Postcards from the Beach 2

After two or three years in Tomis V we grew tired of taking the bus every day to the beach and mom finally bought a ticket through the ONT, the National Tourism Office. Her colleagues warned her to give a tip at the distribution center at Mamaia Casino in order to get a nice hotel. She probably did that, I cannot tell for sure as I was half asleep waiting on our luggage like other tens of people in the dark couloirs of the Office. At any rate we got our room in a new hotel, just a couple of blocks away from our beloved Rex hotel. Sadly the food was included in the price so there was no alternative than to use the tickets they gave us. On one side the loss of time – beach time! –  proved challenging. You could spend half morning in the restaurant just waiting for your bread and butter. On the other side the quality was strikingly worse than what we were used with. Nothing to remind us of the cordon bleu, the schnitzels or the warm cheese dumplings of Rex. Typically we would have a sour soup at the beginning which wasn’t bad per se but you were advised to avoid the suspect traces of meat at the bottom of your bowl, then a slice of meat with a dubious sauce (and I was precisely at the sauce-hating age) accompanied by barely warm potatoes, preferably boiled potatoes, my doom. It would all end with a violently colored ice cream full of water ice crystals. We grumbled for a while but our programmatic happiness topped with some generous tips calmed the situation. At the end of the day the hotel felt good, we got rid of the crowded buses, and the weather was fine.

Until one day when coming back from the beach mom goes to take our key and comes back with a gray face. A Swedish group was about to be lodged in the hotel so the Romanian tourists were simply thrown out. I am not sure of the sequence of events that followed next. I must have been around 10 and just waiting in the hotel halls for mom who was running from the receptionist to the hotel administrator, from him to the Casino ONT, and back to the hotel director. What I am sure of is she used all the influence she could press, she mentioned she was in the National Commission for Nuclear Power (it was not true but their institution depended on that commission hence they had bright yellow IDs with that title), and topped it all with some douceur. After losing the rest of the day, tired and worried, we  ended taking our suitcases and bags and moving them into a service room of the hotel with one single bed. We spent the night there and only the second day somehow, by some miracle, they found us a proper room. It was less disagreeable, frustrating and tiring than terribly infuriating. We continued our vacation as nothing happened but there was just a thin thread of hate flowing relentlessly along our happy days.

During rainy days we would take the bus to Constanta. There was an aquarium, a dolphinarium, some cinemas, a tiny precious art museum, the famous ancient Greek mosaic pavement, but the place I kept asking to come back to was the archaeological museum. I have always enjoyed archaeological and historical works, I don’t think I missed one in our travels, but the Constanta museum had something very special for me. They had some impressive statues like the sleek snake Glykon, a sheep head snake with tail ending like a lion’s. Somewhere in its attitude and shape laid a mystery, maybe deeper than the scientific one. Then the collection of clay toys which I watched intensively every time asking myself how would you use them really as toys. They also exhibited a huge collection of small glass bottles, maybe used for cosmetics, for fragrant oils or who knows what else. The ancient glass blue, green, purple iridescence  could keep me hours in awe. The most important bit was this young lady sarcophagus. They had found it and, not realizing what open air would mean to such a tomb, they opened it on the spot, a block building yard. The young dead, for hundreds of years isolated in her stone tomb had kept her hair, her skin almost intact, after this manipulation in the museum was only the brownish skeleton dressed in rich garments. Regardless of her state the tomb was a complete world. Toys, cosmetics, delicate clothes, all laid there as if they expected her to come back to life anytime and have her beloved little things around her. The most clear I can still see a delicate gold crown that encircled her head. Not the crown itself impressed me, but the kind care with which it was doubled on the inside in chamois as to not hurt the young crowned head.

The rain didn’t last for long usually so we were going to Constanta in the hidden hope we would run to a bus and go back to our beach. Still there were days when no hope for sun were in sight and these were the perfect excuse for longer trips. At first we didn’t go too far, just to the Northern end of Mamaia. There wasn’t anything there: bushes and trees. When sunny the beach was used by few nudists who lived in tents. The place was later to be covered  in new hotels. However we stumbled on a newspapers kiosk that also sold chewing gum. Now that was something! Nowhere in Romania did we find legally sold genuine West German chewing gum. I am not sure if buying it also included a tip but it might be possible since the other extraordinary item we bought was a number of Newsweek, the American journal, the first Western publication I was about to see in five years. In Bucharest there were places where, for something extra, you could buy certain French children magazines like Rahan and Pif, but not one magazine in French, English or German, not even the fashion ones. Burda, the German fashion catalogue would have been smuggled then passed from hand to hand in offices. When my great aunt sometimes sent us some French fashion catalogues they arrived with many pages cut, no doubt the customs officer was a lady who knew how to cut a dress as well.

The next destination was Adamclisi. That is a village not far from Constanta where a big battle took place around 107 AD between the Romans and the Dacians. After the victory the Romans built a castrum (a garrisone) and a monument. We took the famous IRTA bus that left us in the village. As it happens the sun went right up as soon as we got there so the trip from the village center to the monument got us covered in sweat and dust. The road was waving over the smooth hill and, in the heat, we were seeing small imaginary ponds of water at the end of it. You could not see one human all around the horizon. Only dried herbs slightly trembling from an unfelt breeze. I was pretty disappointed by the monument which was completely new. On top of the old foundations, basically an artificial mound, the historians built a white shiny replica of the ancient cairn. In the pictures it looked impressive. A huge cylindrical structure with a Roman life-size armor on top of it. The very name of the village is a Turkish interpretation of this place meaning “the church of man” – obviously the new Turkish colonists had thought the ruined monument to be an ancient church.

Next to it there laid a glass and metal building, the museum. That overweight my dissatisfaction. Inside the museum they exhibited most of the remains of the original cairn. Tens of massive bas-reliefs that almost two thousands of years before decorated the white cylinder.  They were brutal and lacked the delicacy of the Greek art I’ve seen in Constanta’s archaeological museum, the figures were often stylized and the stone was carved in powerful strokes more attentive to the epic value of the sculpture than to the tiny detail of togas folds. 3000 Roman soldiers died in that winter there and who knows how many Dacians. We watched transfixed the freshly captured Dacian slaves whose blood might have been pulsing in our veins at that very moment.

The guide told us there was a Roman city not far from the monument and directed us to walk there. That was the real surprise. We had no information of such a city. And it was complete and powerful as if the inhabitants only abandoned it some twenty years ago. They had large streets and solid sewerage, temples with many columns still up. In a ravine we found a group of young people led by an older one. All sun burnt and joyous. They had tiny brushes and chisels and gouges with which they were patiently unearthing every piece of marble or ceramics they could lay hands on. It was amazing to see their happy faces when lying on the dirt in the stringent sun or crouching among those hot stones. They were an archaeology university team from Bucharest. Civitas Tropaensium they called it, and by 200AD it had become a municipium in Roman terms meaning a city. Later successive invasions sacked it and the people spread who knows where.

We left the ruins in a pensive mood while struggling with the relentless heat of the road. We got to the village two hours early for the bus and we noticed a woman in one of the front yards. We kindly asked her for some water. She seemed very friendly and invited us in. She might have been Turkish or Romanian, I’m not sure and her house was extremely clean, for us an oasis of coolness. However we were amazed at the evident poverty we had never met elsewhere in the country. The house was made of cob instead of bricks or wood, and the floor was just the natural earth. Not many animals were to be seen or heard and most nothing grew in the heavily heated garden. They had some sheep now gone with the shepherd to feed, nothing else. The water from the deep dark well was cold and refreshing. We left her and moved to the local pub, obviously it wouldn’t have been a good idea to try and buy any food of her. We ended spending an hour and a half in the pub in front of some juices, they carried no food. Our only distraction was to ear-drop to the next table were 5 shepherds had found a means to discuss only sheep for all this time without any change in subject not even incidental.