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.


“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).


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


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:


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:

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.


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.”

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.

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