Romance in Romania

After the grim plains of Georgia and Ukraine, a kiss disappears in a Rolls Royce.

Published December 15, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

It was as I was starting to climb the stairs to the bedroom that I first heard her voice. Later she told me she had been calling for quite a while, but I, what with having to go over the details of the next day's drive to Budapest, must have been distracted. It took some time before I realized that Elena, as her name turned out to be, had been trying to attract my attention.

"Please stop!" she cried. "Just for a moment!"

She was standing behind the reception counter. When she saw that she had made contact, she put up a hand, palm out and fingers spread, and waved at me like a child, evidently relieved. Her face lit up with a thankful smile.

I have to admit I was taken with her from the start. She was very pretty, with short and glossy brown hair cut neatly to frame her face, a pert little retrousse nose, and a sprinkling of faint freckles on her cheeks. She couldn't have been much over five feet tall, and so the massive old wooden reception desk that stood between us -- and which had been built in the town's more prosperous days, no doubt -- rather blocked the rest of my view. But she seemed to be slender and trim. She wore a neat white blouse, aged but well washed, and she had twisted a bright pink cotton scarf round her neck, as if she might have been a Parisian.

Or might have wanted to be, more like. The whole effect was of a wholesome and dignified young girl from a rather poor family -- but then who wasn't poor, in those dying days of Communist Romania? -- who would perhaps have liked to have gone to college or to live in another more contented country, but had had to take this hotel job instead. She was probably twenty, though the dark gypsy faces of these young Carpathian girls could be deceptive, and she might have been fifteen, or perhaps even younger.

But I am getting ahead of myself. She hadn't even spoken; I had no idea who she was, or what she wanted. Quite probably it was something administrative -- hotel receptionists having only a limited menu of official interests -- and probably to do with my bill. Only it wasn't that at all. "I am Elena," she said. "The boys are telling you have a wonderful car outside. A Rolls Royce? Is this true?" She smiled, hopefully.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

It had been in London three months before that I had first hatched the plan. I was organizing the last of a series of six journeys around Europe for an editor who thought that we Britons knew far too little about our continental neighbors. My remit was as broad as it could be: I could go wherever in Europe I wanted, and I was to take along a photographer. The only condition was that each of the six journeys should make use of a different form of transport, something that was perhaps appropriate to the country through which I traveled.

So, during the first two months or so of the assignment, I had contrived to sail a yacht across the Baltic, I had motorcycled from Munich to Turin, had walked for half a week from Cadiz to Gibraltar, had ridden a horse through the Black Forest and taken a train from Victoria Station in London to the Hotel Victoria in Brig, Switzerland. All that remained, come September, was to drive a car the whole way across -- to drive from the westernmost point of northern Europe to the continent's most easterly extension.

I rather roughly defined this as being a trip from the cliffs that overlooked Ushant in France to the point where the continent dividing line of the River Volga has its estuary, at Astrakan, in what was still then Soviet Russia. It would be a passage of 4,000 miles or so, slicing neatly across the Iron Curtain from the Loire to the Caspian: in all ways, an admirable expedition.

At first I had supposed that my own car, a perfectly pleasant Volvo, would prove more than up to the task. But one afternoon, when I was perhaps emboldened by a long lunch with a couple of scheming Fleet Street types, I had another idea altogether: I thought I might ask Rolls Royce if they could lend a hand. Taking such transport would change a merely admirable expedition into something with dash and style. I dialed the number of the firm's headquarters, and asked if it might be possible.

A man in public relations said he would have to think about it. He rang back 10 minutes later -- in suspiciously double-quick time, I thought. I assumed it was an immediate rejection. But it was quite the opposite. The marketing people had apparently thought it was a nifty idea. He had, he said, a brand new Silver Spirit. It was in ocean blue, and it had white upholstery. It was due off the assembly line in two days' time. It was a canceled order. The production manager had said I could borrow it for three months. I had merely to promise to try to look after it. Would a Spirit -- that's how one apparently refers to Rolls Royces, by the second name of the mark -- be acceptable?

I put my hand over the mouthpiece. White upholstery? I mouthed to the photographer. White? He slapped me with a folded newspaper. Of course, he said. Of course we'll take it, I said to the man up in Crewe. Great, he replied. Come up by train and pick the car up tomorrow. After we give you lunch.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

By the time I met little Elena, the ocean blue marvel was well on her way home. The photographer and I had swept across 6,000 flawlessly comfortable miles together in it. We had duly reached the banks of the Volga, had taken photographs showing that we had done so, had collected a rag-bag of impressions about Europe that we thought might be useful for the piece and we had turned around to retrace our passages back to France.

We had driven through the grim plains of Georgia and Ukraine, and the night before our brief encounter we had crossed the frontier between the Soviet Union and Romania -- leaving the gray land of Brezhnev for what seemed, by contrast (for what did we know then?) the genial invigilation of Ceaucescu.

At the frontier it didn't appear as though we were passing from one totalitarian state to another: It was more like escaping from prison to freedom. The Soviet border guards had taken a remarkable six hours to clear us. For a while the dignity of the Spirit had seemed in danger of serious compromise, as she was taken off to a lead-lined hut and X-rayed, to make sure we had hidden neither icons nor gold -- nor escapees -- in any of her secret compartments. When we passed out of the sight of barbed wire and the searchlights and the watchtowers, we breathed a deep sigh of relief. Romania by contrast was a Latin paradise, it seemed: Everyone appeared so happy, and looked so handsome.

The little town where we spent our first night was called Cimpulung-Moldevenesch -- a grubby and not very attractive home to 20,000 or so souls, a place tucked untidily in a fold of the hills beside a fast-flowing river. There was only one decent hotel -- the Castle, I think it was called -- and it had two clean rooms and a reasonable restaurant, and that night Patrick (the photographer) and I ate rabbit pie and drank apricot brandy.

The great car was parked outside, at the back, and as seemed to have become a tradition on the journey, a small crowd gathered outside it during the evening, and -- as also seemed a custom -- a couple of young boys volunteered to wash it for us. It was as though people just wanted to be able to touch the car, to stroke her gleaming flanks, and to have their pictures taken alongside her.

This was early September, and the Carpathians must have been tucked into the western edge of a time zone because it stayed light long into the evening, and the dusk was a long and lazy thing. Patrick was tired, and at 10 or so, even though there was still a purple gloaming outside, he went up to bed. I was left alone, and so I hung around in the bar. I spent a while talking to an elderly doctor who had once been to England; and then, at about eleven, I decided to go up to bed as well. It was as I was about to go up that Elena called to me.

Yes, I said, it was entirely true that we have a fine motor car outside. You haven't seen her yet? Why not have a look now? I'll show you around. Perhaps I wouldn't have said this had Elena been a homely sort. But she seemed so pleased, and she skipped with delight as she cleaned up her desk, and I knew that what lay ahead was going to be fun.

She raced out into the lobby, called out her goodnights to her colleagues, and half-ran down the stairs, beckoning to me as she did so. She was wearing a very short skirt, and it fluttered in the evening breeze as she tripped her way down the stairs, and more so as she ran to the car and stood, breathing hard, beside it. "My heavens!" she said, running her fingers over the cold blue metal. "This is just -- so beautiful. I have never seen a car so lovely." She looked up at me, right into my eyes, and smiled.

"What is the story? Why you have it?"

There was a magnificently fatal charm about her, and her directness. I was quite lost to her. "Get in," I said. "Why not come for a ride?"

- - - - - - - - - - - -

It goes without saying that there is something inescapably special about riding in a Rolls Royce. The solid thunk of the closing doors. The cathedral silence before the engine fires. The cold softness of the leather beneath your thighs. The gleam of the polished walnut. I felt all this once again, and I am quite sure Elena did. I watched her from the corner of my eyes as she settled herself onto the passenger seat, tossed her hair back, straightened her skirt, made herself as respectable as the car demanded.

I started the engine, and we purred away from the hotel. Elena gave directions -- I wanted to head up into the hills, away from the down-at-heel nastiness of the town. I swung the car this way and that through the narrow streets. Passersby looked at us, open-mouthed.

Steadily the houses thinned, the town fell away. Soon there were fields, and then foothills, and after five minutes or so we found ourselves climbing upwards, on a narrow road that ran up the ridge. There was a river to the right, and once we were above the valley haze, the moon shone down from a clear evening sky, and the stream flashed silver among the trees. In the distance I could see round mountain tops, capped by a dusting of early frost. Some evening stars were twinkling in the east.

The car sped quite effortlessly up the road, more than two tons of luxury and comfort being hauled up the hillside by the hushed engine. Elena was quiet too -- gazing at the panorama, taking some kind of pleasure, I felt sure, in being here. She nestled down into the seat. Once I caught her stealing a glance at me. She grinned, impishly.

The gradient slackened, and then we were at the top of the pass. This was as far as we were going. I stopped the car, then turned her around so we were facing the way we had come. It was perfectly quiet. The moon was full, and down below the lights of the town pierced the valley gloom. We sat there together for a few moments. I looked at her: She seemed to be breathing hard, her small breasts rising and falling under her dress. She looked wonderful.

But then I put my foot on the accelerator, and we swept off downhill again. I turned on the sound system, and punched the stereo button. A sudden flood of music swept through the car. It was what Patrick had been playing a few hours before, the theme from "Chariots of Fire." It was powerful, seductive, perfect for the moment, and it seemed to bear us along as we sped down towards the town. Elena reached out and clutched my hand, squeezing it hard, her fingernails digging into my palm.

And then it was all over. The road became flat, and better paved, and there were streetlights, and houses on either side. Soon there were buildings I recognized, and streets I knew from 30 minutes before, and soon I was in the square in front of the hotel, and then in the car park.

I slid the car into its place, switched off the music, doused the headlamps, turned the ignition key to off. The low roar of the engine stopped, and the car became cathedral-silent once again. I turned to Elena.

"What did you think?" I asked.

For a moment she didn't say anything. She had her hand up to her face.

I asked again. This time, after a while, she slowly turned her head towards me. I could see why she had hesitated. She had been crying.

"What's the matter?" I asked. It seemed mysterious, odd. Surely she should have been happy.

She shook her head. I pulled a clean handkerchief from my pocket and gave it to her. She blew her nose noisily.

"I'm so sorry, so sorry," she said. Her voice was husky with tears, but she was recovering. She paused, then spoke again.

"I'll tell you why," she went on.

"This has been an unbelievable experience for me. You must forgive my bad English. I never know anything like this."

"Romania is very poor country, you must know. The people have nothing. There is no possibility for anyone. I work here at hotel -- not a good job. Little money."

"I live three miles away, in a village. I have a bicycle. But it is not working. Bad tire, something like that. So I walk, and then take trolley. It is so crowded. I never get to sit. It is very dirty, rusty, broken down."

"Very few people have cars. Sometimes I get ride. But usually it is the same -- walk, and then trolley-bus. Is not happy."

"Now of course I know of the Rolls Royce car. Everyone knows of the car, I think. I have seen pictures. Film stars getting out of car, that kind of thing. But I never seen one. Never. Not possible to imagine."

"And yet -- see what happens. Two men come from foreign country, and they drive such a car into my town. It is the most exciting thing to happen here for years. All the boys in the hotel tell me about it. 'Elena, Elena, you must see it,' they say. They know I would like it. And then I do get to see it. You are so kind. You show the car to me, and then you let me ride with you."

"Ride in the car! Can you imagine what it feels like for me? A Romanian girl like me, riding in a Rolls Royce? It is absolutely, absolutely, the last thing I can imagine. Is so wonderful. The silence, The soft leather. The music."

"And then where we went -- the moonlight, and the river like silver, and the stars. I get to see all this, and in such a car. And with such a nice man. I see only few foreigners. It is not easy to meet them."

"I think -- how can I say? -- I think this for me was like flying. Yes, like flying. So impossible to imagine, something just to dream about. And so yes -- that is what I feel. I have been flying, up in the air, soaring into the sky like a bird."

She stopped, breathless. She looked up at me with large, sad eyes. There were tears, half drying, on her cheeks. I gazed down at her.

"But why -- why are you sad?" I said. "If it was so wonderful -- and I'm happy it was -- why this?" I dabbed her cheek with the back of my finger, wiping a tear away. I waited.

"Oh yes -- why I am so sad? Easy to answer. I think you know already. You must do this many times.

"I am sad because I think -- tomorrow, you and your friend will go away from here, and tomorrow night you will be in another town, and there will be some other nice moment for you. A nice dinner, or a pretty girl, or a great mountain or some good thing. You will forget me, just like that. If you ever think of me, you will say, 'Oh, that silly girl in that town in the mountains.' That will be all. I will just be a silly girl. A small memory. And perhaps not even a memory. "

"But for me -- for me I shall never, never forget. For all of my life I will think of this. Me and you, alone in a Rolls Royce car, under the stars and the moon. Taking me away from this town, away from my normal life."

"That is why I am sad. You will forget. I will never."

And she reached over to me, and she kissed me very gently on the lips. And then in one swift moment she was out of the car, running to the stairs, back to the hotel and somehow back to her home.

I wondered if I might take her there. But I couldn't find her. All that was left of her was a damp handkerchief, a salty taste on my lips and a faint warmth on the leather seat. And that was cooling fast, and soon it was as though she had never been there, and so I went to the stairs, and climbed alone, to bed.

By Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is a contributing editor for Salon Wanderlust. He has previously written about Hong Kong, the Kurile Islands and China.

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