A Thunderstorm for Dinner

Day 1. 14 July 2005

Thursday. The journey began like any other; at Heathrow Terminal 2 a little after 7 o’clock. After a swift check-in I made way through to Departures. Whilst stood outside a branch of Virgin megastore reading a text message on my mobile, I’m suddenly aware of someone stood opposite. It is Tom Fyson – of the Estonian Adventures of 2003 fame – and my leader again on this; Romania 2005.

More or less on time, we depart England to fly east over Europe, landing two hours later in Vienna to be whisked across the airport in a bus and back again, to board our transfer plan. What we find is the tiniest, oldest aeroplane that I’ve ever flown in. With propeller’s on the wings, and luggage stowed under the tail fin, the slimmed down seating is just two deep either side of gangway, and the only separator between first and standard class were two bits of clear Perspex etched with the logo of Tyrolean Airways – our carrier for the last leg of our Austrian Air flight.

Flying further east over the north of Hungary, Lake Balaton, and the suburbs of Budapest, we cross the border, and descend over the rolling plains of Romania. Landing at Timisoara International airport – a very rural airport consisting of one small, single story building that upon landing, you have to taxi back down the runway to reach. We are bussed, for reasons that I cannot quite fathom considering the distance must be all of a few metres, to the terminal set at the edge of the hard standing surrounded with grassy lawns and established shrubs.

Passport control takes an age for Tom and he is asked to stand aside whilst the stern-faced, uniformed lady checks and stamps my passport (Yay&helliip;! for non-EU holidays and more stamps in one’s passport!). Still in the same room, I pass through, or rather across a yellow line painted across the floor, into baggage reclaim. We discover the reason for Tom’s delay at passport control: although he has made it into the country, it seems that his bag hasn’t.

As Tom attempts to establish the whereabouts of his bag, I make the mistake of lingering a little too long in the middle of customs (same room, just across another, this time red, line). I face a cursory examination of my hand luggage – the official – who speaks little English seems most interested in what kind of electronic equipment I might have, and a little surprised at how many books I have in my bag. Finally, I bid my escape and make for the freedom beyond the sliding doors&helliip;

I am greeted by Adrian – our host – his wife Michaela, and his dog Pif (a floppy-eared spaniel of rusty-red colour whom Adrian introduces me to as his ‘second son’). I spot them straight away by the large printed sign they hold welcoming ‘Tom and Thomas’ in big, friendly letters. Whilst we wait for Tom to join us I try the exchange office – they only change cash for cash – so I try the cash machine. Guessing at the exchange rate to be something like 5:1, I extract 750 Romanian Leu. What I get out of the machine is fifteen extremely long, oddly smooth and shiny notes in denominations of 500 000 that total some 7 500 000 Leu. Not entirely what this means, and a little scared that I may have inadvertently taken out my entire year’s salary in a rare currency on my credit card, I vow to find out more later.

Finding out more about the just how much money I have withdrawn has to wait though, as Tom eventually arrives, without his bag, but requiring Adrian’s native voice to arrange the delivery when at last they find out where it is (they think it is Vienna but they are not sure). I stash my foreign currency into my wallet, and in the intervening minutes, by way of making conversation, I practice some of the Romanian that I have learnt on Michaela.

Shortly afterwards we are heading away from the airport in Adrian’s car, and on an unscheduled and erratic sight-seeing tour of the city. For a confused moment it is thought that there are two Hotel Continentals. This leads us to heading hither and thither and asking complete strangers the whereabouts of the Continental North Star, and receiving in return blank looks of confusion by way of return. It turns out that North Star is the company that owns the hotel, and so, confusion resolved, we arrive at my city centre hostelry – with a spacious lobby of polished marble and luxurious leather armchairs which you can sink into. Tom leaves me to check in, and heads off into the mountains with Adrian, Michaela and (a slightly riled) Pif, with instructions that I am to be packed and awaiting collection at 5 o’clock Saturday afternoon for collection.

My room is on the fifth floor of a soviet era tower block with surprising large amounts of architectural merit (little flourishes here and there and an elegance of simplicity). The room itself is clean and simply laid out with a fine view over the city. After a much needed shower to refresh myself from half a day in and around airports and aeroplanes, I head down to reception and then across the road to the exchange office.

Between the two I learn that there is an ‘old’ and a ‘new Leu in operation. The 500 000 note of which I have fifteen is the same as a smaller and more manageably-sized 50 Leu note. Both are worth almost exactly £10. Back in my room I count up my money and realise that without knowing, I guessed right; I have with me about £150. I also work out that 100 000 or 10 Leu is £2; 50 000 or 5 Leu is £1 and the impressively sounding 10 000 note is the same as 1 Leu or 20p. Don’t even get me started on the coins (of which I haven’t as yet seen!).

More reassured about what things cost ‘in real terms’, I head out across the park to the city centre, and to the monumental ornateness of the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral. On route I discover the picture of a public phone needed for Jamie’s ‘Romanian Postcard’. Then, a little before 8 o’clock I settle down at a table in the out outside terrace of the subterranean Club XXI and wrestle with a menu written in Romanian. Led through it by my waitress I settle on the chef’s speciality of polenta, egg, sausage and other meats.

And then, as I sit with my glass of Timisoarian Premium Lux beer and wait for my food to arrive, the thunder rolls round, and a warm breeze pushes down the street. The rain falls; crazy, big, heavy raindrops, and the wind pushes it under the awning forcing me shelter behind the table cloth. Eventually, I am forced to run for shelter, and my waitress leads to me down into the subterranean bar. My food arrives, and is followed by pancakes and coffee. As I eat the band set up in the bar – Thursday night’s according to the Rough Guide – is cabaret night. Live traditional folk music is accompanied by a band of violin, keyboard and clarinet.

The meal is good, and comes to a total of 418 000 for two courses, coffee, and a pint of very agreeable local beer. As I emerge into the flood lit Piata Victorie. I am almost immediately accosted by two young ill-washed Romanian girls begging for money. Looking around I see their mothers, sitting by the fountain, looking on. I decide to beat a retreat, and meander back through side streets and tramways before reaching the northern edge of the park, and my hotel, for my first night’s sleep in Romania.

Day Two: A kilo of fruit for 40 000, and the search for only museum in town&helliip;