It started with the barman at the motel I’d slept in. He was unfriendly when I’d walked in two days previously, just replied with a No when I asked for rooms and wouldn’t explain his answer. I knew Tracey and her husband were coming to meet me for a meal but not whether they’d take me to their place to stay and the outright no just made me nervous. This was the only motel within a few miles and I wasn’t sure what to do if I couldn’t stay here. Fortunately it all worked out; I received the whisking away and luxury spa experience that I mentioned in a Facebook post, and when I returned, too late in the day to start walking again, fortunately the motel had a room for me.
He was smiley the morning I left for good; bringing me the basket of good crusty rolls to eat with my omelette, instead of the sliced bread. When I went to pay he waved it away, said no no. I don’t know if the breakfast was included, it usually isn’t, or if it was a gift, but his unexpected kindness spurred me on to immediately be generous to someone else. As I was packing away my rucksack and preparing to leave I saw a woman outside looking through the bin, inspecting grubby scraps of plastic as a hopeful dog looked on. I was able to pack together some of my own food and pass her a small bag as I left.
I struggle to feel abundant sometimes and am trying to learn to reflect the generosity that I receive from other people in my own actions, instead of clinging to my possessions in an attitude of scarcity. The beggars I see here are always female by the way, always of pensionable age. It’s a shocking thing to see an old woman so reduced, no time left to get new jobs or reinvent herself, find new direction.
Off I went, into the fresh bright day and newly fallen snow. I’d found a route away from the motel that followed tracks across fields. At first the snow lay blanketing and beautiful and the track was hard and compressed underneath me; but soon, a few kilometres into my 7km stretch, the ground began to get sloppier, muddier, and there was no escape; ploughed earth either side of my thin tractor gouged strip. I could do nothing but plunge on, mud clinging, turning my feet to elephantine blocks. It was heavy and difficult, I felt the pain in the ligaments of my feet and ankles as the weight of the mud dragged at them. All I could do was slowly progress, following the twists and turns of the track, a large factory the only building in the distance, a target I could plod towards.
As I finally reached the gravel track that ran around the edge of the tall thin building I could stop for a few moments and gulp some water, pigeons circling above me, startled from their metal roosts.
I was startled too, a few minutes later, by an unexpected man hanging over a gap in the fence. He didn’t really say anything, just lifted his hands in a shrug that signalled “what? what the fuck are you doing here?” I tried telling him I was walking but he just kept shrugging at me. I knew it was strange that I’d just appeared out of nowhere, this tiny ant person in a sea of mud and churned earth but his shrugging was irritating so I turned and walked away.
As I came around the factory corner though, as well as two barking dogs, he was waiting for me again, having walked around to intercept me at the gates. He touched my arm to say hello and I made sure I stood a slight distance away from him as he looked at me with small black eyes, an older man, in his 50s. I held his gaze until he started talking, saying that he’d seen me from the top of the factory from far away and so he’d come down to see what this unusual person was doing. I managed to convey that I was a tourist, that I was walking across Romania. He told me I should be careful, that there’s wild dogs out there, that there’s bad men. I’m not scared, I said, standing with him on the empty road, dogs stalking in the background. He offered me his worn leather working gloves and, when I shook my head, took my hand and turned it upwards to show that he’d seen my calloused palms, roughened by their grasp on my walking poles. The touch of his thumb brushing against my palm was enough to make me back away, unasked for touches make me nervous. I’ve never been seriously attacked but only because I keep myself safe, not because the danger doesn’t exist.
From the next house down the road, behind a rusting blue metal gate, came the shouts and cheers of a group of men happily drinking. I walked on, looking ahead.
I’m well away from main roads here, where the back roads are often pressed earth, where the houses are rotten, showing their bones of lath and beam, behind crumbling plaster and once bright paint. It’s a significantly poorer area than Transylvania and there’s a very different feeling to the place, it’s not somewhere that tourists visit.
I like that though, in a way. Although it does feel more dangerous here sometimes, it also means that people talk to me more, as they did in Ukraine, interested in the stranger who is walking through town.
Later in the afternoon came the next person I talked to. An old woman, in a cardigan and black headscarf, layers of worn clothing, walking alone. I said hello, as I always do and she called out to ask me what I was doing there. I like it when people do that, when they’re brave enough to say ‘who are you? what are you doing here?” rather than just staring, as so many do. She crossed herself every time I gave her a new fact about myself, that I’d walked across all Romania, that I was camping alone at night. She had broad, thick features and big round eyes. When people ask me about my lack of husband and children I often tell them I have freedom. Liber, here in Romania. It tries to put a humorous slant on a fact they might pity me for. This woman slaps at me mockingly when I say that, in a way that women do here when it’s a person they like, as if she’s terribly yet comically offended. She is a great grandmother to a four year old, she tells me, with love in her eyes. We discuss the village, the way that so many houses are empty, abandoned when the old ones die and the children are city dwellers. She points to the houses close by, “abandonat, abandonat”.
She points me the way to the shop and we have a warm goodbye.
The woman in the shop is clearly mystified. I’m doing my usual thing of stalking around in the background as she weighs a bag of apples for the other customer, a pensionable man in a classic black lambskin hat. I look at everything on all the shelves, to see what might be nutritious and edible for me, scanning the endless displays of biscuits. Here I just need water really, so I take water, a coffee, a yoghurt and a chocolate bar and chat to the woman as I refill my water bottles and swig the final half litre. It’s the usual questions about aren’t I scared and where do I sleep? The man hovers in the background asking her what I’m saying as he can’t understand my terrible Romanian. I tell her I’m like a ninja, that I sneak around at night so nobody sees where I sleep, and she laughs. She’s a round woman with glasses, who probably gets nervous about imagined dangers. When I realised I needed a couple more things she gave them to me. “Un cadeau” she said, and I smiled my thanks, grateful for these small things that ease my passage.
There my list of interactions would normally end – a disinterested waiter, a nosy man, a curious granny and a pleasant shop worker – and indeed it’s at that point that I started thinking about this blog post. But that day held more for me.
It was coming close to sunset as I walked through the final village of my planned route. The usual small shops with groups of men outside, regarding me silently until I said hello, forcing them to grunt out a reply. Here was a group of three people talking, they turned to watch me approach and one man called out cheerily, asking what I was doing with these two walking poles. He mimed my walking action and I laughed. They were a jolly group, bright and interested. It was immediately fun to talk to them, their shocked responses to what I was doing. The main man was the best, grasping his forehead in amazement. He made a phonecall, ‘hey come out here and look at this woman’ and a few minutes later, his wife appeared. I was touched that it was his wife and not a male friend, somehow it made him a nicer person for that small detail. More neighbours kept appearing, I was being introduced around. It was minutes until sunset by now and I really needed to be making a camp somewhere, not talking to these nice people. I thought I’d try something. ‘Can I camp in your garden?’ I typed it into my phone translator and showed it to the man. It started a big conversation and he went across the road to talk to someone, then made a phone call. I felt a bit awkward for having asked and wanted to leave, not wanting it to be a problem, I just wanted a little bit of garden space for my tent. Come! Come with me! Said the man, Cristel was his name. He ran off to get his van and I said goodbye to all the clustered neighbours. We were going to the next village, he’d phoned the mayor and she was going to find us somewhere. The mayor was a woman, whose name I have forgotten, and she was a sleek and glossy woman, an immediate reflection of her status. We drove to a nearby street, Cristel said goodbye and I found myself in a small, warm room with the mayor and two new women, my hosts Annie and Elena. I explained more of my story and answered their questions, accepted a bowl of soup and some pork chops.
I stretched as we talked, trying to undo some of the accumulated stiffness that comes from hours of walking, day after day. My rucksack doesn’t help, strapping my back into immobility.
Elena was a quieter, more sober woman, but interested in my story. Annie didn’t say much but did all the small things to give me food and a shower. None of us really knew why I was there, I’d just asked a question and then followed the answer, they had accepted a favour from their mayor I suppose.
Eventually I was ushered to bed, in a single bed in Annie’s room.
There was a small child in the bed, borrowed, she said, as she couldn’t sleep alone when her husband worked nights. I think that many houses are small here, with few rooms; it’s possible that there was simply no space for me in the previous village.
The next morning I was taken to the town hall where Annie worked as a cleaner. I sat in the kitchen as various people popped in and out to meet me. Cristel appeared again, my hearty friend, and we arranged that he’d take me back to his village so I could start again from the place I’d stopped. Annie gave me a big hug goodbye and when we arrived back in Cristel’s village his wife was waiting there with a small bag of food. More hugs and kisses and I gave thank yous all round.
They both phoned me that night, Annie and Cristel, to see where I’d walked to.