A summer journey into the wild reaches of Europe takes us to a land of dense forests, golden sun rays, meadows spangled in wildflowers, and whispering rivulets; hemmed in by walls of mountains, as if willfully hiding itself from the outside, where today reigns. Once our modern conveyance has breached the mountain pass, we find this shrouded terrain teeming with crowing roosters, goats, barking dogs and livestock of all sorts; sheep and their keepers; horse-drawn wagons, and the human natives going about their business in their characteristic dress.
We look out over a sfumato landscape of fruit trees, tombstones and grassy mammoths of drying hay, wooden churches and painted monasteries, a verdant landscape of fertile rising land receding into the morning mist. The mountaintop hooks a cloud, and the high wind deforms it into a long white streak like a comet’s tail. Women in black, faces framed in gray hair and deeply scored with hard-earned wrinkles, sit and chat on outdoor benches along the roadside, smiling faintly or looking curiously as we pass.
During a pause in our journey, I and others sit in a bench next to a woman like this, who carries on chatting with us. She knows we cannot understand her, she cannot understand us, but her happy appreciation of the absurdity of the situation was evident as she repeated phrases, and commented to herself, it seemed, about our non-understanding, yet remained accepting and friendly in expression and gesture. This said more to me than any exchange of social pleasantries ever could.
Another day, a steam train on narrow-gauge rails huffs and pants up the mountain, alongside a transparent stream of mountain water. The asthmatic beast earns part of its keep in hauling timber; the other part in hauling tourists and train-fanciers up and down for a morning’s joy ride. For my part, the wheezing, lurching and clanking was an unfolding symphony composed collaboratively by those who engineered the train and its wagons, together with the steady wear of time and use, which, in loosening fittings and slowly rounding the sharp corners of formed metal, lent it a special character.
On our way back to Hungary, we pass through Bistriţa and cross the Borgo Pass. Those familiar with Dracula lore may recognize these as the sites of important narrative moments in the Bram Stoker novel. This Western story seems set more in Western hallucinations about the dark reaches of Europe than in any actual place called Transylvania. In confronting the real territory, the dread and darkness of a land where blood-parasites dwell give way to an appreciation for how rich and full is the life of this country.