Once Was Enough

The first time I saw a cockroach was in Romania in 1980. We named him Oskar, which seemed to befit his truly gargantuan size, and talked about finding him a jaunty red bow.

We’d heard terrific tales about the Black Sea mud and its effect on arthritis and so, mor took Janne and I off to a two-week spa vacation in Eforie Nord. Or what I with the help of the internet am pretty sure was Eforie Nord - the coastline looks familiar. We stayed at a hotel right on the beach and when we basked in the sun on the white sand, we were told you could see Odessa over to the left and in the far distance.

But I get ahead of myself. First I need to tell you about the scariest plane ride I've ever had. It was a charter trip, a group of Danes off for the curative effects of Black Sea mud and we flew with Air Romania (which at the time, my father later told us, had the worst safety rating of any airline in Europe - by the end of our vacation, he'd bitten his nails to the quick, trying to hold up the plane by sheer willpower). I sat by the window, as I preferred to be able to see out. I regretted this decision once we took off, when the rattling started and the condensation trickled down the inside of the window. I swear that plane was held together with rubber bands and chewing gum. The food was Romanian deli meats and buns and tasted quite nice. Within a few hours of arriving at the "four-star" hotel, the entire plane came down with food poisoning. Except for Janne, who'd had the good sense not to touch any of the mystery meats.

The hotel taught me that the star system is relative. We had a small room with two beds and a cot, a window in the corner looking out over the Black Sea. The view was spectacular, the room less so. We hung our clothes on the curtain rod, accepting the closet as Oskar's domain.

After the experience with food on the plane, Janne and I ate nothing from the meals served in the hotel restaurant except occasionally soup and bread. Instead, we subsisted largely on Coca-Cola and chocolate that we bought in special shops for tourists - you could buy Western products there like soft drinks, chocolate and cigarettes and the Romanians often asked us to buy things for them, which of course we did. We also went into the town and stood in line with the citizens to buy bread and fruit and coming as we did from a country with choice and selection, it was a real education.

The town itself was beautiful and we often walked through it, enjoying the sun, the scenery and beautiful parks. They had the highest curbs I've ever seen and no curb cuts, which I thought was interesting considering it was a spa town where you'd assume there might be wheelchairs. Or maybe not, because at some point, either on the trip or later, I discovered that in Eastern Europe under communism, people with disabilities were hidden away in institutions. I don't know whether that has changed.

In many ways it was the worst vacation I've ever had, yet it was also very good. It exposed me to a different way of life, showed me the reality of corrupt communism and real live communists. When we stood in line for pairs and plums, we saw the armed police officers, walking in pairs through the city. We walked along a high wall and were told that Ceauşescu’s palace was behind it. We found tiny little cottages on side streets encircled by lush hibiscus hedges dotted with brilliant red flowers - I had never seen that flower before and was overwhelmed by its exotic beauty. We were told that the cottages were for party members only, not regular people (it turns out that Napoleon was right when he said "some animals are more equal than others"). Regular people had regular jobs, if they were lucky, like the woman who operated the tiny hotel elevator 12 hours a day and was grateful for having a job.

And the mud, you ask? I went to the spa once and was overwhelmed by the stench of the mud. This was also when we found out that the staff would not be assisting clients in and out of various mud and water contraptions, so we ended up skipping the spa and focusing on the vacation. The weather was astonishing, the beach was phenomenal, we went on bus tours to see the landscape and various forms of entertainment where one night, a Romanian gentleman kissed all the ladies’ hands, including mine - the first and only time I have ever had my hand kissed as a greeting. Another Danish girl and I spent some time hanging out on a bench under the large shade trees in the park getting to know two very beautiful Romanian boys (and let me tell you, Romanian men are gorgeous), I got so drunk on cheap wine that my nose went numb and we met an awful lot of wonderful people.

In the airport going home, the official glowering at our passports accused my mother of taking home an extra child and called over an armed guard who stood firmly right next to us until the charter group guide managed to fix the situation, letting us take Janne home. That was the closest I've ever been to a machine gun. Within a few days of coming home, I came down with a severe case of mono, which kept me in bed for five months.

As for Oskar? He promised to write, but never did.

What's your worst vacation experience?

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