The border agent stepped into the hallway of the train and turned to his radio. "Amerikanski passport." I sat and waited. It was returned a moment later, but the mini-episode was so quintessentially eastern bloc, it just make me smile. I can't remember if I've mentioned this, but when I was ten my dad took me to Germany, and we crossed the East/West German border several times. The border agents there and then were stoney-faced, the only things moving on their mugs were their eyes, flicking between passport photo and traveler. I remember one of them really taking his time to scrutinize me. What did he suspect me of? The only contraband I had was German chocolate bars. The border guards today seem a little friendlier — maybe they were told to clean up their image since Bulgaria and Romania are now in the EU. Many of the train stations were flying an EU flag, prominently placed.
I don't know if Bucharest's train station is really that much bigger than some other major stations I've been in so far, but it seems immense. It's teeming with people, and full of fast food restaurants, kiosk after kiosk selling snacks and newspapers, a kebab stand, a supermarket, at least three currency exchange offices, other random shops, a waiting room, and two ticket salons.
Chris and I walked out of the Bucharest train station into freezing wind, rain, dark, and a screaming transient woman. Making our way to the hostel, we picked up une petite fille française who chased us down from across the street. Having just arrived from a cushy student seminar held in a resort, she had lost her way trying to find the hostel. We were only a half-block away at that point, so piled through the door together, all wet backpacks and cold air, where we proceeded to confuse the bejeezus out of the guy at reception. Chris had made online reservations for both me and himself, and Frenchie had a reservation as well, but the hostel hadn't received ours. Trying to sort us out one by one, the guy at reception (Chris) was further confused because Frenchie was standing next to Chris (the Scotsman), and I was on the far side of the room. Returning Chris's passport, Chris turned to Frenchie asked if she was Elise. Not without a hint of exasperation in my voice, I said, No, I'm Elise. Ha ha! Frenchie is also Elise. Chris the receptionist struck me as a bit of a tweaker, but I had to forgive at least part of his confusion. We had to pay up front, which I hate doing, so we set off into the rain to find a bank, returning just in time to order some pizza with another American, named Ted. The hostel owner has a big poodley type dog that was running around the place. I asked what his name is. Teddy.
Everyone and their dog was down on Bucharest. Actually, no, the dogs were fine with it, since common criticism was, "there are packs of wild dogs roaming the streets." I've seen sad strays in each country I've been in, and no more than usual in Bucharest. People wrote it off as a big, dirty city full of big buildings and with few redeeming qualities, which isn't entirely untrue; depending on what specs are being used, the Parliament building can be considered the second biggest building in the world, after the Pentagon.
Yeah, some of the streets are full of potholes and puddles big enough to be considered a pond. And most of the major boulevards and avenues turn into parking lots during rush hour. The crazy amount of overhead wires and cabling form an aerial industrial cat's cradle, some of which only looks like looming electrical disaster, with strands drooping and slanting down to human head height.
But most towns have their dirt and unsightliness, and I found Bucharest to have a lot of merit. And I suppose some if its seediness imbues it with that Eastern European je ne sais quoi that I like so much. Old things that haven't been prettied up and polished for appearances. I spent my day in town walking up one main drag and returning down another. For lunch I got a massive take-out kebab – I got onto a kebab kick in Bulgaria – and strolled around eating it, but the weather was so frigid my fingers started going numb. Fortunately I finished munching it down before my fingers lost all feeling and I couldn't hold onto it anymore. The cold weather also meant the park near the Arc de Triumphe was almost completely deserted. A wind was picking up while I was there, so I decided my sightseeing was done and started walking back to the hostel. Earlier in the day I had gone past the gorgeous National Library, and figured I may as well check out the interior, since it is a public building.
Poking my nose into one of the rooms on the ground floor, one of the librarians started smiling at me, and fetched another who gave me a tour of the building and the various reading rooms, including a ride in the vintage elevator. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the Stock Exchange until becoming the library in 1955. Most of the materials cannot be accessed directly by patrons, so instead they use an old pneumatic tube system to send call slips to the different floors, and then books are sent back by a book elevator. They still have row upon row of card catalogues. The one disappointing detail is that the chandeliers have been fitted with fluorescent tubes, but then again, they are on a library budget.
All day I tried to find a place to change out my Bulgarian leva, but out of the hundreds of exchange offices, no one would do it. Slightly mystifying, I thought, since Bulgaria is really quite close. When I did find one office that said they would, they tried to shortchange me. I told the guy his values didn't make sense, and he gave me some bogus explanation of old lei and new lei, punching up numbers on a calculator to demonstrate. At least, that's what I think he was saying, since he didn't speak fluent English. Regardless, the numbers he was showing me didn't make sense on any level, so I said, uh huh, and took my leva back. Swapping cash at an exchange office is sort of inevitable when you're dealing with multiple currencies, but it always pays to research the exchange rate and perform your own calculations before going to one.
I stopped at the opera house to see if any tickets were available for the evening, but found only a very impatient woman selling tickets for future performances. It was just as well, since I ended up going out to dinner with a group from the hostel, meeting a Romanian girl that Frenchie had arranged to meet through Hospitality Club, which is a social networking club for travelers who want to meet locals, and maybe get free places to stay. We all wanted Romanian cuisine, which includes chicken, chicken, chicken, and pork. Being a chicken in Romania is an occupational hazard. That is, more than usual. The menu even included "fried chicken scraps." You know that game where you listen to a piece of music, and try to guess the song as soon as possible? Our waiter could do that with our orders. The first syllable would barely be out of our mouths, and he'd be nodding, repeating it, and scribbling on his paper pad. My Romanian food adventure, breaking with my self-imposed dietary restrictions, was a bite of tripe that someone else ordered. I really couldn't taste anything except the soup it came in, which was heavily vinegared, so I have no flavor sensations to report. Cow stomach lining aside, I wouldn't eat it again for the texture and consistency, which was a bit squishier than I like my savory foods. Texture can make or break a food for me. If mushrooms or eggplant isn't prepared properly, I don't care for them. I always thought it was a little funny when I was a vegetarian, since mushrooms and eggplant are two veggie staples, and I found both of them sort of a chore to eat.
Afterwards two other Romanians girls joined us and took us to a club I never would have walked into by myself. It took a little while to settle in, since it was practically empty, yet the music volume was shaking the walls. After a while it filled up, mostly good music was played, I drank two cola colas, and a few of us strolled homeward in the dead of night. Someone had commented earlier that the hostel was located in an unsavory part of town, and sure enough, on the way back, we were asked if we were interested in a prostitute. "My friend, you want a girl?" No sir, keep walking. There were three of us at that point, and I'm not sure who the offer was intended for. Sleazy pimps aside, I have to say that there hasn't been any time during this trip where I've thought I had walked into a place or situation that I really shouldn't have, and needed to get out of immediately. I have had a few prickly scalp moments, based on things like drunken shouting around a corner, but none of them ever came to anything.
I left the next day, and after my day of nippy, overcast weather with the precipitation variety pack, a blue sky was shining. Which probably meant it was going to be even colder. Even so, I had a good day in Bucharest. Proof to not always believe what you're told about the worth of destinations. Travel wherever you want and make up your own mind. If you end up not liking it somewhere, at least you'll know exactly why, rather than someone else's why.