I asked myself this question after I left Istanbul at the end of March and headed into the realm of uncertainty. I would be working at a hostel in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, a place that I was almost entirely unfamilar with aside from Dracula and gypsies. Even the people working at the counter at Ataturk Airport thought it was odd that I was traveling to Romania.
When I arrived, I boarded a bus toward the city. An elderly Romanian woman sat next to me and spoke to me. I understood none of it. Nor did I undertand any of the signs and billboards as we passed through the streets. It was then that I realized that I was somewhere really foreign. Upon arrival at Gara du Nord, the main train station, I became a bit more worried, not only beacuse I didn’t know where to go, but also because in the night, it looked totally shabby and bare. Tired and confused, I reached Explorers Hostel and was greeted by Jessie, a fellow volunteer from Taiwan who introdced me to Tracy, another volunteer who was from Texas. Over the next few weeks, I would become good friends with the volunteers as well as the owners of the hostel.
In my first week, I went into the city every day to get a feel for it. One of the first things I noticed was the chaotic, work-in-progress look of the city which I first observed in Herăstrău Park in the northern part of the city. Various statues of different styles and sizes stood beside one another while the lakeside bars and cafes had been left in disarray. The different eras in modern Romanian history exist together in a jarring clash of ideas and values. Hundred year old Orthodox churches hold their ground as communist apartment complexes stretch down long boulevards.
However, I gound it very pleasant that the food prices were relatively low, especially when eating out. A very large meal with a beer at some of the fanciest restaurants would be available for around 12 to 18 Euros. I got to try many unique Romanian dishes at restaurants and fairs. The food is very much tied to the Romanian tradition and identity. For example, Polenta, a cornmeal porridge is often served as the main starch sourcs almost like mashed potatoes in appearance were featured in many of the meals I had. Other foods included meat wrapped in grape leaves and Halva, a crumbly nut-based dessert, both very Balkan in origin. I can honestly say that I have never been more full than the times when I really pigged out in Romania.
It was also an interesting case of multi-cultural learning. I often felt out of place in Romania more than in any other coutry I had ever visited. The population in Romania is quite homogenous which meant I got a whole lot of stares when I walked down the streets because I simply looked different. Because I am Asian, I feel that people did not consider that they could communicate with me in English. However, when I started talking to Romanians I usually found them to be quite friendly and open. While Germans enjoy going to the woods, Romanains really enjoy going to the park. I spent a great deal of my time at parks where people bike, skate, walk their dogs, read books, and relax on the grass or near the water. Cișmigiu, my favorite park just down the street from Explorers Hostel had a very fluid layout with a large artificial lake in the middle enhanced with bridges, fountains, and an abundance of beautiful and colorful flowers. I would spend entire afternoons reading and meditating in Cișmigiu.
During my time in Romania, I learned more about the country that I had expected. There is little to no coverage of Romanian history in the American education system so it was all very interesting to learn about both in its own right as well as in the context of world history. It was the first time where I learned in person, talking to people and seeing the sights without consulting any books which I think is quite a special way to discover new things. I learned about the reign of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his Stalinist police state by seeing first-hand the Palace of Parliament, the Old Communist building at Uniri Square, and the boulevard in the middle of the city which was built specifically to dwarf the Champs-Élysées in Paris and hearing about those times from those who remember it.
In addition to Bucharest, I also visited the coastal city of Constanța at the Black Sea and Brașov at the southern border of Transylvania on my second week with a group of German visitors to the hostel. Constanța was a bit disappointing because the town was not at all ready for tourist season. It was very, very empty and the buildings themselves looked as though they had just seen a war in the past couple months. Buildings lay in rubble and roads were damaged as if they were hit by mortar fire. Despite the disappointing streets being at the Black Sea and climbing around the rocks and cement barriers made it very worth the visit. Brașov, however, was much more fun as a city with interesting architecture, history, and sights. The Germans and I spent most of our days hiking in the mountains around Brașov through beautiful woods, cliffs, and old fortresses. I felt like I was in the Lord of the Rings and it was exhilarating. Less exhlarating was Bran Castle which is often pointed to as the inspiration of Dracula’s castle. It was beautiful, but rather small and had nothing to do with Dracula.
In general, I feel that Bucharest is on its way to being the next European city for visitors to find something new and exciting, but it has a long way to go before reaching the likes of London, Paris, Berlin, etc. The rest of Romania, however, holds lots of surprises and beauty. It seems to me that the country is constantly trying to match its European neighbors, especially after membership in the EU, but I don’t feel that it needs to try to be like everyone else. It also cheapens the uniqueness of Romania and I wonder if this is the case in other countries like Bulgaria and Croatia which are newer members of the EU and set to join the Schengen Zone this year. Even back in the last century, Romania was trying to emulate the greatness of the other European cities, building its own Arc de Triumph and clearing out entire rows of residential buildings to build a Champs-Élysées rival. In some ways, the growing involvement of the European community is detrimental to Romania. For exampe, beer companies in Romania used to be more local and brewed with quality ingredients. Today, a number of companies have been purchased by foreign companies and the quality has suffered for it. Romania has gone through a lot of changes historically and it will be interesting to see what path it takes in the future.
Overall, I had a very positive experience working at Explorers Hostel and living in Bucharest. I didn’t quite feel at home, but the people I experienced it with and the country itself grew on me. I especially appreciate all of the peope who were part of my experience (many of them guests in the hostel). Thankst o all the German-speaking guests who helped me practice my German. Special thanks to Cristian and Melania for allowing me to volunteer at Explorers Hostel, to Catalin for having me over to watch Game of Thrones, Dale, Jessie, Tracy, and Alex for keeping me company and being my friends in Bucharest, and a very special thanks to Octavian for dropping facts, showing me around, traveling, getting prices, treating me to the local foods, and just striking up conversations (all the time). If it weren’t for you I would not have experienced or learned nearly as much about Romania or taken so many shots of Pálinka. In fact, most of the information in this post would not have been possible without you.