#21 Down the Danube
September 28th, 2016
The Ormsby Review is pleased to present a book-length memoir by Howard Stewart, born in Powell River in 1952 and now slowly going to seed on Denman Island.
When Stewart was twenty, in 1973, near the start of his career as a world traveller, he spent a summer cycling across Europe with Cornelius (“Corny”) Burke [1916-1999], a genuine World War II war hero from B.C. as well as a little-known B.C. author.
As Stewart describes it, Burke first entered his life as an anonymous voice on the phone. Over the coming months, Corny revealed more of himself. It turned out “Corny” Burke was from a distinguished B.C. family—a much-loved member of Vancouver’s Anglo elite—who was doing a radio show and running his own travel agency in Vancouver called Burke’s Worldwide Travel.
Few people in the Seventies remembered that Cornelius Burke was a highly decorated soldier whose various exploits bordered on the extraordinary. Traveling with Corny through Europe, Stewart would learn a great deal from this “funny old man” who had much to teach about how to be in the world and how to treat people.
Cornelius Burke’s travels with Howard Stewart resulted in an unusual travel memoir, The Danube Caper of Cornelius Burke (Vancouver: Nunaga Publishing, 1974). Nunaga was imprint started by the Antonson brothers, one of whom, Rick, became the head of Tourism Vancouver before retiring in order to pursue his own career as a travel writer.
It has now taken Corny’s youthful sidekick forty-two years to provide his side of the story. Here we get the young cyclist’s impressionistic recollections of his own stumbling progress, the boundaries he transgressed, the borders seen and unseen, the countless things lost in translation. as Corny’s caravan rolls across the grand hotels, tourist haunts and backwoods of Cold War Central Europe.
A brief note about Stewart’s background: Half way through an undistinguished undergraduate career at Simon Fraser University, Stewart opted to be governed by his unsated passions for practical geography and bicycles. He decided to ride around North America until his money ran out. That’s the sort thing people did in the Seventies. His only contact with friends and family after leaving Vancouver was General Delivery mail he picked up along the way in places like Alice, Texas, Natchez, Mississippi and…. Raleigh, North Carolina. Howard Stewart had already been cycling for months before he called Corny from a phone booth in North Carolina, as outlined below. Corny’s generous invitation caused Stewart to return to Vancouver a couple of weeks after their call. In the following spring he jumped back on his bicycle and rode east to Montreal, from where he flew to meet Corny in Zurich.
Here follow excerpts from a previously unpublished memoir, ‘Down the Danube with Cornelius Burke.’
— Richard Mackie
HOW WE MET
“Hello. Burke’s World Wide Travel. How can I help you?” The voice from this faceless Vancouver office is emotionless, all business.
“Hello. I’m calling from a phone booth in North Carolina. So I don’t have much time. It took all my change. I’d like to speak with Cornelius Burke. Maybe he can call me back? He asked me to call.”
“Mr. Burke is very busy this morning. I’ll pass on your message.” The voice is brisker now, a little less polite, vaguely annoyed. It’s earlier there and maybe she hasn’t had her morning coffee.
“Thanks. It’s pretty chilly and wet here, but I’ll just wait in the phone booth for his call. Here’s my number…”
“I’ll pass on your message but I can’t promise anything. Goodbye.”
It’s early March 1973 and I have just collected my occasional treasure of General Delivery letters, this time from the Raleigh Post Office. Raleigh is actually quite dry and not cold at all. But it was raining hard a couple of days ago down on the coast of South Carolina. Burke’s phone number has come to me in a letter from my father. In his precise engineer’s prose, Dad explained that Burke is a Vancouver businessman who has heard of my bicycle wanderings through the US and Mexico. He wonders if I might be interested in joining him for a little ride across Europe.
Burke calls right back. His voice is deep and resonant, as warm as a friendly handshake. Later I’ll learn that he does a radio show in Vancouver sometimes, where he talks about his eclectic travels. This charming and magnetic voice must be part of the attraction, I think, for listeners of a certain age. He speaks with that vaguely British accent that one hears sometimes in older folk from southern Vancouver Island:
“Thanks so much for calling. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting. I’m absolutely delighted to hear from you. I would love to hear about your ride in the States. But maybe we should keep it short now. You can come for dinner when you get back and tell me all about it.”
I feel like an old friend already.
“Well, the ride’s been great so far. Getting easier all the time really, except for the odd saddle sore. The weather has been perfect for most of the last couple of months, except for some rain here in the Carolinas. But the days, you know, are starting to get longer — so I can ride for longer, even after dinner some times. I hope to make Montreal before the end of the month.”
A twinge of guilt about my weather lie flits quickly by.
“Uh, my dad said you’re going for a ride in Europe and maybe want someone to go with you?”
No sense beating around the bush. This call must be costing him a fortune. I haven’t spoken with anyone in Vancouver since Christmas.
“I’ll tell you about that in a minute. How are things in Raleigh? I’ve never been there.”
“Well, I just came through here, left the coast roads, you know. Because I have a friend at the university here in Raleigh, a guy I worked with in Kitimat a while ago. Roger’s letting me sleep and eat in his dorm. It’s great to stop for a day or two sometimes, sleep in a bed. Eat decent food. Meet women. There’s people playing banjos all over the place.”
I also go to the UNC student clinic, fake a southern accent and pretend I’m Roger to get treatment for an annoying eye infection. I’m pretty sure no one believes the silly accent but they give me antibiotics anyways. I must have picked it up sleeping in the Florida swamps. But this is not the image I’m trying to project now.
“Well, like your dad said, I’m planning to go for another ride myself, with one of my sons, Patrick. And we thought you might like to join our little expedition, seeing as how you’ve done a bit of long distance riding. I’m told you might speak some languages too. We’re planning to follow the Danube River, from its source in the Black Forest to its mouth on the Black Sea, in Romania.”
“Wow. Wow, that sounds like a great ride, Mr. Burke. It sounds fantastic actually. But I, uh, I don’t think I could afford it.”
Ever the practical escapist, I have been sleeping in ditches and abandoned houses across the southern US and Mexico for the last couple of months, eating many peanut butter and raisin sandwiches. By May, I’ll have to go back to work somewhere.
“Call me Corny. Everybody does. Well, please think about it anyway. I think you might enjoy it and we’d be awfully pleased to have another. Why don’t you get in touch if you’re back in Vancouver before we leave? If it looks like we might all be compatible, let’s try to make it work.”
It would take a while to get used to calling this charming man Corny, but the friendship would be as good as it promised to be from our first talk, and perhaps a little more rewarding for me than for him.
“I will for sure. I mean I’m not sure when I’ll be there. But I will call you for sure when I get there. You know, if I get there soon enough. I probably will.”
My plans are not etched in stone at this stage. If I had actually made it to Montreal, I might have stayed there for the summer, and never met Cornelius Burke in person. That day in Raleigh I was still aiming to visit a woman in Montreal, a skier from the Kootenays. But this is before I learned how cold it can get in late winter between North Carolina and Montreal.
After three months pedaling through the states and Mexico, the Hudson River Valley north of New York City turns out to be my swan song, a beautiful ride but unimaginably cold for a boy from the rain coast. The north wind howls down the valley all day long, into my face and clothes that are better suited to Mexico than Montreal. Nothing I do keeps my hands and crotch warm and I begin to fear that frostbite would be a real possibility.
When I was a youngster my grandmother, who had raised her children in Atlin, had often threatened me that my ears would turn black and fall off if I didn’t wear that stupid looking toque during our damp North Vancouver winters. Somewhere north of Poughkeepsie I become obsessed with the fear that my genitals are going to suffer the same fate. Not far from Franklin Roosevelt’s old house I stop and buy an extra toque to put in my pants but it does not help. I pull the plug on the expedition in Schenectady that same night, after the local police decline to let me sleep in their cells. A Canadian living on the beach in Mazatlan told me this was the best way to cope with cold nights when sleeping rough, but in Schenectady they’ve obviously never heard of it. The Greyhound ride back to the west coast is warm. Hallucinogenically long and boring, but warm.
Most of the older members of my extended family know something about the Burkes. I, on the other hand, have absolutely no idea who they are. They tell me that Cornelius Burke is a pillar of Vancouver society. Both his family’s and his wife Wendy’s family – the Bell-Irvings — are the closest thing to old money one can find on the west coast frontier — salmon canning, real estate, and who knows what else. His brother Stanley is an ex-CBC reporter who has quit recently after a high profile dispute with our national broadcaster over his reporting on the Nigerian Civil War.
For me, Corny is a little old man in a bow tie with bowed legs, a funny walk, big ears, and an enchanting way of peering at you over his glasses while he flashes his toothy, winning grin. He actually listens to me as though I have something interesting to say, while we lounge on comfortable old chairs in his downtown office bursting with exotic travel memorabilia, an elephant’s foot, a leopard skin, old maps of obscure places. He serves perfect dry sherry in crystal glasses in the middle of the day. But what matters most, and what we have in common, is bicycling. Beneath his hubris and showmanship, his undisguised pride in being born with blue blood, Corny is remarkably generous, kind, and sensitive. And very funny.
So, thanks to the wretched climate of upstate New York, I get to meet Cornelius Burke in that spring of 1973. We quickly agree that if I can meet him in Switzerland in late June he’ll cover my expenses from there to the Black Sea and get me back to Switzerland by the end of the summer. In my bicycle-addled mind, this is my first “international assignment,” unless I count the months working in a cousin’s Dickensian factory outside of Birmingham. Whatever I call it, this ride down the Danube will be vastly more fun than my greasy work in England’s Black Country.
Forty years of international work of a different kind followed after that, all of it real enough to make up for the dreamy unreality of wandering down the Danube on a bicycle at the tender age of twenty. It was two different rides really, one through prosperous American allies in central Europe — Switzerland, West Germany and Austria — and the other through a more foreign, exciting, fissiparous place of Communist dictatorships: Kadar’s Hungary, Tito’s Yugoslavia, and Ceausescu’s Romania.
I wasn’t really sure, at first, what I was supposed to be doing there, tagging along on Cornelius Burke’s bicycle trip, all expenses paid. While we didn’t discuss the details of my role, I tried to treat it like a job, an uncommonly pleasant job, but a job. I supposed that I might be able to provide a useful buffer between Corny and sixteen year old Patrick. But Corny got on famously with Patrick, better than I did, and far better than my father and I did when I was sixteen.
Although we had agreed that I could help out with bicycle maintenance and repairs, it was almost never necessary. Unlike my old Peugeot, the graceful, feather-light bikes that Corny and Patrick bought in Zurich were indestructible. So mostly I was a gopher, a sort of unwashed administrative assistant. My French was mediocre and my German was worse, but they often worked in a pinch, and one or the other was useful in the backwoods where nobody spoke English. I have wondered a few times since then whether I was worth the trouble, all things considered. I expect the Burkes have too.
SWITZERLAND — FINDING CORNY AT THE DOLDER GRAND
I had already cycled almost 20,000 kilometers around North America that year by the time I got off the plane in Zurich. This earned me precious little respect from Swiss customs authorities in the tidy little airport where I began my lifelong low-level loathing of most things Swiss. Jet-lagged and culture shocked from the airport coffee shop where I’ve had to stand up to drink overpriced coffee among hurried businessmen, and dying to get riding again, I had to pass through a customs inspection before I could reassemble my noble, dusty, and somewhat greasy white Peugeot.
„Aber was ist dies hier?“ (But what’s this?)
„Dies sind meinen Tools.“ (These are my tools.)
“Yes, but why you have all zis tools on an airplane?”
The bastard’s English is vastly superior to my German.
“Well how else am I going to put my bicycle back together? And what am I supposed to do if I have to fix it?”
“Ah you have a bicycle!”
“Yes, that would explain why all my stuff is in bike bags. And that big box over there with Bicycle written on it?”
At this point, it’s not yet clear to me whether Swiss are sensitive to sarcasm (it turned out they were), but the bicycle revelation appears to calm him a bit. It clearly reduces the odds that I am a Palestinian terrorist come to assemble bombs in the Land of Heidi. It does not reassure him enough, however, and he must go slowly through the whole kit, carefully inspecting the various wrenches and screwdrivers, the spare spokes and inner tubes, the lubricating oil, my dog eared copy of Crime and Punishment, and on and on for what feels like an eternity. He’s wearing prissy black gloves, but I’m not. So by the time all this paraphernalia is back in my paniers my hands are covered in grease. Before long, as I ride past the opulent mansions that line the Zurich See in the brilliant early summer sunshine, my hands inevitably share bits of smut with my face, my shabby t-shirt and shorts. This turns out to be an inauspicious look in this country so devoted to cleanliness and money.
„Aber Sie sind zu schmuetzich! Das ist nicht moeglich, so schmuetzich sein!“ (“You are too dirty! You are impossibly dirty!”).
„Entschuldigung bitte! Verzeihung! Es war mein Fahrrad. Im Flughafen Zuerich…“ (“Sorry, forgive me, it was my bicycle. In the airport…”)
As I bumble through my apologies this old lady who runs the youth hostel at the far end of the glistening lake is bordering on apoplexy. Surely, I reason in desperation, people must get dirty in Switzerland sometimes? Some do of course, but they are usually “guest workers” from places like Spain, Yugoslavia and Greece. They make up about a quarter of Switzerland’s population; they do the dirty jobs and most Swiss treat them as though they are invisible at best. And these guest workers do not stay in freshly scrubbed hostels. See the film Bread and Chocolate — it captures the mood perfectly. As I mumble my abject apologies yet again, the hostel lady slowly calms down. My mangled German has signalled to her that I, if not a worker, am at least foreign. And such filth might be expected of a foreigner.
I have arrived a week early in Switzerland, so I have time to wander around the beautiful, exceptionally well organised countryside that abounds with postcard mountains and lakes. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast with the wilderness I have just crossed in North America (I was laid off in Vancouver last month, so I rode my bike east and flew from Montreal instead.) Here, any hill of consequence has a box of sand by the roadside every hundred metres and a phone booth every kilometre. I find this unaccountably irritating after the vast untended emptiness of the Trans-Canada Highway. Every time I manage to find a truly empty bit of Swiss road, the armed forces show up and launch a combined military exercise, complete with armoured cars and jets and trucks full of weekend warriors armed to the teeth.
Today, beside the flood-swollen Aare River, I have been stopped on a country road by a plainclothes policeman who was driving by. This has happened once or twice a day since I arrived and it is becoming a bore.
“Oui? Je peux vous aider?” (Yes, can I help you? I ask impertinently.)
I know what he wants: he wants to check what he calls “my documents.” And I know now that most people here in the German-speaking cantons hate to speak French. So much for Switzerland’s much vaunted multilingualism. And I know that, like all good cops, he expects me to address him as “Sir.” So already I’ve pissed him off.
“Your documents please.” Apart from this, he doesn’t bother speaking with me, or even looking at me, until he’s had a good long look at my passport. Like the others, he can’t quite put his finger on what is wrong with me, but somehow I just don’t look right riding a bicycle on this road, especially when it’s raining. Not even the secret police in Hungary or Romania would be this annoying. The Swiss snoops, I think, may suspect that I am a guest worker on the lam without proper papers.
I dip briefly into the French part of Switzerland, where I assume the teller in a grocery store is joking when she counts out my change with nonsense numbers: “soixante, septante, octante, nonante…” I also thought it was a joke back where they had scrawled “VIVE LE JURA LIBRE!” (LONG LIVE THE FREE JURA!) in bold and defiant red letters on a roadside cliff. Then it occurs to me that the Swiss aren’t that jocular. It wasn’t until years later that I learned there really were people in that region trying to separate from the rest of Switzerland. I would have too if I was them.
Despite the harassment, confusion and youthful arrogance, I would probably have reconciled with the Swiss eventually, and they with me, if it hadn’t been for the Dolder Grand Hotel where Corny and I were to meet up.
“Yes, can we help you?”
The man behind this polished hardwood reception desk of the Dolder Grand has a tiny trace of an accent from somewhere, Italy I think, but his English is otherwise flawless. So is his smart black uniform, and so is his slicked down almost black hair, flecked with grey. He has said “we,” yet he is the only one at the desk besides me.
“I’m looking for Cornelius Burke. I’m supposed to meet him here.”
I have been riding around Switzerland for a week now and it’s time to meet up with Burke and head across the border to the source of the Danube in West Germany. Standing before the reception desk of the Dolder Grand, one hand on my bony hip, in my tattered shorts, sweat soaked t-shirt, and fetid running shoes, I can’t remember when I’ve last shaved. But I’ve had two or three showers this week so I feel squeaky clean. Still, I begin to wonder idly if I might not be the kind of customer he is used to.
“You say you are supposed to meet someone here? You? Here?”
His innuendo is not subtle. My suspicions are confirmed. This receptionist appears to feel that I and hisestablishment are a poor match.
“Yes. That’s right. Burke. B-u-r-k-e. Burke. Cornelius. He’s a Canadian. He’s staying here. He might have some of his family with him. He told me to meet him here. So you should have a reservation for me. Name’s Howard Stewart. That’s Stewart with an ‘e’ — s-t-e-w-a-r-t.”
His attitude is starting to grate at little. I know now that I’m not the usual Dolder Grand kind of guest. But I’ve just ridden back into Zurich then half way up the bloody mountain to get here. And this is where we are supposed to meet.
“Maybe there’s another Dolder Grand Hotel? Somewhere nearby here in Dolder? This is Dolder, right?”
“Yes, this is Dolder. And no, there is no other Dolder Grand Hotel.”
“Well. This is where I’m supposed to meet him.”
This place where Corny has instructed me to meet him (much to his chagrin eventually) is an opulent old hotel tucked into a leafy suburb named Dolder far up the steep hillside behind Zurich and looking over the Zurich See. Henry Kissinger likes to have his private meetings here.
“`Stewart,’ you say. I’m sorry but we have no reservation in that name. There must be some mistake.”
He has said this without taking his eyes off me, never once looking at his register. So, not unlike that stinky, friendly dog who threatens to rub up against your leg and make you stinky too, I refuse to go away.
“There must be some mistake if you don’t have a reservation for me. This is where I’m supposed to meet Burke. Today. Please check again.”
Now, for the first time, he actually looks at the register but just a quick glance, as though he fears I might pocket the pen on his desk while he’s not looking (he’s right). Then he repeats: “Sorry, no reservation for Stewart.”
“I’d better speak with your manager then please.”
The receptionist stares daggers at me then flounces across the polished tiles to the far side of the bright entrance hall, bathed in the afternoon sunshine. He consults with the regal concierge ensconced behind his own desk and another minion in hotel livery. After a short but heated debate, he returns, no longer frowning, more like a solemn undertaker now.
“We can give you a room but you must agree to our conditions.”
I am to be consigned to the shabbiest space in the Dolder Grand, a small and windowless single room. I must not, under any conditions, come into the reception hall again until I have proper clothing. When I wish to leave or enter, I must use the backstairs beside my room and go in and out of the hotel by the side door at the bottom of those stairs. My white Peugeot bike must never again, for any reason, be seen anywhere near the front entrance.
For me, who has spent most of the past six months sleeping in ditches and cheap hostels, the worst room in the Dolder Grand is no great hardship. There is a vast soft white bed and a spacious bathroom with a huge tub and elegant bidet. I can order anything I like from room service. I almost eat myself to death on bread and butter, rich creamy soups, and a vast selection of meaty Germanic salads slathered in mayonnaise that arrive in my room like magic on an elaborate device that resembles a Ferris wheel. There are dozens of these sumptuous salads to choose from and I eat most of them.
The Dolder Grand might have prolonged this luxury captivity indefinitely, I suppose. The only respectable clothes I own have travelled with the Burkes. I phone my friend at reception occasionally, only to be assured peevishly that there is still no Mr. Burke staying in the hotel, and almost certainly never will be. The impasse ends a couple of days later when I bump into Patrick Burke by accident during one of my furtive forays out the side door.
“Patrick! Wow. When did you get here?”
“We’ve been here since Tuesday. We’ve been wondering where you are. My dad was getting worried.
“I got here a couple of days ago too. I’m up on the second floor. They told me you weren’t here!”
The Dolder Grand never apologises for their slipup though I’m sure Corny has to apologise profusely about me. I don’t apologise to Corny either. The gravity of my transgression against the established order will only dawn on me later. Meanwhile, my punishment continues down in their elegant restaurant, where I am now permitted to join the Burkes wearing the pastel yellow shirt and flared wool trousers bought for my sister’s wedding. The waiters, those guest worker immigrants from somewhere south of Switzerland with impeccable manners, black ties, and smart suits, insult me mercilessly about my choice of food and drink, my French, my clothes.
I am much relieved when we head across the border to West Germany a couple of days later.
WEST GERMANY & DOWN THE DANUBE
The official source of the Danube River, the Donau Quelle, is a tiny spring in the pretty little town of Donaueschingen, hidden in the middle of the Black Forest near the French border, in the state of Baden Würtemburg. The Second World War has been over almost thirty years when we arrive, but French occupation troops are still stationed here. Germany’s vast armies of war dead, the beloved “Toeten,” are there too. Every small town tavern from here to Passau has at least one wall full of small black and white photographs of their lost young men. At the centre of every town is a cenotaph with the names of their fallen from the Second World War on one side, the Great War on a couple more sides, and the Franco-Prussian War on another. Just like in small-town France.
While Corny, his wife, and her friend are out for dinner, Patrick Burke and I visit an oompah bar where we soon meet Petra Winter and her friend Ziggy. Petra and I speak French and soon become friends. I think she finds my sunglasses mysterious and doesn’t seem worried when I reveal to her that they are hiding eyes once again suppurating, as they have been off and on since the swamps of Florida.
Ziggy, who prefers English to French, warms up to red-headed, freckle-faced Patrick. Ziggy warns us darkly about the nasty Jewish landlords who have taken to exploiting poor old people renting flats in north German cities like Hamburg.
The next day, after photo ops by the Donau Quelle but no visible move to get riding, my new job as an ambiguous Boy Friday is getting me down. As well as Patrick and Corny, our entourage includes Corny’s wife Wendy and Anne, a recently widowed woman friend of Wendy’s. They’re very nice but they talk endlessly about nothing in particular and it looks to me like this slow moving travelling circus could go on indefinitely. Worst of all, I haven’t had a good ride for days and I’m used to riding seventy-five, a hundred, a hundred and fifty miles a day.
“Hi Corny. I need to talk to you. Uh, I kind of, you know, I don’t really think you guys really need me on this ride.”
“What? Why do you say that?” He looks genuinely horrified.
“Uhhh, I just think you’ll be fine without me. And I’m not much good for this kind of, you know, tourism.” Already I’m starting to feel like a shit, as the rank stupidity of what I’m saying starts to seep in.
“But we’ll get going tomorrow. Wendy and Anne will be heading for France and we’ll get riding.”
“Well, I met a girl last night, a German woman. Petra. Maybe I’ll just stay here and hang out with her for a while, you know. She’s great. She’ll be here till she goes back to school in Freiburg.”
“What? You’re going to pack in this ride before we even start for that ball of fluff? You don’t want to do that. Come on, think about it Howard. We’ll get going tomorrow. Do some serious riding.”
I resent his characterisation of Petra as “a ball of fluff” but I agree to hang on for a while longer. In their rented van, Wendy and Anne follow us down the river for a day or two then leave us to our ride through the backwoods of Baden-Wuertemburg and lower Bavaria. This far upstream the Danube is still a clean, swift flowing little river, good for cooling off on hot days. We discover the contrasts of post-war Germany, where towns with historic names like Ulm sit brand-new and soulless beside quaint and beautiful medieval neighbours like Regensburg, which have had the great good fortune to avoid the Allied bombs. Some places, like Passau on the Austrian border, are a little of both.
This is the first chance I’ve had to really use my wretched high school German. The German they speak here in the south, however, like most of the German in Switzerland, has little in common with the German I learned in school. So while people understand my Katzenjammer German, I often don’t have a clue what they are saying. Corny speaks basically no German at all, apart from “Ein grosser Bier, bitte,” but he’s able to connect with people effortlessly. I often arrive at the only Gasthaus in town, in places like Tuttlingen or Sigmaringen, to find Corny chatting up delighted locals with smiles and energetic pantomime.
When he died, many years later, local newspapers reported that Corny had been Canada’s most decorated naval hero of the Second World War. He and his young friends had run fast little gunboats – MGBs or motor gun boats — in the Adriatic for the Royal Navy. Off the west coast of Yugoslavia they had harassed the German shore defences and run supplies to Tito’s Partisans. Corny’s boat, they said, had come through many scrapes and won many daring engagements. Nothing about this came out in our many talks, just occasional vague references to being on the Adriatic during the war. But once, in one of those cozy backwoods Bavarian bars, where we celebrate our day’s ride with a couple of big glasses of brilliant white wine, he turns unusually solemn.
“I had a terrible shock once, when I was about your age. Maybe a little older. I was standing on the bridge of a small boat, watching the shore. A shell whizzed by. A friend was standing beside me. It took his head clean off. One moment he was there talking to me. Then suddenly his head was gone and there was blood. There was blood everywhere.”
Southern Germany feels a lot more relaxed than Switzerland. People are disarmingly friendly and the riding is sweet through lush Swabian landscapes punctuated with dramatic limestone cliffs. The only fly in the ointment lands when I learn the hard way how to properly translate a common road sign found in many towns that reads Einbahnstrasse. I have been looking at these for days, bemused, obtuse. I understand the pieces here: Ein=one + Bahn=line or lane + Strasse=street. And I find it curious because often the streets in question are actually more than one lane wide. I don’t piece it together into “One Way Street” until one morning in Ulm.
Patrick and Corny are still sleeping and I am exploring the dull town, a little lost as usual. I barrel past yet another Einbahnstrasse announcement and down a winding concrete ramp. I can’t see more than a few meters ahead of me. So I have no time to stop when I suddenly come upon a young man walking his ancient black bicycle up the ramp towards me. Our respective bits of steel and rubber merge with some violence but neither one of us is badly hurt.
Aber was haben Sie getan? Mein Fahrrad! Mein schoenes Fahrrad! Mein Fahrrad ist kaput! Warum sind Sie hier? Dies ist eine Einbahnstrasse! EINBAHNSTRASSE! Was fuer ein Dumbkopf sind Sie?“
(What have you done? My beautiful bicycle is ruined! What are you doing in is a one-way street? What kind of idiot are you?)
I search in vain for a smartass comeback. The only real damage to my Peugeot is a front wheel now bent to almost a right angle. But this young gentleman’s venerable black machine is unquestionably a write-off. It seems to have been almost blown apart by the impact and bits of it litter the pavement. Still in shock I suppose, he is standing there, holding the handle bars above the tangled remains of what moments earlier had been a coherent and perhaps even beloved piece of machinery, a family heirloom. This is my least relaxed moment in southern Germany so far.
“Oh shit. Verzeihung bitte. Verzeihung. Ich wusste nicht. Ich weiss nicht. Oh verzeihung. Ja, wirklich ist er kaput. I weiss nicht…“
(More apologies and a lame explanation that ‘I didn’t know’)
Technically speaking, my lame excuse about “not knowing,” though implausible, is not untrue. While there is a sign at the top of the ramp that says Einbahnstrasse, I still hadn’t known what this meant before I descended the ramp. But I can’t help suspecting that in West Germany, as in Canada, ignorance of the language might be seen as a weak argument.
I believe this fellow is basically good-natured — he is a cyclist after all. But the shock from the destruction of this treasured bike, and on an Einbahnstrasse to boot, is too much for him. He rants on at some length, in a broad south German accent that is mostly incomprehensible to me, except for the haunting, recurrent refrain of Einbahnstrasse. For my part, I’m confused and tongue-tied, embarrassed and vaguely worried about the legal repercussions of it all:
“Hier, hier. Nehmen Sie dies. Das is genug, nicht wahr? Das ist genug? Entschuldigung. Auf wiedersehen. Auf Wiedersehen. Entschuldigung.”
(Here, take this. That’s enough, eh? Sorry. Goodbye. Sorry.)
Desperate to look suitably contrite and sensitive to his loss, but also as decisive as possible, I open my wallet, now bulging with Mr. Burke’s slush fund money. With sixty or seventy Deutsch Marks (surely far more than his damn bike is worth), the problem is solved and after one last stern warning about Einbahnerstrassen I begin to drag my wounded Peugeot back up the ramp as fast as I can.
Rural Austria is more relaxed even than southern Germany. The valley of the Danube in northern Austria, the Wachau, is a wonderland of beautiful ancient monastery towns like Krems and Melk, vineyards that wander up the steep hillsides from the broad blue river. I’ve been told there’s now a bicycle path along this stretch of the river. It would be a great ride for anyone looking for an easy, pleasant stroll through central Europe. The only discordant notes might be the remains of the Nazi concentration camp at Matthausen and the nagging memory that the little city of Linz is, and always will be, Adolf Hitler’s hometown.
We have to climb a bit to get through the Vienna Woods. So by the time we reach Vienna, Corny is painfully aware that the tight gear cluster on the fancy Eddy Merckx bicycle he bought in Zurich is not well suited to climbing hills. I spend a morning wandering outside the walls of old imperial Vienna then rummaging through the spare parts boxes of a giant bicycle store in the boring middle of the modern city. Eventually I find a better freewheel for his bike. He is embarrassingly grateful, even though the next serious hill won’t be for another thousand miles, in eastern Serbia.
I could see why Carl, who I met a few months back in South Carolina, was so impressed with old Vienna. Its story book Hapsburg palaces, bands playing Strauss music outdoors, and tiny cafes are enchanting. But the prices are shocking! A tiny pastry and demitasse of coffee costs the equivalent of $2.50! It isn’t my money of course but it goes against the grain, especially given the absurdly small coffee cups and pastries the size of postage stamps. The same money in a North American truck stop would buy me a stack of pancakes with unlimited syrup and as many coffee refills as I could swill.
In Vienna it becomes clear that the Czechoslovak authorities have been misleading us. We spent long weeks obtaining visas for Czechoslovakia before leaving Canada. But now they tell us they are concerned about hoof and mouth disease. So while they are awfully sorry, they just can’t let us cycle across the river to Bratislava. It would take me another twenty-five years to get there.
The backstory is that Corny had been in Prague five years earlier, when the Russians arrived and the “Prague Spring” ended so abruptly. In the middle of the crowds in Wenceslas Square and taking pictures as usual, he caught the eye of the local authorities who roughed him up and threw him in jail for a few hours. For once, I suppose, his charm had failed him, at least in the short term. Our Canadian diplomats in Vienna now tell us this is probably the real reason for the Czechoslovaks’ reticence.
So instead of crossing the river north into Slovakia, we push east across the pancake flat plain to the Hungarian border. Soon, we won’t be in Kansas anymore. Or maybe we are headed for a dreary workers’ Kansas? The palaces of central Vienna could certainly pass for Oz. The transition starts with the razor wire fences and lookout towers on the Hungarian side, where skinny teenagers with bad haircuts and big guns peer down on us as we wander into the empty border shed and wait for hours, for no apparent reason, before they let us cross.
[The next leg of the journey concerns ventures into Communist Eastern Europe.]
Here Howard Macdonald Stewart of Denman Island continues his reflections from the year 1973 when, aged 20, he cycled his Peugeot 10-speed touring bike through Hungary with Corny Burke (1916-1999), the Vancouver establishment icon (and travel agent) and his sixteen year-old son, Patrick Burke.
They followed the Danube from Vienna and into Hungary, and then – sharing the road with Czech-built Skodas and Russian Volgas and their aggressive drivers — followed the great river to Györ and Esztergom, and then south to Budapest and down the Hungarian Plain to Dunaujvarös and Mohacs.
This is a story of Cold War Hungary, a place where piles of rubble “still greeted you as you entered Budapest from the northwest in those days,” devastation left over from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
— Richard Mackie
“Down the River with Cornelius Burke in 1973 – Bumbling through Hungary.”
“Well, this doesn’t look much like Vienna.” I offered, honing my talent for extolling the obvious.
“And I don’t get all that stuff back at the border, the guns and the barb wire. Who would want to invade this place when they could stay in Austria?”
I found the elaborate border security hard to reconcile with the tiresome countryside that had followed it. After some miles of bad roads and poorly kept farms we had rolled into Györ. In the Hungarians’ obscure tongue, Magyar, they called it “Dyer” — rhymes with her.
The centre of Györ was dominated by a statue of Bela Kun, the patron saint of Hungarian Communism who founded a short lived socialist republic at the end of World War I amid the chaos of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire. While Comrade Bela was highly visible there were precious few commercial establishments in site.
“There’s almost no cars. Even here in the middle of town” Patrick observed, “and I don’t recognise any of them.” Corny knew them though, they were Skodas from Czechoslovakia and Volgas from the Soviet Union.
The most striking thing about Györ, especially after Vienna, was the lack of facilities catering to tourists. From here to the mouth of the great river, the challenge of finding suitable places to eat and sleep would come up again and again. We had found an empty bar; it wasn’t much.
“I wonder where we might find a bit of dinner?” The Burkes had been parked across the grimy table from me for a while, shoulders slumped and looking glum. But Corny was now looking at me amiably as he spoke. Despite my proven capacity to complicate their lives, he had begun to rely on me to speak with the locals, sometimes, when all else failed. It was starting to look like this might be one of those times.
Nearing the end of our first day east of the Iron Curtain, we sat perplexed in this sad, silent bistro. The dour little barman was at least as perplexed by our presence. He stood polishing his glassware behind the bar, eyeing us suspiciously. He had looked especially uncomfortable as I pressed him for information about tourist accommodations. Many older Hungarians, like the barman, still spoke more German than Russian.
Speaking German was easier than in Austria, where most people in the tourist hotels and restaurants spoke English far better than I did German, or spoke south German dialects that escaped me. While Patrick’s high school German was probably better than mine, he was shyer and less willing to humiliate himself in front of strangers.
Trying to pick up a bit of Hungarian, it soon dawned on me that this arcane Finno-Ugric tongue would require years of work before one could communicate much. By the time we reached Yugoslavia I would be able to say “yes”, “no”, “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank-you”, “please”, “beer”, “wine” and “bread”, and count to ten. A Hungarian friend back in Vancouver later pretended she couldn’t understand anything I said in Magyar (say “mad yar”). I expect it was just a matter of different regional accents.
“Gibt es ein gutter Hotel hier in Zentrum?“ (Is there a good hotel downtown?)
“Ein Restaurant vielleicht?“ (Maybe a restaurant?)
The barman’s answers were monosyllabic and unhelpful. We quickly ran out of things to talk about. Either that or he just didn’t want his neighbours to see him speaking German with a decadent westerner.
“Hello there. Welcome to Hungary. Are you looking for a place to stay? And maybe get something to eat?”
A helpful fixer appeared just as we began to despair, and I to feel somehow responsible. This tall, smiling, middle-aged man in a white shirt and tie showed up out of nowhere.
“I can show you a place. It’s a few kilometers from here. You can come with me to have a look if you wish” he said, pointing at me. “It would be better if the old man and the boy wait here with the bicycles.”
We drove out of Györ and back into the great Hungarian plain in his black Volga sedan. Our new friend pumped me with questions about our trip, our plans, our origins, our destination. He explained that there were only certain hotels where foreigners could stay in Hungary. None of them were near Györ but he had a woman friend who could put us up for the night.
His friend Maria was maybe in her forties – how could a twenty year old judge such things? She was very short and plump, nervous with a shy smile and luxuriant long dark hair. Her voice was an improbably high-pitched squeak like a mouse or a little bird in a cartoon. At first, Maria recoiled from my blatant foreignness even more than the barman.
Then the handsome fixer charmed her for a while and she came around.
“Maria says she can offer you only simple food, simple beds. Not much but it should be good for tonight. You should just stay here. Don’t wander around. You can pay her before you leave tomorrow morning.”
“Nicht viel habe ich. Aber das ist was ich habe” (“It’s not very much. It’s what I have.”) The lodgings Maria offered us – a couple of damp, low beds and a cot all squeezed into a dark windowless room — were indeed sparse but they were perfect. After a couple of weeks travelling with the Burkes, I had lost my taste for sleeping in ditches.
The black Volga man went back to collect Corny, Patrick and our bicycles while I chatted with Maria. More relaxed now, she talked non-stop. Maria’s German was pretty good, by my standards, and her unique voice made her easy to follow. Maria was a widow she told me though she didn’t say more about her defunct partner. She confirmed that she had lived there, near Györ, her whole life. I would have loved to learn about her childhood. Had she seen great waves of people and armies rolling by? Was her husband killed in the war? Sent to Siberia? I didn’t get a chance. I’d have to wait and discuss such things with Lazlo a week later.
“This food is spectacular. Thank you so much Maria. Danke. Danke.” It was not unknown for Corny to exaggerate his praise. This time Patrick and I agreed with him. Corny flashed her his toothsome smile and she blushed like a schoolgirl. Maria had offered us an evening meal of milk, bread and butter, and red wine as soon as the Burkes arrived, all the while apologising profusely for the humble fare. The dense black bread was heavenly. We would get it many more times in coming days and it was one of the best parts of eating in Hungary. In the morning, there was also cheese, tea and jam.
“Bitte, koennen Sie mir geben ein bisschen mehr Busser?” (“I wonder if I could have a little more butter?”) Maria looked at me as if I was insane. Only after we’d been in the country a while would I realise that we had almost certainly finished off her monthly butter ration in a single night. She could, however, have easily replenished her supply on the black market with the bundle she made off our stay.
“Bitte, bezahlen Sie mir hundert Forint.” Maria asked for a hundred forints for our evening meals, beds and copious breakfasts. I could tell she felt guilty about this – that she was almost certain we would howl in protest over such highway robbery. This was what she had been told to charge, she said.
“No problem, Maria — and thanks again for taking care of us” I replied.
All three of us were beaming. The whole thing had come to about four dollars, so we didn’t feel hard done by. Maria almost fainted as Corny forked it over without a complaint or even a grimace, and gave her a little tip besides.
This was the most rustic place we would stay in Hungary, by far, and the next time we found ourselves somewhere like this, amid the watermelon patches of north-east Romania, I wouldn’t be able to stand up without passing out from the pain. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“My ass hurts.” This was about the only thing Corny ever complained about. The riding was easy over the gently rolling plains, like Saskatchewan, with endless fields of corn and sunflowers instead of wheat and rapeseed. This prairie riding could be hard on a bum because one never had occasion to get up off the seat. My own posterior was indistinguishable from my leather bicycle seat by this time.
We knew now that each day we must aim for one of those special hotels scattered around Hungary that were permitted to host people like us. Our first day after Maria’s place ended at a beautiful old estate hidden in a little forest in the middle of nowhere that had become a party hotel; the next in the pretty millennial town of Esztergom, overlooking a great bend in the river and well known in those days as the home of Cardinal Minszentszy, an outspoken critic of the Communists.
We were riding a bit farther these days. We had to if we wanted to get to the next hotel. We had worked out an amiable modus vivendi wherein we shifted between riding in pairs or alone or, less often, all three together.
Corny often preferred finding adventures on his own. His inimitable style of communication worked as well in the backwoods of Hungary as it had further west, and he was making new friends each day. I, on the other hand, was still too obtuse and impatient to appreciate Corny’s capacity for savouring the journey; I was still driven to distraction by what felt to me like our snail’s pace. Forty something years later, this pace of about eighty to a hundred kilometers a day seems just about perfect; maybe a little ambitious.
“Jesus Christ Patrick! Look at this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like this. What the hell happened here? Look, it goes on and on, all the way down the road.”
We have come upon the piles of rubble that greeted you as you entered Budapest from the northwest in those days. I wouldn’t see anything like it again until Beirut in the 1990s. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a long way in the past for people like Patrick and me. For the government of Janos Kadar and their Russian minders on other hand, 1956 was never far away.
This part of the city was left just the way it had been after the Russian tanks had finished off the Hungarian uprising. It remained a not terribly subtle reminder – “Don’t mess with Big Brother Ivan”. The city grew far more charming as one continued south.
“This place is spectacular! It’s like a cheaper version of Vienna!” Ever mindful of the cost of things and the wonderfully cheap exchange rate on the forint, I found the middle of Budapest delightful, especially the hotel where we had stopped for a couple of days. The Grand Hotel on Margit Island was frayed but still beautiful, a nineteenth century establishment on an island in the middle of the old imperial city. With its big comfortable rooms, good food and great view, it was a jewel in the middle of a river now spread to majestic proportions.
It was the sort of place, like the Dolder Grand back in Zurich, that I would never have come near if I hadn’t been part of Corny’s little entourage. And like the Dolder Grand, the Grand Hotel on Margit Island would extract its pound of flesh.
“We’ll have a chance to meet an interesting friend of a friend of mine here” Corny informed us over a glorious, copious Grand Hotel breakfast. “Katarina’s a relation of one of the Hungarians who’ve done so well in BC since the war.” She turned out to be a pretty, dark haired woman who spoke English very well.
“We’ve been divorced for a few years now. What can you do?” she shrugged. “You know, how do you say — the shortage of housing is so severe. I couldn’t really find another place to live. And neither could he.” So Katarina still shared her tiny flat in Buda, on the hilly west side of the river, with her ex-husband.
Happily, Katarina’s family also had a dacha a few miles upstream from the city. This rustic summer home, all porches and windows, sat on a little sandbar covered in trees called Lupa Island; it hung out over the river. We gave our bums a rest and instead swam in the broad brown river, drank good red wine and ate more of that heavenly black bread.
In the evening, I repaired one of Corny’s tubeless racing tires. My family will attest that I am useless when it comes to anything technical. All I did on Lupa Island was open up the threading that bound together the outer layer of Corny’s high pressure tire, patch the narrow tube inside it, then sew up the outer tire again. This was the second and last useful service I would provide to their bicycles on the entire journey. Once again, Corny was effusively grateful. “Oh thank you so much! This is extremely helpful. I never would have figured out how to do that.”
The Burkes spent a day exploring Budapest while I rode down the right bank in a fruitless attempt to visit a friend’s father in the soulless little industrial city of Dunaujvarös. He wasn’t home that day but Kathy told me later her father’s neighbours, none of whom had spoken a word to me at the time, reported seeing a suspicious looking western “hippy” come calling.
On my way back to Budapest from Dunaujvarös, I stopped at a roadside café where I instantly fell in love with a voluptuous blonde woman. She was beautiful, especially her luminous eyes, and around my age. She wore short shorts and a white blouse that she had tucked up between her breasts so as to expose her delightful white belly. We could communicate only with smiles. I swooned for a while before leading her outside to show off my bicycle.
Then as quickly as it had bloomed, our whirlwind romance was over. It turned out that, rather than my scrawny sunburnt body, she was mostly after a ride to Lake Balaton – a summer resort place a little way west of there. Her male friends waiting outside scowled at me.
Corny, Patrick, and I left Budapest together the next day, heading south from Pest down the left bank through a seemingly endless procession of empty villages coated with manure. I couldn’t figure out where the inhabitants had gone, and I didn’t blame them for being leaving. I could imagine these villages being picturesque, some of them even charming, had there not been so many broken windows and so much dirt. The mud and manure reminded me a little of rural Gloucestershire, without the pubs and hills, flowers and well-kept stone walls.
I began my little odyssey within our odyssey that afternoon. Since midday we had been back in the wide Hungarian plain with its fields of corn and sunflower stretching over the horizon and, praise be to Marx, not a fence in sight. The day had been bright and hot but now, late in the afternoon, tall poplars shaded the road. Patrick rode up beside me as I wondered if the night’s hotel might have hot water.
“H’lo Patrick. Where’s your dad?”
“I left him about an hour ago. We stopped in a little bar and he stayed to talk sign language to some farmers.”
“Oh shit, here comes a car.”
“Why do these buggers honk so much?”
The black Volga had started hitting its horn, as they always did, when it was still hundreds of metres behind us. It blared as though we were a gaggle of geese that had suddenly leapt into the road in front of them. Its horn was still blasting as it passed by.
“Do you think they think we don’t know they’re there?”
“Nah, they probably just want to watch us drive into the ditch and cower while they whiz by. Is power thing, comrade!”
Corny wasn’t there so I could give the Volga my middle finger. He disapproved of this, I knew. For me, it was my only defence.
This time, as I saluted them, they slowed down, opened the window and roared something at us. I worried they might stop and ask to see my passport. Perhaps someone had understood my cryptic hand message at last?
Each hotel in Hungary had been dutifully confiscating our passports as we checked in and giving them back to us only after we settled the bill the next morning. But the hotels hadn’t actually offered to give our passports back; we had to ask for them.
Then they would look at us like we were troublemakers and spend another few minutes fussing about, as though they’d lost them. I had almost forgotten my passport at the hotel in Esztergom.
The Grand Hotel in Budapest had been packed, and as the dust settled from the noisy black Volga, it dawned on me.
“Oh no. God damn it! Patrick, I think I forgot my fucking passport in Budapest.”
“Oh no! Are you sure? What’er you gonna do?”
“I d’know. Go back to Budapest I guess.”
“We must be sixty miles away. How’ll you get there? Maybe the hotel can send it to you.”
“Yeah maybe. I guess I’d better phone ’em. I wonder how to do that.”
At first, things moved fast. As we arrived in the next village there was no mistaking what weneeded: “telefon” is an international word. And the post office was the only place in town that had one. Things then slowed down because the post office had just closed for the night. The young man in charge was still there though and I was able to talk to him through the bars of an open back window.
“Bitte. Koennen Sie Deutsch?” I wondered desperately whether someone this young might speak German.
“Nem… Igen… Ja… Ein Bisschen.” (“No… Yes…” in Magyar, then in German: “Yes… A little.”)
Thank God for small mercies. Fewer people spoke German in these villages further south and I couldn’t remember speaking it with any younger folk. So this young gentleman was my friend at once. His German was very limited, he said, yet he understood my problem and he felt my anguish and he agreed to call the hotel on Margit Island.
“Ja, ja. Sie haben. Sein Pass ist im Grand Hotel.” It was there in the hotel all right.
“Gut. Gut. Sehr gut. Danke sehr.” I was melting with relief and gratitude to the man behind the bars.
“Und so mussen Sie nach Budapest wiederfahren.” (“So you have to go back to Budapest.”) Oh fuck. Of course they wouldn’t dream of sending it to me. And I couldn’t stay anywhere else without my passport. How was I supposed to get back to Budapest that night? They probably thought they were doing me a big favour just by holding it for me until I got back there to pick it up. It would be dark soon. How in the world could I get to Budapest?
“Aber, wie kann ich nach Budapest wiederreisen? Wir reisen am Fahrad.” (“How can I get back to Budapest? We’re travelling by bicycle”) I whined.
The bloom of our friendship was fading fast, my new friend was no longer smiling. He glanced at the clock on the wall. My problem had become too complicated and it was getting late. It wasn’t his fault that I was riding a bicycle and had been foolish enough to leave my passport in Budapest.
“Sie koennen mit Zug nach Budapest.” (“You can take the train to Budapest”) he reminded me, as he headed out the door.
Of course, the train. How else? Unfortunately, there was no train station in this no-name village. I’d have to go to another place a few kilometres away. I promised to meet Patrick and his dad at their hotel as soon as I could – we knew exactly where that hotel was, because it was the only option in that part of Hungary. Patrick set off in one direction and I rode off in another.
In the first village with a train station, nobody spoke German or French or English, but they had no problem understanding the word “Budapest,” and sold me a ticket to go there.
The only Hungarian phrases I had mastered, more or less, since my first burst of enthusiasm for the language, were “Give me bread and red wine please” and “I don’t speak Hungarian,” so it wasn’t surprising that I didn’t understand right away that I wasn’t on a direct train for the capital.
I only took this on board after noticing that my train was not heading north towards Budapest but east, away from the setting sun and towards the Soviet border.
After much sweat, confusion, and abuse of several languages, it became clear that I would have to get off this train somewhere up ahead and get onto another bound for Budapest. I learned this from a beefy middle-aged man in a rumpled suit named Lazlo who befriended me soon after I got aboard. He and his wife were also headed for Budapest, so they changed trains with me.
Without Lazlo, I would have been lost in the middle of the night somewhere between the Danube and the Ukraine. He shared their picnic of tomatoes and cheese and sausage with me. He spoke German even more badly than I did yet he used it to good effect and regaled me with stories of his Second World War childhood.
“Sie haben unser Haus bombarieren. Die Amerikanischer. Und die piloten waren Schwarzer. Schwarzer! Ich konnte ihnen da, von mein Haus, sehen. Es war fuerchterlich! Fuerchterlich. Ja, ja, schwarzer Piloten!” Lazlo was staring at me, keen to see my reaction to his tale. A look of profound horror had filled his own broad face as he described the faces of smiling black men — Yes, black men! — piloting the American warplanes that had attacked his childhood village. The pilots’ blackness was clearly at least as horrifying as their bombs.
Apart from being a little sceptical about whether one could actually see the skin colour of a pilot zooming past overhead, I also wondered as Lazlo spoke: had the US Air Force really allowed African-Americans to be pilots in those days? I kept such speculation to myself; it was well beyond our joint language abilities. I could have said something simple like “I don’t believe that!” Yet if I had told him I didn’t believe him, I would have been hard pressed to explain why.
And I was not willing to tell him that I found his story preposterous; I needed Lazlo on my side. So I just looked suitably shocked and sympathetic.
Or maybe I didn’t. Somehow Lazlo, who had been so helpful at first, managed to misunderstand my destination though I’m sure I explained it to him repeatedly. Maybe he resented the fact that I was headed for the swishy hotel of Margit Island? Or maybe he felt somehow that I shared responsibility for those diabolically grinning Schwarzers who had buzzed his childhood home?
Whatever the reason, Lazlo insisted I had to get off the train at what he assured me was the right station. I got off, and he and his wife and the train were gone.
It was near midnight. Though the station was almost dark and very quiet there was still a lonely stationmaster on the job. Considering the generous numbers of people assigned to do pretty much any job in Hungary, I reasoned, this was probably a place where people seldom if ever got on or off a train.
I might have been the first person to get off there in days. It had certainly been even longer since the sleepy stationmaster had seen a soiled young Canadian pushing a beat-up white bicycle. He was very pleasant despite the inconvenience, though not a great linguist. By means of mutual monologues we agreed that I would travel more easily through the dark Pest night without my saddlebags. We further agreed that I should leave these at his station, where he would take good care of them.
In retrospect I can’t help thinking that leaving my bags at this station must have been the stationmaster’s idea, a genuine attempt to help. In any case, it turned out to be as absurdly impractical as getting off the train at this station in the first place.
Riding down the mostly dark streets, I quickly deduced that this station must have been the very first one inside the greater Budapest city limits. What had Lazlo been thinking? I was quite a few kilometres from Margit Island and its Grand Hotel.
Riding into town, every few hundred metres I encountered a policeman stationed at a dimly lit street corner. Without fail, each one stopped me and pointed out that I didn’t have a light on my bicycle. Then, as I began to babble my explanation in an inelegant cocktail of languages, they wanted to see my passport. To which I had to mumble another garbled explanation about the forgotten passport, which was why I was on the road in the first place, unlit, so late at night.
Surely it was a sign of a mellowing within the Communist system by this time, or at least in Kadar’s Hungarian version of it, that not one of these policemen pursued the matter. They all had choice things to say to me in Magyar and they were all were happy to see me ride off into the night.
A few years later, in the midst of another Kafkaesque tourist experience on a very long winter night in East Germany, it finally dawned on me: the only thing these minor officials wanted was for me to go away, stop disrupting their routine, and not get them in trouble.
It was after two in the morning when I finally reached the Grand Hotel, lit up like a Christmas tree on its island in the river.
“Oh, there you are Mr. Stewart. Why did you leave your passport here?” The young clerk frowned at me, his condescending tone leaving no doubt that I was genuinely stupid. I felt like I was back at the Dolder Grand. They quickly gave me my passport. They hardly listed to my story of adventures on the train back to Budapest, then shoved me and my Peugeot into a taxi.
It wasn’t clear to me what instructions the hotel people had given my taxi driver, though they might have told him I was in a hurry. In any case, he was certain he knew exactly where I needed to go and we roared off at a hundred kilometres an hour down the narrow cobblestone streets. We arrived in no time at a large station in the middle of Pest. There the driver joined the growing legion of Hungarians convinced that I was a complete moron when I insisted that this was not the right station. By now I had given up caring if I was being understood or not. A firm “nem” was sufficient. I simply wasn’t getting out of his taxi, nor paying him, until we got to the right station and this helped him understand. Unfortunately I wasn’t much help with the names of streets or neighbourhoods. All I knew was the general direction we needed to head and what my station looked like.
By the time we finally came upon my lonely suburban station, the taxi driver had almost convinced me that it didn’t really exist. When we got there, my friend the stationmaster was waiting patiently with my bag, and within an hour I was back on an eastbound train. This time I knew I had to change trains, and I knew where to get off at the far end, and I knew the name of the hotel I had to ride on to in order to reconnect with the Burkes. All I had to do was sit back, relax and stay awake long enough to change trains.
It turned out it was easy to stay awake because the train was full of boisterous Hungarian soldiers, conscripts doing their national service. They were mostly older than me, between twenty and thirty, and most of them were very drunk. They instantly befriended me and shared their drinks as we regaled each other with various vignettes in incompatible languages. Their favourite pass time was “bait the Russian.”
Unlike the Hungarians, most of the Russian soldiers on the train were younger than me. The Hungarians were relaxed, unshaven, barely in uniform. Their uniforms were rumpled, threadbare “army surplus” style. The Russians on the other hand were tense, freshly scrubbed teenagers in crew cuts and parade dress, stiff and sullen. They reminded me of American marines on parade in a hostile land without a license to kill. I felt a little sorry for them.
The Hungarians didn’t try to hide their intense dislike for these Russian boys and teased them mercilessly. It was an uneven match. Being from the younger generation, the Hungarians spoke some Russian. The even younger Russians, like virtually everybody else outside of Hungary, spoke no Magyar.
Every time a hapless Russian walked into our car, the Hungarians would take turns saying things to him in Russian, things like “Good evening comrade.” “Can we help you?” “Are you lost?” They’d wait for him to reply before adding a comment in Magyar for the benefit of the other Hungarians crowded into the car. Each Russian reply, and especially the Magyar commentary that followed it, brought down the house. With the audience close to hysterical and trying desperately to engage the Russian in further conversation, he had no choice but to retreat from the car, red faced and tongue-tied.
It was a short, beautiful bike ride to the hotel through the glistening summer dawn. I arrived as Corny and Patrick are getting out of bed. “Great to see you. We were wondering when you’d show up. Tell us all about your night.” Corny was grinning, as usual, and I was desperate for a cup of coffee.
After breakfast we rolled off towards Mohacs, a place revered by the Hungarians as the site of their glorious defeat by the Ottoman hordes of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1526. It marked the beginning of a string of bad luck that was to last for centuries. And it was the only place we could stay on our way to Yugoslavia.
Here Howard Stewart concludes his memoir of his trip down the Danube by bicycle in 1973 with fellow Vancouverites Corny and Patrick Burke. Their tour took them through from Belgrade, the Wallachian Plains, Pitesti, Bucharest, Tulcea, Braila, and the Danube Delta on the Black Sea.
Stewart recounts their real (or imagined) battles with slivovitz, instant coffee, food poisoning, Eastern bloc bureaucracies, gypsies, Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Bosnians, pickpockets, doctrinaire Marxist students, unwanted propositions, and YHS (yogic headstand syndrome).
— Richard Mackie
“Down the Danube with Cornelius Burke – Curiouser and Curiouser in Yugoslavia and Romania”
Young Hungarian guards with guns once again made us nervous as they gazed down from a wooden watch tower at the deserted border station where we crossed into Yugoslavia. Hungary had been a sobering experience for an idealistic young westerner. We had finally managed to elect a social democratic government in BC a year earlier, dislodging a tired ‘free enterprise’ coalition full of car dealers. They had been in power in Victoria my whole life, giving away our resources, building highways and throttling the unions. I really wanted socialism to be working in central Europe. Kadar’s Hungary, with its dysfunctional economy, dull bureaucratic veneer, and Soviet bullying was not what I had in mind.
Yugoslavia on the other hand was widely hailed as a success story in those days, an astute model of mixed socialism and capitalism, a success of multiculturalism. Gloomier analysts had also begun suggesting that the only things holding together the federation of southern Slavs were the iron hand of Josip Broz Tito and the remittances sent home by millions of Yugoslavs working in places like Germany and Switzerland. These pessimists suggested the whole place could well split apart like an overripe plum as soon as Tito died. Their views, like those predicting a similar collapse of the Soviet Union, were easily dismissed as propaganda or right wing extremism.
“Oooh. This place reeks. What is that smell? Every little town we go through around here smells like… I don’t know, it’s like it’s drenched in some kind of rotten fruit or something somebody just puked up.”
I wasn’t unhappy; apart from this curious redolence, the villages of northern Yugoslavia were proving a welcome change, more relaxed and welcoming than Hungary. The roads were good and the riding pleasant, with a few more hills again.
“That’s slivovitz. Plum brandy. When it’s good it can be very good” said Corny, something of a connoisseur, “Maybe out here in the villages, it’s not so good. Look. On the wall. Tito.” Was Corny trying to change the subject? Marshall Tito was indeed gazing down at our table in this little roadside restaurant; stern, unsmiling, uniformed, and covered in medals.
Working in Africa I would often see similar “cults of personality.” The strongest of African strongmen, like Siaka Stevens in Sierra Leone or Mobutu in Zaïre, would be able to hold together their own improbable, fissiparous collections of ethnic groups until they died, much as Tito would do in Yugoslavia. Leaders like Tito offered the leaders of newly independent African states much instruction: put your image everywhere — in every public place, on stamps and on money; claim some kind of link or family tie with as many of the country’s ethnic groups as possible; keep an appearance of balance among the different ethnic groups; neutralise those rivals you can’t pay off.
“We like it here very much. The people are very kind. They treat us well and we are learning a great deal. They have great expertise in growing corn. And the food is good.”
Corny had struck up a conversation with a couple of friendly, well-dressed young men, obviously foreigners like us. They were agronomy students from East Africa come to learn how they might improve corn yields back home. Like Hungary and Romania, much of Yugoslavia was covered in cornfields. With our new friends translating, Corny was able to engage with the wrinkled old men who sat beside us, nursing their slivovitz.
“These old men say that if you are headed down the river you must be careful of the Serbs. They cannot be trusted.”
We had started our Yugoslav ride west of the river, in the eastern reaches of Croatia. For the first time but not the last, people were warning us to be cautious about one or another of Yugoslavia’s various ethnic groups. Later we would receive a few more of these warnings from Serbs trying to help: “Watch out. You can’t trust the Croats / Albanians / Bosnians / …” They reminded me of the matronly old waitress in rural Louisiana who had clucked over me earlier that year as she took away the breakfast dishes, warning me in a kindly, worried tone to “watch out for the niggers honey”.
“Please tell them we are very grateful for the warning” Corny replied graciously “Tell them I was on the coast of Yugoslavia when I was younger, helping Tito in the war.”
Corny watched the old gents carefully as the African student translated, hoping they might be interested in his part in their history. One scratched his big, hairy ear while he wiped his nose, apparently deep in thought, while the other finished off his little glass of slivovitz and ordered another round from the old woman behind the bar. Neither of them said a thing or looked at Corny, who was left uncharacteristically speechless. If they were interested in his story, they were doing a good job of hiding it.
Like the odour of slivovitz, this stony disinterest would follow us and become a pattern especially among the Serbs downstream. Of course, Corny didn’t mention the honours the Royal Navy had bestowed upon him for his feats in the Adriatic. Maybe these old gents today had been on the other side, among those Croats who fought alongside the Nazis? Or maybe, like the Serbs we would meet most other days, they just didn’t care much about what had happened on that far away Dalmatian coast?
Like so much of what I was seeing, the depth and intensity of the differences among Yugoslavia’s people in those days would only slowly become clear over time. At a university bar a year later I proudly announced to a pneumatic Croatian Canadian woman from Toronto that I could speak a few words of “Serbo-Croat,” the name of the hybrid national language Tito promoted. Much like Urdu and Hindi in south Asia, Serbian and Croatian are languages sprung from common origins that share much vocabulary and grammar.
“There is no such language,” she snarled. “There never has been and never will be.” She turned around, walked away, and never spoke to me again.
Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and all of Yugoslavia in those days, was very different from Budapest. From an historical perspective, one of its main claims to fame seemed to be the fact that it had been destroyed many times over the centuries, by enemies invading from all sides. I learned this from the student guides who propped themselves up at the front of our tour bus as it rattled around town.
“Our city has been razed fifteen times over the centuries.” claimed the first guide, in English.
“Belgrade has been completely destroyed thirty times over the last thousand years” said the next one, in German.
“Our capital has been wiped out and rebuilt exactly twenty-five times since it was founded” chimed in the third guide, in French.
And on it went, with each telling us quite different stories about their city in English, German and French, each assigning different names and numbers, different histories and functions to the building we passed, different dates to the events they recounted.
“Do you think they’re doing it on purpose? Or they just don’t know what each other is saying? Or maybe they just don’t care very much?” Patrick and I were bemused and fascinated by this early display of post-modernism.
“I dunno. Maybe they’re just adlibbing it or playing around, trying to make their job more fun.” I didn’t stop to think that they might each have been from a different one of Yugoslavia’s ethnic group, each determined to tell a unique story about their capital.
We took up residence for a few nights in the Hotel Slavija, a modern high rise that dominated the centre of the city, a towering monument to Tito’s variety of scientific socialism.
Like the rest of Belgrade, the Slavija had risen from the ashes of WWII and was by far the biggest place we stayed on the whole trip. It was roughly finished though comfortable enough; the toilets didn’t work very well so the rooms had an odd bouquet and the staff pilfered some of our belongings. A Canadian diplomat came for lunch with us on our second day there to give us a “briefing” on Yugoslavia. Corny obviously had some guanxi in Ottawa.
There was more traffic here, mostly tiny Yugoslav-made versions of the Fiat 600. As in Budapest there were many kiosks on the sidewalks selling lotto tickets. Selling low priced dreams against the odds hadn’t yet become the ubiquitous feature of western society that it is today. Authorities in these socialist places had already identified lotteries as a good way to channel their people’s aspirations and keep them dreaming while making good money in the process.
“My goodness, they almost look like dancers, don’t they. I wonder why we haven’t seen this anywhere else before now? It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it? Let’s see if I’ve got the light for a good picture. You two, stand over there.”
We had left Belgrade without regrets that morning and were passing through towns and villages nestled among the steepening hills of eastern Serbia. These were the poorest places we’d seen and again, for me, it was a small foretaste of Africa as we passed old women trudging along the road, bent double under huge loads of firewood gathered in the surrounding woods.
There were precious few cars or trucks of any kind on the narrow two lane highway that was the main thoroughfare in this part of the country. The absence of traffic and limited alternatives for entertainment on a summer evening probably helped explain the marvellous spectacle we now admired. Every citizen who could, it seemed, was strolling up the broad sidewalk on one side of the town’s main square then back down the other side, endlessly, around and around, chatting and admiring one another as they went. We joined in their promenade for a few laps while Corny tried to capture it on film.
“Thank you. Uh, Molim. No. Danke sehr… Sorry. Nem. Uh, hlava. Oh fuck it. Thank you. That was really beautiful.”
I wasn’t making much progress in the local language, whatever I was supposed to call it. German was a particularly inappropriate alternative here in the Serbian backwoods. Our diplomat back in Belgrade said locals in some parts of rural Serbia still posted signs by the road that read, “Germans enter at your own risk.”
A tiny old man with white hair and moustache and bright blue eyes had walked up to my table as I sat alone in a dark café by the road. He stood there quite still, in a white shirt, black leather vest and polished shoes and played a hauntingly beautiful tune on his polished violin. The performance went on for maybe ten minutes; I was mesmerised and he looked like he was going to burst into tears by the end. Did I remind him of someone he’d known? He didn’t reply to my garbled thanks, just kept looking at me, intensely sad, then walked out without a word.
There was less slivovitz in the air here, replaced by music and perhaps a greater sense of history, or was it tragedy? Corny had a similar experience to mine later the same day, up in the hills nearby where a young man had played an exquisite flute solo for him then also walked off without saying anything.
The Iron Gates, the site of an ancient Roman fortress guarding a narrows on the Danube, were not far down the road and much in our thoughts. Actually, we may have been thinking less about the historical romance of that place than about the steep little pass over the Carpathians we’d have to cross in order to reach the Iron Gates. It was our last real hill between there and the Black Sea and about the only place where Corny would need the new gears I had put on his bike weeks ago in Vienna.
“Corny… Corny! Jesus. COOOR-NY!” Patrick and I had been waiting for his dad to show up when he whizzed by us without stopping, heading on down the river and out of town. We had just conquered the little pass across the Carpathians and were expecting to spend the night in this pretty little town tucked under the steep hills on the riverbank.
“I wonder if we should go after him?” Patrick suggested.
“Nah, he’ll figure it out. There’s really nothing between here and Turnu Severin. The border’ll be closed by now and it’s getting dark.”
I suspected that Corny might have been slipped a drop of slivovitz into his water bottle. Patrick was right; the gathering darkness was a good reason to go after him and we soon did. When we finally caught up, Corny was suitably contrite but still jubilant about his victory over the pass.
“Sorry. I was just lost in my thoughts. It’s so beautiful here along the river. Didn’t see you there. Enjoying the ride. God, that felt good coming back down! Howard I can’t thank you enough for this great new gear cluster.”
He had already thanked me more than enough, but it was all right to hear it again. Back in town we had a happy dinner with too much beer. We celebrated our victory over the pass at the Iron Gates and speculated about the last leg of our journey, set to start the next day.
Serbia wasn’t quite done with us. Corny became violently ill not long after dinner. It didn’t last long and he was feeling better again by bedtime. Then Patrick was stricken and spent most of the night retching in the shared bathroom down the hall. It was our first experience with that sort of lavatory where the toilet was merely a ceramic plate with two footholds and a hole in the floor between them.
I fear Patrick’s illness became a kind of perpetual motion machine wherein each visit to the primitive loo rendered him even more nauseous than he’d been before he got there. He was better by breakfast and then it was my turn. I had waited too long and simply couldn’t vomit. Instead I just lay in the sun moaning on a little wall beside the restaurant that had poisoned us – feeling like someone had filled my stomach with rotten eggs that kept lurching back up at me in vile tasting burps. When I was good enough to ride again we barely had time to reach the bridge across the Danube before the border closed. From there it was just a few kilometers down to the little Romanian river city of Turnu Severin.
Like Marshal Tito, Romania’s President Nikolai Ceausescu was becoming known in the west as a communist maverick, someone who had managed to elude the strict control of Moscow. Someone the West could do business with. Apart from this, we didn’t know what to expect in Romania. It soon became clear that Ceausescu didn’t need the Soviets, he and his wife Elena were very good at imposing their own kind of control, except perhaps over gypsies whom the first couple were said to be very fond of.
“Oh no! You’re going to ride across Romania? Well watch out for the gypsies! They will steal everything that’s not tied down.”
We had heard this warning often enough in Yugoslavia to realise that there were probably a few Roma in Romania. We had been warned about so many ethnic groups by then that we didn’t really take these gypsy warnings at face value. Besides, things had already started to disappear in Belgrade.
“Where’s my pump? It’s gone. Didn’t I have it yesterday?”
“Oh no. Mine’s gone too. And my spare tire. I’m sure they were there last night.”
Emerging from our hotel on that first morning in Romania, Patrick and I discovered things that had previously been attached to our bicycles and now weren’t. Corny had been more cautious and taken everything off his bike the night before.
“Do you think it might be gypsies?” While we hadn’t really believed all the south Slav paranoia, we weren’t constrained by political correctness towards the Roma – everybody still called them gypsies. To this point we hadn’t seen anyone who looked like a gypsy and I wasn’t really sure what one might look like. We soon forgot about it, resolved to be more careful and headed east, into the broad flat plains of Wallachia.
“Hey Patrick. I can’t believe it! I wondered if it was all right to just stop here for a bit. I mean, you know, there was nobody around, eh? So I had a little nap then I wake up and my sunglasses are gone. I can’t fucking believe this. Is this gypsies or is this country just full of thieves?”
Patrick had rolled in soon after I woke up. In the mid-afternoon heat I had fallen asleep on an old wooden bench by a well. As I was drifting off at this quiet roadside in the middle of a field of ripening corn, I had wondered for a moment about my sunglasses, sitting in my outstretched hand.
The idea that someone might come by while I slept and take them out of my hand was just too silly. Now that appeared to be exactly what had happened. It was easy to blame gypsies. We knew what they looked like now and we’d passed a number of them on the road.
Romania’s roads were the emptiest we’d seen. The national car, the Dacia, was a locally built Renault that didn’t get out into the countryside much and there was little truck traffic. On the other hand there were gypsy caravans on the highways, some travelling alone and some in groups. The men wore black hats and the women headscarves and apart from a cursory wave of the hand, they pretty much ignored us as we rode by. It was proving easier to speak with most people here in Romania because so many people spoke French.
The gypsies were something like ten percent of the country’s population, around two million people. They seemed to live in a parallel universe and they didn’t speak French. Ethnic Romanians had government office jobs or they worked in state owned factories in little industrial cities or on gargantuan collective farms. The gypsies meanwhile wandered the country in their donkey drawn covered wagons.
“Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? Que voulez-vous ? Je ne comprends pas… ” (What is it? What do you want? I don’t understand.)
A little later on that same day I came upon a striking looking young woman by the side of the road. I had just crossed a bridge when she ran up out of the woods beside the stream, an infant in the crook of her arm. With her bright headscarf and floral patterned dress, dark hair and shining eyes, she looked very much like a gypsy and was showing signs of being in distress. She pantomimed vigorously with her free hand, pointing wildly at her baby, at her own mouth then her child’s mouth. After this she brandished her hand in my face to show me the many gold rings she wore there. Then she pointed at my pocket and gave me a pleading look.
“Désolé, mais je ne comprends pas.” (Sorry, I don’t understand.) I did understand of course and I was pretty sure that she didn’t speak French. Her eloquent plea for a little childcare support was clear while my obtuse reply to her, I suspected, would be unintelligible. Damned if I was going to contribute to gypsy welfare so soon after my recent losses and I wasn’t in the market for a gold ring. Besides, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of pulling out my wallet there in the middle of nowhere. Who knew how many friends she might have waiting in the woods below?
“It was the damnedest thing today,” Corny related. “I was invited into a wedding just off the road. Gypsies invited me into their camp to join their wedding feast. The music was superb, fiddles and guitars and tambourines, and they were dancing up a storm. So I did too. We were having great fun. Then I found one of the young women with her hand into my back pocket, trying to pull out my wallet. I stopped her of course and it wasn’t so gay after that. It’s too bad. I probably could have got a lot more good pictures.”
Corny’s misadventure happened the day after mine and we grew more cautious; the gypsy caravans thinned out as we headed east.
“Mais je ne sais pas danser.” (I don’t know how to dance). I had been invited into my own roadside party, a wedding feast at an agricultural commune somewhere east of Craiova. In the heat of the afternoon I had stopped to have a look at what I thought was a lively restaurant. The wedding guests saw me, and insisted I must join them.
“Ce n’est pas nécessaire que vous savez danser. Vous pouvez regarder. Puis vous pouvez danser vous aussi.” (Don’t worry; just watch and you’ll learn how it’s done.)
This slender dark haired woman, like the other women there, was wearing a business-like white smock. Five or ten years older than me, she smiled and stared into my eyes as she began to undulate her whole body and turn her arms to liquid. She managed somehow to make her neck and shoulders rotate at impossible angles and in all directions, as if the whole of her upper body was double-jointed.
“Mais ça, je ne pourrez jamais faire ça!” (I could never do that, I pleaded.) And they all had a good laugh.
The brandy was flowing in a little backroom, where I was invited to go and imbibe with the boys.
“Qu’est-que vous en pensez? Il est bon n’est-pas, le cognac de la Roumanie?” (What do you think? Good brandy eh?)
I took a few swigs of the stuff, working hard to avoid gagging. On an empty stomach it was enough to make my head spin. Corny and Patrick soon rode by and they too were invited to the feast where all three of us joined in a less complicated dance along with the whole joyous wedding party, before slipping off to ride the rest of the way into the little industrial city of Pitesti.
“Do you want to come out and see Chairman Ceau with me? It looks like he’s the biggest show in town again tonight.” We were fascinated, perhaps the only people in town who still were, by the newsreels projected onto the walls of buildings in the little cities where we spent our nights. Each nightly episode kept the town’s citizens abreast of the latest news, mostly the latest comings and goings of Nicolai and Helena Ceausescu.
“No, I think I’ll just stay in the hotel tonight” said Patrick. So I set off alone on foot into the delightful warm summer evening.
“Bonsoir, vous êtes étranger, n’est-ce pas? » (Good evening. You’re a foreigner, right?) Out in the street I was soon befriended by this dishevelled young man about my age.
“Oui, je suis Canadien. Nous suivons le fleuve en vélo.” (I’m Canadian. We’re going down the river on bicycle.)
My explanation could have seemed a bit odd, considering how far from the Danube we were these days. It ran along the southern edge of the country, forming the border with Bulgaria, while we were now heading across the middle of the country, much further north. We wouldn’t see the great stream again until we reached the far east of Romania, on the other side of Bucharest. These geographic details didn’t worry my new friend. He was keen to know how I found his country and what I thought about the Ceausescu newsreels. He found them ridiculous, he assured me, an embarrassment.
“Vous voulez coucher avec moi?” (Do you want to sleep with me?) He didn’t waste any time. And I’d thought he wanted to talk politics.
“Non. Merci. C’est gentil, vous savez. Mais ça ne me tente pas.” (No thanks. It’s very kind of you but I’m not into it.) I couldn’t interpret his look. Was he disappointed? Hurt? Pissed off?
In any case we didn’t find much to talk about after that so I wandered back to the hotel, where I found Patrick and Corny in the bar. I described the evening’s newsreels – Chairman Nikolai and Mrs. Ceausescu opening up a new petrochemical plant and visiting an art gallery — and the stranger’s reaction to them. I didn’t bother telling them about his proposition. Corny soon headed off to bed and we began to talk with people around us in the bar.
“Que vous êtes beaux. Qu’est-ce qui vous amène en Roumanie?” (Hey, you good-looking boys, what brings you to Romania?) With their bright red lipstick, shocking cleavage and short skirts, these two women laughed as they talked. They didn’t look they’re just breezed in from a collective farm. They were giggling at both of us and mostly eying me. I probably looked like the one with the money now that Corny was gone.
Maybe all this cycling was making me sexier? Or was there something about Romanians? Could it be my sunburnt body or were they just looking to compromise me, turn me into a spy for Romania? I would have considered being compromised by the taller of the two but they moved on as soon as we made it clear we didn’t want to go out dancing with them.
A young man named Nikolai quickly took their place. Maybe in his late twenties, he stayed on far longer, discussing Canada and Romania, smoking and drinking beer until we announced it was time to turn in.
“Ah, then let me show you a great Romanian invention. It will help you stay awake and give you energy. Come, it is just across the road.” So we followed him to a tiny bar across the street where Nikolai introduced us to his invention, a reliable end of the night pick-me-up consisting of cold soda water into which he stirred a couple of packets of ‘Nescafe’ instant coffee. I drank it to be polite; it tasted hideous, gave me heartburn, and kept me awake half the night. Why hadn’t we just gone dancing?
“Look at this, we could be in Paris!” I marvelled as we walked through the old quarter of Bucharest. Corny must have known something about this marvellous neighbourhood before we arrived but had saved the discovery for us. Like so many capital cities, Bucharest was quite different from the rest of the country: bigger, wealthier, and more worldly, and it was the only town in Romania with its own Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysées. Romanian waiters made the ones in Paris look like saints.
We settled into an ornate, dilapidated old hotel in the middle of town. The poorly lit interior was finished in dark hardwoods, the rooms were big, the curtains frayed and the sparse furniture had seen better days. Waiters were legion in the busy hotel restaurant where they competed to see who could go the longest without actually serving someone. We pleaded obsequiously and often to get any service at all. Sometimes they obliged and sometimes they didn’t. When they didn’t, they continued their conversations amongst themselves, ignoring the hapless, hungry customers. It didn’t matter to them whether we got served or not, they would still get their lousy salaries, and no one seemed to expect tips. Later I learned the Soviet workers’ explanation: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”
I met Anton on my second day in the capital. We found we had a mutual interest in French, film history, and political economy.
“I think Bunuel was interesting, yes, but I’m not sure if he was correct in his interpretation of dialectical materialism and the implacable contradiction between bourgeois nationalism and proletarian internationalism. Even after the victory of Franco’s reactionaries I don’t think Bunuel ever really fully understood the inevitable effects of capitalist imperialism on the global proletariat. Either that or his own bourgeois origins meant that he refused to see this.”
Anton was a film student and we spent hours walking around Bucharest. He smoked endlessly while we talked about film and Romania and the world. He denounced my French for being so full of English influence.
“I’m not sure about that either. Anton, but I know I’ll never forget that scene in Un Chien Andalou where they slice open the guy’s eyeball with a razor.”
“It was a woman actually,” he corrected me politely.
“Le chien andalou was a woman?”
“No, no. The person whose eyeball was sliced open was a woman. That film was nothing really, just a vestige from his pre-revolutionary youth.”“I don’t know, I think surrealism was pretty revolutionary at the time.” I knew at least some of the work by the directors Anton talked about – people like Bunuel, François Truffaut, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Fritz Lang, John Huston. I was impressed that Ceausescu’s government had allowed someone like Anton access to the work of all these greats of cinematography in the decadent west. I was often confounded by Anton’s Marxist analysis and had only the vaguest understanding of many of the terms he used or the concepts behind them.
He was frustrated, in turn, by my shallow bourgeois worldviews and amateur knowledge of film. Yet I found his worldview fascinating and he might have found the same about me. He was from Ploesti — a grimy industrial city a little north of the capital and the center of Romania’s oil industry – and happy to be out of it.
At first I wondered in passing if this might be another gay come on but Anton never propositioned me. Then I wondered if he might have been a security agent, trying to figure out why a mismatched trio of Canadians was riding bicycles through the Romanian backwoods. If Anton was a security man then he must have been having a very slow week to be free to spend so much time with me. We corresponded for a few years after I returned to Canada then lost touch. I’ve wondered sometimes how he fared after the changes that followed the sudden execution of the Ceausescus in 1989. I hope he’s been involved in the amazing renaissance of Romanian film making in recent years.
“You guys go on ahead. I’ve got a bit of a headache. I’ll catch up.”
“OK Howard. We’ll meet you in Tulcea. I don’t think it’s very big.”
I did catch up eventually, at the end of a day that seemed to drag on forever. Tulcea was literally at the end of the road and as Corny had guessed, it was very small, a few buildings in the middle of fields of watermelon. The riding was flat and easy, a little boring, along this final stretch of our journey from Bucharest to the Danube Delta. Romanian Orthodox churches and other old buildings in venerable, threadbare towns like Buzau and Braila had a distinctly oriental flavour. But, like Joni Mitchell’s friend Richard the last time she saw him, I was beginning to fantasize about that pain in my head.
On the morning we left Bucharest I had fallen asleep while standing on my head, propped up against the wall of my room. These morning headstands had seemed a brilliant innovation, an enlightened yogic response to my chronic impatience with our slow morning starts. Now, a couple of days later, I worried that my exceptionally long headstand back in Bucharest might be connected to this headache that wouldn’t go away.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong. It hurts every time I stand up.” Corny could see this was an understatement. I had stood up quickly as we set off from our rented room in a tiny white washed cottage to look for breakfast in Tulcea. I fainted from the intense flash of pain shooting through my head.
“Ce n’est pas loin d’ici. Vous devez venir avec moi. Nous allons visiter un médicin qui pourra vous aider.”
I was asleep again, and then found myself listening to someone who spoke very correct French and insisted I had to go with him to a hospital outside town. The ambulance was an ancient ramshackle truck with a couple of primitive stretchers in the back. Every bump in the road was excruciating. The place looked like the dusty military field hospital in David Lean’s “Dr. Zhivago.” Busy nurses in white headscarves bustled in and out of the whitewashed buildings that surrounded an earthen courtyard on three sides. Broken bodies, some swaddled in bandages, some on crutches and some just generally decrepit were taking the sun among the chickens in the yard. Had it really come to this?
The translator recounted my symptoms to an unsmiling woman doctor who asked a few more questions before quickly diagnosed my problem. Her assessment was not shared with me. Their first response was a shot of morphine administered by a burly nurse who didn’t look anything like Julie Christie. She wielded the longest needle I’d ever seen. I was flipped unceremoniously onto my belly, and before the fearsome silver spear had completed its journey into my gristly buttocks, it didn’t matter anymore. The pain was still there in my head, somewhere, but it just didn’t matter. I was now gloriously detached from it, happily observing it from somewhere else. It’s not hard to see how people facing great pain of one sort or another can easily get attached to this thing.
Apart from the morphine, from what I could make out the doctor prescribed antibiotics, B vitamins, and a lot of sleep. I slept for a day, maybe two. I was still in bed in Tulcea when Corny and Patrick took a boat out through the lush delta to a beach on the Black Sea shore. So I never made it to the actual mouth of the great river. Before long we were headed west again by train.
“Mais comment? Ce n’est pas possible! C’est pas juste. Vous me demander de payer plus pour nos vélos que pour nos propres sièges. De Tulcea jusqu’à Bucharest ça n’a rien couté!” (Come on, this isn’t fair. You really expect us to pay more for the bikes than for our seats? We didn’t pay anything for them between Tulcea and here!)
We were sitting in Bucharest and growing anxious to get back to Switzerland. My impassioned pleas for justice were falling on deaf ears. Getting our bikes from the Black Sea coast back to Bucharest had been easy: we just showed up at the little station at the end of the line and threw them on the train. Corny might have slipped the conductor a few Lei.
Now however, we and the bikes needed to cross the border back into Yugoslavia and I had the task of getting our tickets and clearances. It was one of those rare occasions where I would be earning my keep, locked for hours in tedious and confusing talks with the grey bureaucrats of Romania’s state train company and customs office.
It turned out though, that officials in Bucharest were nowhere as tough as those in Belgrade.
I told Corny the story. “You wouldn’t believe it. I spent two days going around and around between offices in that goddamn customs building. I saw some of those guys two or three times. Maybe more than that. Most of the time, I was just waiting outside someone’s office, trying to get in to see them. You know, they’d be a person I’d been sent to by somebody else. Then we’d get to talking a bit in bad German and bad English. Sometimes we understood each other and sometimes we didn’t.”
“But everybody just ended up sending me on to somebody else in the building. Sometimes they’d take the piece of paper I’d brought in, the one the last guy had given me, always some kind of form or another that I had to fill in. Then they’d put a stamp on it and give it back to me. And sometimes they’d just take my piece of paper and give me another one, a new one that I’d have to fill out again. Sometimes the papers were big huge things that they had to fold up, and sometimes they were just little slips. A couple of times they just looked at the piece of paper I’d brought from the last guy and didn’t stamp it or anything, just sent me on to the next person. It went on like that, around and around and around, for two days. Suddenly they told me it was done. I have no idea why it was ‘done.’ But anyway, they took our bikes.”
Corny looked suitably sympathetic and impressed by my tale of hardship. In retrospect its obvious that a few Deutschmarks or dollars slipped to the right person would have solved my problem, brought my gauntlet of office visits to a sudden end.
Twenty years old and stunningly thick, I wasted those two long days then the underpaid and underworked servants of Yugoslavia finally just gave up trying to get blood from a dull-witted stone.
Once again though, there would be a sting in the tail.
“Look Govard. Bicycles. Fency ones. Meybe your bicycles? Vat they are doink?”
A great many young and middle aged Yugoslav men and I were jammed tight, with barely room to breathe. I had been talking with a smiling young Serb named Dragan in the narrow hallway of that train car, as we competed for cool air at the windows. Dragan was heading back to his factory job in southern Germany.
“No! No! Noooo! Stop! No! Oh no! I can’t believe it! What are they doing? Stop. Oh please don’t do that. What the fuck? Stop! Please!”
Corny and Patrick were on another car and, except for Dragan, no one nearby could figure out my problem. Nor did they much care as I stood there helpless, pounding on the window of the packed train. I had obtained the elusive export permits and consigned the bikes as baggage before getting on the express train for Zurich that morning.
The train was hot and it was standing room only, packed with men heading back to their jobs in western Europe, after their holidays with family back in Yugoslavia. Our first stop out of Belgrade was Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. There, as the train stopped briefly, and I wriggled uselessly inside that overstuffed carriage, railway men outside were loading our bikes off the train and onto a little luggage trailer.
My trusty Peugeot was pretty much scrap metal by then, but Corny and Patrick’s bikes were worth a fortune. I fretted about it for the rest of the train ride, frantically trying to figure it out: how could I explain what had happened to Corny when I didn’t understand myself? How was I going to get away on my own after we reached Zurich, without my bike?
Back in Zurich, the staff at the Dolder Grand had somehow managed to lose my wedding clothes and I was again consigned to gilded captivity. Our bikes showed up several days later and I bid the Burkes a fond farewell.
They went with friends to visit a family vineyard near Bordeaux while I pedalled off towards Alsace to ponder my future on the banks of the Rhine.
Howard Macdonald Stewart is an historical geographer and international consultant who writes from Denman Island where he has lived, off and on, for more than thirty years, when he hasn’t been in Vancouver or traveling. He has visited more than seventy countries since the 1970s. Now intensely allergic to airplanes, he has contributed many book reviews to BC Studies. His forthcoming book on five parallel histories of the Strait of Georgia / North Salish Sea is scheduled for publication by Harbour Publishing in 2017. It will be based on his doctoral research in the Geography Department at UBC. An insider’s view of his four decades on the road, notionally titled Around the World on Someone Else’s Dime: Confessions of an International Worker, is also a work in progress.
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