I sat in the driver’s seat, my hands on the steering wheel, listening to the attendant from the Rent-a-Car desk explain to me how to lock and unlock the doors and how to operate the air conditioning. I listened almost as attentively to his safety demonstration as I did the flight attendant’s on the air plane a few hours earlier.
“Is everything clear?”
“Yep.” I nodded.
“Oh! Remember, you must drive with your headlights on in Romania, always. It’s the law.”
“I did not know that…”
“Yes, this is a very important thing for your safety.”
“Is there anything else I should know?”
“No. That should do it…,” he said with a frightened smile.
We booked a car with local plates for our drive from Iaşi to Braşov to avoid the inevitable, unjustified traffic stops by the county sheriff wanting to supplement his daily wages. Travelling incognito in a boring, white Dacia, the locally made cars, we set out full of confidence on what should have been a three hour drive into the Carpathian mountains. Seven hours later we arrived in the mountain hamlet of Petru Voda for the night, nerves shattered and numb from the waist down.
“What is that up ahead, there, on the shoulder? A tractor?”
“No, it’s a horse cart!”
“What’s it carrying?” I asked trying not to look.
“I don’t…really…know….” Christine’s eyes followed the wagon as we passed the one horse rickshaw. Grungy, toothless gypsies urged their mangy bowed-back steed to move faster.
“…strange…” I whispered squinting into the rear view mirror.
A pink blur with brown pigtails on a jerry-rigged bicycle swerved into the road just off the front bumper. We veered into oncoming traffic. Horns blared. Lights flashed. The young girl, pedaling frantically, regained her balance and returned to the safety of the shoulder.
“What’s she doing out here on the highway?” I screamed. Beads of cold sweat blotched my face, my knuckles white, pulse erratic.
A Romanian highway is either a three lane road, with one and half lanes going each direction, or a two lane road. There is no such thing as a divided highway. There is no differentiation between freeways, highways or village roads. They flow into and out of each other without demarcation or division. Speed limits are ignored and overtaking is done at everybody’s risk. Driving on the right or on the left, or straddling the center divider are all viable options for getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
“What is he thinking…wait, what is he doing?” Christine balked as a black Fiat pulled up on our front fender with two wheels in our lane, straddling the solid center line. A fast approaching truck flashed its lights and blasted its air horn at the Fiat, but did not yield an inch of its lane.
“He’s gonna get us all killed!” I stepped hard on the brakes. The rear view mirror filled with the grill of large truck close behind us. The Fiat shifted right just in time to save his wing mirror, but reverted immediately to hanging his left wheels over the center line after the lumbering truck had wooshed by us, shaking our car.
Quickly the Fiat was even with the car ahead of us, ready again to play his terrifying game of chicken with the oncoming cars. I refused to acknowledge a blue Ford creeping into my peripheral vision, which pulled up even with us, riding the bumper of the Fiat, straddling the dividing line, trying to force us into the shoulder.
“Asocial Bucharest drivers!” I yelled out the window in anger, not daring to use my hands for anything else but steering the car.
The oncoming traffic was now also stacked two wide in one lane. The Ford tried to merge his long chasis in between two bumpers a meter apart. The short Fiat darted right again, just in time. I could not brake to let the Ford in, as I had the freight truck behind us looming large in the mirrors, signaling to overtake us at the first opportunity. Christine gasped. I held my breath. The Ford and the oncoming car missed each other by only millimeters but did not slow at all. We watched in horror as the deadly game of leapfrog continued unabated along the line of cars both ahead of and behind us. Was I the only one who found this too crazy for words?
“Can we try some Hungarian donuts?” Lucy asked from the back seat.
“Where did you learn about Hungarian donuts?”
“Duhhh, Dad. Everybody is selling them on the side of the road. Look!” She mocked my acquired tunnel vision.
“Why does it seem that this whole country is one big road side stop?”
Where any refreshment for weary drivers is offered, cars stop abruptly without warning and park haphazardly, half on the shoulder and half in the road. Drivers step out of their cars without caution and saunter leisurely over the asphalt to buy Hungarian donuts, warm bread, or to fill a water bottle from a roadside mountain spring. Grill rooms serving shoarmas and pomme-frites, and bars serving alcohol (?) are built with doors that open up directly onto the shoulder of the road, just like the colorful, one-story country houses. There are no parking facilities ‘out back,’ no leafy pull-offs with picnic tables and port-a-potties for a pleasant sanitary stop. It was not uncommon to see large bellied men wearing fedoras enjoying a tall cold one, with their toes and heals sticking out into the road itself.
Romania has been launched unprepared into the modern European economy after its own development was stunted by forty years of Communism. The transportation infrastructure in the country is not keeping pace with the modern situation, holding back development even more. Roads which connect major industrial centers remain narrow, winding, two lane roads up and over the rugged Carpathian mountains. Large trucks, fast cars and tractors must all share the same roads leading to long backups on mountain passes and dangerous passing situations (see above). There are no freeways to divert heavy traffic around picturesque Transylvanian villages. There are few alternatives to the main roads through a village for local traffic. The roads are for everybody and are used by everybody in any type of vehicle…or none at all, going any speed they can.
Livestock are regularly seen tethered to road signs, enjoying the untouched grass along the roadside. (Somehow they know to keep their haunches out of the road while happily chewing.) Young mothers with young children carrying water jugs and workmen riding wobbly bicycles on the shoulder must be carefully steered around while avoiding oncoming traffic. The ubiquitous, slow moving horse carts, hauling everything from fresh cut firewood to scrap metal are a constant moving hazard in both the towns and on the open road. Yet, it is the modern sports cars, usually those with a capital ‘B’ on their license plates, recklessly passing tractors and freight trucks around blind corners or while cresting hills, that present the biggest danger to life and limb on the Romanian roads.
Despite the casual concern for their own lives behind the wheel on the highways, Romanians have great respect and sentimentality for the institutions in society that make life worth living; friendship, grandma’s house and the pedestrian crosswalk. Such things should never be desecrated.
“Kids, watch out! Wait for the Mercedes to pass before we cross,” I said stretching my arm out, planting my open palm in the chest of my boy to stop him from darting his skinny body into the crosswalk in front of the fast approaching roadster. With the traffic lights showing green for as far as they eye could see down the wide urban boulevard, there was nothing to stop the driver from opening up the throttle for a bit of city joyriding on a bright Sunday morning. To our great astonishment, he stopped. He stopped and he waited. The five of us crossed the six lanes from curb to curb before he sped off in a cloud of gasoline vapor and testosterone.
Wherever we were in Romania, in Bucharest, Braşov, or Sighiṣoara or at a roadside stop for Hungarian donuts or even crossing a rural highway on a blind corner, the pedestrian crosswalk was rarely violated. During the entire visit, the only I time I saw a car cross the zebra striping with pedestrians in the crosswalk, to my discredit, was my own car, with me behind the wheel. The scorn that was poured out on me from the people on either side of the street was scathing. I burned with embarrassment for ten kilometers. I made that mistake only once.
“Is there anything I should know?”
“No, that should do it….” he said with a frightened smile
So glad I kept those headlights on.
*************************************************************************************Did you enjoy this story? Watch for it and others like it in V M Karren’s short story collection: The Tales of a Fly-By-Night. and his NEW novel From the Rooftops, available now via Amazon.com