Category Archives: travel

Drinking My Way Through Transylvania

What is it that makes people want to take you on a tour of their house? You’re there for a party or something and the next thing you know they’re ushering you around as if you’re looking to buy the place. It’s rude to decline, so you go along.

This was different in Romania, where I was genuinely curious to see people’s homes — and every tour always included an inspection of the still.

The locals are very enthusiastic about making their own hooch. Where we were travelling, in Transylvania, the people are largely ethnic Hungarians. Their the drink of choice is palincă, a type of brandy made from fruit.

They make a fermented mash — usually from plums, but you can use other fruits — which is distilled down to a clear or amber-colored elixir. Is it strong? You bet! This stuff typically clocks in at anywhere between 35 and 85 percent alcohol by volume — or 70 to 170 proof.

Not everyone is very scientific in their approach and the results are sometimes unpredictable. There’s a Hungarian word for the more robust batches: kerítésszaggató, loosely translated as “fence-ripper.”

I’m glad to say that visits to the still also included a little sampling. Like house tours, it would be terribly rude to decline — and just as the the roads we drove during our visit, some were smooth going, others an adventure.


Any Witch Way You Can

The chickens of a Romanian witch? Perhaps!

Everybody complains about taxes, so when someone actually does something about it, that’s big news.

Witches in Romania, outraged over a plan to put a 16% tax on their earnings, cast a spell this week on lawmakers. They cooked up a vile brew of catpoop and dead dog, chanted some incantations, and cast the poisonous mandrake root into the Danube.

The politicians take this stuff seriously. Most of Romania has one foot in the 19th century and another in the 21st, with satellite dishes on the roof and outhouses in the backyard.Walk through a village in Transylvania and you’d believe there’s something to the witch thing.

Can a witch’s spell lower taxes? Insert the Christine O’Donnell joke here.

Me? I’m not very superstitious, but if I were, this would have been a week full of mysterious signs.

First I found a man’s keys in the street. They had fallen through a hole in his pocket. Then there was the sad incident with the dog. And yesterday I came across a small flock of ducks in the Price Chopper parking lot. I herded them to a grassy area so they wouldn’t be run over. They promptly waddled back into the parking lot.

In earlier times, these unrelated events  would have been seen as portents of… something. What does it all mean? I’d pay the Romanian witch tax to find out.

Mapless in Connecticut

Here’s a question: are GPS units killing printed maps?

Saturday morning I joined a parade of cars and trucks shunted off I-91 South near Springfield, MA. A terrible accident hours earlier shut down the highway.

There were no detour signs, no information about why the road was closed, and no clue about where to get back on the highway. I felt a powerful urge to have a map in my hand just in case an alternate route was needed.

The first gas station along the way had nothing. “I’ve got a map of Longmeadow,” offered the clerk. No thanks.

Arriving in Naugatuck (where Naugahyde was first manufactured) I went searching for a map to help plot my trip home. Four different stores — three of them convenience store/gas stations — didn’t have a single map for sale.

When I asked if they had maps, they looked at me like I was asking for directions to the Nauga farm.

GPS receivers are great for navigating, but make lousy maps. Sure, they tell you which way to turn and all have lots of whistles and bells — but it makes you blind to the big picture. It doesn’t show where you’re going, just how to get there.

An actual map allows you perspective on your location and how it relates to other places. Looking at a map and figuring out your own route is an important skill — and like a lot of technology, the GPS might be making us dumber.

Besides, I don’t want directions, I want to look at a map and make my own bad decisions.

Leave it to Beavers

If you said that the Betty Beavers sign is offensive to women I might agree, except, well… it’s a beaver. I’m no stranger to Betty, in fact I’ve written about the eye-popping signs before, but until recently I’d never seen one up close.

The sign, seen at Betty’s five locations between Canajoharie and Bennington,  is what you would get if snickering 14-year-old boys were in charge of graphic design. The bodacious 3-D beaver beckons to truckers and other road warriors, welcoming them in for fuel and food, an inviting refuge from the cold, hard highway.

The truck stop’s home page has a link to the The Legend of Betty Beaver, a long rambling tale that made my head hurt. I can’t remember any of it, except that it involved a French Canadian truck driver. That’s interesting since it was lonely French explorers who named the Teton range in Wyoming. Doesn’t it make sense that a bleary eyed Canadian trucker envisioned a beaver with giant breasts?

This got me wondering: could there have been a real woman named Betty Beavers, someone who inspired the name of the truck stop and the sign? We may never know, because as it turns out there are scores of Betty Beavers across America. It’s probably better that way.

The Love Guv

For decades, the mere mention of the Governors Inn & Suites would be met with smirky grins and raised eyebrows. It was known as the Capital Region’s premier spot for wild trysts, clandestine and otherwise. If the walls of this no-tell motel could talk, they would tell some extremely dirty stories.

No, this is not the sort of place you put your mother up for the weekend. Unless your mother is Jenna Jameson.

That may be all over now that the place was gutted by a fire early Monday. In its day, the Governors was known for its shag carpet on the walls, mirrored ceilings, and heart shaped hot tubs. Judging by some of the online reviews, this was quite a surprise to unsuspecting travellers who ended up there.

The name “Governors” is interesting. It’s not likely that any governors actually stayed there, OK, maybe Eliot Spitzer.

Alright, I was there once. It was me and my wife, celebrating a special occasion with a naughty night away without the kids. It lived up to its reputation — but we did feel like we needed to go through decon after spending a night there.

It will most likely turn out that the fire was caused by something mundane, like a frayed wire or faulty fixture. I’d rather imagine that it was friction that caused the blaze, years of accumulated heat that gathered up in the walls and exploded in a fireball of love.

I'm Kind of a Big Deal (in Romania)

When your blog post gets picked up by other media outlets, you know you’re doing something right. My piece earlier this week about driving was re-packaged by a website in Romania,

Apparently, they found it amusing that an “American journalist” would write about driving in their country. I find it amusing that they called my blog journalism.

You can read the Google translation of the page here. Google’s translation application is great, but you can expect it to be a tad imperfect — especially when you take something already translated and then translate it again. My favorite part:

However, I set foot in the pool Romanian road manners. That has not agreed to my wife, Ann, who closed his eyes and yells at me every time I tried to overcome one of the historic Gauls that you see everywhere – or a cart, and you see her everywhere.

My concern is that people there won’t get the tone of what I wrote, which I would describe as lightly jokey and self-deprecating. Like this guy. Hell, people here misunderstand what I write every day.

So, if any Romanians stumble across this, please rest assured that I loved your country, but will always remember this advice from a local: “You must have a sense of humor when travelling in Romania.”

Anyway, allow me to now bore you with a few vacation pics:

I’d go back in a second. Romania was a stunningly beautiful country with an amazing history — both ancient and recent — and an exciting place to visit.

As for the people, everyone bent over backwards to make us feel welcome. You go where you like, but if I get the chance I’m heading back to Romania.

A Family Travels on Its Stomach

The problem at Budapest’s Great Market Hall is not finding something to eat, but deciding on what you’ll eat.

The whole place smells great, like an Italian import store, and up on the second floor above the produce racks and meat cases are vendors with all sorts of delicious stuff.

At breakfast time a woman was making crepes and nearby my son eyed some people tossing back shots of palinka, the local brandy. “They start early here.”

Not really. All this food didn’t magically appear at 7am. It’s well past the middle of the day for folks who’ve been working all night.

I watched as a young man in coveralls ordered véres hurka, a Hungarian version of black sausage made from made with rice, pig’s blood and pork. Two links were served up in a paper tray with a big dollop of mustard and a couple of slices of bread. “I’ll have what he’s having!”

I forked over 650 forints ($3.35) and dug into the succulent sausage that was as dark as night. With the bread it was just perfect.

We ate well  — and cheaply — everywhere in Romania and Hungary. Interestingly, the only meal that felt overpriced was the breakfast buffet at the Sibiu Hilton.

But the most special meal of the week was in Reghin, deep in the heart of Transylvania. We were visiting with my wife Ann’s relatives, who prepared lunch for us.

We started with a vegetable soup, brimming with potatoes from the cellar — but it was the main course that really knocked our socks off. He made stuffed cabbage baked crisp in a clay roasting dish with sauerkraut on the side. That may sound to you like a lot of cabbage, but it went together perfectly with a little sour cream drizzled over the top.

The goal of our trip was to meet up with Ann’s relatives. Sitting in their kitchen sharing a wonderful meal transformed our touristy jaunt through Romania into an experience that was deeply moving and profound.

The World's Craziest Drivers

Gypsie greeting.

My wife, Ann, chats with gypsy welcome committee.

Imagine what it would be like if everyone drove like a 17-year-old boy with all his friends in the car.

Welcome to Romania.

To call Romanian drivers aggressive would be an understatement. Adventurous? A better word. Reckless? That may be the most accurate.

As soon as I pulled on the road outside the Bucharest airport I had people passing me in wildly dangerous places with no regard for what might be coming in the other direction. If the Romanians see driving as a measure of your manhood, I failed miserably. People rocketed past my car (Chevy Captiva diesel 5-speed) and glanced over as they passed. They must have expected to see an old woman behind the wheel and laughed as they left me in their dust.

Here in America you occasionally see a roadside memorial marking the spot of a highway tragedy. In Romania they are everywhere. The State Department says:

“According to the European Union Road Federation, Romania has the highest per vehicle rate of traffic fatalities of any country in the EU. It is essential for drivers to practice defensive driving techniques.”

And this:

“Traffic accidents are arguably the single most dangerous threat for American citizens visiting Romania.”

Nevertheless, I dipped my toe into the pool of Romanian road manners. This did not go well with my wife, Ann, who shut her eyes and yelled at me whenever I went to overtake one of the ancient Dacias that you see everywhere — or a horsedrawn cart, which you also see everywhere. “You do want to get there, don’t you?”

That earned me the look. You don’t want the look when you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself, do you?

As for the roads, don’t believe everything you see on a map. In the US you can reliably expect that roads shown on a map have relatively normal driving conditions. Assume nothing in Romania. For example, on the map the road from Fagaras to Apold looks perfectly normal — and for a few minutes it is until you get to the part with the giant potholes you need to drive around. Eventually the road just turns to dirt, where the only thing to worry about is the huge puddles. And dogs. And chickens. A depth meter would have been more useful than a GPS. I had neither.

Another fun fact: “The World Economic Forum ranks Romania 126 out of 134 states for road quality.”

By the way, traffic cirlces are also very big. Now I know where DOT got that idea.

Driving Miss Dracula

I mentioned here before that I’m planning a trip to Transylvania. There are many things to that concern me: the language barrier, gypsies, unidentifiable foodsshaky accommodations, hepatitis, wild dogs, — and navigating the roads. I did find a helpful item with this very, very poor headline:

Driving in Romania – Crash Course

That sounds like a joke, but it isn’t. Here’s an excerpt from the website:

Please note that while driving on secondary roads you should always be very careful to traffic participants, although you might find some of them as being unconventional … While animal drawn carts may create an idilyc setting, they can also prove really annoying and dangerous especially during night time, when they are not signaled by any kind of lights and can be very difficult to see in traffic.

Horse drawn carts are not the only thing you need to look out for. There’s also the drunk problem. One little town recently installed these signs to warn motorists about drinkers who are stumbling around in the road or sleeping on the street.

Then there’s the problem of guys driving with their feet — like this Romanian truck driver who lost his license. And you thought people talking on their cell phones was bad.

Welcome to Bleecker, NY

Where’s Bleecker? Down in Gloversville, they say that it’s between bleak and bleakest. When the people in Gloversville make fun of you, you know you’ve got issues.

But a place where you can settle up on your taxes, get a dog license, and have a Genny all under one roof looks pretty good to me –like here at the Bleecker General Store/Sawdust Cafe.

Bleecker General Store, Etc.

This helpful sign directs you to the essential services you require.

Sawdust Inn, Bleecker, NY

The nice thing about Upstate NY is you still don’t have to drive very far to be in the middle of nowhere. Or to be surprised that you’ve ended up in the middle of somewhere.