Snow. Heavy, wet flakes at the border in southern Ukraine, fluttering against the windows while you wait in line at the Romanian checkpoint.
You’re in the back seat of a van, driven by a Romanian plastic-wreath runner. Two women are on the middle bench seat in front of you: the driver’s family maybe, or friends. The relationship isn’t clear, and their English is as good as your Romanian. But you paid them $10 for the ride, and that bridged the gap.
The four of you have been in line for an hour, sitting in the van, creeping forward one carlength at a time. The speed seems to be picking up now, and the three of you in the back all get excited. It will slow down again soon, but you don’t know that yet.
And you don’t know that once you get through to the town of Suceava, you’ll check in to Irene’s Hostel and get to know the Romanian family that owns it. Irene and her husband, whose name sounds like “Chup,” have a baby on the way, and Irene’s younger brother Alex has been helping them run things. Suceava is famous for its painted monasteries, but you will spend your time writing at a table near the window as the snow blasts outside, a peculiarly quiet violence driving it sidelong.
At some point Chup will offer to help you get over to Hungary cheaply by taking one of his friend’s touring buses. You’ll thank him for the option, but suspect a ripoff and ask around. You’ll be right to do so, and a couple of local guys from CouchSurfing will explain a cheaper, faster way to you over Romanian beers. And so after cutting through the country on a train to the western border, your last night in Romania will be in Cluj. You’ll stay there with an energetic firedancer named Ana, eating her homemade pickles and poached eggs with pepper spread before taking an early morning bus to Budapest.
Hungary’s capital will remind you of Paris, with its short but magnificent buildings, wide lanes and prominent river. You’ll spend two nights in Budapest walking along the Danube, admiring the crumbling architecture, and taking Europe’s oldest dedicated subway system with your hosts Marco and Janko before they drive you northward to a remote eco-community farm in central Slovakia.
A night of locally grown soup, drumming and overtone singing at the farm will prepare you for the next morning’s train ride to Bratislava, Slovakia. That ghost-town capital of 430,000 invisible people will be among the worst cities you’ve ever seen, with its hangdog emptiness as bold as Budapest’s vibrant Austro-Hungarian aesthetic.
But you don’t know any of that yet. All of it is still ahead of you. First, you have two more hours in the snowy Romanian immigration line. Two more hours eating sweet pastries with three people whose language you do not know, whose relation you do not understand, but whose destiny, at least for now, you share.