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Running through Bucharest, from beer to beer

The author joins the Hash House Harriers of Bucharest to run about exploring the city, including the Palace of the Parliament, once the world's largest building.

Robin Esrock/Robin Esrock

When it comes to social gatherings in foreign countries, consider Hash. Not the potatoes you have with your eggs, not the sticky illegal marijuana resin, but Hash House Harriers, an informal, open-to-all, quasi-athletic club that has sprung up in more than 178 countries. It may sound like an alliterative joke, but H3 is a genuine social phenomenon. With nearly 2,000 groups operating in just about every major city worldwide, including across Canada, Hashers come together to run, drink and be merry. Since I knew nobody in Bucharest, Romania's busy capital, joining the local Hashers seemed the perfect way to explore the city, get some exercise, drink some beer and learn more about this global "drinking club with a running problem."

Essentially a twist on the old hare versus hound game, each H3 race selects a human "hare" to plan a route that the pack must follow. Using paper, chalk or flour, the hare marks the trail with a series of dots, splits, circles, red herrings and checks, making it challenging for the pack to find its way home. Since most of the Bucharest Hashers were here to drink and socialize, winning the race was inconsequential. Anyone of any age could join, and the only requirement appeared to be a good sense of humour.

We meet in the late afternoon at a park in downtown Bucharest, where a member named Crash Test Dummy welcomes regulars and newcomers. Hashers refer to each other by their Hash Name, which is assigned to newbies by the group in due course. I quickly realize that Hashers have their own distinct vocabulary and "mismanagement" titles. Crash Test Dummy, an English engineer who has lived in Bucharest for two years, is the Religious Adviser, charged with blessing the circle of runners. A crusty Scot named Pie Eyed Piper is the Grandmaster, a ceremonial leader. Materhorny, who works in the Swiss embassy, is the Cash Hash and is in charge of financial affairs. Moby Dick is from Los Angeles, Gutentight is from Germany. Two things are immediately obvious: Hashers are defined by a bawdy schoolyard sense of humour, and appear to come mostly from expatriate communities. In this, little has changed from its roots when the first Hashers formed more than 70 years ago.

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The first Hash took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1938, as a casual exercise for British office workers to run out their weekend hangovers. Following a paper trail that would inevitably lead to a pub, the group became popular enough to register as a society, the name arguably chosen to reflect the seriousness of its intention. After the Second World War, the original members relocated around the globe and new clubs (or kennels) were started in expat communities. Since the seventies, Hash House Harriers has exploded in popularity. Today, there are family hash events, gender-specific events, large gatherings like the Eurohash or Interhash, even a club in Antarctica. With no central leadership, no membership requirements and no chance of taking itself seriously, Hashing predates online social networking as a means to instantly make friends and get contacts in a foreign country. "It's a great way to travel and meet people," says Holefinger, an American agricultural consultant. "Wherever you go, you'll always find a Hash."

The day I joined, the hare has marked a trail through Bucharest's quiet embassy neighbourhood. Together with the pack, I chase down the dots of flour, like a game of Pac-Man, until we reach a circle and have to fan out to find the next trail. A circle indicates a change in direction, an "X" a false trail. The FRB (or Front Running Bastard) calls out "On On!" to indicate he or she has found the next dot and everyone follows.

It is a warm, humid late afternoon and the race is on. Gutentight blows his horn, locals look on curiously, bemused at an eclectic, eccentric group running about shouting and laughing. We dodge traffic and the city's notorious stray dogs, soon enough approaching the first beer check. Congregating outside a small neighbourhood shop, we crack open cold beers, discuss the course, share dirty jokes and Hash war stories from around the world. The Hashers new to Bucharest, like myself, are accepted like old schoolmates. I learn about violations, like running with new shoes, or pointing with fingers. Each club makes up its own rules, careful to reiterate that, of course, there are no rules.

"On On" and we're off again, back on the trail. Hashes typically take place in forests, parks, streets or wherever the hare chooses, with the length of the course, and number of beer checks, varying. After running alongside traffic, we arrive back at the park, where the Grandmaster forms everyone in a circle to cool down and congratulates the hare for his efforts. Another round of drinks is consumed. The running club shifts to the drinking club, as barroom ditties are sung loudly.

The newbies are called into the circle, handed a cup of beer and roasted like has-been celebrities. We are given the choice between telling a joke, singing a song or flashing a body part (I wish that I'd known a good joke, or a good song to sing).

"Down down down…" and before I know it, I have yet another mug of beer down my throat, with my fellow Hashers pouring their beer over my head and dousing me in sticky flour. I had been in Bucharest less than 24 hours and already I had made friends with a dozen interesting characters, discovered the city's parks and streets and shared a unique local experience beyond Romania's cheesy vampire museums.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Find Robin on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels.

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