Into Romania
1 November 1999

Well, the BANGLES tour of Europe continues.

I know it was kind of silly to assume we would get away from American pop music while travelling, but it was getting silly: EVERY country we went to we heard the BANGLES!! (Didn't they break up or fall apart or something years ago!).

We thought that maybe Romania would be the exception. Well last night in a bizarre fast food restaurant in Cluj, Romania, called the HUNGRY BUNNY, we hear a Bangles song.


So Romania is very interesting. It is a challenging place to travel, but also very rewarding. It is a beautiful country and the people are extremely friendly... I like the feel of the place and the people. But yes it is challenging... we don't speak the language, obviously -- but it is quite similar to Italian and Spanish... and really not that hard to figure out. Hungarian was far far harder. The reason it is difficult is that no one has laid the groundwork for us!

Every country we have been to, there is a well established system for tourists, sometimes it has been in place for decades! We like to think that as TRAVELLERS, and not just gawking tourists, Oradea we are above that. We look at the real place, the people and the life -- not the sights. But the truth is we also really know how to utilize the systems set up (hostels and other budget accommodations, information offices, info signs, maps, even shopping districts). We come in, get our bearings and pretty soon, it might not feel like home, but we have our feet on the ground, a place to stay that we can afford and are out at a grocery store getting the feel for the place. We only resort to the guidebooks in emergencies (which has happened about twice before Romania)

Well none of that is in place in Romania, and we REALLY feel out on a limb. (In someways it is frustrating... we didn't know we were quite so dependent on tourist crap!) There are NO budget accommodations, and despite the fact that we can both eat well for an entire day on about 50,000 lei (about $3), we are paying A LOT to stay and some pretty ritzy places (and some dumps!)... There are no shopping/business/commercial districts here, businesses are in houses in residential areas, back in courtyards (and gone). And the guidebooks, which are never very good, are completely useless here. So it's challenging... fun, rewarding, fascinating, exciting, satisfying, but also frightening.

We can't decide if we should go further in and experience the rural culture or RUN AWAY!

Complicating our position is that we are coming from what was probably the most wonderful, comfortable, easy, happy travel experience one could every have (the wine harvest!) so we really feel like we just jumped in deep! I really wish we had someone to stay with and show us around here!

The next day we headed out to Debrecen in the far east of Hungary. (Debrecen is pronounced like the Washington state Senate candidate: Deborah Senn.) It was a fascinating little city with a university and we wandered a while and reveled in the inaccuracy of the guidebooks before checking into a convenient and cheap hotel.

We woke up in the morning and headed for Romania!!!!

We did decide to step in slowly instead of just taking an all day train from Budapest and being dumped off at the station. This turned out to be a good idea!!! We arrived in Oradea, a medium size city in The Banat (the plains north of the mountains, connected to the Great Plain of Hungary and northern Serbia). It, like Transylvania, has been fought over for centuries by Hungary and Romania... you have to be careful how you talk about it to whom!

Our first experience in Romania was one of the best... the border guards came on the train at the border -- the first guy was young and friendly. He spoke English... after the typical confusion about my green passport he started asking us questions for our visas. Then the second guy came, he was the stamper... a little older, very nice looking (very Latin). They sat down in our compartment and started chatting.

They both spoke perfect english and we had a nice conversation for about 10 or 15 minutes (the customs person came by for about 20 seconds, but they sent her along). I know they were probably fishing for tidbits of information that might affect our status/visas, but mostly it just seemed friendly and curious. They did tell us that 'the Hungarians have a very different view of our history, one we don't agree with!'.... and they were quite disturbed when they saw the map of Transylvania that I bought in Budapest (which had the Hungarian name of Transylvania (Ederly... the forest beyond the plain). They asked us a number of times if we had friends or family in Romania. For once we were HAPPY that we were not going to be visiting anyone here -- I don't think they would've liked that... When Cheryln mentioned that her great grandmother came from Romania, that got a bit of a reaction.

It never felt uncomfortable... I REALLY think they were just visiting with us. They were very proud of their country and happy we were visiting. We have noticed that they are a very proud people. They trace their roots to the Roman empire, despite numerous migrations since then.

Everywhere we went people warned us about how dangerous Romania would be, but we found, without question, the nicest friendliest people we have seen anywhere! They are very poor, but always friendly. Money is always an issue -- it is out in front of you at all times. There are American, Italian and German companies every where selling all kinds of things (especially expensive junk food and cell phones!) There are also lotteries everywhere, 10 kiosks per block sometimes, selling tickets where you can win 1, 2, or 3 million Lei. Inflation was so bad that in the week we were there the Lei went from 16000 to the dollar to 18000 to the dollar.

We arrived in Oradea, and walked down the main street just gawking. There are shops in almost every house and hovel along the main street; dirt roads lead off of the main street, right in town. Amazing. It has a beautiful town center -- the city was founded as a distant provincial capitol of the Austrian Empire and has historically been primarily ethnically Hungarian. But it has been through many changes and many Empires since then!

When we walked out of the station a dozen taxi drivers hollered questions at us and several approached us and asked if we needed a taxi. We were so frightened about Oradea Romania that we ran away as if they were trying to hurt us or something. It was pretty silly. Then we walked from the station, past the inevitable McDonalds, to the major pedestrian street. We had been warned that there were no cash machines in Romania so we were on the lookout for a bank to change money at. The first bank we saw, as we walked down the shopping street was the Bank of Transylvania -- we thought that was pretty cool so we changed money there. This was the first country we had been in where we really had to keep track of a lot of zeros. We got over 16000 lei for each dollar! Of course it turned out that as we continued down the street we saw half a dozen bankomats!

The hotel we had chosen was right on the river, with the pedestrianized shopping street one block in one direction and the central square of the city one block in the other direction across the river. It was in a beautiful old yellow building. Our room was quite nice and comfortable (although the bathroom was a bit challenging), and quite cheap. We were pleased and some of the Romania fear started to wear off. We wandered the shopping street (good bread) and nearby residential streets and the dramatic square, with its churches and statues. We found a large park and just sat on a bench for an hour or so, watching people go by, and letting it sink in that we were really in Romania.

We explored town on foot, got the feel for this new country (and occasionally looked at each other and said WE'RE in ROMANIA!!!). As we wandered around exploring and just taking it all in we saw, somewhat to our surprise, a bunch of Internet places and decided that we would try to do email after dinner. Finding dinner was a bit harder, we finally settled on a pizza place called Romeo & Juliet. The waitress was nice and helped us learn a bit of Romanian (almost identical to Italian) -- but we felt a bit lame about having pizza, like we had wimped out. It was only later that we realized that they eat tons of pizza. After dinner we went exploring internet places and telephone places (in most European cities you can find, usually at the post office, an office with phones for making long distance calls). The phone place was closed unfortunatly and the first Internet place we found was really frightening. It was right on the shopping street and was called LIBERTY, and had the name in 30 foot letters with American flags all over it. It was a casino, bar, video game, video poker, lottery and internet place -- it cost 18000 per hour and was very smokey and very busy. We decided to take a pass on that one!

So we left the shopping street and went across the river and across the square into a neighboorhood of rather imposing grey concrete apartments interspersed within streets filled with majestic old Austro-Hungarian houses in various states of disrepair (and just as grey as the concrete, due to lack of paint) where there were a couple of internet clubs. They call them 'clubs' because they do not serve any food or drink, it is only internet. We have found quite a few of these -- they are also usually an ISP as well. One was 7000 lei (about 60 cents US) per hour and the other was 5900.

We went to the 5900 one... we walked through the door to a small smokey room with about 6 computers mostly occupied by pre-teens playing games. When we asked the guy about doing Internet he looked around at the crowd for a moment, and then said to follow him. We went out on the street down a few doors, into an alleyway and into a courtyard and eventually into another house which had 3 rooms full of computers (mostly occupied by teenagers doing multipule chat sessions.) The connection was so slow that in 1 hr & 15 minutes I was able to send 2 messages and read 4!!!

We were feeling more comfortable... we managed to get around Oradea ok -- the people were very friendly, and many spoke English. So the next day we headed into Transylvania proper -- the mountains.... We got up early, walked back to the train station and went to Cluj-Napoca, the capital of Transylvania and the second largest city in Romania.

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000

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