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|Volume 10 |Issue 36 | September 23, 2011 ||
Exposed beams of brown wood held the ceiling and brown wood made the floor. Neither small nor large the room accommodated neither light nor ventilation. Rather it was musty, dull and brooding. Bats could have lived in it. There was almost no furniture, although centuries ago it might have been a place of small medieval gatherings, that modest space inside the castle at Bran, first built by the Saxons of Kronstadt in the 1370s under the privilege of a Hungarian king.
The old lady, I can't tell of her face: it was years ago and she may have been slightly stooped in her posture. But she was shrunken and seemed to have all the ages and upheavals of Romania within her. Despite it being summer, she wore an odious light cardigan in an unfortunate pea-green. Conspicuous for the absence of other furniture, beside one of the walls was a brown wooden chest, of the usual type, rectangular, with a rounded hinged lid.
Unexpectedly she made us wait and as we watched she crept about like a stowaway, first to the one side of the room then the other, clutching each doorway with the curl of her bony fingers and poking her little head into each passage beyond. There'd be no witness to her plan.
It was certainly a place where things could happen, nestled in amongst the lightly rolling and slightly wooded borderlands that divide the mysterious regions of Wallachia and Transylvania. It was Bran Castle, famed as the home of that murderous, villainous and bloodthirsty vampire, the fabled Count Dracula. Once satisfied we were alone the old woman turned. From the far doorway she came and with bony curled fingers we were beckoned, closer, towards the brown wooden chest. She looked guilty.
Romanians are a people whose temperaments are as wide as the sky. As the steely chilly clouds winter brings, so their spirits can be tested and down, and with the summer they can crackle with a brightness outdone only by the sun. It's anecdotal, read-about, said-about and seemingly-witnessed, but it would explain the divergence between my summer experience and my brother's narration: he'd been there just six months before. The change of season might've been the reason.
Regardless, there is indeed some difference: unlike most of the neighbouring nations in Eastern Europe, Romanians are not cool and cynical Slavs but rather, like Italians and Spaniards to the west they are Latinos, hot-blooded and expressive, which we'd observed but the night before.
Settling into humble lodgings in the minor town of Râşnov, on our way to Bran, we'd headed out for dinner and found a nondescript local venue. There were few customers, but a group of maybe five young Romanians sat nearby and with ease our conversation spread. They had just graduated from high school and were out celebrating, they said, and I wondered where all the other students were, though Râşnov wasn't large. Of all of them I recall Nini because, and I'm not quite sure how it came up, he was a self-confessed geography addict and we were soon quizzing each other about obscure capitals: I caught him in the Pacific Islands, beside Australia, where he did not know to give a Funafuti to my Tuvalu, and he caught me with his neighbour for I'd forgotten that his Moldova's answer was correctly my Chisinau. But for the most part he was faultless on his capitals, no doubt. I'll give him that.
After we'd connected, that group of friends invited us to another place on top of a hill by the town. There was a white building and tables in the garden and a poor unfortunate couple, a middle aged woman with a dump of heavily styled bottle blond hair and her man were attempting to canoodle in romance. We utterly destroyed their moment, as the only other patrons. And we were rowdy and boisterous by then. The woman took initiative. She left her man to scream at us: she really yelled, such that we should be more considerate and refined. A season of anger rolled across from her table.
Not much unusual there but the Romanian part came next, I thought. After some time and several bouts of scolding we discovered the need to take a photo of our Romanian-graduates-and-two-Australians group. 'Excuse me madam,' Nini said… It was remarkable. From one minute sounding as if almost ready to throttle us she obliged, and moments later, featured with her man amongst us, in the snaps. The antagonistic parties had merged like noodles, almost in an instant! What a change! Hot-blooded and expressive, changeable, arrange-able and connected: all the seasons in her.
Count Dracula is fictional of course, but based upon a real historical figure. Prince of Wallachia in the 1400s, Vlad III was perhaps not a vampire, but it hardly means he was nice. His nickname says it all, 'Vlad the Impaler' with reference to his favourite execution method, and with victims that are said to have numbered in the tens of thousands, his infamy spread across Europe. Perhaps his temperament went up and down, at the ready to snap and impale. It's not to say he never tried to have quiet romantic dinners with one of his two consecutive wives. Perhaps his was but a more extreme version of that read-about, said-about and seemingly-witnessed Romanian fashion: all the seasons in him.
Bony curled fingers clutched the latch of the chest, that following afternoon in the castle. She looked around once more to see nobody coming, then at us, before opening the lid. It wouldn't have been out of place had there been blood or gore or an infant vampire in that chest in the castle at Bran. But instead she unfolded, lifted out, not less than ingenuity and survival. With the upheaval of Romania within her and the post-communist era to greet her old age, she'd taken to knitting and I don't know if she was a paid guide at the castle or not, but in that chest was her little secret: the garments sideline.
Surprisingly though, even her cottage industry had a ghastly side to it. Politely one could say she was new to the craft or mention the deterioration of eyesight common to old age, for her range of offerings was coarsely knit and in style, no less other-worldly than a vampire. There were jumpers in vomit yellow and jumpers in mottled maroon. There were lopsided hats in beige which should have been round; and it could be a failing of memory but I seem to recall the sleeves on the jumpers were not necessarily and entirely of the same length. One might be for a short and stout gent while its mate was orang-utan suitable. At the very least I'd be sure to count the number of fingers on any gloves for sale there. It was Dracula's castle. It was frightening.
But, ingenuity and survival, she'd tried; and I tried nonetheless to find something that might be vaguely of use, to support her, to encourage her, to reward her little venture; but alas, after viewing all the stock there was nought, not a single item I could bring myself to purchase.
Weeks later at home in Sydney I met my brother, and we spoke of our separate travels in Europe's East. 'Did you meet that old woman selling jumpers from a chest in Dracula's castle?' he'd said and we laughed, comparing notes on her special artistry. 'I bought a few things,' he confessed, and truth is, in retrospect, I wish I'd bought a few things too.
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