The moment my plane landed in Bucharest I fell in love. It didn’t only feel like arriving in another city, but also like I somehow discovered another sense of time. The airport looked old, but not how I’m used to experience “old”. It’s a different kind of old.
Once outside I got a weird feeling. I kind of recognized the smell of the air from somewhere in my childhood. It was so familiar I guess it just smelled like my grandmother.
Finding the bus was a different story. Once outside the airport one will find not much more than traffic and taxis. In cities like Bucharest the taxi drivers try everything to get you into their cab. Next to the various “special” prices I also heard “The bus stop is two kilometers from here”, “The buses are very slow”, and one buster even tried “Buses? There are no buses in Bucharest!”. I always wonder why the taxi drivers try so hard to take you for a ride, even though the prices aren’t that low. Even the best special price would have cost me more than a medium lunch and a couple of beers. Maybe it’s because of the huge competition or the low commission? Or maybe they all have a whole bunch of mouths to feed.
After a small walk around the area some very friendly guy guided me to the ticket counter of my bus stop. Maybe he noticed the puzzled look on my face when I was looking at the old buildings, broken roads and huge traffic, because when he left he said “This is Romania” with an amused smile on his face. I thanked him for the help and I knew I was going to like the place.
When I passed the regular duties – find the hostel, check in and jump the bed a little – it was time to get myself some food. Before I found a decent restaurant, people on the street tried to sell me two taxi rides, some booze and a Bulgarian and a Russian woman. Unlucky for those guys, the only thing I’m interested in when I’m hungry is food. Big plates of fat food. Preferably accompanied with a couple of beers.
At the restaurant I met Frederic, an internal auditor for some multinational company, whose colleague had become sick so he had to come to work to Bucharest all by himself. After dinner he decided I could as well replace his colleague for the evening, so we went to the bar of his five star hotel to have some cocktails which each cost more than a night in my hostel. Paid by the company of course.
The first thing I decided to do the next morning was to pay a visit to the old parliament building. Being the second largest political building in the world, this is the main tourist attraction of Bucharest. The building has been built by Nicolae Ceausescu – not by himself of course but by prisoners, military people and “voluntary” students – and I like to think that if he had seen things a little less grotesque, he might have been able to actually use it. Unfortunately for him the building was still unfinished by the time of the revolution in December 1989. The only reason why the building still exists is because it was cheaper to finish it than to demolish it.
You can only visit the parliament with a guided tour, which is something I really dislike. I don’t have anything against the guides though, but boy do I hate the other visitors. They talk while the guide is providing precious information, they step on the carpets while they’re explicitly asked not to and normally one or two of them get lost. However, for that last issue people at the parliament actually found a good remedy. At the beginning of the tour the guide warns you that if security catches you wandering around on your own, chances are that you’ll end up in jail. Needless to say that I never saw a group of people trying that hard to stick with the guide.
The positive side of a guided tour is that you get all kinds of fun facts. You may learn that the biggest chandelier weighs over 5 tons, some of the curtains weigh over one ton – without dust that is – and the biggest room measures 2400 square meters. I also learned that Ceausescu didn’t have much of a sense of humor. To build the parliament a neighborhood that was called Uranus had to be demolished. Seriously, if I was the big leader, that would be the last neighborhood I would want to lose. Maybe he just didn’t get the joke.
It was pouring rain at three in the afternoon when I was to meet Aoua at the Piatta Universitati. This place is actually one big crossroad with small parks in each corner and I didn’t have a single clue where exactly I was supposed to be. So I sat down on the stairs of the university building watching the students pass by. I also noticed some Roma youngsters inhaling in a bag. They looked quite miserable, so chances are they were feeling not very well. Or maybe they just felt great.
When 3pm passed by and there was no sign of Aoua, I figured my spot might not have been that strategic after all, so I went for a walk. Eventually I ran into her under the crossroad – each big crossroad in Bucharest has some kind of zone underneath for people to safely cross. In the meanwhile it started to rain even harder, but that didn’t stop Aoua from guiding me all over the old part of the city.
It was a pretty interesting tour, even though my ears froze off, but the best part was at the end when we went to a bar inside some park where she started to tell about herself and about life in general in Romania. She told me the medium wage is something between 250 and 400 Euros a month. The rent for a two room apartment is about 200 Euros, if you add water, gas and electricity you have a monthly cost of about 300 Euros and then you still have to eat, study and pay taxes. Aoua was proud to tell me that she still managed to save a couple of Euros a month to spend on travelling. It felt kind of awkward to think that if I was as conscious about money as she was, I might be able to save that amount of money every day.
On the way back to the hostel Aoua said: “It’s quite cold, we better take the subway. I have a month ticket, but don’t worry, if there’s no guard you can jump over the fence”. I’m not very in favor of illegally riding public transport in countries where I don’t have a clue about the possible fines, and I figured the price of a ticket shouldn’t be more than one Euro, so I told her it was no problem, I would pay.
“But everybody does it, trust me”.
I felt very relieved to see that there was a guard.
“That’s no problem either, I can go inside, then we wait fifteen minutes and then my ticket can be used again”.
“Why all the hustle? Can’t just buy a ticket?”.
“No, you don’t have to do that, I don’t mind to wait”.
As I didn’t want to offend her I waited fifteen minutes, used her card and rode the subway illegally.
A subway ticket would have cost me one Leu, which is twenty five Euro cents.
On my way from the subway station to the hostel I couldn’t stop wondering how it must be to live on such a tight budget. Only being able to buy a box of your favorite sweets once a month and never being able to eat salmon because it’s just too expensive. Would I experience more from life if I had to bite every Euro in two? Would I enjoy travelling more knowing that I had to save a couple of months only to pay for a low budget flight? I don’t know.
The next morning I discovered two blisters. I spent some time fighting the urge of another nap, but eventually it was the smell of breakfast that saved my morning. The sun was high in the sky, but once outside I found out that the temperature dropped about fifteen degrees. But hey, at least it was dry.
I went back to the old part of the city to try to reconstruct the tour I did with Aoua so I could take some photos. I only managed to find back about half of it, but at least I found the restaurant she told me about where I had to eat something she had written down on a piece of paper. At this very moment I still have no clue what I ate over there, but it tasted great! While I was finishing lunch a Canadian girl walked in. I had met this girl a couple of times before, always during lunch or dinner. Seems like she also had a good taste. When we left the restaurant I figured I didn’t know her name, even though we had spent quite some time –eating – together. I find it kind of strange that I never ask the name of the people I meet. Maybe I should start introducing myself. Or not.
The Village Museum – the anthropologic museum of Bucharest – is a must see in about every guidebook. Unfortunately it was on the other side of the city. But the weather was nice and in the meanwhile I got used to the cold, so I started walking. And walking. And walking the wrong direction a couple of times. When I finally arrived at the museum it was around half past 5pm, just in time to see the lady of the ticket counter pack her stuff to leave. So I walked back.
I still had a couple of hours to spend in Bucharest before my train would leave, so I went to the National Art Museum. Mostly because I needed change for a hundred Lei bill to pay for my hostel. The museum is divided in two parts, ancient and modern art. The ancient art consisted mostly of religious requisites, which I found kind of dull because I think you can find them in every medium church, or at least a replica. The most interesting was actually the translation of the descriptions. There were, for example, a couple of tombstones with each a description of about five lines in Romanian telling the visitor more about the inscriptions and about who laid underneath. The English description of all tombstones just said “Stone”.
The modern art part didn’t seem much more interesting to me. It consisted of a lot of portraits and a couple of still lives and nudes, all from the end of the nineteenth or beginning of the twentieth century. There was one painting though that immediately got my attention. Something called “Gipsy girl” by Nicolae Grigorescu. The girl on the painting had something in her eyes I fell instantly in love with. I also noticed that none of the nudes had public hair and I couldn’t stop wondering if people already shaved in the nineteenth century or if the painters those days just didn’t like it and left it away.
I’m quite sure I never really “experienced” the city. I saw the surface, but the closest I got to see behind that was through the stories Aoua told me. People in Bucharest seem too proud to show what’s inside. They look pretty happy, but if you would get a chance to look behind that mask I guess you would find a bitterness.
The day I arrived in Bucharest the Romanian government collapsed. One of both coalition parties blamed the other of corruption. This is how things are going even from before the revolution. The youth works on their future though, but not on the future of their country. They study very hard and work even harder to get a decent degree and get the hell out of their country. When I asked Aoua if she voted, she said she hadn’t, because it was a choice between bad, worse and worst. I guess this summarizes the general thinking. The government does a lot to keep up appearances, Romania became member of the European Union two years ago, in 2007, multinational companies are attracted and the prices are raised. But the people, they seem to be left alone.