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New Europe

Day Sixty-one: Sighisoara to Bucharest

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Inside Bran Castle Petre Moraru, Dracula impersonator, gets into the part.
Michael Palin - New EuropeFall into conversation with a man called Emil. He has Latin good looks, long dark hair and piercing eyes.

As you might expect from a man reading a book called On the Heights of Despair, he's not one for small talk. But the book sparks off all sorts of connections and, as the shadows lengthen, we end up having one of those rambling discussions about the meaning of existence and so on, which I always imagine train journeys in Europe as the shadows lengthen to be all about.

Emil Cioran, author of On the Heights of Despair, was a Romanian philosopher who came out with cracking lines like 'without Bach, God is just a second-rate figure'. He propounded a nihilist anti-philosophy in which he argued that the only valid thing to do with one's life is to end it. He failed to live up to his own principles and died at the ripe old age of eighty-four.

Emil asks if I know Cioran's friend Constantin Noica? He developed the theory of non-history.


'His theory is that Romania has elected to be in eternity. To have no connection with historical time. We are in the middle of the crossroads of all nations, invaders, empires, and to survive... '

He leans forward. I lean forward.

'The Romanian people choose to be suspended in eternity.'

With immaculate timing the train roars into a tunnel.

By the time we've broken through the Carpathians, passed the oilfields and industrial flatlands around Ploiesti and are into the outer suburbs of Bucharest, I've learnt that Emil is a fan of Steaua ('Star') Bucharest, 'we are Latin people, we love football'; that Romania was a backward rural society, 'synchronised with Europe' in one great leap at the end of the nineteenth century; and that, in Emil's opinion, Bram Stoker was a prophetic writer who put his finger on one of our deepest anxieties, the fear of getting old and the desire for immortality.

A long day's journey ends at the ageless Athenee Palace Hotel, now the Athenee Palace Hilton, in Bucharest. A huge wedding dinner is under way. On my way to the lift I pass a gorgeously attired bride and groom standing outside the banqueting room preparing to make their entrance. They check their outfits compulsively, clear throats, lick lips, exchange quick, anxious smiles. Then the doors open, the crowd rises and, to the unmistakable whine of fresh-filled bagpipes, the splendid couple make their way in. After a week and a half in the wilds of the north, I experience a short, sharp dose of culture shock.
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Preliminary scaring of Ioana and me.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-one: Sighisoara to Bucharest
  • Country/sea: Romania
  • Place: Braşov
  • Book page no: 147

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