It's a long, long way to Satu Mare
March 2008

by Ondine Bourrut Lacouture

The bumpy way to Satu Mare was not only interrupted by the holes in the road but also by the Romanian frontier patrol who was equally bemused by Ana's Uruguayan Passport, Tim's Smurf hat and the colourful hairstyles of Catherine.

Not to mention our fencing arsenal, which clearly looked very suspicious, especially in the light of the upcoming NATO convention in Bucharest.

But we made it to Hotel Aurora which offered us true 70's style regalia, finding a smiling and relieved Paul who promptly whisked us to our dinner destination. We knew we had arrived as soon as we saw a massive Sex Shop sign… Downstairs, however, was the more suited "No Pardon" Pub where a lovely square table had been set, soon to be filled with Ursus (the really good Romanian beer), Palinka (the no less tasty national plum schnapps - only 50% proof) and massive plates of mixed grills, a small lamb in Rachel's frying pan and tasty goulash in Chris's impressive "Bread Bowl" TM.

The bed call came soon enough after this, and, in an effort to hit the pillow soonest, Chrissy, Rachel, Catherine, Amie, Ondine and a - very lucky - Adam chose, at their peril, to disregard the 4 / 3 max person warning sign of the elevator, which resulted in inevitable overload. Although we were clearly getting ready to spend a very cosy but upright night, the very nice night porter came to the rescue.

Alarm "bells" from the Church on the square briskly woke us up at 6.30 am and the ensuing roadwork impeded us from getting the extra and necessary hours of sleep.

A walk around town commented by Paul and Doina concluded at their lovely flat where she had prepared two very delicious -and large - cakes that were served in generous portions.

The free afternoon was spent defending the "Bishop's Billiard Hall Trophy" ultimately won by the foilists hustlers.

Honour had to be further defended, but on the piste this time before going underground again at Poesis, a cosy and renovated cellar with genuine stain glass windows… The proud owner insisted on taking us through the backdoors to show us a unique archaeological site, sadly unlit… but we pursued the visit onto an old Jewish house, which painted wall ornaments had recently been renovated.

After so much culture, we all fancied a boogie and an enthusiastic Doina led us to the "Score Pub". Immediately, Tim took over the dance floor with his Rasputin Rap and scared away the much more serious local ballroom champions.

We soon all joined in to the tune of favourite anthems, "YMCA" and "I will survive" to name but a few.

As some of us where not quite danced out, Chris decided to initiate a frantic (and fairly loud) "Time Warp" on the way back, which turned out to be not quite to the taste of the Satu Mare Militia. This resulted in Leslie getting the first ever Romanian ASBO. Paul successfully defused the situation with a few wise words.

At 9.00 am sharp, well, maybe 9.10, as Etienne was, once more, nowhere to be found, we packed ourselves in the "shaker" van aiming for the worryingly mysterious Carpathian mountains.

At a recreated 17th century wooden village, Adam and Etienne intoxicated by the mountain air started the snowball fight while Chrissy was unsuccessfully trying to feed "capitalist" treats to the undoubtedly "communist" and definitely disinterested local dogs.

Our second stop of the morning might have appeared morbid but the Happy Cemetery of Sapanta was nothing of the sort as the colourfully painted graves described in irreverent Romanian (we would know!) the life and death of the buried. All this enhanced by naive painted carvings depicting the actual death.

From there, we were only a tumbstone away from salvation at the tallest wooden church in Europe, in a work-in-progress nunnery.

Our spiritual appetite having been satisfied, it was time to content our stomachs.

We all had to be baptised by the melting and dropping snow at the entrance of the "Temple of Polenta" where patience is a virtue (maybe not one of Adam's…). Luckily, Les entertained one of the tables with a colourful selection of hamster stories (you have to ask him, I wasn't there, but apparently it was good!).

At our table, Chrissy provided the entertainment as she was still trying to feed her treats but sadly, the clay dog in the corner didn't want them either.

We all had to have a go at riding the bar sheep and Adam even performed a near-ballerina style split over all three of them. (The dismount gave it a bit away). Rachel posed rather more glamorously.

From morning snow balls to Angie's evening "fried ice cream" balls, there was only a step and we regaled ourselves in a menu where we could order "boneless chicken tights"; "Sparrowgrass" (Anglo-Romanian for asparagus) and a few side orders of "Lard" from the "miscellaneous menu"!

It was then time for competitive action again and a striking Catherine excelled at leading her duo down the alley of victory. Although the Insomnia Club did not gain consensus of opinion, there was enough time for a - clearly tasteful - double act of pole dancing by Elaine and Ondine before smuggling out a few phosphorescent beers on to our favourite dance floor.

And so, at the "Score Pub" Rachel pulled (!) and a chivalrous Paul had to fence off the Disco Rapist to the tone of "Daddy's here, so back off".

While our light feet were tapping away through the night, the journalists of the local newspapers were typing away the epic journey of the "London Pencil Club" (you can't make this up) and editing the glossy shots of our dynamic team.

Thus, the morning editions landed on our breakfast tables, hot of the press.

Straight after training, Paul's parents greeted us at the synagogue of Satu Mare and we followed a very moving and fascinating visit of this most interesting monument while listening to the poignant life story of his father, born in a concentration camp and sole survivor (with his own parents) of his family.

Our next mini adventure took place a few miles from Satu Mare, up in the hills of Doina's native village, where we soon discovered that a strong tradition of family wine making would be the backdrop of the afternoon.

Upon arrival, and to provide a salutary lining to our stomach, we were served with a wide array of delicious cold platters of meat, cheeses and vegetables only to be interrupted by Palinka toasts.

Our host was the chief of the local police and great friend of Paul. He is clearly both an enthusiastic hunter and party lover. Indeed, hunting trophies and party lights incongruously hung side by side on the walls of his living room. We were also joined by a number of the fencing coaches and their families as well as Patricia, Paul's daughter and Nona her best friend.

The starters finished, it seemed only natural to pump up the volume and have a few dances before heading out for the cellars. A most unusual feature of this village is undeniably the family vaults dotted around the hills, which from the outside look like windowless gipsy houses (i.e. very small dixit Paul) but inside you realise that they extend underground to store the family's own production.

Vassili, Doina's brother, took us to his very own mini winery and we tasted both his really good and original white and red millesimes.

Poor, poor Richard, who is allergic to white wine (but not Palinka), felt a bit wobbly on his knees towards mid-afternoon and decided to love everybody, at least for a while anyway. He did gradually recover and was the-last-man-standing in the end… We then moved on to a more commercial outfit for additional and generous sampling before arriving to a lovely covered patio at the maire's house, where we were greeted by a genuine gipsy trio.

This was a privileged environment to let the charming nature of Vassili blossom. So charming in fact, that he progressively proceeded with sweet talking each and every one of the female fencers. Amongst his many kind words, he toasted Elaine and wished her a "horse's dick", a friendly, if maybe a tad racy, Romanian saying, as it was explained to us by a mirthful and slightly embarrassed Nona…

We do think however that he had a slight preference for Angie to whom he repeatedly gave his heart. While this was all happening, Amie was learning the Polka steps with her first dance partner of the evening, but certainly not her last as her dance cards quickly filled up with numerous requests.

Once back at the chief of police's house, we continued enjoying the sunshine before sampling a delicious homemade chunky soup listening to more gipsy music. A few interesting instrument tricks necessitated the "non" voluntary help of Rachel and Ondine. As a number of our, now, Romanian friends spoke great English (even with more wine and Palinka, our Romanian did not improve much) we had the opportunity to learn and exchange in a very jolly manner. We learnt for example that, while at a party, if one wishes to get their friends drunk while staying sober, Coke + red wine works a treat. We also learnt a few things about Dumi, but no more needs be said…

Sadly, the time to say Good Bye came all too soon as we needed to make our way back to town but, luckily, Elaine saved us from morosity by attempting to teach us an obscure Ping Pong song where sometimes you had to omit the Ping, sometimes you had to omit the Pong… Well, a bit to complicated for our inebriated brains. But Doina was not going to leave it at that and, as it was still "early", she took us to her favourite Live Music Bar, where we discovered yet another talent of Paul's, that of bongo playing…

Sunday came and it was time to pack for good and return to our "Martini" van. We had a long journey ahead but also a lot of work to do to find apt nicknames, design a logo for the newly formed "London Pencil Club" and remind ourselves of the multitude of little memories that are slowly coming back along with the chuckles they engender.

The border soon approached and we were a bit worried that we might get stopped again. This time, we have planes to catch. And it doesn't fail, we have to de-van and are led to the official and stern building. Some of us are starting to hear the squinginess of the latex glove but no… In fact, we are taken to a formal meeting room where our host of yesterday (the chief of police, the hunter AND disco dancer) awaits to serve us coffee and cognac while the border police is still looking for Uruguay on the map.

Soon enough, we are on our way again. We, however, came to realise the ingenuity of some who were clearly keen on staying at all cost. Etienne, for example, decided to hang on to his hotel key, which, actually, might have been useful for Angie, who had booked herself on the Monday flight. In the end, we all made it back together our heads filled with great memories of the fantastic hospitality and organisation of Paul, Doina, their families and friends.

An enormous thank you to all of them!

PS: Last but not least, as you can imagine, we fenced too.

Although it might appear from these few lines that Romanian days extend to 25 hours, we need to add yet another 3 hours at the superb sala de escrima of Satu Mare, a large hall featuring 6 raised metallic pistes (something we have stopped even dreaming about over here).

More importantly, we met with a brilliant team of coaches, who patiently and instantly picked up our many bad habits and ably managed to impair us with their precious advice despite the language barrier. The young and very talented fencers were truly enthusiastic and willing to fence (and beat) all of us. We were truly very welcomed there and it was such a pleasure to enjoy our favourite sport in such a friendly and inspiring atmosphere.

sala de scrima

Sala de Scrima Satu Mare. Outside...


... inside

romanian coaches

The power of the Sala


The future of the Sala...

precious and ying

Wanted: English rose in Transylvania


The darlings of the local media: London Pencil CLub

dinard beach

Our hosts, guides and defenders: Doina and Paul


The 2nd favorite past time of Satu Mare


Pure athletesism and general show off by our foilists
during the visit to the trendy Children of Dracula night club


On the way back, just before being stopped by the police. Why?

The Merry Cemetery


Visiting a nearby village. It has 372 wine cellars


Welcome to my cellar!


"We only make wine for the friends and family..."


Drink, my friend!

A bit of gypsy music


dinard beach

We made it back from the village!


Advice from the expert: when crossing the border smile and be apologetic!

Photos: Ondine, Angie, Tim

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