Monday, August 22, 2016

Not Actually Dracula's Castle (Part 2)

This is the roundabout story of the gothest thing I've ever not done.

In case you haven't seen the other post introducing this whole thing: after literally spending years trying to figure out how to write about the first time I went abroad, I've decided to just break it down into a few individual stories, not necessarily in chronological order or including all parts. Starting from the beginning and trying to explain more of the background to this than I already have would mean laying out enough unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and anger to discolour the entire thing and to overshadow how beautiful the Carpathians are and what classically valuable life and travel lessons I learned as a naï
ve college student, so that simply won't do. I'm pretty negative but am always trying not to be; I guess that's my struggle or whatever.

My feelings about this disaster of a trip are so conflicted that I've never even finished organising the photos, which is shocking, because that's easily my most prolific OCD pastime, the one that I know makes me subconsciously feel like I've got more control over my life than I actually do.

So, okay, fuck it: let's talk about alcohol. That's always a good place to start.

The drinks in Romania are cheap, and the cocktails are all long pours. 

(And here, let this play in the background to get the atmosphere going. The infamous "Numa Numa Song" isn't the only Romanian hit you've ever heard; this Edward Maya track was getting a shitload of airtime in the States that summer. The video is garbage, looks like the generic dance pop videos my local Turkish restaurant always has on, but I think the song's pretty catchy.)

Sitting at a little metal table on chunky cobblestones worn down unevenly by time, watching the sometimes fashionably outrageous, still-developing Eastern European world go by, you try not to look directly into Camera 3 as the film crew maneuvers around you, and you're chilly, because the sun has just gone down behind the tall, oddly-shaped brick edifice adjacent, so now you're in a deep shadow. 

(and your friends may or may not call you "Crazy Pants" behind your back)


That's how it seems, anyway; like a romantic, picturesque, quintessentially Euro-everything movie set. Which it is, unless you're surrounded by strangers you absolutely can't stand, whose occasional too-loud comments are so embarrassing that you actually shudder, which makes you shiver involuntarily in the chill, and simultaneously lose your balance as your chair leg stabs into a gap in the stones, unpleasantly sloshing your highball, startling you, and shattering the idyllic sensory experience in which you'd been focusing on steeping yourself. 

You go to take another drink, but it's just melted ice water now. 

(I'm that vodka cranberry with a hand attached to it)

That's probably the biggest one. The biggest lesson, I mean: never travel with people you don't really know to a place you've never been, especially if said travel consists of long, horrendously boring stretches of being forced to spend time with said people in confined spaces. 

Sounds too obvious to be counted among my supposedly-valuable insights, maybe, but sometimes you don't know what exactly you're in for and might have overlooked things like this.

The tuition, flights, and program fees had been so incredibly expensive (and yet still much more affordable than the corresponding Japanese language program, which everyone who came back said mostly involved sitting in uncomfortably tiny crackerbox dorms and studying for hours on end for all the exams they gave you and then getting in trouble if you stayed out late or drank, so what was the point?); I definitely did not have an unlimited vodka budget. Which was really unfortunate, because the vodka was making it easier. 

Isn't it just hilariously ironic, you keep saying to yourself, Stalin's name staring back at you neutrally from the room-temperature bottle, in appropriately generic red font, promising comfort and understanding as your only real friend, here, in a former Soviet bloc state? 

But even the punny, optimistic inner monologue that usually functions as a coping mechanism sounds deadpan and tired. Inner monologue voice is jaded and half-drunk too, so now what? 
Just think about nothing.

Fellow Student A, for example, is a woman who stopped developing emotionally at 18, when she had the first of her three or four kids. She talks incessantly about herself and her genuinely completely average life, about the chickens she's now raising and about all the similarities between Romania and Turkey, which she's visited before and is going to tell you all about again, first chance she gets. And she's still studying.. something.. about? Turkish? I don't know. Tuned her out pretty quick, just white noise now, so that's nice.

Her husband has a job and makes money, and she uses it to be a career student - a package rounded out by extensive travel perks, the cooking of food, and the continual pushing out of babies.
She talked about herself in an unbroken stream of painfully uninteresting words all through the scenery of the countryside, never once turning around to appreciate it for even a moment, as the countless miles of sunflowers blurred into a bright yellow smear almost as endless as the sky and a very outdated old train pulled itself through the somewhat denatured but still cheerful landscape, evoking a living image of the mid-20th century. 

A handsome young guy - probably Alex or Vasile or Mircea - has miraculously made it back from the war and his girlfriend and mother and kid brother run up to the train, sobbing uncontrollably with joy as the steam billows out and wraps all around them and they crumple to the ground, laughing now and refusing to let go. Nearby strangers looking on would be moved to tears, too, before going home and making a point of telling their husbands, sisters, and sons how much they loved them at the dinner table that night.

But no, really, it's fine, go on about your stupid fucking chili con carne recipe.

Comrade B, who strongly resembles a much less handsome, much less likable Doogie Howser (I know, that really kills it, doesn't it? If not handsome and likable what is NPH?), is a bitter, socially conservative libertarian championing the merits of this program so that the ivory tower witch responsible for conjuring it all will help him get into subsequent graduate and doctoral programs, provided he continues to do her evil bidding. 

I guess I can only hope that he becomes successful and hateful enough to amusingly embody the other, more closely-fitting character image I have of him, as Mr. Burns. 
(Yeess, excellent.)

High School Football Star C... 

Well, I guess that's all you really need to know about that guy. 

Don't get me wrong; I've known some pretty awesome people who sportsed or cheered in school, but this doofus is not one of them. 

He's the awful, stereotypical image of the loud meathead talking out his ass who's studying business administration or pre-law or something like that because his dad has a lot of money and told him to, and because ASU's acceptance requirements are practically non-existent. Because who are we kidding, we all wish we could contrive of a way to siphon off some of Idiot Jr. and Idiot Sr.'s modest and probably not-that-wholesomely-begotten Middle-American fortune the way Dean Idiot has via the college.

Creepy Mormon Guy D is an interesting one, older than all the rest and with even more children than A, a professional photographer and, outwardly, seemingly nice guy, who may or may not be a full-blown sociopath planning to run for local office in Gilbert (Phoenix's satellite Mormon colony) on a platform consisting largely of all the predictable conservative Christian bullshit, but more specifically of segregating non-whites into ghettos to improve safety and bolster his own property value. Uhhhh. 

Knits brows, looks down at glass. Stalin, did he really just say that?

I wish this were hyperbole, I really do, but it actually came out in conversation, and Football Guy and Doogie Howser were with him all the way and stared at me when I laughed and asked if they were for real, and Stalin and I had to excuse ourselves. The conversation stayed noticeably paused until we were just out of earshot, unseen glares of contempt pushing us to walk a little bit faster. 

Plus, I mean, you know, Mormons. There's something intrinsically off from the get-go if you believe in that kind of stuff, but usually it's not something the Nazis actually did, in Eastern Europe, where you currently are, making everything feel swirly and surreal for a minute, because aren't they College-Educated White Americans who should be fully aware of the ironic historical implications of their racist bullshit, but whatever, that's probably just the Stalin in your orange juice and oatmeal making you feel like you're losing your grip on reality. Fuck

There are more. An entire hopelessly wayward flock of roadside amusements. A chick so inexplicably high-strung and paranoid that my future roommate and I decide she probably has an eating disorder and is addicted to diet pills, maybe the kind of amphetamines housewives used to toss back like mints in the 60's ("I have so much energy while vacuuming in my pearls!") to help them pretend everything was fine. 

The young gay Mexican guy and his pretty female friend seemed very promising at first, until they made it clear that they're unforgivably simple during a conversation about how "the United States" or "the States" is confusing because, in Spanish, that's technically almost what Mexico is called too. I mean they're really just actually, full-on dumb. 

Maybe I am, too, for falling for whatever it was I fell for and signing up for this State Fair funhouse ride. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I think anyone aside from maybe the Mormon guy is a bad person, but as a whole, the circus-like mishmash of a group has distressingly few redeeming qualities. 

Having marred that lovely sunflower-smeared landscape with these bizarre and discomforting portraits, I leave you now to ponder how weird the average person actually is, and why my need for a larger vodka budget is so great and well-justified at this unique moment in time.

(The best part of my budget issues had to be that, further down that long and jarringly bumpy road, I did run out of money because I didn't have much to bring in the first place, and had to have my mom Western Union me more. But this was unfortunately during the unprecedented government shutdown of summer 2011, at that time the shameful pinnacle of so many of our elected officials' collective failures, their outright refusal do to their jobs, and their apparently active efforts to do as much damage as possible. 

This was when the U.S. government's credit rating had just been downgraded for the first time in history, so that the exchange rate was abominable and I got much fewer Vodka Lei than I should have for my loud, obnoxious American Dollars.) 

If it's not clear at this point, let me make it crystal: because future roommate is conspicuously absent from this quaint and lovely scene, only the pathetically thin lemon slice trapped under the melty ice chunks at the bottom of my highball in the cold shadow of this building with the cobblestones in front knows my feels. 

And Stalin. Stalinskaya also knows my feels.

It's still early on, though, there are still a few lights faintly visible at the end of the tunnel, or at least along it, and one of them is the only dedicated, full-time goth club (and absintherie) not just in the heart of Transylvania but in the whole of Romania, which I'd Googled at home with bated breath, hands all aquiver, and which I plan to venture forth through the narrow, sometimes dilapidated medieval alleyways of Cluj to find as soon as possible.

I can't remember the name of it now, a few years further down the road and with it so far out of view; maybe Umbra de Noapte, but their Facebook page says they were still open that summer, so that can't be right.
It is important that I find it, you see, because the other obligatory goth culture point of the trip - visiting Dracula's castle - was massively disappointing.

People must be thinking, 
"Oh my God. She's seriously going to tell me that Dracula's castle is a piece of shit? It sounds completely awesome! What's wrong with her?!"

Right, okay, time out. Fair enough. I'm a complainer. I'm a cynic. I know I'm selfish, I'm unkind.

No, not really, that last part's just from another catchy song. 
Okay, maybe really. 
I don't know. Stalin is helping me work through some things.

But being ambitious and almost never being satisfied are basically the same, right? In many ways it's a good thing. Criticism is healthy because it lends itself to continuous improvement, especially self-criticism, because our own lives and actions are the things we have the most say and sway over. 
Like everything else, this should probably be done in moderation if it's going to stay healthy and constructive, but you get what I mean. It's important to criticise things instead of just passively accepting everything and deeming it some degree of "okay". Right?

To prove that my perspective is fairly balanced and not just overwhelmingly doom-and-gloomy, I'll go ahead and tell you the story of Castelul Bran first, so that there's at least some context to the atmosphere of the trip as a whole. 

Right now it's just my damning criticism of my massively inferior classmates and travelling companions. 
That was a joke. 
Seriously, I'm not that egotistical, they're just insufferab- Wait, what? 
This is somehow not trad goth enough for you? 
Too much self-reflection and examination?
Not what you signed up for? 
You want me to get to the point?! You want absinthe and Alien Sex Fiend?! 

Too fucking bad. We'll come back to Cluj after this brief, hard cut interlude. 

Get a fresh vodka tonic or soda or cranberry or whatever the fuck and deal with it. 
That lemon slice is your only friend besides Stalin, and it's lonely.

... It was a long drive through innumerable small towns. There's really only one two-lane highway in Romania, so you have to drive through them all whether you like it or not

That feeling you get when you realise you're the tourist these old ladies have spotted from 100 metres away, thinking you have money (lol sorry), and the absurd contrast of this kitschy banner and their headscarves is also hitting you at the same time and you feel so embarrassed you want to disappear

Survey says: raspberry season

Oh shit, he saw me

Oh shit, we're too loud, he saw me too
Blame Shihiayah, she's the one who got me on board with this whole 
taking-candid-photos-of-strangers thing

I remember this kindly old lady very well; she was bowled over with amusement when she asked after rambling at me for a minute if I understood any Romanian, and I said, 
"Un pic".

Oh cheese, delicious cheese existing outside EU-sanctioned dairy production regulations

Okay, so, anyone would expect to find a delightfully tacky, astonishingly overpriced (kindly old lady's simple cotton dresses are about $100, fyi) caravan of souvenirish goods parked outside a major attraction, ready to pounce on groups with disposable income exactly like ours. Future roommate Shihiayah bought a lovely but not very unique shawl because she was cold. I still remember it, it's in one of the photos; light purple with a subdued paisley pattern.

The walk up to Bran, a castle in which Vlad Tepeş is supposed to have been briefly imprisoned according to some historical records (yep, he stayed for a night, possibly; didn't live there or leave scores of Turks impaled outside or anything), is pretty much what you'd expect: serene, idyllic, hearkening back to a simpler time that was still just petering out right about where we left that elderly iron train in the sunflower fields.

And here she is; not very large or imposing, but then, you also wouldn't have a great time infiltrating it on foot. Not bad for my first castle, I think, as it comes into view before us.

There's that shawl. Points for guessing A - D. Or G actually. 
Professor Verbosity here I might introduce in a different post. Or never.

Happy happy; joy joy. :/

Lots of Hobbit-sized doors in this country, actually

Lots of nice heavy-handed metaphors and cliches going on, too

Castelul Bran is an indicator of how much all that bovine growth hormone in our vitamin-enriched breakfast cereal has done for us: "Oh, yeah," you think as you duck through another charmingly miniature door and into an unnaturally claustrophobic corridor, "I guess people were a lot shorter then".
The interior has of course been extensively renovated however many times, and the walls are coated in a plain white plaster that definitely looks like it's hiding things and begging to be chipped away when people aren't looking. The stairwells are narrow and steep, the ceilings low, and every single nook, cranny, and corridor is crowded with enough other tourists various and sundry to drive home how unoriginal your choice of destination has been.

But hey, I'm managing to get pictures without any people in them, so I've got that going for me.

What random years could it be if I'd managed to keep the cars and 
yellow road lines out of these?

Orthodox religious iconography and art in this part of Europe seems to tend toward the dark, heavy, and intimidating. The items on display in the castle were collected by Queen Marie, formerly of Edinburgh. Goth survey says: approved!

How old can these faded cherubs be?

Ah-hah! Of course: they were painted in the time of King Squidtreebeard. Easy.

Speaking of Orthodox Christianity, I hurriedly snapped this kind of eerie photo of a priest and nun who were also visiting the castle.

When you reach the top you're greeted by an unexpectedly half-assed anticlimax, a plateau where there should be a crescendo. A bare, unremarkable room with a brief, lazy history of vampires and Count Dracula in pop culture - especially in the last 20 years of Hollywood film - laid out using MSOffice and set in plexiglass stares back at you, and it is even cheaper-looking than this simple picture can convey. 

It's kind of unbelievable that someone didn't try harder.

We got half of that other group in there, too, just for good measure

At least the castle itself and the area around it are incredibly lovely if you can manage 
to get away from the crowds.

No bats in the belfry? 
Damn it, I'm running down my checklist of clichès and I almost had them all..

My favourite picture from the castle is this one. Looking through them 
when we're all back on the bus, I realise that it feels the most appropriate, 
and happens to have decent composition. And decomposition. -rimshot-

The town nearest the castle is Braşov, where we stayed for the night. On the outskirts, though, not in the cute little town proper as you see it below.

Of course, once again, goth survey says: approved

All I remember about it - or, rather, about the little pension-type place we stayed at - are two particulars that I guess I never successfully blocked out, the first being how terrible the food was. Everyone literally got a several-course meal except for me: I got a plate of slop, unceremoniously dropped in front of me with a "plank" after a very lengthy, disappointing day. It might as well have been dumped on my head.

Some background: the aforementioned witch who put this whole thing together and manipulated each of us into signing up by telling us whatever we needed to hear to be convinced in a way that is embarrassingly transparent in retrospect had assured me many times, swore up and down in fact, that providing vegetarian fare would be no issue whatsoever, and that it would be delicious. Fresh fruits and veggies, especially tomatoes and cucumbers, are abundant in Romania in the summer, and it was a simple thing.

Vlad (one of our two Romanian-Americans), sitting across from me, said, "Man, that's.. That's really shitty. Seriously. That's just peasant food. They can definitely make you something better, like anything. It's not hard."

I was on the verge of tears out of sheer frustration; everything for a straight week at this point had seemed like such a bad joke but so clearly wasn't, and I didn't have the patience for another shit meal with a bunch of shitheads. 
When the witch wafted over to our table I explained that I was offended by my plate of literal gruel, not because it was "traditional", as she then tried to guilt me into believing, even as Vlad voluntarily took my side and argued that it really wasn't in this day and age, but because, as I said to her, I had paid quite a lot of money I didn't have for the trip and simply wanted something vaguely on par with what I was promised, and what everyone else was having.

"It's not about what you paid for," she snapped, "it's about what you get."

Everyone was stunned into silence as she huffed away. I had been upset, for days, but not unjustified or rude. 
Several minutes later she came back and explained in a condescendingly conciliatory tone that she had found the cook, and that this magnanimous lady was willing to make me a simple salad. I think I managed to make my voice crack, "Yes please," or something alone those lines.

Later, outside, as the sun was setting, we walked around the grounds of the place, which I remember in the vague way one recalls a pleasant movie scene involving a quaint old building in a meadow with a few farm animals milling about here and there.

Upon closer inspection, though, the rooster was kind of fucked up. I remember trying to figure out what was wrong with it, if it was diseased or what, and we were able to get a close enough look to realise that it seemed to have been half-plucked by someone, and then presumably escaped. Diana, our other Romanian-American comrade, agreed that it certainly did look like that, and could think of nothing else that might have happened to it. It was Ioana, in the parlour, with cooking utensils! She didn't seem terribly surprised.

The only part of this memory with any remaining clarity is the passing thought of how cruel and irresponsible this was; what kind of idiot would try to pluck a live bird? I mean, even the token difficult person with the special-order salad knows you break the chicken's neck first, right? Surely rural folk have more common sense than that. How?

But there was no other explanation for how it looked. 
This is a very fitting end to this day for all of us, I thought, including the bird.
It bock-bocked and bobbed its head. 
Shihiayah sighed and started walking away. She ended up doing that a lot.
The sun streamed full-strength into our eyes though the trees as it sank, leaving us in the dark with our disappointment.

So, like I was saying: I really needed this whole medieval Transylvanian goth club thing to pan out. For morale.

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