Traveling Across the EU on a BMW (Part II)
How are the effects of the economic crisis visible to a motorcyclist riding through Europe?
- While the United States spent and overspent its way, Europe marshaled a fresh start from history's most savage war, to graft into itself the unruly half-nations on their edges.
- The only thing European east and south of Hungary is the legacy of Christendom, pitted against the surge of Islam, out of its bastions in neighboring Turkey.
- Should one wish to experience the soul of Europe, Romania is the place to head. Here you see Europe's high-octane ethnic melting pot — Slav, Latin, German, Greek, Magyar, Goth and more.
- Hungary has swept through the current economic crisis and its embrace of the European Union, unlike Romania and Bulgaria, could be a Harvard B-School case study of just-in-time — before the crisis hit.
First there is Austria. I stop at the border, just after Passau, to check out the Austrians and buy the obligatory sticker to transit their country. Austrians have qualities, and one of these is a total lack of humor, on the part of their speed cops.
After southern Germany's roadworks, which slowed me down, I have a serious case of wrist twist. I caress 230 kilometers an hour and get fined on the spot, heavily. The policeman, name badge Fritz, stays poker faced, when I switch on a practiced Texan drawl (which works everywhere, but Texas) and apologize: "I thought I was still in Germany."
I also have a mean streak. When he refuses to smile, I cannot help adding, "Oh, sorry. That was before …" Fritz is confused. Globalization is a worldwide form of Anschluss. I lack the time to do Vienna, or Salzburg or Graz. I am in a hurry. I have a meeting in Budapest at 7 pm.
Hungary is a curious creature. Luckily, I am not ticketed, and do not have to play Texan: "But I thought this was part of Austria."
What is clear is the fact that much of Hungary has swept through the current economic crisis. In spite of the 250 forints-to-euro exchange rate (always a sign of looming trouble) Hungary's embrace of the European Union, unlike Romania and Bulgaria, could be a Harvard B-School case study of just-in-time — before the crisis hit. The Hungarians know this.
The receptionist at the Budapest Ramada looks groomed for the Kentucky Derby. He warns me about Romania: Civilization and religion, he pronounces, end at Hungary's border. No, he was not talking about ethnic Hungarians in Romania, or my Indian-origin Gypsy cousins (who are arguably as badly off, in either place).
Nor is he referring to the ongoing political crisis in Bucharest. He is concerned about the state of Romania's roads, yet to be convincingly overhauled by EU taxpayer goodies, unlike those of his own country.
I resent my Ramada man's quip about roads and religion. God, I tell him, is not the driver of a ready-mix concrete truck.
The Romanians may not have Hungary's roads, yet. But they have a sense of humor, and more.
The Romanian border guard asks me why I have travelled so far, by motorcycle, in rain and snow — for money or love? What, I reply, is the difference? My wait at the frontier is long. The tale, of lucre and lust, gets told, goes around, comes back, but my papers are not checked. I touch the tarmac twice and move.
Should one wish to experience the soul of Europe, Romania is the place to head. Here you see Europe's high-octane ethnic melting pot — Slav, Latin, German, Greek, Magyar, Goth and more.
Romania, too, is not (yet) part of the eurozone, and I need to change my euros to lei.
Madison Avenue may have invented subliminal advertising, but Romania gives it to you in the face. The currency counter is run by one of the most excruciatingly beautiful girls this side of Jupiter.
She has it all — the high Slavic cheekbones, the feline eyes and full Latin pout, a touch of that mysterious Magyaritude, all wrapped in a delicately Greek dolichocephalic head. But her expression is German. I take my lei, keep my compliments locked in my head-box. Thank you. No point playing dice with "Gotterdammerung." Her name, I imagine, is Dulcina.
Headed southeast after sundown to the Bihar mountains which straddle Romania's border with Hungary is not for the light-headed. Darkness descends very suddenly, and the snow flurries intensify. My GPS shows a steady rise in altitude. Dulcina's conquest suddenly seems more feasible. As I carefully negotiate the steadily ascending hairpin bends, I know the snow will only worsen.
And then comes salvation. A Romanian military truck flares its high beam lights and sweeps by. At every spot of slippery snow, the driver flashes the truck's emergency lights — for all 50 kilometers to Cluj Napoca, where I have my next stop. The truck then disappears. No chance for a thank you. I suddenly forget everything about Dulcina.
Cluj to Bucharest and then beyond to Varna, Bulgaria, is to traverse the story of Europe.
Indeed, from Hungary onwards, I transit through missing pieces of the Modern Age: Of nations without states, states without nations and peoples without either.
And this is what, in one sense, the EU is all about. While the United States spent and overspent its way, Europe marshaled a fresh start from the debris of history's most savage war, to surgically graft into itself the unruly half-nations on their edges.
Greece's per capita income, at least before the current crisis, was approaching that of Germany. Hungary's, too, had grown by leaps and bounds.
The only thing European east and south of Hungary is the legacy of Christendom, or rather both its halves, pitted against the surge of Islam, out of its bastions in neighbor and near-neighbor, Turkey.
Here, there is much in common with my home, India. 1526 was the year when India saw the onset of the Turkic Moghul Age. It was also the year when Suleyman the Magnificent felled the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohács. India, indeed, had several versions of John I Zapolya, who preferred to lie down and drool.
But this story will be for another day, another motorcycle trip.
Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part series. Read Part I here.