At what point do you stop trying? At what point is it acceptable to cut your losses and walk away, saying this isn’t for me? I’ve always struggled with this balance, I’m so aware of the imperfection and subjective nature of a single person’s perspective on the world. In a world that seems to teach blame as the only way, I find I sometimes struggle to protect myself while staying open, unblaming and unpolarised.
Romania was challenging for me. For both of us I think. Now as I look back over my memories of Romania I see the factors that contributed to the challenges, and I can see many positives too. But at the time many of the positives were lost on me. It was a tough experience.
We’re in the third day of our journey across Romania. We’ve already decided to get out as fast as possible and with the benefit of hindsight I later realise that this may have been a mistake. For now though, we’re in the process of paying for this unwitting mistake.
I’m stood in the garage forecourt raging, gloves strewn on the floor moments before and every colourfully foul expletive I can muster from my memory banks to use against this country and its drivers is being emitted from my mouth in a constant stream of profanity. I’m literally screaming. People are looking. I don’t care.
It’s the continuation of a rage that began a kilometre or so up the road when the murderous idiot in the car decided he needed the spot of the road I was on more than I needed my life. I’d have happily yielded it to him. No passive aggressive British closing of gaps or holding of ground here. I’m aware I’m vulnerable and play by the rules of the road we’re on, not the ones that we came from. But he came from several cars behind and he came fast. A split second of looking forward instead of backwards and I’m still not sure how I’m here. The trials of the last two days, while a world away from enjoyable, have helped me sprout eyes in the back of my head. Eyes which I’m pretty sure are the only reason I’m still upright on the bike now and have the luxury of swearing with a fury that feels as if it will consume me. Of course, that gratitude is lost on me currently and it’ll be a little while until I’m able to connect to it again.
Mickey looks on. A couple of times he takes a half step forward and looks like he’ll say something. Each time he stops, wisely deciding to let me burn myself out. Through the berserker mist that’s gripping me I’m vaguely aware of an expression on his face that isn’t familiar. He’s unsure, maybe a little afraid, out of his depth. Later – much later – when we can laugh a little again, he’ll tell me that he’s never seen me like that before. It’s true. I don’t lose my temper often.
The last two days running up to this moment have gone from bad to worse. The first day from the Hungarian border to Deva had been through amazing countryside on roads snaking through valley floors then up, higher into the hills. But I’d soon learnt to disregard the sights totally as I focussed intently on the road in front, behind and on anything that might be coming in the near future. So far, I’d rounded numerous corners to come eye to eye with an oncoming driver fully on my side of the road. Thankfully, our bikes aren’t big or fast and the cars were quick to respond and move over. That wasn’t the scary bit. The scary bit was that most of the danger was coming from behind. Overtaking cars seemed to have absolutely no awareness of safe passing distance, blind corners, oncoming traffic or indeed anything. I don’t expect people to look after my safety, but it makes me feel extremely uneasy when they don’t seem to have a regard for their own. How can you make predictions on a person’s behaviour then?
At one point late in the first day we headed through the longest stretch of roadworks I’ve ever seen. One car had clearly had enough and took to overtaking five or so queuing cars just as the lights changed to green, forcing himself back in at the front just in time as the road went down to single carriageway. He jumped the next red light completely. He’s obviously had enough of the waiting and he wasn’t getting any younger. Maybe by now he’s not getting any older either. He made the boy racers in front of us look like cautious drivers. After all, they were only vying with each other for first place at 60 mph in the 20 mph roadwork- and blind bend ridden mountain pass. Later a woman passed us and several cars in front at a good speed, hitting the substantial gravel ramp and almost losing her back end. She never slowed her speed for a second.
We arrived late in the evening in the city of Deva to be treated to youths on mopeds riding up the wrong side of a dual carriage-way main street as if it was perfectly normal. Wearily, we pulled in to the hotel we’d booked earlier in the day after realising there were no campsites in this part of Romania. It was clear that Romania played by different rules but so far none of it seemed malicious so we just needed to adapt.
The second day things got worse though. We were heading for the Transfârâgâşân a famed stretch of mountain road with hairpin after hairpin that was something of a Mecca for bikers. By the middle of the day we’d abandoned the idea. The trans-european highway we were on was populated by gypsy carts, articulated trucks and everything in between and our speed meant that most things wanted to pass us. Not enjoyable but nothing we couldn’t get used to.
And then we came a cropper. Pulling up prematurely due to a badly marked temporary junction I edged forward to the real junction to get a better view. Mickey, behind me and keeping an eye on a car that was in a strange road position and twitching, assumed I had set off and by the time he returned his gaze forward and realised I’d stopped again it was too late to avoid me. Both bikes went down as we jumped free. The traffic never hesitated. As disappointing as this was I didn’t blame them, we were walking and OK. But my mood took a turn for the worse when a car drove past hooting laughter out of the window with the clear intention that we should hear it. Kick a person when they’re down…not something that usually recommends a place to me. Still, I battled with my developing view of Romania. One fool does not a country make.
We carried on, at one point I was forced onto the hard shoulder by a passing truck and didn’t think I’d get back out again before the hard shoulder ran out thanks to the passing cars taking their opportunity. I was losing my battle. The breaking point came I think when we tried to find a place to stay that night, taking the decision to curtail the day’s travel prematurely for the sake of happiness. We followed signs for a pension, stopping to ask those curious onlookers who weren’t fast enough to run back into their houses when they saw us coming. We found the pension and waited on the steps for the owners to return. They did and “no room” was the extent of our dismissal. No smile, no warmth, no shrug. Just those two words followed by a dismissal that was absolute. The bone-deep weariness and helplessness that settled upon me was debilitating. I wanted out of this place but had no way of getting out.
Eventually we found our way to a roadside motel that we’d passed a little while back. The staff treated us as if we were invisible. Far past the point of caring by now, I spoke in English and bluntly. We chased them until they were forced to acknowledge us at which point we were given the keys to a room and again dismissed in a way that brooked no argument. I didn’t care. By this point I didn’t want chit chat with anyone, just four walls and a door to shut this place out for a few hours. We ate a meal there, letting out a dry chuckle as I read the menu that informed us of the legendary warm welcome we could expect. We slept. We woke with hearts that were slightly less heavy than the previous day. We decided to get out by the most direct route possible, forget the Transfârâgâşân, it was probably madness to try it on slow bikes anyhow. I still regret that we missed it but I know I would not have appreciated it then. Better to leave it as a lure for next time.
And so, we set out. The roads became a bit more windy, traffic speed and density decreased a little and the countryside took our breath away. We travelled next to a river bordered by lush green mountains for some time and I began to relax again. And then the driver who decided he needed to be past us more than I needed my life happened. Over the following hour by the roadside, I let the rage drain from me, we ate, we drank. The beggar who approached us with his hand out as we set off again caused me to snort cynically. He must have the worst luck in the world to try and elicit charity from me at what must be my least charitable life moment. Sad to say, but I gave him a withering look and scornfully revved my engine as I moved off.
The road brought further insights. We entered a 50 kph zone. A few metres down the roadworks sign informed us that the maximum speed was 70 kph, still more metres down the road we were informed we were now leaving the 50kph zone. At least I began to understand why people disregarded the speed limit signs. Despite this, and despite the danger from behind I couldn’t stop my habitual slowing for built up areas. It wasn’t long before I had cause to be grateful for this persistent habit. We entered a town, and the cars behind me drew closer. As we rounded a blind bend, two children not more than 10 years of age dashed in front of me. I wondered for the next few miles and beyond whether they would have seen tomorrow had I not been holding up the traffic. The painted outlines of bodies on the road seemed to mock the thought of it.
We hit the next town and filled up. “We need to change something up” I said to Mickey. Our current approach wasn’t working and I felt there must be something we could do. We agreed to get onto the smaller roads. Mercifully, all changed instantly and I could breathe again. The traffic disappeared, the people smiled, some even returned waves. It lifted me, as a small kindness and morsel of food would lift a starved street dog.
We stopped that night in Caracal. A kindly man approached to ask us if he could help as we searched for a hotel. He was the first person who had spoken to us of his own volition in three full days. He invited us to his house after we checked in to the hotel. I’m saddened to say that I had no more to give at that point and we declined the offer. I wish it were otherwise but we were spent.
The question that kept nagging me was this: “what are we doing wrong?” So many people we know told us how wonderful Romania was, how much they’d enjoyed it. Had they tried harder than me? How had we had such a different experience of it? Was I at fault, was I to blame? It niggled and nagged relentlessly until I remembered the plus points.
Keeping sight of the positives
We crossed into Romania in a jovial mood, bantering with the border guards and gratefully taking the directions they helped us with and even coaxing one into having his picture taken with us (on the express instruction not to post on social media). The girl behind the counter at a fuel stop giving a shy but friendly smile when I attempted Romanian. Two small girls in a car waving at us as they pulled out of the garage forecourt and again when we passed them in town, their father joining in this time. The final time they passed us as we pulled over to check the map by the roadside, the car tooted enthusiastically at us and all arms waved wildly out of the windows, big grins on turned faces as the car passes. The young guys in another garage enthused by the fact we were on British plates. And the friendliness from everyone who passed on the morning we left Caracal. The border guards on the Danube going out of their way to give us shade and change money for us so we could eat as we waited to board the ferry and the lorry driver who laughingly gave us a couple of drinks for later on the ferry across to Bulgaria. And the stunning scenery, from the river valley floor, to the top of the mountain where the tarmac ran out and the sights stretched as far as the eye could see.
Romania challenged us greatly. And that’s OK. It’ll happen on a trip like this. My impression was that this is a nation well used to looking after itself, lending an air of harshness and a reserve that was difficult for a passing stranger to penetrate. Nothing was asked of us but likewise nothing was given. Interactions in restaurants and hotels had a robotic feeling about them, as if staff had been drilled on the politeness foreigners expect but the routine was at odds with normal culture. On the rare occasion we broke through to the underlying warmth, once business was concluded it was gone again and we were back to square one. Perhaps we were unlucky in our interactions. Perhaps early trials put us in a negative frame of mind that was merely reflected back at us. Perhaps we didn’t try as hard with the language or the interactions as we thought we did. Or perhaps we simply were taken unawares by a different culture. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
I no longer blame myself for the bad experience we had. It was what it was, I don’t think anyone was to blame. And I think our experience was as real and as subjective as anyone else’s experience. It’s not a bad lesson to be reminded of, that everyone’s experience is unique to them and a particular point in time. It is not a fixed and absolute fact. No country could be defined by a single, simple description. Life contains so many shades of ever-shifting grey. And so I take care to remember the positives alongside the negatives, ensuring these faces and events are not eclipsed by the hardship we struggled through on the roads of Romania.
Still, I feel I am missing something. I feel that I stand on one side of an invisible wall that is no less impenetrable for its invisibility. A stranger on the outside, trying in vain to catch a glimpse of inside. Would I go back to Romania? I think so, one day. I suspect things I could do next time to see the best of the country. Maybe on a different bike, or by different roads. Almost certainly with different expectations and a different attitude. I think I would like to try and experience it in another time. One day.
See our pictures from Romania here