I never expected to become stranded in Transilvania – in Romania at all, for that matter. When most Westerners think of Transilvania, their minds imagine a place dark, haunted, and sheathed in isolated wilderness. Perhaps also conjuring up images of Dracula and evil, troll-looking peasants. However, it was actually the brightness and beauty of Sibiu that initially drew me to the city. Despite this, it still surprises me. The vivid coral-colored tiled roofs, the color of turnips in spring. Even the buildings, their facades painted in varying shades of muted Easter eggs, have a luminous quality in the afternoon sun.
The first week I arrived, now over two months ago, it rained every day. I was sure I would never see the sun in Transilvania. In those first days, the fog partially obscured the snow-capped Carpathian backdrop that outlines the southern outskirts of the city. The granite peaks permanently flecked with snow wouldn’t make their full selves known to me until I’d already been in Sibiu for weeks – during the lockdown.
It is now day 40 of lockdown. I desperately miss the joys of dinner alone while writing in my notebook and savoring the experience, something I’ve associated with travel since taking my first solo trip. Long gone are the days of strolling through the squares, feeling the buzz of energy from lively cafes and countless souvenir stalls, filled with brightly colored, fresh-cut flowers and hand-painted Romanian pottery. At least, for now. Now, the squares are mostly empty, except for the pigeons. There is a man in a wheelchair who is sitting outside the Brukenthal almost every time Andre and I pass. Our eyes have still never met.
Sibiu is vibrant, beautiful, charismatic. It’s true. Still, there is an undeniably gothic aura to Transilvania that goes far beyond the bounds of Dracula. Romania is not a particularly affluent nation; seemingly marginal, backward, and fairly unknown relative to the rest of Europe; and with an exceptionally brutal past, particularly with regard to the Holocaust and Ceaușescu’s reign of terror. Still, despite progressing slowly and haphazardly, the fact is that Romania has been emerging out of that position for 30 years now. Romania, itself, is a nation in isolation.
I’ve watched the season evolve and spring weather draw up purple crocuses, white and yellow daffodils, and cherry blossom trees. Despite the dragging of the days, the weeks in lockdown have been going by very quickly. Settling into a routine of takeout and red Moldavian wine. Yoga practices on the creaky wooden floors of my apartment kitchen. Aimless walks with Andre each night as evening falls and the street lamps come on. We find ways to embrace the solitude of long days and long walks in an empty city.
All of this time spent in isolation has forced me to acknowledge the grim reality that the future of travel will be changed. Maybe not forever, but for the foreseeable future.
Travel, like all things, has been evolving since the first trip was taken. Authentic, absorbed travel is a thing of the past. Total and complete immersion is virtually impossible, thanks in part to postmodern communication techniques and our readiness to pick up our phones and begin scrolling through emails and social media apps at the first moment of opportunity.
For me, the true thrill of travel is mental. It’s about total immersion in a place, but not because nobody from anywhere else can contact me. I am alone. And so, my life is narrowed to what is immediately before my eyes, making the experience of it that much more lucid and poignant. Postmodern communications and technology have destroyed all but the most extreme forms of travel. Still… today, during this time of social and geographical isolation, I think that’s a good thing.
There’s significant contention in the travel community today about what constitutes ‘real’ travel. Your trip has to be a certain length, under no circumstance are you to call yourself a ‘tourist,’ there is a set of unwritten dos and don’ts that must be followed. So-called ‘real’ travel has now become an act of resistance against the distractions of the electronic age. Against all the worries that weigh us down, thanks to that age. Just as there is a need to finish a good book, there is a need to further explore different aspects of an alluring location. But because that is my experience with travel doesn’t mean that has to be everyone else’s experience.
My experience traveling is not only spatial, but also historical, literary, culinary, and intellectual. I can’t fully experience a place without understanding the histories and ideologies that elicit the tired, judging eyes of locals who pass me in the street. Travel and good books, because they demand consistent present-moment awareness, stand in the face of the nonexistent attention spans that contort our current time on earth.
The truth is, there is no such thing as ‘real’ travel anymore. There are so many different niches, and each of us has a way that best suits us and our experience of a new (or familiar) place. Personally, I find travel to be much more than a break from monotony. Travel is a consolidated, more expressive interpretation of existence; the ups and downs proceed rapidly upon one another; all things can fluctuate over the course of a day, or a couple of hours. A city you’d visited days before might seem like an isolated memory now. Though you could relive each individual moment of your experience there, at the end of your journey, the whole experience becomes richly solidified in your consciousness – even as years or decades of everyday reality back home dissolve into extinction.
I travel in order to defeat oblivion. To know that the world I know is just one of many possible worlds. This has been my first time experimenting with what would be categorized as ‘slow’ travel – spending at least a month in each city. It is in this way that I’ve been able to surpass the exciting part of novelty. That in itself, is exciting to me.
Because travel is linear – it is about the present moment and maintaining that present-moment awareness. It’s about one place or singular perception at a time. Each imprinted profoundly into your mind, so as to permanently alter your perception of ‘normal.’
Practicing present-moment awareness while traveling is, in general, easier for me than doing it when in stasis, back home. This doesn’t seem to be the case in times of Coronavirus. While I am still convinced of its efficacy, it’s harder to bask in that stillness for the same, uninterrupted periods of time. Unless out for a walk with Andre or to get groceries, each moment, while still different, just seems the same.
The problem is that present-moment awareness is interrupted by the awareness that there is more to see and unexplored ways of existence. Still, it is a sacred practice. The present moment allows for the expanse of attention required to truly savor not only the history and landscape of Sibiu, but also the knowledge that travel, while changed, will still resume.
New incites forgetfulness of old, the passage of time goes faster, while still staying established in the now.
I approached my breaking point somewhere around two weeks into the lockdown. These invisible restraints had seemed to tighten and tighten until finally, I felt like my circulation was cut off completely. In those days of deep depression, my afternoons were more often filled with wine than with yoga. But eventually, once the familiar mind had been dismantled, came the acceptance that perhaps these were obstacles that concealed opportunities.
As is the case with many of the trials life throws at us, we can learn and adapt to leave the confines of comfort. We all manage quite differently, and for some of us, now truly isn’t the time to learn a new language or take up a new hobby. Some of us aren’t keen on video chat every day. But the formation of healthy habits, little by little, can be profound.
We grow in conditions that force us to think differently than before. Each new perspective, unfamiliar stimulus, novel experience can be used to our advantage to rewire our neural pathways to form healthier patterns. These subtle changes will then affect our perception of our place within this new environment – the world post-COVID.
I’ve been brushing up on my Romanian history since the long train ride from Hungary. Admittedly, I didn’t know much about it prior to that. And still, I imagine it’d take years upon years of research to fully understand Romania’s dynamic and complicated past. But this crash course has given me much insight into Romanians and their way of life.
Romanians are tough, brave, resilient. Due to political instability, the unknowns of what the future holds has made them incredibly resourceful and realistic. Maybe that’s why things during the lockdown seem so calm and controlled in Romania. At least, relative to what I’ve seen happening in other parts of the world. Still, I am an outsider. And as such, I am not fully privy to the reality of the current situation here.
All the same, I am channeling my inner Romanian to make it through my days in Transilvania. Romanians have known territorial dismemberment, occupation, monarchy, military dictatorship, fascism, and communism all in one century. Finally, also revolution and democracy.
I’m American and have had a relatively privileged life thus far. I don’t know these challenges. So I am learning to do things like the locals and adopting a similar mentality. Whether or not that’s a good thing is still unknown. There is a saying here, “Mămăliga nu explodează,” which conveys the message: Romanians are like polenta. Polenta doesn’t explode. It is amorphous, without guts, always adapting to whatever form is required.
So, I tune in to my inner polenta, my inner Romanian.
I’m trying to reach a deeper state of identification with the conditions that shape experiences in this microcosm of the world. I change as needed, into whatever form is most appropriate for the environment. I am no longer relegated to survival in just one narrow state, what I would describe as ‘regular life.’ Regular life may not always be waiting, and I sense that things now will be forever changed.
In two weeks, the State of Emergency in Romania will be lifted. We will have the freedom to move about our respective towns without having to fill out a declaration. Intercity travel will still be prohibited without a valid reason.
Once the State of Emergency has officially ended, my visa countdown will begin once again. Having Andre with me somewhat complicates matters. The convoluted flight paths it would require to get home are not conducive to a dog flying. If I did make it home, I’m sure I wouldn’t be allowed out of the country again for an indeterminable period of time, given the severity of the virus in the U.S..
So, for now, we weigh our options and contemplate the risks of overstaying our visa.
But in the meantime, the days are spent enjoying the comforts of yoga and wine, teaching, and musing over our current situation. I contemplate what lessons this place can teach me, both about its particular geographic location in the underbelly of Eastern Europe, and the period of history through which I am fated to live. And how to somehow reconcile that these two are connected.
Romania’s distinctive brand of ‘Latin’ within Eastern Europe (among other things) has led to its psychological isolation and distinct separation from the rest of Europe. So here we are. Isolated in isolation. But, as the wise Dr. Meredith Grey once said, “If we’re all alone, then we’re all together in that, too.”
UPDATE: The lockdown has now been lifted for 30 days. Gradually, things are reopening in phases and the city is beginning to come back to life. We are beginning to fully see what limitations lie in store for us with regard to international travel. For example, despite my not having been in the States since January, my US passport prevents me from entering other countries in Europe. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In less than a week, I will move from Sibiu to a larger Transilvanian city, Cluj-Napoca. Is another lockdown in store for Romania? It’s difficult to say at this point. Higher cases of the virus are being reported daily since the country has gradually begun reopening.
I hope you all are staying safe and sane during these uncertain times.
Update 2: I’ve been living in Cluj now for nine months! This is what you should know before moving to Romania.