Wow! I know technically it’s a violation of Romanian Cultural Law to even say this but the truth is I had a wonderful time in Bucharest.
Walked off the plane and there was someone right there waiting for me, holding up a sign that said “Sam Cel Roman”. If that isn’t the coolest thing, I don’t know what is ;)
I met with a whole bunch of wonderful people, did a full interview for the newspaper (coming soon to chioscuri in Romania!) and drank far more coffee than I have in a while – definitely an awesome trip.
But first I want to back up and rewind to the very beginning of the day. Around 4:30 in the morning, I called a taxi (with the usual result) to take me to the airport.
It had been snowing off and on all night and so I decided to walk down to the corner because I wasn’t sure if a taxi could even enter my street. It was bitterly cold (-9C/16F) and I could see my breath rise up in a large fog as I stood there in the crystal clear pre-dawn blackness, wondering how my journey would go.
Sure enough, the taxi showed up a minute later. My driver was an older woman (late 50’s), tiny and barely able to see over the steering wheel. As we rumbled over the icy, snowy streets, she was complaining bitterly about the road conditions.
Mind you, it was 4:30 am, it had been snowing off and on all day and night and yet only the smallest side streets were still treacherous. All of the main roads were clear and/or heavily sanded. Yet on and on she went, complaining about how the city should be ashamed of itself for not “cleaning” the streets better.
Her exact words: la noi ca la nimeni
That’s a deliciously pithy phrase in Romanian, which in English would translate out to “How it is here (with us), it isn’t like anywhere else”. Literally it would be “At ours like no one’s”.
While I can’t recall ever hearing that exact phrase before, the sentiment is extremely common amongst Romanians. Just about any problem or setback or even perceived problem and instantly it’s “only in Romania do things suck this bad”, never even realizing for one second that it’s usually not true.
I was in the back seat of the taxi chuckling to myself, remembering all the modern, western cities, from London to New York, that I’ve been to where snow removal and plowing isn’t always done well and lots of people complain. I don’t think there’s a city on earth (where it snows) that doesn’t have issues with snow removal. Of course! It falls at random intervals in sometimes massive amounts and it takes a heck of a lot of time and energy to essentially contravene nature.
Even if my wizened driver had never left the city confines of Cluj in her entire life, I think a moment’s worth of pondering on the subject would’ve made her realize that it’s really not that bad and has nothing to do with it being Romania.
And yet she didn’t – and millions of people here don’t take that moment to think and instead just reflexively respond la noi ca la nimeni.
The good news however is that I met a ton of Romanians in Bucharest who were all making this country a great place, where la noi ca la nimeni is an awesome thing and exactly why I live here.
It was also great talking to people who have read this site and getting to hear their opinions. I’ve been getting lots of wonderful comments online and emails and tweets but this was the first time I’ve gotten so much face to face interaction. In four words – I was blown away.
A brief list of a few things I “took away” from my trip to Bucharest:
- There’s definitely a need for my book for foreigners. While I didn’t meet any on this trip, I met a lot of Romanians who work with foreigners in this capital. I definitely heard some funny stories about some very bewildered people who work for prestigious international firms and then one day hopa! they (and their entire family) get transferred here.
- Jeez even if my book sucked and was horribly written, there’d still be a need for it because there’s almost nothing else out there, period.
- Romanians cannot stop reading the book. Literally. I wrote the entire thing thinking of the needs of foreigners in this country but every Romanian who has picked up the book just seems tickled pink to read about what they already know.
- And, in a shocking (to me) amount of instances, the Romanian readers of the blog/book tell me, “I read something you wrote that I didn’t even know.”
- I was asked for my newspaper interview, “Why do you say you’re more Romanian than others?”. My answer, “Because it’s true.” And it is.
The interview, by the way, was with the fine folks at Romania Libera. I always used to think of them as “Grandpa’s Newspaper” but now they’re part of a Swiss(?) multinational conglomerate and so they’re re-branding to a younger, “more hip” image. They’ve got a lot of very bright, young people on staff, that’s for sure.
The offices, by the way, are located in a massive office complex. It had an extremely advanced elevator (Brit: lift) system that completely confused me. I felt like a taran who just fell off the turnip wagon as the patient Romanians in the lobby explained it to me.
To maximize efficiency, you tell a computer what floor you want to go to. The computer then assigns you an elevator (which arrives super quick) and then you go in. But you don’t press any more buttons – the computer “just knows” which floor you want to go to and takes you there. Insanely advanced and like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Yep – poor old Romania has advanced “smart” elevators. Let’s all pause for a moment to cry, shall we? :P
When I know when the article is appearing in print, I’ll let all of you know.
A few fun things I did that I didn’t expect to do:
- At the Cluj airport, in the hyper-modern new terminal (poor old Romania *sniff*), I saw a lovely display showing off the city’s sophisticated waste management system (Rom: deseuri). The very first time I flew out of Cluj (the year 2000), I met a Dutch guy who was here precisely to help the city build that system. In those days, most city trash was burned in an open air pit on the outside of town.
- Ride in a Hal 9000 elevator.
- Got to eat mamaliga in a university cafeteria. I was immensely pleased to see they also had salata de varza as well, with everyone around me eating some. That’s why I created the shirt!
- Go for a jog with some gypsies.
Oops, I guess that last one needs explaining, eh?
I and another person were finishing up our meeting and walking to his car near Piata Unirii. When we got in, he turned the key and realized he had left his lights on and now his battery was dead.
Most cars (and including his) in Romania are stick shifts (manual), which means if you get the car rolling fast enough and pop the clutch (Rom: ambreiaj), it’ll kick over the motor and start the engine for you. The problem was we were in a fairly small parking lot and didn’t have enough space to let the car roll down a hill and let gravity do the work.
The solution? Well in America you’d have to call a tow truck or Triple A and wait hours. In Romania you whistle and a band of gypsies appear out of nowhere and together you all go shoulder to shoulder, pushing the car up an incline :))
Awesome, truly awesome. While I don’t drive anymore, I certainly have driven a lot in America and had cars break down and need jumps, and had to flag down people and never, ever did I have an experience like that.
UPDATE: Excuse me, a group of noble Romany and not Tigani minorities helped me push the car up the hill.
All in all, it was a great trip, including the fact that I flew in comfort and ease for the 45 minutes it takes to reach the capital on the chocolately goodness that is TAROM. Even though they gave me ness and not real coffee, they’re still awesome. And yes, they were definitely all sporting those wonderful neck scarves :D
They also gave me a free newspaper to read, where I found a hilarious article that I’ll do a full post on later.
A few practical notes:
- Otopeni is still set up exactly the same way as I described it. I guess that’s the layout that they like, even though it’s still quite confusing for domestic flights (esp if you don’t speak Romanian, jeez).
- Airport security is fast, fairly low key and efficient. It is however still quite ridiculous with the whole shoes/belt/laptop separate removal thing and an insanely complicated series of rules on liquids.
Of course it isn’t USA-level bad with body scanners and all that. And they’re decent enough to give you “booties” to slip on over your socks so you don’t have to walk on the filthy floor as you pass through.
I also noticed that while public transportation is still quite cheap (3 lei for 2 rides), other things are vastly more expensive in Bucharest. I regularly saw coffee for sale at 7, 8 and even 9 lei for what in Cluj would be 4.5 to 7 lei (outside of Starbucks of course).
All in all, a great trip. The next step, for Romania, is to get the physical book in stores. I’m as impatient as you are, believe me. But it’s only been on sale in America for two weeks so a little patience, okay? It’s worth it. Of course if you’re in Cluj you can come see it for yourself on Sunday (see “My Public Schedule” at the top of the page).
Right now the only place to get the physical book is via Amazon (from the United States). Just to let you know, they do deliver to Romania. I think I got my copies in about 10 business days so it really wasn’t all that much time. You’ll have to look on their site to see what the shipping costs will be.
All of the electronic versions of course are downloaded “instantly” and can be read on any device, whether your smart phone, laptop or regular old desktop monitor. The software to do that is free.
And of course, there are over 250 posts on this blog which you can (and probably have) read for free. If you like what you read here and think others would too, please tell them via Facebook, Twitter, Myspace or whatever other sites you use.
Which, by the way, I now have a Facebook page. It’s just getting started but you can check it out if you’re a Facebooker (see sidebar).
I truly believe with all my heart that this site and this book are a good thing, un bun adeverat. For me it’s the only way I know how to repay the amazing generosity and kindness from all the Romanians I’ve met and known over the years, most definitely including the people I met for the first time yesterday in Bucharest.
If you believe that too, tell others! The book and website now exist. The next step is getting it “out there”. I think it’s a win-win situation for everybody and that’s exactly why I am proud to say I wrote every word and lived every anecdote here in the land of la noi ca la nimeni.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!