Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Romania Wrap-Up

Warning: If you do not like long posts or you really dislike Romania, you might want to skip this one. Otherwise, read on and enjoy!

Romania Day 1 - Saturday April 8

The day started with a call from Onno, apologizing for taxi confusion. Instead of traveling to the airport with Onno and Atsh, I’d be going with Atsh, Vlad, and Ryan. Atsh met me at the corner and we headed to Vlad and Ryan’s place. We somehow managed to pack all our suitcases in (though we had to partially dismantle the cab) and headed off to the airport with a guy who is probably the nicest cab driver in Spain.

Matt, Anosha, Atsh, and Vlad at Barcelona airport

At the airport we met Onno, Anosha, and Matt. Got checked in, had some breakfast, and boarded our flight to Milan. We spent an hour at Malpensa and then found our gate to Bucharest. It was in the basement. After passing Gucci stores and duty free shops, it was a surprise to find this strange dark dungeon with only three gates. One was for our flight to Bucharest, the other for the 3pm flight to Budapest. How confusing.

Ryan, Atsh and Matt at Milan airport

While we were in Milan Vlad got a call from Roberto, who had arrived in Bucharest only to be told that because he didn’t have the proper visa he couldn’t enter the country. Just hours before in the Barcelona airport, they told him he could pay for the visa at the airport, but I guess signals got crossed. So he was sent back to Barcelona via Frankfurt, just the way he had arrived. We hadn’t even arrived in Romania yet and already we were a man down. (Note – Upon his return to Barca, Roberto found that his tequila had been taken from his suitcase. You do NOT separate a Mexican from his full bottle of Cuervo, people. He now has a personal vendetta against the country of Romania.)

We boarded our flight, which was rather uneventful, and were in Bucharest airport just two hours later. The customs guy looked at my passport more than every other passport control person before COMBINED. He flipped through all the pages three times. Then studied my picture, which is slightly raised off the page. Then took out a LOOP and inspected the photo and USA stamp under a magnifying glass! Finally he let me pass. I waited for the others on the other side, and we had arrived.

We were greeted by Vlad’s parents and his parents’ friends. His dad’s friend Lika drove Anosha and me to our apartment in the center of Bucharest. This place is wild. It feels like it’s still the 60s. Not that I really know what that feels like. There are tons of Dacias (the Romanian car) everywhere. And lots of potholes. But it’s cool. And kinda creepy. Tonight we are off to dinner somewhere and then to a café and then a disco. Tomorrow we head to the mountains.

Day 2 - Sunday April 9

Last night we had the first of what will probably be many, many enormous meaty meals. After settling in at our apartment, Vlad picked us up and we headed out for dinner. A few of Vlad’s lady friends joined us there. We had a first course of various types of cheeses and hams, followed by a second course of meat. We were stuffed by the time we left, and we moved on to a café, where we had more drinks and dessert. Two hours later, we headed to Planter’s, “An American Bar.” I kept having to remind myself we were in Romania because most of the music is the same you’d hear in Barcelona. And the same I was hearing in Miami at Christmas time. Several hours later, dripping with sweat, Anosha and I stumbled out of the club and took a cab home. To unlock the door you have to turn one of the deadbolts six times. Not five, not seven. Six.

Another interesting fact – there are currently two Romanian currencies. The country operated in Lions until last year, when they decided to lop 4 zeros off the money and call it Ron. Now they use both and it’s rather confusing. But it’s the first time I’ve ever had a million dollar (ok, lion) bill. It feels good. And it feels like plastic. Yes, the bills are plastic.

This morning we got up at 10 and headed for the mountains. Anosha and I rode in Vlad’s car with Onno, and Matt drove Ryan and Atsh in the other car. Along the way, I saw things that I didn’t think really existed in reality, only in stylized pictures. Lots of women with head scarves, people digging in the mud, horse-drawn carts carrying strange items. Lots of gypsy-types on bicycles, many with kids on the back. We arrived two hours later to Vlad’s parents’ house in the mountain village of Cornu. Their house is really beautiful, with a massive back yard filled with apple and plum trees. The trees only exist so they can make their special Romanian moonshine. I had some at dinner. Strong stuff.

Vlad's house

In Vlad's backyard with the dude who helps out around the house:

After we relaxed for a while in the back yard and tormented the dog (who bristles and barks at everyone except Vlad’s mom) it was time to eat. An enormous spread was prepared for us and, before we realized we were only on the first course, we were all completely stuffed. Then came some ground beef and cabbage, followed by barbecue! We couldn’t say no and risk being rude, so we just kept eating. And drinking. By the time dessert rolled around, we could’ve rolled around ourselves. But we couldn’t say no to the crème caramel prepared by Vlad’s mom – “her specialty” – so we powered through.

Hoping Vlad's mom doesn't notice my plate is empty

Oh, she noticed.

Finally dinner ended and I took a stroll with Anosha and Atsh. We tried to walk off some of what we consumed, but it was an uphill battle. Around 8pm we returned home and I was so exhausted I passed out in bed. I had warned everyone that I would be asleep by 9 and able to sleep the whole night through, but they didn’t believe me. Now they do. I fell asleep at 8 and didn’t get out of bed until nearly 10am.

Day 3 – Monday April 10

Matt, Ryan, Anosha and I went for a run for half an hour which, when carrying our giant bellies along, felt more like an hour. Before leaving, though, Vlad’s mom insisted we come into the kitchen, where we found poor Ryan trapped behind the kitchen table with a huge spread of food in front of him. Matt explained that we couldn’t eat yet because we were going running first, and she let us get away. After our much-needed run, we played some soccer in the backyard, tormented the dog some more, and then headed off to a mountain resort.

First we went to a monastery, where we ran into a family from Pennsylvania. How does a family from Pennsylvania end up in Transylvania? Maybe they got confused. Then Vlad took us to see the king’s palace and to the former servants’ quarters, which are now a beautiful hotel. The palace was closed but Vlad paid off the guards and we were told that if anyone asked, we were to say we were members of the US Ministry of Culture. Hmm. There is no such thing as the US Ministry of Culture.

Part of the castle grounds:

With the guys - Atsh, Matt, Vlad, Onno, and Ryan

We had lunch at a Serbian restaurant. More meat. I’m finally starting to understand what the Adkins diet is like and actually, it’s not so bad. But eating so much meat is exhausting. After a little walk, we headed back to Vlad’s parents’ house, which is where we are now. No more giant meals planned for tonight, thank goodness… just dessert. Maybe I should go for another run.

Day 4 - Tuesday April 11

Hmmm well, we weren’t supposed to have dinner last night but somehow we all ended up seated at the table in the kitchen, being force fed by Vlad’s parents. I don’t think any of us can take all this food much longer, so it’s a good thing we headed out of there today. We had a massive food and drink fest, played some pool, welcomed Kyoko to Romania (she had spent the first few days in Milan), and did a little dancing in the living room.

This morning Ryan and I got up early and went for a very slow and painful run while everyone else was still sleeping. We came back and had yet more food. This time I managed to get some fruit in my system. A welcome change from the large quantities of meat and cheese.

After our extended breakfast, we were off for Bran, and Dracula’s castle. We were all disappointed to find that the castle wasn’t scary at all and was instead just filled with old furniture from the Queen. Boring. After we left the castle, Onno and I followed a trail leading up the hill, which got steeper and more slippery the higher we got. But the tough climb was worth it as we got to the top and found a beautiful view of the town, some rolling grassy hills, and the snowy Carpatian mountains.

In the castle

Then we all piled into the car again and headed for the mountain town of Brasov. We checked into our hotel and then walked to a restaurant that is famous for game. Our first course was two platters of jerky and salamis made of deer, boar, and bear, with a garnish of tomatoes, red peppers, and cucumbers. We are all so starved for vegetables that the first thing we ate was the vegetable garnish. After our meaty platters, we had our main courses – deer, boar, bear, and pheasant.

Onno preparing to launch a snowball at Vlad

And we rolled out of there full of meat yet again. On the way back to the hotel, Onno attacked Vlad as usual and Vlad screamed like a girl as usual. Attacking Vlad has become a daily (and sometimes hourly) routine. We are capturing a lot of it on video for posterity. After a nap, we were ready to hit the town. We piled into the cars once again and headed off to Brasov. We checked out the Black Church and heard a boys’ choir singing from a building across the way. We climbed the walls of the church and were just able to catch a glimpse of the kids singing before half of the group got bored and decided to go to the Opium Bar. Atsh, Vlad, Anosha, Kyoko and I went to find the Rope Street, which claims to be the narrowest street in Europe. We found it, walked down it, and realized the fun was over. Vlad joined the others at the bar and the four of us decided to take in some more sights around the town.

At one point we tried to take a shortcut through an alleyway toward another tower. We wandered past two bars that looked pretty cool and then, from out of nowhere, a zombie materialized in the darkness. He moaned something at us in Romanian and I said to the others under my breath, “Go! Now. Let’s go go go!” and turned on my heel and walked away quickly. We made it out of the alley and onto the main street with our hearts in our throats. Then we started seeing zombies everywhere. Zombies in buses, zombies on the streets, zombies zombies everywhere. Finally we met up with the others and went to a bar. No more zombies after that, just drunk people.

As we entered, a crazy Romanian lady screamed to us “IT’S MY BIRTHDAY NIGHT! I’m 25!!!” and we all cheered. I said, “We came all the way from California for your birthday!” and she was oh so happy. Later I sent her a Long Island Iced Tea. She reciprocated with a round of B52 shots. So we sent them a round of shots and they sent a round of flaming sambuca shots. Some learning points from last night.
1. Do not go into a dark alley. You might meet a zombie.
2. Fire burns. Don’t touch it.

Here I am in the bar, where I found an old typewriter, working on my Great American Novel:

Day 5 - Wednesday April 12

This morning we left Brasov for another small town in Transylvania called Sighisoara. It has been raining all day, but I think this is a town best enjoyed in dreary, creepy weather, so it’s perfect. After checking in to our very cool hotel (Vlad has really outdone himself planning this trip) we went for a walk around town. We checked out the church, all the little cobblestone streets, and a massive graveyard. Scary.

We spent the afternoon relaxing in the hotel because Vlad had to take his daily nap and then he had a phone interview for an internship. Afterward, Vlad was in a particularly good mood:

Onno: How was your interview?
Vlad: I think it went well. Then again, I always think it went well and I still don’t have a job.
Onno: What did you talk about?

A few minutes later, while watching VH1 80s, Europe comes on:
Onno: Yeah, the Final Countdown.
Vlad: Yeah, 1988. (The tv says “The Final Countdown. 1986.”) Oh, 1986. Yeah, 1988 in Romania.

At dinner we discussed gift ideas for Vlad’s oh-so-hospitable parents:
Ryan: We’ll teach Vlad some manners so he’ll become a good son.
Vlad: I’m their best son.
Onno: You’re their only son.
Vlad: That helps, yeah.

We had dinner tonight at a cool restaurant in the basement of the biggest hotel in the town and, since there’s no nightclub to speak of, we headed off to bed soon afterward. Today’s Matt’s birthday. Not a bad way to celebrate.

Day 6 – Thursday April 13

Today we packed up again and left Transylvania. We drove two hours to Vlad’s house and along the way crossed paths with something Ryan had been wanting to see the whole trip: The Romanian cabrio SUV. We passed this guy going the opposite direction on the highway, turned around and pulled over, and paid him a few bucks to let us take pictures of his killer ride. Ryan smiled the rest of the day.

The Opel gang

A gypsy town

Onno, a beer, and a gypsy town

We had another massive lunch at Vlad’s parents’ house (I’m sure I’ve gained 5 lbs by now) and then took a nap before heading off to Bucharest. Vlad drives like a maniac and Matt has twice had to find his way home without Vlad’s help so this time he asked that Vlad not leave him behind or he’d get lost in Bucharest. At one point, we realized we’d lost the other car so we pulled over to wait and I saw a rat by the side of the road. Silly me, I commented, “oh, a rat,” and Vlad screamed like a girl. So I said, wait, I’ll call it over, and proceeded to roll down the window and say, “Here rat!” while Onno pretended to get out of the car to catch it. Vlad rolled up all the windows and locked the doors. After a moment, I looked out again and said, “Oh no! It’s running toward the car!” Vlad screamed, “That’s enough!” put the car into gear and peeled out. He was so unnerved when we finally found Matt at a gas station that he backed into Matt’s car.

After settling back into our apartments, we went back out on the town. I was exhausted and not really in the mood to party, but I went along to the first bar anyway. We couldn’t get into the next club because of a no-sneaker requirement and I headed home soon after. Others got into mischief I won’t repeat… but it was funny as hell. Ask Ryan about his belt.

Day 7 – Friday April 14

We got a slow start today because a couple of our cohorts were rather hungover, but we finally headed out for lunch around 1pm. It was a beautiful day so we went to the park and sat at an outdoor café by the lake. Then Vlad, Onno, and Atsh raced go-carts. At first Vlad spun out and was lapped twice, but once he got going again he was an absolute madman and caught up all the lost ground and won. My money is always on Vlad in go-carting from here on out.

Gokart cheerleaders Kyoko and Anosha

In the afternoon we headed downtown to see the Peoples House, which used to be a Communist party building and is now houses the Parliament. It’s at the end of a beautiful wide boulevard lined with trees and enormous buildings. This city is really going to take off in the next few years. Right now it feels a little like the wild wild west, and I love it. Soon there will be more rules and it probably won’t be as fun.

Peoples House

Downtown Bucharest

While the others went for a nap, Matt, Anosha, Atsh, Kyoko and I went to the enormous mall off the main square in search of a present for Vlad’s parents. We finally found the perfect thing – a glass bottle and six shot glasses on a display rack for their homemade beverage, which they usually keep in Coke bottles.

After shopping, we met the others at a really great Italian restaurant in the Marriott hotel. The Marriott is in a building that was started by the Communist government but never finished after the revolution. Marriott bought the place and turned it into an incredible hotel which fits right in with all of the other architecture. The restaurant was excellent and once again we were stuffed. Time to dance off dinner! We hit a club called Terminus, which was filled with gorgeous women. Vlad says that Romania has beautiful women and intelligent men. Hmm. Too bad you can’t tell which ones are intelligent by looking at them. We got home at 5, completely sweaty, reeking of cigarette smoke, and nearly deaf, and crashed.

Day 7 – Saturday April 15

Oops. Woke up late today. I haven’t slept till 1pm in a loooong time, and I was shocked when I looked at my watch and saw 12:40. Anosha and Kyoko were still out cold and when they woke up and I talked to them I realized I still couldn’t hear anything from the night before. We had stayed in one spot in the club the whole night because there was a girl there that we all wanted Vlad to talk to. Then she left, but we stayed because there was air conditioning right there. It also happened to be directly below a massive speaker. I was relieved to find that Anosha and Kyoko couldn’t hear either. And when we met the others for lunch, we were all shouting to each other and saying, “What? What?” I hope this gets better soon.

In da club

At lunch enjoying the sunshine

We spent the afternoon enjoying the warm sunny weather and taking in our last glimpses of Bucharest. Tonight we had dinner in the same restaurant we went to the first night, and then headed on to a parade of clubs before finally deciding to call it quits around 4am. I found the sweetest puppy on the way home with a bad foot that someone would easily pay $500 for in the US. In Romania no one wants her and she hangs out near a club hoping for a handout. I would’ve loved to have brought that dog back to Spain with me. She was gorgeous… if a little smelly and dirty.

The longer I spend in this city and get to know it a little more, the more I like it. It will change so much in the coming years after Romania joins the EU (as it probably will do in 2007)

Romanian kids with Anosha at the ATM. I'm telling you, this is a capitalist country! They start 'em young!

Day 8 – Sunday April 16

Today was a VERY LONG DAY. We woke up at 9, after far too little sleep, finished our packing and went over to Vlad’s parents’ apartment for some breakfast before heading to the airport. Onno was bummed because he was on a later flight through Rome and would have to wait a few extra hours on his own. We got to the airport, looked up at the departures board (which still flips the numbers like in train stations) and saw CANCELLED next to our flight. Alitalia’s explanation? “It’s not flying because it’s Easter.”

Now, I know that Easter falls on a different date each year, so I can understand if there’s a little confusion. But please. The calendar was printed MONTHS ago. Why schedule a flight on Easter if you’re just going to cancel it? So we had to change to Onno’s flight. At least someone was happy. To make matters worse, the printer was broken and apparently the computer too because the woman couldn’t find our reservations. I had to show her an email with all our flights on my laptop to get us on the plane. And then she had to write the tickets out BY HAND! Incredible. But finally we were through security and at our gate. With a few hours to kill, we spent the last of our lions on snacks and sat around. I watched The Matador, with Pierce Brosnan. Excellent movie. I highly recommend it.

By 2pm we were on our flight to Rome, and two hours later we were in Italy. An hour after that, we were off to Barcelona, where we finally landed at 7:30. A cab ride home and several loads of laundry and it’s now time to hit the sack. It’s nice to be back in Barcelona, in my own room with my own bed, but I wouldn’t rule out a return trip to Romania in the near future. I absolutely loved it.


Anonymous said...

Finally I managed to finish reading this post(well, almost) Great post by the way, Congratulations!
Give your fingers a rest now eh!

Nicole Sadler said...

Greetings from your four fans in the Dominican Republic. We read your blog together (Dad face-planted at the end) and thoroughly enjoyed it!