IMPRESSIONS OF BUCHAREST

The name ‘Bucharest' has, to most westerners, a rather exotic sound that exemplifies the idea of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, most Americans don't have much of an idea about Eastern Europe or even know in what country Bucharest is located. More than one person asked me why I was going to Hungary. I gently reminded them that Budapest was in Hungary and Bucharest was in Romania. 

While trying to arrange flight connections for my trip to Romania, I stopped at a large travel agency near my home in Pennsylvania. When I told the travel agent where I wished to go, she looked at me with incredulity and said, “Romania? I've worked here 20 years and no one has ever wanted to go there.” Then she gave me several possible flight connections and told me to get back to her when I decided. All the connections she gave me involved at least a 14-hour layover in Frankfort, Paris, or Milan. I went home and booked the flights on line with Orbitz with 2-hour layovers.

I must admit to not knowing much about Romania before I went there. I'll also admit that, having been, there I still don't know much about it. Not speaking the language was a big obstacle. However, what I now know is way more than I ever expected to know. I read up on some history of the country, its politics, its economy, and its stormy past. None of it prepared me for what I found when I arrived. It was like reading about someone and then actually meeting them.

Romania is comparable to the state of Oregon in size. It shares its border with five other countries. Starting at the 7 o'clock position is Yugoslavia Then there is Hungary at 10 o'clock, Ukraine at 12 o'clock, Moldova at 2 o'clock, and Bulgaria at 6 o'clock. I found it rather unsettling that, with less than a day's train ride, I could go to any one of these countries. I can't help but believe that some sort of national claustrophobia has contributed to the culture here. Romanian borders have been altered more than once in recent history.

Like most countries, Romania has two cultures. There is the city culture that one finds in Bucharest, Constanta, Cluj, and a number of their other large cities. Then there is the rural culture that is primarily agricultural. My overall impression is that Romania is about like the US was 60 years ago in terms of industry, cost of living, incomes, and poverty. They appear to be in the process of emerging from their great depression–one under communist rule. The one exception is the overlay of newer technology. Cell phones, for example, seem to be the primary means of communicating–as much as in the U.S. 

On the ride from the Bucharest airport to my hotel, the driver was quite talkative. I asked him how things were different now than they were under communist rule. He surprised me with his answer. He said that, “…under communism, everyone had jobs, but there wasn't much food in the stores. Now there is lots of food in the stores, but not enough jobs. It's not better – just different.

My first impressions of Bucharest, and of the people here, are that the city, especially the older sections, are very crowed, dirty, and busy. It is an extremely old city by American standards, so there is much contrast between the new and the old. The new sections had beautifully wide, tree-lined boulevards, beautiful large homes and impressive architectures. I had heard that Bucharest was beautiful, and this certainly topped anything I've seen in an American city.

One very impressive thing about Bucharest is the number of parks scattered around the city. Many people gather there to sit by fountains or just enjoy the shade and socialize. Of course there are also a few homeless people sleeping on benches and sidewalks, as there are in any large city. However, the number of stray dogs that are everywhere surprised me. I've never seen so many strays anywhere else. I guess they don't have animal patrols or dogcatchers here. Or if they do, they are not very effective.

Traffic is out of control. Drivers routinely honk at other drivers, speed, and weave in, out, and around everyone and everything. Apparently there is an unwritten rule that in order to survive, one must be an aggressive driver. Crossing the street as a pedestrian seemed to be the most dangerous thing I've ever done. Fortunately, the drivers are very pedestrian conscious IF one is in a crosswalk. Once you get the nerve to walk out in front of cars that are speeding toward you, they seem to know you have the right of way and stop for you. But don't try it where there isn't a crosswalk or against a green light. 

Parking is totally out of control in the older sections of Bucharest, and no parking signs are rare. Sidewalks are frequently blocked with parked cars in addition to the cars parked along the curb and those double-parked. People parking on the sidewalk often have to drive their cars down the sidewalk looking for an opening to get back on the street. Many times I found the sidewalks to be impassable, and I had to walk out into the street to get around the parked cars. But in spite of the insane driving, I walked for hours and never saw any accidents. I did see thousands of near misses.

Unfortunately, there is not a strong sense of caring for the environment, and littering seems to be the rule rather than the exception. This was true both in the cities and the rural areas. Of course there are many environmentally conscious people here, but they are greatly out numbered. As someone here told me, for every person who periodically makes an effort to clean things up there are many more who continue to litter, so it is a losing battle.

A woman sitting across from me on the train was drinking from a liter bottle of water, and when finished she got up and threw it out onto the train platform at the next stop. I saw much behavior like this. Rivers and streams were littered with floating plastic bottles and other trash. Of course every country has this problem to some extent, but here it seemed to be more systemic.

Smoking seems to be the rule rather than the exception–as it was in the US 50 years ago. I have not experienced so much smoke since I was in Colorado during the forest fires of 2003. TV ads for smoking have been banned, but it doesn't seem to be having any effect. Fortunately, there was no smoking on the trains, but at each stop many people got off the trainfor a quick smoke.

I don't like cities. I've lived in two of the biggest cities in the US–New York City and Los Angeles, and I don't care to ever live in one again. With that said, the people here, except for dress, are like people in most big cities. The only big difference here, compared to New York, is that people look at you. They don't smile, but they look at you. New Yorkers avoid eye contact. I also found the people in the rural areas to be much less friendly than in rural US. People didn't greet me, wave or nod their heads in acknowledgement of me unless I made the first gesture. Back in the rural US, people are much more likely to wave and say hello to strangers.

The racial diversity that you see in American cities does not exist here. The black population here seems almost nonexistent. Gypsies are more common, but less accepted by the average citizen. However, the extent of multiculturalism (a popular concept on American college campuses) is reflected in the many multilingual people I encountered. I expect that when one lives in such a small country, closely surrounded by five different countries and multiple languages, that learning to communicate has a much higher priority. The waiters and desk clerks at the hotel where I stayed spoke English, French, Italian, Romanian and some German. This is probably a job prerequisite, but if hotels in the US required such skills, they would be severely understaffed. Christina, the Romanian waitress and bartender where I stayed in the mountains, had lived and worked in Spain and France. She could not have been more than in her early 20s.

I was not sad to leave Bucharest or Romania. However, I was very sad to say goodbye to some great friends that I'd made, knowing that I would probably never see them or Romania again. But there is comfort in knowing that the good connections I made, and my cultural exposure, have forever changed the nature of how I view our world. If only more Americans could have such opportunities.