Vagabond Lee's very good birthday in Romania

It's been about seven years since the vagabond guest blogger, M. Lee, contributed anything here but last week, after his birthday encounter with a Romanian cop, he agreed to share the story here.

M. Lee's very fine birthday in Romania
Peles Palace

I like Romania.  It likes me. Here is my birthday story.

Today was our last day with the car.  We're leaving tomorrow for Budapest.  I hate renting cars and I'm pretty sick of driving in general, but for here, it's a necessity.  So we had this car for six days.  On the first day, I dented it.  I have 3rd party insurance, but still, paperwork, anxiety, etc.  That was the first day.  Do you think I put it out of my mind?  No, of course not, each passing day it only got worse.

Asha hurt her knee so she can't walk much right now but we already took yesterday off, so I was at least going to take a road trip.  We headed out to visit Peles Palace on the main highway, a two lane road.  According to Google, it would take us an hour to go 20 miles.  I moved with the flow of traffic and about 20 minutes out I got flagged by a traffic cop who was parked by the side of the road.  I've been through this enough, it's the shake down and fuck it, Romania is cheap, but I've been saving the last of my Romanian money to fill up the gas tank on the way back.  It's a minor inconvenience, but I'm not really sweating it when the traffic cop comes over and starts talking to me in Romanian.

"Romeneshte no, inglese?" I say.

"I need to see identification and license please."

I hand over my passport and drivers license and he tells me to get out of the car and follow him back to his car.  There, he shows me a dashboard device displaying, presumably, my speed and the contrasting speed limit.  The angle is bad and I can't really see it but who cares, I know where this is going.

"You pay the ticket now.  145 lei.  You pay now."

"I need to see the ticket first, can you show me the ticket." I say.

He shows me the large ticket book but remains adamant, I must fork over the cash now, and he'll give me the "ticket" after.  I fork over the cash.

"You go back to your car now and wait."

I'm back in the car, waiting as instructed, about 50 US dollars poorer.  The other cop, the guy's partner, flags down a bus.  I don't feel so persecuted, so singled out.  If this is not a scam, they must have a remote radar somewhere on the road because otherwise, they are just two fat cops sitting in a car on the side of the road waiting for random victims.  As that guy passes me, heading toward the bus, he says "you go back there now".  So I go, back to the patrol car.

There, my cop has my passport open and points to the date and says "today is your birthday".  "Yeah" I reply, thinking, I don't know, maybe it's his birthday too?  "Happy birthday" he says, sticking his hand out to shake my hand.  I shake his hand and say thanks in Romanian and then he hands me back my money.  What?  "Happy birthday, you buy the missus with you some champagna, da?  You buy the champagna!"  Then he finishes writing the ticket, which takes about five more minutes because bureaucracy, and hands me my copy.  "Souvenir, you keep this for souvenir."

"Mooltzu mesk, la revederay" I say, showing off my scant Romanian, and skip back to the car.

And the dent later in the day at the car agency?  Fortunately, it's hard to see if you're tall, it's on the underside of the car below the door.  There's even a chance I didn't do it.  Amazingly, I get the tallest guy in the place to come look at the car, taller than me.  I wait inside.  He's back in a minute, rustling around, probably looking for accident forms while I act cool and pretend to be doing something on my phone.  He hands me a receipt showing the release of my deposit and I practically run out of the place before he can change his mind.

If the absence of pain is pleasure, then this has been a very good birthday.

Exploring the rafters of a medieval fortified church - Romania
In the rafters of a medieval church


Autumn Equinox

White boat - red boat at twilight - Venice, Italy
Vienna at twilight
Once again, the beginning of autumn. The equinox. I'm in Vienna. The equinox here is at 20:02 this evening then the night grows longer and the days grow cold. Be well wherever you are.



Homeless - street art - Athens, Greece
Exarchia neighborhood

In its own way, Athens is a something of a wreck. Greece has been in an economic tailspin for years now and, at least there, it shows. Of course, the fact that we stayed in Exarchia, (Aug 17/24) a neighborhood the US Embassy advises travelers avoid, amplified that reality. The streets are lined with olive trees but its otherwise post-apocalyptic look and feel is definitely not for everyone. We liked it. We had a quiet flat above a small grocery story and the area has a lot of excellent street art. I even liked the gutter to rooftop crust of weather-beaten posters and layers of graffiti.

Swami at Plato's Academy - Athen's Greece
Swami on the road to Plato's Academy

We stayed seven days so we bought the three day pass and walked to all the main sites, covering some 10 to 15 miles a day. One of my favorite places was the Kerameikos Cemetery. Its earliest tombs date back to 2700-2000 BC.  Even Plato had an Academy there, although there's nothing left of it but a sign and path leading to the face of a small hill upon which apartment buildings now stand. And we went to the Parthenon.

Swami at the Parthenon  - Athens, Greece
The second after I snapped this photo of Swami,
I was busted by a security guard.
He was nice enough but explained that,
in order to reduce traffic jams,
the rules strictly prohibit taking photos with mascotas.

As is so often the case at historical sites, it was roped off for renovation. The Parthenon has endured countless sackings during its 2455 years but the worst was by the Venetians in 1687. Thinking no one would fire upon a site of such historic importance, the Ottomans were using it as ammunition dump. Sadly, they overestimated the Venetian's cultural values and sense of history. Immediately upon hearing about the dump, they shelled the building. The damage was immense. The roof caved in, pillars collapsed, enormous sculptures were destroyed and 300 people were killed. The following year, now themselves facing attack by Ottomans, they fled. They considered blowing up the entire Acropolis before leaving but, lucky for us, didn't get around to it.

The Parthenon -  Athens, Greece
The Acropolis, Athens Greece

During high season, there's no beating the crowds. Five cruise ships were in port the day we visited. I'm glad we went but, really, I think the most inspiring views are from a distance.

Swami viewing the Acropolis - Athens, Greece
Swami viewing the Acropolis

To be continued....


And now the Balkans

We're currently in the Balkans. I know very little about this area. I'm not even certain which countries are in the Balkans. Opinions differ, plus it depends on which century you're referring to. The one thing people do seem to agree on is that they're in eastern and southeastern Europe.

In general, the Balkans

The history here is wildly complicated but one thing I have learned is that, from the 15th century, most of the Balkans were under Ottoman rule for about 500 years. By the mid-20th century Balkan countries, free of Ottoman influence began experimenting with socialism and communism. Today, the Balkan countries are all more or less democratic but still very raw. Romania, where we are now, only got rid of its strong man dictator in 1989.

But back to now. On August 9, we took the train from Venice to Slovenia, our first country in the Balkans. We stayed three days there, in Ljubljana - then five in Belgrade (Serbia) - six in Athens and five in Thessaloniki (Greece), and then five days in Sofia (Bulgaria). Now, after a ten hour train from Sofia to Bucharest, we're in Romania for 11 days . . . five in Bucharest then on to Brasov for six including, of course, Transylvania. It's hard to keep up with all this here. We're out every day and when I'm online, sadly, the current Trump and Republican shit show in America occupies a fair amount of my attention. Paltry as they be, the following notes are all I've got for now.

Our apartment in Ljubljana was a tiny quasi-fascist era flat, very basic but good internet, quiet, centrally located, with a very friendly host, an American fellow married to a Slovenian. And Ljubljana itself is a nice town built along a river in an area first settled about 2000 B.C. According to legend, it is guarded by dragons. It's a very livable place, with pedestrian streets, lively open air cafes and markets. There's even an anarchist neighborhood in Ljubljana famous for its graffiti, art projects and night life. Luckily, the world wars of the 20th century mostly bypassed Ljubljana though it was under fascist rule from WWII until 1991 which, predictably, left it somewhat bleak.

Reminder of war - Belgrade, Serbia
Sad reminder of the Kosovo War
Belgrade, Serbia

Belgrade was a different story. Its history dates back to at least 7000 BC and, because of its strategic location at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, it has endured 115 wars and been razed to the ground 44 times, including by Attila the Hun in 471. Most recently, 1999, Belgrade was bombed again, this time for 78 days straight during the Kosovo War by both sides in the conflict.

Downtown Belgrade - Serbia
Downtown Belgrade with bombed out building

It was eerie being in a city my "own" country helped bomb. I could see the remains of a bombed out building from the window of our flat. And, as if that were not spectral enough, on what had been the fourth or fifth floor, a house nestled in the hollow of the building's skeleton. There were bombed out buildings in the center of town as well. I kept reminding myself that I am simply another bystander along the road as history marches by but, after hearing our tour guide's take on things, I have the distinct impression that poor Belgrade, hanging by its hinges, disagrees.

To be continued . . .