Being Brave In Romania #1
First Impressions From a Spoiled American
My first moments in Bucharest, Romania, were spent in a taxi. The driver swerved frantically around parked cars, tall buildings with centuries old architecture, and a scarf-clad lady pulling a cow down the street. I wondered if they’d just been to a bar and I wished I could join them for a frosty glass of something.
The driver’s cigarette was stifling, so I opened the window and let my hair blow like cornstalks into my face. A pleasant alternative to suffocation. There were people dancing precariously close to death as they tried to cross the busy streets. I figured they were really brave to attempt it. Just like Frogger in that popular old video game- he’d rush out, change his mind and try to find a log for safety. Eventually he’d get across with both legs intact. I, personally am not that fast, and worried that I’d go home to my family missing a few parts. I think as babies, Romanians learn how to cross those streets with ease, the same way they learn to ride the metro standing up holding on to a pole for dear life.
We found the hotel. I can’t remember it’s name but I remember the metal elevator and the noisy chains that went up and down all hours of the night. It was a paneled box with no escape and never quite reached the next level. On some floors, a big piece of steel blocked the exit and you had to find a secret latch on the side to get out. But the lady at the front desk seemed nice.
The last two days flight had been grueling and I wasn’t in the mood for a room without a bathroom. At least it had a sink and I could clean up before dinner. I turned the key on the inside, closed the curtains and slipped into something comfortable. An hour later- after a German episode of Friends on the TV, it was time to leave. But my door wouldn’t open. My luck. It was the fourth floor, no phones, and silent as the grave. I tried wiggling the key in the lock and shaking the door back and forth like a wild woman. To no avail. So I just started screaming and pounding my wrists upon the wood. Ten minutes. Fifteen. Surely someone would come eventually? My arms gave out but my anger was immense. Undignified. I hadn’t been undignified in a long time. A southern blonde middle class American Republican? It felt good.
A suave dark haired Romanian gentleman came to my aide. Why do they have to be so romantic looking? Even the older ones could kiss your hand and send stars into your eyes. He taught me to say thank you in Romanian. Multumesc. It’s tricky but effective if you’d just spent time locked in a room no bigger than a closet. The next morning he brought me a glass of orange juice-orange something that smelled remotely like fish, but it was a nice gesture.
For breakfast, I had a pastry at a small shop. No cheese, but plain, dry, and safe from digestive misfortune. I was afraid of having stomach problems in the middle of Eastern Europe. So I stayed away from anything remotely questionable. (Except for a “Greek Mac” at the train station that tasted good, but left me feeling less than great.)
As far as money is concerned, most things so far had been cheap. 100 lei is around 3 dollars, and spending it is like passing out Monopoly bills. Even the ATM machines give out lei. You have to be careful how many zeros are on the numbers you’re taking out.
We went to a special arts district that was surprisingly expensive. But they had hand- blown glass perfume bottles and delicate vases. I was fascinated by the colorful animal hair wall hangings – masks with bulging eyes, long protruding noses, clown lips, and horns at the top. Residents use them during holidays to scare away evil spirits. I almost brought one home but I had already thrown out my clothes to make room for souvenirs.
So the day ended on a two-hour train ride to Busteni. It was overcrowded and we sat in separate places, this small group of five writers and our two guides. I’m sure my face was pale. The seats were old, crusty, and filled with strangers. In the midst of this alien countryside, the air was hot and exciting; stuffy, and strangely wonderful.