by a former Special Forces Officer
“I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so, my stay may be very interesting.” – from Bram Stoker’s Dracula
(Author’s note: The events recounted are all true. The details are satirically written with a pinch of humor and a sprinkling of history.)
Going to the Land of Dracula
“Hey kids, guess what? I asked. “How would you like to live in the country where Dracula lived?”
As I broke the news to our three young boys about our new assignment to Romania, I wondered what their reaction might be. At the time, they were 3, 5 and 7 years old and we were living in Croatia.
All three gave me an intense look of interest and then the oldest said, “Dad, isn’t that where vampires come from?”
“Well, that’s just a legend,” I said, trying to be reassuring.
The middle son, chimed in, “Yeah, don’t vampires eat little kids?”
Smiling I said. “No, silly, they don’t eat kids, they just drink their blood!” At which point, the youngest gave me a worrisome look like “WHAT?!”
Realizing that I had taken the Dracula thing a little too far, I started to extoll the virtues of our next adventure abroad, and how much fun Romania would be. As they often did, they just looked at me as if to say: “Oh boy, here we go again” and resigned themselves to their fate that their dad was dragging them off to the land of Dracula.
Ah, Romania! An ancient and mystical land, wild and wonderous!
I had been selected to serve as the Army Attaché to Bucharest and we were excited at this new opportunity. Although we were living in the Balkans at the time, we knew very little about our new host country, Romania.
Dacia, as the ancient territory of Romania was first called, flourished from the first century B.C. to the first century A.D., under the leadership of a series of successful Dacian rulers.
The Dacians were a proud and fierce people with a diverse and rich culture. It was those combinations of attributes however that bound them for inevitable conflict with the expanding Roman Empire.
Engaging it in two ferocious wars (101-102 A.D. and 105-106 A.D.), they were finally conquered by the Roman armies under Emperor Trajan. Dacia was integrated into the Roman Empire and the Dacian population adopted the vulgate Latin language of the Romans. The Dacians received the Christian religion and thus formed the basis of the present-day Romanian people.
Roman rule of Dacia eventually collapsed, and Emperor Aurelian, facing the onslaught of waves of barbarian invasions, finally withdrew the Roman military garrisons south of the Danube in 271 A.D.
Abandoned by the Romans, the Daco-Roman population survived however, remaining in their villages and territorial communities. These communities withstood successive invasions and continued organized life during eight centuries of barbarian migrations across their lands.
The assimilation of the Dacians into Roman culture and their subsequent Romanization set Romania apart from its neighbors in Eastern Europe. Often described as a “Latin island” surrounded by a sea of Slavs, throughout its history Romania has maintained its Latin-based language and culture.
It is this Latin influence that makes the Romanians generally a warm and personable people, and we looked forward to learning all we could about them.
So, in the summer of 2003, we bid farewell to war-torn and troubled Croatia and moved to Northern Virginia to begin a year of preparations for our new assignment.
Learning the Vampire’s Tongue
“My family name is Olaru, she said flashing pearly white teeth…that’s Romanian for “potter,” you know, like in Harry Potter.”
“Oh great,” I thought, “I’m getting Romanian language training from a wizard, how apropos.”
So began my first day with our new Romanian language instructor whom I shall affectionately call “Ms. Potter.”
We had hastily settled into our new home in Virginia when we began the first part of the training for our attaché assignment, 14 weeks of Romanian/Moldovan language training. This would be one-on-one training with a native speaker at one of the many innocuous-looking commercial buildings in Alexandria.
Unlike the mother tongues of its surrounding Slavic neighbors, Romanian falls into the Romance languages category and is more akin to Italian and Spanish. It is the language closest to its root language, Latin, and uses the Latin alphabet.
We were fortunate in that both my wife and I could attend this training. With three young kids however, it took a little juggling on our part so that we could both participate. We decided we would split up, my wife would get the kids off to school in the morning while I attended class, and then she would take class in the afternoon, and I would pick the kids up.
It worked out great… except that it left me alone, for five hours, with “Ms. Potter.”
In contemporary cinema, vampires tend to be depicted as the “cool monsters,” dangerous yet chic, terrifying but suave, well dressed and with great hair. Ms. Potter certainly fit that troupe.
Tall and sleek, with dark hair, dark eyes and always sporting ruby red lipstick, Ms. Potter was the spitting image of a modern-day film vampire.
She closely resembled the actor Liza Minnelli, so much so, that she was often stopped by random strangers in D.C. who thought she was a Liza Minnelli impersonator.
Well educated, Ms. Potter was had been living in America for several years now with her husband, a staffer on Capitol Hill. Teaching Romanian was a new gig for her, and we were fortunate to be her very first class.
For me, I always felt a little uneasy around Ms. Potter, and kept a comfortable distance from her in the classroom. Her alluring nature and discerning gaze often left me wondering: “Is she assessing me as a student, judging my language abilities or was she selecting me as her next victim?!” Despite my suspicions, she proved to be an excellent teacher, and we very much enjoyed her class.
As we approached the end of the course, Ms. Potter decided to test our listening skills by showing short video clips spoken in Romanian. The clips she chose were from the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Of course, this “coincidence” was not lost on me.
The opening scenes spoken in Romanian are between Dracula, played by Gary Oldman and a priest played by a well-disguised Anthony Hopkins.
The scene is one in which Dracula returns from having vanquished the invading Turks, only to learn that his beloved bride, played by Winona Ryder, had thrown herself from the castle walls, plummeting to her death after she was tricked into thinking her husband had been killed in battle. The priest announces that because she took her own life, she is beyond salvation. In a fit of rage, Dracula, whose family had dedicated their lives to protecting the Church, lashes out in anger and grief and renounces his faith. He desecrates the chapel, and thus begins his eternal damnation.
It is a powerful and captivating scene and not without some historical correctness. Vlad III was Voivode of Wallachia, a province in modern-day Romania and today considered a national hero. At the official residence of the Romanian President, Cotroceni Palace, a large stain glass portrait of Vlad III adorns one of the windows, alongside other famous Romanian rulers.
As depicted in the film, Dracula’s family had dedicated themselves to protecting Christianity and were part of the “Order of the Dragon.” This religious-military order required its initiates to defend Christ and routinely battled against the Muslim Turks. Vlad II added Dracul to his title to show his devotion to this order, Dracul derived from the Latin “Draco” meaning dragon.
The word “Dracula,” literally translated into meaning the “son of the dragon.” Thus, Vlad III was called Dracula which later in Romanian translated into “son of the devil.” Vlad III earned this unflattering designation namely because of his harsh style of governing and his terrifyingly brutal practice of impaling his enemies. This also earned him the title “Vlad the Impaler.”
The Romanian passage from this clip was challenging to understand but I finally got it. Having passed that test, Ms. Potter had one more test video clip in store.
This second clip was short and difficult to hear, spoken rapidly in Romanian. The scene was where Jonathan Harker, played by Keanu Reeves, travels to Count Dracula’s castle along a dark and snowy mountain road in Transylvania. The coach is abruptly stopped by the driver, and Harker is kicked out to await Dracula’s carriage. As he exists, a young Romanian woman in the carriage hands him a small crucifix and utters the phrase.
After several rewinds, I finally figured it out.
“What did she say?” asked Ms. Potter.
“Well,” I said, “I believe she was giving him a warning, handing him the crucifix she said, for the dead travel fast!”
Ms. Potter stared intently and then smiled… “It’s good, that you understand that,” she said.
Feeling a little creeped out by her response, I thought, was she saying, good that I understood the words, or good that I understood that the dead travel fast in Romania!?
I guess I was about to find out.
After a few more months of attaché training, we packed our belongings and off we headed to the historical land of Dracula.
The Gypsy Curse
After several weeks, we set up home in Romania. Once we were a little more established in our new host country, it was time to explore our local environs. We decided to check out Bucharest and had heard that a new “American style” mall existed in the heart of the city. In those days, Romania was still suffering from 50 years of communism and quality stores and merchandize were hard to come by. Plus, there was a newly opened McDonald’s in the mall, and the kids were excited about that, so on Saturday we set off to find this mythical American mall.
When we arrived and pulled into the gravel parking lot across from the building housing the mall, it looked rather unpromising. Bleak Communist-era apartment blocks surrounded the area on all sides and the signs of decades of decay and neglect appeared all around.
Stepping out of our car, we were unexpectedly surprised by a tiny old woman who immediately approached us. Dressed in bright, multicolored layers, her gray hair tucked under a gaudy scarf, and bedecked in all manner or necklaces and baubles, she was the epitome of the gypsy fortune teller character from some 1930’s horror movie.
In a raspy voice, the old woman shouted something inaudible in our direction. As she came closer, shouting the same message, the kids became a little unnerved.
“Dad, what is she saying?” they asked.
“I’m not sure, let me find out.”
At first, I thought maybe I mistakenly parked in her parking space or in a no parking zone. After asking her if there was a problem, I understood better what she was saying. The old woman hissed again “Give me money, or I’ll put a curse on your car!”
Now, I had been warned by the Embassy that panhandlers and pickpockets were numerous around these places and to be on guard against flashmobs that might rush you and grab your belongings. Taking a quick glance around, and seeing no others nearby, I decided to address the old woman, who continued her attempt to extort money from us. In Romanian I said politely but firmly, “I’m a diplomat and this car belongs to the American embassy, leave us in peace.”
With one eye wide open and the other squinting suspiciously, she looked me over, and then looked at our car license plate which had the letters “CD” on it, which in French meant Corps Diplomatique.
With that, she turned and slowly walked away, mumbling something under her breath, and casting one more insidious glare.
Well, I thought, I guess my Romanian was sufficient to convey my message.
“Who was that?” Asked the kids.
“Oh, just some old crazy lady” I said. “Let’s go check out this mall.”
Just as I said that I tripped over the curb, stumbling forward and almost falling. As I regained my balance, I thought to myself, “Oh that’s just great, I’ve been in the country a few weeks and I managed to have a gypsy curse put on me!”
Tales of the Crypt
“Hey kids! You want to go visit the place where Dracula is buried? It’s on an island!”
Again, staring at me with that: “Why would we want to do a crazy thing like that look,” the boys once again resigned themselves to going along with dad’s irrational idea.
As we began to become more familiar with Bucharest, it was time for us to venture outside the city and explore some of Romania’s beautiful countryside.
About 25 miles from the capital, Snagov made the perfect little day trip for the family. Steeped in lore, Lake Snagov had a small island that was home to an Orthodox monastery.
It also had the distinction of being the alleged final resting place of none other than Vlad Dracula himself.
In those days, the island was accessible only by boat, so we paid a small fee to the “ferryman” to take us across the lake to the island.
At the dock, a grizzled old mariner greeted us, he looked as though he had already sunk half a bottle of plum brandy that morning. He motioned us over and in we climbed into his small motorboat. With no life jackets, and the boat barely above the waterline, off we sped towards the island. With the encounter with the old gypsy woman fresh in my mind, I hoped we wouldn’t sink in the middle of the lake.
Upon disembarking, we wandered around the lovely grounds as we made our way toward the only structure on the island, the Snagov Monastery.
The Monastery had a fine example of an Orthodox church, with its traditional towers, arches, and crosses. Yet, as I approached the church, there was something different about it, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on yet.
We made our way toward the entrance, when suddenly and unexpectedly, a tall, dark figure, dressed all in black emerged from the shadows. Yikes! We nearly jumped out of our skin.
Fortunately, it was no vampire, just the caretaker of the monastery, a Romanian Orthodox priest who greeted us warmly.
As we all breathed a collective sigh of relief, the priest gave us a short tour of the church, explaining the history of the monastery. Of course, the central attraction in the chapel was a large stone crypt, unmarked, with no ornamentation. On it rested only two items, the portrait of Vlad III and a single red candle.
The priest explained that there are many legends surrounding the death and burial of Vlad III. It was said that upon his death, Vlad’s political rivals wanted to deny him a Christian burial, so his body was stolen by priests who brought his remains to the Snagov Monastery and buried them.
In the 1930s archeologists from Bucharest conducted an excavation of two sites at the church to determine who really was buried in the tomb. The site nearest the altar was found to contain animal bones, the other, near the entrance, contained human remains which were removed and sent to Bucharest for further analysis.
Those remains were never found again.
Whether Vlad Dracula’s remains lay buried under that stone slab remains a mystery, but it is still recognized by the church and given appropriate homage.
As I looked at the tomb, I thought, well this is certainly a tomb for a vampire, for only superhuman strength could remove that stone slab! I wondered if he had a stake through his heart, my silly superstitious mind began to wander…
Then it occurred to me! That feeling about the church. As I looked around, I noticed there was only a single entrance in and out of the entire church. There was no way to get out except through the main entrance. There were also no sizable windows, just small slates of openings on the side of the church, just narrow enough that allowed light to penetrate the interior. No human could possibly squeeze through those openings (only a bat could squeeze through!)
As I turned from the altar and looked out toward the main entrance, the open doorway revealed the most startling and intriguing aspect of this Dracula tomb. There, as if standing watch, a large iron, ornate orthodox cross, about six feet in height, stood immediately facing the doorway. It was impossible to exit the church without directly encountering this silent and powerful symbol.
I started to get that creepy feeling again, this was just like something out of a classic horror movie, Dracula’s remains, buried under a stone slab, in a church with only one way in and out, on an island with no bridge, with a giant metal cross guarding the entrance!
It seemed all very deliberate to me. It may be only the alleged burial place of Vlad the Impaler, but I had the distinct impression that the Romanian’s were not taking any chances.
As the autumn afternoon light began to wane, the Romanian priest abruptly appeared again. He thanked us for our visit and then, suddenly becoming serious, gave us a stern directive.
In heavily accented English he said: “The last boat leaves at 5 o’clock, be sure you and your family are on it. No one living remains on the island after dark.”
Not wanting to be an accidental tourist left on this island, we rounded up the kids and moved promptly to the awaiting boat. With the sun setting, we puttered away from the island back toward the mainland.
As we pulled away, the darkening silhouette of the monastery played eerily upon the late afternoon sky. The words of the priest kept coming back to me, what exactly did he mean when he said: “No one living remains on the island after dark.”
Perhaps it was just his translation into English, or perhaps the priest meant exactly what he said.
A Creepy night in Sighisoara
“Hey kids, I have a great idea! How about we go visit the birthplace of Count Dracula, I hear they also have a torture museum there!
“Um, sure Dad, that sounds great,” they collectively said in a less than enthusiastic way.
Off we went to Dracula’s hometown, Sighisoara!
Located just a few hours’ drive from Bucharest, Sighisoara lies in the heart of historic Transylvania. It is a popular tourist destination, and the well-preserved, medieval old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Arriving in Sighisoara, we were giddy with excitement. The old walled town is truly a remarkable site. With impressive towers, each representing one of the many ancient trade guilds, you felt as though you had stepped back in time to medieval Europe. Churches, shops, and other attractions provided us with ample places to explore.
Of course, the big draw for the kids was The Torture Chamber, a local history museum in the old town. At the time, it was less museum and more of a collection of horrifying medieval torture implements with grisly descriptions on how they were employed.
The museum had a visceral effect and after a short while, it was time to move on. As kids will often do, the three boys began to push and shove each other, acting like little hellions.
“Hey!” I said. “Cut it out or you’ll wind up like that guy!” Pointing up, suspended from the ceiling, was a rusty medieval torture cage with a skeleton in it. Apparently, this device was suspended directly above the kitchen, driving the poor soul trapped in it to madness as they were slowly starved to death.
Our next stop was a visit to Dracula’s birthplace. Adorned with an imposing Dragon sign above its entrance, Vlad Dracul House is located between the ancient citadel square and the main clock tower.
In 1431, Dracula’s father, Vlad Dracul and his pregnant wife were hosted there by the mayor of Sighisoara as they sought refuge during one of many punitive raids on Wallachia by the Ottoman Turks. It was there that the son of Dracul was born.
The house itself is rather unassuming, certainly not the dwelling where I had imagined a Romanian prince to be born. Still, it had its own unique charm, and the history was fascinating. Believed to be one of the oldest buildings in the old town, the house had been converted into a medieval style restaurant with a small weapons museum. Its menu included many traditional Romanian dishes and even included some touristy appetizers like “chicken wings with Dracula sauce.” Of course, we had to have a “bite” in Dracula’s house, so we had dinner and then made our way to our accommodations for the night.
We had reserved a room in one of the small pensions that occupied a part of the ancient walled town, just a stone’s throw away from the main square. We found the address and knocked on the door. I was immediately struck by the age of this old walled section of town. It looked much like it probably had looked in the Middle Ages.
As the heavy oak door creaked open, the inn keeper greeted us. He was polite and friendly enough, but something about him was a bit “different.” He had that same discerning look that Ms. Potter always had, as if he were assessing us. Was he just an inquiring mind, or was he determining if we would be the next victims of his vampiric master?
The interior of the house was ancient, and you could tell by the small corridors, canted ceilings, and tilted doorways it had been constructed a very long time ago. The inn keeper pointed to the heavy timbers shoring up the walls and informed us that these were original beams, and they were over 800 years old.
He showed us to our room and then bid us a good night, slipping quickly back downstairs. As we entered the room, it was nice enough, austere but comfortable.
Then, we saw them. In the corner of the room, there were three little boxed beds, looking very similar to coffins, one for each of the boys. At first, it was amusing, “How cute, little coffins for the kids.” Then it started to feel a bit strange. In any event, at bedtime, I said “Okay you little vampires, get in your coffins.”
As the night descended on the town, the cool mountain winds began to blow. The town was deathly quiet, no cars, no noises, just the sound of the wind rattling against the old pane glass. Having had a busy day, the family quickly fell into a solid slumber, but for the life of me, I could not relax.
I listened for every creak and groan of the old house, fully expecting some fiendish ghoul to creep into the room. As the night lumbered on, I would fall in and out of a fitful sleep, startled awake by any unfamiliar noise. And there were plenty of them, it was as if the house itself was alive.
Finally, as dawn broke, the family stirred, all bright eyed and bushy tailed. Meanwhile, I rubbed my bleary eyes, thankful that we survived the night. After breakfast, we continued our next adventure, to find an ancient grove of 1000-year-old oak trees the inn keeper had told us about.
I managed to drag myself along, vowing never again to spend a night in Sighisoara!
Visiting “Dracula’s Castle”
As an attaché, one of the many duties of the position included hosting official visits from important dignitaries. Because Romania was a new NATO member and a staunch supporter of the U.S. in the war against terrorism, a visit to Bucharest was a “must accomplish” stop among the various generals and diplomats engaged in shuttle diplomacy.
As part of the visit itinerary, if time permitted, one day of the schedule was always set aside as a “cultural day.” Of course, being in Romania, everyone wanted to see the famous “Dracula’s Castle” in the town of Bran.
Located a few hours’ car ride north of Bucharest, Bran Castle made for an ideal cultural trip destination. Nestled in the Carpathian Mountains, Bran Castle is an impressive site. Once a military outpost and a royal residence, Bran Castle had all the features of a mysterious and mystical Dracula’s castle.
The castle itself was surrounded by dark forests and was perched atop a rocky outcrop. Steeped in lore, the castle never actually belonged to Vlad III but according to legend he was detained in the castle for a short period of time.
One my first trip with a delegation to Bran Castle, we drove in an official Romanian military motorcade through the remote and winding roads of Transylvania toward our destination. As we drew closer to Bran, I noticed several horse-drawn carts lumbering along the side of the road. In them were Roma families, making their way into town.
Surprised to still see horse drawn carts as a means of conveyance, I also noticed that the horses all displayed bright red tassels, dangling from their harnesses. I asked our Romanian driver about the tassels. “Oh, that’s to ward off evil spirits” he remarked matter-of-factly. “The Roma believe the red color keeps away the Evil Eye, that’s why you often see their children dressed in red or other bright colors.”
“Well,” I thought, “I hope we won’t be seen by the Evil Eye on this trip.”
As we came closer to town, I also noticed something else peculiar. Along the road, we passed the occasional farmhouse or other building. On almost every house I observed, perched strategically on the roof, was a wooden cross. Also, on several of the homes I noticed garlands of garlic draped along the doors or windows.
Wait a minute, wooden crosses, strands of garlic, in the Transylvanian countryside!? Again, I queried our driver about my observations. Knowing where I was going with my line of questions, he just laughed, “All the vampire stuff is just made up for the people from the West, it’s just for the tourists, to make money.”
He was certainly right about that last point. As we entered the town of Bran, a small cottage industry of vampire trinkets and Dracula kitsch had firmly taken root. Small stands selling everything from plastic vampire teeth to roughly hewn wooden stakes were available for purchase.
As we stepped out at the entrance to Bran Castle, we were met by our guide for the day, Eric.
Eric was a young engineering student, who earned a little extra income giving tours at Bran Castle. Tall, handsome and with piercing blue eyes, Eric spoke flawless English and was well versed in the history and legends of the castle.
Eric had one other distinction; he possessed the longest, sharpest looking cuspid teeth I had ever seen on a human being! No joke, Eric’s eye teeth were exceptional, and one could not help but notice them. At first, I thought they were cosmetic implants, but no, they were real!
I wondered if having those exceptional long canines helped him secure the job as a tour guide in Dracula’s castle.
Eric proved to be an exceptional tour guide and gave a fantastic tour, regaling us with tales, mixing history with humor. At the end of the tour, Eric was thanked by the senior member of the delegation for giving such a great tour. He smiled a wide grin, flashing once more those formidable cuspids.
As we started to go, I thanked Eric and gave him a coin from our office. Looking at his teeth, I smiled at Eric and said jokingly, “Hey Eric, I just have to know, are you a real vampire?”
With a dead calm expression, he leaned forward close to me and said, “Why don’t you meet me here at the castle at midnight and find out?” He then flashed a toothy grin, his blue eyes gleaming with amusement.
I chuckled nervously, thinking: “There is no way am I meeting you here at midnight!”
We then climbed back into the motorcade and headed to Bucharest.
Farewell Count Dracula
Alas, all good tales come to an end, so too the fabled chronicles of our time in Romania. After three years and many other strange encounters, it was time for us to return home to America. Our time in Romania was crazy, wonderful, exotic, and certainly unforgettable.
They say that living abroad leaves an indelible mark on you, changing you forever.
That was certainly the case for my family and me. We all left Romania with a peculiar set of indelible marks… on our necks, slightly above the jugular (just kidding.)
Romania remains a mystical and magical place, full of natural beauty, intriguing history, and fascinating people. If your travels should bring you to Romania, enjoy all that she has to offer, just don’t forget to pack your crucifix, and remember in Romania the dead travel quickly!
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.