Bucharest Journal, June 3, 2009: Chocolate Impressions

Universitatae: BucharestTravel journal, undiluted:

One pleasant surprise is the significant amount of urban renewal going on in throughout Bucharest. There is a lot more happening here than in say, Moscow. The streets are filled with new buses, not the old East-bloc types. New model Skoda’s, Benz’s, BMWs, Opels and Toyota’s clog the streets. The traffic isn’t nearly as bad as Istanbul, however. I’ve only seen a handful of Ladas and Volgas. The metro has been revamped and is so comprehensive that I got lost on the damn thing. It’s as complicated and convoluted as the Paris metro. There are no maps in the stations and they all have that damp, musty subway smell. The train station has been somewhat restored. It has a few nice new shops–multinational book chains and a KFC and McDonald’s. About 50% of the trains are now German made, shiny and new. The old Eastern-bloc Soviet types still run, but are very beat up.

The sidewalks around Universitatae are lined with coffee shops, bars and sadly, like all former East-bloc countries: casinos. The bars are full, even at ten in the morning. Life is still close to the edge here, even if a tentative air of rising expectations exists. I’ve already seen three fist-fights. Casual violence is all too common in Eastern Europe. Seen it in Russia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic too. It’s not brutality. It’s just boredom. Drift, change. Purposelessness.

The Romanians don’t look Balkan. Then again, they really aren’t. They don’t look like Northern Europeans, either. Sure, there are lots of fair skinned folks running about. But they share some commonalities. Large, gypsy-like noses and round, deep set eyes. A generalization, to be sure. But true nonetheless. Many are dark skinned, but not in the Levantine way. It’s like successive waves of medieval barbarian migrations left a hodge-podge of Asian, Germanic, Slavic and Turkish genes over the old Moeso-Thracian substrate. Many of the women have luxurious manes of black tightly wound curls. The men are fit with short cropped hair. They dress stylishly–a simple Euro fashion statement–unlike the overblown strutting peacocks in Turkey. Nice teeth too. People wear shorts. No love handles or rotund bellies, as well. Must be all the walking. The women are deadly gorgeous: high Asian cheek bones and pouting Slavic eyes. Got to get the hell out of here, fast!

The people are much friendlier than I expected. Sure, there is a taste of that communist-xenophobia but a smile and a hello are all it takes to dispel it. It’s no where near as intense as in Russia. The Romanians are Orthodox, but they don’t paint their Orthodoxy all over the city like the Greeks or Bulgarians, much less the Georgians.

The language is downright odd. I studied Latin for several years (and speak some Spanish) so I can make sense of what I read. But what I hear? It’s like Portuguese all mashed up with the mushiness of Russian. The words: Latin. The intonation: Slavic.

It’s humid in that late spring Oklahoma way. The Danube isn’t far away. The sun was bright this morning, but by three o’clock a low bank of clouds rolled in and unloaded.

The taxis don’t drive in that maniacal ‘as Allah-wills-it’ way like in Turkey. The cars give way for pedestrians, at least most of the time. The architecture is a mishmash of High Communist and 19th century Parisian belle epoque. Tin gilded domes hover over churches. Haven’t seen a crucifix in a long time. Trees line the boulevards. The woman I bought my subway ticket from was smoking–in her office. Always strange to see. It’s not dirty, but it isn’t clean, either. Opera and ballet posters hang from every empty space in the city. It’s always strange to see a culture as far away from the mainstream geographically speaking imitating the ‘centre,’ as it were.

There was a statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus near the train station. They do speak a romance language and are descendants of the Romans. But who isn’t in Europe? Chalet style villas bunch up in the back streets with twenties-style art-deco homes with lots of stucco. Tram wires clog the views of all my photos. What an eye sore. Some of the buildings have an almost Gaudi-esque feel to them. Rap music clogs the airwaves. What is it about that music? Does it assuage some inner desire for rhyme?

The Romanian tri-color hangs proudly everywhere. The country has done good for itself. It’s not an economic basket case anymore.

There are no ugly Krushchev era apartment blocks to be seen. (A few out on the suburbs, but not as many as I expected.) New glassy buildings are rapidly replacing the old Romanian ones. Sad that most local architectural traditions have been subsumed by the uniform international modern.

And they have chocolate in the stores. If one thing has contributed to my significant weight loss in the last 11 months it has been no chocolate. I hope I can avoid the temptation.

Probably not.


University Church: BucharestI was on a mission yesterday when I walked down to the Radisson SAS Hotel for breakfast. (A meal there is probably as much as my hotel was, near the train station. Bucharest photos can be found here, by the way.)

“What would you like for breakfast, sir?” The waiter asked me.

“Two scrambled eggs, toast and eight strips of bacon,” I said.

“Excuse me? Eight slices?” He asked.

“Yes, eight,” I said. “If you have a whole pig back there I’ll take it, actually!” I smiled.

He frowned, a puzzled look coming over his dark Gypsy eyes.

“Listen,” I said. “I’ve been traveling in Muslim countries for almost six months and I want pork!”

“Okay,” he said, taking a step back from the strange American.

“You have bacon, yes?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Well, hop to it!” I grinned. “I’ve got a fierce hankering for lots of crispy bacon. A rasher, if you will. A slab of ham. Porks chops. Hell, bring me a plate of swine flu if you have to.”

“It’s too early for pork chops, sir, the kitchen cooks only breakfast until eleven am. But I can ask,” he said.

“It’s a joke,” I said, smiling at him. “But please, bring me lots of bacon.”

“Certainly sir,” he said, rushing off to the kitchen.

Ten long minutes later he arrived, set a plate towering with glistening, pig fat laden crispy bacon. There must have been twenty slices.

He smiled and said, “bacon’s on the house sir. Enjoy.”

I ate every last piece. Each crunchy morsel followed by a delectable sip of Illy coffee. As I finished the last strip I thought of my old friend Carolina–a Mexican woman originally from Oaxaca–back in San Antonio. We used to have breakfast once a month to catch up on family and friends at a local greasy spoon.

“Juan Pablo,” she would say every time we met, “I only order tocino (bacon) here. Tocino es mi perdido.”

Perdition indeed.