Somewhere in Transylvania, Romania – July 2010
About an hour outside of Sibiu, color appears on the green expanse of Transylvania. A small group of Gypsies in traditional dress passes by in a horse drawn cart. Others follow behind on foot. The men wear white shirts, black trousers, and wide-brimmed hats. The women’s skirts swirl around them – pirouettes of red and orange and pink.
I perk up, grab my camera, and roll down the window. “Don’t slow down. They don’t like their photos taken.” I aim my camera out the window and snap a quick photo of a straggler. She turns, so I withdraw my camera and avert my eyes before they can meet hers. I watch her recede in the rear view mirror.
The spell of my sullen silence has been broken. I haven’t spoken to Pebby since we left Sibiu.
She sighs through her nose. “No more party hostels,” she says for the second time today. She pauses and then concedes, “Okay. Only private rooms from now on.”
I nod and then massage the base of my neck. This day will end with a nasty migraine. I slept maybe an hour last night. I’d wanted to prove to Pebby that I wasn’t too prissy to stay in a dorm room at a hostel, so I booked one in Sibiu. It had its own bar in the basement and got good reviews on hostel websites. I was ignorant of the “party hostel” scene. Pebby and I shared a room with two Australian girls who were young enough to be our children. After the bar opened, most of the hostel guests descended to the basement. Music and loud voices wafted up to the second floor.
I decided to take a shower before going to bed, since it was clear that sleep would be elusive. The women’s bathroom was deserted, but I could hear the spray of a single shower on the men’s side. A few moments into my shower, the peacefulness was interrupted. The young gentleman was vigorously and enthusiastically washing one part of his body over and over. Or. His grunts echoed in the empty, high-ceilinged room. I froze, and then looked around to see if there was a peephole anywhere in the wall of my stall. Even though I found none, I quickly finished and marched into our room. I was too old for this crap.
“Gross,” Pebby said when I told her. Then she snickered. “We should go in the bathroom and imitate him. Loudly.”
I laughed. After some of the hostel stories Pebby had told me, this one was tame. The regret that I’d had at not being able to backpack across Europe as a young adult vanished. I was never young enough for this crap.
A couple of hours later, we reemerge once again from our silence as we search for the turnoff to the Transfăgărășan Road. I scrutinize the map and point out the turnoff. As the road ascends and bends, Pebby’s knuckles whiten on the steering wheel. The migraine’s claws dig deeper into my skull and neck. Poenari Fortress, the real Dracula’s castle, awaits us at the end of this road. This is stage two of our Vlad Dracula tour. We fall into silence again.
We pass by picnicking families and waterfalls. Our Transylvania journey began in Sighișoara three days ago. We spent one day there before taking a train to Sibiu. The memory of this train ride makes me giggle. “Muffin Butt,” is what I say to break the silence again.
Pebby snickers. “He was sexy.” Her grip on the steering wheel relaxes.
Muffin Butt was the name that Pebby chose for the train conductor. Middle-aged and doughy, he looked warm and not fully settled into shape, like he was recently popped out of a baking mold. He should have been cooling on a rack in some Granny’s kitchen. If you poked your finger into him, it would take a while for the indentation to smooth out. “He’s hot,” Pebby proclaimed as the train glided through the Transylvanian countryside. Every once in a while, the train would stop at a village to pick up and drop off passengers.
I snorted. “Yeah, what a God.”
“I’m serious.” She stared at him as he punched the tickets of newly embarked passengers. “There’s something about him.” She curled her lip and shook her head. “Look at him. He knows it.”
“Penelope.” But I watched him more intently. Yes, there was a definite swagger to his walk. An arrogance in his droopy-eyed, puffy-jowled smirk. I watched him though the window when he got off the train at the next stop. A pretty girl of about eighteen stood next to him, waiting to embark. She looked him up and down, her eyes filled with lust. I shook my head in wonder.
Pebby said, “You see, I told you.”
The road is long and intense and our conversations have consisted of: “No more party hostels”, “Turn here”, “Muffin Butt”, and a couple of one-sentence replies. Chatter is litter in such pristine silence. The migraine’s pain has become almost transcendental. If I reach out to touch the landscape will it morph into something else?
At the end of the day, we round a bend. Poenari Fortress appears at the top of a cliff. I try to focus my bleary eyes on the crumbling structure. Sometime soon after, I lift one leg after the other and climb the 1480 steps to the top. Pebby and I are the only visitors. I walk to the edge, trying not to sway. The edges of my vision blur and constrict as I look back over the way we came.