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European City of Culture: where I learnt about farting


Summary for the hard of reading:

Sibiu – a nice old town; English girl said ‘fart’; nasty hotel people; Romanian woman with dalmation and German goat farmers; Romanian telly; lots of rules and rain at an open-air museum.

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So I arrived at Sibiu (Hermannstadt), and yet again first impressions were not good. It seems that all of Romania’s train stations are being redeveloped, leaving you to fight your way out of small bottlenecks, walking along and across the lines, in this case actually running in front of a moving train, then barging through queues. I wasn’t really sure what to expect but knew that it’s European City of Culture this year (along with Luxembourg?!), so hoped it might have more life.

Equally I knew this meant hotel problems, so I had called ahead but found booking one hard. Eventually Casa Luxemburg, right on the main drag and in an old house done up thanks to the royal family of Luxembourg, said they had a room, but not that cheap. Fine, I said, I’ll take it, but I had to send an email. When I arrived at the hotel, they hadn’t read either of my emails and had made no reservation, but I could have the place for one night and probably for both. The room was great, decorated in graffiti style with a view right up to the spire of the Lutheran church.

Turns out that Sibiu is just amazing. Although only half the size of the other towns I had visited – Braşov and Sighişoara – the core of the town was a lot bigger, with large squares and wide boulevards, full of people and cafes and museums. The Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals and principal Lutheran church all faced each other, and the architecture was stunning. Clean, lively, interesting. I toured the streets, checked out the city walls, climbed the church tower to look over the old town, popped into the great art gallery complete with Breughel, Cranach and van Eyck, and looked into the city history museum with Roman relics and medieval armour.

Aaaahh, I thought as I had a beer in a comfy chair in the street, listening to an orchestra warm up for an open air concert in the main square: It’s nice to be able to soak up some proper culture. What a lovely place, how civilised…

A couple of English girls sat on the next table, unusual to hear their accents. They were there with friends – a German-Romanian-American couple who were getting married the next day. The groom was describing the ceremony, the feast, the odd customs. How nice I thought, how lucky the girls are to experience that. They then turned to their flight from the UK, and the inevitable taxi scam at Bucharest Airport (damn they got away with paying less than me). And then came my cultural highlight of this great city in Central Europe… One girl said, “Talking of flying, did you know that if you fart in mid-air, no one else can smell it?” Thank goodness for European solidarity and the availability of low-cost flights. How else could I learn so much?

The next morning, after a breakfast chatting with a gay couple from Hamburg who were there for another village wedding of one of their Saxon relatives, the hotel turfed me out. They hadn’t got a room for that night, and it was probably my fault too. It wasn’t. I argued. They found me a room in a house. Angrily I packed and stomped through the hot streets out of the old town and past a dingy half-finished building. Then I turned into a road of old villas with lovely gardens and found that the Lazar’s lived at No. 24. A dalmation bounded up to me enthusiastically, followed shortly by her almost-as-enthusiastic owner Dana and then Dana’s mother. All three mollycoddled me, threw their arms/paws around me, one licked me but I can’t be sure which.

Turns out the room was further out, but it was cheaper and so much more homely. I was introduced to the other guests, a Romanian couple on their way to Budapest on holiday, and a Swabian couple who farmed goats in the Jura and were here to stay for a week with the shepherds in the mountains to learn about their cheese-making and so on. The next morning over breakfast the husband talked to me for an hour and a half about his profession teaching agricultural studies in Stuttgart, his goats, the Jura wine industry, how inheritance law had created the need for agricultural co-operatives, his views on why the 800 year strong German community of Transylvania had gone to Germany in 1990, and so on. Not a mention of farting, although I did try.

That night I lay in bed watching Romanian television. A 1980s kids drama came on, like Grange Hill it seemed. The opening credits went on forever, each main character (there must have been 30) having a close-up whilst hiking through the woods in scout uniform. The characters got older, ending in a bunch of 15 and 16 year olds, the boys and some of the girls furnished with little bum fluff moustaches, the girls all serious in enormous glasses and the boys striding manfully in front of the others. Then the programme started, with the older boys and girls standing on a stage being enthusiastically clapped by the rest of the school and parents, etc. They were standing under a picture of Nicolae Ceaucescu and were each given a prize of a bust of the dictator, some book, some sash and an envelope. This again went on for a time, accompanied with feats of prowess of each of the boys, the main one apparently a champion gymnast, and images of the girls quietly studying at home. There were two naughty boys who dressed in black uniforms while the rest were in grey, but it was ok as the 12 year old baddies were dropped from a tree.

I couldn’t really follow the plot, but it seemed something like be good Communists, salute our great leader, study hard and don’t shave off your moustache.

On my last morning, I headed for the open air museum some distance away from the town, where they had placed examples of village architecture from across Romania. Sibiu is the home of the group Astra which for many years had been protecting (inventing?) Romanian culture and identity, and the museum was its most famous incarnation.

Being Romania, you are never far from a rule and a hoard of inspectors there to enforce it. A group of Romanian and some foreign kids got on the bus with me, about 30. One girl was punching the tickets one by one and passing them down to each end of the bus. But before she had completed this inspectors got on. They saw what she was doing but nevertheless tried to fine the last five or six at the end whom she hadn’t yet given tickets to. She had more tickets than people. They argued for twenty minutes, fifteen of the young people must have been involved, but the inspectors wouldn’t have any of it. ‘They have no tickets’, ‘But here are their tickets’, ‘But they are not punched’, ‘I have been doing thirty the whole time, you knobhead’, etc. When we reached the end of the line, the inspector gave them all a long stern lecture and bid them on their way, wagging his finger. I won’t miss Romanian rule-makers. A bus ticket is 20p by the way.

So I wandered through windmills and churches and farmhouses, with a craft fair and open air mass given by a stovepipe hatted priest singing badly. Somehow wandering I managed to break a rule. I passed some magic, invisible line where I had to have a ticket. I produced the ticket I had bought at the first entry point. But this has already been ripped, they said in Romanian, pointing. ‘I know,’ I said in English, and pointed to where I had come from. I think if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was foreign, he would have hauled me in for questioning. Just like everywhere I go, the locals assume I am one of them, so I get asked for directions and not treated like a tourist. They don’t give me the English menus even when every other tourist does get it. So I was lucky to get away from yet another aggressive inspector. Entrance fee was three pounds…

I sat at the open air restuarant in the open air museum for lunch. Naturally it started to rain, with an amazing electrical storm. A Saxon Romanian couple now living in Bavaria huddled under my parasol with me and chatted about why they had thought life would be better in Germany, but now wanted to come back to thriving Sibiu. As I ate my rain-soaked chips and grilled meatballs, I realised that this time tomorrow I would be in Serbia, and for all the rules and the rain (and the taxi drivers and the dogs) the easy friendliness of the people, the foods, the landscapes and my adventures meant I would miss Romania.

I can’t wait until Ryanair discovers Sibiu; it’s only a matter of time. More people need to know about this place, and about farting mid-air of course.

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