You don’t act like prey.
My fabulous Finnish friend briefed me on what to do in the event of a bear attack.
She didn’t mention wolves.
My Finnish friend and I were the frustrated leftovers of a 2010 Health Psychology conference in Romania.
Frustrated; because we hadn’t been able to get out of Cluj-Napoca, the small city where we’d spent the last 10 days.
Frustrated because; as astonishing as Cluj-Napoca was, being in the state of Transylvania meant being tantalizing close to the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler – born into the House of Draculesti in the winter of 1431.
Apparently, Vlad’s hometown was decked out with all things vampire-ish. A ghoulish Transylvanian Disney World. Who could resist that? However, the transport couldn’t be organised in time. We never got there.
Fortunately, reaching Vlad’s birthplace wasn’t strictly necessary for a strong dose of Romanian-style gothic.
Cluj-Napoca was plenty creepy enough. In a gothic-romance kind of way. There were unbelievably gorgeous palaces, but the grandeur was crumbling and faded. Graffiti lined the exterior walls. Weeds grew unchecked.
For extra creepy goth-factor, the entire time I was there – aside from three frightened ducks, one pigeon, and a sparrow – I only saw one type of bird. Crows.
Big. Black. Evil-looking crows. Everywhere.
During the day they covered the town surfaces. In the evening they took to the skies. They were so numerous that they prematurely blackened the sky. It was like being an extra on “The omen” set, or maybe Hitchcock’s “The birds”.
And it was grey. And freezing. The weather was unseasonably cold and overcast. It all combined to create an extremely vampire-esque ambiance.
Gothic plus Soviet. The faded grandeur was incongruously juxtaposed with communist-era buildings. Apartment buildings, utility buildings. All made from grey concrete. But designed with a retro-flair that made them look, to my eye, rather stylish. But again, with the weeds, and the graffiti, and the litter. And the crows.
Then there was the scurvy.
Don’t get me wrong. I like meat, cheese, and pickles, with the best of them. But after a few days I was desperate for some fresh fruit and vegetables.
It was with some relief that I ordered the “specialty salad” in an unusually modern cafe. I should have known. I was presented with a mountain of meat carefully laid over a few lettuce leaves.
And then there was the thieves and beggars. I’d scared myself silly before leaving safe little New Zealand by reading travelers’ safety tips.
Unfortunately, my fears, albeit not my worst ones, were confirmed the first evening I arrived in Romania. My new European conference buddies, having flown only a few meters themselves, were dismissive of my disorienting jet lag. They insisted we went out for pizza. Where we were accosted several times by aggressive beggars.
One woman came around twice asking for money, holding a baby. Worryingly, the second time she came around she had a different baby. A girl of about 10 also came asking for money – definitely the biological daughter of the woman. When the cafe staff shooed the girl away, she kicked at them, shouting. Then a man came. He threw watches on our table and tried to haggle.
All of them were very persistent. Crowding in very close to us and our bags.
While all this was going on, I noticed a boy beggar sitting about 10 meters away. He didn’t approach us. He was sitting in a doorway, playing a harmonica with an upside-down hat in front of him.
The boy looked about 10, like the beggar girl. In contrast he was pale and thin, with spreading dark circles under his eyes.
Although he was impossibly young, he was the epitome of a child who’d been released from one of former dictator Ceausescu’s orphanages,
I wanted to give the boy some money. Or some food. Or a home. But when we left the cafe, he was gone.
Despite being occasionally mistaken for a Romanian, I didn’t speak a word of the language. Fortunately, the taxi driver who drove me back to the airport spoke good English.
I tried to be complimentary about his remarkable city. “Cluj-Napoca,” I told him, “is very beautiful.” Because it was.
The taxi driver wasn’t having it.
“Life in Romania,” he pronounced, “is shit”.
He’d worked as a truck driver in France and Germany. Where he much preferred it.
Another Romanian told a colleague of mine that they preferred the old Romania, under the Stalin-esque Ceausescu. While I’m sure the many people who Ceausescu ‘disappeared’ would disagree (and it sounds like Stalin would have considered Ceausecu’s brutality a tad excessive) the Romanian considered the organised corruption under Ceausescu preferable to the present-day disorganized corruption. Under Ceausescu at least you knew where you stood. Apparently.
Back to the wolves.
Back to frustrated. I hadn’t seen much of this remarkable country, and it would no doubt be an extremely long time, if ever, before I had another opportunity.
Feeling the same way, my Finnish friend suggested we tramp through a Romanian forest. I said okay (the same innocent-sounding response, incidentally, that got me unexpectedly up a mountain somewhere in China and freaked out at a Tantra evening).
Electric trams are very big in Cluj-Napoca. WE started our forest-adventure by catching one to the edge of the city. And then we walked into a forest. It wasn’t a very impressive forest as forests go, but it was a Romanian forest.
Just as I had scared myself before even arriving in Romania by reading traveler warnings, my Finnish friend had prepared for our forest trek by swotting up on Romanian bears.
Bears we did not meet.
But we were some way into the forest, when I had that there’s-a-shark-in-the-water-with-me feeling.
I turned around and the three wolves behind us stopped.
Okay. They weren’t wolves. They were three large German Shepherd-type dogs.
Now, I love dogs. I was raised by a wolf after all. But there’s one type of dog I’m wary of – and that’s a silent dog. A barking dog is a happy dog. He’s saying “Listen to me doing such a good job of protecting my humans”.
These dogs were silent.
“Don’t run,” the dog expert (me) told the bear expert (my Finnish friend). “Don’t act like prey.” I suggested that since the dogs weren’t overtly aggressive, we just keep an eye on them and keep going.
The dogs stayed a constant distance behind us. They stopped every time we turned to check on them. They stayed silent. Eventually, we turned around and, like the beggar boy, they were gone.
This story may not be that useful if you are ever tracked by real wolves – Romanian or otherwise – but that’s not the point of this story.
The point of this story is to write like no one’s watching. At least sometimes.
I wrote home about my travel adventures, just like the one above, and I got back my writing confidence.
I was incredibly lucky with my Ph.D. travel. In addition to Romania, I had lab visits and conferences in Sydney, Italy, China, and Singapore.
However, during this time the relationship between myself and my long-suffering Ph.D. supervisor was often strained. And I was getting increasingly stressed, anxious, and frustrated with having my writing slashed with my supervisor’s red pen.
I was fed up with the constraints of the academic writing style. My confidence in my writing ability was damaged. Correspondingly my ability to actually write decently was damaged.
It’s hard to write coherently, let alone at a post-graduate level, when the main goal of your writing is to avoid criticism.
It’s hard to write coherently when you are trying to decide whether running, freezing, or climbing a tree is the best way to dodge being wolf dinner.
It’s important to state that I don’t blame my supervisor for our problems. I wasn’t exactly a supervisor’s dream student. Even a colleague said she loved me dearly but would not want to be my supervisor. Something to do with me being bloody-minded to a fault I suppose.
My actual supervisor and I were like chalk and cheese. At our worst we triggered each other’s insecurities, like a ghastly defensive game of tennis. At our best we were a formidable team. She taught me how to structure my numerous and frequently chaotic ideas.
And ultimately, when I summoned up the courage to tell her that I realized I had unintentionally been difficult for her to work with, and that I knew she was doing her best to help me, but her best was actually making things worse, and this is the way she could best help me – she heard me. I will always be grateful for that. Together we took our relationship from dysfunctional to functional.
So, no blame and shared responsibility for the problem and the solution. But I did seize the opportunity of my travels to write exactly how I wanted.
I emailed my adventures to friends and family back home. In this primitive travel blog I wrote how I wanted to write. No red pen to worry about.
And I got such encouraging responses. One friend, laid up with a compound broken leg, said my emails were the highlight of her day and helped her through recovery. Several people said they couldn’t wait to get my next instalment. Others said that, based on my emails, they assumed my Ph.D. thesis was going to be a great read.
And writing those travel-emails, writing as Rebecca – not a Ph.D. student, was incredibly freeing.
And it restored my confidence in my writing ability – which transferred to my Ph.D. thesis.
So, my concluding advice is; when being tracked by Romanian wolves, write like no one is watching. At least sometimes.
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