Riding with the Paparazzi

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Brașov, Romania – July 2010

Rather than take the cable car that lifts tourists to the top of Tampa Mountain, I choose to walk the trail through the forest. In spite of the bears. They sleep during the day, I remind myself. But I look over my shoulder just the same. My sister Penelope is at an adventure park. After being stuck in a car together for days, we took the day off from each other. We have finished our Vlad Dracula tour from Sighișoara to Poenari Fortress to Bran Castle. Our visit to Bran Castle was half-hearted. It’s marketed as “Dracula’s Castle”, but has almost no connection to Vlad. Unlike Sighișoara and Poenari Fortress, it was mobbed with tourists.

When I get to the top, I pause to take some photos and then walk back down into the city. I deserve a reward for the climb, so I stop into a gourmet ice cream shop and order a lavender ice cream. The girl hands me a golf ball-sized scoop in a tiny cone. It costs the equivalent of three euros. Insulted, I eat it in three bites and then walk back to the guesthouse. That’s what I get for ordering lavender ice cream.

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Penelope is back. She shows me the insides of her thighs. Huge welts are blackening to bruises. “I overdid it. I chose the black track, the hardest one.” But her mood has lifted. We go into the common living room and have some drinks with the other guests. Some have been to Bran Castle, others went to Peleș Castle. None of them have been to the bear sanctuary. Penelope and I want to go, but they don’t guarantee that you’ll see bears. It would be disappointing to waste an evening for nothing.

Penelope goes outside to have a cigarette. A few seconds later, she calls my name. I step outside. A guy, one of the local friends of the guesthouse owner, stands in the shadows. “You want to see bears? I know someone who will take you to see bears.” He goes on to say that the bears come down to forage in the garbage bins behind the apartment buildings at the edge of the city. It’s illegal to bear watch in Brașov, but his friend will do it for a price.

While he calls the bear watching guide, Penelope and I go inside and ask the others if they want to come along. Two Swedish women, both lawyers, enthusiastically accept. A Danish woman confers with her husband about taking their young daughter. The guy informs us that the guide will be here within minutes. Everyone heads to their rooms to get cameras. We pass the Danish woman on our way back downstairs.

“Are you going?” I ask

She pouts. “He won’t let me take our daughter,” She puts her hands on her hips and imitates his pompous tone of voice. “You can’t do that! It’s illegal!” She brightens a little when she tells us about the tattoo she’s getting tomorrow. She gets a souvenir tattoo from every place she visits. For Transylvania, she’s decided on fangs and a drop of blood on the side of her neck.

A honk outside beckons us away.

Her husband is sitting in the living room, staring at the television with a brooding expression.

Penelope pops her head into the room. “Are you getting a fangs tattoo?”

Petulant sigh. “I don’t know.”

“You should get one on your balls!” she bellows.

A listless guffaw escapes him.

We step into the night. “Penelope.” I giggle.

“Oh, so what. What a stick in the mud.”

A car idles by the side of the road. The two Swedish ladies are already inside. The guide walks over to us and shakes our hands. He’s wearing an immaculate white track suit emblazoned with blue and red stars and stripes and USA logos. The owner comes out and speaks to him for a few seconds. He gives his friend a hard look, shakes his head, and then goes back inside.

Penelope snickers. “I’ve always wondered who wears those.”

The guide gets into the car and off we go. A rosary hangs from the rearview mirror and Orthodox icons are affixed above it. Every time we pass a church, he crosses himself three times. Without pausing his speech. What we’re doing is illegal. If he tells us to put our cameras away, we need to put them away immediately. We should not get out of the car at any time. People sometimes get killed by the bears. He can get out of the car. He can even feed the bears, if he wants. He has photos of himself feeding the bears. But we should never get out of the car.

He pulls up next to a sign and turns around to look at us. “It says we have to pay a lot of money if they catch us. So if I tell you to hide the cameras, you hide them. Okay?” He waits for each of us to nod before he turns back around.

He drives to the end of a road, parks across from some dumpsters, and shuts off the lights. We wait. Minutes pass. I think back to the time when my grandparents took us to a huge garbage dump to look for bears. We were camping in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and Grandma said it was a fun thing to do. She popped popcorn over the portable stove. We piled into her van and drove to the outskirts of Marquette. We sat for hours. Not so much as a shadow appeared. You kids need to learn to be patient, she chided us when we complained that we were bored.

I won’t be upset if we see nothing. We had nothing else to do tonight anyway. The guide is entertainment enough.

His phone rings. He answers it, says a few words, and then steps on the gas. A car speeds towards us. They flash their lights at each other. “We work together,” the guide explains. “We have two spots.” If the other guy spots bears at the other building, he calls. While we’re at one, he’s at the other.

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We arrive at the other spot just as a huge black mass lumbers off into the darkness, leaving behind an overturned dumpster. The phone rings again. He steps on the gas. The rosary smacks against the windshield. He crosses himself three times. He grins at us when we laugh.

The dumpster back at the original spot is overturned. A bear has come and gone. The car idles with lights on. A bear struts into the spotlight. We roll down our windows halfway and snap photos. The bear shoots us an amused look and then gets down to work. A smaller bear waits patiently for it to finish and then moves in. The phone rings. He picks up, speaks a few words, and then steps on the gas. “We’re going to another spot.”

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Another car full of tourists is there when we arrive. There are other guides in the city, our guide explains, but none of them are as organized as he and his partner. They only take you to one spot!

A bear lurches out of the forest. He has the comically arrogant swagger of a circus midget. He swings himself up on the dumpster and leans inside, spreading his butt cheeks wide open. “I think he’s trying to tell us something,” I say. We laugh until our sides hurt. He jumps down, snorts at us, and wanders off. The phone rings. Off we go.

A flurry of flashes lights up the end of the street. “Paparazzi!” Penelope and one of the Swedish ladies say in unison. Several cars full of tourists crowd the corner. If the police really wanted to bust people, it wouldn’t be difficult. A trio of beasts digs through the detritus, and then two of them stalk away. The straggler lifts his head and bares his teeth in a practiced smile.

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**I had to leave out a few other amusing details about the guide, because they might have given away his identity, and I don’t want him to have problems.**

Conversations for a Vast Silence

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?

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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.

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On The Trail of Vlad Dracula

Our journey begins in Sighișoara, birthplace of Vlad Dracula aka Vlad the Impaler. It is a warm, gloomy day in July 2010. My sister Pebby and I pass through the gate under the crumbling 14th century clock tower. The tiny walled city is more hushed than silent. Watchful. Although these days the invaders arrive on tour busses.


The house where Vlad lived until he was four years old is now a restaurant – Casa Dracula. My sister scrutinizes the menu. A waiter comes out and scowls at us. Pebby sets the menu down and we set off in search of friendlier establishments.

Two days later we drive the winding, magnificent Transfăgărăşan highway. Poenari Fortress, Vlad’s real castle, awaits us at the end. Contrary to popular belief, it’s in the province of Wallachia, not Transylvania. It’s nearly impossible to reach by public transport, and I’ve heard that many Romanians aren’t even aware of its existence. With every twist and turn of the road, a migraine digs its claws deeper into my skull.

We round a bend and catch our first glimpse of the castle, which is perched high on a cliff overlooking the Argeș River canyon. It’s 1480 steps straight up to the castle. On a scale of one to ten, my migraine is now an eight. I should be seeking a silent, dark room. But, dammit, I’m at Dracula’s castle. I take a deep breath and begin the ascent.

At the top, we find ourselves totally alone, except for the guard at the ticket booth. I stagger around the ruins, disoriented. The pain drowns out any wonder that I might feel. My sister wanders off on her own, annoyed that I want to stop in Curtea de Argeș for the night instead of driving another three hours of winding road to Brașov.

I spend the eternal night wishing for a swift death. My favorite quote from Bram Stoker’s  Dracula takes on a whole new meaning:

No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.

And yes, my migraine dissipates with the breaking dawn. I am weak, but euphoric. Ready to hit the road for Bran Castle, which is on the way to Brașov.

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Most tourists only make it to Bran Castle, which is marketed to the masses as Dracula’s Castle. It’s conveniently located a couple of hours from Bucharest and only thirty minutes from Brașov, which is on the main trail for those backpacking across Europe. It is said that Vlad might have attacked the castle in 1460. But this is not certain.

The parking lot is jammed with tour busses. Tourists swarm the entrance. Souvenir vendors beckon us from their wooden stalls. They glare at us when we pass by without stopping. The ticket cashier scolds me for not having exact change. Once inside, we follow behind an American family. The father sneaks up behind his very young sons, grasps their shoulders, and whispers, “Boo!” Pebby and I look at each other and roll our eyes.