Someone’s Following Us
We were up at five am, in the lobby by six and opted to try our luck back at the Moxy for breakfast, rather than the paultry-looking offerings at the Hadrigan. My cousin, Cornel, had worked out a ride for us from Vienna to Zalau, the town in the north-western part of Romania where he lives. He was doing all this while helping coordinate details for his son’s wedding the next day. The story of how it was more than a few phone calls, we’d hear about later. But for now, we were to be at the Moxy (the only hotel at the Vienna International Airport) at 8am.
We wanted to arrive early, maybe find some breakfast, and return the Swift to the rental agency. The rental agency did not open until 8am, so I dropped Rebecca off at the Moxy so she could make connections in case our driver arrived early, and I would go to the rental agency. Andi, the same hotel clerk who helped us with our rental car before, offered us free coffee and a roll. Having only one phone, Andi also agreed to let us call her in case anything went wrong again at the car rental. So I set off to the rental agency, two kilometers away.
All went well, and the rental agent brought me right back to the Moxy where we waited, had a second cup of coffee, then got a call from Cornel. The driver had called to say that he was a bit delayed but would arrive to pick us up at 8:30.
Robet, a young man from Zalau, arrived at 8:30 in a nearly new Hyundai SUV hauling a trailer with another Volkswagen SUV on it. We loaded in our luggage. I sat in the front and Rebecca sat in the back. For the first few minutes, I tried to strike up a conversation with Robet. Although nice enough and fairly good at English, just about every sentence I started with him got cut off by an incoming phone call.
Away we went. Robet spoke a little English. Mostly, he spent the 8 hours talking the cell phone–some business, some to arrange a soccer game later that evening. He is a professional driver, but boy, did he make me nervous at times–being distracted by the phone, his itchy leg, music, it was difficult to sit quietly in the back seat.
We soon stopped for gas at an exit on the freeway. He said that the adjacent shopping mall and development around the freeway all belonged to Arnold Scwartzenegger. I took the opportunity during the stop to sit in back with Rebecca.
The flat landscape slid by. The plains of Hungary were somewhat monotonous, especially after the rich, green, magnificent mountains of Austria.
I don’t know when we crossed into Hungary. It was very flat–it would have pleased my mom. You could see all the way to the horizon. To the east, there were mountains, very faint and far away.
Every time I glanced over at Rebecca, my eye caught a dark blue car following right behind us, at high speed. Very disconcerting, it was a very tall vehicle, less than ten feet behind us. Then, I realized that it was the car that Robet was towing! Rebecca had the same reaction when she turned to talk to me, as well. It became a recurring joke. Little things amuse you on a long, dull ride.
After about three hours, we entered Budapest. Normally, Robet told us, we would be rounding the north side of Budapest on the bypass freeway. But that route was closed due to construction, so all the traffic was forced into the city now.
It was somewhat a welcome relief from the dull landscape of the farmlands of Hungary.
Budapest is one place that we really wanted to visit again. My parents and I had stayed there on our way to Romania in 1974. Cornel had picked us up there when Rebecca and I and our boys had landed in 1994, and we stayed there for three days on our way back west on that trip. We had found it to be a very affordable and interesting city, (The Paris of the East) and had planned to spend more time there this trip.
But when we had learned of Cornel and Auralia’s son’s wedding set for the beginning of October, we had to foreshorten much of our plans to make it to the wedding by October 6th. Even now, we were cutting things very close, leaving only October 5 as a travel day to cross Hungary and make it to western Romania in one day, and attend the wedding the next day.
The history of Budapest reads like a football game struggle, back and forth, for territory, starting with the Roman occupation, the rise and fall of the Huns, through to the Habsburg and Austrian Empires. Throughout all this time, the towns of Pest and Buda had often been on opposite political sides, due to their geographical postions on opposite sides of the Danube. It was only in 1849 that the famous Chain Bridge first united Buda and Pest and several surrounding villages as one, centralized power in the region.
And we could see that bridge now. From the back seat, I tried to take some pictures, through the windows, among the traffic. The awful quality of the photos is a match for the miserable way we honor this formidible gateway to Eastern Europe by rushing through it now. Perhaps we’ll be able to see it in the spring and do it justice.
A bit later, we were stuck in downtown traffic near the huge train station. We notice a man up about 30 feet with no rope, walking on a narrow ledge, putting up a billboard.
Soon, we’re in the outskirts of Budapest, back in the farmlands again. This terrain recalls for me that drive we made, approaching Romania in 1974. The words I used to describe the tense approach we made are not completely irrelevant this time. That year, we had been forced to hand over our passports and visas to the authorities at the border. They seemed to taunt us menacingly for over two hours while they searched our car, when we crossed into Communist Romania in 1974. Would any of that sort of anti-west sentiment still linger?
There was line of cars going through this check-point this time. The traffic was moving along slowly but steadly. But when we came under the wide overhang at the border check and handed over our passports to the guard, he took them into the office and someone else came out to tell us to drive ahead and park to the side, and wait. The process would be protracted for us again, it seemed.
It gave us a chance to get out of the car and stretch our legs after the seven hours of riding so far during the day. Without much fanfare, the guard brought back our passports all stamped and ready to go.
The rest of the trip went pretty smoothly, despite the fact that Robet was now talking almost non-stop on the phone.
After passing through several small villages, soon we approached Zalau. We pulled off at a gas station, and I noticed Cornel standing there waiting with a young gentleman next to him–must be Adrian. But he was so tall, taller than his father! It must have been nearly twenty years ago when last we saw him as a boy, not much older than ten.
Cornel looked the same, but his hair, like ours, is grayer. Adrian has changed much–but then it’s been at least 20 years. He is a very together young man, cool, calm, and international. He speaks English, German and Romanian. He majored in civil enineering, but now works in I.T.
Kisses on both cheeks, the Romanian way! It has been so long since we had seen them. They helped us move the luggage. The ride was short to the hotel. They carried our luggage up to the room, then suggested that we eat something, (first real meal of the day).
Even though they had already eaten, and both had far more important things to worry about, they insisted that they accompany us to dinner at the hotel.
I ordered “Cowboy Steak,” as it was the one thing in English on the menu. I guess I was in the mood for something that sounded like home. Rebecca found a vegetarian pizza. Comfort food.
Ady went to get Carmen, his bride to be tomorrow, who is staying at our hotel. She matches him in sophistication and trendiness.
We talked about how they met, their work, where they live, and how it felt to be on the verge of a big wedding the next day.
It was here that Cornel revealed that he had gotten a call from his acquaintance who had promised a ride for us and had cancelled the evening before. Cornel had been up late last night working out another ride for us–all while dealing with plans for a wedding for 400!
It was awfully nice of them to spend even a few minutes with us on the eve of their wedding. We were very humbled to be a part of this occasion. We looked forward to the big event the next day.