Archive for March, 2012

An Innocent Abroad – Chapter VI (last)

Water – potable

As common as vending machines.  Yeah, drinking water is as common as vending machines, at least everywhere I’ve been in Romania (i.e., none).  What you can’t get away from are the !@#$ plastic bottles that water and soft-drinks come in; all empty, of course.

So, if you sit down in a restaurant, you may certainly buy a bottle of water; half a liter is what you’re looking for, with a meal, or a mixed drink.  “Alb” is what it will say on the label.  Of course, then you also have to decide if you want gas or not – no silly, in the water.  You know: sparkling, carbonated, or just plain.  Flavors?  Dunno.

I have been drinking the hotel water right out of the tap.  Yes, this is perfectly safe; tho somewhat difficult: I have only a bathroom in my hotel room, and I have always preferred kitchen water (right Mom?).  So, brushing my teeth, taking a vitamin pill, just plain ol’ drinking water (like in the middle of the night), I take it right out of the lavatory (that would be “sink”) faucet.

Work is a different matter.  Nope, no drinking fountains; so, no danger of bending over to a dose of little beasties.  No vending machines to dispense water (or anything else, for that matter).  So, I bring my own, from “home” (so to speak).  I have quite a collection of quarter liter water bottles, courtesy of the hotel (complimentary, about twice a week).  I fill these up in the bathtub (see comment on kitchen water, above).  Then bring them with me to the office.  Yeah, remembering to fill up four or five little bottles and remembering to bring them is the real stretch, first thing in the morning – just another thing to forget.

No drinking fountains in town, in stores (like I’ve been in lots of those), anywhere.  I have seen signs in the toilets in gas stations, big red letters, right above the sink.  Don’t have a clue what they say, but my guess is “don’t” would be a practical translation.

However, there are lots of street vendors (both the fly-by-night, and the more permanent kiosks) that sell bottled whatever; coke mostly.  Altho there are countless labels (yes, all with very “poor” spelling) with other liquids.  And, in gas stations, unless 10W30 motor oil gets put into a clear plastic bottle and into a cooler, I think I’m safe.

Hey! just now 11:56 and the office telephone rang!  First time today.  Probably the last time today.  Yep, wrong number, too!

Back to water.   What else can I say?

Currency

Ok class, time to put on our thinking caps.  No, not math; put your calculators away (sorry all you left-brainers out there).  Imagination time (right-brainers to the front!).  As in “s-t-r-e-t-c-h.”

Your situation, anywhere you are when you read this is: you get paid (usually direct deposit, maybe by check).  No, this is not the stretch part; we’re talking about the basic fact that you get paid for what you do (e.g., answer the telephone), not how much you get paid – that comes later.  Every so often, you find your checkbook and write in it, put those cute little pieces of paper with the meaningless numbers on them (the ones you wrote, not the ones along the bottom of the check) in envelopes and mail them; hopefully before anybody gets really upset.  Pretty much describes our financial situation, doesn’t it?  Sorry, this is not supposed to be depressing.

Ok, deep breath:

Let’s say, just for fun, ’cause we are using our imaginations here, and nobody would ever believe this:  Let’s say that, every so often, you get paid in cash.  At the end of the month, your boss pulls out this distressingly small wad of bills, peels a couple off, smiles, and hands them to you (this would be a good time to say thank you).

Stretch time:

What do you do on your way home?  Yep, good guess: you go shopping!  Half of you out there are now in love with Romania because everybody goes shopping on payday, and half of you are hating this place for the same reason.

Shopping?  Yep, but shopping for what?  Getting better and better, huh?

Clothes, jewelry, furs (sorry for the anachronism), cars, yachts (talk about words with really obtuse spellings)???  So, what do Romanians go shopping for?

Are you ready?  Are you sitting down?

None of the above!

Ok, all you right-brainers, go to the back of the class, and you left-brainers that have been moping in the corner, up front.

On payday, Romanians go shopping for dollars.  Yeah.  Greenbacks.

And you thought all those currency exchanges on the streets (poorly dressed, back alley, fly-by-night (i.e., with little table on spindly little legs), kiosks, and store-fronts) were for the convenience of the tourists?  First time in Bucharest, huh?  Like lambs to the….

Oh c’mon!  Everybody loves America so much they take their hard earned (and meager) Romanian whatevers and the first thing they do is exchange ’em for dollars?  Give me a break; do I look like I fell of the potato wagon this morning (not such a big fall: the wagons here aren’t all that big, most are pulled by only one horse)?  Why would anybody take the currency they get paid in and change it to any other currency?  Not everybody in Romania is planning on a vacation to DisneyWorld any time soon.

No.  They’re not going anywhere.  They want dollars to pay their rent.

Yeah.  Imagine: getting paid in one currency and having to pay bills (rent would be a biggy – anywhere in the world) in another.  You know how much gasoline prices change; and there is nothing you can do about it.  But, at least gasoline prices do go down (or is that just a rumor?).  Unfortunately, the value of the Romanian lei only goes in one direction, relative to the dollar.  Still have your thinking cap on?  Ok, consider that the official average net monthly salary is 3,124,899 ROL ($95.83).  Now, on top of the currency exchange, add the rate of inflation within Romania; how’s 30% sound?  That was 2001, compared to 2000; which is something of an improvement over the 296% experienced in 1993 (yeah, I got the decimal point in the right place).

So, you get paid in lei in the morning, which were losing value before your boss put them in your hand, and you have to buy dollars to pay the rent (and a few other things), but the value of the lei is declining relative to the dollar.  And by the afternoon, the lei just doesn’t buy what it used to.

“Shop til you drop” has some very real, practical, consequences here.

Taxis

Bucharest Overview

 

So how did I figure the heat in the building was fixed?  Easy: the noise stopped.  The noise stopped?  Yeah, I could hear things like the wind whistling thru the window panes (or is that around the window panes?  nope, thru).

“My” office is located on the top floor of a three story building, on “Etaj 2.”  How’s that?  The top floor of the building is Etaj 2, with the second from the top being Etaj 1.  And the ground floor would be Etaj 0?  No, silly: nobody, not even Communist dictators would name any floor of any building zero.  Why, is 0 unlucky like the number 13?  No, the ground floor is called, um, had it here a minute ago…anyway, like I said the noise stopped.

Okay, fine: located high above the tarmac at modern, bustling Otopeni International Airport, 17 kilometers north of Bucharest.  Well, not “high” exactly – only Etaj 2, remember?  The airport control tower would be “high”: gotta be four, maybe five etajs in that thing.  Not so high, but all them aeroplanes, going yon and hither, forth and back….  What, isn’t that “hither” first and then “yon”?  And isn’t the saying, or whatever linguists call it, “back and forth”?  Think about it: how in the world are you going to come “back” if you haven’t already gone “forth”?  (Presumably, to multiply; which aeroplanes in this part of the world apparently don’t do.)  I suppose, too, that “yon” here would be spelled “ioan,” since the Romanian language is awfully fond of vowels.

Try “iaurt”; extra points if you can pronounce this correctly without hurting your tongue.  (Hint: it rhymes with “dirt.”)

As I was saying, the noise stopped.

The office in which I spend my days is in a rather squat building (shorter than the control tower) behind the only hangar in town.  I could hear the 707s just fine; but, they’re gone now.  The noise is gone, too.  But, the windows in my office look out – well kinda: somebody put a plastic film on the glass and I feel like the occupant of a fishbowl that junior hasn’t cleaned since Vlad was a corporal.  With cataracts.  (The fish, not Vlad.)  But, even if the windows in the office did look out with any clarity, it wouldn’t be over a sea of gleaming, aluminum aeroplanes.  For starters, the closest sea is the Black Sea and that’s several hours away; with a tailwind.  But, the plastic covered glass does bring some light into the office to augment, supplement, enhance and…what was that?  is the noise back?  Where was I?  Oh yeah: I do have four florescent tubes in the ceiling; and, on a good day, when the temperature is not too low, they really do seem to put out more light than the space heater I have behind me.  But, sometimes I have to listen to the hum from the ballasts to be sure they are “on.”

Of course, it is a carpeted office.  Not at all sure of materials, or date of manufacture.  Must be fairly new, though: not a stain on it that I can see.  Or is that supposed to be the pattern?  Can I get back to you on that?

The Queen Mum

Since the only programming worth watching on the hotel tv system is the BBC (with the obvious exception of the bicycle racing on EuroSport), when their beloved “Queen Mum” passed away, it seemed that all the WW2 footage ever shot in England was put on one reel and “endless loop” was selected.  I learned more about how she suffered with the common people (oh really?), and how the British soldiery had not practiced the arcane rifle maneuvers since Winston Churchill (and how many of the very young men and women in uniform were even born when Winston passed away?).  In any event, what I took from that endless paean to “the way it was” is directly applicable to Bucharest’s Gradina Cismigiu.

Dunno how that translates, but “city park” is good enough.  It is a short five minute walk from the Athénée Palace hotel, thru Piata Capt W. Maracineanu (nope, not a clue who he was, but the statue to him is as fine as any – unfortunately, what appears to be a soldier protected by the Angel of Liberty, is cast in very dark bronze that takes a very strong sun to see the features – far beyond my photographic skills).

Cismigiu Park, like the Queen Mum, must have been something, long ago.  Time has certainly passed the park by.  Not quite a horticultural park, only a few specimens are identified; but a lush, relaxing setting.  Well, it is certainly overgrown in places and sparse in others.  It might take an hour, at a brisk pace to circumnavigate all the paths.  Paths of undulating and broken pavement, lined with bits of broken chain hanging lost and forgotten on short posts that are listing and leaning in a thousand directions.  In the center is a pond of some size; altho there are a dozen or so rowboats for hire, a good arm could get a baseball across.

Wisteria, with trunks as large and muscular as Arnold Schwartzenegger’s thighs as much support the wrought iron posts and wooden pergola as they droop from beams that have long ago disappeared.  Delightful alcoves with benches and tables are occupied with old men silently playing chess; clusters of old women chatter and cackle on benches that line the paths.

There are benches enough for all the pigeons, and other two-legged beggars.  The four-legged beggars roam at large.  Some may say the Romanians love dogs; I could not disagree more.  These four-legged pests are everywhere, altho less aggressive than their two-legged counterparts, they are not healthy, happy, or well-fed.  If Bucharest is past its prime, it is also overrun with those who spend their days begging, begging, begging.  Nowhere else have I seen more beggars. Bucharest in three words: dogs, beggars, and cops (the worst of all three).

At 1030 this Sunday morning, this delightful, fabulous Sunday morning, the park is coming to life.  The sound of the water from the fountain in the center of the pond is getting lost in the conversation and the “music” from various electronic and revoltingly artificial sources.  This was, earlier, a fabulous place for a cappuccino and a pastry, or two (why stop at two of either?).  It is shrugging off the silent slumber of night.  It is coming to life as a refuge from the city beyond.  As with most cities, the best part is the parks.

Driving thru the countryside, or walking thru a park, one cannot go five minutes without seeing someone sitting.  Sitting.  Just sitting.  As much as Japan is hectic and frenetic, and could never relax, Bucharest sits on its laurels.  Conquered, oppressed, and ruled by Romans, Turks, Saxons, Hapsburgs and Hungarians, the deathblow seems to have been the communists.  A quiescent, enduring, resolute culture, or one that has simply given up?

The older generation, the one that remembers the days of trading jobs and full stomachs for freedom of speech can be forgiven for having run out of any lust for life.  But, what of the younger generation?  This is the one that grabs anything it can, just because it can.  “What can I get away with?” might the motto of Romania’s Generation X; certainly Romania’s baby-boomers have found greener pastures (just about anywhere).

Bran (cue the thunder) Castle

Yep, this is it, sports fans: the Real McCoy.  Kinda.  Well, it is in the heart of Transylvania, is it not?  No, not really; more like the southeast corner.  But, it is high in the Carpathian Mountains, right?  Not exactly nose bleed territory.  Fine, but this is where Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes earned his reputation (and developed his fondness for skewers)?  Uh, no.

For starters, it is highly questionable if Vlad ever did set foot in this place; and, if he did, then it was for a few days while hiding from the Ottomans (aka Turks; altho, like most things from history, that is also a misnomer).  Ok, but he caused it to be built; he just never got around to enjoying a mint julep from the crenellated towers.  Actually, it was built long before Our Friend Vlad was even a gleam in anybody’s eye.

But, surely, it is a REAL castle.  Surely.  Yeah, verily, this thing, perched high above a not so imposing rock, near the town of Bran, about 28 kilometers south of Brasov (just in case you want to find it on a map), on the north side of the Carpathians, is a real, no kidding, fer shur castle.  A-Number-One.

And, a real small one, at that.

For starters, there is no way you could garrison thousands of armed troops within its keep (or is that keep thousands of armed troops garrisoned?).  In fact, an entourage of much more than a butler, baker, and candlestick maker would find it cozy, indeed.

And, those people must have been s-h-o-r-t.  No, I did not bump myself silly on low, rustic, rough-hewn beams (I’ve had a head start in that department for years); altho I did put a pretty good dent in the one I did miss.

Cannon?  Nope.  Horses?  Ha.  Archers? Must have had archers?  Only those who could shoot straight up, and then run for cover; there are no windows suitable for the bow and arrow guys.

Altho certainly large enuf for a dozen or so folks to rattle around in, it really is not much more than a watch tower.  It does command an unrestricted view of the major road between Brasov and the Hungarians (Austrians, or whoever’s flag was being bandied about at the time).  No moats, no drawbridges, no portcullises (or is that portcullisae?).  No Wizard of Oz, ok?

It was well worth the trip, however.  In no way a disappointment.  As long as you can keep Vincent Price, Bella Lagousie, and a whole host of others out of your mind.

Yes, there is a secret passage from one floor up to the next.  Or, more precisely, a very, very narrow staircase; hard to imagine that the opening would have been secret to anyone (after all: I found it!  Nothing covering the doorway – apparently no tapestries at all).

Certainly lots and lots of stone (absolute must for a castle – no one ever heard of a wooden, or mud, castle).

Sorry, no caskets, no bats, no mistletoe (or is that garlic?).  But, worst of all: no rumors, no tales of terror, no hauntings (whatever).  No unexplained noises.  No spectres. No, um, no – am I missing anything?

Gotta be careful of “ethnic” food; this is why I haven’t been to a “Romanian” restaurant yet.  What?  How long you been there, and you haven’t been to a Romanian restaurant?  Why in the world not?  You have any idea how many people around the world think “McDonald’s” serves food?

Drum Bun

Well, I finally did make it to a Romanian restaurant; three times actually.  And, since I am sending this – the final – chapter from my deck in Mukilteo (yes, life is tough), I made it home.

“Drum Bun” means something like “good journey” – also seen translated as “bon voyage” (those French again, don’t cha know?).

This will conclude “An Innocent Abroad.”  Some of you know that we are getting ready for Mongolia.  Yep, and we thot I was a sheep in the slaughter in Bucharest – wait til Ulaan Baatar (“Red Hero”).

Look for Nokhoi Khorio, coming to an inbox near you (we leave for UB on the 23rd)

Your Faithful Correspondent

An Innocent Abroad – Chapter V

Half-a-loaf

Yes, I know I have spilled a great deal of ink on these pages with my observations of Romanian drivers and the canvas on which they practice their, um, art.  Some might say I was being unfair, and they would be correct; but, nobody ever promised an unbiased point of view, even if that was possible.  However, in a (probably vain) attempt to balance the scorecard (you Dilbert readers will love that one!  Let me say it again: “balanced scorecard”  You non-Dilbert readers don’t want to know.) I offer the following:

Imagine, if you will, that you are motoring along on a “roadway” (not to be confused with a “road”) that has two lanes northbound, and three lanes southbound (of course using the term “lane” in the Romanian sense, not in the American sense), separated by a double line of white paint.  And let’s also say that you wish to make a left turn, across three lanes of traffic at an intersection that has a sign big enough for yours truly to see that clearly prohibits a left turn (why ever for?).  You may be able to think of people from some cultures that would see such a situation and would rather die than turn left (the Japanese and Germans come to mind); you may also be able to think of some people from other cultures that would never see the sign and blithely turn left under any circumstances.  You might put Romanians into this latter category; and, for the most part, I would agree with you.

But, neither you nor I, Gentle Reader, are very well versed in the thinking of the Romanian; yes, sad to say.  As a consequence you might have been as unprepared as me for the scene that unfolded one recent morning.

Our intrepid motorist, driving the ubiquitous Dacia (to paraphrase an assessment about Brussels and Paris, the Dacia is like a Renault, but without the charm), needing to turn left, but not wanting to violate the sacrosanct sign, does indeed turn left – but not at the intersection.  Oh no!  He (or maybe she) turns left, across three lanes of traffic hell-bent for leather (whatever that means), but before the intersection!  Yes, before the intersection.  He (or she) then proceeds to drive upon the sidewalk (remember: they merely have smaller potholes than the “roads”) for about 50 meters (or yards, if you prefer), until s/he gets to the desired byway, and then turns left.  There was no noticeable reduction in forward momentum, and no violation of the sign the prohibits left turns.  Such a creative solution to such a pesky problem, wouldn’t you say?

Another example of ingenuity:

After about six weeks of driving thru all weathers, you might begin to think about washing your car, wouldn’t you?  Well, wouldn’t you?  Think about it: rain, snow, wind, dust; think dirty, dirty, dirty.  Ok, fine, you really would think about it, if you hadn’t already washed it half a dozen times by now.  But, what if it was a rental car, then what?  No, I have never washed a rental car, and I am not going to start now.  But, clearly, not all the cars on the road are rentals; so, why are almost all of them (ok, some; well, all right, a few) cleaner than mine?  Do the owners spend their weekends with hose and pail?  I don’t think so.  Therein lies the rub (where’s Shakespeare when we need him to explain these little curiosities he’s left us?).

This morning, I discovered one of Bucharest’s best hidden secrets: the moving municipal car wash.  Yep, and you thought ‘Merica had the latest and greatest in technology and convenience!  What could be more convenient than driving your car to work and having the city wash it for you?  No charge!  No delay!  No mess, no fuss, no runs, no drips…well you get the picture.  How is this possible??  And you should ask, too.

It would seem, to the casual observer, that this situation might be a matter of happenstance (sorry for using such big words, but I don’t get out much).  It would seem that, in an effort to try to attempt to make a plausible effort at cleaning the city streets, Bucharest has tank trucks that spew – yes, I said “spew” – water upon the city streets.  These Big Berthas of the Byways, carrying untold liters (or gallons, does it matter?) of water in their cavernous tanks, convey said contents to nozzles that spew – yes, I said it again – water in front (or behind) up, out, and away, from the vehicle, whereupon it comes crashing down to the “roadway” (I almost said “pavement,” but then I never lie about anything so easily checked).  A veritable Niagara Falls on wheels!

On my way into work this morning, I happened upon one of the cleanest trucks I have ever seen, drenching everything on either side of it – yes, that includes cars, busses, pedestrians, second-story flower boxes, you name it, and what-have-you, besides.  Being rather more half, than quick (that would be in reference to my wit), I drove thru the torrent, and lo and behold, I now have a car that is relatively much, much cleaner on one side than the other.  Pretty clever huh?  That’s using the old kidney, yashurubetcha!  Of course, the driver’s side of the car still looks like it was on the receiving end of a political campaign….(Robert Mugabe on the left, Morgan Tsvangirai on the right)
Bran Castle

My mission this past Saturday was to find the home of our infamous tourguide, Vlad Tepes, aka The Impaler, aka, Dracula.  Well, I got closer than Bram Stoker ever did (although he is credited with making “Dracula” a household name with his novel, he never did set foot in Transylvania – coward).  I set out on the northbound road out of Bucharest, never once thinking that maybe the Carpathian Mountains might have weather similar to mountains in every other country in the world.  For those of you that are curious, there is a marker by the road  on the way at the 45th parallel – or line of latitude (Seattle – King County Airport is at 47.5 degrees).

I got as far as Predeal (that is not pronounced like something you might do before the card game starts; it is pronounced “pre” as in predator, and “dal” as in Dali), which is about half an hour south of Brasov (sounds amazingly similar to “brush-off”), when it finally occurred to me that the other vehicles on the road didn’t seem to notice the snow.

Unlike in Puget Sound where a single raindrop can bring I-5 grinding to a halt, the rain-mixed-with-sleet-mixed-with-snow didn’t slow traffic on the mountain hairpin turns in the least.  If you thought three abreast on a one lane (remember, this is the Romanian sense of the word “lane”) mountain road was, uh, “exhilarating” on dry pavement, with visibility obstructed only by granite, or whatever the mountains over here are made from, you really ought to try snow and slush and no visible granite at all.  Call me a chicken, but don’t call me late for dinner.  I bailed.

Actually, Predeal was a nice consolation prize: a very stunning new church is being built, of which a future edition of this foolscap should contain a photo, or two.  And, being in the mountains, it really is a nice-looking little town.  But, Bran Castle, which is not on the Bucharest-Brasov road (minor detail, being on the wrong road, and all), will have to wait for another day…sue me.

By the way, after my excursion into the mountains, I no longer have a car that is embarrassingly much cleaner on one side than the other.  The entire vehicle is a much more uniform “yuck.”
Water, water

Nope, not everywhere.  At least, not the drinking kind.  This is a new thing for this innocent; or, rather, an old thing, re-learned.  Although, honestly, I can’t remember what life abroad was like before the ubiquitous PET bottle (think plastic, soft-drink bottle).  Yes, even more common around here than traffic cops.  It isn’t so much a matter of having to buy drinking water, as it is to think far enough ahead to bring it with you to places where it can’t be bought, like the office.

Fortunately, food is really very cheap here.  A half-a-liter of plain ol’ water, bought in the hotel restaurant (talk about big spender) runs slightly more than $2 – or the same price as a cappuccino.  But, from my lofty corner office with the large mahogany desk, there is no place to buy water.  So, I have to remember to bring it from the hotel.  And since I have to bring water to make coffee with, forgetting to bring the stuff can be tragic, indeed.

I do have something to say about taxis, from the passenger’s point of view; but, I have come up with a tease so you’ll read Chapter VI, whenever it comes out.

Fallon

You have not wings upon your back, you know not of which I speak.  Yet, it is to you that I speak.

Fallon, Nevada.  There is a flying range.

EA-6B.  Has there ever been a plane in which the front seats and the back seats were further apart?  The Pilot is a frustrated fighter-jock; the Guys-in-Back want to be on terra firma.  The Prowler is an electronic warfare platform, designed to fly in with the air-to-mud boys, protecting them from radar’s insidious probing fingers on the way into, and the way out of, the target.  Those attack airplanes are single-seaters, the pilot and the airplane as one – one heart, one mind, one objective, one being.  The Prowler has a pilot who, if he is any good, becomes one with his craft.  It also has three passengers who are along for the ride, and two of these cannot see the pilot, his instruments, or what lies ahead.  they have their ears welded to the headphones listening for High PRF and death; eyes welded to computer monitors searching for information that spells success or failure; and, hands glued to a keyboard hopefully sending electrons just that one split second earlier than that missile that is seeking with its electronic brain to find and destroy.

And so it was, that day on the range.  Merely practice, but you would never know if from the way I was breathing, my heart beating, or my mind concentrating.

The nameless pilot, flying as fast as he could, as close to Mother Earth as he could, as directed from the crew behind his back, flung himself and his crew in apparent defiance (without regard) of all the laws of physics on a rollercoaster ride that no man could ever build.  The right-seater, co-pilot in all but title, monitored engine and flight instruments, while his pilot focused outside the cockpit on the brown, hard earth – sometimes below, often not.  In the back, two others absorbed as much information as they could, which was far less than the black boxes further behind them.  But, unlike the black boxes, these two human computers added intuition to the equation and were thus the inseperable difference between another statistic and another round back at the club.

At the end of the training run, for it was only a training run, when the wrung out craft and the wrung out crew could at last entertain something other than merely staying alive, and wings were once again level, and the distance between them and Mother Earth could be measured in yards instead of feet, only then did they realize they were freezing cold, bitterly cold, soaked thru and thru with sweat, even as the Prowler’s air conditioning system had been sending conditioned air into the tiny cockpit as cold and as fast as its designers had planned.  Frost had caked on the steel-toed flight boots.  Oxygen masks off, the breathing slower, deeper, the crew finds themselves IFR inside the cockpit.

Now, a round of smiles; later a round of beers.  Life is good when you’re the best there is.

An Innocent Abroad – Chapter IV

Dear Reader, your dilatory correspondent comes to you with hat in hand full of apologies.  The recent conclusion of my fifth week here in (very) sunny Bucharest found my job getting in the way of everything else; can you imagine?  Frankly, I was shocked to conclude that I might actually have earned my paycheck this week.  Please, for heaven’s sake, don’t spread that around: it could ruin my reputation.  A few late-night phone calls notwithstanding, I did manage a few observations.

I submit for your consideration (apologies to Rod Serling):

Shaken, not Stirred

Last Saturday – yes, it was a week ago – I took a tour of the world’s second largest building (by square whatevers): “Palatul Parlamentului – The Palace of Parliament” in central Bucharest.  It is true that, if you want to measure in cubic whatevers (“cubic cubits,” f’instance) you must include the Kennedy Space Center, and then Romania’s colossus ranks only number three.  By any measure, it is HUGE.

The tour itself was one of those ad hoc affairs: “when we have enough for a group, we will begin.”  And how large might a “group” be?  Dunno, but had to wait all of about five minutes.  The ticket was 60,000 lei – on the order of $2 – cheap at twice the price.  Our tour guide spoke very well English, and knew her subject good (or is that the other way round?).

First order of business: empty pockets and pass thru the ubiquitous metal detectors.  The security was every bit as intense as at any airport (and just as pointless).

[I don’t know if I hate mobile phones, or the users; but, that’s a different subject.]

Pockets emptied, etc.  Up the marble stairs – I’ll say this just once: there was marble everywhere, and it was gorgeous.  If you didn’t have a fascination with geology before, you surely must afterwards.  Or wood, or tapestries, or carpets.  Ah, but I have given away the surprise, how clumsy of me!

The “Casa Poporului – House of the People” as it was known at one time (i.e., before 1989) is, if anything huger on the inside than it is on the outside.  The chief architect was a 28 year old Romanian woman; her staff had some 700 Romanian engineers on it; all of the some 20,000  workers were Romanian, presumably the five years round-the-clock was Romanian time, and all of the materials used were – you guessed it – Romanian.  How many other monuments to megalomania has the world seen that were built by slaves and materials mostly stolen from other cultures?  The “People’s Palace” is resoundingly Romanian.

One estimate is that the public tour shows only 20% of the building; after an hour of down this incredibly long hallway, into that massive hall, bend over backwards to stare at that distant ceiling, marvel at that gold leaf, and on and on (to say nothing of up and down this and that marble staircase); well, 20% was quite enough (one guidebook, LonelyPlanet – one of the best there is, anywhere – says the tour is of seven rooms, out of 3,000; another guidebook says 6,000 – take your choice).

And if the architecture and design and materials and construction are Romanian, the lasting impression is every bit as much communist.  For the “People’s Palace,” Ceausescu’s monument to himself, is ultimately, empty.  Yes, the building is huge and beautiful; and, there is not a stick of furniture in the whole place.  The twenty or so lost souls in the “group” that was touring the building would have had a difficult time finding sufficient chairs had the music stopped.  With the exception of two halls, one of which obviously hadn’t been used in a very long time, the other of which is apparently used often for conferences, all of the chairs, tables, and other paraphernalia that one might associate with a grand building would not have filled a humble dwelling.

Peles Castle I would like to see again, the “People’s Palace” is definitely one-off.

And on I strode, down the Boulevard Unirii and into a sunny day, or so I thought.

The Boulevard Unirii, like the behemoth at the southwestern end, was built huge; slightly larger than gay Parie’s Champs Élysées (3.2 km long, and several inches wider).  Quite the boulevard, complete with fountains down the center that have not seen a lick of moisture in, oh about 13 years, and trees that look more dead than alive (but am withholding final judgment considering the time of year), and a delightfully rustic cobblestone surface that rolls and undulates like the ocean (see “Infrastructure,” later).

And what’s this?

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I replied to the older gentleman in trousers, shirt and blazer.

“You tourist?” he asked, coming closer.

“Yes.”

“Where?  I Bulgarian.”

“American,” I said.

“Ah, American.  So wonderful.  Etc., etc., etc.”

“Hotel for me, $25; not for you, for me.”  And the moon is made of cheese?  Do I really look like I care?

His wallet is out to show me his bills.  This seasoned traveler of the world is immediately put on guard.  Years, and miles, and countries, under my belt, I smell a scam – or worse.  Zounds!

Out of nowhere comes another gentleman, dressed as the first, except this one is wearing a tie.  Looks a little nicer, a little more respectable, a little more professional, a little more….

“Police,” he announces as he flashes his ID.  “Passport.”

The Bulgarian pulls out something; the cop turns to me; I pull out a photocopy of mine (the document itself is in the hotel safe).

“Dollars?” he barks – very authoritatively.

“No,” I reply without thinking (very reptilian at this point).

“Cocaine?”

Well, let’s just say I was taken aback.

“No.”

He taps the left front pocket of my jeans, “Dollars?”

I pull out my little purse with credit cards.

He taps the right front pocket of my jeans, “Dollars?”

I pull out my wad of Romanian currency; but, hold it at a distance.  He reaches, “It’s ok, I show you.”  Why is that reassuring?  Just what is he going to show me?  The money came out of my pocket.  He fans out the bills and discovers, what?  He hands it back.  The cop takes the money out of the Bulgarian’s wallet, and fans it.  I still have no idea what Bulgarian currency looks like.

“Ok, no money in street,” the cop states.  He sticks out his hand, we shake.  The interview, or “shakedown” is concluded.  The Bulgarian is long gone.

“Whew” (yeah, that word actually crossed my mind, followed by others).  “Taken aback”?  I could have taken a trip “downtown,” ending with a trip upriver to the “Big House,” or into the Gulag (oops, sorry, different time, right?  right?); I have seen Midnight Express, and though Romania is not Turkey, this was too close.

Knees a little weaker, I stride off.  Had I had dollars, I could have been arrested for exchanging currency on the street; at least I know what they do in Jeddah to thieves, I have no idea what they do here (my ignorance is not bliss).  I wanted to thank the cop for saving my bacon; why, if he hadn’t appeared out of nowhere, I might have been a whole lot smarter, but a whole lot poorer.  On I strode up the boulevard, very relieved.

Or, perhaps the Gentle Reader prefers this version:

Busted

And the cop flashed his ID, huh?  If it was an ID, why did it look like one of those coupons you find on boxes of aspirin for instant redemption at the checkout counter?  And the “Bulgarian”; I’ve never seen a passport like that one.  And what do ALL the guide books say about “tourist police”?  Something along the lines of, “there ain’t any.”  How about, “don’t ever talk to a cop who isn’t in uniform”?  One guide book goes so far as to advise the reader to just tell them to “sod off.”  That sounds terribly British, and after having laid sod as a kid (green side up, thank you), I have no idea what it means, but I sure sounds like, “I beg your pardon old boy; but, I believe I shan’t give you the time of day.”  And, there is this sneaking suspicion that I started the day with four 500,000 lei notes in my jeans, and ended the day with only three.  I have no idea where I might have spent the fourth one; unless it was, of course, during that high drama on the streets of Loredo, uh, Bucharest.

This is called “Maradona style.” The name comes from the Brazilian soccer player who was infamous for his ability to steal the soccer ball from opponents without their knowledge (and, presumably, consent).  “Sleight of hand” works, so does “rip off.”

And the rest of the day?  Well, after having walked to the Parliament building and up and down the Champs Élysées, and back to the hotel on sidewalks that look like a moonscape, my ankle had become very vocal.  So, sitting in bed, with my leg elevated and an ice pack on said complaining body part, I turned to Mark Twain.
 

Campina and Hasdeu:

North of town, but south of Sinaia (Peles – with Saltines – Castle) is the little town of Campina in which one can find (if one is patient, and doesn’t think like an American) the Iulia Hasdeu Palace; one of the most curious buildings I have ever seen.  Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu, something of a Renaissance man, built the building in honor of his daughter who died of tuberculosis at 19 – herself a writer and composer (the first Romanian woman to study in Paris at some place called the Sorbonne).  It certainly resembles a castle, complete with a tower (a generous two stories) and crenellations.  From the air, it apparently looks something like a cross.  Certainly it is the sort of thing one would expect of someone who had not a clue how to design a dwelling; nevermind his fascination with spirits.

You see, Bogdan was convinced that the human soul inhabited the human body for just a short time, but kept right on going (like the Eveready bunny, apparently).  Consequently, he spent the years of his life after Iulia died communicating with her.  He had much greater success than most mediums since he was able to write letters and songs, his hand guided by her spirit.  No doubt his secret was the coffee can size hole in the wall that he had made for her spirit to pass through (well, the walls of his “castle” are quite thick).  I took a photo or two, but if you can’t wait; or want propaganda of the more authoritative sort, look here:

http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/~pop/1.htm
Doggies

Fully informed on any subject is not necessarily fully armed – especially if the information is arguably wrong.  The only dogs I have seen in this town that is reputedly overrun, have had collars, leashes (with attendant), and often, muzzles.  While not “everywhere,” dogs are clearly popular with Romanians; and, predominantly the family economy size.  However, what Bucharest does have an over abundance of is an army of ever-present mongrels, mutts, and the most pathetic curs on the face of the earth.  Though not quite as numerous as June bugs (thankfully), they are nonetheless difficult to avoid stepping on.  There is no sorrier canine on the face of the earth than a Bucharest canine.

Curtea Veche – Palatul Voievodal

The Old Princely Court, dates from the 15th century, and was apparently the center of artisans in town; later, Our Dear Friend Vlad fortified the area.  And now, this historic site is not much more than poorly labeled rubble.

The Village Museum

A national treasure in any land, this multi-acre site captures houses, churches, and an inn; all in traditional styles from around Romania, and usually very old.  I don’t know why, but I was amazed to recognize the various machines used to make cloth: paddles for carding wool, spinning wheels, and looms.  Building materials range from “waddle and daub,” to wood pole-building, to what appeared to be something like adobe; roofs could be wooden shingles, or thatch.  Furnishings were woven tapestries (probably blankets in a pinch), and delightfully painted pitchers that might hold a pint of bitter (more likely, wine).  Some had inexplicably raised floors (none of the houses were from the coastal region).  More chairs than the Parliament building by far.  Yes, there is a souvenir shop that is fully stocked with various goods at prices that are easy to resist.

Cernica

Quite a fur piece east of town is the Romanian Orthodox monastery of Cernica.  10,000 lei lets you drive in and stroll wherever you’d like.  Like into a most magnificent church.  Theologically, I have not a clue (divine or secular) what the differences are between the various Orthodox faiths; but, it is clear that they share exquisite and sublime architecture, icons,  paintings, and incredibly poor lighting.  Truly astounding that anyone would put so much work into scenes of saints, heroes, and significant events and then leave them well hidden in the dark.  The writings in this church used characters that I had never seen before and might guess were early Slavic; certainly not Greek or Russian (and none of those little dangly things hanging from letters that Romanians throw about carelessly).

At one point, an older black-robed priest was instructing some younger black-robed men; I don’t know what he was saying; but “the riot act” sounds pretty much the same in any language.

Oh yeah, the bats were really cute.  Let’s see: bats, church, hmmm.

Infrastructure only Neil Armstrong could love

I have read that Romanian is something like 97% Italian, with comparable percentages of Latin and Spanish (which makes how many percent, exactly?).  And, I am surprised almost daily at hearing a “Romanian” word that has obviously been stolen from America, but has been given a transparent twist of pronunciation in a vain attempt to hide the theft.  But this word, “infrastructure” is clearly not on the tip of anyone’s tongue in Romania.  I am speaking of course of roads, or more accurately, those places on which various motorized vehicles (some of questionable pedigree) are found.

Driving in Romania

Yes, I have driven here for a month with no contact with other motorized vehicles (at least, none that I will admit to).  Undeniable proof that Chaos Theory is chaos, but not theory.  And, I am here, Dear Reader, to share with you the secret of driving in Romania (19% VAT will be levied in lei, but not in foreign currency).

First, you must get in the proper frame of mind.  If you can conjure up the dancing elephants in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, you are off to a remarkable start.  If not, stand up, arms extended out away from your sides, knees bent.  Now, undulate, wave, relax; think fluid, water, breezes (whiskers on kittens is going in the wrong direction, sorry).  Flap like a bird if that helps, but long, graceful flappings – albatross-like, no hummingbirds, please.  Yes, I think you’re getting the hang of it.

You see, when driving in Romania, you have to understand two things, the first of which is that rules and regulations, like stop signs, red lights, and white paint are merely suggestions.  They do not exist to restrict or control, oh no!  But only to guide you on your way.

The second thing to keep in mind (if you actually want to think about operating a motor vehicle whilst it is in motion) is that, since two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, it is your duty, obligation, and divine command to get there first.  Driving is a matter of position, or if you prefer, possession, as in “I own this space” (the future tense, I will own that space, is more common, however).

Be it lowly Dacia, Mercedes-Benz, should-have-been-shot-at-sunrise-bus, or is-that-thing-legal-anywhere-truck, operating a motor vehicle on the public thoroughfares, or “roads,” you are apparently obligated to stop at crosswalks for those pedestrians who have a death wish.  Unless.  Unless, of course, there is a vehicle in front of you already stopped at the crosswalk, in which case you go around.  No, not “go around and stop,” go around.  Apparently the rules, oops, sorry, guidelines, do not apply if you go around, even into the lane usually used for oncoming traffic (so-called “laws” of physics are also temporarily suspended – no fair shutting your eyes).

If there is, in fact, any rule, it is “flexibility.” Let’s take a look at the misplaced concept of “traffic lanes.”  Traffic lanes are often defined by stripes of paint on the road.  You know those pesky white lines laid down eons ago in the Jurassic age that take a great deal of imagination to see?  Why bother even looking for them?  Obviously, the civil engineers really had no idea how wide vehicles might be, or how many should be “allowed” on the road.  Obviously, the “users” (I think it would be an insult to call them “drivers”) know best how many vehicles can occupy the space available.  Obviously, your correspondent has not yet grasped the concept.

Let’s review: Roads are what?  Wherever you can put a vehicle.  Vehicles, fittingly, are anything that moves at any speed.  And operating motor vehicles on Romanian roads is a sport only for the incredibly brave, stupid, or blind.  And the difference between “roads” and “sidewalks”?  The size of the motor vehicle sitting on it; which of course is determined by the size of the craters in the surface.

A final note: Horns are optional, as is “waving.”
Housekeeping

First, for those of you who haven’t bothered to provide any feedback on my previous three issues, I won’t continue to bother you with my miscellaneous ramblings.  This world can do with a whole less spam.

Second, and finally, the award for most creative feedback goes to Jon (no “h”), whose pithy praise has earned him a spot on the distribution list (we author wannabes are so shallow).

La revedere.

An Innocent Abroad – Chapter III

Since so many of you have virtually clamored for more, here follows the long-awaited Chapter III.  Well, ok, some of you have bestowed faint praise on my prose.  Would you believe, I bet one or two or have wondered about me?  How about, if a perfect stranger were to ask?  Ok, here it is:

 

Peles Castle

 

Yes, this is part of the aforementioned “Driving – How not to get run over,” promised in the last installment; altho, unintentionally.  But first, another language lesson:

 

That “s” (would that be “es”?) on the end of Peles is not the good ol’ red-white-and-blue ‘Merican “s” – oh no!  It’s one of those letters with something extra (alternatively, given the very long history of Romania, perhaps it is the English that has deleted the little squiggle hanging from the bottom; but, since I am an engineer, and not a linguist, I can comfortably ignore that inconvenient point of view – being parochial does have its advantages – ah, but I digress).  I believe you can approximate the sound of this special “s” by first eating about 20 Saltine crackers and then saying “pe-les.”  I believe the Romanian judge will award extra points for coverage and distance of cracker crumbs.  But, you are definitely seeking a “Pelish” kind of thing.  In other words, no one knew what I was asking for when I went in search of said castle (well, how many castles can there be?).

 

So, about 9:30, I set out.  First order of business, after making sure I had all the brochures and maps, is to gas up the car (oh boy).  Having been confronted countless times with both Detroit’s inability to standardize the location of refueling stations on their vehicles, I actually (no kidding) checked out where the gas tank was before getting to the gas station.  Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but I wouldn’t ask you, Gentle Reader, to believe anything that wasn’t easily checked.  Furthermore, altho stretching the limits of credibility, I asked what kind of gas I needed to put into the car, also, before getting to the gas station.  I won’t impose upon your faith or good humor any more, I promise.

 

So, I drives into the Agip gas station (obviously modeled after every gas station in America, complete with mini-mart selling beer, wine, and much heavier-duty anti-freeze), and stops at a pump.  How did I know to even look for the fara plum hose?  Simple, my car takes only lead-free gas (according to the key fob), and as surely every seasoned traveler knows, “fara” means “without,” and “plum” is a fruit that comes from a medium size tree (or, I suppose has something to do with “lead” as in Pb is the symbol on the periodic table with Atomic Number 82 – which obviously comes from the Latin plumbum; you might know the Italian piombo, or the Spanish plomo?  I thot as much).  Ok, fine: so it wasn’t intuitive; I asked somebody at work.  Pump, pump, pump.  Wash windshield.  And that was how much again?  Much too many zeros, but then again, not nearly enough.

 

My 59.66023 liters came to 1,050,020 lei.  Yep, over a million fun-tokens to fill up my little car – I don’t want to hear anyone over there complaining about the cost of gas, ok?  Just a sec, though: 60 liters for a million lei means what in furlongs per fortnight?  Doing the conversion in my head, as any seasoned traveler can do, I found it necessary to multiply by 47.3, divide by the square root of cabbage, carry the one (of course), and I got: $2.12/gallon (15.7605 gallons (guess I was running on fumes?) and $38.39).  Ouch.  Actually, I could have sworn the pump said it was only 105,002 lei; but, the nice man behind the counter insisted on that extra, rather silly if you ask me, zero – and who was I to argue?  And in what language?

 

Back in little car, swing on down the road, swing on down, swing on down the ro-ode (oops, sorry).

 

Big road (four lanes total) becomes smaller (two lanes total); eventually to become Norwegian (it is the Bucharest city roads that are modeled after Tokyo).  Speed limit?  Observed only by yours truly.  Neither BMW, nor Mercedes, nor Dacia, nor Daewoo (yeah), nor horse drawn cart pays any attention to speed limits (“Radar” signs included – or ignored entirely, depending on your point of view).  It soon became clear that your faithful correspondent was the only car on the road whose driver took all dem dere cops in their bright yellow/green coats seriously.  Honestly, what do all those guys do?

 

I saw only one accident the entire day.  One might have thought the traffic ground to a halt to gawk at the little pick-up truck (Dacia) in the ditch with no glass in it at all; but, as I got closer, I discovered the rubber-neckers weren’t the ones slowing down.  It was everyone in the oncoming lane working their way around the police car that was ever so conveniently parked right in the middle of the oncoming lane – no attempt was made by Romania’s finest to pull off the road.  Speed limit?  Fact or fantasy?  Well, the sign sure looked like 80 (that would be kph, or 50 mph); whereas I was pedaling as fast as I could to prevent becoming a hood ornament at about 120 (75 mph).  Exciting?  Bosh!  We haven’t come to the mountains, yet!

 

I guess Romania has some oil, they certainly have a lot of those teeter-totter pumps that so decoratively dot the landscapes of Texas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.  In any event, think really ugly and you have a good idea of what the land north of Bucharest looks like (or, speak knowingly of the Wallachian Plain).  More helpful, perhaps, would be: flat, flat, flat.  Little, little towns clotted around the road like so much cholesterol at intervals probably determined by the motive force on the horse drawn farm wagons (yes, that would literally be one horsepower).  Some buildings/houses started and not completed (we’re talking about workers and money either dead or dried up); no house neat-as-a-pin cottage-in-the-woods (well, no trees).  Plenty of stools set up by the roadside with a dozen or so eggs perched on top, or twenty or thirty jars of honey pyramided (I’m sure that’s a verb, too) – mailbox baseball, anyone?  How the stools and eggs/jars stayed intact with the mini-cyclones of the sedans whooshing by is an art form that must be thousands of years old.

 

Up into the foothills of the immortal Carpathians.  Up into twisty, tiny little roads (altho, unlike the Norwegian mountain roads, there is white paint down the middle of these), ever higher we climb.  Well, not all that high, actually (nope my little car does not have an altimeter – and my watch doesn’t either), but certainly the straight roads on the flatlands are behind me.  Settling down to a comfortable pace, I follow a sedan rather larger than car; not too slow, but neither all that sporting (strange car, strange road, strange, well, everything: strange, strange, strange).  Coming around my left on a blind corner is a small white something or other, followed by (mated with?) a large blue something or other.  Sure enough: coming around the corner, some pilgrim is coming the other way!  The nerve!  The audacity!  The unmitigated gaul! (or is that “gall”?  Well, it might have been a hard Frenchman.)

 

What are we – there are five of us involved in this high altitude, if not high stakes, drama – to do?  Elementary, my dear: if we are the two passing vehicles, we just simply nip into this whisper of a space between these other two cars also going the same direction!  And we don’t have a head-on collision, and the poor idiot (he does look awfully pale) in the little silver Mondeo is never going to get our license plate numbers while his heart infarcts, anyway.  And, even if he did (do people here do that?), who’s he going to tell?  One of those guys in the yellow/green coats?  Ha!  Good brakes in that little car; not much rubber left on the tires, though….

 

After about two hours of fun and games, we get into Sinaia (sorry, no pronunciation guide here: you’re on your own), the home of Peles Castle (did you remember the Saltines?)  Which brings us to:

 

TODAY’S TRAVEL TIP (Vlad’s family was threatening to sue over the implied alliteration, said it would give their illustrious ancestor a bad name):

 

How many times can you drive thru a sleepy little mountain hamlet and NOT see a castle?  Tick, tock, time’s running out!  If you guessed once, or twice, you obviously don’t know who you’re talking to!  It was on my third trip thru town that I saw the miniscule sign (might have been six inches high by eighteen inches long) that had been blocked by a van.  Must be the place!

 

40,000 lei to park inside.  Well, since most visitors obviously came on foot, there simply wasn’t any parking outside the grounds (what there was, was occupied by those rather substantial – the whole road belongs to me – tour buses).  Quick: how much in the coin of your realm is it going to cost to park inside.  We’re losing daylight here; think, think, think!!!  Oh hell, just pay the man and drive on; I’m a rich tourist (on the company’s nickel) I can afford the, what was it again, $1.27?, to park the car.  “Second left” I was told – wait a minute: “second left”? – nobody here talks like that!  Yeah, no kidding, he said “second left.”  And you want to know what blew my socks off?  He was right – I mean correct: it was the second left.

 

I park and begin my assault, or should I say defense?  No, not a particularly long walk, measured in feet, meters, or cubits, and, not all that steep (measure steep any way you want to).  But, counting the number of people, of all ages, who are trying to sell you irresistible toys, trinkets, do-dads (huh?), shawls, table cloths, soft-drinks, and some things that haven’t been classified yet, and it gave me an appreciation for running the gauntlet that I never had before.  The little wave, nod of the head, slight smile, and polite ‘no thank you’ quickly became, well, let’s just say I’m glad my mommy wasn’t there.

 

Get to the “castle.”  Well, if you’re picturing crenellated walls and turrets and drawbridges and moats, you’ve obviously seen Wizard of Oz too many times.  Think more in terms of a small, summer, cabin, high in the wooded mountains – Bavaria, or Leavenworth, that kind of thing.  Edelweiss?  Yeah, toss some of that in there, Julie Andrews won’t mind.  Not working, huh?  How about something that took 400 workmen 39 years to build (no conversion necessary, take it the way you see it).  Lavish?  Naw.  The veritable epitome of tasteful understatement.  But, I get ahead of myself (doesn’t happen often, I know).

 

Front door.  How do we know it’s the “Front Door” if there’s no moat, portcullis, drawbridge, or Swiss guard (oops, that’s the Vatican, sorry)?  Perhaps, it is our traveler’s instinct, finely honed over the years?  That sixth sense that puts us immediately at home in every clime and culture (except for Jeddah).  How about the sign that says “Foreign Visitor’s Entrance”?  Presto!  I can do this.  Of course, if I wasn’t a “foreign visitor,” I don’t have a clue in the world where I would go, because there is no sign for those people.

 

Wait, wait, wait.  Why?  ‘Cause the sign on the door is written in Romanian, and there are about fifteen other camera and mobile phone toting folks milling smartly about (surely this isn’t the queue for the lieu, lue, lui, bathroom?).  Door opens.  No, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman, alá Young Frahnk-en-steen) does not open the door and there are no…wait, I did hear horses.  Anyway.

 

Quite a grand foyer; not The Grand Foyer, more of a “Oh, it’s you,” kind of foyer.

 

Someone reaches into a large wooden box and pulls out “booties.”  Well, more like “half-booties”; the one-size-fits-all shoe covering made of wool with a fashionable ankle strap to keep our infidel shoes from soiling the marble floor.  But, wait!  The booties are not identical!  Oh, this just won’t do.  We must have on matching booties (they “match”?)  Dig, dig, dig.  Wait, wait, wait.

 

“May I have your camera?”  “Huh?”  “Your camera.  Sorry, no pictures.”  So, Frau Blücher exchanges my $1,000 company digital camera (well, I need to learn how to use it, right?) for a slip of paper with the number “5” on it.  Seems like a fair trade; I can probably redeem my number 5 for a Brownie Instamatic or a Batman decoder ring when I finish the tour, ‘cause I’m never going to see my, oops, the company, camera again.  Grit teeth, suck air, mutter incantations to the gods.

 

“English tour,” barks the man in uniform (at least he doesn’t appear to have a bazooka hung from his shoulder like the nice man outside).  It soon became apparent that he was referring to the tourists who might have a passable understanding of English, not to himself.

 

Other than the some 4,000 pieces of museum grade armaments (I mean, who knows if those broad swords, pikes, hooks, clubs, spears, really work, anyway?), this was NOT a castle, not even a Sear’s castle (or was that a Sear’s poncho?  Somebody give Frank Zappa a call, huh?).  On the other hand, that Vanderbilt thing in North Carolina has nothing on this place (honestly, the Vanderbilt summer home is just a tad larger).  Allegedly, there are over 40 kinds of wood used thru-out; lost on me, I could identify only about 20.  Marble, silks, gold, silver, brocade, tapestries, leather (ceiling), paintings, sculptures, am I boring you?  And that’s just the foyer!

 

The tour lasted less than an hour, covered only the first floor (or, ground floor; 1 Etaj here, would be the second floor back home in The Colonies), was utterly fascinating, well worth the 60,000 lei to get in, and I can’t wait to go back.  It cost me 100,000 lei to walk around King Carol I’s home for an afternoon and was intoxicating.

 

Now to gird myself for the drive home….  But, first, just exactly where was the water closet, anyway (there are no trees between Sinaia and Bucharest: go now)?  What’s that?  Do they really say “water closet” here?  No, of course not!  “Water closet” is hardly a Romanian word (puh! some people).  The Romanian word is, as you might expect, far beyond the simple capabilities of your humble correspondent.  But, I have a sneaking suspicion that The Gentle Reader could handle, are you ready?: “toalett.”  Want to try that again?  Well, do so on your own time; Mother Nature is not going to wait.

 

Accustomed as I am to traveling abroad (how hoity-toity can you get, anyway?), I fully expected to have to pay a toilet tax.  Nope, no idea what they call it here.  But, I figured the little ol’ lady sitting in the booth inside the, um, trying to be delicate here, toilet “area” was not doing so to stay out of the sun.  Simple scrap of paper prominently posted (hey! finally, some decent alliteration – and who said I couldn’t read?) with “1,000 lei” on it.  Well, here’s 2,000 lei, I’m in a hurry.  Next time you think you have the worst job in the world….

 

Like a salmon swimming upstream, I make my way thru the “vendors” (Hey Joes! to those who have been to Napoli), back to my car (and yes, it is still there).  Oh yeah: mit camera.

 

An uneventful, if not hair-raising, drive back to the center of town, to the legendary Athénée Palace Hotel (well the brochure says “legendary”), and a glass of pinot noir.  The locals never knew how close they came to an untimely end.  What is all this stuff on my car?  Remember the horse drawn wagons?

 

La revedere!

An Innocent Abroad – Chapter II

Dear Reader, please accept my most sincere apologies for leaving you in such dreadful suspense over the potential “Laundry Emergency” in my last installment.  While it pales by comparison to my “Book a Flight Crisis” this week, it was consuming at the time.  There I was: the peace and prosperity of all freedom loving peoples everywhere hinged on the ability of my hotel’s Laundry Department to deliver laundered clothing the very same day!  Can you imagine?  Believing in miracles is, of course, part and parcel of every trip away from our homes; but, I had inadvertently set myself up to actually rely on one.  Not nearly as dangerous a situation as you might imagine, though certainly foolhardy.

 

But, I come to you, today, with a smile on my face and a clean shirt on my back!  Yes, indeedee-do, Dear Reader, just like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (or was that just Dudley Doright?), and “The Yard” (yes, that would be “Scotland Yard”), the Laundry Department delivered the goods, as promised.  Of course, it will take me until the next Laundry Day to untie my socks (how do they do that?), and unwrap my shirts (I have quite a collection of little cardboard bow ties – must be two words: “bowties” looks too close to “nighties”).  I am, as they say, a happy camper (at the Hilton, no less).

 

So what of this “Book a Flight Crisis” I alluded to earlier?  That would be transportation, and that falls under:

 

Tepes Travel Tips

 

First, let us please set the record straight: that initial “t” in the word “tepes” just doesn’t sound like a good, American “t” (or British “tea,” for that matter).  That Romanian word, “tepes” begins with their very own, special “t” (no, not like Special K); this particular letter has a little “tail” hanging down from it – but, of course, I don’t have the Romanian alphabet loaded into my confuser, so I can’t represent it.  That little “tail” (no doubt called a diacritical mark, but my mother doesn’t like me to use words like that) changes the “teh” to something more like a “che”; so the heretofore sought-after – and always elusive – alliteration isn’t there at all.  I could just die, I’m so embarrassed.  By the way, the nickname comes from the Romanian word for stake, which is how our good friend Vlad liked to have his guests for dinner; apparently quite the accomplishment to have the writhing victim make it all the way thru to dessert….

 

So, you have a command performance in Budapest next week and need to (are you still with me?) “Book a Flight.”  Since I occupy an office with a view at the airport, it should be a simple thing to saunter on over to the Malev counter and buy a ticket (i.e., book a flight).

 

Well, for starters, all the ticket counters are inside the metal detectors/x-ray machine area, and are not immediately visible when you stand in the lobby like some misplaced beast of burden.  And, what’s this, an Information Booth?  Maybe of the variety that actually traffics in, dare I be so bold, information?  Why yes!  Once so-enlightened, I aboutface and sauntes on over to the closest metal detector/x-ray machine, Number 3, by name.

 

Not so fast moose-breath!

 

Since I am wearing my official airport security badge (be afraid, be very afraid), I can’t use that machine/lane/ whatever it’s called; I have to go to: Number 1.  Thank you very much.  But, no!  As I walk in the direction the kind gentleman in uniform has pointed to, the numbers on the machines are getting larger, not smaller.  Completely baffled, but not entirely undone (that comes later), I keep on walking.  Sure enough, in lettering even I could read (and, in fact, did), Machine Number 7 was for “Crew, Staff.”  Obviously, the helpful guard meant the first machine at that end!  You would have to get up awfully early to fool me, by gum!

 

So, here we are, in the ‘ticketed passengers only” area, without a ticket.  Clearly, an imposter; the deer-in-the-headlights look no doubt giving me away.  Wander, wander, wander.  Aha (yes, I actually said that; I said, “aha” – not “eureka” as some of you might suppose), here is the Malev counter.  But, alas (nope, gotcha: I didn’t really say that), like the fairytale, Goldilocks was not home.  There was a sign on the Aeroflot counter immediately to the right; I think it said something like “Are you Kidding?” but I can’t read Cyrillic, so I’m not sure.  After about fifteen minutes, a gentleman did appear at the Hemus (don’t ask) counter immediately to the left.

 

He really had no idea.  Whether it was no idea who let me in, what I was saying, or when (if) anyone would magically appear at the Malev counter, I would not wager.  There I stood: in front of a tiny little cube – the kind they put serial killers in – wondering whatever happened to Plan B.  Finally deciding that watching half a dozen passengers amble thru was about as productive as I was going to be, and having heard the public address ask, just one more time, to kindly refrain from carrying side-arms on board the airplanes (this is inside the metal detector area, remember), I sought a Way Out.

 

And the Way Out was not (was not way out, that is), either the way out of the secured area, the terminal building, or the parking lot.  Payment for parking was 25,000 Romanian Lei, by the way; which of course brings us to the next:

 

Tepes’ (lack of alliteration notwithstanding) Travel Tips: Currency

 

When I showed up “in-country,” I showed up sans money, for I was assured that there were ATMs on every corner, and most of them worked, and a much smaller, select number actually dispensed the requested sum.  So, I am standing at the ATM in the hotel wondering how much to request.  Push the “million two” button.  Okie dokie, always eager to do what my boss tells me….  Presto, change-o, I’m a millionaire, and I don’t have to struggle with any stupid questions (no, the choice of languages on the ATM was not a stupid question).  Right there in my hot little hands is 1.2 MILLION – count ‘em: 1,200,000!  Can you believe it?  My boss, heck, no the company allows me, no, expects me to handle such enormous funds in a, what, prudent and reasonable manner?  Anyone who would expect me to be “prudent and reasonable” with 1.2 MILLION obviously has a problem left to others to diagnose.

 

Huh?  1.2 MILLION whats?  1.2 MILLION Romanian Lei, that’s what.  Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it (I mean: DOESN’T IT???).  Well when you look at the prices around here, you soon learn that 1.2 MILLION doesn’t go as far as you might expect; not nearly far enough, I might add.  Why, just yesterday, I went back to the ATM to get another 2 MILLION!  Yep, in slightly over two weeks, I have already been “prudent and reasonable” with the first mil, or so.

 

Put that in perspective, will ya?  Ok, 1.2 million ROL is roughly $37; well, it’s probably worth about $35 dollars now.  You see, my hosts finished off 2001 with an annualized inflation rate of only 22%; which is great news, considering the forecast was 31%.

 

Bottomline: this is one place “do it in your head” currency conversion doesn’t work so very well.  So, Today’s Travel Tip is simply: spend, spend, spend (why worry?).

 

Meanwhile, back at the “Book A Flight” conundrum, I decided to call the Malev ticket office.  Of course, I don’t know whether to direct dial from the office phone, or if I would have to dial “9” or some other (apparently universal) access code.  But then, what’s a dial tone sound like in Romania?  What does a busy signal sound like?  Well, the first two calls (I used a “9” for the very first one, and nothing much happened) resulted in some sort of noise, and no voice.  The third call resulted in a different noise and a voice.

 

Well, of course there is no one at the ticket counter sez this disembodied voice: only two hours before a flight would there be anyone at the ticket counter.  How silly of me; and depending on the day of the week, that might be a work shift of only about 2 hours and five minutes.  Sounds like pretty good work if you can get it.  Can I buy the ticket at the airport counter before the flight, or do I have to come into town?  At the counter is fine; Romania’s answer to e-tickets, I suppose.

 

So, I went to Budapest; well, Pest, to be perfectly precise: Buda is on the other side of the Danube.  Passport control and Customs were cakewalks – once I figured out that if I pretended not to see them, they pretended not to see me.  Ah, but how to I get from Ferihegy Airport to my hotel.  Nope, sorry: that’s not “Feringy” as in the characters from the Star Trek spinoff, but “Ferihegy”; ok, not close.  But the question remains: how to negotiate the transportation of my carcass.  The “Airport Minibus,” of course (no, really).  Think of ShuttleExpress in Puget sound; much the same deal.  Forints do help.

 

For-whats?  You know: “forints”: the Hungarian currency.  Not to be confused with American Dollars, British Pounds, Romanian Lei, Monopoly Money, or anything else in my pocket.  Enter the omnipresent ATM; put in the card, pull out a 10,000 Forint note; not quite the millions that I have grown accustomed to, but the principal remains the same: not a clue what it’s worth.  Except that about a third of that 10 grand will be necessary to get to the hotel.

 

If you’ve never been to Budapest, you don’t know what you’re missing, but you are to be pitied (I couldn’t say that last week).  Marvelous, incredible, breath-taking architecture; obviously, a country with a whole lot more disposable wealth than Romania, and it’s been that way for a while, say about five hundred years.  Had a good dinner at some little, walk-down place that I’ll never find again.  A good meeting (well, a lot of discussion anyway; how productive is another matter), and went to the house of an old friend and had dinner.  The next morning, I walked about downtown: feet on pavement (mostly), and eyes just soaking in countless variations of masonry and stone.  Delighted to find some Latin; practically ecstatic to find I could read it.  Back to the airport, back to Bucharest.  Monday to Wednesday.  Whirlwind trip.

 

Yesterday morning on my way into work, I passed a military convoy.  It is still so unnerving to think that it wasn’t so long ago that this part of the world was behind the Iron Curtain.  It is absolutely spine-tingling to recognize all that Soviet hardware; definitely a case of up-close-and-personal not being a good thing.

 

Next time: Driving: How not to get run over.

 

La Revedere!

An Innocent Abroad – Chapter I

No, to those of you who might have wondered if I had “taken a left at Albuquerque,” I have not fallen off the edge; I have been quite busy, and your patience will not go unpunished.

 

May I offer the following:

 

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother.

                                                            The Innocents Abroad

Mark Twain

 

Some of you know, very well, I might add, that, when it comes to world travel, I am hardly an innocent (could I possibly squeeze another comma in there?).  And, for those of you who think of me in rather less flattering terms (with apologies to Balaam’s mount, of course), I beg your indulgence.  That said, if you wish to be relieved of my future literary burdens, just reply to this post appropriately (or not).

So much for the preamble.

 

Yes, I am now firmly, if not safely, ensconced in Bucharest, Romania; housed extremely comfortably in the Athenée Palace hotel; and driving with careless – and, so far, wreckless – abandon on this fine country’s highways and byways.  But how did all this tomfoolery begin?

 

The Phone Call

 

As you may recall (or not), I joined Field Service in September of last year (can we say “9/11”?), keeping well in character for my almost flawless lack of timing.  Having pretty well exhausted my supply of nails to bite, fearful of being thrust onto the street of greater opportunities, I said the only sensible thing when offered this three month “backfill” assignment in support of Romania’s state-run airline: “When do I leave?”

 

 Packing

 

Yeah, pack for three months; what EXACTLY might that look like?  How about two large valises crammed to the gills with every stitch of clothing I had at my disposal?  Well, not quite, but certainly every sock and hanky I could lay my hands on.  And then, of course, the obligatory laptop, that device of flexibility that bears an increasingly strong resemblance to a boat anchor (or millstone for the nautically challenged).  Yes, I put a change of socks in my carry-on luggage.

 

Airport Security, immediately after September 11

 

You’ll be happy to know that I did not need quite all of the three hours that ShuttleExpress suggested to check into my flight; I believe I used about two minutes – and that included picking up the tickets at Ken’s Baggage.  When going thru the metal detector/x-ray machine just before boarding the little underground Sea-Tac train for the South Terminal, I had to remove my laptop from my carry-on so that it could be x-rayed separately.  Other than that, and the two National Guard personnel who couldn’t have cared less if I was there, I saw nothing that could have discouraged a passenger from taking tweezers or nailclippers on his person.  At Heathrow, one gent condescended to actually look at my passport – in passing, as it were.  In Bucharest, well, who wants to come here to make trouble?

 

Reclinging Seats, ala British Airways

 

For those of you who have mastered the art of sleeping on seats with 21-inch pitch, and seatbacks that recline four or five degrees (altho the seatback in front always reclines 50, or 60 degrees, right into your peach melba), you would, no doubt find the 9 and a half hour flight from Sea-Tac to Heathrow in a seat that reclines a full 180 degrees (that would be FLAT) an absolute torture.  I, however, never could sleep on an airplane, and it apparently has nothing to do with the seats.  I did choose to sit in a rear-facing seat, something I haven’t done since coming aboard an aircraft carrier in a Greyhound.  Food? Ok (altho the claret – the British do pronounce the “t,” I found – was rather above what I am accustomed to).  Movies?  Oh, excuse me: Inflight Entertainment (IFE to the cognoscenti)?  I am seldom without a good book, and that trip was an excellent time to have one; I should have asked for a refund, or suggested BA request one from their entertainment director.  Abysmal.

 

London-town

 

No, no one calls it that nowadays (is that really just one word?); but, it sounds so, what, seasoned?  Or simply aged?  In any event, I found the airport Hilton after asking several workers with badges, including one at the “Information Desk”; obviously the Hilton people need to work on their publicity – surely it wasn’t my pronunciation: how many ways can a “Hilton” be said?  Maybe they thot I was saying “stilton”?  Yes, I was wondering around the airport asking, “Where is the stilton?”  That must be the problem.  A marvelous cheese (with a good clareT), but not quite what I needed at that moment.  Anyway, check-in was what I have come to expect of the British: cold restraint.  After checking in, and then returning to The Front to ask for a second key, then tromping back to the Front to be told that a member of the hotel staff would assist me (no doubt my funny accent led them to believe I was challenged) and having had to wait for a hotel staff person to show me how to use it (must be the wrist), I was in my room, and checking my email.  Marvelous invention, that.  Finishing the joy of figuring out which digit to dial to get an outside line, and what number to dial, and punching in my secret code to access the company net, the phone rang!  Zounds! (apologies to Mercutio)

I have corresponded for ages with a gentleman I had never met, and now was my chance!  Yabbut: how to get from Heathrow to Victoria Station?  Elementary!  Go find the Picadilly Line in the basement of Heathrow, Terminal 4, get off at Hammersmith (don’t you just love these names?), transfer to the District Line, and jump off at Victoria.  There are only three stairways off the platform at Victoria, and yours truly of course shunned the correct one; at the top, WHSmith was nowhere to be found.  Yes, quite the fine pickle.  Wander, wander, wander.  Eventually, I did find the bookstore, and my dear wife will be happy to know I did not venture in; then I set off for Buckingham Palace.

 

Is there anything more pointless than two soldiers in long-gray coats with empty rifles and bearskin hats marching back and forth and back and forth and back and forth (well, you get the idea)?  I suppose you might point out that we in America have the same situation in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Hardly the same at all, dear chap: the Tomb is much smaller and could spirited away in the dead of night; but Buckingham Palace would require a much larger endeavor.  It would have been nice if the soldiers had bothered to synchronize their marches, then they would have had symmetry in their favor.

Had a wonderful first meeting, a good dinner, great conversation, tour of the West End (think: “the-a-tah”) then back aboard The Tube.

But, how am I to get to Gatwick airport in the morning?  Hmmm…

 

Well, at the BA desk at Victoria Station, I could take the train from Heathrow into Victoria Station, and then the train out to Gatwick.  Or, I could take the bus and save about an hour, and mucho denero.  And how would I get to the bus?  Ask at Heathrow.  Thank you ever so much.

Back at Heathrow, I found there is a DEDICATED bus from that airport to the one I wanted to leave from in the morning, they left every fifteen minutes, and cost but 12 and a half pounds (company accounting refers to other currencies as “local dollars” – world travelers that they are).  And, if I caught the 0630, or 0645 bus, I should make Gatwick in plenty of time.  Marvelous.  Could I show my tickets?  Well, no: they were in my room.  I’m flying BA?  Yes.  Then the ticket is paid for by BA.  Stupendous!  A potentially slight hiccup that could have been avoided by the travel department who booked the trip; but, this is so much more fun to discover “on the fly,” as it were.

 

Back to the room, lights out, eyes open.  Were the two alarm clocks I set necessary?  Would it have given me an extra hour of sleep to have spent the night at Gatwick, instead of saving the bus ride till morning?  Hah!  Wide awake in the plane coming over; wide awake in the hotel.  I just love travel.

 

Being predisposed to spending my entire life not wanting to be late at any cost (having entered the world somewhat later than planned), I found myself at the bus-stop shortly after 6 a.m., and there was already a line (sorry, “que”).  Yes, I did get the promised travel voucher, and so did not have to part with any of my newly acquired British pounds (nope, not part of the Euro-thing) – surely I would find a pocket full of that currency of inestimable value at my new home?  On the bus, and off we go.  Well, some of us, anyway; we left quite a bunch on the curb, having maxed out the bus’ cargo hold.  Being early has paid off, once again!

 

Checking into BA at Gatwick was predictably uncomplicated by silly little security issues; into the lounge with just oodles of time to kill – so much nicer than being the last one on the airplane, at any rate.  The 737-800 took off late (something about traffic over Europe on a Monday morning – can there be a “rush hour” with airplanes?).  I avoided the food, and settled down to read in a leather business class seat that must have had some sort of teflon spray added.  Great exercise to spend 3 hours scooching back into a seat.

 

Bucharest

 

Passport Control.  Obviously the officers that occupy Otopeni Airport’s first line of defense graduated first in their class, having mastered the fine art of appearing to be totally bored, and disinterested.  No doubt, they excelled in classes such as how to yawn and look disgusted at the same time.  Not to take anything away from the Saudis, who look like they’d like to spit on you but don’t think you’re worthy of their spittle (small comfort).  Thru the “Nothing to Declare” line (not sure if that should be said sotto voce, or not), and out into the hustle and bustle of terminal lobby to meet…well…I knew the airplane was early…but….

 

Eventually, the parties that were to meet me showed; but not before I heard my name paged over the PA system.  Visions of Clint Eastwood in the movie Firefox (“Your paapehs arrre not in ohda”) were about to be made manifest.  They shoot horses don’t they?  Not to worry, Timm and Bob were merely on time, and my wait was short one.

 

Do you want to buy a phone?  Question, or command?  Well, my new boss – the one who will approve all my efforts at addition and subtraction and currency conversion on expense reports – was right there, so, why not?  Why not, indeed?  Now, you must take note of the rather awkward fact that I have never even had a conversation on a mobile – not cell – phone previous to this.  Bob had scouted it out, told me which one was the one I wanted, told me where to perform the transaction, and what could be simpler?  Fine, I’ve had the delightful little status symbol for a week now, and I have learned how to program two numbers: the hotel and the little man behind the green curtain (Glenda’s number is unlisted).  I know it works because Timm has called me twice to see if I know how to push the big button right in the center and say something into the palm of my hand.  It also has internet capability (according to the Romanian owner’s manual), but I am sure I won’t live long enough to figure that out).

 

Athenée Palace Hotel.  That would be “Ah,” “the” (short “e”), “knee” – emphasis on the second syllable.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn the etymology hails from the land of Homer; but, in fact, this country was well known to the Romans.  These people had to put up with Caesar and the Ottomans, and the Hungarians never had enough food on the table, I guess.  With time, all will be revealed.

 

We agonized over the rental car; me voting for the local, quaint, and picturesque; the others pulling rank and voting for the Ford Mondeo.  Yeah, a Ford (sorry, Sis).  Okay, it’s Avis, cause Hertz doesn’t have anything that big.  Fine.  Another decision taken out of my hands.  What am I, chopped chicken-liver?  Hardly: I get to negotiate rates….

 

Being the consummate haggler, I was able to drive the woman at the Avis desk to call her boss (good sign).  Her boss said she would get back to me (another good sign).  We agreed on the price (well within guidelines), and the car would be available tomorrow.  My last peaceful night.

 

Be afraid, be very afraid

 Now, driving in Bucharest is not all that different from driving in any big city.  For starters, their cars are built with the steering wheel on the same side as any other car you are likely to find in Mark Twain Country.  However, just because the steering wheel is on the left doesn’t mean they drive on the right.  Neither do those cute little numbers conveniently posted on the light poles have any bearing on the number your speedometer needle is pointing at.  And should you have any questions, there is a traffic cop standing on practically every corner to help you relax.  To say nothing of the “piatas” (think of piazza – or place), which may, or may not, resemble the wonderfully British “round-about.”  So, without any more clue about the strange buttons and switches inside the car, or the driving rules outside, I am turned loose on the populace.

 Tepes’ Travel Tips

When is it a “Laundry Emergency,” and when is it not?  This question has plagued world travelers since time immemorial, or since breakfast for others.  Avoid the entire subject completely by bothering to read the attractive booklet found in your nightstand; or baring that, by asking one of those cute young things at The Front.  However, if you are among those too callused to pay attention to the security briefing at the beginning of every flight, or never look for fire exits in hotels (or airplanes, for that matter), then be prepared for the dreaded “Laundry Emergency.”

 It IS a “Laundry Emergency” when you count all your socks and hankies after staying in a hotel for nearly a week, tally them up on the score sheet (don’t look at the prices: at these rates you are in the wrong business), and then stuff the whole kit and kabudle (I understand the “kit” part, but what in the world is a “kabudle”? – yes, extra points for originality) into a plastic bag that is fiendishly much too small – AND THEN discover that laundry is not processed on the weekends.

So, solving for x (one equation, the only known is the ass filling out the score sheet), we discover that we do, indeed, have enough socks to tide us over until TUESDAY (the laundry not being returned until Monday evening…he said hopefully).  We will find out exactly how close to the unspeakable “Laundry Emergency” we came upon entering our room this evening.

 Ah, and who is this “Tepes” fellow, you might ask?  Well, dad called me Vlad, and my friends called me the “Impaler.”

 La revedere,