The school holiday road-trip London-Ukraine-Italy-London has just driven into the Romanian city of Cluj, the capital of Transylvania. I have been here once before with my husband but it seems that this was in a parallel universe; we are completely lost. Cluj was indeed in another world last time we were here, just after the revolution. We lived in Bucharest for almost two years in the immediate aftermath of what was the bloodiest part of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In May 1990, just before the first free elections in Romania for decades, I drove into Cluj with my two-year old son Ben. We were being groupies on a pre-election reporting tour that my husband was conducting. We checked into a modern hotel perched high on the hill above the city. He left for work.
It was early afternoon and Ben was hungry. We left the hotel room and walked to the lift. As I did so a man in a cream suit left his room and walked behind me to the lift.
When we arrived at the restaurant, there was a large padlock on the door. Ben looked imploringly; I rattled the door. A grumpy waitress stuck her head out. On seeing Ben she smiled and to my surprise unlocked the restaurant and beckoned us in.
As we sat down I noticed that the man in the cream suit was reading a newspaper and enjoying a coffee on the other side of the room. The waitress soon scurried up with a tiny piece of meat and mashed potato. Ben gobbled it down and was immediately sick on the plate.
‘Eat it up again. Quick!’ I whispered.
Now I am not really a bad mother. I had a sneaking suspicion that the waitress had given him her lunch. To top that, meat was a rarity in Romania in those days. The communist dictator Ceausescu had literally sucked the blood out of the country in a foolhardy attempt to pay off Romania’s national debt. There was nothing to eat, no hot water and in the evening the voltage was so low that you felt as if you had to part the grainy yellow light with your hands.
Ben did as he was told. At this point the man in the cream suit came across to ask me if I needed help. He would be happy to help the wife of The Economist correspondent, he added. This was not the sort of help I needed. There are no names on articles in The Economist so I was immediately suspicious that he was in fact watching me. What a dud job for a spy!
It’s now a hot summer’s evening in July 2013 and here I am back in Cluj for the first time since the worst ever lunch incident. This time I am happy to say I am still with my husband but now joined by three of Ben’s four younger brothers and sisters. Food is still high on my agenda. I pop out to buy something for dinner. When I walk into the supermarket I think I have died and gone to heaven. I am so happy for Romania. It has been reborn. The shelves are stacked with everything one could ever need and soft music is playing. In reality, the supermarket is just like millions of shops across Europe, like any small shop in London really.
Back in 1990, when Romania was on another planet, Ben and I set off downtown early the next morning to hunt for food. We queued for three hours for lemons. I was triumphant. Then I could not believe my luck when I spotted a one-ring electric stove. With this wonder in the shopping bag, the two of us headed for the market. We bought peas and new potatoes. I was on a shopping high.
Next we bought a wooden spoon and a wooden football rattle from a friendly old granny who gave Ben a kiss.
Back in those days the market was a filthy run-down place. Imagine my surprise when I saw it in its new reincarnated self. I was, however, beginning to worry that all the charm of Romania had been driven out by EU regulations when I took a left turn…
To my utter surprise, the old lady who sold me the spoon and the rattle was still there. She was selling exactly the same spoons and football rattles as she had been in 1990.
Oddly she didn’t seem to have aged but perhaps we are just on parallel tracks of aging. Both Ben and I have aged for sure.
This time I bought five little spoons; one for Ben and one each for his brothers and sisters. I still have the original in my kitchen in London.
If I’d had a Bradt guide to Transylvania, I might have discovered the beautiful synagogue just next to the market but in those days there was little time for tourism. Before the road trip rolls on, I marvel at the sights I had missed but am more impressed with the communist tower blocks that have been refaced and which now look completely different from the tumbledown one we once lived in.
Discover more Transylvania in our guide: