriend ruled over the garden and kitchen. Besides our work in the garden and around the house, which was a lot of fun and taught us a lot about ecological gardening and traditional construction work, we also learned a valuable lesson: “give the people Palinka and they will work hard forever”. Not only the Palinka, but also the fun nights with the other servan… erm volunteers with camp fires and guitar music made our stay in Rachitele a wonderful experience, from which we’ll cherish many positive memories. We admire how the owners of the farm shared their knowledge with all the helpers and how they built strong relations within their local community. One of our daily tasks was to bring milk from the elderly farmer Abraham, who would invite us in for a Palinka, or two. Even though Abraham had mostly eyes for his female visitors, Jeroen would get a sip of Palinka as well.
A visit to the market in Huedin was a highlight as well. A small group of beautifully dressed Roma girls, who spent their holidays from Ireland in one of the palaces in Huedin, invited us to take their pictures and were curious to learn more about our journey. Shortly after we got talking with some more people in the “gypsy bar”. We played music on a horribly out of tune keyboard and were invited for beers by a Romanian guy. Drinking beer, or two, at 11:30 am with nothing but an early morning cereal for breakfast might not have been the brightest idea, but we had a very nice conversation in Spanish, our largest common denominator language wise. Once again, the difficult position of the gypsies in Romania became apparent. Even though gypsies and other Romanians appeared to live relatively peacefully together in Huedin, we have yet to meet anyone from Romania who doesn’t speak negatively about gypsies. There doesn’t seem to be a solution in sight, but the gypsies we met and briefly played music with in Huedin were very friendly to us! At first we struggled to call the Sinti and Roma gypsies, but as we’ve mostly heard from them that it doesn’t matter so much, as long as you’re friendly, we’ll stick with the term for now.
We’ve already left Huedin far behind and are laying in our comfortable hotel beds. We’re very thankful to the guy in Unirea who declined our request to camp in his garden, which made us hitch hike further down the road, where Maia and her father and brother (both called Constantin) picked us up and took us in.