Romania caught in a transitional time warp

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      High above the medieval town of Sighisoara, in a Transylvanian graveyard, Emma Wagner and I are having a conversation about the virtue of patience. Actually, I am doing most of the talking, given that Emma has been dead for almost a century. But she is, for obvious reasons, a good listener, and it turns out I have a lot to say.

      I am killing time 300 kilometres north of Romania’s capital, Bucharest, waiting for the night train that will carry me west to Budapest in neighbouring Hungary. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sighisoara would normally be an atmospheric place to while away a long wait, but I have arrived in the middle of an autumn rainstorm. A grey veil shrouds the fairy-tale faí§ades, and muddy-brown rivers stream through winding, cobbled alleys. In the central plaza, mushroomlike café umbrellas drip forlornly and mangy dogs sniff around the gutters.

      Lured by the promise of 500-year-old frescoes, I sought refuge in the sturdy church perched on a wooded hill above the town, challenged the long, steep staircase—and found the doors locked. So now, my thin coat soaked and socks bleeding colour onto my feet, I am sheltering under a tree in the adjacent Saxon cemetery, inspired to forbearance by Emma and the generations of Romanians who lie at my feet.

      On the two-hour drive from charming Sibiu to Sighisoara, the bus driver cursed the slightest delay. He took his foot off the accelerator grudgingly, only to avoid hitting road-construction crews, colourfully clad gypsies selling copper stills at the side of the road, and farmers merging horse-drawn carts onto the highway. He was, like the country itself, eager to move ahead but frustrated by crumbling infrastructure and archaic social and economic systems—the legacy of a political past shaped by foreign invaders, military dictators, and the notorious rule of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

      For many who grew up under communism—the generations that learned to speak Russian but never an opinion—the high-speed train of change that has crashed through their prosaic Soviet-era apartments is unsettling and even alarming. But for entrepreneurs such as Razvan Balint, a 43-year-old tour operator in Bucharest, the transformation can’t happen fast enough.

      “When it comes to tourism, we are killing ourselves,” says the ambitious father of two teenage boys. “There has been no PR, no branding. Budapest has more tourists in a year than the entire country of Romania. When you ask people what they know of Romania, they will say, ”˜We heard about the orphanages,’ but that was 17 years ago! It is different here now.”

      And it is. Last January, Romania joined the European Union and money was suddenly available to begin upgrading the country’s failing infrastructure. The cost of living jumped dramatically. Salaries started climbing and unemployment fell. Mercedes and Audis now line the curb outside the Hilton in Bucharest, and a modest apartment goes for almost $375,000, seven times more than just three years ago.

      The historic part of the city—the last architecturally significant neighbourhood left after Ceausescu’s rabid destruction of old Bucharest—is being aggressively reclaimed for tourism; everywhere, glorious Beaux Arts buildings are under repair. And according to local rumour, even Disney has its eye on Romania—in particular Bran Castle, home of Count Dracula.

      But practically speaking, Romania is still in a time warp, caught between one century and the next, and it will be years before the transition is complete. The average monthly salary is still well under $500. In restaurants, the food is largely brown, bland, and expensive, the lighting often fluorescent. In stores, the limited merchandise is plain and frequently poorly made. Décor is decidedly downscale, and service verges on surly. For tourists, it can be difficult to communicate, use a credit card, find a bathroom, travel independently—even purchase souvenirs. Refreshingly, Romania has not yet become a caricature of itself.

      Like the country itself, the train station at Sighisoara is still not entirely accommodating of tourists. From the parking lot, it resembles a prison bunker, illuminated by the eerie blue-white glow of overhead spotlights. At the ticket booth, a dishevelled old drunk lists past the short queue, flinging invective at the waiting passengers.

      It’s a long walk through dimly lit, mildly claustrophobic corridors and up several steep flights of stairs to the bleak train platform, where there’s nowhere to sit except the edge of my suitcase. A garbled announcement explains something in Romanian. The departure time comes and goes with no train in sight.

      It’s near midnight when the train arrives, 40 minutes late. By plane, it’s about an hour from Bucharest to Budapest; by train, it’s 12. On the night train, there is little to see in the way of scenery because it is so dark outside. But lying in the top bunk of a sleeping compartment, rocked into a comfortable half-sleep, I have the luxury of time to play back images from the last few days and transfer them into my long-term memory. I’m dreaming about the beautiful bride I saw in old Bucharest, remembering her princess parasol and Mona Lisa smile, when there is a sharp knock at the door. My watch glows: 3:10 a.m.

      In the bunk below mine, a young New Yorker named Irma is oblivious to the summons. While I sat in the rain in a graveyard yesterday, she stayed indoors and sampled plum brandy. She has fallen into a black hole of sleep, and for the second time in 24 hours I find myself talking to the dead. I reach for my coat and passport and roll off the edge of my bunk to greet the border guards.

      The fellow at the door is young and polite, and goes to great lengths to maintain eye contact and avoid seeing anything except that my face matches my photo. In the corridor, another guard shines a bright flashlight into the overhead roof panels. Outside, still more guards are shining lights under the train. There have been problems, we’ve heard, with stowaway Albanians on this route.

      Eventually, with all passports stamped and any non-paying passengers ousted, the train shunts forward a few metres, out of Romania but not yet into Hungary. I slide the window blind up a fraction, and peer out at a desolate place of concrete and graffiti. I close it and climb back into the bunk.

      In a little while, we will rouse ourselves once again to hand passports over to Hungarian guards. And then we will drift a few more hours and wake to a bagged breakfast of fruit, juice, chocolate-filled pastries, and self-heating canned coffee. We will share photos of our husbands and children, and wish we hadn’t drunk so much plum brandy, and brush our teeth twice before we meet Budapest.

      But for now we will wait, biding our time in this no man’s land between countries, between centuries, wondering about the adventure to come.

      Access: The writer travelled as a guest of the Romanian National Tourism Office. For general tourist information, see and No visa is required for Canadians travelling to Romania or Hungary. Eurail ( ) has a number of pricing options for train travel between Bucharest and the rest of Europe.




      Nov 27, 2009 at 2:28pm

      criticize it more, it's better than canada in many aspects. get the damn facts right and then talk about romania.


      Feb 14, 2010 at 2:22pm

      You obviously had a pretty shitty tour guide or had no idea where you were going. That's like someone touring the downtown east side of Vancouver and assuming all of Vancouver is like that. Bucarest has some of the nicest shops and restaurants.