I take you briefly back to Paris in 2003, where I was walking into the Porte Maillot Metro station. On the stairs there sat an extraordinarily old gypsy woman, a crone, at least 107 years of age, shriveled, bent, all of 4 foot 8. She was shaking a change cup, perhaps on purpose, and as I passed, she looked at me and the cup shook more aggressively. I declined to give her anything and kept walking. A few steps later, I heard an unexpectedly powerful voice emanate from the diminutive form, and she half-croaked, half-shouted a few sentences in some sort of Slavic tongue. “Grackle bulgaria stalin snotrag!! Zog ceauşescu ploiesti!!” Then, staring me right in the navel, she spit on the ground – Pah … thump. I wondered how long she had been chewing tobacco. I’m no expert in this sort of thing, but I’m guessing that I had just been hexed with the dreaded Gypsy Curse. This made me faintly uncomfortable, so I went home and made sure to take plenty of fiber. But nothing terrible happened in the next few weeks, and over the years, I pretty much forgot about it.
I don’t remember her as quite this attractive, but you get the idea
Fast forward to October 19, 2010 in Tiszafured, Hungary. The fishing plan for Sunday and Monday had been definite, but Jens had been quite vague about Tuesday. At dinner on Monday, as I stubbornly struggled through that last bowl of goulash, Jens had allowed that the plans for Tuesday would be a “surprise.” And so we got up Tuesday morning and had breakfast as soon as the goulash cramps subsided. Jens, with a broad grin, announced “We are going to Romania!” He said this with the same tone one might say “We’re going to Disneyland!” and so I stared at him like he was an idiot.
Hmmmm, I responded. A new country! There’s a start. Do we have a guide? No. Have you found a lake or river? No. The extent of our preparation, apparently, was the possession of a map of the border area that indicated a few possible bodies of water. Jens, in terms of correcting your English, this is not what we call a “surprise.” This is what we call a “disaster waiting to happen.” True, the Romanian border was about 2 hours away, and we did not have to be back in Budapest until 9pm for our return flight, but the idea of going there on an unplanned basis was intimidating. This is the kind of trip that requires careful planning, vaccinations, and artillery support, and here we were with a dusty map that still showed an independent Transylvania.
The drive was unexpectedly pleasant, as we cruised along with occasional sun lighting up the flat rural landscape of eastern Hungary. We passed through one major city, Debrecen, a medieval town that had formerly been the capital, and then through a series of villages, all of which had several tire repair shops. (Apparently tires are not replaced as thoughtlessly as they are in the US – indeed, many of the 70’s vehicles I saw looked like they had original equipment – tires, upholstery, driver, and oil.) We crossed one more river, which would have been nicer if it was in Romania for us to fish in, and then we came upon – the border.
Romania is one of those eastern European countries that is still catching up from the Iron Curtain days, at which stage, it was still catching up from the Ottoman invasions, at which stage, well, you get the idea. It is a poor country, and so some things we take for granted, like public safety and dental insurance, are a bit of a challenge here. The fun starts at the border. While I am certain the sign said “Welcome to Romania, Brace Yourself,” at least there was no flagrant shakedown like I had experienced in west Africa a few years back. It just took forever while each and every item in the car was evaluated. Then we had to wait another hour while we got a Romanian driving permit. And even though this was a quiet, rural border area, shadowy figures kept drifting through the parking lot with no discernable business, looking out the corner of their eyes, or, in one case, eye, to see if we had locked the car. I had visions of coming out of a 30-second bathroom trip to see the rental Ford up on blocks with everything useful, including Jens, already for sale on eBay.ro.
“Welcome to Romania – Brace Yourself”
Common sight in Romania – horsedrawn wagon of firewood. Probably not their wood.
So we were legally in the country and could drive our car. Now, the hard part – we had to find water that contained fish willing to bite. We started driving toward two blue lines on the map that likely represented streams. Perhaps a mile down the road, I happened to be looking up, and noticed a small marsh on our right hand side. There were some buildings, what looked like a farm equipment dealership, and a sign that said something about camping. We u-turned to have a quick look.
After we spoke to a couple of folks, the owner showed up in a red pickup. He spoke fine German, and he and Jens were soon chatting away. And chatting away. And chatting away. Jens was either explaining my fishing quest or the rules of cricket, and either way, I viewed this as precious fishing time lost. I finally just stepped in and offered the only three words I know in Romanian – “Fishing. 10 Euros.” The owner smile and made a broad gesture as if to say “Why didn’t you say so?” and pointed us over to a small pond behind some tractor parts, which he said was stocked quite often. And to be fair, he refused any money. None of his staff would let us pay them – they just wished me good luck fishing. It never ceases to amaze me – every time I start to think this quest is about the best guide or the most exotic locale, I am reminded that it has depended more than anything on the consistent kindness of people I had never met. I think of the old man in Indonesia who let me fish off his dock or the farmer in Switzerland who let me raid his backyard pond. (No, that’s not a metaphor. Get your mind out of the gutter, Scott.) This happens a lot more than it doesn’t – almost everywhere in the world, someone with no reason to help me who will never see me again will go out of their way to make sure I catch a fish. People really are decent. (Before they get to know me, that is.)
The owner. This man’s generosity gave me a chance to catch a fish in Romania.
I couldn’t believe our luck. Here we were, less than a mile inside Romania, and we had found a stocked pond on private property. It just doesn’t get any better than that. I figured that we could set up, catch a few of whatever was in the pond, then take our time driving back to Budapest, maybe even see some of the sights. But this is where things started to go completely sideways. This pond was full of fish – we could see some of them. But nothing, and I mean nothing, would bite. Now, I grant you that the utter failure to catch anything may have been related to the barometer going up and down like the stock market, or the suddenly cold weather, or the howling wind. But I knew the real reason for the problem. My mind wandered back to that fateful afternoon in Paris. The old broad had waited until I was on her home turf – the gypsy curse had kicked in.
We tried everything – different baits, different rigs, several rods. I walked around the back side of the pond to try some small pockets there, crashing through the foliage. I did not realize until it was far too late that I had been crashing through a veritable jungle of a burr-like plant – diabolical vegetation specifically designed to attack sweaters. I emerged with thousands of seed casings embedded in my pullover. I was not coming this far to get shut out – and I certainly was not looking forward to the logistics of a return visit. I only know one other American who ever went to Romania twice – my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Lancaster, and they tried to kill him. (To be fair, I should point out it was in 1943 and he was a bomber pilot.)
And so we fished with great intensity but little success, and the minutes dragged into hours. We were getting into the early afternoon, and with a fail-safe time approaching, I was hoping the Fish Gods would work with the Gyspy wretch and get me off the hook, so to speak. I stared at the float without blinking for what seemed like hours on end. Jens became discouraged and started making friends with the owner’s dogs.
The dog says “I don’t know where that hand has been.”
Shortly after 3, the float dipped. It wasn’t my eyes playing tricks, it wasn’t the wind – it was a slight, almost imperceptible bite, but it was definitely a fish, however small, mouthing the bait. I went into bottom of the 9th, game 7 World Series mode. I reminded myself to breathe, and focused on calmness, drilling in on the square inch of water that held that float. The wind went away, the traffic noises went away, I could no longer smell Jens – it was just me and the float. And very slowly, it crept just a millimeter under the water and eased off to the right. I took a very deep breath and leaned back on the rod. Despite my Zen breathing exercises, it is possible that the adrenaline and testoserone got the better of me, and that my hookset was a touch too exuberant. I say this because, shortly after my hookset, a small carp went sailing past my ear and landed on the lawn behind me. I spun around in astonishment. Either I had just caught a fish, or Romanian carp had learned to fly.
Exhultation to weight ratio – very high. Note the burrs on my sweater.
Can we please leave now, Steve?
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t dignified, but it was country #65. It was also the 9th country where I had caught a fish with Jens. Several of the employees saw me catch the fish and came over to shake my hand, even though they must have been bewildered by all the excitement over such a minature specimem. It actually got me to thinking that this might not be such a bad place after all, and I might need to spend more than 3 hours in the country, and so it is that Marta and I will be touring Bucharest sometime soon – who’d have thunk it? And unlike the other American I know who visited Romania, I promise not to blow up an oil refinery. It was a long and quiet drive back to Budapest, as I occupied myself by removing the foliage from my sweater, and quietly placing the burrs in Jens’ equipment bag. Which is a funny and acceptable prank, as opposed to placing a dead crab in there, which would be a vile act of terrorism. (See https://1000fish.wordpress.com/2010/06/21/the-countdown-to-1000-the-worst-little-girl-in-the-world/)
Postscript – The day after this misadventure, I was called to Paris on business. Walking on the Champs-Elysees after dinner, I happened to notice a gypsy woman asking for coins on the street. I gave her 5 Euros and said “Thank you.” She smiled, or at least I think she did. Maybe it was a grimace, but at least it was a fairly upbeat grimace, and she didn’t spit at me, so that has to be a positive sign.
We’re friends again. I think.