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!

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