Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In The Footsteps of Dracula by Steve Unger

Welcome Steven P. Unger today who has a fascinating article related to his current release, IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF DRACULA.  Steven also has a copy of the book (pdf or paperback) for one lucky commenter, so show him some love in the comments! 

 By Steven P. Unger

     When [Dracula] first appeared, Transylvania belonged to Hungary.  Romania inherited the myth [of Count Dracula], along with the respective territory, in 1918.  Dracula's home could not have been placed in the Alps (too close to the heart of Europe) or in Tibet (too far away).  The Carpathians offered just the right setting:  on the edge of Europe, where Western civilization gives way to something already different.  The Romanian space represents, for the West, the first circle of otherness:  sufficiently close for the curious configurations and disturbing forms of behaviour . . . to be highlighted all the more strongly.
Lucian Boia, Romania

            I set out to write In the Footsteps of Dracula:  A Personal Journey and Travel Guide knowing almost nothing about Romania or Romanians.  I only knew the places I needed to go in order to follow in the footsteps of the fictional Count Dracula and the real historical figure that Count Dracula's character was loosely based upon:  Vlad Ţepeş, known in the Western World as Vlad the Impaler.  I started by calling the closest Romanian consulate, in Los Angeles:
            "Hello, I'm writing a book, and I need to go to the Borgo Pass, Bistriţa, Sighişoara, Tărgovişte, Poienari, and an island in the middle of Lake Snagov."
            There was a very long pause.
            "Perhaps I'm not pronouncing the names correctly."
            "No, your pronunciation is fine.  Will you be going with a tour?"
            "No, I'm a travel writer and I want to go independently, using public transportation—you know, like trains and buses."
            "That will be somewhat difficult, sir."
            "Well, can I go to tourist offices and get information when I'm over there?"
            "Actually, there are no tourist offices in those places."
            "Oh, I see.  Well, thank you for your time." 
            It began to dawn on me that traveling in Romania was going to be very different than what I had experienced in Western Europe.  But I wasn't ready to give up.  I made online reservations for the Dalin Hotel in Bucharest:  surely, I thought, the concierge would have all the information I needed.
            I was wrong about that.  The concierge told me I could take a train from Bucharest to Tărgovişte; beyond that, well, "there are bandits."  He might as well have pointed to my map of Romania and said:  "Here be dragons" or "If you go past this point you will fall off the edge of the earth."
            Still, I was determined to find my way through the country.  And the first thing I had to do was to get to Lake Snagov and the island tomb of Vlad Ţepeş.  This was when I first encountered the generosity of spirit that I would find again and again among the Romanian people.
            Before I left the U.S., I had been given the phone number of a man, Daly Gurman, who lived in Bucharest, by someone who knew someone named Ann E., who in turn knew Daly.  I called Daly and soon discovered (1) that he only spoke German and Romanian (fortunately, I'm fluent in German); and (2) Daly had never heard of Ann E.  Nevertheless, when I told him of my desire to visit Snagov, he invited me to come to his school the next day, where he taught gymnastics, and from there he would drive me to Lake Snagov.
            I was shocked.  Who in America would take a call from a complete stranger, who was referred to him by another complete stranger, and offer to take off time from work and drive that stranger to a place 30 miles away?
            Daly, whose school was just a short walk from my hotel, was a wonderful help to me on my quest to describe and photograph the tomb of Vlad Ţepeş.  He was able to find the pier at Silistea on the shore of Lake Snagov, and called Father Varahiil Bănăţeanu, whose cell phone number is posted by the pier.  Father Bănăţeanu rowed us to "Dracula's Tomb" for a small fee.  Though Father Bănăţeanu speaks only Romanian, I was able to communicate with him through a friend by conversing in German with Daly. 
As Daly and I waited for Father Bănăţeanu on Silistea's narrow wooden pier, I couldn't resist taking a shot of two locals sitting on a nearby bench (see below).
Grandpa and Me:  Snagov Lake
Father Varahiil Bănăţeanu and his Dog

            I stayed a few more days in Bucharest, where people seemed to make a living in any way they can.  I encountered no panhandlers, though there were street merchants everywhere.  One of the most enterprising I encountered was a man who sat at the same spot every day on a bridge near Piaţa Unirii, one of Europe's largest public squares and home to the gigantic, ultramodern Unirea Shopping Center.  At his feet was a blue bathroom scale:  individuals and families weighed themselves on his scale and gave him some money in return.  When business was slow, the "Bucharest Scale Man" would feed the sparrows.  (See picture below.)
The Scale Man, Bucharest

             Another example of Bucharest's urban entrepreneurship is the impromptu street ballet performed by the attendants of a makeshift parking lot next to the fountain in the center of the Piaţa Unirii.  Apparently with unofficial police approval, a handful of brave men have commandeered a space large enough for about twenty cars, just inside a roundabout with a never-ending stream of traffic.
            Every few minutes, a car circling the roundabout stops right in its tracks, causing the drivers of the cars behind to stomp frantically on their brakes, and the first driver beeps his horn.  One of the attendants runs out to the car and gets behind the wheel as the driver slips out.  The attendant somehow manages to squeeze the car into the lot with just inches of clearance around it.  The car's owner attends to his errands; returns and pays the attendant; climbs back into his vehicle; and muscles his way back into the roundabout.  As far as I know, no one has lost his car—or a vital body part— in the process.
            I could go on and on (and I do go on and on in my book) about my encounters with Romanians, their friendliness and generosity and, in the case of a few minor bureaucrats, their obstinacy; but this is only meant to be a short newspaper article, and the following last example is when I began to really understand what life is like for the average Romanian.
            My intent was to take trains all the way from Tărgovişte to Curtea de Arges via Titu and Piteşti; a first-class, reserved-seat ticket cost $6.61.  It took about three hours to get to Piteşti from Curtea de Arges, including a half-hour wait to change trains in Titu.  On the train to Titu, I gave one of my angel holograph key chains to a mother to give to her little girl, who had been singing all along the way.  She was so excited by the holograph that she ran up and down the aisle, showing off her new treasure to all the other children.
            When I reached Piteşti, there was a 2½ hour wait for the next train to Curtea de Arges, only 20 miles away.
            Rather than waiting, I asked a taxi driver if he could take me to a MaxiTaxi going to Curtea de Arges.  I had seen a short reference to MaxiTaxis in my guide book, and I thought it was a variation of a bus.  He said yes and I got in the cab.  He took off and just kept driving and driving, all the way through this big town and even past an encampment of Gypsies.  The driver didn't speak English, French, or German, the only languages I know, and I was getting concerned.  I was afraid he might drop me and my baggage off at some deserted bus stop far, far away from civilization.  And then what would happen to me?  He finally stopped at the outskirts of Piteşti, and to my surprise there was less than the equivalent of three dollars on the meter.  I tipped him another three dollars, got out of the cab, and breathed a sigh of relief.
            The MaxiTaxi stand was bustling with activity, chock full of passengers and vans, but it didn't take long to find one going to Curtea de Arges.  It was my first ride in a MaxiTaxi, and it seemed as full as full could possibly be.  The driver tore off a paper ticket at the two-dollar level; I paid him and found one of the last two remaining seats almost hidden toward the back.
The ride only lasted about 35 minutes, and I arrived in Curtea de Arges almost two hours before my train would have left the station at Piteşti.  So that worked out OK, and I realized:  this is how most Romanians get around.  On an average salary of $400 a month at best, few people can afford a car or the five dollars a gallon it costs to put gas in it (and that was in 2005), and even trains are relatively expensive for them.  This was reality in Romania.
And that reality—of being on my own and among everyday Romanians living their everyday lives—was one of the best times of my life.
Easter Parade in Tărgovişte

The 2nd Edition of In the Footsteps of Dracula:  A Personal Journey and Travel Guide, available now from its dedicated World Audience Web page, (http://worldaudience.powweb.com/pubs_bks/Dracula.html), as well as from www.amazon.com, www.amazon.co.uk, www.barnesandnoble.com, www.amazon.fr, www.amazon.de, and www.amazon.com/Kindle), includes:

*    References, Web Links, and Costs Updated to December 2010;
*    The First Review of Dracula Ever Written, Published in the Manchester Guardian on June 15, 1897;
*    A New Section on Bram Stoker's Dublin;
*    A Rare Photo of a Wolf-Dragon, the Original Source of the Name "Dracula," Carved Within the Ruins of a Prehistoric Dacian Temple in Transylvania; and much, much more!

1 comment:

Steve_Vandalay said...

Thanks so much for the post and links, Michele. Next time I'm in Transylvania it may be in the company of Dacre Stoker, Bram's great-grandnephew, for a possible documentary he's pitching in Segovia, Spain this week.

Steve Unger