I had finished reporting in Bucharest, and in the familiar anxious dance—like a prissy dog looking for the perfect spot to piss—was looking for a place to hole up and crank out a draft. “Why don’t you just write it here?” the people at the journalist collective in Bucharest where I was staying on a mattress by a big window in the attic said. The three-story house was cozy and familiar, like a big wooden pirate ship swaying in the waves, and each night in my weeks there I fell asleep comforted by the sounds of people living their lives below—smoking and drinking downstairs, the smell of food wafting up, sirens fading in and out of the open window. It was tempting to stay. I have long dreamt of being a mouse in the collective house, surrounded by but seperate from nearby human beings living their lives in common.
I wanted to see Transylvania. “Transylvania?” the Romanian journalists rolled their eyes. “Whatever you want to do, man.” I had never had any interest in going to Transylvania before, but a visit to the museum of medieval maps—most of them depicting the vast swaths of forest villages that made up Transylvania—piqued my curiosity. In his book In Europe’s Shadow, Robert Kaplan described spending a night in a 12th century clocktower, in a village called Sighisoara—it wasn’t as touristy as Brasov or as bleak as Sighetu Marmetei.
It sounded peaceful and quaint, a functional medieval village on an ancient hillock. I pictured myself there on top of the mountain, in some cheap garrett under the clocktower, my face glinting beatifically in a mote of morning sunlight like that painting “Wanderer in Sea and Fog.”
In the collective’s smoke-filled kitchen, Valentina advised against it. “It’s a weird medieval tourist town.” I asked her where I should go instead. “Sibiu,” she said. But Sibiu sounded to me like the constellation of a bear, and in Google images it looked surrounded by snow-capped mountains of madness, while Sighisoara looked peaceful and quaint, and I loved the way the name sounded in Romanian, soara, Schwaaaaraaaa, rolling off the tongue, lacivious, like an old rug. In Sibiu, I imagined checking into a pension on the industrial edge of town with a grumpy old man—I imagined him monitoring my comings and goings and yelling at me about how to properly drain the water from the tiny plastic shower. I would end up in some cool little bar with strange but friendly young people. I wanted to hole up against the world, shield myself from the world, not meet anyone.
Sighisoara it was. It was cheap, hidden, and exotic-sounding, like Fes, Cipango—I wanted to go to those places too. When travelling blind, you make spur-of-the-moment decisions like this, based on ridiculous illusions and intuitive caricatures. I left Bucharest’s Gare du Nord on an old, half-empty train at noon. The seats were blood-red and stained, and the only other passengers were elderly people in a kind of fugue, as if in suspension fluid. The gray early spring flew by out the window—shacks, cloddy flat fields, and one-eyed factories. We pulled through Brasov, a depressing-looking too-large town, and then left the mainline into alpine wilderness, where the escarpment of the mighty snow-covered Carpathians rose like the Paramount Pictures logo, behind the wooden Transylvania-style houses. At each village station we passed a handsome train signalman standing stoically in white gloves with his colored-paddle, like in the movie Closely Watched Trains. Transylvania really looked like Transylvania. Like a Hollywood sound stage of Transylvania, the Carpathians as awe-inspiring as the Rockies.
On trains, you often know you’re arriving at the destination by the stirring sense of anticipation that rises from the other passengers. We chugged into Sighisoara’s four-track canopied station. There is something eternal in it, the weary traveler arriving in the provincial train station at dusk, carrying a heavy backpack. Locals streamed onto the platform, the old train wheezed and croaked, and the fading light illuminated the dome of an Orthodox church set back in a fallow vineyard in just the right way. As Vasily Grossman wrote in Armenian Sketchbook:
Your first minutes on the street of an unfamiliar city are always special; what happens in later months or years can never supplant them. These minutes are filled with the visual equivalent of nuclear energy, a kind of nuclear power of attention. With penetrating insight and an all-pervading excitement, you absorb a huge universe—houses, trees, faces of passerby, signs, squares, smells, dust, cats and dogs, the color of the sky. During these minutes, like an omnipotent God, you bring a new world into being.
The journey had been long, and I felt tingly and expectant. I was relieved that it seemed to be a town of substance, with real neighborhoods and a river, not just a one-horse village. To get from the platform to the train station, I walked through a dark underpass that reeked of stale piss. This was the first thing I found strange about Sighisoara—in a provincial village, surrounded by eldritch woods and mountains, why did the tunnel reek of piss?
The tunnel came out in front of the stolid neoclassical little train station, like Jefferson’s Monticello. I set off walking, magnetized towards the mountain at the center of town, through empty neighborhoods where teenage boys stood on street corners, an old man bar, a sad little in-between graveyard, eventually arriving at a plaza and church by a reedy brown river. Parents pushed strollers and morosely watched their children stomp around. A footbridge went across the river and at the sheer base of the mountain, I found the little crumbling staircase up to the fortressed old city, passing by several empty tourist restaurants. Painted plastic waiter figurines were posted outside all the restaraunts like sentries.
At the top of the fortress, I caught my breath. The center of town was completely empty. There was a BMW parked beside a wide-eyed statue of Dracula’s father, Vlad Tepes. There was an empty bar with a neon red sign. It was a tourist town I suppose in the summer but everything was closed down. When I did stumble on a resident opening or closing the door to a 12th century home, they averted their gaze, and went about their business—there was no provincial friendliness, no curiosity, no ‘are you lost.’
It is rare that one gets to experience UNESCO heritage completely alone, with no signs and audio tours and museums and guides and touts. The bells of the clocktower, an incredible gothic structure with painted figurines, rang out across the smoky valley. I wandered the perimeter of the fortress, inspecting the old walls and wooden guard towers at its corners. I felt lucky and happy to see it, if a bit ill at ease. It was too quiet.
As night fell, I wandered the entire old town as a completionist, feeling like I needed to cover every alley, every inch of its four corners. When I was done I stepped into the creaking wooden floors of the one open hotel, Hotel Sighisoara, and looked into its restaurant, considering having dinner—it was completely empty, all the tables perfectly set with glasses and silverware, but nobody was there. I have a phobia that there should really be a word for—“fear of empty restaraunts.”
Certain places all of a sudden become frightening—while technically you could adapt and stay put, you ache to leave immediately, to be someplace more soothing, if not some place more soothing, then on a train, that beloved in-between neutral place.Having seen the entirety of the old fortress in an hour and not seeing a soul I had to admit to myself that there was no way in hell I would stay for one night, let alone several days. I hate rural emptiness—empty restaraunts, empty plazas, the freezerburned bovine Midwest of the sol opening up a void of dread inside. The stone walls of the buildings would be unable to keep out the emptiness outside and the emptiness would slip in and overtake me. I realized that Valentina was right, and reproached myself for not knowing myself better, for leaving Bucharest, where life had been warm and interesting and had a point.
I descended the steps back to the new town, thinking that it might be better down there, hoping to find some more energy, more life. The new town below was completely different—cars, pedestrians, restaurants. Life, culture! There were glitzy pizzerias and patio bars with outdoor couches and firepits, provincial nouveau-riche spots, where bald men in track suits tried to impress their girlfriends. Through the windows of a business hotel, middle-aged men ate steaks and grew red-faced. But the whole place eaten through with a why-would-you-come-here-I’m-trying-to-escape-this-place attitude. Without my input, my feet started carrying me back towards the train station. I didn’t know where I would go or why.
The little white train station, which had seemed neutral at dusk, took on a more sinister look in the dark. The dimly lit marble lobby was empty except for two stone benches by the door, the kind of benches they have in graveyards. On each bench was an old person—a man and woman—in the fugue who stared into the nothingness and silence. The monitor displaying the train times was broken and flickering. The eyes of the old woman and old man followed my every move. I went over to the ticket window and tapped on the glass. A woman in her thirties or forties was sitting back on a couch in an office doing her nails. There was a train to Bucharest at two AM she told me, and a train to Budapest in a couple of hours. I thanked her and walked away to think about it. Overwhelmed by the empty strangeness of the room, I walked over to the train station bar, where I thought I might find some clarity.
The bar was a kind of still life, an Edward Hopper painting. There was no music. The woman behind the counter stopped polishing her glass and glared. A beaten down traveler sitting with a bottle of beer and a shot jerked his head up. There were three video poker machines all turned off.
At a table littered with empty bottles and half-smoked packs of cigarettes were a rail-thin young Roma girl and two menacing-looking older provincial Romanian men, who all looked fucked up and had the eternal air of petty criminality about them, the bad guys in the Goonies—they were not travelling anywhere, just hanging out. They stepped out onto the patio to smoke. I went outside to smoke as well. The girl started talking to me in Romanian. “I don’t speak Romanian,” I told her. “Ah,” she wobbled, “English…Where you from? Cigarette?” she smiled, putting her hand to her lips.
I gave her one and she turned back to her guys, who eyed me suspiciously, and the three of them went back to their table. Back inside, I sat down and nursed a bottle of beer, trying to decide what to do. I wanted to go back to Bucharest but the shame of having come all the way out to Sighisoara and going back in the same day seemed like too much—no one would say anything, but it still struck me as wrong. The beaten-down traveller and the bartender kept looking between the table of three and me with disturbed looks on their faces. They looked scared of them.
I went out for another cigarette. The night was dark and the train station was set back from the road. Everything seemed moldy. A middle-aged man and an older man came up a staircase from town to the train station. The young man was berating the older man. Then they both disappeared. I looked inside the fluorescent grim little train station bar from outside. The three sketchy individuals were whispering to each other around the table, it looked like a painting.
From the trees came an insane racket of night birds, birds with a horrible cackle unlike anything I have ever heard before. It was like a foghorn ringing out, saying leave this place, leave this place. Sighisoara had been normal in daylight—what happened? Now it felt like a strange noir, the provincial fear of an eerie little place where children sit around decapitating butterflies. I did not know where to go or what to do but I felt a strong urge to flee—new town was too far of a walk, I had a terrible feeling at the bar, so I went back inside the main train station, taking a seat on one of the benches beside the elderly woman, who hadn’t moved.
The light was very dim and it was quiet. The old man stared at me and I stared back and he turned away and when he turned away I stared at the huge purple scar running from his temple to his jaw. The older woman seemed kind—she chattered to me in Romanian and I shrugged my shoulders. She made more space on the bench, but I waved her away, no, no, I don’t need more space, thank you so much. I lay my head against the wall and she moved further, making space for me to lay down, then came over to me and tried to say something I couldn’t understand. The old man watched.
She got up and walked around then came back and tried to show me something, then seemed to ask me to watch her bag that she had hidden behind the bench, and I nodded yeah, I’ll watch your bag. A middle-aged man with dark hair and black circles under his eyes came into the station with his suitcase and sat beside the old man. All of us stared at the old woman who was pacing the floor and muttering to herself, then she came back to sit beside me—she pushed her bag into my face then pulled it away. I shrugged and made my best, “I’m a stupid American,” face, but she seemed to want to explain something very urgently. The middle aged man made eye contact with me from the bench on the other side and indicated, with the universal hand symbol, that she was “crazy” or not well. This made everything make more sense.
The middle age man and elderly man began gesticulating and waving to me that I could come join them on their bench, but I waved them away, staying with the elderly woman but looking away as she talked to me. After a while, I got sick of this and paced the hallway, then went into the bar where the criminals glared, then went back outside where the evil birds mocked me, round and round in this circular round until I felt I couldn’t wait until two AM and had to leave as soon as possible and that Sighisoara was against me. I bought a ticket to Budapest at window.
When the headlights of the train came out of that misty Eastern European darkness, I jumped aboard and settled in, grateful for a neutral place to exist for a while even if it was under bright fluorescent lights, and fell asleep. But all night, every hour or two, ticket controllers came by and jabbed a finger into my shoulder to check and recheck my ticket, even after it had already been scanned. They seemed to take a perverse pleasure in shaking the passengers awake, the way sadistic security guards do with homeless people sleeping in public places where you’re not supposed to sleep. People by and large do not want the best for one another.
The lights in the train wagon were very bright and it was hard to see out the window, but I drifted in and out of sleep, the landscape outside a kind of empty Martian landscape of a few dim bedraggled lights of factories or houses in the distance. It was misty and sad, the central European blood lands, the in-between zone of empires.
The train arrived in Budapest at 10 AM. The temperature but also the ambiance was much colder than warm, Latinate Bucharest. The coffee was four times the price of coffee in Romania. I hadn’t been to Hungary for years. I had fond memories of spending a night in a grand old worn-down hotel at the center of town, with a wonderful wood-panelled newspaper room in its lobby. I decided to go there. It was familiar.
I arrived to the lobby under a slate grey sky and got a room. My room was not so different from the room all those years before, but as I got in and lay down my bag, I looked out the window, which looked on a concrete cornice of a nearby building that blended with the sky, and felt sad and ridiculous. The bathroom faucet sputtered brown water. A couple of gnats circled by the headboard of my little single bed-tomb. I lay down on the bed and watched the circling gnats. I pulled out my tape recorder and notepads and started the familiar work of composing a draft.