The Bucharest Bugle: Issue 25-27

Monday, 30 Mar 98

Today we have to decide on transportation for the trip to Baia-Mare, a city that is NNW of Bucharest and literally at the other end of the country. The choices include plane, train and car. There is one plane a week that leaves on Monday morning (if you can get tickets) or you can take a 10 hour car ride or you can take the overnight train leaving Bucharest at 9 PM. Returning is even more fun.

When you are there, there is not very much to do, primarily the mineral museum and a few old structures. The city is described as the worst of "socialist realism" (unlike Slobozia which has a pleasant appearance for a small city). The nearest interesting thing is 3 hours by car. Considering the need for a return to your starting point, not a lot you can do unless you have some time to spend.

Trading superstitions: Here, opening an umbrella indoors is not bad luck but whistling indoors brings bad luck (in Moldova bad financial luck). "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Friday and Tuesday the 13th are bad days. Life is tough in Romania.

It is a comment on the American inability to act rationally that the French Embassy, as an act of mercy, allows their doctors to treat Americans because the American Embassy refuses to do so. This in a city alleged to have 250,000 dogs. The number that are rabid is unknown. What would you do if you were bitten by a street dog?

Ticket scalping in this town has reached a high art form. Groups will buy ALL the tickets to a popular movie and then scalp them in front of the theater -- for a markup. Very entrepreneurial and somewhat frustrating if you want to see the movie.

There is a very active theater life in Bucharest: I saw signs for the ever famous Asleplandu-l Pe Godot de Samuel Becket and "Purcele" dupa "La Pucea l'oreille" de Georges Feydeau. They are both favorites of mine.


Tuesday, 31 Mar 98

Today I went to Slobozia, a city of about 120,000 that is two hours east of Bucharest. When we reached the outskirts we stopped at "Dallas Ranch," one of the stranger post-Communist experiences in Romania. The story goes that someone, by bribes and other indelicate means, got enough money to build a highly eccentric "theme park" on the outskirts of Slobozia, apparent under the assumption that people would flock there to see the fifteen story Eiffel Tower replica (I am NOT kidding, I have seen it rising like an oil derrick across the plain), and the reproduction of buildings from the Dallas TV show. The guy is now in jail.
Above, the replica of the Eiffel Tower that was constructed outside Slobozia, Romania.

An amusing aside about the training: I was asked to say a few welcoming words to the participants, so I said, "On behalf of USAID and Chemonics, I welcome you to the third in a series of training programs. Our hope is that these programs will help you in implementing democracy in Romania." I then sit down and listen to the translation which went on and on, containing many more words than I said.

When the translator finished, I said to her, "I didn't use that many words," and she said to me, "Ceausescu was known to contradict his interpreter. I advise you caution." Romanian life and times.

Bait and Switch: At the hotel where we stayed, linen napkins are placed at each setting, then someone comes and takes them away. I fantasized grabbing my napkin from the waiter and tugging on it, screaming, "No, no! Let me have my napkin!" The replacement (already at the setting) is a piece of single ply paper, stiff, non absorbent. This is the case all over Romania.

My hotel room was an interesting experience. I could only distinguish the floor mat from the bath towel by width. The bath towel seemed to have a sand paper quality and in length was exactly one inch short of the size of my waist. Part of roughing it here is shaving in the nude.


Sunday, 5 Apr 98

I went out for breakfast and ate in a patiserie. I came back to my apartment and read the New York Times for March 22. The tenuous umbilical cords to home. Went out at 12:30 to walk to Piatza Universitate to meet Tony, an on-line friend of mine. I had posted to a couple of European listservs (electronic mailing lists) the fact that I was a mono-lingual American who would be visiting Bucharest and asked about where to go and what to do. I got about five responses and Tony's was one.

We had kept up our "penpalship" and I invited him and another person, Adrian [try not to get confused, there are MANY Adrians in Romania, this is a new one], to dinner to thank them for their help. Well, Tony informs me that an invitation to dinner is a big deal here in Romania and that it would make him indebted to me and blah, blah, blah [Romanian translation: blah, blah, blah] it was a big deal and he wasn't really sure he could accept the responsibility of having dinner with me. I confirmed with others that eating out is for the top ten percent of the population only so such an invitation is an event here.

We eventually got this sorted out and he agreed that since Saturday the day before was his birthday, he could consider the dinner as a birthday gift and not be in my debt for everlasting time. He asked where and when and I suggested under the rotating clock in University Place. He agreed to the place but set the time at 1 PM so he could be sure to get enough sleep.

I arrived early so I used the time to locate a restaurant that is open and then walk back to the revolving clock. I stood under the revolving clock and did some people watching. This is a major place to meet other since it is a big piatza on a main drag with numerous tram, trolley bus and bus routes on the street and an exit from the Metro as well.

So I watched men waiting for women, groups of men waiting for friends, women waiting for men. As I got the lay of the land, I watched each person eventually meet someone and go somewhere else. But no Tony. I was not surprised having expected, in my more paranoid moments, a sting operation, involving the KGB and blackmail, to get American secrets. I waited 30 minutes and decided to go to the Museum of the Peasants.

The museum is interesting but I could have gotten more out of it if there had been English translations. Costumes, gateways, pottery, fabrics, etc. The basement had the most fascinating exhibit. News papers from 1948-49 plastered on the walls, oil paintings of Lenin and Stalin, metal busts of same. About 8 paintings of one man who I guess to be the first communist president of Romania, you know, what's-his-name.

I walk home and get relaxed. The phone rings. It's Tony, very apologetic; he had been there but on the other side of the square under the clock in front of the Intercontinental -- though it doesn't rotate. He has an interesting voice so I was inclined to believe him. And, after all, he had written me such nice emails.

So we were to meet at 5:30 for dinner. In his email acceptance of my invitation he had said that he would wear a certain kind of jeans but the word wasn't a brand name so I was wondering if I would be able to pick him out. He had sent me a picture of him but his image was so small in it that I doubted that I would recognize him. I had sent him a picture of me with very close cropped hair so he had the advantage on me. He had even emailed me a compliment on my picture.

I heard a choir singing down below. Very pleasant choral music. It grew louder and I looked down from my balcony to see a religious procession passing below. At first I assumed it was a Romanian Orthodox church procession but when I could read the signs they are carrying it is clear that it is the Catholic Church in Romania that is celebrating Palm Sunday. Corroborative evidence was given by the fact that the people who were not in the choir were not singing.

For the second time in the same day, I am under the rotating clock. This time Tony walks up to me and we go to the Cotton Club which was open but completely empty. We talked. He has a British pronunciation but speaks very clearly with an excellent vocabulary. He finds English easy to learn but has problems with French and German (minor, I bet). He has black hair and is about 5' 8' tall. He told me that he had meant what he said in his emails, that he really enjoyed meeting me and he went home. He sent me a nice email later. We may get together again.


A Virtual Tour of Romania
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley