status viatoris – being ‘on the way’/being in a state of pilgrimage
Frighteningly foolish or amazingly adventurous: well, one of those two descriptions must surely apply to a couple who decide to drive their seven-month old daughter the 2,000km from Italy to Romania for a fortnight in mid-August.
In our defence, the mid-August part of the plan was forced upon us by my husband’s place of work – having decreed that no employee may have more than a week off at any one time, they very reluctantly allowed him to tack an additional week onto their summer closing. (Given as how we were planning to immediately hit the open strada, I wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to manage to obey their other golden holiday rule: employees must always be available to go into work during their time off if summoned). Welcome to Italian employment; please check your life in at the door…
The first day’s driving took us from our little village in Liguria right up to the coastal town of Trieste, practically on the border with Slovenia. And what a drive: unforgiving August sunshine, nose-to-tail Italian August traffic and bump-to-pothole Italian motorways quickly led to a wailingly miserable little daughter and two irritable parents questioning their own and each other’s sanity in distinctly un-vacational tones.
Even the service station stop-off (usually my favourite part of any road trip) provided no relief: heaving with single-minded holidaymakers and a distinct dearth of available parking spaces, a long traffic-dodging trek over shimmeringly hot concrete delivered us into the further confusion of a shop, cafeteria and restaurant served by only one cashier – dash to the café and attempt to force a way through the throng in order to catch a glimpse of what may be on offer, dash back to the cashier and join the queue to describe and pay for chosen items, dash back to the café and queue again in order to obtain chosen, described and paid for items, weave a way through a restaurant in search of a clean table. Fail to find one. Sit down anyway, and unrestfully polish off purchases whilst trying to prevent seven-month old from licking all the surrounding filthy surfaces in her joy at being released from her car seat.
Thankfully, Day Two amply rewarded our doggedness in the face of adversity by delivering us from the unmitigated hell of August travel in Italy, and into the paradisical-by-comparison delights that are offered when traversing Slovenia. A country I shamefully know nothing about, but whose silken motorways and stunningly lush countryside provided a much-needed balm to three over-stressed nomadic souls.
If I could have chosen a soundtrack for this leg of the journey, it would have undoubtedly been Smetana’s Má vlast – wrong Fatherland, I know, but the best I can come up with until someone composes a similarly stirring ode to Slovenia.
As I suspected it might be, Day Two’s service station stop-off was a well thought-out exercise in soothing traveller revitalisation. Leaving the car in the kindly shade of an overhanging tree, we were greeted by a cool and airy interior holding all the wholesome appeal of a farmer’s market: no droopy panini or dry focaccia here, instead an irresistible spread of fresh roasted vegetables, pasta, rice and tomato salads – moussaka, roast chicken and schnitzel for the more carnivorous member of our little party.
And the highlight of the entire experience (squeakily clean tables aside)? The natty wooden trolley with space for both food trays and thrilled-to-bits small child…
Refuelled, reinvigorated and with our faith in life and human nature (or motorway service stations, at least) restored, we continued on the disappointingly short trek across beautiful Slovenia and soon popped cheerfully out into Hungary, where old friends were waiting in their rural idyll to spoil us with gulyás, laughter, a large selection of loom band jewellery (they have two daughters…) and a comfy bed for the night.
The next day’s drive tipped us out of Hungary and into Romania, together with most of the rest of Europe – or so it appeared.
August is the month in which vast numbers of the Romanians working and living abroad make the long pilgrimage home. Italian, Spanish, British, German, French, Belgian and you-name-it plated cars all converge at the border before spilling onto the badly-maintained single carriageways that serve the entire country. There is a very smart motorway system under construction, but only tantalizingly short sections are open, allowing the weary driver but the briefest sensation of the wind in his hair before he is deposited back onto the nose-to-tail fume-drenched bumps of the overloaded b-roads.
So along we meandered; through village after village; colourful, single-storied houses lining the principal, and only, tarmacked street – all other thoroughfares snaking off right and left in dusty, unsurfaced nonchalance.
Storks peppered the tops of chimney stacks and electricity pylons, only adding to the sensation of otherworldliness already provided by the frequent appearance of slowly moving horses with their carts and fields of curiously stacked hay, occasionally interspersed with 500 metres of outrageous edifices – the Roma shrines to pockets picked and begging bowls filled throughout Europe’s major cities…
It took one more overnight stop, and a further half day’s driving to reach my mother-in-law’s village, time enough to note two further developments: firstly that we had arrived in Romania just in time for a suffocating heatwave of the sort that fells the old and the infirm the length and breadth of a country, and secondly, that I was feeling progressively more unwell.
The final four hours of the journey I spent hunched deliriously over the steering wheel, periodically bursting out into paroxysms of sobs miserable enough to rival those of my now thoroughly fed-up daughter.
Not the best introduction to hubby’s childhood home, but I felt sure that after a few days’ rest I would stop feeling as if a band of invisible sadists was tearing me apart at the sinews and be able to throw myself as wholeheartedly into the Romanian experience as Maya had done.
It wasn’t to be.
The invisible sadists – seemingly tired of twanging my tendons and jig-sawing at my joints – decided to make like a log, using my oesophagus as the flume, and subsequently jam up my digestive tract to such an extent that not even a sip of water could make it from mouth to stomach without the accompanying feeling that I was ingesting molten lead.
As for food, barely a bite of it past my lips for seven days – one way to get shot of the “baby” weight (ok, so the spare tyres pre-dated the baby by a number of years). Unfortunately my mother-in-law, despite being repeatedly assured of the contrary, was convinced that I wasn’t eating because I couldn’t abide her cooking. So ill-advised attempts at diplomacy would periodically prompt me into trying a little morsel of something, only to spend the following forty minutes pacing the property, groaning in pain and with tears streaming into the gullies of my rapidly diminishing chins.
We went to the pharmacy, a lot. Did we use the air-conditioning in the car on our long journey? Yes? That would be the cause then. Take this, this and that. Did we stop to eat on our long journey? Yes? That would be the cause then. Dodgy sandwich. Take this, this and that.
Nothing worked. And the resultant medicinal smorgasbord wasted no time in giving me the rampant trots on top of everything else. At least the walk to the outside long-drop toilet was scenic…
So many trips to the pharmacy did serve one purpose, and that was to give me something other than four walls to gander at. Through a haze of self-pity and poorliness I was able to observe cows being walked along the main thoroughfare to cow daycare – nosh and company whilst their humans were out at work. Dogs of all shapes, sizes and degrees of benign neglect wandered the dusty tracks or prostrated themselves in the sun. Horses pulled their long carts, complete with cargo – rubble from a building site, logs to be sawn up for winter fuel, hay for livestock, huge watermelons whose availability for purchase was loudly proclaimed by the dark-eyed and colourfully attired gypsy children perched atop them.
I was able to observe that the rural Romanian is an intensely sociable being, for the streets were simply never empty regardless of the heat. The elderly and the not so elderly sit for hours outside their garden gates to chat, and to observe – I doubt much escapes their notice: woe betide the precocious teenager who wears her skirt too short, or the boy who answers back – I imagine parents are informed of any misdeeds before the wrongdoer even makes it home for tea.
I was also able to observe that the rural Romanian does not seem to be into gratuitous smiling – something I noticed in my husband when we first met and have since remedied to a certain extent in case his default stony stare alarmed dogs and small children more accustomed to the upward motion of mouth corners that is prevalent, and indeed expected, in most of Western Europe when interacting with other human beings, having one’s photograph taken or even on those occasions unacquainted eyes meet accidentally across a public space. My personal range of friendly, wry, grateful, self-deprecating, empathetic, amused and encouraging grins (usually tossed about like rice at an Italian wedding) were for the most part greeted with something embarrassingly resembling suspicion.
And despite hubby’s declaration that local children nowadays spend far more time in front of the computer than playing outside, I was able to observe that there certainly didn’t appear to be a lack of them as they swarmed the streets with their footballs, dolls, snacks, bicycles and those ubiquitous bloody loom bands – all intent on enjoying the last few weeks of freedom before a new school term beckoned.
This rural Romanian village was also observed to be enjoying a modest property boom. The older and simpler single-story properties like my mother-in-law’s – brightly coloured façade, wrap(part the way)around veranda, vine-shaded courtyard, chickens, rabbits, a pig and perhaps a cow in adjacent sheds, dog tethered to an outside kennel, hollow internal walls fed warming smoke from a log-burning stove, water supplied by a well, long-drop loo, and a parcel of land containing vegetables, some fruit trees and an awful lot of maize, were now interspersed with more modern abodes in various stages of completion.
These, still modest, two-storey houses (presumably with the accoutrements necessary to facilitate indoor micturation, and worse), are primarily the fruits of Romanians labouring abroad – a place to return to in the longed-for holiday periods, and hopefully to retire to should finances ever permit it. As unimposing as they are, they must take years to complete: each visit home adding a further improvement – a bit of paint here, another double-glazed window there, wiring, plumbing, flooring… almost all carried out by the family whenever time and funds allow.
I observed the abandoned agricultural colective – an eerie echo of Romania’s communist past, the plethora of orthodox and catholic churches that absorb so much of the rural Romanian’s time, and rather too many faces stamped with the unmistakable mark of alcoholism – both perhaps symptomatic of the transition from that bygone era.
But despite unavoidable curiosity, attempts to absorb myself completely in the observation of my surroundings were rendered impossible by the red-hot poker insistently belabouring my midsection – bed rest was to be an unavoidable evil.
And in the manner of many large families, privacy in my husband’s childhood home is not a familiar concept so whilst battling intense physical discomfort, the mental anguish of not being able to adequately care for my daughter or even pick her up, and the worry that the lack of imbibed liquids would dry up the Mummy Milk supplies; most days I also had to deal with most of the family sitting on my mattress, mercilessly stretching both my Romanian language skills and my inherently British desire to please.
Each night I tried to fall asleep; hopeful that the next day would bring some relief, but whatever was ailing me seemed only to get worse until my husband and his sister decided enough was enough, and called an ambulance.
Yes, on my Romanian hols I got to go to a Romanian hospital in a Romanian ambulance – and if that doesn’t just beat the socks off the tired old tourist trails to Vlad Tepes’ crenelations and the Biserica Neagră, I don’t know what would.
It was quickly decided (after hubby slipping the odd Leu to the hospital staff to improve my standard of care) that other than an inflamed pancreas, I also had a rampaging bacteria that could only be subdued with antibiotics so strong that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed whilst taking them. Perfect time to wean her onto bottles! said the woman in the next bed, apparently not accustomed to mad British hippies who intend to have offspring dangling from the boob until toddlerhood.
A drip, a painful injection in the right buttock and several more palm-greasing Lei later, and I was released back into the world feeling not remotely better, but vaguely more hopeful.
The primary hurdle was persuading Maya to take formula milk from a bottle. Not so much a hurdle, more a huge and impassable mountain. My daughter left us in no doubt that a rubber teat (or a sippy cup, or a teaspoon, or a mug, or indeed anything at all) was not an acceptable alternative to the maternal bosom. And as for the “milk”, I tasted it – the inverted commas are no exaggeration… She cried, I cried and it felt exactly like I imagine the end of the world might, until I glanced at the box of antibiotics and noticed that the pharmacist had written “do not breastfeed for two hours after taking”. Two hours was a huge improvement on not at all, and after throwing ourselves at the informative mercy of the mighty Google, we decided that on balance we would risk it.
Our most immediate crisis averted, we were eventually able to bid la revedere to my hubby’s bemused (and robustly healthy) family, and limp the two thousand kilometres back home; where it took me a further three weeks to regain the strength necessary just to be able to go about my daily life without the assistance of my poor, put-upon mother who kindly allowed herself to be drafted in for crisis management.
A gastroenterology appointment and an anaesthetic-free and sedative-less endoscopy later – a horror I would not recommend to any but those I truly despise, damn that breastfeeding – revealed that I have Gastroesophageal reflux disease and a hiatus hernia. The management plan: pills for ever, stronger pills for ever when I stop breastfeeding, no eating anything vaguely tasty, no drinking anything vaguely tasty, no bending over after eating, and try to control stress levels.
Most unsatisfactorily incompatible with the nicer aspects, as well as the largely unavoidable aspects, of life.
And Romania? Well, despite it having taken most of the last six weeks for memories of that nightmare to fade, I find my mind can’t help but linger on the more visual recollections of spectacular scenery passed on our way back towards Hungary – Cheile Bicazului, Lacul Roșu, and the rest…
So I doubt it will be too long before I find my way back to the land of my husband – hopefully this time for an infinitely more positive experience.
This is Status Viatoris, seemingly unable to go anywhere without making an absolutely spectacle of herself, in Italy.