The walls of the Times Club in Brasov, Romania are the kind of dingy that reveal peaks and valleys of old posters, distressed paneling and indentations from sweaty palms. The air is thick with unfiltered cigarette smoke and two-year-old hip hop. The fluorescent lighting isn’t doing anyone any favors — the middle-aged guys looking to blow off steam look haggard, the young bucks preening at the bar have a hallowed aspect that belies their go-go fist-pumpitude, the women are all made up and done up and fed up. Everyone’s on the make.
It’s just after midnight on Wednesday night, and I’m reasonably certain I’m going to die here.
By that point I’d been in Romania for a couple of days, invited by Universal Studios to join a press junket for the home video release of Dracula Untold. The idea was to get a feel for Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, and then hop on a bus with a dozen other journalists and tour a bunch of sites integral to the legend of Vlad Tepes, a.k.a, Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a., Dracula.
The reason I agreed to go on the trip was because I’d never in a million years thought about going to Romania. In fact, I could count on one Simpsons hand the numbers of things I knew about Romania:
- They probably speak Romanian.
I didn’t even have to use all of my fingers.
I don’t have a “bucket list” — the very idea of it seems like admitting defeat, and I will live forever, like a Highlander — but if I did, Romania would’ve been nowhere near said bucket.
And I was tickled by the idea of a home video junket: They used to throw them all the time, back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when DVD sales were a robust part of a movie studio’s income. Then streaming video happened, and cinephiles no longer wanted to collect the movies they loved (or even just liked), they just needed access to them. Aside from the one or two biggest movies of the year — plus the animated kids stuff that parents buy just to keep on hand, like tantrum extinguishers — DVD and Bluray sales plummeted. And, with them, went the money for publicity departments to take journalists on all-expense paid trips to exotic locales in hopes that they’d write about their release.
Universal decided to party like it’s 1999 so I hopped on a plane for 14 hours and went to Romania.
Bucharest is an odd city. There is a beauty here, but it’s a Communist beauty. Neglected glory. Oppressively impressive. According to one of our tour guides, a dusky, amiable fellow named Traian — “Many Romanian boys are named after Roman emperors,” he claimed, though I was saddened to not encounter any Caligulas —when the Communists under Nicolae Ceausescu took over the city, they took the oldest part, complete with stunning old-world architecture, and kicked the rich people out. The city belonged to the State, and the State let it rot. They erected shitty apartment buildings, bulldozing whatever they had to, including historical landmarks, to make room.
Today, 25 years after the revolution that returned Romania to her people, the effects of that neglect are still felt. Paint, peeling. Facades, crumbling. Graffiti everywhere. At times, Bucharest looks like its own post apocalypse.
It’s also a rather white apocalypse. I joked on Twitter that I’d be looking for Blaculas while in Romania, and then kept an eye out for other black people. I asked one of our guides what the population breakdown was like. She said that there were some African students — Bucharest is a world capitol and, as such, has some world-class universities — and that the native citizenry was very tolerant.
Walking the streets, I made it a point to count the number of dark faces I saw. I topped out at four.
Of course, that’s not alien to me. I’m a black man who has had a modicum of professional success. I am also a black man who likes comic books, lightsabers and Dungeons and Dragons. At most of the tables I’ve sat around, mine has been the only dark face. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it is simply the texture of my life.
But I’ve never been the only African-American…anywhere.
After blazing through Bucharest for a couple of days — eating like tomorrow was a rumor and drinking a bit too much tuica, a plum schnapps that was referred to alternately as “dragon’s tears” or “Romanian moonshine” — the lot of us hopped on a tour bus and started the Learning Shit About Dracula portion of our junket.
First stop: Snugov, which I first heard as “Snuggle,” which made it the most adorable creepy-as-fuck monastery on the middle of a fog-covered island ever. Vlad the Impaler is allegedly buried there. I say “allegedly,” because no one really knows where Vlad Tepes is entombed, but it might as well be in a creepy-as-fuck monastery.
Vlad, in case you don’t know, is to Romania what Leonidas is to Sparta or George Washington is to America. Born in 1431, Vlad Tepes III spent his youth in Turkey, given to the sultan by his father, the king, as part of a “forced internship” and raised along side the sultan’s own son, Mahmud. There, Vlad learned the art of warfare, learned the value of shock and awe, learned the neat party trick of hoisting enemy combatants on pikes and displaying their corpses for all to see. (Vlad’s father was also something of a ruthless warrior and earned the nickname Dracul, which means “the dragon” in Romanian. Vlad III was the “son of the dragon”…Dracula.)
He returned home to Romania to take his place on the throne when the Turks decided they wanted to invade Europe. First on the Ottoman Empire’s agenda: blitz through Romania. Until Vlad put the kibosh on their invasion, saving Europe in the process. Amazing story, right? Like Gondor stemming the tide of Mordor’s armies. But no one knows that, because of Dracula.
The only reason why Dracula and Romania are linked at all is because of Bram Stoker. Dear Old Bram decided to set his vampire story in Transylvania (a region of Romania) and allegedly asked a friend for some traditional names. Scanning the list, Stoker settled on Dracula, because it is awesome. As one of the experts we spoke to, author Vasile Lupasc, explained there are plenty of civilizations that have vampires in their traditional lore — the ancient Greeks, Mesopotamians, and Hebrews all have creatures that resemble vampires — but not Romania. Basically, it’s all Stoker’s fault.
And yet, Romania is like Draculaland. Castle Bran — which dates back to the 1400s — is only tangentially related to Vlad the Impaler (he probably spent a couple of weeks there during the Ottoman invasion), but that didn’t stop the construction of an entire souvenir village at the base of the castle. The people embrace it, because why not? Dracula is the very definition of a necessary evil.
Castle Bran was our second stop — a guided tour of the castle (led by a would-be stand up comedian in a shoddy Vlad Tepes costume), followed by dinner in the castle’s aerie. (Said dinner had half a dozen courses and a shitload of dragon’s tears. Basically, every meal we ate had a half a dozen courses and a shitload of dragon’s tears. My pants grew three sizes this trip.) After checking into a hotel in Brasov, a handful of us — a couple of lady publicists and lady journalists, as well as our U.K. video crew — decided to go for a nightcap. Which led us to the Times Club.
Brasov is home to about 250,000 people. Not a tiny hamlet, but not a teeming metropolis like Bucharest, either. It’s an adorable town, with a large town square and pedestrian mall; the buildings have a German flare, as Brasov was designed and built by German immigrants who lived there since the 13th century.
If I was only able to count four dark-skinned faces in Bucharest, a city of almost two million, you can imagine how many I saw in Brusov.
When we walked into the Times Club, I could feel eyes on me. Not angry eyes. Not malicious eyes. There was no hate there — not like one finds in, say, the American South, where racism has been distilled and fermented like a fine bourbon. In Romania, I was more like a negro unicorn: something seen in popular fiction, but never seen in real life.
An aside: We had lunch in the ski town of Sinaia on our way to Castle Bran and, on the way out of the restaurant, I spotted this next to the maître’d stand:
I honestly didn’t think it was some malicious totem of hate — it was more that they had so little experience with black people, they didn’t know it was a malicious totem of hate. They had no context, so there was no meaning. Like a five-year-old saying “scumbag” — no way he could know that word refers to a used prophylactic.
So as I took off my coat at the Times Club, I could feel eyes. As I ordered a drink at the Times Club, I could feel eyes. As the weird MC — who was shouting every third verse of the rap songs the DJ was playing and exhorting two booty-shorted women to dance — came over for a high-five, I could feel eyes. As I started to dance, I could feel eyes. The women were looking at me, the men were looking at the women looking at me.
I stopped dancing. I stopped drinking.
Then Jay Z and Kanye’s “Niggas in Paris” cued up and I started dancing again. Because, you know, “Niggas in Paris.” The irony was not lost on me.
But I knew it was time to leave. The deeper you get into any night, the more people drink, the more they strike out with those ladies, the more they want something, anything to blame. Rather than have that thing be me, it was time to roll.
Walking the six or seven blocks back to the hotel, I heard every footstep on the cobblestone path. Every pack of dudes coming from the opposite direction had me like Liam Neeson, but without the particular set of skills that would make me a nightmare for people like them. Nervous? Sure. Paranoid? Probably. But I’d rather be paranoid than bleeding in a back alley in a country where I don’t speak the language.
The next day was my last day in Romania. I was leaving a day earlier than my other nerd-reporter homies because Luke Evans — the star of Dracula Untold (now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download) was flying into Bucharest for some traditional junket-type interviews — didn’t want to talk to Playboy.com. Which is fine, as we are not everyone’s cup of hot chocolate. Unless you like hot chocolate that is luscious and spiked with delicious booze and dolloped with some bomb-ass whipped cream.
Before heading back to Bucharest, we stopped to see where Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were killed by firing squad at the climax of the Romanian Revolution in December of 1989. There’s a whole tour of the military base in Targoviste where the Ceausescus were tried — in what many consider a sham proceeding — and convicted of genocide and damaging the national ecomomy, both capital offenses. They’ve preserved the rooms in the base, which feel like glorified classrooms, as well as the site in the courtyard where the dictator and his wife were shot. Bullet holes in the wall, painted outlines of bodies on the asphalt. Maybe the most somber, shoddy memorial to a revolution I’ve ever seen. As if the bodies on the floor was the thing worth remembering.
Our tour guides kept saying that we really needed to come back and see Romania in the spring, when the thickness of winter was gone. When the country puts on its best flowy sun-dress for visitors. And I believe it — or, at least, I believe the pictures I’ve seen of it.
But I’m not sure that winter isn’t Romania’s natural state. Winter is Romania without makeup; the Romania you wake up with, not the one you went to bed with.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. His new Twitter handle is “Requiem for Blacula.”