The Transylvanian Police Cell

Friday, May 12, 2000

EDITOR'S NOTE: Those who have taken a look at our Staff Bios on the About CST page may have noticed one bio in particular -- that of our man in Australia, Aaron Thomas. In it, he mentions his attempts at finding himself, which have swept him off to "Nepalese mountain passes and Japanese karaoke bars, North African medinas and Transylvanian police cells."

Well, we at CST couldn't let Aaron leave it at that. So, what follows is an explanation of how the heck he ended up in a Transylvanian police cell. Enjoy!

AARON'S NOTE: Well, about that Transylvanian police cell...

I can tell you the whole tale, dear reader, but it's long and it's winding, and without much of a climax; as much of life tends to be. Or maybe that's just mine.

Whatever. I'll give you the whole nine yards and you can decide for yourself. Hope you've got a comfy armchair and a coffee to hand.

It all started in Budapest... as many great sagas have. The Austro-Hungarian Empire for one. A few hundred years of Hapsburgs warring and waltzing, with plenty of stops for more sachertorte.I don't know if you've every been to Budapest, but for my money it's a great city.


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Once the centre of the civilized world, now beggin' for spare pfennigs. Elegant decay is its strong suit. But there's still these fantastic high-ceilinged, gilt-mirrored coffee houses with Eastern European intelligentsia reading indecipherable papers and smoking pensively.

I was there to meet up with a friend of mine, an English guy who had been based in Budapest during the Bosnian war. I was bumming around Europe and he was visiting a couple of friends he'd made there. Two English women living the expat high-life on company expense accounts. Inevitably, being strangers in a strange land, we took, er... solace in each other. And after extended nights of... solace-taking, we would all meet up for breakfast at the civilised time of noon in fantastic salons where we'd drink champagne and eat beluga caviar from sterling silver platters. I kid you not. Life was beautiful. Much too much fun to be true... but true it was.

Anyway, the aforementioned friend, let's call him Tom, had to head back to London for work. That sounded much too dreary for a cashed-up dilletante like myself, but where to go next? And then it was that one of my new-found acquaintances suggested, "Romania. It's oh so lovely and oh so close. You shouldn't miss the Transylvanian mountains." Well, how can you resist the prospect of going to Transylvania, eh? I certainly couldn't and this, dear reader, is where it all starts to go horribly pear-shaped.

I said farewell to my new-found tango partner, and caught an overnight train to a town called Sighisoira. We hit the border crossing around 2 in the morning, and it was the full John LeCarre, Checkpoint Charlie, don't-blow-your-cover-by-smoking-the-wrong-brand-of-cigarettes, Cold War experience. Blazing arc-lights in the middle of the forest, dozens of uniformed guards with machine-guns on the platform and passport inspectors and dogs sweeping through the carriages. Even mirrors on poles to check the underneath of the train. The complete package, and we're talking 1995 here. Someone forgot to pass on the whisper about glasnost. More perestroika, comrade?

Well, eventually we get the all-clear and chug off into the night. And then I nodded off.


I woke up the next morning in sunny, beautiful Sighisoira, birthplace of Vlad the Impaler, a fact the local authorities had seen fit to honour with the erection of countless, soulless crumbling concrete buildings. I dropped my bags off at one of the crumbling concrete buildings which professed to be a hotel, and set off to admire the crumbling concrete architecture of the town. It was very medieval... in the no sanitation, poor as a church mouse, kind of way. A strange mix of traditional peasant poverty, and modern communist poverty. If anyone was a candidate for a stake through the heart, it was the town planner.

As I was sitting admiring this vista, I was befriended by a 12 year old girl who spoke perfect American English and said she had family in the States and yada yada and this is her house here yada yada and she totally had the gift of the gab. [Plot point, dear reader.] Anyway, later that afternoon I get back to the hotel to get some money to change into Romanian pisspots or whatever the hell the currency is. Okay... money. No money. Fuck. No travellers cheques. No passport. No plane tickets. Fuck-fuck-fuckety-fuck. To this day I don't know where and when it all got pinched, but I suspect it was while I was asleep on the train. Fuck.

So... what to do? I had a credit card, but plastic was a new idea around here, let alone exchanging it for cash. So I decided to look for that little girl's house, ask her to lead me to the police station and put that fast-talking mouth to work translating.

So we get to the police station and there's a long excitable conversation in Romanian which ends with the dictate that if it happened on the train I have to go to the train police back at the station. Hmmm. We trawl accros town to the station, where another long argumentative conversation happens with the grumpy old station cop who tells me, via her, that it's not his problem. If something's stolen I have to report it to the town police. Hmmmph. We trawl across town again. This time the town cop is less polite. He says I've only come here for the prositutes and a prostitute probably stole it while I was asleep and it serves me right. (There's a big problem in eastern europe with Germans using it as a brothel theme park.) Hurumph. The girl has to go home now and I sadly say good-bye to my translator, and head into the main square. There, on the edge of the plaza, is a big crumbling concrete block standing among the other crumbling concrete blocks. But what caught my eye was the singnage which suggested it might be a government telephone office: the place where people go to queue up, fill out forms, pay some money, queue again, and possibly even get conneted to someone you know on the phone. No-one has phones in their homes, you see. So I decide to try and get in touch with my travel insurance company back in Australia. Fuck only knows how I thought they might be able to help, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course I had no money, so I had to sign-language the idea of a reverse charges call to Australia from Sighisoira. Hah! For future reference, no Romania doesn't have a reverse charges agreement in place with Australia, or Britain, or pretty much any country as far as I could tell.

So I've no money for a ticket out of town, and no way of telling anyone in the world who might have cared. I have two passports though (dual nationality, not black market) and one of them hadn't been stolen, so I was pretty sure I could get out of the country if only I could make it to a border.

Just for old times sake I hiked back to the train station to have another futile conversation with the grumpy cop there. Even more futile because neither of us could understand a word the other guy was saying. A full and frank exchange of views, you might say. I felt much better after swearing my head off at him anyway. We parted on good terms.

It was now about 8 o'clock at night and I was, shall we say, a little concerned about how this would all turn out. Not to mention hungry and cold. There's something about finding yourself friendless, penniless and stranded in a poverty-stricken foreign land which makes you realise how conditioned your mind is to a life of western privilege. The prospect of being trapped and settling in to live as one of the locals for a few years, was NOT an option. I know this is a failing on my part, but I was just not ready for it.

In desperation I headed back to the town cop shop one more time. "Do you speak English?" Yeah right. Faced with total communication break-down once again, I tried, "Parlez_vous Francaise?" Light bulb. The guy motioned for me to follow him, and headed off into the station. We wound our way through the bare concrete corridors (have I mentioned concrete is a major architectural theme in Romania...?) and ended up in the detention block. Oh great. He's just taking me out the back to beat the crap out of me. We get right down to the end of the cell block where there's a big door with the words 'Criminei Politicei' written above it. Now I don't speak Romanian, and I dare say you don't either, but we can both guess that it didn't mean 'Guest Lounge'. While I'm gaping in horror, he swings open this monstrous door and inside is a padded cell. And in the middle of the padded cell is a table and around the table are three cops playing cards. This is not an image I'm going to forget in a hurry. And one of them speaks French. Well, buggermesideways as they say in the old country.

So I go through the story one more time, and he assures me it's the train police's problem, and I assure him they couldn't give a flying fuck, and he assures me that they will and he'll get a couple of coppers to drive me over there and tell them so. So next thing I'm hurtling through town in a very dodgy piece of communist automotive engineering (I think it was a Trabant, the pride of East Germany) and the train police have changed shift and there's a new young copper on duty who is convinced to try and help me.

Of course now we're stuck with the language barrier yet again. So we set off around the train station looking for someone who can translate. Eventually it turns out the platform announcer speaks English. Swell. She has a tiny office with big, chunky black boxes of Soviet technology on the walls, and a huge desk with THREE, count them... THREE phones on it.

The copper would ask me a question in Romanian, like what is your name, and she would go to repeat it to me, when one of her phones would ring. So she'd answer the phone and have a brisk conversation in Romanian which would then lead her to hang up, reach over and throw a switch on the trusty-Ruskie valve-operated boxes which would trigger a ding-ding-dan-dong-dink-din-dang here-comes-an-announcement tune, at which point she'd make an announcement. Presumably, "The next train-load of consumer goods will be arriving in 17 years", and then she'd throw the switch again. Ding-ding-dang-dong-dink-din-dang. She'd ask the question, I would answer, and just as she was about to translate it back to one of Romania's finest, another phone would ring. Surreal. The Kafka-esqueness of it all was starting to overwhelm me. It took about an hour and a half to give a statement and formulate a plan via this method. My benefactors were determined to send me on to Bucharest, which sounded like a terrible idea to me. I envisaged getting off a train at 4 in the morning without a cent to my name in a desperate coal-blackened city without an Australian embassy to its' name, and shuddered. So instead I convinced them so send me back to Budapest, where at least I'd have somewhere to stay. The next train to Budapest was 5am.

So we go back to the policeman's office where he pulls out of his cupboard THE BIGGEST typewriter you have ever seen. And then two pieces of paper and a sheet of carbon paper. Yup, that's right folks, that's where all the left-over 70's office supplies went. He then painstakingly typed a 15-line document with one finger over about half an hour and, after a convoluted secret stamping routine formulated by the Masons no doubt, he proudly handed me a copy. (Entirely in Romanian. I've no idea what it said, and he demanded my copy back the next morning before I got on the train.) And then I got my bags, slept for a bit and at 5am was escorted aboard the Stopping-All-Cowsheds Budapest Mail Train. I had to nod self-conciously through an apparently very funny conversation between the cop and the train conductor, and then finally I was out of there. Adios Sighisoira. May you rot in peace.

And that's the story of how I came to be in a Transylvanian political prisoners cell. Sighisoira. Mark it on your map. Tell them Aaron sent you...


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