Bucharest Notes – Awful, but less awful than expected

Anthony Bourdain coulnd't film here, but I did (through the fence)Bucharest was pretty dreadful, but I’ve had worse. Naples comes to mind – and that hellhole Andorra la Vella. Or that time in Los Angeles, when I drove from UCLA to Orange County… Nevertheless, I won’t be buying property in Bucharest soon or even investing in a 10-ride metro card. In many ways Bucharest is like a port town, but without the port. People arrive by plane and train, then promptly flee for more agreeable destinations.

I’ll grudgingly admit that there are worthwhile things to see here, but having visited every notable patch of grass in Romania, I can say with complete authority that anything and everything in Bucharest exists in much better form and surroundings at several other places in the country. If you’ve only got four days, fine, stay in Bucharest, if not, you’re doing yourself a disservice by lingering here.

Though not nearly as demoralizing as driving in Bucharest – which has unbelievably gotten worse in the past three years – five days on foot in Bucharest could break the patience and love of Gandhi himself. Hell, just sitting on a street corner can drain the hardest man’s will to live. The incessant car horns, the dense pollution, people screaming at each other, half-dead dogs and filth… Vlad Tepeş wouldn’t last 10 seconds in modern Bucharest. The first time someone drove by with a cigarette in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, splashing him with a totally avoidable puddle, he’d completely lose his shit. If only skewering wrongdoers from asshole to neck was still legal, people would probably have better manners around here.Cops are egomaniacal assholes and drivers are worse. I saw a traffic cop and a driver get into an absurd fight over a simple miscommunication, during which the driver nearly ran the cop over with distain while trying to move on. I didn’t know who to root for. I quietly wished that a freak lightning bolt would flash out of the clear blue sky and slay them both. Meanwhile, other drivers being delayed by nearly 10 life-threatening seconds displayed their displeasure with horn blasts that tickled seismometers in Mongolia.

On a positive note, general attitude, respect and courtesy has slightly improved in Bucharest since I was last here. Though, again, this may have everything to do with me interacting mostly with pedestrians and not drivers, 90% of whom deserve nothing less than instant death or at least an indulgent stab in the neck from a cattle prod.

Furthermore, with a few notable exceptions, the hostel situation here is surprisingly good – the old standbys are still going strong and continue to be likeable, while new contenders are attractive and run with traveler interest in mind, rather than aspiring to extract the maximum amount of money from each possible guest.

Romanian AthenaeumRestaurants too were better than expected, though the instant, across-the-board 100% price increase since EU membership for the exact same food was a little off-putting.

There’s a lot of “new money” swaggering around town. Shameless, sickening, unintentionally comical displays of wealth and/or feigned wealth are everywhere. Designer sunglasses, leather pants, ridiculous hooker boots, Dolce and Gabbana-designed mobile phones, official, tricked-out “50 Cent” brand jeans, … These people can’t afford to order more than a coffee in the swanky restaurants they pompously frequent after paying 150 euros for the red shoes they saw on Italian MTV (on a re-run from four years ago).

People habitually buy cars more expensive than their houses and peel out from every green light like pole position hangs in the balance. Stereos boom, engines rev, teenaged boys covered in acne caused by over-used hair gel yell insults out the windows of souped-up Peugeots at people responsibly taking public transport. Though drivers often race from stoplight to stoplight at 90KPH, walkers paradoxically arrive at their destinations faster than cars, due to constant traffic jams. The irony, of course, is lost on most drivers, who drive for an hour to get home, only to eat a big plate of plain mamaliga (polenta), which is all they can afford after filling up the gas tank.

I was the benefactor of several generous locals in Bucharest. Young Romanians are quite friendly, smart and anxious to change how foreigners see their country. Sadly, Romanians over 35 are still largely selfish, ignorant and boorish. Bucharest has the best and the worst of these types. People that you want to hug, like the young man that first contacted me through this blog, who led me around the city providing arresting commentary and little known history for a full nine hours (and I very nearly had to physically subdue him so I could buy him lunch!). There’s also people that you want to flog with a with a donkey whip, like the tour guide at the Palace of Parliament who treated me like a dangerous beggar even though I only had one stinking fact to check, immediately getting on her mobile phone so as to more effectively ignore me. Never ever snub a travel writer, bitch. You will be mentioned by name during carefully worded retribution in the book for all to read for years to come.

Miraculously, some of the millions of EU euros funneled into Romania were used to actually produce helpful signs around Bucharest rather than being used to pay for new cars and indoor pools at certain politicians’ countryside homes. When I was last here, I drove in circles for an eternity trying to find totally unsigned central and critical places like the main train station. Yet still, overall signage is pathetically inadequate. Each location of McDonald’s has more signs pointing the way to the door than the international airport. Street name signs are often microscopic or completely absent, along with door numbers which disappear for blocks at a time. Even employees at businesses do not know their own addresses. It would be hilarious if it weren’t endlessly maddening.

Roman ruins uncovered in Bucharest, then covered again by people's garbageDespite stalking the streets of Bucharest holding a LP guidebook with my name and beautiful, beautiful face inside, I got very little respect. You’ve never seen a collective group of people that so desperately do not want customers. One tourist office boss veritably argued with me about why they shouldn’t be in the guidebook. In fact, they were already in the guidebook, but they most certainly won’t be in the next one. Certainly this has something to do with employees despising the owners, but hey, I’ve got my own problems so spare me the collateral damage of your hateful life, OK?

A Canadian journalism student that shadowed me for a day was aghast at how rude some people were to me, even as I vainly tried to collect just a little information so as to make their place of business wildly successful with western visitors. I was accustomed to this, having just gone through this veritable spanking machine of insult-and-injury just two years ago. I think her aspirations for guidebook writing have been safely squashed.

This was a far cry from guidebook research in Tuscany, where hoteliers, restaurateurs and the like can spot a guidebook writer from blocks away, meet you in the street and verily carry you into their establishments, offering coffee, their grandmother’s handmade ravioli, Brunello wine and their first-born daughter’s hand in marriage. Despite the fact that I usually don’t carry a notebook, sleeve of maps or any other paraphernalia (just an easily hidden Palm Pilot), their ability to spot me coming was uncanny. I sometimes imagined that each town stationed a young boy at the outskirts and, upon seeing a lone, exhausted-looking, unwashed foreigner drive by in a rental car (all telltale signs of a guidebook writer), he would race to the church to ring the special Lonely Planet bell.

An Irish guy that I bumped into in a restaurant who claimed to live in Bucharest for six years, but barely spoke any Romanian, felt I was not qualified to write the book because I had not lived there for six years like he had and went on to prove his point with a pop quiz about where to buy the best steak in town and how to take a taxi to a popular restaurant. My answer that simply saying the restaurant name to the driver – the restaurant in question is a local institution – was deemed ridiculously insufficient. It was about this point that I realized he’d probably been sent to live in Romania, rather than leaving Ireland voluntarily.

In any case, Bucharest was a hard and frustrating nut to crack, but I cracked that mother and I’ll never be lost in the city center again. I’ll be back here for clean-up research in July, at which time I’m setting aside a few hours to take the Palace of Parliament tour (again) so I can torment that fucking guide with 3,205 questions about trivial minutia and publicly muse about who her father had to bribe to get her that job.