Flipping Channels


Prior to 2012, it had been a few years since I owned a television. I still rarely watch it but it has one feature that doesn’t really exist when all of your video content comes from the internet – flipping channels.

This is a term that came from an older generation of televisions, which perhaps some of you once watched (as did I) when you had to manually turn (or “flip”) a dial to change channels. Now of course you can do it with a remote control but it’s still an interesting experience, a pseudo-random scanning of what material is being broadcast at any given time. My cable provider groups channels by categories (of their designation, not mine) but still you can occasionally discover interesting content purely by flipping around the channels.

Literally every single week someone (always a Romanian citizen) asks me why I live in Romania. One answer of course is that it is exactly like flipping through TV channels – there are hundreds to choose from and so my life here is like an enormous smorgasbord of adventures to choose from.

Flip! – Now I’m sitting in a cafe with Romanian writers talking about all kinds of cool literary things

Flip! – Now I’m shopping inside a sparkling modern mall with brand-name stores

Flip! – Now I’m dancing in a club with lasers and flashing lights and techno house music

Flip! – Now I’m sitting at a kitchen table, talking with a family as Mom makes sarmale

Flip! – Now I’m in a busy downtown square listening to a concert by big-name musicians at a free festival

Flip! – Now I’m walking alone in a quiet forest, enjoying the peaceful bits of nature

Flip! – Now I’m talking to Germans or Icelanders or Danes or North Africans from France or Tunisia

Flip! – Now I’m enjoying an herbal tea brew with an unpronounceable name and discussing Bach remedies with some Hungarians

Flip! – Now I’m discussing politics with some very well-informed journalists

Flip! – Now I’m in my garden, messing with my flowers and plants while my cats sleep in the sun

Flip! – Now it’s 5:00 am and I’m talking to my gypsy contacts as they hustle the drunk club patrons spilling into the streets in search of taxis and fast food

Flip! – Now I’m talking to some very old Romanians as they tell me stories of surviving World War 2 and what the long decades of Communism were like

Flip! – Now I’m at a Fourth of July party with a live band playing American country music

Flip! – Now I’m at the theater watching as an ensemble performs traditional Romanian songs and dances

Flip! – Now I’m on television myself, explaining for the billionth time why I choose to live here

And so on and so forth. There are so many “channels” to choose from that I’ll never have time to explore all of them.

A friend of mine once lamented the haphazard architecture in this city and she’s right, from an aesthetic point of view it’s quite unstructured. But it also means that I can wander around on foot and “flip the channel” within a few meters just about anywhere I go.

Flip! – It’s a busy street filled with zooming, honking cars

Flip! – It’s an enormous and gorgeous botanical garden filled with lovely plants and trees

Flip! – It’s the old city wall, still bearing the damage inflicted by Turkish troops hundreds of years ago

Flip! – It’s a huge mansion with its own swimming pool

Flip! – It’s an old house complete with traditional Romanian woodwork on the porch

Flip! – It’s an old house with a Saxon trapezoidal roof and unique system of eaves

Flip! – Hey it’s a functioning mosque!

Flip! – It’s an ancient church, hundreds of years old, that still is used for religious services

Flip! – It’s a ramshackle collection of housing, the walls slightly askew from years of neglect

Flip! – It’s a brand-new apartment building

Flip! – It’s a crazy cool building designed and built in the Communist years

Flip! – It’s an old Hungarian palace now being used as a government building

Flip! – It looks like nothing from the outside but once you go through the enormous gate (built so that a man on a horse could enter) you find a long courtyard with lots of side passages and arcades that you never knew existed until you wandered in there one day

Flip! – It’s a modern, busy street lined with businesses of every description

Flip! – It’s a quiet street of cobblestones with hidden restaurants tucked away that serve exquisitely delicious food

Flip! – It’s a beautiful park complete with a little lake and lots of shady paths to idly stroll along

And on and on… really and all of this is within a kilometer or less of where I live. And what’s interesting is that you can find this is any Romanian city, including most definitely Bucharest. Quite frankly I’ve never seen anything like it, with such a wide variety of change in such a short distance.

Does anyone really want to watch the Discovery Channel all the time? Of course not. And I don’t want to be on the busy downtown streets with all of the cars and noises all the time either. But there are dozens of gorgeous parks (not to mention the botanical gardens) full of quiet greenery that I can visit any time I like as well. There are neighborhoods full of rich people’s mansions and neighborhoods of older houses and crazy Art Deco buildings from the Communist era and old palaces and the houses of nobility and shacks where poor people live and old medieval towers and city walls all mixed in together.

Yes, it is true, some parts of Romania would tax the patience of a saint. Some Romanians are oppressively negative and it is hard to keep your sanity around them. But I always tell people, just “change the channel”, go find a quieter spot, or a fun spot filled with happy music, or go spend time with volunteers, or go visit a prison, or go spend time at an old folks’ home, or play with children, or hang out with skateboarders or go play some tennis or do some shopping at the mall or go haggle with steely-eyed fruit vendors at the piata or go somewhere to listen to live music.

There’s always another channel and there’s bound to be one that suits you!

And mind you, all of this is just in the city where I live. Romania is an enormous country and has everything from traditional villages in Maramures to the hustle and bustle of Bucharest to the watery expanses of the Danube Delta to canyons and mountaintops and places to ski and places to pick wildflowers in lush meadows. There are villages in Romania full of Russians or Tatars or Turks or Poles (yep!) or Armenians or Serbians or lots of other minorities, including the elusive Aromanians. There are even westerners salted away, from Dutchmen sipping coffee in certain bars in Bucharest to intrepid Australians operating organic farms in the countryside.

You could travel non-stop for a year in Romania and still not see everything, including castles, nature preserves, old churches, mosques and synagogues, museums, palaces, mines and Roman ruins. There are amazing restaurants, country inns, cafes and bars where you can try foods and drinks you’ve never had before because they are local or regional specialities. There is every kind of music you could ever imagine from techno house to lautari to klezmer to cover bands playing “Hotel California” to excellent jazz ensembles to philharmonic orchestras to the soaring arias of opera.

If you’re frustrated with Romania, if you’re tired of the people you have in your life, if the neighborhood where you live or work has become oppressive, all I can say to you is change the channel.

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6 Responses »

  1. You are so right and, FINALLY, I have got the answer why I moved to Romania 18 years ago ! GREAT post …………….THANK YOU !

  2. welcome back my friend

  3. Congrats and yes, welcome back my friend. Just finished reading this great post, I’ve got a big smile on my face and tears rolling down my cheeks.
    Thank you and I wish you a great weekend!!

  4. Wow! That’s you again! That is a sort of “Ode to joy”, I mean “Ode to Romania”! Thank you. “Beauty is in the eye of beholder.” I wish we all have your eyes.

  5. Great post, Sam! And great to have you back. BRAVO!

  6. :) So it is. Also, I realised that your ability to make the best out of Romania might be helped to a great extent by the fact that you work from home. Most Romanians have 8-5 office jobs, get home tired, and have little time and energy to really experience most of these awesome things except on weekends (when they want to rest and do their shopping, anyway). I am myself transitioning from student life to employment and the difference really stands out. We sell our time and energy far too cheaply, imo.

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