It’s a curious but well-known phenomenon among travelers that once you’ve been presented with a list of must-sees in the district, you feel almost honor-bound to pay each one of them a visit. Even if you’d never heard of, say, The Erratic Boulder of České Budějovice in the Czech Republic, suddenly you have the uncomfortable sensation that you’re letting down not only yourself but all of touristkind if you don’t go and pay homage to it.
What’s The Erratic Boulder, you ask? A stone that marks the former site of a hangman’s scaffold; according to legend, if you pass over it after ten o’clock at night, you’ll be wandering the streets until dawn, unable to find your way home. It’s far from the most exciting monument in Europe, in the Czech Republic, or even in České Budějovice. But I am still faintly annoyed with myself for missing the chance to pass over it after ten and see whether I could make it safely back to my hotel.
However, as last summer’s three-month train trip progressed, Rich and I became increasingly cavalier about neglecting monuments both great and small. In fact, we began to take pleasure in blowing off must-sees wherever we went. In Salzburg alone, we ignored Mozart’s birthplace, the castle, the cathedral, the palace of the Prince-Archbishops, various abbeys and churches, and Schloss Klessheim, a Baroque palace (now a casino) where Hitler used to hang out with Mussolini. We also skipped Prague’s Gates of Hell (said to be the actual entrance to Netherworld), Krakow’s famous salt mines, and all of the vampire graves in Transylvania.
Instead, we reveled in the delightful sensation of being completely free to structure our days however we chose, consulting our preferences and whims rather than Wikitravel’s lists. We spent days simply wandering city streets, stopping at sidewalk cafés to sip espresso and watch that particular corner of the world offer itself to our interested gazes. We felt extraordinarily rich in that rarest of commodities: time.
It was in Veliko Tarnovo, the old capital of Bulgaria, that I first heard the expressions “time rich” and “time poor” from an Australian who’d been on the road half a year. “Most people feel time poor,” he said one night over some eye-watering Romanian brandy. “They have the idea they have to jam as much as possible into each day because there are so few hours available to them. Doing less opens up your day. You realize that you really are time rich. It’s true luxury.”
Ever since that conversation, I have been attempting to embrace a “time rich” attitude. It isn’t easy. At the moment, I’m blogging, writing another book, corresponding with friends all over the world, staying active on social media, itching to get back to a neglected painting, expecting a houseguest, hosting three events in the next three days, and heading out soon to California – where my schedule looks even busier. However (pause for a deep breath) there are 8534 hours left in 2014. I will accomplish everything that’s really important to me, and let go of tasks that, like seeing The Erratic Boulder of České Budějovice, aren’t really crucial to my happiness.
A friend once told me about a woman she knew who liked to go on holiday but hated to make arrangements, preferring to tag along on trips others had organized. “A lot of the time she didn’t even know what country she was in. For her, travel was just moving from one pub to another. ”
I was rather cheered by this disclosure. Judged against this low bar, I am not doing too badly. I may not visit every must-see in Fodor’s, but I always know what country I’m in, and on a good day, I remember that I have all the time I need to enjoy it.
In keeping with my new policy of not trying to cram in absolutely everything, I want to let you know that I may not be posting on this blog next week, as I'll be on the road. I'll be back with you as soon as time permits.
So we get off the train at the station – more of a shed, really – in the dark, in a small village deep in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, and despite email promises, no one is there to meet us. The unpaved road holds no taxis, cars, or even the horse-drawn carts we’ve been seeing in villages along the way.
Part of the reason I love train travel is that it makes me feel like I’m living in the 19th century. An era, I now recall, that has some pretty dark chapters, including a few set in this very region. “Are those bats?” Rich asks, as something flutters by at the edge of my vision.
A smiling man appears suddenly out of the gloom. “I take you!”
“Did George send you?” I ask.
The man seizes our bags. “I take you!” And off we go in his car.
There are moments when you simply have to trust your instincts, your luck, and whatever saint watches over travelers now that St. Christopher’s been debunked.
Some 30 km later, we arrive at his snug wood and cement house, where his wife and a hot meal await us.
And in the morning, we look out our window to discover that we have gone back 700 years and are in the midst of the medieval village of Botiza. Despite evidence of various modern conveniences – electricity, indoor plumbing, a cell phone tower – most of the villagers still live in much the way their ancestors did back when Vlad the Impaler was a boy.
We are charmed and dazzled by the opportunity to hang about the village, exchanging polite greetings with the locals, who seem utterly unfazed by the presence of a couple of foreigners – who might as well be time travelers, given the differences in our lives. This is no Disney version of ye goode olde days, but a place where things change very, very, very slowly.
Most families build houses and barns by hand from wooden planks cut from trees in the nearby forest. They raise chickens and may own a cow for milk and/or a horse for transportation and labor.
In September, they scythe the hay, haul it back in a horse-drawn cart, dry it on racks made from saplings, then pile it into haystacks handy to the barn.
They work long and hard every day and go to church on Sunday. When I asked what they did for fun, I was told that some Saturday nights there are weddings, with music and dancing, and the whole village attends. Other than that, once in a great while someone might stop by for a beer. This is the central bulletin board that lists all present and upcoming activities in the village.
Not surprisingly, most of the teens are counting the days until they can head to the nearest city, dye their hair, get tattoos and piercings, join a rock band, find a desk job, and forget they ever came from this nowheresville. As for their elders, some have part-time jobs in town, but mostly they’re hanging on to the old ways.
Looking to the future, many have already bought their coffins, tombstones, and burial plots in the village cemetery. But modernity is creeping in. Their ancestors would never have used an exclamation point on a gravestone, but thanks to Facebook and other social media, punctuation standards have changed!
What is the afterlife coming to?
See more of my photos of Romania.
Rich and I are now heading even deeper into rural Transylvania, and we probably won't have Internet access this week. So if you don't hear from us, know that we're off having adventures, and I will report back when I can. Ne doresc noroc! (Wish us luck!)
I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. I make frequent trips to the USA, especially my native California, because America is something you have to stay in practice for, and I don't want to lose my touch.
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