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My train left sunny Sighisoara at noon and lulled me into reverie as it rocked along Transylvania’s Tirnave Mare River. Romanian peasants in black felt hats leaned on oaken staffs, standing guard over broad-horned cattle foraging on the grassy banks; chestnut smoke drifted from the chimneys of cabins set in dark hollows beyond the water. A pair of long-haired Gypsy youths on stallions galloped along the dirt road that paralleled the tracks, racing the train, falling behind and out of sight after tipping their caps to the engineer.
I was on my way to Copsa Mica to visit Saxon churches. I had read in my guidebook that the town was polluted, but so were many places in Romania, and that wasn’t going to deter me from seeing its sights.
Twenty minutes later the Transylvanian idyll I had been observing began to erode. The forest disappeared; the slopes beyond the tracks were now cankered with bald, grassless patches, their upper reaches increasingly lost in brown haze. A graveyard of charred steel hulks (actually a derelict carbon-black plant) resembling a burnt-out amusement park loomed into view amid a landscape that was steadily waning into washes of grays and blacks. The train, slowing, rolled into a gaseous twilight, lurching on unsteady rails. Above towered smokestacks that belched orange clouds of waste; they were the generators of this chemical gloaming, the defoliators of the valley.
A long, ailing screech of brakes on axles cut through the clackety-clack of the rails as the train decelerated for the station.
“Copsa Mica!” the conductor shouted.
I debarked alone. On the platform, a hobo rifled with gusto through a heap of refuse. The station, once forest green, was black with soot, and many of its rooms looked abandoned, their doors knocked off the hinges, their windows shattered or glassless. A man in a gray uniform emerged from the waiting room; I thought to ask him for directions to the churches but he brandished a club and shouted at the hobo, who skittered off into the plant graveyard and climbed over a mess of piping. From behind it he snorted wildly at his pursuer before bounding away.
I followed the access road from the station toward the center, passing grit-encrusted women trailed by broods of runty children, wearing sooty, tattered clothes. On the main drag people huffed and wheezed by on creaking, oversize tricycles; there were few cars. Hoping to find a vantage point from which I might see the churches, I clambered up an ashen path wending through fields of ash-covered ricks, passing bug-eyed cattle that stood like sacks of hide propped up on spindly frames. I reached the top of the rise and walked along above the town, kicking up puffs of soot. My eyes burnt; an ache began behind my sinuses. I halted when two mongrels, all bone and carious fang, started barking at me from the yard of a tarpaper hovel. Retreating from the dogs, I sat down on a stump and surveyed the scene below: a conglomeration of smelting plants, girt by rows of blackened houses, spread along the valley under a pall of acrid smog. The total effect was of a proletarian hell; its creator was, not surprisingly, the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. During decades of misrule, in his striving to bury agricultural Romania under the cement and steel of a socialist superstate, he erected in the once-bucolic Saxon settlement — and in many other parts of the country — noisome industrial behemoths that fouled the air and wrecked the health of millions of his countrymen. Though many of the plants were obsolete before completion, they outlived him and function still. Only bankruptcy would cool their smelters.
“You! What are you doing up here?” demanded a young man in Romanian who had emerged from the tar hovel.
“Buna ziua,” I answered.
He stared at me.
“I’m sorry, I’m a tourist. From the States. I’m looking for the churches.”
His shoulders were thrown back, his eyes glared into mine. He appeared to be in his late 20s; he had sandy brown hair and pale but clear skin.
“Tourists don’t come to Copsa. It’s the most polluted town in Romania, maybe even in all of Europe.” He looked me up and down. “It’s not right for you to be up here,” he said. “It’s not right. For all I know, you’re a thief come to steal my pigs.”
I apologized and told him my name, offering my hand.
“Wonderful, and my name’s Kennedy,” he said, not shaking my hand. “Like I said, the only people who hang around up here are pig thieves. I have half a mind to take you to the police station.”
My halting Romanian finally convinced him I really was a tourist and not a pig thief. He was a filter operator in the lead smelting plant, he said. Kennedy was indeed his nickname: He had contrived the presidential sobriquet from his Magyar given name, which sounded like it. After a hard stare, he shook his head.
“Look at that smokestack. It’s pouring sulfuric acid right into our lungs; I’ve breathed it every day of my life. It rots us from the inside out. You think that’s touristic?”
“No, but … I’m here to see the churches.”
“They’re far away and you’ve already missed the bus. Well, if you really are a tourist, you shouldn’t be walking around alone. They’ll rob you.”
“The Gypsies! Let me change and I’ll walk with you.”
He went back inside his hovel. In a few minutes he came out
sporting a black leather cap and wearing a slick black jogging suit over a
starched white shirt. We set off down the path, our footsteps kicking up
soot as we passed through the lank grass. One of the mongrels, limping,
fell into stride with us. Soon we were leading a half-dozen skulking mutts,
each with its own disorder: a bulging red eye, a patch of mange, a mangled
ear, a gnarled paw. Kennedy turned to them and shouted, “A casa! A casa!” and they scampered away. “My guard dogs,” he said.
He asked me what I did for a living; I suddenly felt embarrassed to
say I was a writer, from which he might deduce that I was looking at him as
a story opportunity (I was not).
“I’m on vacation.”
He shrugged. “Want to see our local ruins? Look at this swimming
pool. Ceausescu had it built.” A concrete-lined hole stretched over a
50-square-yard rectangle at the edge of the rise. He bent down and blew
at its rim: A puff of black dust whirled into the air. The sarcastic tenor
of his voice hinted at the absurdity of building such a facility atop a
The sun shone dimly through sepia-tainted clouds, casting a feeble
backlight over what, on the hill opposite, looked like a block of Dresden
still smoking from Allied firebombs. We wandered toward it, and traversed
a moatlike hollow where Gypsy toddlers stomped about on reddish slimy
earth. One waved a homemade bow at us; he cocked an arrow and fired it.
It plugged the muck at his feet.
It was cold, but mosquitoes buzzed in our ears. Up close, Dresden,
actually a quarter of town built only 20 years ago, resembled the South
Bronx. On the tenement walls pastel pinks and greens splotched through
soot. Carpets and laundry hung from blackened windows; Gypsy women in
scarves idled on doorsteps. All eyes fell on us.
“These Gypsies thieve and deceive and ruin whatever is given them,”
Kennedy said under his breath. “Ceausescu forced them to stay in their
villages, but now they go wherever they want. Democracy.”
Gypsies served as Kennedy’s all-purpose scapegoats for Romania’s
ills, and he could not mention them without sneering. The filth of Copsa
Mica was not Gypsy-generated, though; it was Ceausescu’s legacy. When I
pointed this out, he waved his hand in disdain: “The Gypsies have turned
this town into Africa. We have an Africa right here in Romania.” We
walked on. Cooking fires flickered in the lower rooms of abandoned
buildings; an aroma of roasting meat filtered through the foul air. Smoke
“Don’t step in that,” Kennedy said, pointing to a yellow-brown rill
running along the pavement. “Sewage.”
We wandered through the quarter and descended toward the Tnrgu
Mures River and the main road.
“Look.” He rubbed a tree stump and held up his blackened
forefinger. “This is what we breathe. It eats away our lungs. You, an
American, have never breathed this air. Your skin, your eyes — you grew up
healthy and it shows.”
“You look healthy yourself,” I said.
“Looks mean nothing.”
Feeling compelled to offer some consolation, I brought up the Rust
Belt and polluted cities in the United States, but Kennedy’s face registered no
interest. He waited until I finished and said, “You have never really
breathed this air, tourist. Everything about you shows you’ve been
breathing healthy air all your life. But I breathe this.” He held up his
forefinger again. “And no one in Europe or America cares.”
We reached a concrete hut emblazoned with a black and red Dracula
motif. “Let’s go in here,” he suggested. “It’s sort of my hangout.”
We entered. Two Gypsy youths, stunted, squint-eyed, were playing
billiards on a frayed pool table. They turned and looked at us. The jukebox screeched and the music stopped.
“I’ll get you a drink,” Kennedy said, and walked over to the bar.
He returned with a Coke for me and a rum and cola for himself. I
sat back and looked at him. Unlike the others in town, he was fresh and
clean: His fingernails were spotless, his collar white. The tone of his
voice implied spirit as much as rancor.
“Got a map? I’ll show you where those churches are.”
“Who would need a map of this hell. Look outside: mizerie.
Mizerie. There’s hardly any work here now. Everyone is sick from the air.
“You are one of the lucky ones, if you have a job at the plant.”
“For the privilege of that job, where I get to breath sulfuric acid
and other poisons in return for a monthly salary worth $10, I had
to bribe the director with $50 cash. I work 24 hours
on, two days off. Most of this money goes to support my parents; they’re
pensioners. In my free time I raise those pigs I thought you had come to
The jukebox screeched and the Bee Gees squealed into the mottled
shadows of the bar. The Gypsies stood motionless, dumbfounded, watching
our lips move. Kennedy fixed them with a stare. They started toward us;
he reached into his track suit top, as if for a gun. They halted, then
“Come on,” he said to me. “Let’s get out of here.”
On the way back toward the center Kennedy’s face registered
disgust. “The thing is, here in Romania we have no slums like you do in
the States. In the States, you know where it is safe. But not here in
Copsa Mica. Everywhere here is a slum. They’ll knock you over the head
with a pipe to steal your $10 salary. And the police won’t do
Ragged phalanxes of plant workers, coming off their shifts sooty
and sullen, were ambling by us. They were silent and dazed-looking.
“See their faces? The grit never washes off. Never. It’s inside
and out. Yet we fear most of all that the big smelter might go under, as
some of the others in town did. We’d be out of work then, and who
needs us anywhere else?” He pushed up the brim of his cap. “What we have
here is an oras-fantom, a ghost town. Peopled by the living dead.”
Indeed, the people passing by, sallow and despondent, looked only
half-alive. I asked if Emil Constantinescu’s recent election to the
presidency gave him hope; he brushed aside the question. No Romanian
politician gave him hope.
We picked up the main road again. Twilight set in for real; my
head ached from the filth I was inhaling with each belabored breath; my
throat felt scratchy. Kennedy stopped and pulled a small mirror from his
vest pocket, and, running his hands through his hair, checked the angle of
his leather cap. He examined his fingernails and flapped the dust from his
track suit lapels. “Excuse me, this street is, well, it’s sort of like our
A nag, half-gagging, half-snorting, plugged toward us dragging a
rickety cart laden with firewood. More plant workers were drifting in our
direction. A tiny Fiat covered in soot sputtered along: Though the road
was empty, we all converged at the same narrow point. The workers filled
half the road, crowding the car as it passed; it swerved and frightened the
horse, which bolted and jerked the cart’s side wheels into the gutter.
Wood spilled onto the shoulder. The driver exploded
into lyrical Romanian, showering us with expletives. Kennedy ignored him.
A young woman in a smart gray overcoat and black pumps was walking toward
us. Kennedy’s face beamed with an anticipatory smile.
They launched into an animated flirt, with Kennedy tipping his cap,
with her batting her lashes and tossing the hair away from her eyes with
deft turns of the head. A time was mentioned and a street address was
We walked on. Kennedy swelled his chest and affected a swagger,
ever so slight but noticeable still. There were more women, more buna
searas, a few saluts. The beauties kept coming, and he knew them all. I remarked that he was quite popular; he rubbed his jaw.
“Of course! I’m no Gypsy. And some of us don’t suffer from the
so-called town problem.”
“Which is what?”
“Impotence. From the chemicals in the air. We have the highest
divorce rate in Romania.”
Dusk was thick with smoke from chimneys rising above the hovels;
sparks and flame crowned the plant’s smokestacks with ignescent haloes.
There were no streetlights. We turned down the station road.
“So, where do you go with your dates?” I asked.
“We go to that Saxon church you came to see, actually. It’s been
abandoned. The Saxons all left after the revolution. Now there’s a bar
inside it and a restaurant and a disco. It’s wild.”
“Is it also a hotel?”
“No. The church is no place to take a girl for intimacy. That is
one big problem here among the young. Nowhere to go for intimacy.”
We approached the station. A shift in the wind brought the gaseous
clouds down on us; the lamps of the platform were now ringed with orange
haze. We stopped by the illuminated schedule. My train was due in five
“Thanks for showing me around town.”
Kennedy looked away. He shook his head and waved dismissively.
“Why don’t I give you my address,” I said.
“Not necessary. Really.”
I extended my hand.
“Hope you found it interesting,” he said, ignoring my hand. “My
life, that is. I … I’ve got animals to tend to.”
He stepped back out of the light; then, turning away, he slipped into the drifts of gases and was gone.
On the train back to Sighisoara I felt vaguely ashamed and
disconcerted. In meeting Kennedy outside his hovel it was as though I had
stumbled in upon someone in a private moment but could not
retreat. Unlike the proles and thugs of Copsa Mica, he kept himself free
of the grime floating through the air; he possessed a dignity that
transcended his surroundings. Yet he was still there, still tending
animals, with no hope of leaving; that very dignity, plus his high
personal standards, seemed to make him an alien in his hometown, if a
flamboyant one. He belonged elsewhere. But where?
Staring into the dark outside the train window, I wondered how many
Copsa Micas, hived off from humanity’s mainstream and forgotten, there were
around Eastern Europe. And how many Kennedys were making do in them,
bearing the lasting burden of some of the century’s most depraved dictators
and their ruinous schemes of national grandeur.
Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at the Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic e-book. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.More Jeffrey Tayler.