Romania - May 1May 15, 2001
This was what I thought about Romania in 2001 after my first visit to Bucharest, Constanta, and Brasov. The country is very different now and so am I; a lot of what I wrote on these pages now strikes me as pretty naive. However, I have resisted the temptation to revise these words in order to preserve both 2001 Romania and 2001 Me.
Since 2001, Romania has joined the EU, a Ceasescu-era Dacia is a nearly extinct species of car in Bucharest, pirated media is no longer sold on the streets (since everyone just gets it online these days), the Unirea shopping center in Bucharest has transformed from warehouse to thoroughly modern mall, and the once-unbeatable women's gymnastics team is now a little more human.
My original 2001 narrative begins below.
My May 2001 Trip
When I originally announced plans to travel to Romania, my American friends usually asked two questions. The first"Where is Romania?"was easy to answer. Romania is located in Eastern Europe. It borders the Black Sea. Transylvania, popularly known in Western pop culture as Dracula's stomping ground, lies in the northwestern section of Romania. Romania has mountains in the north, the Black Sea to the east, and lots of farmland.
The second question was "Why are you going there?" I will deflect that answer with some questions of my own. "Why all the questions? You a cop or something?" Just read the following, and I think you'll agree that the experience of traveling in Romania is a worthwhile one.
Bucuresti is the capital of Romania. Opinionated Romanians often describe it in negative tones. Much mention is made of the filth, feral dogs, and pickpockets. Many residents of Bucuresti seemed apologetic about their city. "It's good if you like trash," one resident informed me. A teenager from another part of Romania told me that people from Bucuresti were snobs.
But I loved Bucuresti. It was vibrant and alive, filled with friendly people and activity.
One typically arrives in Romania via Bucuresti's Otopeni Airport, which lies a few miles north of the center of town. The airport is small but very modern, the product of funding from a generous 1970's Romanian tennis sensation named Ion Tiriac (later president of Romania's Olympic Committeehe resigned in 2000 over the Andreea Raducan scandal). You see Tiriac's name all over Romania; there's a Tiriac bank chain.
While I could have followed the Lonely Planet guide's advice and taken a bus and tram "spre centru" (the center of town), my courage faltered and I did the thing you're admonished never to do as an American touristtake a cab. We later learned that taxicab fare to or from Otopeni Airport should be around 200,000 lei. By the exchange rate at that time, which was $1 to about 27,000 lei, the fare should have been around $7.
After giving the cabbie $40 US dollarsalmost half a month's average Romanian salarywe got off at the Villa Helga hostel. It's the one mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. A spot in a bunk bed cost $12 a night, and they preferred American cash to lei since the lei wasn't doing so hot at that time.
As your Lonely Planet guide tells you, the Villa Helga is indeed well placed. Tucked in a quiet neighborhood (save for the barking dogs) and a short walk from some major streets and the Piata Romana metro, it proved an ideal location from which to begin exploration. If you take cabs around Bucuresti, remember the Villa Helga's address (Strada Salcamilor 2), as no cab driver we encountered had ever heard of it.
The hostel's residents at the time consisted of girls from Finland and guys from Jordan, New Zealand, Wales, France, and the United States. Our international forum agreed: the Romanian women are gorgeous.
Click here for Bucuresti street sounds.
The Romanian Women
In the United States, several of my friends seemed dubious that Dracula's homeland would also be packed with beautiful women. Some friends had images of fat babooshkas with kerchiefs tied around their heads. One hypothesized that the women wouldn't shave.
But everybody who's been to Romania knows that the Romanian women are gorgeous. Astonishingly gorgeous. Even the Romanians know itand the Romanian women know it most of all.
Blonde hair is held in high esteem in Romania, so many women have taken to dying theirs that color. In Constanta a young man selling cosmetics from out of a bag drew the attention of no less than four waitresses, who all stood around scrutinizing the lipstick and eye shadow. Tall women are much desired; some of the beautiful, shorter women I talked to complained of their stature (and told me of their desire to buy high heeled shoes or pumps). It was sad to see an attractive Romanian girl complain that she wasn't tall enough, but such was the nature of competition in her country. "There are too many beautiful girls here," one beautiful girl told me.
Sympathetic though I was, I couldn't really complain. Sit on a park bench in Bucuresti and you will get a crick in your neck. Sexy girls, angelic girls, earthly girls, and ethereal girls pass by in thongsI mean "throngs" goddammit. Female friends typically link arms as they stroll down a street, a formidable human wall of beauty. Big eyes and big lips are standard features in the Romanian gene pool. Some of these girls looked like they had fallen from heaven (but without the extensive bodily injuries you'd expect from such an accident).
Incidentally, if you are introduced to a Romanian girl, DON'T kiss her on the hand. I read in a Romanian language instruction book that this is a normal way of greeting a girl. It isn't. You will look like an idiot. Like I did outside the Piata Romana. On the other hand, I can truthfully tell people I kissed one beautiful Romanian girl during my trip.
Click here to hang out with Mihaela and me.
The Romanian Economy
. . . sucks. This is good for the American traveler, who can dine on steak for less than seven bucks. Romanians, as you could well imagine, are not so thrilled.
I usually withdrew 100,000 or 200,000 lei from ATMs. In terms of "fast cash" options, 2,000,000 lei was the maximum. This, it turns out, equals about $70. You will sometimes get 500 lei coins in your change, but with inflation being so ridiculous these aluminum pieces are getting rarer and rarer.
An average Romanian's monthly income, according to the Romanians I spoke with in May, ranged from $80 to $100 a month. A brand new Dacia (their national car, christened after an older name for their country, and no looker) costs around $4,500. Apartments are rented out for $100 - $200 a month; which makes them prohibitively expensive for most twenty-somethings (who usually live with their parents).
But don't expect to see poverty and misery around you. Brasov was a thoroughly clean and modern European city. High school kids in Bucuresti toted cell phones. Most Romanians were sharp dressers (my American travelling companion Charles and I probably looked poorer than most of the natives around us). Most of the Romanian economy is proportional to Romanian incomes.
There is quite a black market for imitation fashion brand clothes. Fake Adidas shoes and Calvin Klein shirts are sold in their malls. Razvan, a friend of mine in Bucuresti, can tell the fakes from the real deals.
Just think: A Romanian waitperson working in the United States could make a relative fortune in a very short amount of timetheir cute accents would ensure big tips. But one dream out of reach for many Romanians is international travel. Most Western countries, unhappy with the pickpockets and beggars that entered their countries when travel was opened up, now impose heavy visa fees on Romanians. A $150 visa fee is pretty rough on a person making $80 a month. For many, the dream is to go to university, where one might exercise a study abroad option. Some fortunate Romanians work jobs that allow them to see the world.
(Note: Mirel Palada, henceforth referred to on these pages as "MP," wrote from Bucuresti to tell me that "The real problem is not with the high price of visas, but with their denial. All developed countries impose a tough policy on giving visas to Romanians.")
[UPDATE June 10, 2003 - Well, the EU is changing everything. Writes my friend Razvan from Bucharest: "About the visas... it is not a problem anymore for us to go anywhere in Europe. We are now able to travel all over Europe with one condition: we have to posses 100 Euro for each day spent in EU or country associated with EU. We are also a country associated with EU. If we were members...: )" Membership will happen eventually, of course!
UPDATE: December 3, 2010 - Membership of course did happen, and with it both great advantages and disappointments. Such is the nature of progress.]
"Will That Be in Dollars or Lei?"
Hotels and airport cabbies openly preferred dollars to lei. I suspect that they'd take francs or pounds, also, but since we were Americans it was American dollars they asked for. However, if there is a general bias, it does seem to be in favor of American cash. The Villa Helga hostel in Bucuresti, for example, states that they take US $12 a night; when we opted to pay in lei they had to take out a calculator and do the conversion.
At the Hotel Intim in Constanta they preferred to take dollars. A girl who worked there told me she thought it wasn't fair that the hotel took American dollars but paid the hotel staff in lei. She felt that everyone who worked at the hotel should be paid in dollars.
Mihaela at the Caffe Smiley showed me some money artwork by one of the owners of said cafe. This work consisted of framed bills from various countries arranged in interesting patterns, sort of like Victorian shadow box work. I offered one of my dollar bills, but Mihaela told me that it would be stolen long before it appeared in one of these money art pieces.
There are tons of "cash stores" around Bucharest. One chain was called "Nasty Cash," and their logo featured a fist clenching American bills.
We paid for all our meals and drinks in Romanian lei. I was told that Romanians tip about 5%if they bother to tip at all. That's why a Brit told us he tipped 10%. Charles tipped up to 200%. Based on my own experiences, I thought this might appear egotistical; the Romanians are pretty proud people, and to them it might have seemed condescending. But Charles insisted, saying that's what he'd pay for such service in America. So, when we went out together, I let Charles tip for both of us.
Gara de Nord
The Gara de Nord is an experience unto itself. It was the only part of Bucuresti I did not enjoy. If you look American you will be hustled. And, incidentally, if you come from America, you WILL look American. It's virtually impossible to hide one's Americanness. You could wear Romanian clothes and get a haircut in a Romanian barbershopbut something about your mannerisms, some subtle facial feature, or most obviously your insistence on speaking either a) English or b) Very Bad Romanian will give you away.
Cabbies were the most annoying presence at Gara de Nord; constantly imploring us to take cabs even when we were just switching trains. One offered to drive us from Bucuresti to Brasov ("Maybe there are no trains left for Brasov," he speculated hopefully). They lead a miserable life annoying travelers.
Pickpockets abound, and many poor people offer their services to you (for example, carrying your luggage) in exchange for an expected monetary reward. A lawyer we ran into advised us to take the airport luggage tags off of our suitcases; we were asking for trouble by advertising our international jet setting status.
Security at the Gara has increased tremendously. To get into the main terminal you usually must present a ticket to one of the guards. Entering without one invites a fine. When I went through one of the "wrong" entrances, I was intercepted by two young women, something I would not have minded had one not been shouting hysterically in Romanian while the other shouted hysterically in English. I was asked to pay them in order to enter, and I refused, thinking they themselves were scam artists (I found out later I was wrong on that score). I walked out, then reentered via the main entrance without difficulty.
The McDonald's inside the station provides the only real escape from the Gara de Nord's mania. There seems to be tighter security there.
"McDonald's McDonalds / Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut . . . "
They're all here. Pizza Hut invaded around 1994. Watch as American fast food magically transforms the thin and beautiful Romanian population into, well, something more American. Of course, if there aren't enough calories in your Big Mac "Menu," you can enjoy a luxury Americans don't and compliment it with Tuborg beer.
Service at McDonald's was excellent in Romania. Every employee seemed very busy and some even appeared enthusiastic about their duties. How long will it take for the Romanian McDonald's employees to become dour, disillusioned slaves to our global corporate machinery?
(Note: "The workers there look busy/enthusiastic because in these poorer East-European countries like Romania, eating at McDonald's is rather a privilege of the (relative) well-off, the products being pretty expensive according to local wages. That's why these public spaces enjoy a rather high status and, therefore, working there does not label one as being a loser, like in US."--MP)