April's Notes from the Road: Bucharest (2008)

I arrived in Bucharest last weekend and spent the week there. The last time I'd been in Romania was 11 years ago, when I traveled for several weeks and saw the country top-to-bottom, from painted monasteries in the northern reaches of Bukovina to castles in Transylvania to dodging stray dogs in Bucharest. So much has changed that in many ways Romania seems like an entirely new country. Yet at the same time, though the revolution and downfall of Ceaucescu occurred almost 20 years ago now, many things seem eerily the same...We flew down on TAROM airlines (Transport Authority of ROMania). The plane was pretty dilapidated, but we were served a meal that – though nothing spectacular – was far superior to what we would have received on a domestic US flight.Approaching Bucharest was similar to flying into Tuscany; rolling green hills, lots of greenery, tiny roads weaving their course every which way with no clear sense of direction (at least from above). Customs official was gruff but competent. We retrieved our bags, hopped in a car with a driver named George, and began our 20 km journey into town. Given all the growth in recent years, the trip normally takes 2 hours... en route we passed ginormous Ikea and Carrefour complexes before reaching tree-lined Sol Kiseloff (which reminded me much of promenades in Provence, complete with wide, dedicated bike lanes) and the historic quarter around Calea Victoria. The same plazas and huge communist buildings were still there and apparently in use, though in pretty rough shape, meanwhile sharing space with fancy new all-glass hotels and shopping boutiques galore.Arriving at the new Rin Grand Hotel was downright surreal. It claims to be the largest hotel in all of Europe; at 1,436 rooms this may well be true, and it is definitely the largest hotel I have ever stayed in. As much as size however was the oddity of the Rin Grand’s location – in the outskirts of town right next to where the city’s open-air used car exchange takes place every weekend. The area is as large as a neighborhood, with scrappy (and probably often stolen and on the black market) cars lining every sidewalk, parking lot and square centimeter of free space available. Just clearing one intersection to go downtown by taxi took upwards of 20 minutes. And for the final touch of surreality, at the same time as accommodating the IDLO course the Rin Grand was also hosting both the East European Junior Men’s Handball Tournament and the European Deaf Tennis Tournament. So we were constantly surrounded by super-fit people speaking sign language and groups of huge 20-something-year-old guys laying claim to public spaces and devouring more food than one would think humanly possible at mealtimes. My favorite memory of the handballers was getting off the elevator and having to pass under 15+ sets of armpits just to reach the lobby.As usual the IDLO course went well, and I learned a great deal about the differences between “micro” finance and small-and-medium-enterprise (SME) finance and rural finance initiatives in the region generally. As for Romania it seems that while some things are working, many others are not – at least not yet – and that a more complete and successful transition to capitalism and a service-oriented economy will still take some time. A few of my most memorable (and frustrating) experiences of this:

  • The hotel could provide room bookings only on a per-day basis. For example, I could get Sunday’s schedule only on Sunday. The idea that I might want to know Monday’s schedule a day in advance was incomprehensible, so I had to check in with reception the same day at 8am to know what was taking place an hour later.
  • We arrived at the main Piata Unirii (Unity Square) smack in the middle of town. Hungry, we looked around for a café to get a simple bit to eat. After several minutes of searching we found a café with tables outside, asked for the menu and sat down to peruse it. After several more minutes – in which it was clear what we were doing and ready to eat – a young woman came to ask us what we’d like. We made our request for a salad and traditional meat dish to split, only to be told that the kitchen was closed and no food was available. Okay, I get that restaurants are not open 24 hours a day, but why were we given menus to begin with -- or at least informed that they were useless -- when we arrived?
  • Another’ frustrating food-inspired experience occurred when several members of the IDLO group went out for a late supper one evening. We arrived at a delightful Italo-Romanian trattoria next to the Athenaeum, chock-a-block with signed Italian soccer shirts on the walls, and sat down to enjoy a good meal and each other's company together. The four of us who ordered pizzas got our food about 20 minutes later. However, the six others who ordered anything else – salads, pasta, meat – had to wait another 1 hour and 20 minutes to be fed. There was no apology, no explanation other than that the kitchen was busy (though we learned later there had been a small flood there), no offer of bread or anything else to stave off our hunger or mitigate the effects of the carafes of wine drunk, and an absolute expectation that we would not only pay for the full meals but also give a tip! Those of us in the group from the US and western Europe were appalled and angry; those from eastern Europe just sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, “well, what else do you expect?” Indeed, there remains much to be learned about customer service around the world…

There was relatively little time outside of the course to explore much of Bucharest other than the used auto lot next door and a few parks (Cismigiu Park was my favorite – complete with paddleboats and a section with free wi-fi!). The Museum of the Romanian Peasant was as endearing as I’d been told, complete with hand-written descriptions and things my grandmother would love. One afternoon I was able to go on a tour of the Presidential Palace (aka Palace of the People, a rather inappropriate and unfair reference to make), perhaps the most poignant relic of Ceaucescu’s megalomaniacal rule. This monstrosity required 700 architects and 20,000 laborers to work 24 hours per day for 5 years (from 1984 – 1989) and still remained incomplete at the time of Ceaucescu’s fall. It has 3,100 rooms and is the second largest building in the world in terms of surface area, just after the Pentagon; its volume is greater than the largest pyramid at Giza. We were told stories about how the palace once used up Bucharest’s entire power supply in 4 hours, while the rest of the population was in the dark, and how Ceaucescu required the marble stairs to be demolished and rebuilt when he felt that they did not adequately match his personal gait. This, along actions like exporting food (“to show Romania’s success and standing in the world”) while domestic rationing was in effect and much of the population was living in poverty, for over 35 years – and it is not difficult to understand why the reaction against him and his corrupt regime was so strong. Even today people speak of him in the worst of ways, or are simply silent when words are not sufficient to express their feelings.And yes, of course I got a handstand shot in front of the Palace. The security guards thought I was a bit wacky, which actually made me like doing it even more.Although we enjoyed Bucharest for all that it revealed itself to be – fast-changing, quirky, with beautiful decaying Art Nouveau architecture and taxi drivers that almost invariably overcharge – we were also eager to have a mini-getaway to (what we hoped would be) the quieter, mellower, greener reaches of northern Bulgaria. Our plan was to take the once-daily public bus to Ruse, just over the Bulgarian border, and connect onwards to the fabled town of Veliko Tarnovo. We had confirmed our travel plans and bus schedule with a travel agent in Bucharest and showed up at the designated bus stop 15 minutes in advance. We waited, and waited and waited… and got a bad feeling that we’d missed our ride. We contacted the agent again, only to be told that the bus company “was not very helpful” and that the bus had passed by 10 minutes before. Um, we begged to differ… But it was pointless to disagree at that point. We started exploring alternative options. Private car and driver to the border for 80 euros? Hitchhike? Ditch the whole Bulgarian idea and go somewhere else within Romania by train instead? We hopped in a cab and went over to the travel agency to get more information. As we’re sitting there, exasperated and hoping-to-goodness that we wouldn’t end up back at the Rin Grand, we were asked “How about renting a car?”Never having given much thought to the idea of car rental in eastern Europe – not least because it’s among the highest-risk regions in the world for car theft – our eyes now perked up. But how were we ever going to find a car in Bucharest on short notice, other than going back to the auto lot and buying a dilapidated one from the black market? (Although that could be fun too…) As luck would have it, there was an Avis office literally around the corner, and – even luckier – they had a nearly-new Opel Corsa that could be ours in about 10 minutes and for a surprisingly good price. We could hardly believe it! So that day turned into one full of fun surprises, and our exit from the country turned into a true adventure (note to self: never trust Romanian street maps). More on the crossing into Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo’s charms and hidden monasteries in my next post…