How to Be a Stranger

I have been sitting here in Brașov’s Piața Sfatului for half an hour and I haven’t heard any of my three and a half languages. Finally I’ve gotten properly lost on this continent. It’s been too long since I felt like a genuine stranger.

Across the square, Brașov’s medieval Black Church looks more like a god’s fortress. With charred walls and windows like arrow slits, the church hunkers in a low, defensive crouch. The church is just grim enough to keep the square from getting carried away with its own cheerful colors: green tea, macchiato, Madagascar vanilla, mulberry, forget-me-not, and dogrose. Their neoclassical façades, baroque balconies, and coy dormer windows are good old-fashioned European bravado, but something in the slant of their roofs suggests humility. They have the broad-shouldered slouch of farmhouse roofs. Mottled as if with liver-spots, the mismatched shingles show their age.

Untethered from their adults, children scooter across the square, setting off explosions of pigeons. Old women with scarves knotted under their chins plod along the periphery in sensible shoes. Men with wheelbarrows cross on the diagonal. One man carts a narrow wooden box that could hold Saxon treasure or a stunted vampire. I love playing the stranger because the stranger gets to make up the story as she goes along.

In fact, it seems Romanians are unusually keen to bed down in their coffins. I take a shortcut through the cemetery and discover dozens of graves gussied up and empty. The future tenants have planted their own headstones with miles to go before they reach average life expectancy.

Brașov is a good place to be a stranger. It’s worn in, pre-loved. It has a flaked-paint, cracked-plaster, missing-shingle honesty. It has a lost-in-the-woods, middle-of-nowhere, edge-of-the-world independence. With the forest gnawing at its back-alleys and clouds swarming over its spires, Brașov’s medieval city wall offers shelter to the newcomer. Though the city cemeteries are full of waiting graves, no one seems to feel their gravitational pull. I am the only one who peers down alleys to see if the forest has lapped up another lamppost since last I looked. Meanwhile, the locals are eating ice cream as eagerly as if it were invented yesterday.

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