Things have felt more difficult since I reached Romania, it’s the change in weather I guess. It’s certainly not the people or the landscape.
Normally this terrain wouldn’t be ever so challenging. I’ve been walking through low hills, climbs of a few hundred metres at a time, altitude ranging between 500 and 1000m. The worst problems to deal with are sticky mud rather than steep climbs or rocky scrambles.
It’s easy to find paths between villages, once I have a decent map to work with. Finding maps has involved the same struggle as Ukraine, trying to source them online in the UK, having to order what was in stock and use those to work out a route, tourist maps (those of 1:75,000 or lower) only being available for mountainous territory, having to resort to tedious road walking when I don’t have maps for that area.
I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing by working like this, I just hate using electronic gadgets. Staring at a device in your hand. I haven’t found an app on my phone that I like using, you can’t zoom out to get an overview without fiddly scrolling and difficulty placing yourself. Plus it uses battery power, especially in these cold conditions. Maybe I need something specific, built for this purpose, rather than trying to use my phone for everything. I don’t mind carrying the weight of a stack of paper, the problem comes in sourcing those bits of paper to cover my entire route. Right now I’m missing maps for after Deva, particularly the flat piece of Romania south of the carpathians. And I haven’t even looked ahead to Bulgaria to see what’s available there.
Here I am, moaning again. There’s not much poetry here. I feel tired, have struggled to find anything worth writing down.
It’s the cold that has made things difficult, I’m well into winter now, frost every night for weeks and then, in the final few days before I stopped for a Christmas break, snow. Weather like this has worn me down, it takes a lot of energy to stay out in the cold all day and all night. Keeping safe takes a lot of thought when you don’t have permanent infrastructure around you. I access safety in exchange for money – going into hotels more than I would like to. It’s a weakness, sinking into the safety of a warm hotel bed for an evening, escaping from the gnawing cold. But paying for accommodation adds a budgetary stress, and strangely I feel more solitary there than I do in a tent.
I am excited by my sense of survival, the beauty of waking up to pale dawn, out of the tent for the first wee and seeing deer cross a frozen field, all is crisp and crystalline, they pick their way over ploughed clods and corn stubble, turning to pause and look at me, the only other large animal in our landscape. I am thrilled to be cosy in my sleeping bag, layering myself up using kit that I have chosen for its effectiveness, feeling the warmth build inside my cocoon when the chill in the air outside will numb my skin within seconds. I make camp within 20 minutes of dark, attempt to write a short account of the day in my diary as the twilight deepens, then put food into my body, anything to add calories, to heat my body from within with digestive fire.
I love it, but it also scares me. I am scared of what I can’t do, scared of worse to come. Every single moment is difficult and takes energy, it’s not relaxing.
I spent the first few weeks of Romania, during the month of December, making my way south from Sighetu Marmatei towards the Apuseni mountains. In a way, I’ve been anticipating this since the middle of Ukraine – winter mountains, the fearful white peaks. It’s not that I have set myself the task of climbing every mountain in my path, but I am heading into a remote area of Romania in the depths of winter and I am uncertain that I have the strength and ability to cope with what I find there. And yet my stubbornness, my principle, will not allow me to give up until I have at least tried it. Because I am probably going to be fine. I’ve set many of my adventures up with the idea of not listening to the worst that could happen, not paying attention to the imaginary horror of the chance failures, but trusting that it won’t be as bad as the fear mongers tell me, paying attention to the 99.9% chance of safety rather than the tiny chance of danger.
Why am I doing this? Why am I walking across Europe? Well I’m not quite sure. At the moment it’s only showing me how hard this is and how easy it is for me to feel negative about it. Is this the depths of winter? Will my mood lift in the spring? I just don’t feel like I can do anything expect walk and cope with the small details of walking, no mental space for analysis, of the country or of myself.
I’ve been trying to think about my impressions of Romania on this walk but I’ve can’t get a handle on it, it’s not the country I expected. I felt nervous about entering Romania in a way that I wasn’t about Ukraine. Ukraine was a blank to me, I could allow it to be anything. Romania felt different, more dangerous, more threatening.
My experiences of Romania have come from hitchhiking across the country with Turkish lorry drivers, pulling into lorry parks, where they pay the night watchman with a packet of biscuits, seeing him lying to the drivers about whether he’d received food from the first guy so he could be ‘paid’ again by the second guy. These lorry parks are just open spaces of packed rubble by the side of a seedy restaurant where the Turks can drink and dance all night and pick up the waiting women. Ever been the only woman in a room who isn’t a sex worker? I have, in Romania.
In Autumn 2011 I kayaked the length of the Danube, passing through seven countries in three months – the contrast between clean, orderly Germany and ramshackle, litter strewn Romania was stark. The lack of toilets and showers at riverside campsites started from Hungary onwards, the police safety presence started from Bulgaria.
My impression of Romania back then was a wild country where nobody cared, where who you knew was more important than the rule of law. When I got thrown off the official trip (and this is a very brief reference to a much longer story that I may tell properly one day), my German friends said goodbye to me, they assumed I’d be going home – my Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian friends made sure no such thing happened. I stayed, kayaked alongside the official trip for the remainder of the river, and nobody could do a thing. Here was a difference between Western and Eastern habits of rule following, I realised. It’s a way of coping, I think, with an oppressive regime, you get by, you sidestep, you pretend to obey and then do what you want.
I remember passing a dead horse in the river, kayaking towards the huge body, gently bobbing in the rippled water. Who can I call? I thought. Something should be done! And then I felt the difference between my Britain and this Romania. There was no helpline, no regulatory body, no clean up operation. Nobody would do something about this. The enfolding safety net that Britain provides to its people, that is both support and suffocation, was missing. I was on my own here, we all were, and I felt the difference.
I kayaked through the Black Sea, from St. Georghe to Mangalia, just me and a guy now, the rest of the group gone home. We stopped for the night on a beach and found ourselves surrounded by dogs, not the usual feral ones but a litter of tumbling rolypoly puppies. A woman came with them and invited us to her house; walking through the sand and away from the beach into a closed down holiday park, eerie empty rides and rusted metal. It turned out that she and her husband were the caretakers of this strange place, living in poverty in a single dirty room, posters of 80s pinups ripped from magazines were tacked to the walls and the fuzzy TV blared equal parts news and static from the dresser.
My host pulled a bowl of fried sprats from the cupboard and I realised this house contained almost no food. An empty sack of dogfood sat outside and she shook the final crumbs for the dogs to hunt hungry around her feet.
“Romanian hobby” said her husband, eyes sad, as he stripped the coating from a piece of copper wire, folding it carefully to be weighed and paid for later – this was a country eating itself from within. Great piles of trash and metal had lined the river on an industrial quay near Galati, waiting to be shipped to China for recycling.
So there it was, my Romania of 2011/12, the wild broken Eastern Europe.
I’ve always seen Romanian as a poor, dangerous and untrustworthy country, and this time, in reassessing those judgements, I’m being forced to see both my own xenophobia and that of my country.
Not only because I have had only positive experiences here but because, in walking in from another country, taking the slowest method of travelling, I’ve had time to witness my own anticipations and see my preconceptions and ways of framing certain experiences.
Romania is not the same, I’m not the same, I’m calmer now, I assess myself and others better, I make better decisions, I am less limited by fear.
In thinking about my preconceptions I found a piece of research that analysed the language used by UK newspapers in the period (2012/13) immediately before Romania and Bulgaria gained full access to the UK employment market and discovered the difference in derogatory language used towards Romania – https://m.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/08/18/gypsies-tramps-and-thieves-how-the-press-demonised-romanians_n_5685866.html?utm_hp_ref=uk
I need to watch my own biases, to think about the judgements of others that are so ingrained in our media and cultural surroundings that it’s possible to not even see them.
And as for the people, they’ve been fantastic. Help at a big and small level, from someone in Bucharest phoning ahead to get me days off in log cabins and possible mountain guides through the toughest sections, down to a woman in a village shop giving me a croissant and calling her cousin to speak to me in English and ask if I was OK.
There’s Ioana, the girl in the empty cafe who starts telling me about how she wishes she could do something like me but she’s too scared, is stuck in a job she doesn’t like, trying to encourage her small children to be braver than her, telling herself every day that this is the day she’s going to do something for herself. We compare nail varnish, mine chipped and shabby, hers long and perfect, and she gives me a hug before I leave.
A man beckons me from his yard, invites me in for coffee. I say yes on impulse and find myself in a warm room crowded with furniture, fabrics on the walls and floors and just about every surface. He, Nelu, and his mother, Margarita, don’t ask me anything about myself, just offer me food; a meatball broth, chunks of bread, then mashed potato and fried sausage, a mug of coffee, glass of fizzy drink. Nelu poured me glasses of his homemade wine. He tried to give me vegetables to take away but I refused, my pack was too heavy, so we settled on a single apple. He said he’d seen me in the town that morning, we’d caught each other’s eye, and here I was walking past his front door on the edge of the village, 3 hours later.
And there this blog ends. I wrote too much for one post so it split into two and I’ve posted the second half on my Patreon blog, not to entice people over there but because I’ve hardly posted there during December either and I owe my supporters some exclusive writing.