Uncompromising Hospitality

I left the Rentmeister loft on Monday morning before dawn, to go to the airport for my flight to Bucharest via Dusseldorf. I have a great prejudice against flying backwards on a connection, but it was only 80 euros. Germanwings charged me another 30 for checked baggage, which I hadn’t read in the fine print. A more correct flight would have been 200. All the connections worked and no luggage was lost and I arrived at Bucharest in the late afternoon.

The first thing you must know about the airport in Romania is that the ATMs don’t work. And of course no airport in the world is suitable for changing cash. However, you can buy a bus ticket to Gara de Nord and a train ticket to anywhere using your credit card. And, for some reason, the train ticket that I bought from the train office at Coanda Airport, for Craiova, with a credit card, was only 39 lei, while the ticket back from Craiova to Bucharest two days later, was 62.

That was second class. It was filled with workers headed for the suburbs of Bucharest. They disappeared and after that it was pretty empty and the passengers looked at me to figure out why I was there and I looked at them to see if they could be trusted. One guy in particular had the look that in Nancy Drew novels is called “swarthy”, and observantly arched eyebrows. I wished Mort Drucker were here to draw him.

The trip to Craiova, where my friends Dan and Cristi and all live, takes about three hours. I got off the train to be greeted by Dan and Laura and Andrei, who is 5. Andrei immediately told them that I was Santa Claus, and what did I bring him? I will have to work on that. Andrei is way cute. It also turns out he is a dancer. Laura has even put him in a dancing class for kindergarteners.

They all took me to my motel, and then to dinner. I wanted to split the check so I would have at least the opportunity to get cash that way; but nothing is more persistent than a Romanian who has decided to pay for your snacks.

Europeca is a gleaming budget hotel. The hotel I used to stay at, Jiul, has been turned into a Ramada. Craiova is trying to improve its image.

The next day, Dan and Laura had planned a full day tour of the nearest foothills of the Carpathians. Two caves, two monasteries. Lots of driving, for Dan. I never know what to say to thank them. The first cave, called the Women’s Cave for neolithic reasons, was a problem for visitors. There is nobody at the front door of the cave, and it’s locked. The cave attendant appears only on the hour (or slightly late) for a few minutes, to take everyone who has had the faith to wait at the front gate inside for a 45 minute tour. It’s about 800 meters long, the part that is configured for guests. We got there and left and had tea at a cafe and went back and waited and Dan called a number that didn’t answer and we were about to leave again when the attendant appeared. This should remind you have a Sufi tale about the gates of Heaven. (I am impressed that Andrei never melted down, at all this adult waiting.) The cave had all the usual cave features, various flows, fanciful names. Bats. There is something very right about bats in a cave in the Carpathians.

Near the cave is a monastery. It was very pretty in the afternoon light. I think the Romanians would like it to be part of the UNESCO presence in Romania, and to this end they have crafted a logo which looks much like the squared-circle logo of UNESCO, and they mark their national historic sites with it as a kind of sympathetic magic. I bought some post cards from a nun. The post cards showed the iconostasis which you aren’t supposed to photograph. The iconoclasts will never rest, not ISIS nor their brothers in image destroying, RIAA and Disney lawyers.

After that we drove to another cave. This cave was more self-serve; we walked in and walked out. It’s only half as long but at least you can stand up the whole way. The first cave requires lots of bending over. And after that, another monastery. This one had impressive murals all over the walls of the church, and an attendant about as old as the murals who could recite their history in English and also turned on the lights for me.

I asked Dan how come the monasteries weren’t destroyed by the Communists. Dan said “They were people.” Being a dad has made him so philosophical and even optimistic. Andrei runs all over him, you won’t be surprised to learn. Dan drove back. The Romanian countryside is as it ever was.

When the State department and the travel guides tell Americans not to drive in a country after dark, they mean that Americans lack the concentration to pilot a car at the level of detail of Romanian drivers. Avoiding cows, dogs, babushkas, donkey wagons, potholes, all while conversing, texting, and in many cases drinking. Dan doesn’t drink ever or text while driving, but the opposing drivers do. Romanian drivers (and Indians, and Guyanans) are actually paying attention to their surroundings. It looks like magic to us, that any of them make it to their destinations ever, in one piece. Americans drive with all the concern with which they await notification from UPS that a package they don’t care about has made it to Lexington, Kentucky. They expect the car and the road to send them an email alert, when it becomes important. It would not occur to a Romanian company to try to develop a self-driving car, in this century. The problem of driving in Silicon Valley is simpler.

When we got back to Craiova, it was late again. We went to a Romanian Restaurant. Their cousin Edy was there. I always like to see Edy. I always like to see all of them. Edy asked me what I thought had changed in Craiova and I said “nothing”, but that was before they took me to Santana Row.

By this, I mean that Craiova is trying for the title of European Culture City of the Year in 2021, an honor which no major city would want, or if they did want it, it would end competition, so it is left for the Fort Waynes and Fresnos of the world to battle over the title. This is were Hotel Europeca comes in, and Romanian Restaurants with singers whose vibrato subsumes Yma Sumac’s entire range. Also loud. I theorize, the band plays loud to give a break to Romanians speaking to their foreign guests. Most older Romanians learned Russian and now they have to negotiate in English with Germans.

The ciorba was not sour. Cristi said he didn’t like sour soup and neither did a lot of Romanian kids so the restaurants have been toning it down — expecting you to add vinegar at the end. Arrggh. This is what happens to all foreign restaurants in new countries, even when the foreign country is the past. The mamaliga was good to touch base with though it was drowned in meat and tomato sauce which would have been OK had there been less than a pound of it. Less than a quarter pound, say.

And then, a walk in Santana Row. In order to impress the Europeans that Romania is a worthy part of Europe, the city of Craiova has torn down a bunch of blocks downtown. It’s no different from what Ceausescu did, but instead of putting up Stalinist Georgian palaces, they have expanded the fountain square to read: Europe. There are now two or three blocks of mall along the lines of Disney Downtown, or maybe Santana Row, generic Belle-Epoque, shops with houses above. Nobody really goes there. Some gypsy girls wanted us in their picture. Craiova has done this with a 24% local tax on everything. Holy Cow. It doesn’t look so bad, in that Santana Row sort of way; I think it could become popular, but, Craiova? Craiova actually has a look, already.

The next morning, I went with Dan to one of his job sites while he directed preparations for a concrete pour. Again, Andrei showed no signs of boredom. Also we went to Dan’s maternal grandmother’s house, that he built for her. She gave me a quince. Raw quinces are not exactly road food. We had lunch next to the office of Cristi and Ana-Maria’s newspaper.

I got on the train to Bucharest at 2 and was there by 5. Checked into the Hello Hotel. The Hello Hotel is probably the best value for money hotel in the world. It is a full-on business hotel, with all the Wifi and USB and a real desk and a real bed and real staff speaking real English and en suite bathroom facilities and it’s only about 30 Euros a night. And, it’s 400 meters from the train station.

Bucharest turned out to be a night off from Romanian Friend tourism. Bogdan was in the middle of a severe family emergency: his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s had turned violent, he couldn’t be left alone for a minute, and he needed to assist in placing him in an asylum in the morning. The grandfather doesn’t recognize anyone, or speak, any longer. The whole thing is an awful tragedy.

I got on the late morning train to Iasi the next day. It was nice. The train sellers are of the type who lay a bunch of key chains and playing cards down on the seat, walk away, and when they come back, they see if you have taken anything and charge you for it. A hotel mini-bar, in essence. (Fantasy of an American train: the sellers come into your compartment and instead of laying down cards and cigarette lighters and pens, they lay out founder’s stock, lip rings, memory sticks, Adderal, iPhones, guns, and friend requests.)

Butza picked me up from Pascani near sunset. Pascani is the convenient stop to go to Iasi without changing trains. Convenient for me, for him it’s a drive of 50 or 60 kilometers but as I have mentioned every time I go there, it is impossible to get any of my Romanian friends to compromise on anything when it comes to hospitality. Or on entertainment, which is unnecessary as I am already entertained. They also have cute kids, Luka and Sofia, and parents who are doing interesting things with polymers.

Iasi was setting up for St. Parascheva. I have been to that celebration before. The town fills up with pilgrims, sleeping in their cars and waiting for hours in lines to see the relics. The residents of Iasi make them food. Some of it is free but there are scads of sellers. I missed it this year, but I saw lots of the kiosks being set up selling furs and icons.

Nicoleta has opened up a second branch of her pastry shop. There must be some trick to making perfect little petit-fours. It would take a real person about 45 minutes to assemble each one and most of them would be wrecked anyway and she makes hundreds per day.

We went to a place called Pink Elephant that has 500 kinds of beer. The descriptions are given in English, in many instances. I had one that was GM-hoppy it was so intense.

The last day I suddenly became so full I couldn’t eat any more, not of anything, hardly even water. It was bound to happen. I skipped the last meal, just staring stolidly at a Frenchish sort of restaurant as every else managed to put it somewhere in them. I really don’t understand people. They aren’t fat. They aren’t digging ditches, and they are eating constantly as the default social interaction.

And so to the airport. Iasi is still working on upgrading its departure lounge and runways. The current departure lounge has no signs at all. Plenty of ads, for the mall that Radu might have to go manage. But no board anywhere upstairs that indicates where a flight might depart from, whether it is on time, where it is going, any of the things that departure boards have indicated over the years through evolving technologies. Ultimately I just surreptitiously glanced at other people’s tickets and found the ones who were going to Luton. The flight to Luton got me on the ground about 2300 and on the last train into London and to the airbnb about 0200 on Sunday. A big party was going on. I didn’t feel like going, so I sent Dave with the pound of sweets that Nicoleta had insisted I take with me.