Back in Romania to look for more stories about transhumance, I took a few days out to visit friends in the Maramureș. I went by bus from Cluj, choosing the humble charabang for all sorts of reasons including the cost – the three hour journey to Baia Mare came to 30 Ron, about £6. Going by bus is a good way of meeting people and is ‘hands free’ – I long since gave up wanting to drive in Romania. The trains aren’t as much fun as they used to be either although Romania’s rail network covers a lot of the country – after too many delays and mysterious shuntings I’ve grown tired of being treated like a dumb animal in transit.
Having found a seat on a bus that left at 11, I scribbled a few notes, wanting to record that delicious sensation of being free to roam again. Above my head, the radio clattered incessantly, making it hard to concentrate.
The first few days in a foreign country are special because everything seems noteworthy, even humdrum details such as the way people hold themselves, the shapes of buildings, the sounds of traffic and the way streets smell. Even though I’ve been to Romania many times, it’s a few months since I was here last. The season has changed and so has the world. I wanted to see if Romania had changed too.
After flying in from Luton it was a delight to wander around the inner city getting my bearings and observing, without any pressure to comment or react. Free of that stress, there was so much to take the eye. There was the man selling Hungarian chimney cake from a stall on the corner of Strada Potaissa and Strada Universităţii. He was still there after dark even though it was a freezing November night. The coals from his brazier were still glowing. Presumably he was going to sleep in the neat little yellow shed on wheels that was parked up alongside.
Opposite the mobile cake stall are the university’s faculty buildings, and down a quiet lane to the right as you face the city centre, the rather dour Hungarian Reformed church, and a theological college dating from the 17th century. It looks mellow and modest among the more strident university departments, for whose architects prettiness was presumably a sign of weakness. Many of the older buildings have arched stone entrances which are tall and wide enough for a horse-drawn coach, and their fortress-like wooden gates were open today, revealing sunlit inner courtyards.
Cluj is a cosmopolitan place these days. Not only does it have its Hungarian, Saxon, Romanian and, dare I say it, Roma history, but it’s a melting pot of other nationalities attracted by its university’s good reputation and low fees. Foreign students have been coming here since communist times but mainly from countries sympathetic to the regime, such as China, Syria and Nigeria. Now its student population is just as likely to be British, French or Dutch and with its international film festivals, music and restaurants, it’s possible to talk of Cluj fusion* while the city hasn’t entirely lost its ethereal central European character. In fact it’s that openness to so many cultures that gives it its edge and should protect it against the bigotry and demagoguery that have brought Romania down in the past.
And because of the students, there are bookshops – yes, they still exist! I fell for Librarium Book Corner, close to La Piazzetta cafe (itself a mesmerising space created in an old alleyway that wiggled between medieval buildings and is now roofed in glass). But I digress. Lured by the bookshop’s labyrinthine interior I climbed its wide, wooden stairs and found more rooms lined with tiered shelves that were full of fascinating titles. Choosing one fat vol about the history of violence in the Romanian language, I followed a drift of browsing customers to a room with sofas where I sat and mopped up 20 well written pages about the provocative phraseology used in political pamphlets by Romania’s patriotic poet and essayist, Mihai Eminescu. With crisp, convincing examples, the author explained how Eminescu’s inflammatory words were fuel for demagogues like the Iron Guard’s terribly misguided leader, Codreanu. After being deluged by Donald Trump’s verbal muck-spreadings, reading this dispassionate analysis of another consummate manipulator was balm to the tormented brow. There was no escaping the piped music but at Librarium it was almost acceptable since it came via an independent, audience-funded radio station whose name might have been Paradise. Well, this is Romania. How good it would be to study here, if you had the means and a good pair of ear plugs.
Later that evening I went to a book launch in the same place. The author was a young (20 something?) woman with cropped hair called Lavinia. Her book was a novel called Interior Zero. It wasn’t her first – she had already had poetry and short stories published. The room was packed by the time Lavinia, looking by turns haughty and very nervous, and two not quite as young male critics, were called to order by the proprietor who galloped through an introduction and flung the meeting open. The first critic told us Lavinia had a unique prose style, minimalist and at the same time realist, and that she was definitely a writer to watch. He spoke carefully and respectfully and had obviously done his homework. The second critic was more gung-ho. He said he hadn’t actually prepared anything but that it might not be inappropriate to compare Lavinia’s writing to Dostoevsky’s. Lavinia went scarlet. Then the first or second critic – I was enthralled but struggling to keep up – said it was as if she had moved from writing socialist poetry to capitalist prose. One of them asked her why she concentrated so much on themes of escape. I could sense her panic. She couldn’t really say. Both critics kept asking her where she got her inspiration from but to all their questions Lavinia’s answer was to laugh and answer that she didn’t know, her ideas just came from somewhere behind her head and poured out in front – and she mimed how it happened, very eloquently, with both hands. After that I was intrigued and would have bought all of her books except that I was saving my dosh for bus rides.
Cluj is a lovely city and it’s full of astonishing architecture, but graffiti artists have been out in force, spraying restored facades like randy cats. Their messages are ugly to look at and so mixed that I couldn’t interpret them – are they aggressive or humorous or both?
The bus station is like a thumbnail of another kind of Romania: a hub of nervous expectation for the modest traveller, rather down at heal and devoid of romanticism unless you think buses are beautiful. If you do, you can begin with the dreams. Pinned to some of the pillars holding the shelter up were notices of destinations way beyond my current scope, promising wider horizons. One showed the timetable for a bus to Chișinău. Three years ago in another unprepossessing autogara I had seen one to Alep – Aleppo. Syria was already a war zone. Was the bus going to swim?
There was dream potential in the people too: what sort of aspirations could you read in the faces of the guys shouldering anonymous, boulster-shaped parcels, or in the bulging suitcases bound with string?
What drives the imaginations of the casual young people zipped up in tight puff jackets (the girls made up, manicured and coiffed to perfection), or the braided Roma maiden touting something in a slim blue cardboard box (is it scent or a pregnancy test?), or the Maramureș countrywomen in their village gear of full, knee-length skirts and thick black tights, matching headscarves and fake fur waistcoats, or the middle-aged women in black slacks and sharp jackets, the comfortable older men in flat caps, or even the poor old chap who was sitting in the waiting room, bundled up against the cold and talking to himself? He had a blind stick and when he got up and began blundering around the room trying to find the exit, a motherly woman in a red woollen hat left her luggage to guide him out.
Momentarily ashamed because I hadn’t ‘got it’ about his blindness straight away and thought he was demented, I too got up and left.
And half an hour later, we’re off to Baia Mare in the Fany omnicharger (country bus). With the radio, it’s a case of like it or lump it, so I decide to get used to the chattering, letting it morph into an artficial heartbeat, while snuggling into my seat and letting my mind float away under the mackerel sky.
In a gnat’s hop (so much for romance) we have left the city and its shouting roadside clutter behind, and there are incidental bulrushes, wasteland-grazing cows (are they small or far away?), an elaborate wooden wayside crucifix that looks lost despite its nifty roof and beyond them all, keeping pace with us, the chalky, winter-petrified hills.
And now (11.52) we are further along the road and the thrill of this quick passage north kicks in. Curious details catch my eye. There is the dark blue shirt hanging from a tall pole outside a humble farmstead. Half hidden by a clump of willows, it seems to have grown from the trees. Is it an expression of a mad, artistic will or a sign that someone has died?
*Music buffs will snort here. Fusion was probably invented in Transylvania centuries ago, thanks to the melodic influences from Gypsy, Jewish, Hungarian and many other sources. See also Lucy Castle and Not the Maramureș Tunebook
Next time on Sheep Walk: meeting a human rights activist who helps the Roma, talking to one of Maramureș’s most intelligent promoters, and conversations about philosophy, and how Romania is different, with my friend and retired small-holder Ioana.