JÜRGEN RENDL 990 KILOMETRES OF TRAVELLING LIKE A RABBIT
I soon realise that my chances to hitch a truck going to Bucharest overnight are increasingly minuscule. An elderly man trying to sell carved wooden souvenirs to truck drivers points towards a gas station a bit further down the dusty road. Following his advice, I walk past abandoned exchange kiosks and weathered billboards. Accompanied by a polyphonic chorus of birds and stray dogs, I watch the sunset reflected in a large fish pond next to the road.
Backpacking further East
It is mid-May and I am putting on my backpack under the sparse shade of a tree in the Eastern Austrian border town of Kittsee. Having delivered my postal vote for the second run-off of the Austrian presidential election, I start walking down the main square, past abandoned shops and posters showing the polished face of the far-right candidate. This is where my journey to Bucharest begins. Soon, I reach the line of the former Iron Curtain, now marked by a beautiful path, lined with tall trees surrounded by blossoming elderbush. After a kilometre or two, I spot the motorway service station of Jarovce near Bratislava gleaming towards me across the dry soil of a vast cornfield.
Signs of the Steppe
It is there where I immerse, yet again, in the nervous twitches of transit. After chatting up to dozens of drivers who turn out to go to Vienna, I luckily bump into a convivial Slovak trucker on his way to Budapest. He invites me to join him, alongside tons of bland tomatoes and peppers grown on rockwool in the widespread greenhouse areas of Andalusia. As we are heading down the motorway, he tells me he readily picks up hitchhikers, as he appreciates their company - well, except for a Czech tramp, whom he once had to feed and host for three days until he vanished.
Our ways part at a service station, a few kilometers away from Budapest. But it doesn’t take long until I find my next ride: a mid-fifty guy from Bratislava, who is just on his way to visit the “highly magyarised” Slovak community of Békéscsaba, where he has to coordinate the preparations of a meeting of Slovak Lutheranians from the regions of Banat and Vojvodina. As for travelling, he says he wants to visit Russia, where some 30 years ago he experienced amazing hospitality, when he was invited to a conference given his initial profession of a researcher. But more than the event’s professional context, it was its social setting that impressed him, with hosts creating “amazing situations out of nothing”. Now he dreams of a journey with the Transsiberian Railway, to see lake Bajkal and to pass through the endless forestscapes, where timezones become mere footnotes.
An anti-immigration billboard next to an abandoned branch of Maccy D’s brings us back to the reality of Central Europe. It makes us ponder upon the bleak political situation and the rise of xenophobia in the region, but then we let our thoughts drift again towards the lure of the Central Asian Steppe.
Later, at a rest area near Kecskemét, it is another group of Slovaks, who give me a ride, a young guy and two girls, who are on their way to the Romanian border town of Nădlac. It is the girls’ hometown, just like to some 4.000 other Slovaks, half of its population. Some years ago, they followed an invitation to study in the Slovak town of Trnava, but still maintain close ties with Nădlac. “To us, Slovakia means opportunity”, they explain. The guy comes from what he calls a “valley of hunger”, but considers himself lucky to have found work in a French automotive plant in Trnava. Only two of his former schoolmates still live in his home town Revúca. Both are unemployed.
Crossing into Romania
Soon we leave the motorway and reach the old border checkpoint, passed by only a few cars. A few minutes later we enter Romania, following an aged minivan packed with crates of live chicken desperately staring at us through the rear window. The three guys wish me luck and show me the way to a motel, “just in case”. But I decide to try my luck at the truck lane. Unfortunately, most of the heavy vehicles turn out to be Turkish, heading south to cross the Danube into Bulgaria. Nevertheless, some of the drivers, many of them speaking German, invite me to join. I soon realise that my chances to hitch a truck going to Bucharest overnight are increasingly minuscule. An elderly man trying to sell carved wooden souvenirs to truck drivers points towards a gas station a bit further down the dusty road. Following his advice, I walk past abandoned exchange kiosks and weathered billboards. Accompanied by a polyphonic chorus of birds and stray dogs, I watch the sunset reflected in a large fish pond next to the road.
The gas station indeed provides a busier setting: minibuses with Romanian, Bulgarian, French or British registration plates bringing workers to the West are crossing paths with cars carrying trailers loaded with Western second hand cars destined for Eastern Europe. Next to the gas station I find a dimly lit restaurant in a wooden cottage. Inside, two Turkish truck drivers are having dinner, and an older local invites me to sit with him. He speaks in a strange mix of Romanian with bits of French and English. Noticing my hitchhiking sign and backpack, he says “Iepure... voyager... ca un iepure!” Hoping to ease my confusion, the resolute waitress translates into Slovak, as if it was some sort of lingua franca: Ako zajac, rozumiete?
“Like a rabbit, I travel like a rabbit”
Through the window of the restaurant I see a truck coming from the border, pulling in at the gas station. I decide to try my luck. The driver turns out to be Slovak and offers to take me to a truck-park near Arad, where he sees better chances for me to find somebody going to Bucharest. I gladly join. Before departing, we have a coffee at the gas station. The trucker carries some parcels sent by a community of Nădlac-natives having settled in his Slovak hometown Pezinok. He made many friends between here and there during the years of driving along that route. Surprisingly, the atmosphere in the otherwise bland cafeteria resembles that of a village pub, where everyone knows each other. It appears just as if this was a major hub of exchange between an ever fluctuating community of migrants and their homes.
Half an hour later, just as our conversation starts to feel awkward due to my driver’s anti-refugee sentiments, we arrive at the promised truck-stop. Located along the old transit road E68, the new motorway lies a few kilometers away. Nevertheless, the vast neon-lit assemblage of guarded parking lots, sanitary facilities, snack bars, repair shops, a gas station, and a motel makes a lively impression. The latter is flanked by some women offering their services, despite looking surprisingly inconspicuous. Turning around, I spot a Polish car with a trailer just pulling up in front of a shop. I approach the driver and ask where he’s going. He explains that he is on his way to Vienna, to pick up a second hand car, but I could join him to the motorway service station just before the border, and then cross over to the one operating the other direction. I jump in. The friendly man in his early fifties tells me he comes from Jelenia Góra, but has settled near Arad, where he has found happiness surrounded by nature and his family, making a living from car imports. He stresses he doesn’t need much in life, time being his only luxury. Already a few kilometers later, our shared journey ends. When I leave the car, he taps my shoulder and says: “It’s important to never give up searching, good luck!”
Midnight at Petrom
Comprised only of a few containers and lacking a roof, the gas station has a strikingly makeshift appearance. I enter the brightest lit of the modules, trying to find an up-to-date road map of Romania. The friendly employees readily assist me, explaining in Slovak (sic!) which route would be best, and which license plates and road signs to follow. Even after midnight, there is still plenty of traffic, though most cars seem to be packed. Among them, I spot one from Austria, driven by a young Romanian guy accompanied by a girl, who turns out to live and study in Graz. In flawless German she tells me that her family left Alba Iulia ten years ago, after her father found work in Austria. Now they are on their way to visit their grandparents - only for a few days and for the first time in two years, their station wagon packed with cardboard boxes.
After more than an hour, I finally find a ride. An easy going guy lets me know in fragmented German that he and his wife could take me some 150 km further East. I understand that they have just arrived from Denmark, heading to somewhere in Transylvania, loaded - yes - with a second hand car on a trailer. As it seems that they are not sure about my plans, they decide to call a friend who could mediate our dialogue. He turns out to work as a German translator, making an eloquent impression no matter the late hours. Nevertheless, the phone wanders between us several times, until they understand that I hitchhike by choice and agree upon the right place to drop me. So there we go. The motorway soon assumes the form of a winding country road, and while we are heading through tree-covered valleys and sleeping villages, where the only commercial activity seems to consist of tire repair shops, I doze off.
Transylvania in transit
I wake up near the city of Deva, where the two drop me at a 24-hour gas station, slightly off the main road. It is 3 am, still 400 kilometers to go, and with no cars around, I doubt that I could catch a ride before the morning light. Nevertheless, I don’t want to get used to the idea of spending the rest of the night in the harshly lit cafeteria area of the premises, dozing away in company of a cheap plastic bottle of beer labelled ‘Noroc’ - ‘Cheers’.
Well, if it wasn’t for that SUV with German registration, appearing just out of nowhere. Its driver, an elderly father accompanied by his two little boys, immediately agrees to give me a lift. Born into a ‘Swabian’ family in Transylvania, the mid-fifty man had left Romania for Germany long ago where he married an Italian signorina. Even so, he still tries to keep his sons in touch with their roots, both of them fluent in Romanian. We are driving along what he considers the most fundamental piece of infrastructure completed in the country since 1989: the 130 kilometers of motorway connecting Deva to Sibiu, some of its sections still being occasionally closed due to obscure reasons. “Change is moving slowly here. But, generally, people are kind, just maybe a bit too patient. Though I guess that’s where resilience grows”, the man ponders, while his boys are dreaming away. Outside in the dawn I already notice the silhouette of the Central Carpathian Mountains. We are getting closer.
Our ways part at a large roundabout somewhere south of Sibiu. Its surroundings are defined by the basic needs of drivers in constant transit: petrol stations and fast food drive-ins, with a few squat shops squeezed in-between. I walk towards the roundabout's southern exit and find myself a decent spot to show my cardboard sign disclosing the name of the Romanian capital. Eased by a croaking and chirping soundscape coming from a dense brushwood encircling a nearby pond, I face the increasing tide of morning traffic.
Sleepless down Ceauşescu’s runway
Soon, a white cargo van stops. A man shouts at me in Romanian, I hear ‘Bucureşti’, and jump in without any hesitation. He introduces himself as Ion, and speaks to me in a weird mix of Romanian and French, of which I only understand that he has been driving his van all the way from Lille via Germany, Poland and Czech Republic without rest, obviously kept awake only by coffee, cigarettes, and a surreal music mix of trance and eurodance sounds coming out of the speakers. His cabin is decorated in a rather peculiar manner: countless pennants, souvenirs and gimmicks dangling from the windscreen contrasted by a line of cut-out faces of fashion models lining the rack above our backs. The road we are driving on seems far overloaded by the heavy traffic, rolling along a river through a stunning mountain valley, the hill tops above still covered by snow. Occasional scraps of conversation sounding from the CB radio remind us of the flow of transit we are part of. We stop to buy a cup of instant coffee at one of the countless mini-shops lined up along the road, all of them seemingly populated by workers kicking off their day.
In Pitești we enter Romania’s first motorway, allegedly intended by Ceausescu as a backup airport runway from Bucharest. Ion becomes a bit irritated, as his buggy navigation system doesn’t recognize the predetermined address, where he is supposed to deliver his load. An hour later, we find ourselves in a sprawl of logistic infrastructure and warehouses, a monotony of metal and glass, disjointed by the few architectural remains from the communist era now greedily covered by billboards. As the motorway fades into a tangle of dusty roads and roundabouts, Ion picks up the mic and tries to ask for his destination via the CB. It does not take long for an answer to come, as an alert voice provides him with concise information. We continue through the slow-moving traffic along the ring road around Bucharest, an uneven patchwork of roadworks, while, from a distance, we can spot the looming towers of (still under construction) housing estates purposefully devised for an emerging upper middle class.
At a red traffic light, I say goodbye to Ion and start walking towards the city centre. Almost 24 hours from my departure, the bustling metropolis welcomes me in a balmy mood, my perception softened by a lack of sleep and the intense experiences encountered during my journey. Bewitched by the scent of honeysuckle that is lurking in full bloom at nearly every turn, I lose myself in the city’s mesmerising tangle.