The last one out did turn off the lights

Ioana Calinescu
Out of all the places we have visited on this trip which officially ends here, for me the biggest surprise was Dobruja. But the secluded Dobruja, the one avoided today even by the alternative roads advised by the police during peak summer season. What seemed a joke in the ‘90’s, when the first serious wave of emigrants was fleeing the country, shouting behind them ‘the last one out turns off the lights!’ has now become reality. The last one out has already turned off the lights. This region of Romania looks like a deserted land, vandalized and left in the dark.

Leaving Isaccea, Petruț’s disappointment at the sight of the harbour, still hovers over me. He got all worked up, just like when you are overcome with memories of childhood and you realize that you’re elatedly reminiscing in great detail about events that go so far back, you’re surprised you can even recall them. Well, on the way there, Petruț told me about a week he had spent with his uncle on a dredge in a harbour in Isaccea. His uncle, a naval engineer, was doing some work on the boat and had taken him along. It seems that at the time, Isaccea was an important commercial hub that gathered the Danube’s floating iron giants as well as tipsy sailors in the town’s taverns. I can’t tell how much of what he was saying were embellished images viewed through a child’s eyes, but I know for sure that today, there is nothing left of the harbour. Do you know what nothing means? Nothing. It was so deserted and so eerily quiet that you wish you had never laid eyes on the place.

The second thing from Isaccea that stuck in my mind was an amateur fisherman that was launching his fishing line in a dirty, reed-infested pond, out of which he removed, every minute, a feeble and shrivelled fish that resembled a frosted potato. The guy was casting his line in good spirits, without bitterness, simply accepting the way things were, that in the pond he was fishing in, big ships moored once. But who could still dredge here… Just ahead of us was the profile of the former tobacco factory, burnt by fires, with blind windows like a mole, some desolate administration buildings, some horses roaming around and a bunch of children playing among the trash. It seems there once was a hotel here, then a nightclub and then a store. But they all went bankrupt. Before ’89 there was good business here, they were processing entire crops of tobacco, they were farming, there was the harbour... After the revolution, time stood still. And, as a curse, no business came to life again. And, finally, they all left.

In Măcin, I beheld in awe those mountains that seemed to rise from a completely different script than that of Romania. Massive like the humps of prehistoric animals, with violet rocks coloured by the sunset and with the Old Danube which cut in front of them. We found some fabulous places, with bushy forests like those of fairytales, with trees that bore the traces of summer floods, perfectly resembling swimsuits on sunburned skin and some terrific fishing spots where Petruț caught a young catfish with thick lips and set it free. And so, to give you a complete image, we slept at the only hotel in town - in the area actually - for 150 RON (40E) a night!!! A summer camp room, with three beds and tiny windows, a room that we barely got after the guy from the communal restaurant downstairs, who was also managing the hotel, decided to give us a hard time. We had to hang around for about an hour before he decided to give us the room. Said there was a reservation for it. Right..!

Brăila was something out of science fiction. It was already dark when we arrived and we walked aimlessly downtown, asking ourselves where the downtown area was. We looked for a hotel, but everything seemed to be going on elsewhere; on the empty pedestrian street nothing was open. We stumbled on a rather fancy hotel, with a beautifully restored interwar style façade; the clerk behaved like we had asked him for drugs, not a room. Like an evasive accomplice. He discretely signalled us to wait, spoke on the phone, told us he’d take us somewhere, we asked him to give us directions to go on our own, he got snagged in his own words and suspiciously mumbled something that it’d be better if he took us himself. He was looking around as if worrying that someone would hear him and then he made a few more calls. We discretely backed away as he was talking on the phone, took a few corners on some dark alleys, at a quick pace, hoping he hadn’t followed us.

It was funny, but at the same time there was something dark and suspicious in the air in Brăila that made you laugh half-heartedly. We didn’t really know where we were going, so we were glad to find a police car. We went straight to them and asked where we could find a hotel. They gave us directions grinning...politely. The streets they pointed us to were dark and filled with dogs. Chance had it that the hotel was close by. Although it had a pretentious name, ‘Paris’, the place had a rather obscure entry way. But it was warm inside and when we asked at the reception the price of a room, the answer came in the form of a question: ‘The whole night?’

In Galati the only businesses that seemed to be flourishing were the haemorrhoid and anal fissure clinics. Banners for special offers to these kinds of services pop up in the most unexpected of corners in Galati. Otherwise, you are followed by the heavy atmosphere of steelwork. Here we had the opportunity to spend a night in the unintentional museum of the Party. The Party’s hotel to be precise, ‘The Sea Cliff’. Although declared completely refurbished, the Party’s hotel continues to live in a time loop. You can teach recent history in the hotel: furniture from the communist ‘Golden Age’, metal ashtrays on a long stem, cleaners in Soviet uniforms that waste time in the hallways drinking coffee, a delicious desk clerk that has been making a hole in her chair for over thirty years, I think, and who gave us the room as one would make a favour to a party colleague. Moreover, we barely extracted some information from her about the internet connection inside the hotel, but, oh boy! did we finally get it… If it didn’t work in the room, we were to go out on the balcony, capture it and take it inside. ‘If it doesn’t work that way either, I don’t know what else to tell you’, she said.

Translator: Andrei Stoian