Wednesday, August 29, 2012

soulful creations

Bordering the Ukranian border, Maramures houses more wooden gems than a merry cemetery. The Romanian provence is mostly known for their wooden churches (standing room only) dating as far back as the 17th century. It is also the primary reason we traveled so far north.

In a period of time when religion meant everything, people dedicated their lives and resources to create intricate and beautiful buildings to please their God. To me, there is no greater architecture than that of a church. It is a nation's representation of their heart and soul.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A very merry cemetery


In the northern Romanian province of Maramures lies a merry cemetery.  For that is, in fact, its name.  It is a cemetery so merry, my mother and I both wanted to be buried there.


In 1935, a poet and wood carver by the name of Stan Ioan Patras carved his first headstone. Engraved was a rich poem of the newly deceased's life with a pictorial representation. The entire piece was painted in bright colors, with the base color in the village's blue hue of choice.

The headstone was a sensational hit. From that moment until his death in 1977, Patras was commissioned to create headstones for all the freshly departed locals - 800 in total. Since the village was small and no one's life was a secret, no help was needed for the epilogue; meaning he had full artistic liberty to write what he pleased. Nobody knew what to expect. 

Some images reflected one's life. Others reflected how they died. Some eulogies bore straight facts. Others left the reader sorrowful. And a few did just the opposite. 

One headstone, in particular, left the Romanian reader happier than when they came. Each reaction was the same. They'd stop, their eyes would widen, their face would light up and  they'd laugh. Then they'd turn to their partner to see the same reaction. The headstone was dedicated to Patras' mother in law. A wonderful woman, she must have been, and one who's memory will live on forever.

Under this heavy cross
Lays my poor mother in-law
If she would have lived three days more
I would lay, and she would read (this cross).
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause' if she comes back home
She'll criticize me more.
But I'll behave so well
That she'll not return from hell.
Stay here, my dear mother in-law!
Before his death, Patras created his own headstone. To this day he remains the only person to have a eulogy written exactly as they wanted to be remembered. For him, it is as a kind man living in a difficult world.

His legend has not died with him, though. For his apprentice has become his predecessor so that the Merry Cemetery can live on.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The power of being impolite.

Disclaimer: Mother, if you happen to make the extremely rare visit to my blog and stumble upon this post, you may want to skip it. Really. Don't read it... you'll just call me right after saying I do nothing more than write embarrassing things about you. 

The thing about being in charge of vacation planning is that all 'pay-in-advance' costs are billed on the agent's credit card and reimbursed by the other party at a later date. Since I played the roll of travel agent to Romania and Serbia, I booked all flights, hotels and other items on my card. That is, everything except the rental car. (I place a cap on my credit card, as the card is paid off in one lump sum each month. And, having charges I had made earlier in the month already on my card as well, I hadn't enough credit to rent a car.) So I left that task up to my mother. But not before giving her information such as the rental company, car, and website details.   

Many days later I'm informed that all the cars from the rental company I requested my mother to rent from was booked solid. Instead, due to her delay, she had to rent from another company which would cost much more. I sighed to myself, but made no comment.

Our flights into Bucharest were around 90 minutes apart. We designated the car rental company's airport counter as the meeting point. When I turned the corner to the car rental area, I saw my mother standing on the customer side of the counter with a rental car representative.

"Hi Claire," my mom greeted me, "he's going to give us a better deal than what I booked with Budget."
"Um, OK." I replied, confused.
"They were going to give us a BMW, but since we're dropping it off at another location we had to stick with a Volkswagen," she explained.
"Uh, huh..." I murmured, unaware of what was happening.
"It's going to cost us a bit more than the car I booked, but it's bigger and is a diesel so we'll get much better gas mileage which will save us money in the long run," she continued.

Even amid her discombobulation of thoughts I was starting to piece together what was happening.

"Shall I show you to your car?," the representative asked.
We began walking towards the airport entrance.
"So, you're not with Budget?," I ask.
"No, I'm from Europcar," the representative responds. 

We stepped outside, the heat blasting us with full force. In the parking lot, a few feet from the curb sat our rental car. Our dirty rental car. Near the car was yet another representative, ready to complete a transaction using the trunk door as his desk. The representative that led us outside stepped back a few paces, allowing the new guy to take over. Naturally, I was wary of the situation.

After being quoted the price, my mother handed over a wad of Euros. My eyes widened. It was like a drug trade in a back alley, except the drug was a car and the back alley was a parking lot full of people. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, especially since the woman giving away her money to a man performing a transaction on the trunk of a car was the same woman who couldn't trust the driver of the unmarked taxi in Jordan.

Then a credit card was needed for the refundable insurance deposit.
"Go ahead Claire, give him your credit card," my mom stated.
"What?," came my immediate response. I wanted nothing to do with the seemingly illegal situation.
"I only have a debit card, so you'll need to give him your credit card," she explained.

Grudgingly I handed over my card. I gave a look of distain as he swiped the card on the manual imprinter, a look he must have seen while handing the card back to me.

"We need a GPS," I told him flatly, since the one my mother brought didn't have a map of Romania configured in it.

He explained it would cost 50 euros. He knocked it down to 35 after my mom asked if he could lower the price.

As the paperwork was finalized, I moved to the front seat of the car for shade.

A few minutes later he was seated in the drivers seat, showing me how to work the GPS, which was in fact a small tablet with a GPS application in it. I punched in our first destination. It wasn't recognized.

"Great," I murmured, "how are we supposed to get anywhere with a GPS that doesn't work."
"Maybe that's not what the city is actually called," he questioned.
"It is what it's called!," came my retort.  "Don't you have an actual GPS?"
The response was negative.
"Then we're getting this for free, right?," I semi-demanded in question form.
"Or how about for 20 Euros?," my mom quipped from behind.
"No, I can't do that... I've already given you a discount," he apologized.
"Fine, let's see if it will get us to the village we really need this for," I resigned.

The GPS did recognize the village, and I was placated for the moment. And only for that moment. Because the moment immediately after my moment of consolation, I heard the representative say "uh, oh" in the back seat.

Turning around I watched as he fumbled with the apparatus used to hold the GPS on the windshield. "I think I just broke it."  Those were the next words that escaped his mouth.

"Then we're definitely getting it for free!," I fully demanded this time.
"I'm sorry, I really can't...," he returned.
"What, and I'm supposed to hold it in my hand the entire time my mom drives?," I snidely asked.

A few seconds passed.

"OK, you can have it for free. But," he pleaded, "please, be careful with it."

The deal was sealed. We were on the road.

"I was pretty rude to that guy," I acknowledged out loud while opening the glove compartment filled with a pair of sunglasses and other such items.

It's a good thing I was, though. A few days later, while driving to the village we actually needed the GPS for, I would have said a lot more childish things than "seriously, the next time I see him I'm going to punch him in the face!," had it not been for free.  Because the 'GPS' more than doubled our 5 hour journey.

* While handing off the car to two new representatives in the parking lot of a different airport, we were informed that the car was not personal property. The rental location is in the center of Bucharest, and the previous renters dropped the car off half an hour before we took it over. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

recommendations of a Countess

1. Find her guesthouse online and book a room. (One with vampire repelling garlic hanging above the door).

2. Make an appointment to go horseback riding, with her as a guide.

3. Join her, her husband the Count, and a fellow horseback rider for drinks at their house.

4. Visit Santa Ana, a lake filled caldera.

5. Enjoy the guesthouse garden

6. Join other guests for a three course dinner.

7. Do whatever your heart desires, even if what your mother's heart desires is a horse drawn carriage ride - to which you grudgingly oblige.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

country living

After asking three girls from Hong Kong why they chose the back country of Romania to spend their holiday, they explained that the last place they wanted to be during their break was in another city. Although my city is a fraction of the size of theirs, I couldn't agree more. And that is exactly why I chose for us to stay in guesthouses located in the tiniest of villages.

En route to one guesthouse I glanced up and noticed a larger than life bird's nest situated atop of a telephone pole. In the nest stood a stork, tall and frozen.

"Is that real?," I asked my mom, who was driving.
"No, it's fake," she replied after taking a quick glance.

I turned my head towards it as we passed the pole. Half a second later I saw movement.

"It's real!!" I exclaimed, "I just saw it move."

Turns out, what I thought was a rare occurrence, was anything but. Romanians love of the stork is so great, they erect pillars just to entice the birds to nest there.

But the Romanian country folk do more than build potential stork dwellings in their spare time. They also wait for their cows to come home. 

You read that right. Every evening at 8, people begin filing out of their houses and sit on a bench, chatting with their neighbor until their cow meanders down the road. And like any child having been with the babysitter (or cow herder) all day and wants nothing more than to go home, the cows are prone to be impatient while waiting for mom or dad to finish their conversation, and make it known - loudly- until their owner has to apologize for cutting things short in order to let their cow inside.