Greetings once more from Romania! As I write this, Brooke and I are currently on a train from Bucharest heading north to the town of Brasov. This ride is our first encounter with a European train – something I’ve been looking forward to all day. Also our first time in one of those shared train compartments occupied by a group of strangers facing each other. Nifty!
So far, our time in Romania has been, quite frankly, kind of thrilling and fun. Bucharest is bustling, the gorgeous late-summer weather is a nice change of pace and makes for pleasant walks through the quality park near our hotel. Impressions so far? While I would hesitate to say that Romania falls under the category of a developing nation, I would say that it’s a nation that’s rebuilding. Hey, your country might be too if it was just over twenty years removed from an epic political revolution that ousted a diminutive, megalomaniacal communist leader. Toss on a parade of crappy presidents that followed afterwards, lingering structural damage from allied bombing during WWII and even a devastating earthquake in the late 1970’s and it’s easy to understand why this is a country trying to climb it’s way back to it’s Mid-20th century nickname of “Little Paris.”
Brooke mentioned the dilapidated nature of some of Bucharest, but it’s worth repeating. For every well-maintained building with a stunning facade, there is a neighboring building that’s crying out for an Extreme Home Makeover. Apparently, some of these run down edifices are a haven for squatting Gypsies, while others are owned by landlords who are just waiting for the buildings to crumble on their own (sad). Others still (like the National Theater) are undergoing overdue yet magnificent renovations. Also, there is so much graffiti on the buildings that ARE in use, we’re considering cashing in and opening a spray paint store. You can see neon colored paint on about 75% of buildings. Whether it is an apartment high-rise or a local monument, it has been tagged in one way or another. It’s just everywhere. On a similar note, you have to be heads up for random, loose wires dangling in your path when you walk. Those dangerous urban vipers are everywhere too. Yet, don’t get the wrong idea; we’ve enjoyed our time in the city. We really have. From all that we’ve heard, read and seen, the city motto here could be “Bucharest: much better than it used to be.”
In fact, it seems like the 1980’s were a particularly awful time to live in Romania for a thousand different reasons. The decade ended with a revolution that ousted Nicolae Ceausescu who was, by all professional accounts, a downright rat bastard. One impact of his regime that we hear about over and over was his destructions of several old quarters of the city in favor of building a modern, Paris-style central avenue. To many a Romanian’s chagrin, wonderful, amazing old parts of the city were toppled by hungry bulldozers. What does remain is the exceptionally cool Lipscani or Old Town. A small section of Bucharest that’s packed with truly beautiful old buildings, an endless array of tantalizingly hip bars and restaurants with outdoor seating and small pedestrian-only streets. Old Town has a pulse and flavor that makes it lively and distinct from the other parts of the city. The only shame is that 30 years ago it was a region that was so much larger!
Oddly enough, there are an unsettling amount of wayward dogs who are trotting around the city. Certainly an uncommon sight elsewhere, we’re told that most of these canines are harmless, but they cause enough trouble that reportedly up to 150 people a day get bitten. Straight out of crazy town is that the government has done little to tackle this issue. Apparently, the problem stems in part from the afore-mentioned Rat Bastard’s destruction of people’s homes during which time residents just set their pets loose. Also worth mentioning is the sheer volume of smoking we’ve seen in Romania. I know, I know – people everywhere smoke more than they do in the Untied States. We’ve seen it from Asia to Copenhagen. But, Holy Marlborough Man, I’m telling you do the people smoke in Romania. It is everywhere–street corners, stores and even the train. It is not just tolerated, it’s almost expected. You want to go to a restaurant with a Non-smoking section? Good luck. The law dictates that there must be one token non-smoking table somewhere in the corner, but that’s about it. And, in fact, recent legislation has repealed some of the smoking restrictions. As Brooke lamented yesterday, “Don’t these beautiful girls know they’re going to end up looking wrinkled and old by the time they hit 40?” It’s taken some getting used to. And my clothes smell like they did circa the bar scene in 1998.
Speaking of rules, we’ve learned that many laws in Romania are actually only kind of laws. There are loose interpretations on what’s technically illegal on everything from liquor sales to regulated taxi fares to parking and driving. We’ve witnessed that large parts of the world seems to have a more liberal take of road rules that we do in the United States. Silly us thought that common rules like pedestrian right of way and yielding to emergency vehicles would be universal, but as my dad has warned us, “Don’t assume anything when you travel.” (This would have also been good advice to heed when we had to visit four separate post offices in a confounding attempt to ship a box home.) One of our taxi drivers decided to cover some ground by driving in reverse for a few hundred meters down a one-way street. And the parking golden rule is “just wherever you can find a space” – which means sidewalks, driveways, crosswalks and more are fair game with nary a parking ticket to be seen. We’ve wondered how a few drivers even put the car in a particular space! This site offers some photos of the most bewildering offenders. We once again chose to blame the afore-mentioned Rat Bastard leader (although his hands are probably clean on this one).
All that being said, Bucharest has been a very safe city boasting an impressively low crime rate with apparently pickpockets accounting for the most dangerous threat. Combine that with a large number of people speak at least a small amount of English and we feel as comfortable and safe as New Yorkers strolling through central park. We’ve had some great meals, made a few wonderful new friends, and seen some impressive sights. While we can point out all those unique differences, we also can gush about how interesting it is to visit a corner of the world that doesn’t attract tons of tourists. Just…watch out for the dogs, smokers and loose wires.