Back in Romania for the fourth time in two years and it dawns on me that I’ve found a Home Away From. Don’t add the home. Because it’s not. It isn’t a home away from home. It’s just a home away from everything else. It’s a place where I am new, where everything else is new, where the horizon is empty, and the vibe runs bone deep. It’s called The Bridge and I can’t help but smile every time I go there.
This isn’t the first time I’ve found a home away from.
Then I found the Mexican Wave. It was a bar only open Thursday through Sunday on a side street around the corner from the hotel. It was owned by Peter, the son of the exiled crown prince of Uganda. Although he had a British accent, he’d spent his childhood living in California, hence the name the Mexican Wave- which was the weekends in Tijuana when all the Mexicans would return home in waves. We became great friends and I spent every night there (including the one’s it wasn’t supposed to be open) for the next two months. I was asked to join a dart league and became the secret weapon of the Zimbabwe Embassy Team, who won the championship that year for the first time. We did hash runs on the weekend. Me and the other fixtures at the bar formed the core of a pick-up soccer team that beat the Chinese National team on national television and was creamed by the Russian National team a week later. It was definitely a Home Away From and a place I think of with fondness whenever I reminisce about China. (Seems that it is still around. Didn't take long to discover that it has become prominent as an ex-Pat bar in China. I wonder if Peter is still there.) (Also incendetally, one of my first published stories, republished on the web at Fortean Bureau who has never taken it down is here. It kind of gives you a taste of the place. The story is called Cool Blue Pools.)
Then in 1994, I found a similar place in Papua New Guinea. It was a chicken shop called Big Rooster down the street from the embassy. I went there every day for lunch—nothing like fried chicken and garlic bread. We’d spend several hours each day during the height of the sun, soaking in the air conditioning and talking about damn near everything.
In 1995, I found another place in Korea. Although I’d been to the R.O.K. at least fifty time since 1985, including a one year tour, I’d never found a single place that was a Home Away From. But this time I spent four months there and soon we discovered a bar on hooker hill in Itaewon called Cheers. For those who know the locale, it was two doors down from Polly’s Kettle House. Hooker Hill has changed over the years. Seen here during the day, you'd have no idea debauchery that occurs at night. When I first went to Itaewon in 1985 the alley that comprised Hooker Hill ran for three city blocks and trying to walk down the sidewalk without getting proposition was as likely as a wildebeest strolling casually across the Serengeti Plain without getting eaten. The last time I was there in 1997, it only ran for half a black, and even that was half-hearted. But back to Cheers. It was owned by a friend in the business named Tim and his Chinese-Korean wife, both of whom had deep ties in the Korean mafia. We spent every night at Cheers, playing darts, drinking, socializing. We got to know the club girls (hookers with a home) so well, that we became their own unofficial protectors, often threatening to beat the snot out of some 2nd ID boy down on leave when he refused to pay (wait—I think I just described a pimp). It got to the point that when we left, we got mail from the bar owners. I even got a phone call one night from a club girl who was looking for one of the soldiers under my authority. Try explaining to your (then) wife why you’re getting middle of the night long distance calls from Asian hookers without sounding guilty.
Since then I’ve traveled to a lot more countries and been in a lot more bars, but I haven’t found a single place with even Home Away From potential. I don’t know what makes a place a Home Away From, but I do recognize one when I get there.
Today I had lunch at The Bridge (Click the link for the Website). From a posting earlier in the year (See link), I never thought I’d get to come back here. But Uncle Sam decided that I was the only one to do what I came here to do and I am back. It was about 65 degrees today and sunny. I sat on the porch watching the river. Betty served me. I had a Leffe Blonde and Ciorba de Burta (tripe soup) with vinegar, fresh sour cream, homemade bread and a sizzling hot Hungarian paprika pepper. Top ten music played on the speakers. Gypsies fished on the river. Romanian men dressed as if they’d watched too much Sopranos (all of them wore jogging suits) came and went. Across the water a wedding couple had their pictures taken in the shade of a willow. And I smiled the whole time. (Pictured is my friend Bram from one of our last trips. Wouldn't you know it, the battery was dead in my camera this time. Tomorrow I promise pictures.)
The Bridge is my Home Away From in Romania.
And remember, there is no Home Away from Home. Nothing can replace that. But there can always be a Home Away From.
When you find it, you’ll know.