So it was that I found myself on the pavement outside our house at 8.30 on Thursday night suitcase beside me waiting for the driver to turn up. And turn up they did, Marika and Tibor, friends of ours in their Renault Clio ( a much more comfortable ride than the Tico). Their family name is Kedves, which means “nice” or “kind”, and that just about sums them up. Although Tibor can sometimes become not-so-kedves Tibor when he whips me at table tennis on a regular basis. I had surmised that they may have been involved with this birthday experience when I had been talking to Marika on my actual birthday and she had declined the opportunity to offer me a happy birthday and had said she would do so later with Tibor. Which of course had sent my mental sniffer dogs out after a hint of a suggestion of a scent of my birthday surprise.
So we set off, across the shite roads of Hargita County. Heading west to confirm my susipicions. We crossed the Harghita mountains to Udvarhely, and continued on to Sighisoara. From then we continued westward to Medias and Alba Iulia and thence on towards Arad. We reached the border west of Arad at about 4am, just under 8 hours into the journey, and from there crossed into Hungary. At that point I actually managed to sleep for a little bit and woke up somewhere on a motorway between Szeged and Budapest. But I didn’t think we were going to Budapest as a final destination ( I knew a hotel was involved as my credit card had been used to secure it, and I didn’t think we would say in a hotel in Budapest – we have far too many friends and acquaintances in Budapest for that to be an option, we’d offend far too many people if we did that), and I was proven correct when we started skirting it on the orbital road. From Budapest we headed northwest on the road to the Hungarian town of Gyors, and crucially the two other capital cities of Bratislava and Vienna. One of these two would be our final goal, of that I was sure, and I had a suspicion that it would be Vienna. After all, who goes to Bratislava? I’m sure it’s nice and all, but you know, it’s not famous for much. Whereas Vienna is all that and a bag of chips (whatever that means, I just thought I’d throw that expression in there for no reason other than it sounded like a good occasion).
As we left Budapest, a blizzard spung up, and our pace slowed significantly. As te radio switched to a Gyors based station, we learned that this weekend was the Gyors spring festival, to which we responded with the wry chuckles of the weary travellers. “Hah, spring”, we opined, sarcastically, as the snow whipped across the windscreen, and we neared the border.
The border post between Budapest and Vienna was the scene of the defining moment of the late 20th century. It was here that in 1989, the Hungarian government decided to pull aside their side of the iron curtain, and allow people to cross. Which they did in large numbers very quickly – and not only Hungarians, but Czechoslovakians and Yugoslavians and East Germans and loads of others who packed their stuff into their Trabants and Yugos and Skodas and Ladas and Moskviches and set out for the promised land. Or Austria at least, which apparently was an important way station on the road. Obviously that breach in the dam led quickly to a flood, which then in turn precipitated a series of revolutions all over Europe, and all the monumental changes that followed. To read the recent obituaries, it was all the doing of that senile old bastard Ronald Reagan, rather than the people of Eastern Europe, but that’s historical revisionism for you.
On this day (Friday 4th March, 2005, fact fans), the border was also crowded. The line we were waiting in was jammed solid with non-EU citizens. This confirms my suspicion that the recent enlargement of the EU, was less about expansion and more about creating a buffer zone. If you look at a map you’ll see that the Eastern European additions to the union form an unbroken line from the Adriatic to the Baltic – Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland. So we were already technically in the EU, but were being held back at this border, as we were from the undesirable end of the continent. It’s successfully created a double border for those outside the EU. If you can get into one of the new states you still have to get across another border into the “old EU”. We waited. And waited. Among the Ukrainians and Moldovans and Romanians and Bulgarians who made up our line of cars. I could have got out and strolled through the EU line, but (a) it would seem rather churlish to do so, having been driven all the way there; (b) what was I going to do on the other side anyway?; and (c) there was a frigging blizzard going on – don’t you remember? It took us more than an hour to get across.
Not long after the border, the final turn off to Bratislava passed and we were clearly destined for Bécs. Bécs is the Hungarian word for Vienna and sounds a little bit like “bitch” (well, not really, it sounds like betch, but that’s not a word, and it amuses me more to say that it sounds like bitch, so bear with me here). So all through the years of the Austro Hungarian empire the people of Budapest were laughing behind their hands and referring to Vienna as their Bécs. (See? That halfarsed joke wouldn’t have worked if it was betch).
We drove into the capital of Austria (name five famous Austrians, my answer to follow), and now that I had been made aware of my surprise I was at liberty to be the navigator through the city to our hotel. This I did with laser like precision, with nary a wrong turn or a missed exit. If the US military wanted a non-computerised system to direct their missiles to kill some unsuspecting Arab family in their dining room, they ought to hire me. Well, they didn’t, as I would instead turn their missiles on them and send them into the White House, but I would do so with precision accuracy.
And so, just under 16 hours (16 hours!) after we had left Brotherhood Street, Csikszereda, we were parked outside our Viennese hotel. 16 hours is a seriously long drive for a weekend, I think you’ll agree. Not even Californians would do that, I’m thinking.
So, Vienna. Nice town, cold as hell, but nice. A tad obsessed with Mozart, I suspect, but that’s understandable I suppose. It could be worse, and they could be obsessed with some of their other more famous sons (my answer to the question posed above was W.A. Mozart, A. Hitler, K. Waldheim, A. Schwarzenegger, and N. Lauda. When you look at that list packed full of murderous far right loonies (and Niki Lauda) you can understand why Vienna has latched onto Mozart as its favourite son. Though wasn’t he actually from Salzburg?). For the most part this is done with taste and elegance (the Mozart café was particularly nice), but there are occasions when it gets a bit naff.
There is a musical going on in Vienna called “Falco Meets Amadeus”. I had, I confess, forgotten about Falco and his curious brand of Austrian proto-stadium-rap. I’m not that happy that I have been reminded of it now. On the plus side it dislodged the Ultravox earworm from my brain temporarily, but on the minus side replaced it with “Rock me Amadeus”. I’m quite intrigued about what happens in this musical, and whether the great man himself appears in it (or is he dead? I’m thinking possibly he snuffed it). Do they link his songs in some kind of thematic loop culminating in the man’s big hit? Did he have enough songs to do this with? Other than Rock me Amadeus, I can only remember the even more classic “Der Kommisar”. Presumably in Austria he had a string of high profile hits. Was he the Robbie Williams of Austria? Prolific hit machine in his own country, virtually (and rightfully) ignored outside it?
One day we ended up going to the Kunst Haus (I don’t know much about Kunst, but I know what I like), which houses the permanent collection of an old (well, dead, actually) hippy artist called Hunderdtwasser. I’d never heard of him before, but he’s frigging brilliant. He’s my new favourite artist. I love his pictures, his architecture, his philosophies, his all round hippy-ness. Really. Here’s a link to something about him, in case I have sparked your interest. (a link to something about him)
The rest of the weekend was equally fun, though we didn’t go up in the ferris wheel a la The Third Man, or see much Klimt (another of my favourite artists), but as a birthday present it was spectacular. No-one’s ever taken me away for a weekend to Vienna for my birthday before.
More thoughts on driving in Romania
Romania has an (I presume, unofficial) system of roadside whores. You’ll be driving on a major-ish road at any time of the day and at a petrol station or a lay-by in the middle of nowhere, there’ll be one or two women standing waiting for a ride, so to speak. It’s a bit like the Happy Eater or Little Chef chains in the UK, only for cheap and rough sex rather than cheap and rough food. Unhappy Shagger perhaps. Joking aside, when you’re driving round in the depths of winter and it’s below zero outside, it really brings home to you the misery of this particular occupation. They stand there stamping their feet against the cold, wrapped up to the point of shapelessness (thank god they are not forced to go for the full on beminiskirted outfit), and waiting, presumably, for some fat bastard truck driver to stop for them.
When you cross the border into Romania by car, you see this informative little sign telling the unwary foreign driver of the speed limits that he or she should obey in the country. There’s a picture of a town with the number 50, a picture of a town with a line through it accompanied by a 90, and the universally recognised symbol of the motorway with a 120 next to it. All well and good you might think. Except that this is in fact a cunning ruse to make you think that there are motorways in Romania. There aren’t. Well, there is one. It runs from Bucharest to Pitesti. I have a friend from Pitesti, so I can’t badmouth the place, and besides, I’ve never been there, but it’s not exactly one of Romania’s major cities. It’s neither big nor does it feature prominently in tourist guide books. Having the only motorway run to it is akin to having the only motorway in England run from London to Swindon or something similar.
Because Romania is scheduled to join the EU in 2007, and also lined up to join the 21st Century in about 2012, they have decided to build some motorways. The first of these is due to be built from Bors (on the Hungarian border a fair way north of where we crossed) to Brasov. This will provide much greater and quicker access to all of Transylvania. However, there is one decided oddity about this project. As this road construction is part of Romania becoming part of Europe, the EU will fund 75% of the costs, provided they use a European contractor. But, instead, the government (or the previous government to be exact) signed a deal with Bechtel, an American company. Now, I do have a sense of how Bechtel operate, and reading between the lines it seems they set up shell companies which enable them to participate fully in any backhanders and bribes that may be needed to make things happen. So, my guess (and I stress it is a guess only and not even so much as an allegation) is that Bechtel and members of the previous government have stitched up some deal whereby they all get nice brown envelopes in exchange for the contract. The only victims are the Romanian taxpayers, and any foreign aid that may be used to help finance the deal - possibly from the US government who are closely linked to Bechtel, and who are not averse to channelling US taxpayer money to corporations affiliated with the Texan money mafia, as an alternative to the Swiss bank accounts normally favoured by corrupt fascist dictators (see the great Iraq Money Laundering Scheme, for the best example.) But as I say, before anyone shows up to kneecap me, I am merely speculating what might have happened rather than making any concrete allegations. OK?
And on that conspiracy theory, I will sign off. Those looking for me will find me helping to prop up a motorway bridge outside Cluj.