Tuesday, December 5, 2017
Greetings from the Iron Gates
Having just entered the narrow gorge where the serpentine Danube River squeezes between the snowy Carpathian Mountains of Romania and the rolling Balkan Mountains of Serbia, I've accepted the gracious invitation of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to take a day off.
Many days of cold, steady rain - coinciding with a four-day weekend to celebrate St Andrew's Day (Nov 30) and Romanian Independence Day (Dec 1) - were a tad grueling for me... despite the morning hoarfrost, the mud created by the excess of rain made the dike tracks impassable, forcing me to retreat to the paved roads where the periodic cars and trucks speeding by doused me with frequent showers. Even the most impenetrable raingear takes a beating. A day off to dry out, clean everything, make repairs, and re-wax my boots has been a good remedy. Although I'm now out of duct tape and black thread, I'm set to resume the journey upstream.
A few hours with Google Maps and I've got a route sketched out that gets me to Belgrade for Christmas, including a deviation from the river to visit a little more of Romania before heading into Serbia. Romania is nearly the size of Colorado and diverse enough culturally and geographically to warrant another pilgrimage here one day - I still haven't been to Transylvania or Romanian Moldova... one day...
A few noteworthy encounters came to me on the morning of St Andrew's Day...
Even before mid-morning, I crossed a narrow bridge the same moment as a shepherd was driving some sheep across it. The shepherd's dogs went barking, the sheep were agitated, a small commotion got the attention of some of the villagers nearby. As I passed the first houses, an older man hurried up to the road bidding me in halting English to stop and talk with him. I was sort of inclined to pass on the invitation, though his intent seemed pure. I was having an inward day marching in the rain and the fussing of the sheep and dogs put me a bit out of sorts. But he persisted, offering coffee - a magic word on a cold, rainy day - and announced his name as 'Johnny'. I conceded. With his own chained dogs barking and howling in the mud, he led me under a grape arbor, around some great baskets of apples, quinces, and pears, into a small unheated kitchen where a pot on the stove was boiling over with coffee. He cursed, tossed the burnt coffee into the courtyard outside, and started a new pot, yammering at me the whole time. He wiped two cups with his sweater and rummaged for some saucers to add some class, then finally sat at the table with me. He wanted to offer more - a bone of ham, perhaps, some wet cheese from a small wooden barrel, some pickled peppers in jars of every description, a plate of meat (chicken? rabbit? goat? fried in small pieces, it was impossible to tell). I had only been on the road an hour or so, so wasn't in the least hungry. He persisted like an Italian grandmother - eat! eat! you're too small! you need energy! I was more than satisfied enjoying the break out of the rain and mud and enjoying the coffee, hot and strong. He boasted of his 200-meter long garden and orchard that he maintains and harvests for his own consumption - his children and grandchildren living abroad. Wine! he remembered suddenly, and whiskey! please, you must try!! all homemade. Too early in the morning for me, and too cold... still, he took me insistently to see the wine cellar, where enormous wooden casks and countless glass bottles full of red wine were stacked dirt floor to wooden ceiling... stay here, he urged, at least until Christmas... get to know the village, get to know Romania... eat, drink, be merry... he was quite the ambassador. I was amused by his sweet and earnest demeanor, but twinged to see the situation with some clarity... these villages are already anachronisms. Johnny was born and raised there in the house his father built and then went off to Bucharest for his education and profession - electrical engineer - and only returned on holidays. His parents long deceased, their house became his for his retirement, but his still lives in Bucharest most of the time, a few hours' drive by car. His own children and grandchildren have nothing to do with it or the bountiful garden. Such is the case for most of the village's hundred or so houses - some abandoned, some only temporarily occupied, most falling in disrepair. What will it be like in 20 years when Johnny and his companions are no longer there? There was a bitter-sweetness to the encounter. I managed to leave the dear old guy and head back out into the rain an hour later, but not without a large and tasty chunk of his homemade sheep's cheese, some fruit from his trees, and about a liter of his wine, a not unpalatable demi-sec.
A few hours later, I had a quick chance meeting with a bicycling Belgian/British/Canadian adventurer heading to Istanbul and beyond. He was the first such traveler I've met, both being rather out-of-season travelers of the Danube, and we took a little standing break to chat between raindrops. We met because I was on the paved road, a domain I generally eschew and was there only because of the bad weather; on a laden bicycle, of course, he wouldn't have been on the rutted dirt dikes where I prefer to walk. In truth, although there can't be a happier pilgrim than I, some days have more noticeable struggles than other days. I was sort of moping along when we passed each other, both equally surprised by what we saw. Even after just a few minutes of our little encounter, my soul was lifted and the bounce I hadn't noticed was missing, returned to my step. ...and then he gave me a few chocolate bars =D Kudos to Matthew the bicyclist.