The rain still hadn’t stopped when dawn broke, exposing the same dark clouds and pot-holed thoroughfares that had welcomed us into the country. The heady days of good living under the summer sun now seemed like a distant memory. Grim faces drifted along broken pavements, eyeing us suspiciously as we cooked breakfast in a dilapidated bus shelter and washed up in a puddle.
Although occupied by our present misfortunes, I was dimly aware that the proving grounds were coming to an end. My bike and I had survived an important test in making it this far. This was my first ever long-distance bicycle journey, and despite the relatively merciful experience I’d had until now, the learning curve had still been steep. Poised on the brink of Western Europe, I had hoped that it would begin to flatten out. Romania, though, seemed to have other ideas.
For the next few days our bedraggled trio rode through bleak plains, weaving around gigantic craters in narrow asphalt lanes, pressing on through the dreary nothingness for lack of any other option. A cloaked figure drifted through the drizzle, crook in hand, vaguely attached to a distant flock of sheep. The eastern horizon ahead, long, inexpressive and featureless, began to bubble with suggestions of approaching uplands, which lifted my rain-drenched spirits. While passing through the Alps, I’d felt a humbling sense of smallness amongst the pillars of rock and earth and ice. We are sometimes confronted with a thing infinitely more vast and powerful than ourselves: an impenetrable mountain range, a frothing ocean, a furious lightning storm. We’re given the chance to look upon it, to exist quietly in its presence, and to be ignored; reminded viscerally of our own insignificance.
The rain subsided and a beam of late afternoon sunlight came through the clouds ahead. We took off up a hillside track and made camp in wiry yellow grass on the valley’s northern slopes to take stock of the previous days. Things here seemed rough around the edges, incomplete and uncared for; beaten, weary and stripped of dignity. Roads crumbled beneath the wheels of spluttering Ladas and donkey-drawn carts, weaved through villages constructed in an age of fervent uniformity, now barely holding themselves together. Dogs, pigs and chickens roamed the muddy streets freely; grass and weeds sprouted from cracks and gutters and foundations. Abandoned shelters, factories and warehouses of unknowable purpose littered the landscape away from the villages, mostly empty but a few now serving as makeshift shelters for herds and their drivers. I felt the presence of something ambitious, some enormous thrust of progress that had long since withdrawn, leaving its remnants and its people forgotten and decaying, and I wondered what memories these fading edifices held for those who might have seen them proud and gleaming, as they were in their heyday.
Desperate for shelter from the rain one evening, we spotted a little concrete platform in the middle of a grassy pasture at the bottom of the valley through which we were cycling. It was open-sided, had a little tin roof supported by a metal pole at each corner, and was about fifteen feet square. It would make an ideal place to build a fire, dry out a few belongings, and sleep in relative shelter.
Dumping our bikes, we clambered onto the raised platform and stood under the roof, looking out at the surrounding hillsides. The place immediately felt like home. There was a kind of intuition at work here that I’d felt time and time again: a sudden feeling of certainty that this was the place. We would pass the night in safety here. The spot might not look particularly different from any other – at least, not in a way that I could identify. But the feeling, one of immediate relief and relaxation, was palpable and welcome. I had not had this feeling about our ill-fated hiding spot beneath the thunderstorm.
Without hesitation, Maria took a head-torch and set off across the pasture to where the river would be, venturing into the thin row of trees in the hope of finding firewood.
‘Funny, isn’t it?’ I said to Andy, who was tying a length of string between two of the roof supports to create a drying line for our sodden clothes. ‘It’s like – someone says they’re going to cycle round the world, and you think it means they’re going to get on a bike and pump away until their legs fall off and then come home victorious. But it’s not actually like that – it’s not about how many miles you can do, or how fit you are.’
‘Yeah. I’m really impressed with Maria.’
‘Yeah, me too! And look at this place. It’s so quiet. This is what it’s all about.’
While I fired up our little petrol-powered stove to boil up some pasta, Andy built a fire with the damp wood, and soon we were sitting on the concrete, staring into the heart of the blaze, entranced by the flames as the world about us faded away. Soon the glowing embers were all that could be seen, throwing a dim orange cast across Andy and Maria’s faces, the fire’s remnants reflected in their eyes as tiny points of light. Our damp shoes sat in a row, steaming, silent additions to the campfire audience; the reeking wood-smoke collecting below the roof before dissolving into the night.
‘I feel like we should have some kind of story-telling thing, or something,’ I said, to the fire.
‘Go on then, mate. Tell us a story!’ replied Andy.
‘I’m not going first! I’m no good at stories . . .’
‘You tell us a story then, Maria.’
She squirmed. ‘Really . . . ?’
‘Yeah, you can do it! Tell us something we don’t know about you.’
‘OK . . . er . . . well, I used to be a waitress in New York. I can tell you about that.’
‘New York? What were you doing there?’
‘Well, I got kicked out of England after I finished college – I went to college in London with Magalie, that’s how we know each other – ’
‘Hold on – how did you get kicked out of the UK? You’re English, aren’t you?’
‘Well, yes, I am! I mean, I was born there, I mostly grew up there, and I went to school there . . . but because my parents are both American, and they didn’t do the right paperwork when I was born, I got to the age of eighteen – I was supposed to get my own passport, and it turned into this . . . this nightmare situation . . . I ended up in court, and the judge was like, “I can’t quite believe this, but for some reason the law is finding against you, and there’s nothing I can do . . .” – and they ordered me to leave the UK!’
‘Seriously . . . ?’
‘So I thought – well, I’ve got nothing to lose, I might as well go to America and start a new life there. So I got jobs waitressing and behind bars – they didn’t actually pay me a penny, everything I earned was in tips – that’s how it works in the US . . . but I didn’t really enjoy it, and one day I was on the phone to Magalie, and she said the same thing about her job . . . so we both decided to quit our jobs and spend the summer travelling around Europe. And that’s how we ended up in Budapest!’
‘So . . . you actually have an American passport, then?’ The border-crossing fiasco was starting to make sense.
‘Yeah, I do.’
‘No way! Go on, let’s see it!’
Maria dug through her backpack and pulled out the navy blue booklet. Emblazoned across the front cover in gold script were the words ‘United States of America’. How absurd, I thought, that the particulars of your little coloured booklet could so powerfully affect your options in life; where you could go, and how you’d be treated when you got there.
‘But it really made me think about what I’d got. I have friends in the UK, obviously; friends in Switzerland – family, too – and in the US, and I speak French and Spanish . . . so now it’s really nice to feel comfortable moving around, but still having all of these ties in different places. It’s a really nice balance.’
Our route bent south-east towards the far end of Europe, and the weather settled into a pattern. Night-time and morning rains gave way to breaking clouds and the first rays of sunlight by lunchtime, followed by pleasantly warm afternoons. Mornings were a struggle of trying to motivate ourselves to begin the days’ riding; they brought a dampness and a chill we’d not previously felt: the damp and chill of autumn. I was now sharing my tent with Maria, as Andy – through a campaign of weary sighs and ‘clumsy’ elbows in the night – had made it clear that he did not enjoy sharing his with me. The sound of rainfall on the taut flysheet always sounded far worse than it would prove to be when I finally hauled myself out, still stinking of the previous night’s campfire. Turkey, which of course would be nice and warm, became an ever-more enticing prospect – and then of course there’d be Iran, which would obviously be baking hot. But two of south-east Europe’s largest nations, Romania and Bulgaria, would need to be crossed first.
We followed valleys eastwards which, although tranquil, were riven with the same desperation I’d felt when we’d first entered the country. Commerce seemed non-existent; villages seemed to subsist off vegetable patches and scattered livestock, and their residents were packed three or four generations deep inside dilapidated houses and their wire-fenced compounds. A single grocery store carved out of a former sitting-room, shelves of meagre stock hidden behind counters, would constitute a village ‘high street’. Tucked away down a side-street off the main thoroughfare might be a bakery, or a street-vendor selling watermelons or tomatoes out of a barrow.
On the scale of a globe, I was barely a finger’s length from home, yet I found myself astounded by the ruin that I’d cycled into. Romania had recently been accepted for full membership of the European Union, and I’d somehow convinced myself that it must have made leaps and bounds forward from the days when images of orphanages filled our screens. That had been almost twenty years ago. But those with ambition had simply left the country to find a better life in the West – in Italy, Spain and further afield. I tried to imagine hundreds of thousands of Brits making the decision to pack their bags and flee the country, with no intention of ever returning, due to the political and economic climate. It was impossible to comprehend. Yet this was precisely what had happened here, and between four and twelve million Romanians now lived in the overseas diaspora, depending on whose definition of ‘Romanian’ you used. And this turmoil was all so close to home that I’d been able to cycle here from my own front door.
I tried my hand at approaching people, to ask for water or the whereabouts of a shop or Internet cafe. Though the Romanians were initially tough-mannered, often unsure quite what to make of our bizarre appearance, this attitude was easily dispelled with the usual tactic of an earnest smile and a bit of friendliness. We stuck to small back-roads, many unpaved, and one evening we were offered a patch of grass to camp on within the compound of a family home on the edge of a village. By the time Andy and I had scouted out their back garden for suitable spots, the old couple had become so enamoured with Maria – who had discovered that she could communicate through judicious use of Spanish – that they invited us inside their tiny two-roomed cottage, where we sat on ancient settees piled high with grubby patterned blankets and shared a delicious meal of salted pig fat with fresh tomatoes and chipped potatoes fried in lard. The sitting-room, such as it was, had been painted a loud turquoise; yellowing lace curtains were tacked to the splintering wooden window-frames; a tapestry of threadbare rugs skinned the floorboards while brown sheets of flypaper hung from above. A disproportionately grand old television set perched upon a cabinet, overlooking the low room, and the ancient matriarch switched it on when the conversation ran out of steam, filling the little room with the off-kilter brass and intricate percussion of Balkan pop, which we politely sat and watched for what seemed like hours.
As darkness fell outside, the rest of the family returned, smiling and curious – a young husband and wife, one of whom must have been the son or daughter of the old couple – and a handful of small boys who surreptitiously fiddled with the little moving bits on our bicycles and otherwise darted about in silence, clearly under orders to make themselves seen and not heard in the presence of guests. A hotchpotch of brick and mortar in one corner was identified as a stove – a soba – when a couple of logs were thrust inside and the door closed on a lit match, and a homely warmth began to permeate that little cottage in the hills. And we trotted out our well-practised charades, miming and foraging for words beneath the dim glow of a light bulb, as the region prepared to put to rest the harvest of another year.
It’s Friday, which means the comments section is open for questions about this week’s instalments. Fire away!