Comment: Light switches, and my first Romanian holiday

Our packed train left Bucharest late, heading South to the Black Sea coast. It was August, and hot, too hot. Mercury was vaporizing in the thermometers as we escaped the baking city’s wild dogs, glass and crumbling concrete. We rolled through the countryside for a while, until I saw my first Romanian village from the dusty carriage window. Dry mud roads separated small houses set in gardens where ripening clusters of green and black grapes overgrew ‘bolţi’ – a ‘bolta’ is a metal grid vines grow over, it supports their weight. A group of women wearing long skirts chatted to each other. Old men in crumpled, dark suits smoked cigarettes and stared at the passing train. Bare-foot children played on top of an abandoned, rusty car, while red and white hens in a courtyard scattered as a skinny, ginger cat climbed up and over a pile of chopped wood stacked against the wall of the house.

We rolled past the village into open countryside again. A shimmering heat haze blurred the contours of the landscape in the distance. It was all new and magical.

We were going to Mangalia, from where we would take a Maxi-Taxi to the coastal village of Doi Mai – the 2nd of May. I wondered about the name, 2nd of May. Was there another village called 3rd of May? Were there other towns and villages in Romania that had taken their names from the calendar?

I had time to think about such nonsense because the train kept stopping for no particular reason. I asked Iulia, my Romanian wife, why the train stopped between stations. She said it was because we were in Romania, and returned to reading her book and munching an apple. I tried to find the connection between my question and her answer, but failed.

Eventually, we arrived in Mangalia, more than an hour late. Angry passengers threw their luggage onto the platform while loudly cursing the ‘nesimţit’ (couldn’t give a damn) Romanian railway system. A uniformed railway employee stood nearby, calmly smoking a cigarette, deaf to the barrage of insults.

I came to learn that it is a tradition in Romania to complain loudly and curse government employees and even government ministers, and then carry on as though nothing has happened. Being British, I had to practice complaining. “Nesimţiţi!” I said hesitantly, trying to get the ‘ţ’ pronunciation right. But I couldn’t make the sound.

It seems that complaining in Romanian is only possible for foreigners who can pronounce ‘ţ’ properly. One day, I hope to master the ‘ţ’ and then I will complain all day, just like a Romanian. For now, I maintain a stoic, British silence.

We took a Maxi-Taxi that ran back and forward along the coast between Mangalia and Doi Mai all day. When we reached Doi Mai, the Maxi-Taxi pulled up beside a crowd of locals at the roadside holding up signs offering cheap accommodation. But we had already booked our pension. So, we pushed through the crowd with our luggage and set off on the short walk. We took a short-cut past a tiny, wooden church whose roof had just been covered with new, gleaming ‘tabla’ – tin. I was amused; building regulations would never allow such a thing in Britain. But I noticed that the new ‘tabla’ on the church roof acted like a polished mirror, reflecting the bright afternoon sunlight back into the pastel blue sky.

“Why do so many buildings in Romania have tin roofs?” I asked my wife.

“Because it’s Romania,” she replied, bumping her suitcase along the rough path.

Finally, we reached the pension. The landlady in her early forties, Carmen, welcomed us and showed us to our room. There were several rooms for guests, but ours was on the upper floor of the family house. The room had a veranda facing the sea. We dumped our bags and went to look at the view. The sea stretched before us, its green color near the shore deepening to blue where the water met the bright horizon. I admired the view while Iulia went downstairs to discuss a few things with Carmen and pay for the accommodation.

She returned, all smiles, and said Carmen had offered us breakfast and lunch every day for an extra 50 Lei each. I couldn’t believe the price. It was almost free. And Carmen’s mother, Marietta, was a fantastic cook. She made ‘ciorba’ with home made noodles – ‘ciorba’ is a delicious kind of soup – and baked a spiral of sweet, crispy dough filled with apples and cinnamon for dessert. A jug of fresh cream was put on the table, too.

I roughly calculated that the total cost of the 7 day holiday would pay for only one night in a British hotel for both of us! Huh! Those greedy British hoteliers – Nesimţelişti!

We decided to go for a walk along the sea front to work up an appetite before having our evening meal. We walked and chatted until the late afternoon light began to fade.

We found a homely restaurant, and after eating, we returned to the pension by the same short cut next to the wooden church with the new ‘tabla’ roof. There was now a donkey tethered to the side of the church and a cart loaded with watermelons parked behind it. I liked the image of the spiritual and the practical side by side. Very Romanian.

By now, it was evening and so the narrow, wooden staircase inside the pension was dark, but we didn’t know where the light switches were. We stumbled upstairs and found the door of our room. Iulia fumbled for the light switch inside the room, near the door. The light came on, but a moment later there was a furious cry from another room in the house, then the light went out! We were standing in the dark again, bemused. Iulia switched on the light once more. A similar cry from another part of the house, then darkness. We decided to switch on the bedside lamp, instead. It remained lit, and this time there were no angry cries from other rooms.

The next day, we discovered that Carmen’s husband had tried to save money by installing a new electrical system in the house by himself. Consequently, switching on a light was like playing roulette. Nevertheless, it made the rest of the holiday fun.

To be honest, the anonymous outbursts of despair and anger from distant rooms amused me. I guessed that each light switch made different connections, depending on the latest configuration made by guests switching lights off and on around the house.

In the evenings, Iulia and I sat chatting on the veranda, drinking cold beer and eating slices of sweet watermelon. Behind us, the light in our room flashed off and on by itself, occasionally interspersed by howls of anger and confusion from different parts of the house.

In this surreal scenario, it was easy to imagine a CIA analyst somewhere in Washington studying satellite photos of the Black Sea coast and saying to his boss, “Sir, there’s a large, polished mirror on the Black Sea coast with a donkey tethered to it. D’you think the Romanians are up to something?”

And his boss saying, “A large, polished mirror? Are you sure?”

“Absolutely, Sir. And a lighthouse nearby. Lots of flashing lights.”

“Seems suspicious, Ted. Put the co-ordinates into the computer for our B52 bombers. Just to be on the safe side.”

Now, years later, I sometimes remember my first Romanian holiday when switching on a light.

By Angus McFarlane, guest writer

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