6 years ago, in October 2011, Ellie Knott took me to Transylvania. We had been travelling to Europe together for years: from Disneyland Paris, through the red-light districts of Lyons, Cologne and Berlin (“mother, don’t stand on the street corner”), to cocktail bars in Madrid, Krakow and Aix (where “Madame et Mademoiselle” became “Mesdames” around 2004). But this was the first time I was on her turf: she had come here in her gap year, got to know the language and people, tracked Romania’s journey into the EU.
We arrived in Sibiu from Braşov across the Transylvanian plateau, the Carpathians looming ever closer on the horizon, in a bus smelling of plums as an old lady’s carrier bag oozed juice under our feet.
The city was still glowing from its facelift as European city of culture 2007. Cobbles were neat and newly laid (with €millions of EU investment), buildings freshly painted and tiled.
And the rooves had eyes.
Sibiu is known for its “Augendächer” (literally, eye-rooves) – a style of attic window unique to Sibiu, as EM Forster remarked in the 1930s. The eye-windows add a final touch, bordering on caricature, to the medieval German quaintness of the buildings. They are less alarming in the flesh than they appear in photos, though memoirs from the late 20th suggest the eyes may have been more sinister in the Ceausescu era.
There is a reason why the place feels like a medieval German town: that’s what it is. German (or “Saxon”) settlers, arrived in Transylvania (“Siebenbürgen“ – seven towns) from an area that’s now part of Luxembourg, and founded Sibiu (Hermannstadt) in the 12th century. And at least some of the Germans stayed: this is the town whose mayor, from 2000 to 2014, was Klaus Iohannis, now president of Romania and the first from Romania’s minority ethnic German community.
But I remember Sibiu less for its quaint architecture than for three more personal reasons. The first was a text message from my office at HMRC. This kind of interruption on holiday was not unusual, and the message I received in Sibiu was surprising rather than alarming, but in retrospect it was a portent of one of the most turbulent periods in my civil service career. A month later, I spent my 52nd birthday sitting behind HMRC’s then Chief Counsel, Anthony Inglese, as he was put under oath by Margaret Hodge at the Public Accounts Committee (for taking a stance that was vindicated by the Supreme Court last year).
The second memorable event was a particularly bad dose of food poisoning. I woke, retching and in pain, at 3am on our second and final night, and was alarmed to see real fear in Ellie’s eyes (did she imagine me as Mr Lazarescu?). I’m not sure how I managed another long bus-ride to Cluj-Napoca the next morning. But it was, of course, all my own fault. As Ellie gently reminded me, my idea of home cooking is burnt baked beans and watery carrot and egg mash, yet I’d ordered a restaurant dish that required me to cook my own pork steak on a griddle … ?
The third memory is more nebulous. It’s an absence rather than a specific event. When I was diagnosed with the autoimmune illness Graves’ disease in 2015, I realised I’d been developing the rather strange assortment of symptoms for several years. They had been gradually accumulating and worsening since around 2012, when we moved house. But the most distinct memory I have of a time before I started to show any of the symptoms is my stay in Sibiu.
Will I return to Sibiu? I’m tempted to go back in March 2019 – partly to avoid being be anywhere near the UK at the point when we (supposedly) exit the EU. Jean-Claude Juncker has proposed an EU summit there on 30 March 2019, marking the beginning of the EU27 without us. One can see the attraction of Sibiu for Juncker, given its historical links with the Luxembourg area. I wonder how long it will take the EU dignitaries to realise the apparent plethora of cafes in the central square is actually just a single one, with the same menu and waitresses emerging from a single kitchen …
But Sibiu isn’t my favourite Transylvanian city. For me that’s Braşov: a much larger, more vibrant city with both a German and a Romanian old town, a Soviet-style “new” town close by (it was Oraşul Stalin – “Stalin City” – in the 1950s) and the threat of bears in the woods of neighbouring Mount Tampa. Sibiu is a time-capsule – both in its medieval quaintness and in the personal memories it holds. And time-capsules are perhaps best left unopened.
Postscript: I’ve spelt “rooves” with a v because that’s how I’ve always said it. Having looked it up I realise this may be regarded as wrong or archaic, but perhaps it’s a relic of my Lancashire accent. (I used to go to school on two buzzes.)