Letter from Romania

A short while ago, while flying from Bucharest to Athens and not finding a scrap of anything to read, I thumbed through the in-flight magazine – appropriately named Insight – edited by the Romanian airline, fittingly called Tarom. In an article titled «Hunting in the Carpathians,» I read this paragraph: «If by some wild fluke all the skins of the bears of the Romanian forests were to be sold tomorrow, namely some 5,500, these would bring in about 35 million euros.» So, if you can afford it, you can indeed hunt bears in the forests where the legendary 15th-century Count Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler (a Romanian national hero) used to impale Turks and Hungarians on wooden stakes, just to show them. (Romania is going ahead with a Dracula theme park in Transylvania despite opposition from groups concerned that such a kitschy illusion would create confusion with the medieval surroundings.) However, the article cautioned: «Prices (especially for foreigners) are up to several thousand euros.» Inspired by the article, and since the flight took some time, I made up a draft for a short story with a provisional title: «The Bear and the Hunter.» It could eventually become a script, too. So, cut to the Mitteleuropa woods there amid the Carpathian Mountains, at a place called the Iron Gates of Orsova, Romania. There once lived an old Gypsy who owned an elderly dancing brown bear. They formed a team and wandered all around the villages of this region doing their routine: the Gypsy beating on a tambourine with the bear on its hind legs pretending to be ballet dancer. Lately, particularly after the 1989 uprising which ended the draconian rule of President Nicolae Ceausescu, business was bad for the performing couple. The reasons: After the State granted, in 1992, several broadcast licenses for radio and television, people stayed at home and watched American soap operas and Eurovision song contests instead. Also, for tribal reasons life became increasingly difficult for Romanian Gypsies (non-fictional) in general. The local authorities – in an attempt to please western European governments – tried to keep Romany Romanians at home and stop them from leaving the country for a place where they could make a better living. Now, several thousand miles away, on the other side of the ocean, in Austin, Texas, Denver P., a wealthy Texan businessman had a hobby: Hunting bears. Or rather, collecting trophies. So he went to a travel agency belonging to a friend. «I want to go to Europe to hunt bears.» «Where in Europe, Denver?» «Anywhere, Dick.» «Romania?» «Even Romania.» «Mind you, you shouldn’t have a rifle caliber less than 30/06. Also, to insure that you will get your skins in ample time, you should make your reservations 60 days in advance of your arrival. And this is going to cost you some thousands of euros too.» «How much is that in money?» «More than the equivalent in bucks!» «Ve-ry good! I mean these foreigners really have quite a nerve…» «Now, time to paint your butt and run with the antelope.» (Which in Texan-speak means: Stop arguing and do as you’re told.) The e-mails bridged the ocean. At headquarters, the National Tourism Authority (Autoritatea Nationala pentru Turism) in Bucharest, senior officials were in total panic as the big conference room filled with the jaunty tune called «Goin’ on a Bear Hunt.» Until now no one ever asked for a bear. Foxes, yes. Isn’t Prime Minister Adrian Nastase widely known for his passion for red foxes? Doesn’t wild fowl dazzle another politician: Bogdan Niculescu Duvaz? But now, of all beasts, bears. The problem was that, like a poor restaurant that puts some exotic offering on its menu only to tell customers that they are too late for this culinary delight, officials could not actually think of where to take a hunter so he could be sure to find a bear. A scatter-brained bureaucrat suggested they had better contact the secretary of state for post-privatization matters. He even presented a phone number (4021.303.64.71). He had a brother-in-law working there, he said. The others found the idea absurd. Then one remembered the old Gypsy (fictional) with the old bear. He once saw them at a particular village near Strehaia. Wouldn’t he perhaps sacrifice his bear for a good compensation? They located him but he vehemently refused. «I’ve had her since she was a cub,» he said, with tears in his eyes. «She’s always lived with people. She plays with the village children and is as tame as a lamb.» But in the end, he could do little else but submit. Denver P. kept a diary. That evening he noted: «Well, man, this shore ain’t no Budweiser. So this morning I put on the unaform I got in Austin, and right after breakfast I met the people from the agency. I said howdy to them but they did not understand me. So then we went by car to the woods and then they went and indicated the place with the bears. They seemed to know their way around, as for instants, they immediately located a big brown bear which was walking towards where us were standing. I shot it quite easily. «So then, a funny-looking little old man appeared from nowhere, from the bushes, fell on the dead bear and started weeping. Was quite enervating. Romanians are quite deceeving. And everythings seems to be quite unusual here. Man, am I glad to go home, even at this time of year when you actually burn your hand opening the car door.» Back in Austin, Texas, Denver P. met his friend the travel agent. Dick: Now how was it ? You’ve put on weight, Denver. Denver: It was quite OK. Yet, big hat, no cattle. (All talk and no action). Yeah, rat cheer (yes, in this very place). I could not stop eating mamaliga, a kind of corn mush, you know. Very fattening. Dick: It suits you. P.S. Denver P.’s role is interchangeable with that of a Greek (one of the few) who made good on the stock exchange.