When you’re arriving in a strange land at two in the morning, totally ignorant of the place’s language, customs, and history of organized crime, seeing the following on an ATM screen in the airport is not a comforting sight:
Come again? “Illegal devices to copy your card”? Is this common knowledge in Romania? Before heading to Bucharest, accompanied by USAW celebrity and 77-kilo athlete Mike Cerbus, I looked into (and promptly forgot) the usual travel information: entry requirements, helpful phrases in Romanian, driving conventions, sodomy laws, and so on. At no point in my research did I come across a section on ATM-card-copiers. To be fair, most of my research consisted of multiple re-watchings of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so perhaps I’m at fault.
With no clue what to be on the lookout for, I quickly scanned the area and the ATM for something that might be used for such devious purposes: a miniature Xerox machine, perhaps, or a mimeograph, or a gnome that steals ATM cards and makes duplicates in some terrible underground card-copying gnome base (a far more direct route to profit than stealing underpants). Perhaps ATM vigilance is a skill that every good Romanian boy and girl learns in school, like the Pledge of Allegiance or Duck and Cover in American schools (they still teach that, right?). Anyways, I didn’t see any gnomes in sight, so I went ahead and attempted to proceed with my transaction.
Less than ten seconds later the ordeal ended when my bank refused it and shut my account down. Apparently, Romania is still working out some kinks in its trustworthiness in the eyes of the financial world. Mr Cerbus’s bank acted even more aggressively. While I was eventually able to get my bank to reactivate my account, his bank simply said Romania was on their “no way” list. It was one of only three or so countries where the bank refused to even consider letting customers use their accounts (the other two being Mypos and Stankonia).
Fortunately you can use other major currencies—euros, dollars, gold nuggets, maybe Denver Nuggets—and so it wasn’t long before we had secured a rental car to get from the airport to our fabulous hotel in downtown Bucharest. After Avis quoted us a price somewhere between “ludicrously expensive” and “criminally expensive” for a Volkswagen Polo, we decided to go with the much more modestly priced offerings from a local, Romanian rental agency. I was hoping we’d get some Soviet-era classic—a Trabant, maybe, or a Dacia 1300—but instead we were given a rather vanilla Renault Symbol. True, the Renault offered certain conveniences not often found in Soviet-era automobiles: air conditioning, power-steering, anti-lock brakes, all four wheels. But what’s the fun of tooling around in a former communist country in something that doesn’t convey the proper feel of that bygone era?*
Of course, it was a base model Renault, which meant it had certain quirks that made it closer to any commie car than most offerings in the States. The gearbox, for example, was apparently constructed with mechanical tolerances that could be measured in yards. Fourth gear seemed to exist in some primordial cosmic void between the two front seats. Every attempt I made at a 5–4 downshift resulted in frantic hunting for somewhere—anywhere—to put the goddamn gear stick.
But I digress. We weren’t in Romania to test cars out, after all. In fact, we weren’t in Romania to do much of anything, aside from check out the Dinamo Bucharest Sports Club, where Valeriu Calancea (Gold at the 2003 Worlds, bronze in 2010) currently hangs out as one of the club’s two coaches.
[Calancea’s gold-medal clean and jerk performance at the 2003 Worlds; video credit, as usual, goes to Frank Rothwell]
Initially, there had been far grander plans for the Romania visit, which formed part of Mr Cerbus’s ten-day Italian/Romanian Tour (not to be confused with Mike Graber’s four-day World Tour), but various logistical hiccups—such as discovering that a cousin of Mr Cerbus whom we had planned on visiting was located not near Bucharest, but instead near Budapest—required we scale back our plans. Thus we spent our days checking out the city, picking things up and putting them down at Dinamo Sports Club, and then heading into Transylvania on the trail of
Gary Oldman Dracula.
But enough of this drivel for now. Consider this “Part I” of “I don’t know how many.” In future installments we’ll go deep into the beating heart of Club Dinamo, its athletes and training facilities, its SECRET Romanian training program (although consider my disclaimer on past secret programs I’ve exposed), an interview with Valeriu Calancea, and, quite possibly, a trip that resulted in us taking the Renault up into the Carpathian Mountains on a road that probably hadn’t been tended to since Vlad Țepeș began raiding Transylvania in 1459.
* As it turns out, Dacia and Renault have more links that I was aware of. The Dacia 1300 was, initially, little more than a Renault 12 copied by Dacia. (Really it was less than a Renault 12, since later improvements to the French model never appeared in the Romanian company’s edition.) In 1999 the French automaker purchased Dacia. So in a way we got our Dacia.