If there’s enough of it, snow makes anywhere seem like a dream with the volume turned low and in Cerna Sat, a small village on a lake in the foothills of the Carpathians, the snow was plentiful, crisp and powdery like angels dust.
I padded up and down the main road. The muffled crunch of my boots on snow breaking the clear blue and white silence. If there’s enough of it, snow makes anywhere seem like a dream with the volume turned low and in Cerna Sat a small village on a lake in the foothills of the Carpathians the snow was plentiful, crisp and powdery like angels dust.
I looked for somewhere to put my tent, or if I was lucky, I hoped to find an old barn or deserted house to sleep in. For some reason I prefer sleeping in building even if its derelict. I’m lazy. I hate taking down tents in the morning.
At the Jesus Icon, I met a man with an axe and a heavy waist coat made from a sheep’s fleece. His bare hands gripped the axe, apparently immune or inured to the incisive cold. He was chatting to a woman, who was wrapped up in so many scarves only her eyes were visible, and if it wasn’t for the sounds and the steam rising from somewhere in the scarf bundle I could have easily imagined that she had no mouth. I asked if there was a shop, using one of my five words of Romanian to strike up a conversation. Cerna Sat looked too small and quiet for a shop, and I was expecting a negative shrug.
I judged Cerna Sat too quickly. It did have a shop and a bar the mouthless woman told me. And I could sleep on the terrace if I liked. A shop, a bar, and a sheltered place to sleep; all three of my favourite things in the one place. I tried not to get my hopes up too much just in case something was lost in the translation.
At the cafe, I drank hot chocolate next to the porcelain stove with Luksa; the owner. Once we had exhausted my four words - I couldn’t ask him where the shop was - we shared collegial nods and a half comprehension punctuated with long periods of silence. He reminded me of my grandad; having a certain and considerate manner and a judicious geniality. It was cold outside and I wanted to sit next to the green tiled stove a little longer so I asked for another hot chocolate. He stood next to me while I slurped. We looked ahead together, and pondered in silence. Both grateful, I think, for the other’s insouciance.
Eventually it came time to move on. Employing the universal if infantile gesture, I asked about somewhere to sleep, pressing my two palms together for a prayer and laying my tilted head against them and closing my eyes. He motioned that there was a pension 300m down the road on the left-hand side. I said an awkward thanks and shouldered my pack, put on my gloves, attempted to zip up my jacket, took off my gloves, zipped up my jacket and put on my gloves again and then left. Lukso patiently watched as I foostered.
It was clear then what our unspoken bond was; loneliness. His the simple uncontested loneliness of a man who merged his heart with another when he was young and then watched his other half die too soon. Mine the loneliness of wanderer.
Fearghal uses human powered journeys to explore the world.
He is one half of the first Irish team to circumnavigate the globe by bike after 18 months cycling west for 31,000km across 30 countries with Simon Evans. In 2011 he walked across Rwanda to explore development for his MSc thesis.
The pension was closed for the winter, so I trudged back to the Cafe with high hopes of sleeping on the concrete terrace. I knocked on the door. The lights were off, so I pulled up my hood and waited in the cold wind for the barking dogs to attract the old man’s attention. I waited for half an hour. The dogs kept barking but there was still no sign of life in the house. The guy with the axe re-appeared- he’d shed his waistcoat. It was at least -10 degrees. I shivered in my down jacket. He shouted something and the lights came on. My old friend opened the door ushering the axe man in and welcoming me with warm eyes. I motioned to him that the pension was closed, and asked if I could sleep on the porch. He thought for a second, then motioned for me to sit down, and made me another hot chocolate. While I slurped my drink, all three of us; the old man, the axe man and I sat in silence next the the stove and stared into space. What we were looking at, I don’t know.
When the axe man finished his wine, he bid us good night and and shouldered his axe into the darkness outside. My friend locked the door behind him and ushered me into the back of the house and into his living room. Images of the violent riots in Bucharest played over on the old television in the corner. We exchanged a few words of exasperation over the universal pointlessness of politics.
Then, we sat down to eat; plates of sausage, pork fat and a moist black pudding garnished with sliced onion and fresh cheese and chunks of bread expertly matched with wine from the collective winery. The vintage was light bodied, slightly sweet, tannic and fizzy. Its quality lay in the context, and in that context it was fine wine. We clinked glasses and ate in silence. I asked about his family, he had three kids, two drove taxis and his wife had passed away. When or in what circumstances I couldn’t tell.
We sat chewing and looking at events unfold on the TV. After the meal he insisted I use the hot water heated by the rough iron stove for a bath in the outhouse. When I returned he showed me his photos. Black and white and faded snaps of him and his wife; getting married, having a picnic, optimistic with their young family. As I handed them back to him I noticed the fat tears running down his cheeks. He pinched the top of his nose and the drops ran down to his knuckles and splashed in little puddles on the ground. I wanted to say something, or give him a hug.
It was clear then what our unspoken bond was; loneliness. His the simple uncontested loneliness of a man who merged his heart with another when he was young and then watched his other half die too soon. Mine the loneliness of wanderer. The urbane heartlessness of a city dweller who loves everything but not enough, and is wed only to a furtive sense of self. His, a twilight sense of loss. Mine; the sense of having everything beyond my grasp and nothing to loose. Both of us were solitary, he in situ me on the move and both briefly sharing space and silence over dried pork fat and sliced onion.
As I sat with this kind old soul, and watched TV and drank rustic wine, something became clear. When we travel, we don’t just pass through places, we pace through peoples lives. This is a rare gift. And connecting with place and people is only possible when there is no economic motive, no contract to provide an artificial bond in lieu of the virtuous human connections that are the most important things of all.
There was no bus to Luksa’s house in the snow muffled village next to the lake. There was no local busy body to arrange a home stay for an appropriate fee, along with the buzzwords “sustainable tourism”, and “people helping themselves” and facades of stage managed “real experiences” with “real people”, for a fee. It was a simple and even experience, we both had a walk on part in each other’s story.
The point is, it was only by doing something silly, walking alongside a river for 80km or so until my feet blistered and my shoulders hurt that I got an opportunity to have a brief insight into someones life. And that, I think, is a little bit special. I left the next morning after a breakfast of bread and wine, and a parting shot of cherry brandy. Fuller for having glimpsed a small part of the whole through a thin slice of a life.
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