Transylvania, Romania, May 2017
Something must happen to me in the plane. I cannot emerge from long-haul travel unchanged. I disappear into myself, in that darkness, through those lost days and nights and emerge quieter, simpler and more watchful. My normal instinct for inserting myself into every scene and every conversation as a lead actor evaporates, and I become a quiet audience. A voyeur. A ghost who likes to watch. Quietly slinking through the lives and homes and habits, feeling, touching, learning, leaving no impact.
I have been told I look like I’m from this part of the world. I search for myself in the faces, expecting to find home or heritage. What I find in the faces is signs of great wear. Skin looks tired, more creased, more worn far earlier than I am used to. I realise I haven’t seen anyone I would bundle as middle-aged: the path from young to old doesn’t seem to have any rest stops. It is no romantic stretch (but one backed up by economic and social data) to think that life must be a bit harder here. And if it’s harder here now, what must it have been like twenty years ago, pre-EU membership, thirty years ago under one of history’s great insane dictators, seventy years ago under a largely forgotten Fascist leader who rivalled any for brutality.
I notice young people doing unskilled jobs, jobs usually done by migrants in the West. Young people with tertiary educations don’t drive cabs where I come from. I am struck by how ethnically homogenous the work force is – there don’t appear to be many migrants here. Then I realise, Romanians are the migrants for everyone else in Europe.
Our small local bus is driving through a faded story book. The snow-capped mountains form an enormous backdrop to the utterly flat countryside. Pitched rooves sag comfortably onto houses that could have been built centuries ago, the sharp spires of Romanian Orthodox churches the only disruption to the uniform height. Despite being the connection between two major regional towns, our bus will happily stop regularly, sometimes giving people a lift of a few hundred metres. This gives me ample time to stare out the window at a lifestyle confined to the past in my world: a horse-drawn plough in a slightly dilapidated field; a person working alone with a hoe; the complete absence of large-scaled mechanised agriculture. Then we pass a drive-through Subway. They don’t have those in Australia.
Bucharest, Romania May 2017
I love hardcopy maps. They make me feel like an omnipresent spirit circling a city from above, wondering where to swoop. I task my husband with asking our small pension for one and, after a lengthy search on their part, he returns with a map carefully marked with brothels and strip clubs. This either says everything about Bucharest’s tourism industry or everything about my husband.
After the architectural, cultural and human destruction wrought by Romania’s Communist regime, I expected Bucharest to be a grim, concrete, wasteland. Instead, it is one of the most beautiful cities to become lost in: quiet, clean, happily shabby here and there, and filled with surprising parks which are cool and well-used by youth and elders alike.
I could live here.
We discard the brothel map.
Comrat, Gagauzia, Moldovia, May 2017
Regardless of age, all women in Romania and Moldova wear thick, flesh-coloured pantyhose. It is boiling hot. Is this a comfort thing? To avoid chaffing and rubbing of shoes and thighs? Is it modesty – the hose providing a fig-leaf for the short skirts and high heels beloved by the local teens?
With their open-toed sandals and thick hose, older ladies wear bright headscarves. Older gentlemen wear brimmed hats that seem too small as they sit perched high on the head.
My husband, as quintessentially Anglo-Saxon Australian as a kelpie, tall and brawn and bearded and snappily dressed in colour and tailoring (though toned down at my suggestion), is as out of place as a flamingo at a pigeon party. For a start, only Orthodox priests seem to wear beards. His beard worn with colourful shorts has garnered some odd looks from passing priests. And, as at 5’2” I am comfortably tall amongst the locals, his 6’2” seems unnecessary. Even in the height of summer, shorts are rare here. Triple denim is ubiquitous.
I saw a Zara in Transylvania. I wonder how long it will be until what looks weird to me will look weird to them. How long till they discard the scarves and the hose and the small jaunty hats for whatever Zara is selling?
Is capitalism the new colonialism as it sweeps in and displaces time and heritage with the new and the cheap?
Chisinau, Moldova May 2017
We are staying in a grand Soviet-era hotel. Hotel Chisinau. There are two lifts but only one works at a time and then it can only travel in one direction. Well, this is what my charades with the dedicated lift operator tells me. This is ok, because I tried the lift once and it stopped at random intervals for random periods and it was small and terrifying.
Each wing has a dedicated well-coiffed lady in blue. She pops out to show you to your door. I visited other floors and no matter how silently I entered the long, expansive hallways, out one would pop. The lady in blue proudly shows you to your bed and pulls back the duvet to reveal your top sheet neatly folded underneath. I cannot explain this opportunity for self-action.
Finally, breakfast is a complicated dance of pre-ordering the night before from a choice of three dishes. In the morning, one visits reception to obtain a ticket where you confirm your choice from the night before (but if you haven’t made such a choice the night before you will be banished, without breakfast), and take your ticket to the restaurant in a dungeon (possibly a former wine cellar) where you exchange it for your meal. It is a pleasant and communal method of food delivery. To accompany breakfast is a large television displaying writhing, lingerie-clad women. Rationing, scrupulous fairness, and utilitarianism still reign in Hotel Chisinau and I couldn’t be happier.
Tiraspol, Transnistria, May 2017
As one who loves to travel, and as one who tempers their addiction between hits with quick fixes of travel writing or documentaries, I’m really bothered by the apparent profundity of everyday experiences when cast through a white gaze.
In short, how can I visit places and not be a dick?
Today, I’ve heard people complain about the quality of coffee. Only instant is provided by the hotel in this unrecognised, breakaway region which lauds Lenin and Soviet-style Communism. Not sneering at what others have, and appreciating what they do have, is a good start to not being a dick.
I also momentarily removed my ghost guise to chastise a tourist in a church who was sneakily taking photos of both the church and its attendees despite warnings not to. I don’t care, he said. You’re a dick, I said.
Odessa, Ukraine, May 2017
I’ve just realised I haven’t seen a single gym, or yoga studio since leaving Vienna three weeks ago. I haven’t seen anyone running either. I guess there are other things to do with your time here.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 2017
There’s a natural process that occurs when the traveller knows they are nearing their time of departure. The energy for adventure quietens. The mind seeks reflection and quiet: to absorb all that it has seen and learnt. I’m sitting drinking coffee not even ten minutes from my door. Sam is getting a haircut. We are transitioning from invisible ghosts who roam a city trying to know all its secrets back to normalcy. It doesn’t matter whether I’m gone for months or weeks: as the airport lounge nears, so too does this transition.
The anonymity of the wanderer is waning. For weeks I have worn no makeup, dressed in the same clothes. I have two pairs of shoes and no perfume. A cheap pair of earrings and three items of makeup for the one or two ‘special events’ I have attended. I become a person I barely recognise when I travel. As she begins to enter her hibernation, I think, ‘I must wax my eyebrows when I get home’ and start questioning my certainty that these sneakers go with every outfit.
I walk everywhere here. At home I’ll hop in the car to drive 200m to the shops if it’s cold or hot or nearly dark or maybe looks like rain. Here I won’t countenance public transport for less than 3km. There’s no reason to rush after all. My chronic illness doesn’t vanish – of course – it just doesn’t matter if I stop a million times to sit and watch. Or if I need to rest and spend a day within 20 metres of my bed. I am in suspended time where the world is just for me, the voyeur. The city will keep on performing its part and it will be there for me to watch when I am ready.
But all too soon this ghost-like suspension will evaporate. As desperately as I try cling to its cobwebs, it will disappear as the texts resume and the chores resume. Connectivity to reality will puncture my invisibility and I will be seen again.
Image: Keira auf de Heide
Naomi Barnbaum is a Canberra-based public servant, having fled more humid climes in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and International Relations (First Class Honours) from the University of Queensland. Naomi’s writing has appeared in Feminartsy, and she musters her musings on www.naomibarnbaum.com. Outside of writing, Naomi loves dogs, books, music (both as performer and spectator), and truly terrible television.