Travels with Kehaar: The Romanian Honor Roll
Defying my urge to dwell on the negative, I started to compile an Honor Roll of people/places/things that gave me joy while in Romania. I’m proud to say the list became surprisingly long. However, as we all know, through pain, comes humor. And my dedication to being choke-on-your-spittle hilarious, just for you, inspired me to simultaneously develop the Dishonorable Rat Bastard Roll. Those of you reading this blog for a while will know that the latter list virtually compiled itself.
In order to keep a fair and diplomatic balance, I will alternate the two. So, without further ado…
Honor Roll: The train system that defies the odds and is nearly always on time.
Dishonorable Rat Bastard Roll: The train cleaners that can’t seem to rid the passenger compartments of the garment-infusing urine pong.
HR: The farmers whose hard work makes for stunning vistas from nearly every road.
DRBR: The jackass civil engineer who hired his high school drop out son in-law over a pool of qualified candidates to head the city’s street resurfacing project that took all summer, which resulted in streets that lasted nearly two weeks before fissures, potholes and general collapse ensued.
When I went to Romania in 2005, my roommate for the trip, The Greek, developed a morning ritual. He’d sidle out of bed (he was good at sidling) and shuffled over to the window to see what kind of weather the day might hold. I don’t know why he bothered looking. I could’ve told him what the weather was like without leaving my own cot. It was early March and we were in Eastern Europe. The weather on any given day was bitterly cold and probably damp and miserable to boot. He still insisted on checking every morning anyway.
As he stood at the window looking out onto the trash-filled alley that was our view, he’d stretch and utter the first words of the day: “Man. What a shit-hole.”
This is how I woke up every day we were in Bucharest.
It was true too. Bucharest was (and possibly still is) a muddy, ugly, concrete pile of Soviet Industrial Era crap. The aforementioned alley was not just full of trash. It also held a pride of horny, feral cats that would howl and yowl at ungodly hours. You could never tell if they were having sex, killing some unfortunate rodent or possibly a combination of the two.
When we left our hotel and ventured out into the city, the sidewalks were practically impassable. They were either puddled with mud, crowded with cars or littered with feces from the packs of mangy strays that guarded every pile of garbage. Stepping into the streets to avoid the standing water or the dog crap was taking your life into your own hands. There were no discernable traffic laws in Bucharest. Drivers in tiny cars sped down narrow streets lined with other tiny cars. Intersections were fantastic free-for-alls in which the boldest went first and other drivers, less sure of their God’s benevolence, leaned impotently on their horns.
The one thing that was good about Romania were the people. The writer above obviously had some negative experiences but he was also in Romania a lot longer than I. I do know that corruption was and is a problem and the Romanian friend who sent me the link refuses to hang out with most other Romanians on the basis that they are an amoral, backstabbing bunch of drama queens, but the Romanians I’ve met have been universally warm and friendly. They certainly were more friendly than either the Hungarians or the French. It’s just that their chief city is a large, unattractive, stinking, steaming turd.
My own Romanian Honor Roll:
*To the woman behind the counter at the local market who attempted gamely to communicate with me in Romanian when I attempted to buy two beers, my first purchase using the local currency. The total came to 33,000 Romanian leu. I’d not previously had the opportunity to examine the denominations of the notes in my wallet. I was at the head of a long line of people trying to buy fruit and bread for their dinners. I stared at the wad of paper in my hand and uncertain of my next move, I held out two hands full of cash, hoping she’d choose appropriate notes.
She took a single 50,000 bill from the 2 million plus I had in my hands and rolled her eyes. I was to find out later that I had approximately two months salary for the average Romanian in my hands at that time. The long line of small, hungry people stared blankly at my act of American stupidity and I blushed as I realized my own comparative wealth. I think of that moment when I ponder why people yearn for America so badly.
*To the grizzled old man on the street selling flowers. He didn’t speak but he held out tiny bundles to us as we passed. I’ll never forget the grateful look in his eyes as I gave him the approximate equivalent of $.50 cents for three little bouquets. He brightened in a way that suggested to me that he’d gotten the better of the deal by far but he’ll never know how priceless was the gift he gave me in that moment.
* To the taxi driver who carted us from one side of Bucharest to the other. He spoke little English and we spoke no Romanian. We wrote the address of our hotel on a slip of paper, he examined it, nodded and we piled in. I compliment him in English on the lovely pine aroma of his cab and he nods hesitantly, obviously comprehending none of what I’m saying. To humor myself, I babble on endlessly. He nods and smiles and tells me several times he doesn’t speak English. This only drives me to talk louder and faster. I play the Ugly American to a T. I am greatly amused.
Eventually we begin to wonder where in Bucharest we are. None of us recognize any of the sites. Turns out the driver wasn’t familiar with the address we’d given him after all. After a quick huddle with another driver, we turn around and go back in the direction we’d come. Forty-five minutes after we set foot in the cab, we’re finally home again. We owe the cab-driver 150,000 leu but give him 200,000 for being such a good sport. He drives away and we finally do the math. 45 minute taxi ride in Bucharest? 8 bucks. Photo with the cabbie? Priceless.
* To the staff of “Dracula’s Castle”, in Bran who, even though we arrived at the castle on International Women’s Day, a national holiday in Romania, went out of their way and opened the doors so we could spend forty-five minutes touring the castle before leaving for Hungary.
*To the driver of our bus. For four days he drove a group of loud, obnoxious Americans around the city and across the countryside. He was there to pick us up at the airport, there in the morning when we finished our breakfast and there in the evening to take us to our classes. He drove us through the narrow, crowded streets of Bucharest and handled that bus in ways that excited our admiration. He drove us out of the city and into the Carpathians and drove us home again when we were all hung over and tired. In the end, he drove us to the airport and wept openly when we tipped him every bit of Romanian currency that remained to us. It was probably enough to feed his family for months.
* To the owners of and waiters and waitresses in the Romanian restaurants we visited. They smiled genuine smiles and went out of their way to make sure we had food, wine and liquor aplenty. Their obvious pride in serving Romanian cuisine to us was a sight to warm the heart.
* To the Romanian’s dad who dreams of coming to America so he can bag groceries and collect shopping carts in the parking lot. He couldn’t believe people were paid to do such things.
* To the Romanian’s mom who, the first time she stepped foot in Harris Teeter, stood in the produce section with tears streaming down her cheecks as she took in the plentitude around her. She is also convinced that American’s are fined if their lawns are not perfectly maintained. Lawns in Romania mostly consist of a square of dirt surrounded by a fence.
And, finally, to the Romanian who, full of sincerity and warmth and sometimes righteous indignation, has proven to be an honest, faithful friend for many years now and who proudly celebrated her first 4th of July as an American citizen this past summer. Thanks for the link and thanks for showing me what wonderful people Romanians can be, even if you don’t like them!