Border Wars: Tales from Two Taxis
Taxi drivers are the entry and exit point of any city, any society, anywhere in the world, as any traveler knows. A ten-minute ride can result in much more than transport from A to B. It can offer a cultural insight and history lesson that sidewalk strollers take for granted.
This summer, I spent a few days in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Cluj, as it is locally known, lies on the northern edge of Transylvania where the Carpathian Mountains begin their downward arc toward Timisoara. Resistance from ethnic Romanians kept the Austro-Hungarian Empire from sweeping ever eastward, but the land beyond the Carpathians became home to many Hungarians who crossed the border that under Hapsburg rule was no border at all. Territorial realignments after World War I handed it back to Romania, and the Hungarians became “Romanians,” resulting in some cultural anomalies: Bela Lugosi, who starred as Dracula in the early silent films, was a full-blooded Hungarian, born in Lugoj, Romania, in a region that was then the Kingdom of Hungary.
To return to Cluj. One afternoon, I had to go to the bus station to buy a ticket to Timisoara, and the quickest and easiest way to do this was by taxi. A driver picked me up outside my hotel and, a few minutes into the ride, I remarked that Romanians were certainly different from the Slavs of Eastern Europe. He wasn’t Romanian, he corrected me. He, and all his fellow “Romanians,” were Dacians, a reference to the ancient Tracian tribes who occupied the land to the west of the Black Sea in the fourth century B.C. In the second century A.D., they succumbed to the expansion of the Roman Empire, giving Romania its name. Romanian, Dacian—what did it matter? Well, stereotypes troubled him.
“My sister lives in Toronto, and one day her doctor asked where she was from and she said Romania. He was surprised. They think we’re all gypsies and vampires.”
I asked about the Hungarians—were they different from the Romanians (Dacians)? After all, both had shared the same land for hundreds of years.
“The Hungarians, they live in the past. They had an empire, but it’s gone, and they can’t get used to it. They still dream about getting it back.”
He asked about my travels in Romania, and I told him that after Timisoara I was going to Bucharest.
“Be careful,” he said. “Watch your—.” He patted his pocket. “Too many—,” he tapped the skin on his forearm for emphasis, “dark people.”
“I don’t like—dark people.”
I spent four days in Bucharest but had no problems with “dark people.” I was in Romania for two weeks and my only challenge came in Sibiu. Walking back to my hotel from the Old Town one night, two women emerged from a dimly lit bar and asked—did I want to come in? One leaned close—did I have a light? Then I felt a hand on my crotch while another tried to grab my wallet, but I managed to push them away before my wallet disappeared. They laughed and cursed at me, but as travel challenges go, it hardly rated. Were they Hungarian? Romanian? Dacian? At the time, I didn’t think to ask.
We got to the bus station and I paid the driver.
“Wait,” he said, as I started to get out. “You want a nice Romanian girl?” And before I could answer—“You want a nice Romanian girl, you call me.” He jotted his phone number on a sheet of paper and handed it to me. “I fix you up with a nice Romanian girl.”
I thanked him and gave him a hefty one leu tip.
I bought the ticket to Timisoara and then looked for another taxi to take to the Pia?a Unirii, in the center of Cluj. Along the way, I commented on the beauty of the 19th-century architecture. It was not Romanian but Hungarian, the driver corrected me. In fact, all the beautiful buildings in Romania were actually Hungarian, courtesy of the Hapsburg rulers and the Austro-Hungarian Empire when they ruled the territory northeast of Transylvania. Yes, he was Hungarian, and his family had lived in Romania since. And the Romanians?
“They all have their nose in the air. They call themselves Dacians. They live in the past. They had an empire but it’s gone.”
I asked how they got along, the Hungarians and the Romanians (or Dacians).
“They don’t like us. They think we’re all gypsies and are trying to steal our land back.”
He had both passports, one Romanian and one Hungarian, as Hungarian are allowed in Romania. Was one better than the other?—I asked. Europe’s borders are ever shifting. Almost one hundred years ago, a “Greater Romania” once included Bessarabia, a region that is today Moldova.
Romanian, Hungarian? He shrugged. I was about to ask him how he described himself, but it was too late. We had reached the Piata Unirii and the traffic behind us was backing up. I was getting out when he asked how much time more time I had in Cluj. A few more days, I said.
“You want to try this place.” He opened the glove compartment and fumbled through a stack of business cards that advertised strip joints and massage services and handed me one for a pole-dancing club.
“You go there any night, I can find you a nice girl. You let me know, just call me and I’ll set you up with a nice girl. Take my number.”
I thanked him and also gave him a hefty one leu tip.
I slept soundly that night, reassured that only the big things in the world change—borders, nations, governments. The small don’t, and it’s the small things that matter.