Over all the years I’ve lived here in Romania, traveling everywhere from Bucharest to living in a remote mountain village, I’ve been treated incredibly well. Yet often I hear many stories of visitors who come here and are frustrated or dismayed when they receive (unexpected) rude behavior.
There are two simple things to understand to ensure you receive good treatment in Romania.
This is still a communist country.
Yes, although Romania is both a member of the European Union and NATO and the government might be superficially democratic but many, many of the people who live here are communists.
When I say “communist” I am referring more to a mentality rather than some kind of adherence to dogmatic Marxist literature. The way this mentality most commonly impacts the visitor from a capitalist country is when they find out not everyone cares about profits above all else.
Sometimes people whom you may think are supposed to do your bidding just because you’re paying them will ignore you or refuse you. Maybe an obviously empty restaurant won’t let you in. Perhaps a taxi driver takes one look at you (or your luggage) and says no way. Maybe someone brushes you off when you try to ask for directions, even if they’re uniformed police.
Blondes prefer diamonds and Romanians prefer Romanian
A great number of the inhabitants of Romania do not speak English or other foreign languages. Knowing a few basic phrases will be incredibly useful.
Furthermore, most Romanians who speak English (or other foreign languages) find it extremely stressful to speak it. They are often very hesitant to admit they even speak it.
Therefore, if you stop someone on the street where you’re speaking English, often times it’s the equivalent of asking them to take a quick math quiz, a stressful mental task that may not be all that enjoyable.
It is far better to at least initiate the conversation in Romanian and then bumble your phrases because then the person you’re talking to will feel confident in their own ability to talk to you and feel at ease.
sa nu va deranjati (sah new vah derren-jots) – Excuse me
There are several variants of how to greet a total stranger but this is the easiest one to pronounce for English speakers.
Every time you initiate a non-commercial conversation, you must beg the pardon of the person whose life you are interrupting. This opening phrase is therefore critical in situations like asking for directions.
nu vorbesc romaneste foarte bine dar stiti… (new vore-besk row-moo-nesh-tay fwart-ay bee-neigh dar shteets)
This means “I don’t speak Romanian very well but do you know…” and is a great way to set the other person at ease. It also alerts them (hopefully) to the need for them not to talk back to you at high speed.
…unde (oon-day) – where is/are?
gara (gah-rah) – the train station
autogara – inter-city bus station
centru (chen-true) – downtown/city center
Gruia cartierul minunilor – Gruia the neighborhood of wonders
un hotel – a hotel
un restaurant – a restaurant
un bancomat – an ATM/cash point
…cand (kund) – when?
vine autobuzul (vee-neigh auto-booze-ool) – the bus comes
pleaca trenul (play-ocka train-ool) – the train leaves
deschide (desky-day) – opens
inchide (een-key-day) – closes
…cat costa (cut coast-uh) – how much does it cost?
un bilet (oon bee-let) – a ticket
doua bilete – (dough-ah bee-let-tay) – two tickets
Even if that’s literally all the Romanian you can speak, it’ll be of incredible use to you, assuming you know your numbers.
dreapta (drop-tuh) – right
stanga (stunguh) – left
tot inainte (tote in-a-intay) – straight ahead
Note: Some of what is above is not prestige dialect “100% correct” Romanian but has been compressed for ease in saying and using it. Although slightly butchered, Romanians can understand it.
And far and away the most important thing to remember that regardless of which language you’re speaking, politeness counts a great deal in Romania and is widely respected.
Furthermore, be sure to use the proper greetings whenever engaging in a commercial transaction (you’re paying them) or your friends.
No Over Smiling
I’m making that its own separate heading because of how important it is. For a Romanian, walking down the street and then suddenly being stopped by a total stranger with a big grin on their face is a somewhat frightening experience.
Imagine a fully costumed clown with a rainbow wig and oversized red shoes suddenly stopping you on the street, wanting to ask you questions in super rapid Spanish about how to get to some museum and you’ll start to get the gist of how this comes across.
Smiling is for people you know. It doesn’t mean you frown or scowl at other people, simply just be fairly neutral and dignified in your carriage. I know in many Western countries it’s hard to be polite without smiling at all occasions.
The easiest way I can say this in English is be a gentleman or a lady and you’ll generally be treated as one. Stand up straight, comport yourself with dignity and treat others with courteous respect and accept nothing but the same from others.
Romania has been a deeply hierarchical nation for generations and how you portray your status will have dramatic differences on how you are treated.
And last but not least, this country is an incredibly old land, steeped with powerful forces that sometimes combine in WTF moments, little pockets of chaos. You just have to learn to shrug them off. Sometimes it’s not you and no it doesn’t make sense to anyone else either. It’s just Romania. If you want a manicured land of hermetic uniformity, I hear Switzerland is just the place for you ;)