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Travel Horrors: Romania : Oh, Horse Lips! : Warning: In Transylvania, objects on your car hood may appear exactly as close as they really are

October 29, 1995|JIM MOLNAR | Molnar is a travel writer and editor with the Seattle Times

I'd been in Bucharest only a few hours and already I was desperate to leave the city. I wanted to be back in the Carpathian Mountains, surrounded by sweet air and forest, roaming rocky gorges filled with myths and music.

On other visits to Transylvania, I'd heard the fiddles of Gypsies at roadside campfires and, in hillside pastures, spent afternoons with shepherds who knew each sheep in their commune's flocks by name. I'd been

invited in for soup and stories by farm wives and once, at sunset in the mountain pass where Bram Stoker had envisioned Dracula's castle, had slid down a hayrick with a young couple at the end of their workday.

"Yes, one cannot go to Transylvania and leave unchanged," Nicolae Paduraru said portentously as we walked Calea Victoriei in Bucharest, the central boulevard running past the palace from University Square.

A translator, writer and sometime-journalist I'd met here in the mid-1980s, he insisted on accompanying me this time. "You can't expect to leave me behind if you're driving into Transylvania. It's always like a pilgrimage for me. Besides, how will you live without my stories?"

Nick's the kind of fellow who'd like to think he could assume the mantle of prophecy. He's slight, quick and voluble; self-possessed in a tweedy, turtleneck-sweater sort of way.

There's something of a slick smoothness about him, too--a presence that helped protect him during the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu; it had let Nick move about certain political and academic circles despite his refusal to become a member of the Communist Party. (After the December, 1989, revolution, he'd likewise turned down an invitation to join the new ruling council.)

He'd become something of an expert on Romanian folk tales and legends. His fluency in English had made him a valuable resource as a translator and guide. When British and American tourists in the 1970s asked about places associated with the vampire Dracula, confounded bureaucrats had turned to Nick to find out what these people could possibly be talking about.

Romanians knew about Dracula. Or, rather, about Vlad Dracula, the 15th-Century head of state called "the impaler" because of his peculiar fondness for that method of killing Turkish invaders--as well as Gypsies, Hungarians, Saxons, Bulgars, Greeks and any Romanian subjects who irritated him.

But Stoker's gothic tale about a vampire of the same name (inspired, apparently, by the murderous prince) had not yet been translated into Romanian.

Nick found the book, read it and became a fan. He devised tours for the London-based Dracula Society and began to research what he promises some day will be the definitive book on the Dracula legend--"written as only a Romanian could: from the heart, truth made bigger and truer with superstition, exaggeration and bloody imagination."

"So," Nick said, "it's settled. We go together. It's time for an adventure."

But even he could not imagine Dani, and how we'd meet on that forest road. . . .

In the morning, the highway north out of Bucharest was lined with touching expressions of enterprise in the wake of the revolution. Every few hundred yards, farm families had set up tables from which they sold vegetables. All they had were radishes: three bunches on one table, five on the next, one on the next. . . .

As the road narrowed between borders of walnut trees and began to rise into the Carpathian foothills, automobile traffic virtually disappeared. We shared the road with a few trucks, a few tractors and an endless series of horse carts.

Long red tassels hung from the bridles of most of the horses. "That's to ward off the evil eye," Nick said. "Superstition, folk knowledge and myth are a living force in the life of the country people of Romania."

If political changes don't concern people much in some of the more remote areas of the country, it may be because following the prescriptions of folk customs takes up so much time and concentration.

For example, one must be very careful in meeting a person's approach; you risk cutting the thread of good luck if you cross over another's path before you pass. . . . If one drops a loaf of fresh bread on the floor, he must pick it up quickly and kiss it.

Even if superstitions have lost some of their force, they continue to help define the way people look at the world: There's treasure to be found where one sees the first swallow of the season. . . . A magpie on a roof signifies the approach of guests; a shrieking magpie meeting or accompanying a traveler denotes death. . . .

*

It was a day or two later that we met Dani. Or he met us. Head on.

We headed far off the main highway into the Harghita hills of the area called the Baraolt, within the craggy crescent of the Carpathians that separates the Transylvanian plateau from Wallachia in the south and Moldavia in the east.

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