I can think of no more civilized way of touring an ancient European countryside than on skis in midwinter.
“I have an existential question,” announces Jonathan, the anesthesiologist, over a breakfast of fresh bread, jam, cold hot dogs, and cheese. "Why are we here?"
He sips from a cup of General Mills Café Français, a tin of which he has carried in his backpack halfway across the globe—from California to the northern fringe of Wallachia, and then (by way of two Communist-era cablecars and a pair of alpine touring skis) up and over the Bucegi scarp at the kneecap of the Southern Carpathians. Outside the window, grey light rises over a thin dusting of new snow on midwinter crust.
All things considered, Jonathan's question is a welcome variation on his usual: "Where is everybody else?" We have the whole vast dining room—indeed, the whole seven-story hotel—to ourselves. The place has the feel of an abandoned railroad station in Siberia. The only staff, as far as we can tell, are two college-age girls who stand rooted behind the reception desk as we come and go in our ski boots and a sullen waiter who appears occasionally in the dining room to field requests. There are mirrors on the walls, and marble tiles, and small craftsy landscapes rendered in grass and twigs and pebbles pasted on canvas.
We are only three days into an eight-day ski tour. We are here, of course, because it's a place none of us has ever been before. Because there are mountains to be explored, and skiing to be done, all at a fraction of the cost of a comparable trip in, say, the Alps.
Jonathan's younger brother, Andy, who is at this time the only general surgeon at the only hospital in the small resort town of Mammoth Lakes, California, has put a trip together and invited some friends to come along. Bill is a hand surgeon in Salt Lake City, Frank a radiologist in Oregon, Rich a thoracic surgeon in Seattle. And then there's Joe, another friend from Mammoth, a pro skier turned speculator and man of leisure whose wife—a beautiful Italian woman from the Dolomites—is supposed to have signed a pre-nuptial agreement that she would never stand in the way of his passion for world travel. Which, whether it's actually true or not, seems to me a marvelous arrangement. (In my world, a trip like this will be paid for dearly in guilt, recrimination, all manner of extra home improvement projects, and the rubbing of aromatic oils on my wife's calloused feet.)
Andy and Joe will later become embroiled in a deeply scandalous and illegal love triangle with a teenage girl. Andy, husband and father of two boys, will absent himself by way of a lethal dose of succinylcholine and potassium chloride. Joe will go to prison. But that will come later. These are the good old days, when the promise of an afternoon in the woods and an untracked line—to say nothing of a week's recess from family and scrounging for dollars—still seems like a kind of blessed dream.
OUR GUIDE, IULIAN COZMA, is an electrical engineer by training, now serving as Romania's only full-time licensed mountain guide. He has the build and buzz-shorn cranium of a pro rugby player, a smile that draws from every muscle in his face, and an inspiring collection of the latest styles and colors in backcountry outerwear. He met us at the airport in Bucharest with a driver and a late-model Volkswagen passenger van. When, within minutes, the van's transmission blew, he made a call on his cell phone, opened the sliding door, smiled, and asked us to please leave all our gear behind and join him for a bonus walking tour of the capital.
Bucharest proved a fine big modern city with a subway system and an eclectic blend of neoclassical, Communist-utilitarian and postmodern architecture. There were stray dogs and shopping malls and Eastern Orthodox churches. There were Parisian-style coffee houses, McDonald's restaurants with clean restrooms, dark thickets of overhead utility lines, and Peruvian buskers in Plains Indian-style feather headdresses on the main square. On a gray winter's day the only color came from advertisements for undergarments, electronics, and cell phone service providers.