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?


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.


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

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