When I began planning this tennis journey, I was surprised to learn that many of the tournaments were in relatively unknown places. Arad, for example, is Romania’s thirteenth largest city with a population of around 150,000. It wasn’t even mentioned in my Rough Guide. But according to Wikipedia, it’s one of Romania’s wealthiest cities, which explains, I suppose, why they go in for tennis. No hostels were listed, only hotels in the 70 euro range. I decided I wouldn’t be staying more than two nights even if it meant forfeiting a match.
After leaving Sarajevo I wanted to stop briefly in Belgrade, the capitol of Serbia and hometown of Novak Djokovic. Had I known that the temperature that day would reach 42 Cellsius (that’s 110, folks), perhaps I’d have thought better of it. I spent most of the day indoors, but in the evening I went to see Djokovic’s newish tennis academy Novak, which the local hero built to help train area kids. It’s part of a larger sports complex set in a lovely location overlooking the lazy Sava river.
From Belgrade to Arad is scarcely a hundred miles. But I wasn’t looking forward to the trip. A bus ride, border formalities, and an erratic train schedule combined to turn it into an all-day ordeal. I finally arrived courtesy of a 40 euro taxi ride from the nearest city the rail hub Timisoura. Arad’s central business district puts one in mind of upscale Berkshire Mountain towns like Lenox and Great Barrington. By contrast, its outskirts, where I finally found reasonably priced accommodations, resemble Homestead, Florida. It’s a grimy, depressing area of low-slung buildings and endless truck traffic. Small auto parts stores abound, outnumbering establishments selling food.
The next morning I rode the rickety tram back into town and walked the main street. The shops were mostly boutiques, mobile phone stores, and cafes with slot machines. And numerous banks and money exchanges, which was good because I had some leftover Serbian dinars to get rid of. But I spent hours trying to exchange them for Euros. I went into sixteen different places (yes, I counted); no one wanted them. I didn’t understand it. Romania borders Serbia. Don’t these people ever have occasion to visit a neighboring country? Oh well, maybe I’d have better luck in Bulgaria, another neighbor of Serbia and my next stop.
The afternoon I spent trying to buy a train ticket for Sofia. In this I was marginally more successful. After a ridiculous amount of legwork, I was able to purchase a ticket for a 22 hour trip via Bucharest; according to my guidebook, there’s a direct 11 hour trip. There probably is one but I was somewhat handicapped by the language barrier. With my remaining time that afternoon, I wanted to find an Internet cafe so I could check my mail and work on my blog. It was more futility. The Aradians I asked all seemed to doubt that the city had an Internet cafe. I had expended a worrisome amount of energy, considering I had a match to play that evening; I’d walked probably seven or eight miles.
My match had been scheduled for seven o’clock so as to minimize the brutal heat. The tennis club’s address was another oddball one (Toth Arpad Sandor—was that a street or a person?). The facility turned out to be nine clay courts arranged vertically like dominos. My opponent introduced himself; he was a short, wiry fellow named Popa. I pegged him as a grinder, the type of player who generally gives me fits. Plus I was exhausted. I recalled a tennis acquaintance once telling me he had played a match after not sleeping the previous night and, feeling loose and fearless, actually played much better. But for me the principle didn’t work. I just felt listless. I started off well enough but faded badly amidst a blizzard of double faults. I lost going away.
Afterwards Popa insisted his wife take a photo of us. She came onto the court and we posed under the large sun umbrella. They were nice people but they knew how to rub it in; Popa told me he’s sixty-three and his wife said I looked forty. Then I got a beer and pulled up a chair next to Johannes (John, in English), the personable tournament director. He was a very tall slouchy man with a brush mustache. He was seated at his laptop. On the screen was a picture of a young blonde woman in a basketball uniform.
“My daughter,” he said. “She plays for the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA.”
I asked about her height. “Not as tall as me,” John said. Still she could have been six feet or taller. John told me he works part-time as a tennis umpire and has officiated the Wimbledon qualies. Last year he visited the States, spending ten days in New York City, which he loved. While we chatted we watched the match being played on the same court I’d been on. A pusher was beating a better player; the law of recreational tennis in action, particularly on soft surfaces. The 4.0 would hit a beautiful drop shot, fail to come in behind it and the pusher would scramble forward and dump it over the net for a winner. Or he would skillfully construct a point and then sabotage it by overhitting. I was becoming annoyed just watching. And it was getting pretty late. When I’d first arrived in Eastern Europe, I remembered, I’d been surprised by how much later it stays light. At 9:45, when I left, matches were still being played
The guesthouse I was staying in had nine rooms (I seemed to be the only guest) and was run by a middle-aged German-speaking couple: perky Elena and silent Heinz. I trudged into the living area and collapsed into a wicker chair. Heinz had left the local paper open to the sports section. I glanced at it. A few words were recognizable: “finalisti,” “secundia,” “campionatul,” and maybe “fotbalului.” Romanian, I decided, would be a very difficult language to learn. I went into my room, turned on the television and flipped through the 60-odd channels. There were a lot of cooking shows and news shows. The same English-language Animal Planet episode was playing on five different channels. I finally settled on the Romanian version of Wheel of Fortune. The genial host wore red suspenders and the letters were turned over by a blonde bimbo in a red hardhat. With nothing else to do I soon went to sleep.
The next day would be difficult. My train trip to Sofia was an overnighter so I had a full day in Arad to somehow kill. My next tournament was in three weeks in Switzerland; so I had time for sight-seeing in Greece and Italy and maybe a short stop-over in remote Albania. My decision to stop in Sofia had come after learning of the Maleeva sisters’ tennis club there. I felt my game needed some serious tweaking.
The second day in Arad seemed a replica of the first. I walked around the downtown area trying to find an Internet cafe; no one I stopped knew anything. Few spoke much English. I was bored and depressed and starting to dislike this place. I didn’t even want to take photos of it.
I sat down in an outdoor cafe, ordered an orange juice and worked for awhile on my notes. One thing Arad has going for it is that prices are cheap. Another is that the women are very watchable. So I watched them. Many are petite, lithe black-haired beauties; they put me in mind of some of the renowned Romanian gymnasts. Then I left the cafe and continued my window-shopping. A store with the word “Chinezescu” above the entrance aroused my curiosity. Inside a young Chinese woman sat behind the cash register. There were rows of shoddily-made clothing and other items. Apparently “Chinezescu” meant that the store sold goods manufactured in China.
Romanians, I observed, sure loved their ice cream. On this scorching day seemingly every other pedestrian was munching a cup of gelato or a cone. A Gypsy couple with a child walked past. The woman was small and gaily-dressed and the man wore a shabby sport jacket and had a walrus mustache. I had been warned by several people about Gypsy pickpockets but these seemed innocuous and merely colorful. The day was one of those deadly days where the only thing you have to look forward to is your meals. So at a few minutes before eleven I decided it was time for lunch. For a respectable-sized city, Arad has a shortage of proper sit-down restaurants. But plenty of fast food places. I went into one hole-in-the-wall, indicated to the woman behind the counter what I wanted and paid her. The dish turned out to be fried fish and was delicious; I had thought I selected chicken.
In the afternoon I stumbled upon Arad’s elegant Continental Forum Hotel, which was set back from the main street. Somehow I hadn’t noticed it before. I went inside and asked the young man at the front desk about Internet access. He gestured to a computer in a corner of the lobby; I was welcome to use it. “There is no charge,” he said, “No one ever uses it.” So I was able to work there undisturbed for more than two hours; I left the hotel feeling that my stay in Arad had been salvaged.
Ah yes, the train ride to Sofia: a 22-hour train ride is a very long ride, made longer by the lack of air conditioning. The train was a relic from the Communist era or maybe even before then. Unlike modern Amtrak cars, the windows can be opened which provides you the luxury of fresh air. Just don’t stick your head out too far or you’ll risk being decapitated by a telephone pole. I got a chuckle out of the ticket-taker by inquiring about the train’s restaurant car; this train barely had running water in the lavatory.
I tried thinking of the trip as two 11 hour journeys; it didn’t much help. It was still interminable. Admittedly the scenery was stunning. The verdant Carpathian mountains begin not far out of Arad and seemed to go on forever. They reminded me of the Rockies, in that they rose almost straight up from the train tracks. I estimated some of the inclines at eighty degrees. Occasionally a cluster of small houses would appear. Then the mountains gave way to pristine evergreen forests, which also seemed endless. Reputedly this region contains wolves and bears. I hoped so. If they weren’t able to survive in such a wilderness, it’s difficult to imagine where they might. But the gorgeous scenery lessened my misery only minimally. I rated myself a ten for tiredness, and a nine and a half for both hunger and thirst, for a discomfort index of twenty-nine out of a possible thirty. However, even the most unpleasant ordeal eventually ends and at minutes before midnight we pulled into Sofia.