Cold, Drunk, Bleeding and Broke

Folks, this is a day I truly thought would never, ever arrive. There are a few people reading this website who have known me for years and I know they thought this day would never come either. Life is funny sometimes though, and it had quite a few surprises in store for me.

Sometimes it’s easy to look at someone and see the successes as easy. Sure, I speak Romanian now and can tell funny stories about all of my encounters with this strange but achingly beautiful land and all the people who live here, and it makes it all seem like it was a piece of cake. But it wasn’t.

Far from it.

I visited Romania several times starting in 2000 but I didn’t actually move here until the end of 2004. I actually went about moving all wrong – I had no job, barely any money saved up, no plans on how to make any income and I only really knew one person here and they were living an hour away.

Clearly there’s no one to blame for all of that but myself :P But so it was. Without any clear plan and without (really) any language skills or knowing anyone, I moved to this country.

As the clock ticked down on 2004 and turned over to a new year, I found myself lying on the ground on cold, wet dirt, drunk, bleeding and broke. And I felt utterly alone, sad and wondering if I had just made the worst mistake of my life.

A few months later I would be assaulted in broad daylight on the streets of Timisoara, completely broadsided by two thugs. I had the snot literally beat out of me. I’ve been lied to, sometimes unmercifully harshly. I’ve been scammed, “gypped”, cheated, tricked, overcharged and pickpocketed. I’ve been bitten by wild dogs. I’ve fallen into unmarked ditches, construction areas and holes underneath buckling metal grates on the sidewalk. I’ve had my wallet stolen and been left penniless on the street at night. I’ve gotten lost at night, all alone on foot, in every kind of neighborhood. I’ve gotten on the wrong bus and the wrong train.

And of course, I’ve withstood all the lesser evils, from the seemingly hundreds of thousands of hours of being surrounded by Romanian, hearing it, seeing it written down, listening to it sung, as only extremely slowly it became decipherable or meaningful at all. I literally sat through an entire 9-hour Revelion party with people who spoke no English at all.

And god knows I’ve stood in those lines, whether the stuffy, overheated awfulness of government lines or the cold, wet miserable shuffling forward to get a spot on a superheated tin can of a bus in winter. I’ve been elbowed, jostled, shouted at, scolded by and lectured to by just about every kind of person who is prone to do those kinds of things in this country, and their number is legion.

So no, this journey hasn’t been easy, not by a long shot. But it’s been a wonderful adventure, even back in those days. Part of this blog has always been about recounting how I got from there to here, and even where “here” even is.

But today, on such a momentous day, I want to rewind the clock and focus there for a minute again on those few first hours of New Year’s Day 2005. Because once upon a time, that was the real me living in the real present, and facing a real decision.

Earlier in the evening, much earlier in the evening, I had joined two friends of mine for a small party at their house. There’s a very long story involved here which I will compress into the following – they had been dating for several years, including living in this house where the party was, they owned two business together and yet they had recently broken up and were no longer “together” in the dating sense.

So there was all kinds of crazy tension going on there mixed in with a great deal of merriment because, after all, we were all friends and we were gathering together to listen to music and drink and eat together and have fun.

And we did. And around midnight, we went downtown (P-ta Avram Iancu – Cluj) and watched the awesome fireworks. We also continued to drink, heavily, especially my buddy, the male half of the couple.

I almost had a heart attack when a guy dressed in a traditional Romanian costume (excuse me, for the life of me the name escapes me at the moment) who has a great number of bells sewn onto his outfit and the deal is you pay him to scare off the bad spirits. I guess I must’ve been a pretty drunken bad spirit because he scared the ever livin’ shit out of me.

Unfortunately, the tension between my friends continued up until when we got back to their house. Fairly soon after we got there, they both more or less passed out on top of the bed, still wearing their clothes, tired from the late hour, the alcohol and the tension. This house was extremely small (at the time) and essentially was just one large room and a bathroom. I sure wasn’t going to cuddle on the bed or curl up on the floor, so I wrote ’em a brief note and headed out the door.

Since they lived in a house, getting out of the house was absolutely no problem. I couldn’t relock the door but oh well. The problem was that the house also had a small yard (basically a spot to park the car) and the entire property was surrounded by a brand new, incredibly stout wooden fence. And the lock on the gate door required a key and I had no flipping idea where that key was.

I’d have to be King Kong to break through that fence and anyway, these were my friends and this was a brand-new fence and I’m sure it cost them quite a bit of money to put it there. So destroying the fence was out. The only thing left that I could think of was to climb over it. It didn’t have any barbed wire or anything and it was wooden not metal.

Nonetheless it was quite high and far higher than I could scramble over without a ladder or something. I looked around a bit in the pitch dark blackness but didn’t find anything. Their yard was tiny and I didn’t remember ever seeing anything like that anyway.

So what to do? Mind you, I’m still pretty darn drunk. I’m a little put out by my friends’ bringing me to their house and then passing out without at least showing me where the key was to get out of the fortress. I also realize, with a groan, that I have absolutely no money with me either so even assuming I can get over the fence I have no way to call or flag down a taxi.

My friend’s house is on the side of a super steep hill in Cluj, alongside a road called the “Turkish Cut” (Rom: Taietura Turcului) which has its own interesting history. But the “road” these houses were all built on was quite steep and was nothing more than a muddy trail studded with rocks.

As I gazed at the fence, I realized that the natural gas line snaked up and over the fence and came down parallel with the ground, where it then ran to the house. Mind you, this is a tiny, flimsy piece of pipe barely wider than my thumb. Nonetheless, where it bent at a right angle at the corner of the fence, I could step on it and get a boost off the ground of a few inches.

I tested it by resting my foot on it and the pipe began swaying wildly. I knew I’d have to do this extremely quickly, put my foot on there, jump up immediately and try to grab the top of the fence. It was an insane plan and I didn’t even think it would work and indeed I was afraid I might break the gas pipe and cause who knows what kind of damage.

Nonetheless, I decided to go for it. I gathered my courage and in some kind of drunken super willpower move, I swung my leg (mostly) over the fence. I just let myself fall sideways as my other leg caught on the top of the fence, gashing my leg (luckily not seriously) and I landed in the wet mud of the “road” with a heavy crash.

And there I lay, without moving, for quite a while in the eerie silence of the rural pre-dawn morning there on the side of a hill, with only the occasional pop of late fireworks going off in the distance.

I managed to get myself up, brush myself off, and stumble down that awful, long, steep, dark hill and then along until I got to the river bank at the bridge. My head was spinning wildly, my clothes were slick and wet from falling on the road, and my apartment was still quite far away. I realized I needed to sit down and so made my way right down to the bank of the river, realizing if anyone came across me I’d look exactly like what I essentially was – a drunken, homeless bum.

Nonetheless, no one did find me. And I laid there quite a while, just looking down at the river and wondering what the heck I was doing with my life. This was no kind of a way to start off my first year of living here. Visiting had always been easy – it was scheduled in advance, I didn’t have to work, and we often planned things ahead of a time. It was a kind of a holiday for my friends too.

Now I was living here. My friends were quite busy with their work, and my closest friend had moved to another place far away so I rarely saw her. The customs and rituals and “way of doing things here” was a complete mystery to me and sometimes completely baffling.

I remember spending hours, in vain, trying to figure out how to regulate the heat in my apartment because it was blasting hot. I had to calculate exact angles of how far to prop my windows open when it was snowing outside to get the exact balance between wintry cold air and sauna heat from the radiators.

And the language was tough. And some things were more expensive than I had presumed. And since I wasn’t from here, could only haltingly speak the language, meeting new people was extremely difficult. Was this really what I wanted to do? Was there where I wanted to be? After all, I wasn’t forced to be here. Despite the rumors, I wasn’t in any kind of criminal trouble. I had left a stressful but fairly lucrative job in America and I knew I could get another one.

And now, of course, I’m cold and muddy and sitting by the bank of a river, trying to decide between puking or getting up and no matter how far away it is, just get home, change clothes and pass out in my own bed.

But what about Romania? Should I stay or should I go now?

Obviously, I stayed. I stayed and hung on as tenaciously as I could. I ended up finding a financial solution – working online – so I could live here (or anywhere) indefinitely. I grasped onto every straw I could, with regard to the language, and slowly but surely, after literally thousands and thousands of hours, I began to master the language.

I think one of my all-time happiest memories in Romania was the night I was out on the town in Baia Mare with a group of people I’d literally never met before (long story how I ended up w/them), not a single one of ’em speaking English, and we spent the whole night laughing and chatting away.

Yeah I got laughed at when I spoke Romanian – I still do. But if getting laughed at was the kind of thing that would stop me, why I wouldn’t be the person I am today, that’s for sure. You might notice on this blog about the only person I ever make fun of is myself. I promise you I’ve made every mistake you could ever imagine, including calling a little kid “domnul” and an old lady a “babushka” to her face :P

I don’t know how else to say it but what inspired me to stay that night as I sat there under that bridge, cold, drunk, bleeding and broke, was that Romania seemed like the most thrilling adventure I could ever imagine. It was never boring. Sometimes it seemed like it would crush me but by god, it never has been boring. And in between all the rest, there was a heck of a lot of good times.

I might be broke but it’s my own silly fault because for probably 3 dollars I could be riding home in warm comfort in a taxi. Earlier I had seen one of the most spectacular firework shows in my life. And before that, I had eaten some tremendously delicious home-cooked food and had been laughing and having a wonderful time with my two very good friends.

And yes, slowly but surely, I had three friends and then four and then five. And then more and more, some good, close friends and others just friendly acquaintances. I got invited to people’s homes. I began to meet people’s brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and the grandfathers.

I began to piece together the language, and all that comes with it, the nuances, the subtleties, the emotion, the sometimes deep intensity that only Romanian can impart with a single word or phrase.

I sat on a gently rocking bench in the quiet afternoon of a shady garden, listening to a 90 year old man tell me about the frozen horror of the Battle of Stalingrad. I sat with him, holding his hand as he lay in his bed, both of us silently watching Etno TV, the only channel he ever could tolerate.

I rode the rails from one side of this country to the other, in the sweltering heat of summer to the icy depths of a Transylvania winter. I lived in a village and nearly caused World War 3 :P

And yes, I had the mici and the slanina and ceapa, right off the grill. I’ve rolled the leaves for sarmale and cooked gallons of mamaliga. I danced in the club, drank with the police in the mountains, raised toasts on New Year’s, patted kids’ heads on Ziua Copilor, said la multi ani more times than I could remember, danced the hora, and listened to Vama Veche, Zdob si Zdub, Holograf and just about every other kind of Romanian music there is, from lautaureasca, manele, modern pop/techno and of course, Miss Loredana herself. I know all the words to Tarancuta, Tarancuta and Nu-i Pamant Ca Ardealul (si nu e om ca Ardeleanu!)

And around April of this year (2010 :P), I began writing this blog. This wasn’t the first time I’d ever written things about Romania. But I think it was the first time I ever sat back with a little perspective, after having “got it”, whatever that means.

The incident which triggered all of this is part of the infamous “37 Steps”. I was down at the American Embassy in Bucharest and, in casual conversation with one of the Romanian guards, he mistook me for a native speaker. Honestly, being near that embassy was stressing me out and so for me, speaking Romanian to a Romanian guy, knowing he wasn’t looking at me like I might secretly be about to do something evil, was kind of a stress reliever.

So I was just joking around with the guy when he clearly mistook me for a Romanian. It happened that this occurred right after my problems inside the embassy had been resolved so I was incredibly relieved that it had all gone well. The guard’s words just hit me like a shot right in the head.

How Romanian was I now? Cold and drunk under the bridge on New Year’s Day, not very much at all. But now in 2010 clearly I was more Romanian than I had realized. I mean why am I wrapping up sandwiches individually in orange or pink napkins for people to take on the train?

And I realized, to my surprise, that I was indeed quite Romanian now. And despite all the things mentioned at the beginning of this post, it’s been one heck of an awesome ride. I’ve meet a lot of really great people and had a lot of really good times here and CONTINUE to do so.

And so, in July of this year, I quit my online job. If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll notice that the volume of writing started picking up around then. My initial intention was to open my own “brick and mortar” business (and it still is, but later) but I realized I didn’t have quite enough capital saved up to do so.

I began thinking of my previous self, all those years ago, and about all the things I wish I had known, from the cultural way of things here to the language. I arrived here in Romania all those years ago utterly clueless. And then someone told me that between 8 and 9 million visitors come to Romania every year.

Eight or nine million? I had no idea. And then I realized why yes, every year I meet more and more tourists, read more and more tourist blogs and tweets. They’re here. And then I began to wonder how much any of them knew about this wonderful, strange and unique country.

The solution was I decided to write a book. In fact, I have written the book. It is called The Complete Insider’s Guide to Romania: 2011. At the moment, there is both a paperback version for sale and three electronic versions. The only difference between them is the electronic versions do not have diacritics (special Romanian letters).

Right now, the “regular” Amazon paperback web page is not ready but it will be shortly.

However it is for sale directly via this page. Incidentally, the price for the paperback will be identical on either page but the linked page gives a greater percentage of the royalties to the author (that’s me!).

The USA Kindle electronic version can be found here.

The UK Kindle electronic version can be found here.

The Barnes and Noble NOOK version can be found here.

If you experience any difficulties on any of those pages, be patient as all of links literally just went “live” today.

Other versions (including for Apple’s iPad) will be coming very shortly as well.

All of the links to all of the versions can be found on the top of the website in the menu bar.

I’m expecting a shipment of the paperback versions shortly. Later on this month I’ll be giving away a free autographed copy of my book, so stay tuned for that.

Also, in slightly related news, I am “in talks” with a Romanian book publisher. I am very eager to write a book in the Romanian language, both as a way of saying thank you to this beautiful language as well as allow everyone to enjoy it in their native language.

This book I am unveiling today is my heartfelt thank you to each and every Romanian I’ve ever met, from way back in my hardware cashier days to this very present moment. A lot the material is certainly borrowed from and adapted from this blog but there’s also a lot of new stuff. It’s been toned down and shaped to be the very best overall guide to visiting, traveling in and living in Romania.

In short, it’s the book I wish I could invent a time machine for and send back to my former self.

Folks, I’ll end this here. I truly thank you for your support. I think I made the right decision, all those years ago, to stay here and make this my home.

To each and every person reading this, la multi ani, and thanks for all the fish :D

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