The return to my unintended second home – Iasi, Romania – has been filled with equal parts business-as-usual and unlikely surprises.
The overnight train ride from Bucharest to Iasi was pure Romania: The train was full to bursting. My compartment was all men. On that note, why am I always grouped with stinky men? Never beautiful, nice smelling women. Whether I’m on a train, bus, airplane, hostel room or nude beach, always with the men. One time, I sat next to an achingly pretty Swedish girl on a trans-Atlantic flight, who flirted, placed my hand on her firm breast (ostensibly to feel her heart beat) and slept on my arm for three hours. That was 1991. It’s been farting, sweating, drunken, deodorant flouting men ever since.
So, it was me and five men. As is statistically guaranteed in a full, overnight Romanian train ride, of six men, three reeked of booze, and one of piss. Then there was a young friendly guy who seemed to be happily adrift on a profound Ecstasy trip and finally there was me. Ironically, I was the one who was treated like the village oddball; my distinctly Nordic looks notwithstanding, the men became noticeably uneasy after I pulled out a book, of all things, and proceeded to read for several hours. I further confounded them when I took a mobile call in English, then contributed to a brief, all-compartment conversation in Romanian. After the initial comical, “is that a book?” double-takes that all five men executed in turn, I was treated to unending, stolen side glances until the train was well under way and everyone promptly fell asleep like only Romanians can do in the most unlikely and uncomfortable places. I, of course, sat wide awake, suffering acute ass-distress for six hours and 25 minutes out of the six hour and 40 minute ride.
Before this indignity, I was treated to the most heartening of pleasant surprises. I landed at Bucharest’s Baneasa airport, less objectionable and better accessed by public transport than the dreaded Henri Coanda International airport, the premiere extortionist taxi driver training grounds in continental Europe. There is a bus, the 205, that goes directly from the airport to Bucharest North train station. However, in typical Romanian planning, this crucial bus doesn’t come right up to the airport, but rather stops at a lonely, dark, virtually unmarked dirt lot three blocks away. Though to be fair, some generous official decided to “mark” this bus stop by nailing a tiny, license plate-sized sign to a nearby shack, with the number of the bus printed in tiny red letters, which goes far beyond the usual Romanian impetus to label anything. This being my first time landing at Baneasa, I needed to seek out directions to this elusive bus stop.
If you haven’t had the pleasure, the vast majority of people manning information desks in Romania are the caliber of hateful people that you feel moved to bitch-slap after the briefest interaction. Sour, perturbed, miserable and patently enraged every single time someone has the nerve to walk up and beg for information. I expected no less from the rotund woman at Baneasa airport, occupying a tiny, air-tight, glass booth, engulfed in a haze of cigarette smoke. But, defying all odds, the woman was actually a sweetheart. I waited patiently as she fielded two phone calls, during which time she never made eye contact with me, triggering my “here we go…” pessimism, but when she finally turned her attention to me, not only did she go to the startlingly non-Romanian effort of drawing me a little map, but she even croaked out a few words of helpful English when I was having trouble getting out a complete sentence in Romanian without peppering half of it with Italian words. Surprised and gratified, I found the bus and was soon on my way through the freezing Romanian night to the train station.
There’s been a major set-back to my plan to “blow up a small part of Romania”. As my pal Romeo kindly informed me in the comments area of this blog from two posts ago, Romania recently enacted a law severely restricting the caliber of fireworks that can be legally handed over to drunken idiots. Apparently, last year enough people blew off fingertips and relieved themselves of the burden of eyebrows in fireworks related mishaps to make even the normally blasé Romanians concerned. With the added pressure from the EU to conduct themselves in a safe, less anything-goes manner, Romania quickly passed a strict fireworks law. Even more unexpectedly, people seem to be respecting it. I’ve been here for over 24 hours and haven’t heard a single chandelier tinkling explosion. Spontaneous flame balls were more abundant in uptight Sorrento, on Christmas Eve for crying out loud! Yet further proof that there is no god.
Well, the trip won’t be completely for naught. I still get to go to a rip-roaring, drunken melee of a party on Dec 31st and, in a recent development, I get to write about it for two different online publications; Lonely Planet’s new staff blog, where my brief report on Romania’s EU entry shenanigans will be posted in a few days (UPDATE: It’s up already, check it out and leave a comment about how much I rule), and a longer proper article on the same subject for Perceptive Travel Web Magazine for their March issue. Not only is this more precious exposure for me and my new online venture Romania and Moldova Travel Guide, but I get to write off every damn thing I pay for from now until I get back to Sardinia that costs more than three euros and isn’t booze. Now that’s reason to celebrate!
I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before. I’m a travel writer after all. Every time I take a bus, train or taxi, it could be a salable, tax deductible story, but I still don’t think of travel in these terms, which probably explains why I’m barely scraping by. But I’m trying to change. After an invitation to join my Lonely Planet colleague in Italy’s Umbria region in February, I leapt on a magazine assignment for the same area, meaning not only do I get a fat paycheck to go hang out and draw on the vast expertise of my friend, but we get to enjoy (god willing) some gratis five star treatment while we collect our respective research. And why not? Indeed, lavish free crap is why a lot of people go into travel writing in the first place, before they realize that each exquisite week of luxury amenities is broken up by months of two-star (or less) travel arrangements and dozens of hours of data-entry caliber “writing” at home, in our jammies.
So, my ulterior motives for Romania have belatedly fallen into place. I can walk around telling people that I came back here to write two articles rather telling them that I came back here to get loaded on wine and ţuică and watch teenagers engage in pitched bottle-rocket battles. It seems much more becoming and will sound appropriately impressive to all the people who aren’t already acquainted with me and know full well that I probably have a flask of something in the inside pocket of my parka.
Have a safe and happy new year and whatever you do, don’t mix ţuică and champagne unless there’s a paycheck riding on it. Then, of course, you have no choice.