Thursday, July 30, 2015

Romania - a country of contrasts and communication challenges: Part 1, Cluj Napoka and a train ride to remember

On Tuesday last week, Koos and I flew to Cluj Napoka in Romania. Our purpose? A week's exploration and wandering to experience the Romanian culture and scenery courtesy of the Hungarian budget airline, Wizzair. Oh and yes, to take a few photos too - as one does, of course.

Cluj Napoka's airport is surprisingly close to the town. I imagine this is because it is in something of a valley between the Carpathian mountains, so there is limited space there for an airport. Further evidence was provided by the pilot who made a nail bitingly fast descent to the runway. No one else seemed to notice, though, so maybe that was just my paranoia kicking in.

In any event, I can say that everywhere you look in the city, the mountains are visible in the distance. Cluj is an ancient university town and the second most populous city in Romania. It is a gorgeous place with beautiful, informal but gracious suburbs. Gardens front nearly all the houses: some are glorious and spill over with flowering shrubs; others are simply shambolic. The atmosphere in the centre is lively, friendly and embracing. It is full of contradictions too: the old station is the new one and vice versa.

Everywhere you look, the mountains are visible
in the distance.
A gorgeous city
The old station (newly built in the seventies but out of use)

The new station (the original, older, much larger station,
renovated and back in use)
We found the general attitude to be laid back with a capital L and loved it. Walking to our hotel via the long route (we got lost), we entertained ourselves by watching a group of road workers. Five were sitting on the pavement having a smoke, one was working and one was supervising the one who was working. No one seemed bothered, least of all the one who was doing the work. We speculated that maybe they take it in turns.

Life is laid back with a capital L

The evening was when the city came to life, though. While we meandered through the old centre, a saxophonist played lilting melodies that filled the warm balmy air. During the day, it was hot to the point of exhaustion, but a welcome riverside café on the Somesul Mic river that runs through the city was a safe haven. We watched men hanging from cables high up on an old building, painstakingly working on its restoration. It was 34 degrees in the shade and the heat was climbing. I thought that at least they would land somewhere cool if they fell off. The water looked much more inviting than being suspended in mid air over it.
A waterside cafe: safe haven from the heat

Workers restoring an old building. Rather them than me!

Lively, charming Cluj

We actually only spent one night in Cluj as our real destination was Timisoara. We'd decided to go by rail, which meant departing at 3:45 in the afternoon giving us most of the day in Cluj, which was a bonus. But the journey to our next stop became its own adventure and for me, it ended up being the highlight of our trip.

We arrived at the station in good time, but the train was late, very late - apparently normal for Romania. When it finally arrived and eventually left, it was half an hour behind schedule, but then it had already come more than five hundred kilometers through the mountains, so we had to forgive it.

We seemed to crawl the first hundred and fifty odd kilometres through stunning mountain scenery. Crawl, because the engine was old, diesel powered (or under powered) and lumbering. The carriage windows were grimy, filthy even. And condensation was trapped between their double layers making it almost impossible to see out. For me, this added to its exotic charm. It felt like going back in time, especially as we had those old-fashioned compartments with a passage up the side. I felt like a child again.

The temperature, however, was almost unbearable. If it was 35 degrees outside, it must have been well over 40 in the train. Sweat poured off us and we took our cue from the others in our compartment by making fans out of anything we could find. For me, it was our map. We also spent much time alternating with fellow passengers in the passage, almost hanging out of the openable windows. Then someone had the bright idea of opening a carriage door to have a smoke…a practice that is apparently not unusual, even if not actually allowed. Our fellow travellers in our compartment trooped along to follow suit and we joined them. This proved great for contact and conversation. And friendships, however ephemeral, were formed. As we were returning to our places, a female conductor saw us. She realised immediately what had been happening at that open doorway. 'No comment' was all she said, with a smile. It was too hot for admonishments. The carriage door remained open.

A Romanian locomotive

After Oradea, the terrain flattened out as we followed the Hungarian border south first to Arad and then on to Timisoara. The train picked up a bit of speed, but stopped at several villages. I was fascinated by the stations. They looked like private homes and had platforms of just a few short metres of wooden boards. Most passengers had to climb down onto the grass and walk to the station yard across rough terrain - they made do with what they had and helped each other over the humps. Clearly, Brussels has not reached Romania yet. As for Health and Safety, well we won't mention that.

By now, we had our own club in our compartment: sharing water, snacks and illicit smokes at the open door. The heat provided the cohesion, quite literally. At Arad, we changed from diesel to electric locomotive. Sadly, we also lost most of our fellow passengers there. 'So nice to meet you,' they said with big smiles and handshakes before leaving the compartment. So friendly. Such courtesy. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a journey as much; nor ever been so hot and sticky. But somehow the latter physical discomfort contributed to the former emotional satisfaction. Odd, but true.

By now I was getting concerned about the time. This train was scheduled to take four hours. We were already close to five and we'd left late too. I phoned the hotel from the passage, but the noise from the uneven rails was too much competition so I couldn't hear a thing. I just shouted an estimated ETA and hoped for the best.

Two remaining passengers - young Romanian students - kept us entertained for the rest of what ultimately became a six hour ride. They were at university in Timisoara, and wanted to tell us all about their country and their city. This was something we found throughout our trip. Romanians love their land and are very keen to tell you about it. One of the pair was studying psychology, but he looked more like a top tennis player - one of those outrageously handsome ones, you know the type. 'If you could have a choice between living inside someone's head for a day, or flying for five minutes a day, which would you choose?' he asked. It was that kind of conversation.

We arrived to a hot, humid night in Timisoara six hours after leaving Cluj. It was 10:30 pm and still around 30 degrees. Our students led us to a nearby taxi rank ('if you catch one outside the station, it will be twice as much,' they said). The taxi driver spoke German - of a sort. He told us what the fare to the hotel would be - no meter, we were to understand, but no receipt. It sounded like a big favor, but the price was more than we'd already been advised to accept, so we asked him to put his meter on. He made a show of tapping it, but it didn't change throughout the ride - a minor, but friendly rip-off. At least we knew. And he knew that we knew too. He then told us with great enthusiasm that he would take us to Belgrade for €1000, a bit startling when we'd only just arrived and hadn't planned on going anywhere else that night, least of all across the border into Serbia. It also took us a few moments of shocked awe to realise he meant a hundred and not a thousand. As I said, it was German of a sort.

What mattered though was that we'd made it, we'd arrived and within five minutes of leaving the station,  the hotel owner received us with a warm welcome.

We were ready for phase two of our adventure.

To be continued….

Monday, July 13, 2015

Dealing with loss

I’ve just read Jo Carroll’s very moving post about the passing away of someone she has known since childhood. She has expressed it beautifully and as I read it, I just wanted to keep saying ‘yes, yes – that’s just how it feels.’

In my last post, I touched on the fact I’d lost a very dear friend recently to cancer. It happened when I was in South Africa, something I’d been dreading since I booked my flight several months ago. Unlike Jo's, my friend was not very old, but the battle with cancer had been going on for nearly four years. In the last months, it became clear that it was a matter of time - and I knew it. Nevertheless, I  haven’t felt able to write about it for two reasons: one being that I know the family wouldn’t want anyone to put two and two together – I , like Jo, have to and want to respect their privacy and that’s increasingly difficult on the internet these days; the other is that I really could not find the words to say how I felt, except that a very important light in my life has gone out.

Jo’s post is so moving; she writes with such perception, I’d like to link to it here. Please read it.

For myself, this photo was one I took in South Africa on learning the news. I was given some time to be alone (thank you, Moira), so I wandered round these tracks taking it in - dealing with the 'dislocation' as Jo puts it. This image, with its rails disappearing into the distance, felt fitting.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Getting back to writing

Just for some eye candy. My Zeeland view

The year to date has been full of challenges and there has been quite a bit of stress involved that has distracted me from writing. But now at last I am pleased to be getting back into it. It's not easy, though. I find I lack energy for very much and the old flow is difficult to regain. Doing my Master's took a lot out of me; I also lost my beloved dog to old age and a very, very dear friend to cancer. None of these has been easy to deal with.

But back to the writing: my current books will never achieve best seller status. I know that. The idealistic dream was just that - idealism in its most optimistic, but unrealistic form - lovely while it lasted, but that was about as long as it took to press the publish button on Kindle. The English speaking market here in NL is relatively small; there are few shops stocking English books, but there such readers as there are usually have the internet,  so native speaking readers have a huge selection to choose via the multitude of online bookstores.

The result is that I only have steady sales via Kindle books, mostly through, but…telling enough...I've only sold one on in the last six months! Of the Kindle sales, the majority are my memoirs. My fiction doesn't do well despite winning an award for my teen novel, so I've come to accept that memoirs are the best area for me in terms of selling, but is that what I want to keep writing? And why do I write anyway?

A bit more of my view. Writing inspiration

At the moment I'm busy working on the account of the three years we lived part time in Belgium. By that, I mean we were weekend residents on our barge in Brussels. It was a period rich in experiences and recollections, so I am writing about those and hoping to publish them as an e-book later this year. I've also got an African story in the pipeline. Light hearted and hopefully humorous, but nothing of great literary value.

What I really want is to write a 'real' novel and that's what I'm aiming for. I enjoy writing the non-fictional narratives, but I miss the freedom of creativity that fiction gives.

I loved writing The Skipper's Child, which was set in the 1960s, but I'd like to go back just a bit further in time and write a novel about war time on the Dutch waterways. It's going to take a lot of research and I've been buying books about the period, all of which are in Dutch - quite a challenge for me still. My plan is that this one will be for adults, and not a YA book. It will also be part thriller, part history, part family life and relationships. Again, Koos' father has been something of an inspiration. I never knew him, but I feel he was a courageous man of great principle and he would not have baulked at doing what he knew to be right. I'm really excited about the idea of this writing project, but I know I've got to do the reading first, so….

For the next year, I'll be finishing my Belgian memoir and the story set in South Africa (which I confess I started months ago). These two are easy to write. They will be my outlet until I'm ready for the big one. I just have to keep at it and get my writing flow back again!

In the interim, I'm busy with boats (as always), gardens (I prefer to look, but they don't do themselves) and travelling (a trip to Romania coming up), so life is pretty full despite my apathy. Maybe it's not that bad, hey?

My favorite plants of all time - Hollyhocks
known as Stokrozen here
Have a wonderful sunny weekend everyone…(okay, I know I'm starting early, but that makes a change) xxx

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Absence makes the heart grow fonder…or South Africa in ten days

The title of this blog has more than one significance for me. For one thing, I've been away from my blog and blogland too long (why is life so busy?). For another, I've been away to a country and a friend I've missed sorely over the years and in that sense, I have probably grown even fonder of it than before.

For those I haven't seen on Facebook, I've just spent ten days in my beloved South Africa with my dearest and best friend, Moira (I wrote about our friendship back in 2007 here). It seems almost daft to talk about 'best friends' at my age, but Moi is one of those for whom time apart makes no difference. Within seconds of my arrival, we were giggling over absurdities just as we've always done.

We drove from Johannesburg to the midlands of Kwazulu Natal, a hauntingly beautiful part of the country, where we stayed in a self-catering 'chalet' (although what it had to do with quaint wooden houses and decks remained a mystery to me as in reality it was a full-sized house). Every morning of our stay, we got up, wrapped blankets around us and went onto the veranda overlooking the magnificent foothills of the Drakensberg. The early part of each day was chilly, but the sun shone in cloudless blue skies as we sat there talking, laughing and drinking coffee (or tea in Moi's case) accompanied from day one by the stable cat. She in fact moved in and never left, so Moi took her home to Jo'burg at the end of our stay with the blessing of the stables' owners.

We sat here every morning wrapped in blankets

View from our veranda
We did a few trips out, and a good deal of walking, but mostly we were there to relax and catch up. I wrote a diary during the week, and reading it back, I chuckle anew over the daft things we did: trying to reach the chalet car port by driving over the garden instead of the road (a rather bumpier ride than intended) and attempting to open up the house with the car keys (it was more like forcing an entry) were just two of them. We got the giggles like school girls, and one evening we were laughing so much over my cavalier attitude to cooking dinner, I had to dash to the loo before I had an embarrassing accident. 

We had some lovely walks. This retreat was on one route

A trip out to Giants Castle in the Drakensberg

Giants Castle reserve

The mighty Drakensberg

Trains - always a draw card for me
But then there were the incredible stars - the Milky Way seemed so close you felt could touch it, and the Southern Cross was like a vivid beacon, a true guiding light in the sky.  There were the fire-breaks and controlled burn-offs (plus some that were uncontrolled and scary) that I remember from living there myself. And there was the beauty of the scenery to make us stop in awe. Even more impressive was the Mandela Monument near Howick to remind us of what the country has been through. There were also the observations I made: for instance, people are so very open, helpful and friendly that for me, coming from this northern, more reticent culture, it was a wonderful reminder of SA's great (and justified) reputation for hospitality. Another observation was how things have changed to meet the new market demands there. I was highly entertained to notice that the clothes mannequins in the shop windows all had very pert, well rounded behinds - no longer the skinny European style models! As I said, local market demands…

An out of control burn off - scary!

The amazing sculpture of Mandela by Marco Cianfanelli

Lions River. This old house now houses
a sort of antique shop

Lastly there was the clear indication that while the affluence in SA is now much more evenly spread in terms of racial mix, there is sadly no real diminution of the numbers of desperately poor people. Many of these have come from neighboring countries - from economies crippled by conflict, drought and mismanagement - and are seeking a better life. Nevertheless, South Africa is not yet economically strong enough to cope and the pressure on its own infra-structures is showing. Power cuts are a regular occurrence with scheduled 'outages' of several hours several times a month. More and more, people are talking about 'going off the grid' and making their own electricity with solar power. 

To add to the problems, a failure in water management planning means that in some places 50% of the drinking water is lost 'in the pipeline' due to lack of maintenance and even theft. This, in a country prone to drought as well. These are challenges South Africa is facing. They are serious, and they will need to be addressed if the people are to move forward.

Water is often wasted in the (broken) pipelines
All said, though, and despite these issues that I discussed at length with Moi, it was a fabulous ten days and it did me a power of good to spend time with my Best Friend. I don't honestly know when I'll be able to go back again; there's no doubt I always leave a part of my heart there, so I'm sure it won't be too far off as I can never stay away for long.