Sighisoara, Romania - (map)
I settled into an excellent room in Sighisoara, happy to rest in a peaceful little medieval town for a few days after too many days spent traveling.
The town's slow paced calmed me down perfectly, asking nothing from me than to admire its well preserved surroundings. I took a stroll through the bright streets of the walled in old section, looked down at the 360-degree view from the top of the town's clock tower, and read outside on a bench surrounded in sweet summer air.
But this little picturesque town has a darker and more interesting side, which I found with the help from a Brit named Jonathan.
After dinner, Jonathan and I drank a beer in the birthplace-turned-restaurant of Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula. Vlad was born here sometime in the early 15th century and earned his "Impaler" notoriety with his favorite torture method for Turks - driving stakes though their spines to assure long tortuous 48 hour deaths. His "Dracula" nickname merely means "son of Dracul", after his father Vlad Dracul.
They say he is wasn't a real vampire, just the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. But I wasn't so sure. Jonathan and I left Vlad's home to visit a thriving local disco, where we stayed out till almost 5 AM. We returned to our guesthouse only after the disco emptied. Just like vampires, everyone fled just minutes before sunrise.
Coincidence? I think not!
New Ideas and People
Sighisoara, Romania - (map)
Traveling frequently turns out to be an endless succession of meeting new people and entertaining new thoughts.
This morning a 10-year old gypsy girl approached me on the train platform and asked for a 500 Lei coin. She was a mess - dirt covered her clothes and her unwashed blond hair stuck heavily to her head. But her smile radiated hope and her eyes shined with the brightness of intelligence. Her inward appearance cut right through the filth of poverty and made me see nothing other than an extremely cute kid who could grow up to be successful if given the proper circumstances.
But as a gypsy, she will no doubt be treated like the rest of the people in her ethic group. As far as I've seen, that is about as well as African Americans were treated before the civil rights movement. The gypsies frequently are blamed for society's problems and resigned to the lower ranks of the socioeconomic ladder. On several occasions, I've been warned to stay away from them, because they will "lie, steal, and double-cross you without hesitation."
I peeled a 2000 Lei note from my wallet, four times what she was asking for, but still under ten cents. Her eyes bulged with amazement and her face lit up with emotion. Starting with an introduction in broken English, she then talked with me for the next ten minutes. I was looking in my bags for an orange to give to her when my train pulled up to the platform. As I ran down the track to find my compartment she ran along side me and then waved me off with a smile that could melt the most cynical person's heart.
Minutes later I started a conversation with a Romanian on his way home from Libya, where he worked as a chemical engineer in a fertilizer plant. With eight weeks in Libya and three weeks at home, he spoke highly of his working conditions, but was nevertheless anxious to return home to his wife and children.
His English was excellent, allowing our conversation to proceed farther than the basic, "Where are you from?" line of questioning I've become so used to.
Both the man and his wife lost their jobs with Romania's foray into the free-market economy, when former state sponsored business that relied on cheap oil from the Soviet Union shut their doors. Our train rolled by the chemical factory he previously worked in - the huge complex now laying in ruins, a communist dinosaur.
Though he considered himself lucky to have such a good job, he stressed that the transition to a free-market economy might not be the best thing for Romania. Crime and unemployment are up. Traditional values are disappearing. And while foreign goods are readily available, they are too expensive for a country whose average salary is just $100 month.
Not that communism was best. The man hated how they experimented with mind control, but added that the communists never succeeded in crushing the freedom of the individual. No matter what they tried, true freedom always existed in the mind - the communist games always remained external.
In many ways with mind control, capitalism succeeded where communism failed. My compartment mate reminisced about a time shortly before the communist fall, when an English friend forgot about Easter Sunday. Even with the communist state sponsored crushing of organized religion, no Romanian would possibly forget such an important Christian celebration. Capitalism crushed religion more ruthlessly by accident than communism did on purpose.
As my train passed though the rural towns of Romania to the cosmopolitan city of Budapest, the landscape whirred by like a chart of economic growth. From bucolic villages with red tiled roofs and fields of bright sunflowers, to advertisement ladened rail yards defaced with spray paint graffiti.
I pondered the path these countries decided to follow. The free-market brings riches, and with it the troubles of a consumer driven culture. Advertisers fill the streets and airwaves with messages promoting needs the people never knew they had. They now desire things that they can't obtain, or if they can, their satiation lasts only until the next desire takes its place.
It seems the nature of happiness doesn't lie in accruing the most stuff, but in learning to see beyond your manufactured desires and by living simply. Somewhere along my train route from rural Romania to westernized Budapest, there existed a happy medium between communism and capitalism, between simple and complex.
The trick is finding the balance in your life.