Friday, I flew to Romania. Well, not quite.
You would think by now, I know how to schedule connections — loosely — but somehow I talked myself into allowing only an hour and five minutes to go from the Air Berlin flight to Vienna, to an Austrian Air flight to Bucharest. The Air Berlin flight was on time, and I would have made it, except that in Berlin, the check-in lady said that my 11-kilo carry-on luggage was too far over the limit of 8 kilos, and would have to be checked. I never understand what they are driving at. Does luggage in the hold have less mass than luggage in the overhead rack, and thereby lower the takeoff weight? I should have argued, should have put everything that would fit into my vest pockets (I have done this before on British Midlands) because things carried on your person count no more than atmospheric helium. But I was being naive and not considering that an hour later, when I got to the end of the flight, it would be half again as long before my suitcase trundled around on the carousel, and by that time, boarding to the flight to Romania had closed.
I lingered in the airport a while, texting with Dave and talking to various Austrian Airlines and Tourist people. They would not give me credit for the flight not taken, and they wouldn’t give any discounts on the remaining flights that day. Proceeding to Bucharest any time before Saturday afternoon would have been around 350 Euros, but going on Saturday night about half that, and Dave found a hotel for 51 euros, so the cheapest recovery was to spend the night in Vienna and go to the Natural History Museum in the morning and everything in Romania gets pushed a day into the future. Two days, since my friend in Budapest insists I stay with his family two nights because he is planning a barbecue and inviting his parents.
So I chose Vienna. The only other good thing about the airport was a little baby who was full-on break-dancing. Shoulder spinning and all that. I mean baby, too, when he was done, he crawled back to his mama on hands and knees. He was white, if that’s part of the story.
I took the OBB to the “Urban Resort”. That hotel is a ways from downtown, near the Palace of Schönbrunn, but easily reachable using the same train ticket on the tram that takes you on the airport train to Vienna Mitte. It’s also a block from a perfect little homely restaurant where the menu is written by hand and translated by the waitress because you probably couldn’t read her handwriting anyway. I had schnitzel soup, which is like wonton soup except you started with a long wonton and then sliced it. Some reviewers call it Duke’s Inn and some call it Herzog’s Wirtshaus but it has a good reputation. Most of the customers seemed to be from the neighborhood.
In the morning I went to visit the Venus of Willendorf. She lives in a darkened, downlit, room with a couple of other paleolithic period pieces. The room is in the center of one of the world’s great natural history museums. You need days to even glance into all the rooms, but I only had a few hours. The ground floor is a massive collection of rocks, displayed mostly on rows on shelves but a few of the major ones free standing or in glass cases on the walls. I like the videos of the breakup of Gondwanaland and Laurasia, and the continents that preceded them and followed them. It’s hard to imagine the amount of data that has been gathered over the centuries, to deduce this comprehensible model, sorting out “the leaves of a library that has been repeatedly looted and burnt,” as H.G. Wells put it.
The dinosaurs in the dinosaur room are now animatronic. The Venus of Willendorf has a pixellated head, in the modern style. Nobody cares about genitals any more but they do pay obeisance to an antique vision of privacy, violated from every angle a thousand times a minute. The moderns would also think she could stand to lose some weight, but such voluptuousness was quite a luxury where she was brought up.
The interpretations of ancient artifacts always educates you as to your own times. When I was visiting Natural History Museums as a child, the collections of broken tools that seem to gather around sites of human habitation (such as your garage) were described as being, of course, gifts to the gods; today they are known to be storage areas for recycling.
Nobody in museums says the obvious about the function of human images such as Venus, even though the art world is starting to cotton to it. We had seen a big room of teenage drawings of Evgenij Kozlov, in the Venezia Biennale of 2013, which were all of naked women doing things to him and he was pretty frank, in the museum cards, about what he used the drawing process for.
Or maybe Venus has a knit cap that she has pulled down over her head for a bank job. In some Mad Max future that explanation will make the most sense. Anyway, I went back to the airport and got on a TAROM plane to Bucharest.
My friend Bogdan was at the airport. Also at the airport, was a white van that said, “Nanoindentation scratch and tribology testers”. (That’s English, I think.)
Dave and I had met Bogdan during the series of turn-of-the-century parties that Justin and Spitkiss organized. He was one of the first to give up on the American Empire as being no place to build a future. Eventually, they almost all left, to Germany, Colombia, Romania…even Justin has permanent residency in Sweden now, though his stuff is at our house. This is what the Americans wanted, right? Doctors, lawyers, engineers, all working for other people?
There is a cadre of people you really owe something to. Family, and a few people you have decided are like family. And just beyond that curtilage lie all these people who are really interesting, but you are not able to do a lot of good for them in life, beyond wish them the best, and keep in touch so that they can tell you of their accomplishments, and those of their kids, and dogs, and the autonomous procedures they have specified so that they may write themselves.
Such is my regard for the people I met fifteen years ago at Justin’s parties at our house, who have scattered to Romania, Germany, Colombia…I always feel a bit like a fifth wheel when I visit but they are so entertaining.
Bogdan and I talked until about two in the morning and then continued on Sunday. His parents came for the barbecue on Sunday afternoon. We didn’t talk so late on Sunday night because he and Lumi have work in the morning. But they need to get used to irregular sleep hours, because a baby will join their household shortly.
On Monday morning, as I was preparing to go to Gara de Nord for a train to Iasi, a deus ex machina descended in the form of a WhatsApp conversation that revealed that Stef was in Bucharest and heading home to Iasi that minute. So instead of going to the train station, I took a taxi to the parking lot of the Metro Voluntari station and got in Stef’s car and he drove 6 hours to Iasi, and we talked the whole way.
I can’t possibly reproduce these conversations. If there is anything we said that needs to be made public, they will post them on their facebook pages. I know it is the fashion to rate your friends as if they were restaurants and describe them to the public, but we are not that far from the era of death squads and I’m not sure I want to give Richard Spencer or the Iron Guards any easy information.
Iasi is in the grip of a baby boom. Everybody that grew up together there — Andrei, Radu, Butza, Stef — is about to become a dad. They don’t go out to clubs as a way of entertaining now, since their wives aren’t drinking, and in the case of Andrei, there is already a tiny feisty baby in the house to be more entertaining than anything that happens in college town brew pubs. I stayed in Iasi until Thursday night. The downside of this uplifting visit, is that I didn’t get to see my friends in Craiova. Next time. Having lost two days already — one in Vienna, and the plan to stay one night at Bogdan’s was dumb to begin with — I see these guys once every two years at most, really it should be more than brunch.
Nothing terribly eventful happened. Iasi is the Real Romania. I tagged along to a car dealership where Stef had something done to his car. It was flashy. There is a restaurant upstairs. We went to see the house he is having built in a new suburb. Everything is brick. No earthquakes there. We spent an hour at a tax office where Roxana had to file a form stating that she wasn’t a bad person. One day we had Papanaci at Restaurant Oscar for dessert. Never order that with less than three people. It’s like a gulab jamun without kewra syrup but replaced with one cowful of cream and a bale of sugar just because.
Stef got approached by a policeman in a park one afternoon, who explained that even though they knew that all the No Dogs Allowed signs were gone from the park, he was still supposed to know not to take his dog there. There’s a reason why the best cynical authors hail from Eastern Europe.
I wrote some post cards. Fanel took me around town one afternoon, including a market underneath a bridge where grape growers were selling large numbers of grapes to home wine makers. It is still the case that most of the wine I drink in Romania comes from two liter coke bottles, although Bogdan did buy some bottles at a shop, before the barbecue. He and his parents aren’t pregnant, after all. All shopping trips in Romania are conducted the way civilized people shop: one store, one product. Supermarkets are barbarian. My favorite store in Bucharest was the bakery. No name, a line out the door. Fantastic breads. I got a pretzel for a leu, about a quarter, US. I had been feeling like a pretzel since the airport in Vienna, except I could not justify paying 3 euros 50 for it. I have ongoing discussions about this with people who think I should be rich enough to not worry about paying 4 dollars US for a pretzel. I don’t see it this way. Selling food for that much money is a sin, and using your wealth to participate in sin is like buying an indulgence. It was 500 years ago this Halloween, that it was most forcefully pointed out, how wrong this is.
Thursday night, I got on a train to Budapest. Everyone is helpful in these projects. It was uneventful, unlike some of the other travel connections this trip. The train change in Deva, a small Transylvanian town, was gray. Much time to look at concrete disintegrate.