“This is Romania. They will drill a hole into the tree, put a lit stick of dynamite in there, and say, ‘You’ve got about two minutes to unchain yourselves.’ ”
Every morning when you head out to squat in your little cubicle, sip burnt coffee spiked with foul creamer, and stare at a computer screen until your eyes hurt, know this: Somewhere in a beautiful medieval town in eastern Europe, it’s already quitting time for Nate Gendreau. It was quitting time years ago. Right now, while you steal a game of Minesweeper, Nate’s probably sitting down with a pair of cute female backpackers, tipping back a golden pilsner, and laughing at you. Nate’s lived your life. He gave it up. He never looked back.
“By the time I was twenty-six, I’d worked at Circuit City for eight years, and I was completely burned out,” he said amiably, with that belt-sander accent people from the Boston area have. Nate’s a Lowell, Massachusetts, boy, but he had become a highly paid executive in a corporate office in New York City.
“I had the half-million dollar four bedroom out in Westchester with the white picket fence, a mortgage that was trying to bury me, and a sports car I could never get out of second gear because I was always stuck in traffic,” he said. He was good with money, and his job paid him very well. But it was becoming a trap.
“It was quite a dilemma. Do you work until you’re forty-five and take an early retirement when you’re old and gray and fighting three or four ulcers?” At twenty-six, he decided to take a decade off and travel.
“People at the office were telling me, ‘You’re stupid. You’re crazy. Most people work thirty years to get where you’ve gotten, and you’re going to throw it away?’
“But I was getting up at 5:30 and working until nine at night.” Nate was spending all his time at the job or driving to and from his expensive home so he could crash for a few hours and do it all over again.
“Sunday was my day off, but I’d be on call. I’d have a beeper, a mobile phone—you could get me anywhere in the world. That’s not a life.”
Nate Gendreau liquidated everything he owned, gave his father power of attorney, and stashed the money into checking and e-trade accounts. And in 2001, he set out with a backpack and an ATM card for London. By August, he’d hitchhiked to central Romania. Unlike the southern region, razed by massive Communist building projects, the country’s interior was still beautiful and pristine. Nate eventually found his way to Sighi¸soara. The site of a trading center that had existed since the Bronze Age, Sighi¸soara was founded in the twelfth century by Saxon merchant-knights to protect Europe’s eastern flank from Turkish invasion. Its nine-hundred-year-old architecture with gilded steeples, tiled roofs, cobblestone streets, and an old clock tower had somehow weathered two world wars and a brutal dictator who made a point of flattening everything in sight. It was dominated by a massive church fortress with extensive catacombs—designed so the whole town could wall themselves inside it in the event of a raid.
Sighi¸soara was magnificent. It was just the place to escape a tough job and a bad time—because of the terrorist attacks of September 11, Nate had decided he’d duck out of large American cities for a while. But he needed a legal reason to stay out in the country. He needed a job, or something like it.
“The country has no hostels,” he said. “So I figured what better way to stay here than having a youth hostel where I could meet fellow travelers and help people out?” Within two weeks he’d bought a place. Soon he was kicking back with hikers and enjoying his eastern European version of the good life. And that’s when he ran into the environmental nuts.
There were four of them, Americans, and Nate Gendreau knew they could easily get themselves killed in Transylvania.
“They were really bad tree huggers,” he said with a laugh. Back in 2002, they’d arrived in Sighi¸soara to protest the destruction of a grove of ancient oak trees. The kids were bragging they would chain themselves to the trees in protest. Gendreau listened politely, but he knew they were fools.
“I asked them, ‘You realize that the police will go there and beat the shit out of you and not even think twice?’ ” Gendreau said. They sat there, mouths open, while Gendreau continued:
“This is Romania. They will drill a hole into the tree, put a lit stick of dynamite in there, and say, ‘You’ve got about two minutes to unchain yourselves.’ ”
The next day, the Americans left without any tree-chaining. But it wasn’t long before Prince Charles showed up as well.
“I saw Chucky with the big ears,” he said. “He couldn’t keep his ears in his own business. Gotta put ’em in everybody else’s.” Ears in his own business? Was this some New England thing, like “wicked”? Gendreau didn’t say. He continued, talking about how beautiful the trees were.
“Gorgeous,” he said. “They were ancient white oak trees—some of them three yards across and one of them dated to eight hundred years old.” Everyone wanted to protect them, he added, most of all the Romanians. They didn’t need outside help.
“There was a proposal in the mayor’s office,” he said. “They had a scale model of what they were going to build. They were going to put all the trees inside without cutting down a single one. Prince Charles didn’t like that. He said it was going to destroy the ambiance of the trees. He kept arguing against it, and with all the negative press, the project was nixed.”
The project Gendreau was talking about was DraculaLand. Proposed in April 2001 by Romanian tourist minister Dan Matei Agathon, it was going to cost $32 million and take a year to build—and it would put a massive development with an amusement park, a disco, an imitation Gothic castle, and even an amphitheater in the middle of one of the wildest and least developed sections of Europe.
But that’s not all. The park would have imitation medieval courtrooms, alchemy laboratories, torture rooms, and a vampire den, along with something called the “Institute of Vampirology,” with “Dracula’s secret library” and workshops for teeth sharpening, armor- making, and even an “Eccentric Vampire fashion house,” where you could shop for . . . eccentric vampire fashions. Promoters also promised theme restaurants offering “blood pudding, dish of brains and fright-jellied meat.” They hoped it would create 3,000 jobs and bring in $21 million a year to the economically depressed area.
It will “propel Romania to stardom,” Agathon declared. “It will bring tourists and be a solution to all problems.” Its detractors said it would bring congestion, pollution, and a legion of Satan-worshipping tourists to trample over the only town Ceausescu forgot to bulldoze.
By 2003, the detractors had won; they’d chased the project out of Sighi¸soara. Soon it appeared in another location: Romanian authorities announced they would build the project at Snagov, the traditional site of Vlad the Impaler’s grave in Wallachia. Newspaper headlines appeared announcing DraculaLand had “risen from the grave.” But had it? The new project was much closer to the capital city, and it was going to cost three times as much. But authorities were vague on the details.
“They have the location, and they are discussing about the project,” said Simion Alb at the Romanian National Tourist Office in 2004. “However the construction has not started yet.” He couldn’t say when it would begin.
“I’m not sure that they have the financing they need,” Alb added. “They’ve got some money but I don’t think they’ve got enough to start.”
DraculaLand might have risen for a moment, but it had clearly gone back to sleep. A year after it had stalled for the second time, I was researching the story of how this potentially lucrative project got trashed. Maybe it was the money-grubbing Yank in me, but I couldn’t understand why a struggling country like Romania would let this opportunity slip away from them. I had the same questions that had dogged me since blowing my honeymoon. After that episode, my wife for some reason hadn’t left me or put strychnine in my coffee. In fact, while hunting down the details of how this park failed, I alternated between pounding Red Bull, making frantic, expensive phone calls to Romania, Germany, and Canada . . . and racing back to the bedroom to help with burping, diaper-changing, and chin-smooching duties. Our new son napped when he wanted and woke when he felt like it, and the rest of us had to work around his schedule. No one in the house was sleeping for longer than four hours at a stretch, and I was never talking to anyone who wasn’t five hours ahead of me. And the story I uncovered was so absolutely off-the-scale strange, I was never quite sure I wasn’t hallucinating from exhaustion, caffeine overdose, or the absolute terror that comes from being a new dad.
Anyway, here’s what I found:
As of 2000 almost half of Romania’s population lived in poverty, with millions more scraping by as illegal laborers throughout Europe just to send $200 a month home to their starving families. It was one of the only countries in Europe that actually had a growing population of farmers—because people were fleeing the cities and moving back to hovels where they could raise crops and live off the land. But the country also had a potential fortune—a character whose legend had launched a multimillion dollar media empire. Romania was like a homeless guy carting around one of those stolen supermarket carts filled with bags of aluminum cans, a pile of dirty laundry, a half- drunk bottle of Night Train, and a framed Van Gogh original in mint condition. It just didn’t make sense. Why couldn’t the country cash in? I needed to ask more locals, so I started calling random hotels in Sighi¸soara. That’s when I found Yonel. He didn’t have all the answers, he said.
“I am just a simple receptionist,” he told me. But he was happy to talk. And just as happy to tell me how much he hated the idea of DraculaLand.
“Keetch,” he called it. “The Dracula park would be keetch. It would bring a lot of tourists and animation, and a lot of crazy people. It would not be Sighi¸soara. Sighi¸soara is a quiet town. Romania doesn’t need a Disney World.”
Sighi¸soara had already seen its share of Goths, he added, and locals wanted none of it. At a rock music festival a few years ago, it was mobbed with up to 90,000 people.
“They were junkies, all dressed in black,” he said. “They were sleeping in tents and turned the town into a big toilet.” What’s worse, the rock fans actually scrawled pentagrams on the gravestones at the local church, said its pastor, Rev. Hans Bruno Froelich, a priest who ministered to the tiny, beleaguered, and dwindling population of Saxons still living there.
When Agathon selected Sighi¸soara for DraculaLand, Froelich and his fellow padres led a protest of two hundred people in town and sent a letter to Agathon promising: “Everyone involved in this project will pay for it on Judgment Day.”
“It’s spiritual pollution,” Froelich told me. Speaking in halting English, he said he was afraid it would bring the same Satanists who’d defaced the gravestones at the time of the rock concert back to town.
Sighi¸soara had also been a target of this kind of thing in late 2001, when a Miramax crew filmed a series of movies called Dracula Resurrection there. Locals reported stumbling over fake-blood-soaked mannequins in their town square.
“My daughter was terrified,” said one townie.
It wasn’t hard to see their point. To Romanians Vlad was a national figure, not a vampire. Imagine foreigners coming to visit the Lincoln Memorial by the thousands—wearing stovepipe hats, false beards . . . and plastic fangs. They love Lincoln. They love how he can turn himself into a bat. How he freed the slaves and rises at night to suck the blood of the living. Imagine you know you could make major bucks off these freaks if you chiseled a pair of wicked-looking teeth on Lincoln’s statue.
You’d have to be desperate to even consider it.
On December 25, 1989, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were led to a large room in a military base in northern Romania. An anonymous man read off a list of charges against them.
“We are declaring you condemned to death,” said the “judge.” Soldiers tied each of the couple’s hands with twine. Elena struggled.
“What are you doing here?” she shrieked. “You don’t have the right to tie me up. Child, do not do this to me! Don’t you listen?”
But her husband, utterly defeated, simply muttered, “Relax. Leave it be.”
The soldiers dragged them to a back lot. Whether afraid that a secret police raid would drop in at any moment or merely out of rage, the firing squad didn’t wait for any command before opening up.
Many Romanians thought Ceausescu would be a force for moderation and independence when he first took power—that he would allow Romania to assert itself like Yugoslavia had under Tito. But by the end of his twenty-four-year rule, he’d destroyed the country. He put almost thirty of his family and friends in top government offices, and his secret police locked up 50,000 political prisoners, tapped all the phone lines, and had handwriting samples for more than half of the population. He tried to make women give birth to five children apiece to build a workforce—and ended up warehousing more than 150,000 orphans. During the last decade of his reign, he attempted to pay down his country’s debt with mandatory food shortages and ended up starving 15,000 people to death. His goons seized whole neighborhoods in the capital that were filled with ancient architecture and destroyed them to build huge, garish buildings for the government.
“It’s hard to describe how bad it was,” said Mircea Munteanu, an associate of the Cold War History Project who grew up under Ceausescu’s regime.
“It was like living in the library,” he added, “only with the books taken out. You sit there, and you can’t talk too loudly, or say the wrong thing, or they’ll take you to the Bad Place.” And it was Ceausescu who was nicknamed “Vampirescu” among his own people. After his reign, the country was sucked dry.
But Ceausescu was only the latest in a long line of terrible political leaders. Romanians have been cursed with bad governments and a poor economy since they were conquered by the Roman legions in the second century a.d. Then the Goths—real ones, not the pentagram spray-painting kind—kicked the Romans out in the third century, and for the next six hundred years, the Goths were followed by waves of attacking Huns, Avars, Slavs, Magyars, and even Bulgars (were these people actually conquered by a strain of wheat?).
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