This is an old story – but one that needs to be told. I have so many of these – but they keep heaping up and then I end up focusing on the ‘more important’ posts about routes and the like. But I like stories. And telling them.
31st of July 2016, Poienile de sub Munte. I have just arrived in this hamlet in the Munții Maramureșului, the northermost mountain range in Romania that borders on the Ukraine. I managed to sprain my ankle – badly – in the last 500 metres of my hike from Lacul Vinderel. I have pitched my tent near an abandoned and derelict cabana. Now I need a drink.
I limp down to the only bar in the village, hoping that I will also have signal there. Of course there is no signal. This is the end of the world. At least, it is to me. To them, it is the world as they know it. The only road leads north into the Ukraine – allegedly a popular smuggling route (cigarettes are even cheaper there) – and south to Repedea, where I started my hike a few days ago. The majority of the population is Ukrainian here, but they speak Romanian alright.
I fall in love with the bar instantly. To get in there, I have to walk down a few steps – it is essentially a basement. Hardly any daylight enters through the tiny windows. The bar is occupied by a fine selection of men – and men only. Women don’t go to bars in the Romanian countryside – and certainly not unaccompanied, like me. But, to my relief, for once no one asks me why I am alone. They happily let me blend in.
I’m surprised there are so many of them. Then I realize it’s a Sunday, so presumably they have plenty of time to kill. It’s all to easy to forget what day it is – the mountains look their same old selves every day, and these men aren’t exactly wearing their Sunday best. Romanian peasants work hard, but the Sunday is still holy. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they go to church; but it certainly means they do as little as possible.
They may not have signal, but they have lots of other things. Plenty of booze, for one thing. When I grab a beer from the fridge, a 10 lei note in my hand, the shopkeeper already has the change in his. I settle for a low-alcohol beer. That choice is clearly frowned upon: it isn’t real beer. After I have finished it, someone else buys me a real one. And another one. Normally I wouldn’t drink that much between hikes, but I have decided the sore ankle gives me some sort of right to intoxicate myself a bit. Most of the men drink țuica – from larger than average glasses.
The bar, which, of course, doubles as a shop, is small. No more than 20 square metres, is my guess. Chairs are lined up on one side, a wooden bench on the other. The chairs are occupied by some older men, some younger men, and the shopkeeper. I am on the bench side. There is a folk music festival on tv. Huge bags of pufuleți are piled up on the traditional shiny brown stove. I am mystified by the popularity of this snack – they look like cheese puffs but lack any flavour. But they are cheap. It looks like dog food to me – and funnily enough, there are dogs printed all over the plastic packaging. Beyond beer and pufuleți, the shopkeeper offers salami, ice cream, eggs, biscuits, tomatoes. But also horseshoes, screwdrivers, a plastic toy motorbike, a padlock, icons to hang from your car mirror.
A tiny two-year-old girl stares at me with big green eyes while eating a chocolate icecream that is much too large for her, with which she generously paints her face. I offer a tissue to her dad. Two children enter to buy three large loaves of bread. The teenagers who sat at the picnic table upstairs earlier (signal there?) now descend for a chat with the elderly. A boy with ‘Happy Boy’ printed on the elastic band of his boxers comes in to buy some crisps. I doubt he knows what these words mean, but he looks happy enough.
I’m charging my phone. That was why I went here in the first place. Well – it is my cover for sitting here for a good long while. Because – what a delightful place this is. Nothing happens. You don’t need to pretend you are doing something useful (like charging your phone) – you just sit and drink. And talk, occasionally. I am certainly the most industrious individual in the establishment, scribbling away in my notebook. A man gets chased away from the socket when it turns out I need it.
Another elderly man enters. He shakes hands with all the men. One of them points out he should shake mine too. And so it happens: for the first time, I get a handshake from a man in the Romanian countryside. I feel honoured.
Every now and then, the men address me. The man straight across from me regularly raises his glass to me with a friendly, toothless grin. A younger man who has consumed a good deal of țuica wants to know where I’m heading next and asks if I have a map. I happen to have it on me. We study it together. My toothless neighbour from across joins us and keeps staring at me reverently for quite a while. I have another look at the map to find out where I can find water on tomorrow’s hike. This time the drunken man comes all too close, so I fold the map with a smile. The shopkeeper quietly approaches him from behind, then pulls a mask over his head. I decide it is time for me to leave. No doubt a great many other amusing scenes are about to unfold, but I might want to get a good night’s rest if I want to do another hefty hike with my swollen foot tomorrow.
Back at the cabana, I am greeted by two Polish families. We all cook our meals around the fireplace – me on my little stove, they on the barbecue. I get a share of their stew – and their wine. I suspect I’m going to set off a bit later than planned tomorrow. But it’s all worth it. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on any of this. It isn’t just the mountains that I love. It is all of this. These people – they may be poor, they may feel miserable about their fate every now and then, or perhaps often – but they do somehow master the art of living. Of just being. Shamelessly being, without drawing up a façade of importance and industriousness. I doubt they see themselves as such – but I think they are great teachers. I feel recharged.
Do you want to do some hiking in Maramureș? Check out this post on the Munții Maramureșului and this one about the Rodna Mountains. For more recharging in Maramureș, visit the wonderful village of Breb.
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