Romanian roads were created by Evel Knievel to give the average person the experience of imminent death. Trucks hurl themselves at you head-on while deep holes rattle your bones. The jalopy you're in is a Dacia, a tin can built by communists in the 1980s to give the proletariat a semblance of mobility. Dacias still clutter the roads, unable to pass the suicidally fast new cars belonging to the nouveau riches. You pass abandoned industrial towns where the miserable unemployed loll next to their flapping rags drying in the polluted air. Ragamuffins and dogs of every variety of dirt roll in muddy ditches along the national Highway de la Muerte. Now and then you pass a more prosperous cluster of buildings surrounded by high walls and satellite dish antennas. Soon you're in the wild mountains where the husks of ruined castles loom menacingly from Carpathian peaks as Jonathan Harker's postilion, disguised as a smoke-spewing Turkish truck, nearly jackknives on the turn. Yes, Romania is ready to enter the E.U. in 2007 and, simultaneously, to win the Dracula-I-Love-Danger-Award.
If you are not traveling by postilion on the Carpathian roads, something I wouldn't advise, you can spend some pleasant hours in a windowless Bucharest basement with two chain-smoking intellectuals on either side of you, discussing the existential hopelessness of the Balkan dilemma. Which is, in brief, pure hopelessness aided by smoke. The mystery that is Romania has not lessened since the overthrow of the communists in 1989. Au contraire, it has grown. Nobody gets paid anything, yet the expensive restaurants are full. Young people chat on cell phones dressed in brand-name duds sprinkled with pricey perfumes. The secret-police-turned-mafia that was somewhat careful a few years ago to cultivate slight acts of social mitzvah feels secure enough now to display its wealth and its power without a pang of conscience or even a bow to the starving masses. True, the masses aren't exactly starving since they have arrayed themselves around their diverse mafia bosses and are paid for their efforts in salamis and bad television programming. A park ranger told me that Romania was such a rich country that people have been stealing from it for a hundred years and there is still stuff left to steal. Capitalism is seen, above all, as a guarantee of the merchandise, as in the following exchange: a Gypsy woman whispered to my friend, 'I have two perfumes for sale!' When my friend ignored her, she said indignantly, 'I stole them!' That was a guarantee of quality.
The other ubiquitous reality, if you don't drive long enough to enter another one, is the universal disregard for the laws. Whenever I put on my safety belt, the driver laughed: "You're an American!" Damn right. And I mean to stay one.