Location: Miclosoara, Transylvania, Romania, Eastern Europe
ONE SIMPLE ERRAND a spontaneous beer run in the boondocks
turned into one of the most poignant moments of my
life. For a few days around New Year, I stayed in an itty-bitty
Romanian village, an ethnic Hungarian one at that, tucked
away in Transylvania, literally and figuratively many miles
away from civilization and the cover-charged, champagne-packaged
revelry usually associated with ushering in another year.
Miclosoara, population 500, has no running water, only
one paved street, electricity but no gas lines, and is heated
only by wood the burning smell of which fills the country
air. Chickens, horses and other animals seem to outnumber
its poor residents, who speak Hungarian first, Romanian second.
Despite their Romanian citizenship and great distance from
the Hungarian border most have never been to Hungary
they proudly proclaim their Magyar heritage.
This remnant of history, and longtime source of nationalistic
rivalry and conflict, is part of what makes the Transylvania
region so interesting.
My girlfriend and I were staying at the rustic but charming
inn in town, and we met a British guy also named Andy
and doing humanitarian work in Romania and his visiting
girlfriend. The inn had no beer, so Andy and I headed to the
towns lone market only to find it closed. So we tried
one of the three tiny watering holes in the village. Using
a flashlight to navigate the dark streets, sliding through
an icy, muddy mix, we found a log cabin-like pub about the
size of an American living room. The patrons were all men,
peasants wearing soiled rubber boots and the evidence of a
long days work. We received odd stares when we entered,
our only goal to buy some beers to take back to the inn.
As we started to leave the smoky den, one of the men spoke
to us in Hungarian. I replied that I dont understand,
but I speak some Romanian. The guy looked shocked and they
all start to tell us to stay and drink with them. Whats
the big hurry? Tomorrow night is New Years Eve. Sit
down and relax.
We said, sure, well stay for one, but after that, we
should rejoin our girlfriends back at the inn. Within a few
minutes, the outspoken one, Gheorghe, or Gyuri in Magyar,
and his cohorts were surrounding our table, grilling us with
questions and ordering up shots of palinca, a fruit
brandy that could strip paint off a wall. They were fascinated
by the presence of an American and a Brit in their isolated
village. Since Andy had been in Romania only a few weeks,
I served as a so-so interpreter. Gheorghe had leathered hands
and a face revealing some tough years. He told us that he
is the village blacksmith. I didnt know that word in
Romanian, but understood once he explained, charades-like,
how he makes shoes for horses. We all laughed
over this. He also delighted in telling me that he shares
a name with the President of the United States. Next time
I come to Miclosoara (or Miklosvar in Magyar), he said, I
should stay with his family and save my money.
After another round or two, more laughs and some confusing
conversations, Gheorghe turned more serious. He said that
his brother left for America several years ago but had since
died, leaving a wife and two children, who would be in their
teens now. They were near Phoenix, Arizona, but he had lost
touch. The kids only speak English.
Could you write a letter to them for me?
We agreed that Id visit his home the next day. He gave
me a double-cheek kiss, a sign of affection that doesnt
normally occur until much later in a friendship, and off we
went back to the inn. Andy and I endured some teasing from
our girlfriends and the innkeeper, whod already heard
we were the hit of the pub. The entire village was talking
Everybody at dinner enjoyed our story, especially about the
letter I promised to write.
The next morning, I found the wooden gate, on the left just
beyond the creek, as I was instructed. Peering in, I saw Gheorghe
and his father working in the dirt courtyard filled with chickens
and junk. The surprised yet happy look on his face was priceless.
I could tell he thought I wasnt really going to show
up. He quickly invited me inside the house.
I have never been in a simpler, poorer home. It was just a
couple of small but well-heated rooms, the wood burning smell
almost overpowering. His wife, traditionally dressed with
a scarf on her head, fixed a coffee for me, using well water
from a bucket, and heated it on an ancient stove. The grandmother,
or bunica in Romanian, was ill and covered-up on a
sofa in this kitchen-living-dining room. We again spoke only
Romanian though Gheorghes wife understood little. She
looked down at my leather hiking boots though they
were scuffed and dirty, having survived Outward Bound in Arizona
and New Mexico and propelled me on hikes from the Smokies
to New England, they were probably nicer than any shoes theyd
Gheorghe pulled out a dusty envelope, though it was missing
the letter the last correspondence from his nephew
and niece in Arizona. The handwriting was a kids and
I noticed the address, an apartment in Tempe, but my heart
sank when I saw the postmark was 1995. I thought to myself,
theyll probably never get this. Gheorghe didnt
have the kids phone number, or I would have somebody
back home make the call.
The family weren't even sure what to say, but I jump-started
them with questions on how things were, that they wanted to
hear from the kids, please write, maybe they could visit someday.
I began to scribble it in English, using a pencil and yellowing
paper they gave me. Hello, I am an American, serving
as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania, and I met your Uncle
Gheorghe . . .
I asked Gheorghe for his phone number for the letter, not
sure they even had one. They did, but when I wanted the area
code, Gheorghe reached for a small phone book and searched
throughout. Im not even sure he could read, but I found
the code on the cover. I also thought if the kids are Americans,
they probably use computers and have email. I figured it was
a long shot, but began to explain about computers and that
I could....just blank stares.
I then took out my digital camera and took a few shots. I
felt sheepish about displaying such an expensive item, but
they marveled at seeing their photos instantly. I promised
to send the photos to America, with the letter. When I said
goodbye, the bunica extended her cold hand, tightly gripped
mine, and pulled me down for a hug. Her eyes were welling
with tears. She thanked me and wished me a healthy life. I
promised to send the letter.
As I walked through the village, I was in my own zone, let
alone the time warp that surrounded me. What I had just seen,
just experienced, was unforgettable. A few villagers stared
at me, probably thinking, What is this guy doing here?
I sloshed through the muddy streets, dodging mangy stray dogs
and horse-drawn carts trotting through the village, contemplating
the letter to America. This, I thought, was a Peace Corps
When I arrived back in Timisoara, I searched the Internet
for the lost family, but had no success. Then I had the photos
printed and air mailed them with the letter, all the way to
Tempe, Arizona. I put Gheorghes return address on the
envelope, in case the kids had moved, maybe the U.S. Postal
Service would be kind enough to send it back at least
he would know I tried. I put my address and email in the letter.
I also sent a note and the same photos back to the family
in Miclosoara. Then I waited. And hoped.
Ive since called Gheorghe. He received my letter, but
hes still waiting for a reply from the kids. I hope
one of us hears something, someday.
Text © Andy Trincia, All Rights Reserved