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Romania trip report - Travelogue


By:  David T. S. Fraser

04 February 2005 / Travel Library

I just got back to Canada after a three and a half week visit to Romania. This was my fourth visit and I thought that I'd follow in the footsteps of other posters and share my impressions. Please feel free to comment.

Here goes ....

When reflecting back on this visit to Bucharest and my previous three, it is extremely difficult to describe the changes, let alone quantify them. One thing in certain, there are changes taking place. The first place where one is struck by a dramatic transformation is at the airport, of all places. On previous visits, the plane was met by grey, dilapidated articulated busses belching foul diesel smoke. On this occasion, the busses had been replaced by shiny ones, so new that they still have German license plates. We were whisked away in heated comfort to the terminal. As the bus made its loop, we approached the huge windows of the arrivals hall. Inside, one could make out shiny floors and sparkling counters. Signs in many languages hung from the ceiling, uncontaminated by the dust and grime.

Unfortunately, this was not for us. The new terminal was opening the following day, so we had the privilege of being one of the last plane-loads to pass through the old section. (I will not describe the chaos that followed, since the new terminal will now greet anyone who ventures into Otopeni. If you want to hear of the chaos, drop me a note and I'll tell you all about it!)

Once past that hurdle, we drove into the city. The landmarks were all familiar, as was the faint smell of diesel in the air. We passed the old Scienta building and approached the Arcul de Triumf. Under the arch was a large Christmas tree, lit up with white, green and red lights. The Arcul glowed under the arc-lights as traffic whirred around in the usual frenzy. More christmas lights guided the way down Kiseleff towards Piata Victoria. From the arch, we turned off and proceeded home.

The following day, I undertook my usual ritual of waking early and wandering around town. From the Canadian Embassy, near Piata Romana, I walked down towards the Intercontinental. Most of the shops were closed, but looking in fogged windows revealed fully stocked shelves. I looked in a butcher's shop. Exactly a year ago, it only had sausage links hanging on the hook on the wall. This year, the counters were full and huge pieces of meat dangled from the hooks. An encouraging sign. As traffic began to pick up around me, I wandered to the Piata Universitate. On the exterior walls of the Geography faculty newspaper articles and hand-lettered signs had been pasted. Graffiti above them proclaimed the area to be a "neo-communist free zone" and "Piata Tienanmen II." The latter was attested to by many small shrines placed along the perimeter of the square. In the centre of the square, on a traffic island before the actual circle stood a large cross commemorating the events of December 1989. Wreaths draped with red, yellow and blue were leaning against the cross while stubs of candles sat in a pool of wax at the base. The "heroes of the revolution" had not been forgotten this year either.

From the University, I walked past merchants who were setting up tables on the sidewalks towards Unirii and Ceausescu's "House of the People". I went into "Unirea," the huge department store at Piata Unirii. Half of the building was its drab usual self, boasting some pretty shoddy products and grim looking staff. The other half of the building had been broken up into smaller, private stores. The variety of items the boutiques stocked was amazing. Just about every "consignment store" was selling Chinese down jackets, from the skiing kind to full length coats. There are some more specialised stores, like a stamp shop, an office supplies store, a computer shop and a few travel agents. All in all, it was impressive, especially in contrast to the drab atmosphere of Unirea.

I left Unirea and walked towards the "House of the People." Along the boulevard, many Romarta stores had been replaced by chic looking shops boasting the latest in cosmetics: A Chanel store, a Mercedes-Benz dealership and a Computerland. The Computerland was one of three, all owned by a Romanian-Canadian. Unlike their outlet in Brasov, this store was empty, obviously just setting up before its grand opening. Between the newly renovated boutiques were the regular stores that specialised in whatever they could get. Bras made from burlap-like material were next to silk ones, both contrasted with fan-belts for a Dacia 1200. Certainly things had changed, but some ideosyncracies had remained.

Christmas day was relatively quiet. We slept until 10:00 and then attacked the tree. After brunch, the door bell rang. The garbage collectors and street cleansers had been coming for about a week, looking for their Christmas bonus. By the latest poll conducted on the front step, the house is serviced by four separate crews of garbage collectors and five street cleaners. But this time, it wasn't municipal employees on our stoop. As I opened the door, a deer-head poked in. It wasn't an actual deer-head, but a mask complete with a jaw that slapped open and closed. Around the man in the deer suit were nine others, all wearing traditional costumes. Two had accordions and the rest had drums. All had the distinct aroma of tuica (plum brandy). For about five minutes, they sang and danced. It was quite a sight. They asked for a little something for their efforts. The didn't want cash, but a pack of Kent cigarettes each did the trick. They staggered off to their next venue, playing and dancing the whole way. Last year, we never saw anything like this.

For Boxing Day (the day after Christmas), my brother and I were invited to Mother Theresa's orphanage for a carol service. A Scottish friend of the family had volunteered there for three months during the summer and had returned for two weeks over Christmas. I didn't know what to expect since I had heard stories both horrific and heart-warming about the situation of orphans in Romania. The Missionaries of Charity orphanage was established by Mother Theresa about two years ago to provide a dignified place for "hopeless" children to die. The children, most of whom were disabled in some way, had come from orphanages where huge numbers had already died. When we were taken into the dormitory-type room for the young girls, we were swarmed. Within seconds, little children were frantically climbing all over us, holding our hands and just touching us. Some were just vicious to the others when they felt that they weren't getting enough attention. All of the children were "not right" in some way and no child was the proper size for his or her age. Six year olds were the size of "normal" three year olds, though none looked like they were underfed. In fact, we were there during their supper time and the food was hot and healthy. A nun from India told me that when the orphanage opened and the first sixty kids were brought in, all had to be bottle-fed for the first five or six months regardless of age. At the time, almost none could walk or speak. Few were expected to survive. Now, almost all but the infants are on solid food, running about and nattering away.

The next day, I was awakened by the phone ringing. It was our Scottish friend at the orphanage asking for a volunteer. The "nunmobile" had died a few months earlier during Mother Teresa's visit and, knowing God would provide, they rang up to see if it would be in form of our Jeep. Some of the kids from the Missionaries of Charity orphanage were going to put on a nativity play for the kids at State Orphanage #1 and they needed a way to get them there. I had been warned that orphanage #1 was not typical of most Romanian orphanages. It is in the middle of a fairly posh residential area, populated by the nomenklatura, just off the Arcul de Truimf. It was here that Michael Jackson visited a few months back as part of his "Heal the World" campaign. In short, it is the government's show-piece. After three trips ferrying kids, nuns and volunteers, I went inside. The halls had been heavily decorated for Christmas; tinsel and pine trees were everywhere. Everything was clean and the children seemed happy. It seems almost impossible to describe the nativity play itself. The script was Romanian, of course, so I only understood a few words. Most striking was the fact that the kids were able to do it at all. The same children who were part of unfettered chaos the day before were little angels, costumes aside. They sang the hymns very well and enjoyed themselves so much that afterwards they gave their renditions of unrehearsed songs that I remember from summer camp. All the children were smiling, dancing and clapping. It was an amazing sight.

The next few days were restful, as most of the city was closed for the holidays and did not reopen for quite a while. On the fourth, we went to Bucur Obor market and the place was a ghost town. All the stalls were empty and the doors chained shut. We tried again a few days later and it had returned to its bustling existence. Half the stalls were full of Moldovans selling the largest variety of products I've seen. One table was full of electronic parts mixed in with Russian birth-control pills and Turkish running shoes. Dacia cam shafts were proffered in the corner, still dripping with oil. In the next stall, a bundled up woman hovered over a bathtub full of pickled cucumbers.

The night-life in Bucharest was as exciting as I remembered. On one of the first nights in town, we went to the Vox Maris night club about a block from the University Square where we had gone last year. The same older men were dancing with the same young women to the same music. It lived up to the ad, "A night at Vox Maris will be remembered." We limited it to only one night. Another time, we went to the Calise night club. It was a Friday night and the place was packed to the rafters. Unlike the Vox, it was full of younger people. We stayed for a few hours until a half-dozen skinheads in leather jackets came in. Later, the only nice place we found was a small cellar disco in Lipscan market. From five in the morning until ten at night it is a cafe upstairs. All other times, the action moves downstairs. It was very small and the music was varied. I spoke to the DJ and discovered that it had only opened on the fifteenth of December. Compared to the Vox, this place has potential.

After three and a half weeks, I was sorry to leave. Despite the fact that for almost half the time I was there most stores and museums were closed, it was a good time and I saw most of the places that I had intended. Unfortunately, this fourth visit will probably have been my last since my father's employer is no longer picking up the tab. Of all the places my parents have lived, I have really enjoyed Romania. There is an incredible depth of culture overlying a tragic history from which the people are slowly recovering. For the past two years, this recovery has been incredible to witness as an outsider.

For anyone who has not been to Romania before, but is thinking they might, here are a few "must visit" places in Bucharest:

National History Museum
Natural History Museum
National Military Museum
Museum of the City of Bucharest
Village Museum
Lipscan Market
National Museum of the Peasant
National Gallery
Herastrau Park
Casa Capsa (Restaurant founded c.1869 and has kept its doors open uninterrupted)
Arcul de Truimf
Piata Unirii and Unirii Boulevard
House of the People
National Cathedral
Just get a good map and meander around the town. There is so much to see.

David Fraser | fraserdt@unixg.ubc.ca
University of British Columbia | Vancouver, BC, Canada.


2005 Feb 4