Angels of the Road: Pietre in Bucharest

The following is an excerpt from my journal. After about a month of hitchhiking around eastern Europe, I found myself in Romania. I was unsure where to go next and was beginning to feel tired of sleeping in a new bed each night and even more tired of not knowing where that bed would be or how exactly I would find it. After staying with a lovely couple on an organic fruit orchard in Transylvania, the early snow forced my hand. I had no appropriate shoes or clothing, so I began to hitch south.

It was a perfect day of hitching. I left Odorheiu without having heard from my next host in Bucuresti, but I figured I could always find a hostel if necessary.

In Vanatori, a few gypsies approached me, asking for money or proffering advice or possibly both. One old man, dressed in baggy black trousers and a light coat insufficient for the cold tried incessantly to talk to me and direct me somewhere. He wouldn’t leave me alone though I kept saying “Multumesc” and avoiding eye contact. I think it was because he appeared to be harassing me that I got my next ride quickly.

I got in the car with an older couple in the front seat and boxes of fruit and vegetables in the backseat. The man, portly and vibrant, spoke a little English and the woman, trim and put-together, spoke none at all. Due to bad traffic and construction, they took me a scenic route to Bucuresti and along the way I shared some of my pears from my last hosts’ orchard in Odorheiu. The couple tried to share their meat pizza with me and the man, Pietre, scoffed when I told him I was vegetarian. “I’m sorry!” he said.

Along the way, they stopped at a 400-year-old monastery so I could look around. When inside the church, the woman, Brendusa, kept talking to me, trying to explain things to me in Romanian. I smiled and laughed and nodded and she did the same. Once outside, we collected walnuts which Pietre cracked in his hands and continually gave to me. I ate them quickly, but could not keep up with his supply.

We drove towards Bucuresti, but it soon became clear that we would not arrive before dark. I explained my situation, saying I needed to find an internet cafe. I hoped by then my host had emailed me back with her phone number and address, but if not, I could use the internet to find a hostel that night. Pietre gave me his card and told me that if there were any problems I should call him and I could stay with him. I was so grateful for this because as it got later and later, I began to be a bit apprehensive about where I would sleep that night.

I loved the way they interacted with each other, affectionate and teasing, with Brendusa always laughing at Pietre. And the way they interacted with me was just as sweet, treating me gently, like a daughter. They tried to find me an internet cafe, but as we got closer to Pietre’s apartment we decided to scrap that plan—instead I would stay with Pietre. “Real couchsurfing” as my friend J would say.

They made up Pietre’s bed for me as Pietre was determined to sleep on his own couch while I slept in the bedroom.

The next morning I awoke to find the first snow that had fallen in Odorheiu had followed me to Bucuresti. Pietre scoffed at my black mesh sneakers which seemed to absorb the slushy snow rather than repel it and he was convinced I needed another pair of shoes. I tried to talk him out of it; I was heading south after all, surely I could keep ahead of the snow. But he was determined to buy me a pair of shoes, warmer ones for the Romanian cold that was settling in so early in October. He took me to a second-hand shop that sold shoes by the kilogram and charged a different amount per kilo depending on the day of the week. Unfortunately it was Friday and the shoes we agreed on were Gortex and heavy. Pietre really wouldn’t let me pay for them. He was completely insistent and I was touched and embarrassed by his kindness. My measly “thank you” was insufficient so I gave him a big hug to accompany it. He even tried to buy me a warm, waterproof coat, but I had to put my foot down and really refuse.

When we got back to the apartment, Pietre turned on the radio and it seemed that every station played the same mind-numbing electro dance music, so I popped in a Louis Armstrong CD and we listened repeatedly to “St. James Infirmary”. Pietre said in the name for this music in Romanian is “Black Heart” and said that the song reminded him of a funeral march—a sublime funeral march. He tucked me very sweetly into bed and I could hear him listen to “St. James Infirmary” a few more times before he retired for the night as well. I surfed the television, intrigued by the late-night offerings of Romanian TV. I was especially intrigued when I found a channel playing softcore porn with fuzzy lighting and 90s-style neon t-shirts and acid-wash jeans quickly removed to reveal skinny women with big fake breasts. The porn seemed like a cheap (and old) American production.

The next day, Saturday, Pietre and Brendusa took me to an open-air museum displaying traditional houses and buildings from all across Romania. It was fascinating and reminded me of a more interesting living-history museum than the one in Des Moines, Iowa where my school sometimes took field trips when I was a child.

At this museum in Bucuresti, there were windmills and watermills for grinding grains, extracting oil from nuts and seeds, and for felting wool. Felting wool is an important part of traditional Romanian clothing, a protection against the bitter winters. I poked my nose everywhere I could—going into all the open houses and peering in the windows of the closed houses, but the day was cold and overcast and gave me further appreciation for felted wool.

The next day, despite the protestations of Pietre and Brendusa, I was determined to leave, to hitch south and jump ahead of the cold. My cotton pants and two thin sweaters were proving no match for drizzling sleet and near-freezing temperatures.

As usual, I planned to use HitchWiki to find the best way out of the city, but Pietre had a different plan. They would drive me all the way to the Bulgarian border, from where it would be easy to find a truck going south, possibly all the way to Istanbul. He was determined to drive me all that distance and Brendusa was determined to come, and what could I do? At a certain point, protesting and saying no thanks simply becomes rude, so that morning I broke in my new (second hand) winter boots and we piled into Pietre’s car. Pietre drove and I sat in the backseat smiling the whole way.

An hour later, after passing by flat farmland remarkably reminiscent of the Iowan countryside I hadn’t seen in over a year, we arrived at the border with Bulgaria. I kissed them both, thanked them as much as I could, hoping they could feel how grateful I truly was, and hugged them both tightly. I saw Brendusa wipe away a few tears which of course made me choke up. I gave her another hug, then Pietre lifted my pack and helped me into it. I walked toward the Bulgarian border officials, but couldn’t resist one final look back.

Pietre stood watching me leave, his arm around Brendusa, comforting her. I remembered what Pietre had told me the day before. He only had one child, a son, but now he felt that I was something like a daughter. And I thought, for the umpteenth time, how well the road provides. When you surrender to the road, to the whims of the universe, you find you are taken care of. At a time in my travels when I was feeling tired and a little frazzled, these two wonderful people came into my life, loving me and taking care of me as if I were their own child.

Photos courtesy of Ainali and Andre Stroe at Wikipedia Commons.

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