Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fear and Loathing in Romania

I am somewhere in Transylvania, driving down a dark road at 90km an hour heading in the wrong direction - West. The night is whizzing past me at alarming speeds - perhaps it’s because the headlights finally gave up at some point in the not too distant past, and now I’m limited to fog lamps plus either parking lights or high beams. I’m starting to suspect the universe is aligning itself against this trip, but I shall not be stopped! The whole road suddenly feels like a wholly surreal scene from ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ (Hunter S. Thompson), except if you could dream up a polar opposite to the Shark, the effervescent mini would undoubtedly be it. The roads in Romania aren’t exactly terrible, what they are is narrow, twisting, and climbing up and down mountains. I persevere, guesstimating how much gas I’ve got left (the gauge has stopped working again – eerie reminder of India…), squinting to see the highway, and learning to pass the Romanian trucks on the twisty road. Stopping doesn’t even seem appealing at this point – I’m fully fueled by loud music, caffeine, and anger!

10 o’clock at night, passing through a little town in Western Romania. The name seems irrelevant – I can’t imagine I’m ever coming back. There’s a McDonald’s on the side of the road. Unappealing food seems a fair trade for a quick meal, plus free Wi-Fi. While stopped try yet again to reach somebody in Paris, get a hold of Maite, a girl from Paris I’d previously met traveling in Thailand. She graciously agrees to help and find out what’s actually required to fix the registration and to come play interpreter with me when I do finally make Paris (It will be Wednesday morning!). A tiny little space deep inside fights off a little of the all-consuming anger, and tries out hope. The hope’s got an uphill battle.

2.30 in the morning, still going strong. Just crossed over from Romania into Hungary. Nothing’s really changed. There’s a better road coming up closer to Budapest, but we’re not there yet – these roads are still built to Romanian standards. Shortly past the new and improved EU-style border (read: completely unattended on the Hungarian side), I attract the attention of a bored Hungarian policeman on the side of the road. He invites me out of the car and points out that the fog lights are a problem (apparently ‘problem’ in Hungarian sounds a lot like ‘problem’ in English). Not really in the mood to deal with this, so I just nod and stand there. He moves on to examine the rear of the car, upon learning that I don’t have any alcohol or cigarettes, seems to thoroughly lose interest. I drive off, with my bright lights glaring irately. I think he tries to say something else as I’m pulling away, but I’m not really inclined to listen, and he’s clearly got better things to do himself, like find people that have alcohol or cigarettes. 30 minutes later I decide to stop, get some sleep, and drive in the morning when there will be no more headlights games to be played.

Austria welcomes me with rain. It’s the first country in the Euro zone, so I’m clearly getting closer to Paris (and further from Mongolia…) They even have an exchange shop right at the border, which happily takes my British pounds, Czech kronas, and Romanian somethings. They won’t touch the Bulgarian and Albanian money. A bank in Paris would later refuse to touch them too, I think I’m stuck with some souvenirs, just in case I decide to return to Bulgaria and Albania one day. Buoyed by new found wealth, decide to actually be a law-abiding citizen and purchase a vignette for Austrian highways, since I am planning to cover the entire country. 15 minutes later, I speak with Maite, who’s checked with La Prefecture in Paris, who appears to have no interest in seeing my car, so turn right around and head to Bratislava, Slovakia for the nearest airport to catch a flight to Paris. File away the Austrian vignette as a souvenir too – sadly, it can’t be reused on any subsequent visits.

Same evening, I’m in Paris. Paris feels oddly surreal – much like Berlin and Bangkok had felt before, all cities I’ve returned to after having previously visited on the trip, so while I’m still certainly a stranger in Paris, I’m not feeling particularly lost. In the morning, I’ve met up with Maite, and am right back at La Prefecture in Sarcelle. I feel the Liberté, égalité, fraternité sign above the entrance door is mocking me… urge to kill rising! Later to be replaced with urge to drive the car to Paris just so I can smash it through the front doors of La Prefecture and park it in their lobby, maybe then they can check the VIN number on it? My favorite Prefecture employee from last time, commonly referred to as the ‘bitch in yellow’ doesn’t appear to be here – minor victory for mankind! Instead, we have a conversation with a guy who seems nice enough, albeit not at all helpful:

[me] – I need to correct the VIN number on my registration
[him] – you need to produce a document with the correct number
- I don’t have one of those
- you have to go to the archives
- can I get it from the archives?
- no, they get destroyed after 5 years
- so how do I correct a number from a car registered 27 years ago?
- you need to get the document from the archives

Urge to kill rising… Eventually, it is determined that I can get an official document from the manufacturer confirming that my car has the VIN number I claim it has, and then La Prefecture might actually be willing to change one of their precious documents. The fact that the mini was manufactured by Rover, which doesn’t exist anymore doesn’t seem to bother them, or really even intrude on their collective consciousness.

Make a trip to a new mini dealership – they politely point out they only came into existence in 2001, and can’t help me with my 1981 car. Try a few Land Rover dealers. On the way to the second one, it occurs to me that I might be cycling through the, seven is it?, stages of grief – I’m not about to let go of the anger, but I do wonder if the inclination to just ditch the car and go hang out on an island somewhere in a remote part of the Indian Ocean, where no one speaks French, falls under denial? The last Land Rover dealer agrees with all his colleagues that their company has nothing whatsoever to do with my Rover, but he does speak English, and has a friend who’s owned several classic mini’s. A few calls, and four phone numbers later, we arrive at a guy who seems to actually know how to deal with this sort of situation. Not sure what his specific connection to the Rover manufacturer is, but if he can produce a document to ameliorate the people at La Prefecture, I’ll be happy to crown him the king of all mini’s everywhere!

I wasn’t quite in the mood to take a whole of pictures during this detour, but a few sites from Eastern Europe:

A few hours before the Moldovan customs seriously ruined my day… Roadside snack while still merrily on the way East.

Forests and mountains of Transylvania

An alien spaceship was once shot down over Czechoslovakia, but the MiB have turned it into an ‘exotic’ bridge.

The mini has been left lonely and vulnerable at the Bratislava airport.


shoe said...

Keep on truckin' slepak!! Or, in my excellent frisbee french 'vas-y vas-y!!!'

Jimi said...

News!!! at last, I thought you gave up mate.. so did you get your papers done or not? good luck with the rest..

lia said...

So the Hungarian customs agent expected a bit more fidelity to "Fear and Loathing" from the American travelers? Keep collecting those souvenirs and good luck!

lia said...

So the Hungarian customs agent expected a bit more fidelity to "Fear and Loathing" from the American travelers? Keep collecting those souvenirs and good luck!

b mathew said...

Slepak, sorry you're in a royal bind with this VIN thing. Is it too late to hitch a ride with one of the other rally folks and dump err sell this car to a mini fanatic someplace who doesn't care about the VIN issue.

dlott said...

Action Update: The VIN has been corrected and Slepak is flying back to Bratislava! Nice long post from Cyrus on what we've been up to in the interim once he hacks some free WiFi!