While living in Los Angeles in the late seventies I meet Joann Kozak, a fellow nurse from Moose Jaw, Sask. We’re both interested in travel and soon make plans for a trip to Europe.
Freddy Laker’s no-frills Laker airlines provides cheap flights to London. Eurail passes provide economical transportation around the continent. Our guidebook, the name of which I have forgotten, gets left on the plane, so we rely on tourist information offices in airports and train stations for affordable guest houses, or pensions, as we learn they are called in Europe.
In 6 weeks we make our way from London to Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Barcelona, Nice, Monte Carlo, Rome, Florence, Venice, Athens, Mykonos, Bucharest (yes, the capital of Romania), Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Bern, Lucerne, Heidelberg & Bonn. It is a rapid-fire itinerary meant to hit as many countries and as many tourist hot spots as possible.
The foray north from Athens to Bucharest, Romania is the only glitch in what is otherwise a fabulous trip. Joann is interested in visiting her ancestral land, regardless of the fact that it is communist and deeply behind the iron curtain. We should have been tipped off when our Eurail passes are not valid and we have to shell out cash for train tickets. Clueless, we venture forth, through Sophia, Bulgaria where a brief stop and a visit to the train station washroom reveals squat toilets. WTF?!?! Unimaginable! We watch as other women use them and follow suit.
Once in Bucharest, it becomes very evident that we don’t belong here. In the train station a security guard quickly corrals us into an office where we are questioned, issued 3 day visas, forced to convert $50 US dollars into local currency for every day of our visa, rushed into a taxi and taken to an approved guest house. We’re told that a driver and guide will pick us up the next morning. Our time in Bucharest is completely controlled.
The city is dirty, grey and dreary, the people downtrodden, the shop shelves bare, the restaurants few and far between. It is so interesting for me now to read about Nicolai Ceausescu, the brutal tyrant who ruled Romania for decades until he was overthrown in 1989. Wish I knew then what I know now.
Our guide is a young woman about our age with good English skills. We pepper her with inappropriate questions, which she is careful not to answer while we are in the car and the driver is within earshot. When the opportunity presents and we are on our own she is more direct and we learn how lack of freedom, censorship and state control affect her life. It is deeply depressing. We feel her helplessness and hopelessness and are powerless to do anything.
Planning to leave Romania through Hungary, we buy train tickets, try to spend the last of our leu (the local currency) and fantasize about what we will eat once we are “back in the west”.
It’s Friday night, we get to the train station early and present our tickets to the conductor, who asks to see our Hungarian visas, which we don’t have. No visa, no getting on the train. We’d mistakenly thought that, like Bulgaria, we could buy the visas on the border. Not!
Our Romanian visas expire at midnight; we cannot go back to the guesthouse as they cannot give us a room without a valid visa. Incredulous! The only way out is through Yugoslavia, where we can buy a visa on the border, but the train there does not leave until the next evening.
The conductor takes pity on us, taking us home for the night where his wife feeds us and puts us in their spare room. The next morning we high-tail it to the visa office, which is only open until noon on Saturdays. There is a line-up. We wait anxiously. Our turn comes. We smile hopefully at the cranky-looking official. He is not interested in helping us. One of us starts to cry. It may have been me. One of us offers a $20 US bill. Not a good move. A group of officials gather and all look at us disapprovingly. The youngest speaks some English and is sympathetic when we show him our train tickets to Belgrade, Yugoslavia. He stamps our passports. It is kind of anti-climactic, but that’s ok. OMG! How did we not end up in jail?
The next evening we go to the train station early, sitting there for hours, not wanting to miss the train. It’s an overnight train to Belgrade and we share a compartment with an elderly Romanian couple and a young soldier. The elderly couple speak only Romanian, which Joann speaks a bit; the soldier speaks Romanian and French, which Joann & I both speak in a halting high-school fashion and he speaks a bit of Spanish, which we both speak in a halting East LA fashion. We chat, laugh; they share their bread and salami and give us a few dinar, the Yugoslav currency. We will be there for a few hours awaiting our train to Trieste, Italy, our US dollars will be useless and we will need to eat.
We spend a rainy few hours in Belgrade making the few dinar go as far as we can in a cafe, waiting for our night train to Trieste, where we literally kiss the ground immediately after getting off the train.
The time in Romania makes us appreciate the freedom we often take for granted. The rest of the trip is joyous. Nothing that goes wrong – and a few things do – can possibly compare to our week in communist Europe.