It is an unfortunate symptom of the human experience that so many of our memories center around traumatic incidents. The things we would rather not remember often stay with us far longer than we could ever imagine. The more we attempt to suppress unwanted parts of our past, the more likely they are too return with a vengeance. Many of our most vivid memories get connected with negative events. Uncommon occurrences that because of their novelty or rarity stick in our mind. These experiences do not have to be life shattering in order to become memory markers. They just need to be unique. I discovered two such experiences lurking in my memory when I began to think about Brasov, that elegant city in eastern Transylvania known for its splendid old town and beautiful setting amid the mountains.
Confined space – Street in Brasov
Stealing Away – Criminal Minds
Drunkenness and drug abuse. Those were not the kinds of experiences I was looking forward to finding when I went to Brasov. During a decade of travels in Eastern Europe that include a trio of trips to Transylvania, I have found the region to be much safer than the United States. Violent crime and the potential for it to occur are rare. I have never seen guns in Eastern Europe except while visiting museums. In the United States, handgun crime is a chronic problem that only seems to get worse with each passing year. Mass shootings are now occurring multiple times a week. There is no such thing in Eastern Europe. When shootings do occur, they are usually related to organized crime. I have read more about stabbings in the region, but these crimes are much harder to commit.
That does not mean Eastern Europe is without crime. Whereas in America, I rarely worry about theft, I have heard numerous stories of theft from travelers in Eastern Europe. In one case, I had second-hand experience with it. On an overnight train from Krakow to Budapest, a friend of mind had his wallet cleaned out of cash. Petty theft is anything but that when it happens to you or someone you know. This is why most accommodations in the region have multiple locks on the door. Phrases such as “do not leave your bags unattended” take on a different meaning in Eastern Europe.
There is also the persistent problem of corruption which still plagues every post-communist country. This corruption is not just the kind where fat cats get kickbacks on contracts. There is also the petty kind, where citizens are forced to pay for services or access that should have already been covered by their tax dollars. A Hungarian once told me that business costs should include a thirty percent add on for various payoffs. While corruption in Hungary has worsened over the past decade, the problem is only a little better or worse than other nations throughout the region. Corruption trickles down through society, affecting everyone, at every level. I have been asked for petty bribes a few times while traveling in the region. Thankfully, this is the exception rather than the rule. Endemic corruption rarely affects tourists on a perceptible level. More problematic are societal problems that can be seen on the street.
Beautiful setting – Council Square in Brasov
Soft Targets – Picking Up Problems
Brasov is prosperous by the standards of Romania. The city has good public transport services, a diversified economy, and a thriving tourist sector. It is in Transylvania, which happens to be the most economically prosperous region in Romania besides the capital of Bucharest. Brasov has a lot going for it, but like the rest of Romania, the city is still recovering from the disastrous Ceausescu era. Societal woes are to be expected. The average tourist is not likely to encounter many problems. Nevertheless, Brasov was where I had a couple of memorable moments that I would rather forget.
One came while walking down a narrow street in the Old Town during the late afternoon. I suddenly found an unwanted companion in the form of a very drunk Romanian man who looked to be in his 40’s. For some reason – most likely my red hair – he thought I must have been German. He mockingly began to sound off in drill sergeant speak. By the tone, I could tell his comments were pejorative. I assumed these were allusions to German militarism The man was trying to get a rise out of me. I would have none of it, but I did consider the possibility that he might lay his hands on me. That would have escalated the situation to a point of no return. There was little doubt that he was inebriated. His mocking tones went on for a couple of blocks before the man finally wandered off. I was a bit shaken by the experience. This could have easily happened almost anywhere else in Eastern Europe. The biggest surprise was that it occurred in Transylvania. I have seen much more public drunkenness in Poland and Hungary. Romanians are not known to be excessively fond of alcohol, but the problem does exist.
Evening scene – Brasov at dusk
Shock Effect – A Tale of Trauma
By the standards of substance abuse, public drunkenness by someone acting like a lout is only of mild concern. The same could not be said for a shocking sight I came across while walking in the Old Town one morning in Brasov. Foot traffic was rather heavy since it was a weekday. The morning commute on foot to the nearest bus stop or workplace was in full force. While weaving through fellow pedestrians I noticed a woman walking at a brisk pace. Her features were shriveled though she looked to be no older than 40. She pressed a plastic bag to her face from which she was inhaling a substance. This turned out to be glue, the smell of which struck my nostrils just before her rancid body odor. The moment was shocking in the extreme.
Sniffing glue is a sure way to destroy brain cells and shorten your lifespan. Drug abuse is a disease of despair, as much as it is one of addiction. It is no secret that Eastern European societies have had a difficult economic transition to capitalism. Some nations such as Romania have suffered more than others I have grown used to fending off attempts for money or cigarettes in public areas. My infrequent encounters with the destitute have been short and relatively benign. While this encounter was short in duration, it will forever remain in my memory. There was a desperation about that woman I have rarely seen. Now over a decade past that moment, I can only wonder what became of her. I imagine something quite tragic. This is one of those travel memories that I will never forget no matter how hard I try. Travel gives you a different perspective on the world and sometimes it is one you would rather forget.