Tastebuds that love pizza
Accept that random people will random bless your kids
Suitcase with room for cheap shopping
A degree of Hungarian vocab
Weirdly, I never really thought of old Transylvania as an idyllic holiday destination, especially not for our second family holiday. The old Eastern Block just doesn't shout, "woohoo, Vay-Kay". Nonetheless, we had my step-brothers wedding to attend in Oradea, Romania, and by gum we weren't going to miss it (mainly because I love him dearly but also because I can't handle awkward or confrontational situations, and that probably what our relationship would have become if we didn't go).
So we packed our bags, got on a flight with some airline I'd never heard of called Wizz Air (a name that's both bizarre and disconcerting) and we landed at Debrecen in Hungary. I don't know what to tell you about Debrecen, but to call it an airport would be false information because the runway was a mess of old tarmac and potholes that ran straight through the middle of a cow field, the fire engine pre-dated the first world war and the terminal itself was only a part-time operation in the sense that they only got 9 flights a week: one a day except for Monday's and Wednesday's, which got two. We were assured that mid-week shift was crazy. We believe you.
Anyway, after tussling with the language barrier, we... actually, I need to explain the language thing. Being English, I can kind of scrape by with most languages whether French, Spanish, German, American, Profanity or Sarcasm, and that is because there are a few similarities. Not with Hungarian. look at the language tree. It isn't even on the same bloody shrub. It's as foreign as it can bloody get. So, yeah, before we found this incredibly handsome and rather gregarious fellow who worked for Enterprise, we tussled with the language a bit whilst trying to explain who we were and that we had booked two hire cars so we could blitz through the countryside in convoy, cross the border, locate my step-brother (Jack) and his fiancee (Anna) and get to our hotel.
This we did. So me and my mad little family got into our nippy little Suzuki Swift and my mum, step-dad and brother clambered into whatever the hell they were driving, and we set off. Or we tried at least. Turned out the satnav's built into our cars didn't speak English and we didn't know any Hungarian (or even how to say Oradea in Hungarian). Also turned out that there wasn't any 3G, so our phones were rendered about as useful as a stale sarnie. Luckily (and here comes a bit of self-congratulations), I had packed our English satnav with Europeam roads, and thus saved the day. Legend. Great little travel tip too.
A few hours later, we'd passed through border control and made it to Oradea. Aesthetically, it looks as though a bomb was dropped on it around about the Cold War days and no one could really be bothered to amend this. Except for the Catholic Church, actually, but the only measure they seemed to have taken was to erect as many Catholic churches as they possibly could. And that was that. It was if they thought more churches meant more prayers which meant God was more likely to fix the bomb fallout mess that no one else could be bothered to fix.
So after we had trundled passed a few unused factory's, dodged several oncoming cars and locked our doors when we got caught in traffic it what must have been the wrong side of town, we eventually met Jack and Anna down an alley. They then led us to our hotel. I can't lie, we were terrified. Phoebe was a matter of months old, and Oradea didn't seem to host any modern buildings. I heard us collectively gulp, all of us quietly hoping for a grim outbuilding with a few smashed windows because, given what we had seen, that would have been a resounding success.
As it turns out though, Oradea does have one modern piece of luxury and it stretched up high. It was called the DoubleTree and I owe Paris Hilton a huge thank you erecting it. It was stunning. the rooms were huge, the bathrooms were incredible, there was a high-tech gym, a huge pool with big round poolside beds and saunas and steam rooms and a spa and a bar and incredible views. It was our saviour and very quickly became known as Camp Bastion. But as luxurious and comfortable as our digs were (which cost about £40 a night, amazing!), we wanted to get out an explore. By foot. And that is exactly what we did.
So the first night we went to a traditional Romanian eatery. That's what I asked Jack and Anna for and that is what they delivered. It was amazing. We sat outside and there was some really weird live music and the beer was lovely and the atmosphere spot-on. However, I got my food order so wrong. I ordered bruschetta to start and ribs to follow. The bruschetta was 9 slices of bread and ham. The ribs were a kilo of ribs without any sauce (oh my god, it was like trying to eat a kilo's worth of Ghandi's flip-flops, they were so dry). Unfortunately, my step-dad decided to implement the rule of, "if you don't finish what you ordered you have to pay for the whole meal," - there were 10 of us eating. So, I tucked into the bruschetta with gritted determination. However, i knew I was never going to do it, so I shoved about four of them into my pockets and went for a cigarette on the quiet streets and, when I was approached by a homeless man who spoke incredibly mumbled Romania, I seized my opportunity to give him a cigarette and four slices of squashed ham on bread, before going back to the table and suffering through a hideous amount of meat and beer.
Anyway, Oradea is staggering. For one, the exchange rate was mega (I think we got about 8-10 Leu for a pound). Secondly, those old Transylvanian's know how to make a mean-ass pizza (I don't actually mean they made a pizza out of ass while angry, I just mean they rival the Italians). Thirdly, the place is beyond beautiful. Fourthly, the shopping is amazing and cheap (no tax, baby, even in Zara, which was helpful because my brother, Oli, didn't pack a suit for the wedding because he thought Romanian weddings were the same as bogan Aussie weddings: shorts and tees. Idiot!). And finally, the people are so warm and welcoming, and they absolutely adore children. We were stopped by so many people on the streets, strangers who just wanted to bless our Phoebe with a short prayer or a quick kiss on the head. They were caring to the point that, while me and mummy tucked into a pizza by the river, we let the restaurant waitress take Phoebe and introduce her to everyone. Of course, when she took her into the kitchen to meet the chefs I majorly panicked, leapt up from my seat, ran inside, jumped the bar, kicked open the kitchen door and let out a huge sigh of relief to see her smiling and playing (I've seen one of two horror films which, coupled with my writers imagination, made me believe the very worst).
As a city though, it is breathtaking. There were centuries-old forts, and old market towns, and walls, and yurts, and there are all these huge relics - huge old buildings - that show just how strong the communist control over this area was. It just has poor Russia written all over it. But, as I mentioned earlier, these old concrete tower blocks were starting to get drowned out by the noise of incredibly beautiful churches that were being put up all over the place. Apparently it had something to do with them receiving state funds; the more churches they built, the more money they received. It was all to do with hiding their past in favour of a new religious freedom. However, that same religious freedom wasn't exactly free, as Jack and Anna's wedding would attest.
The wedding itself was incredible. Oh, wow, what a culture, what a staggering ceremony. It started off in this gorgeous courtyard, this quaint courtyard packed with culture and nature. It was so green. So beautifully green. And the hosting family was so welcoming. Of course, not everyone spoke English there, which meant the priest or vicar or whatever did the ceremony in Romanian first, and then repeated it in English afterwards. Turns out Romanians are slightly bigoted, illiberal, dogmatic and homophobic. How do I know this? Well, Jack and Anna got married the day after America legalised gay marriage, and the priest or vicar or whatever decided to use this progression as a way of opening the ceremony, except he used the words 'heinous and abhorrent" to describe the change in law, which brought about a few gasps from my family. The other thing the priest or vicar or whatever did was wish Jack and Anna all the love and happiness in the world before warning Anna that the wife had to be submissive in marriage and always follow her husband’s decisions. Pretty strong.
Anyway, after the kiss and all that (oh, man, I gotta say, Jack looked mega-handsome and Anna, christ-alive, she looked mesmerising, so beautiful), they released a load of doves into the air, which was just mind-blowing, before we were led into the grand hall. This was a slightly different from the quaint and charming courtyard in the sense that it was incredibly grand. It was about thrice the size of Buckingham Palace and completely made of marble and had pillars everywhere. Oh and a grand staircase that curled it's way upstairs. Here are a few things I learned about Romanians:
They love music
They love a dance
They love family
They love food (we had our first course at about 7pm, and the food was still coming out at 11pm. I also have no idea what I ate, but it was good.)
They love this drink called Palinka. It's fermented fruit. It is typically between 55-70% ABV. It gets you f**ked, just ask my step-dad Harry who ended up getting totally blottoed, cutting open his head and then becoming best friends with this old Russian army general who was staying in our hotel and wouldn't let Harry leave (although he did dismiss my mother because, well, she's a woman).
They have a tradition where the wife gets kidnapped. It's insane.
They love smoking (when you get a table at a restaurant they give you an ashtray, and if you haven't got enough hands to hold it they give it to your child to hold. You've gotta have an ashtray.)
The only sour grapes of the night, really, was when I had a disagreement with a taxi driver. I hailed him down, and then asked if he had seat belts so i could strap Phoebe's car seat in. "Oh no, it's fine, hotel is only mile away." "Yeah, it could be at that corner there and it wouldn't be cool, sir." "No, it fine. Get in." Needless to say, I didn't get in because I am a rad dad. Instead I pulled the back seats up, found the seat belt plugs, strapped my girls in and then told the taxi driver how much I adored Romanians just in case I had hailed a suicidal taxi driver who hadn't liked my insistence.
Anyway, the question I always ask myself when I leave a place, which in this case took ages because a) the airport had to check all of Phoebe's food and yoghurts and water to check they were actually food and yoghurts and water and not explosives and b) we were delayed for four and a half hours because the plane we were supposed to get on didn't work and so they had to fly another one to us, although they didn't feed us as a way of saying thank you and c) we had to wait for the cows to get off the runway... Anyway, I digressed. So, the question I always ask myself is, would I go back.
So, would I go back to Oradea, in Romania, in Old Transylvania... Yes. Absolutely yes. I adored it. I loved the culture, the people, the completely different way of life, the food and the exchange rate. I loved it all.