It was so nice to be back in Belgrade. The people are so outgoing. The city is so full of life. The atmosphere is so upbeat.
We met friends and favorite places, ate once loved pastries at once loved coffee shops, and visited often frequented book shops. We strolled down the Knez to Kalamegdan. We spend an afternoon in Alan's old park. We saw our old house (still empty, waiting for us to come back maybe). Not once did I have to go down or up a single stair without someone jumping to help me with the stroller.
The Danube, oh, the Danube. I really did miss the Danube.
It was a nice visit. It's also nice to be back home. I can say "mulţumesc" again without following up with "eh, hvala".
Lots of food for blog entries, when I'm less tired and less wiped. Flying alone with two kids is not much fun. It could have been worse, though -- I met friends on the plane who helped me and I didn't need to change any diapers. Heh.
Tomorrow, then. I promise.
I got a letter from a friend in Belgrade yesterday.
My friend -- I'll call her Anna-- is Serbian, a lawyer, and thirty-some years old. She's an intelligent, lively and (I think) perceptive observer of the political scene there.
If you haven't read this post about the elections in Serbia, what follows won't be that interesting. Me, I'm still fascinated by what's going on there, because Serbia seems like a country that's balanced on a tipping point.
So. Here follow some of her comments, slightly edited, and my responses.
Is located at the Shell gas station on Route 5 from Ruse to Sofia in Bulgaria, about 8 km from the border to Romania.
Why do I know that?
Well, it's been three months since we last went to Ruse and the car needed to leave the country again - obviously we haven't been able to organise a Romanian registration so far. We forgot over the business with the kids and only remembered last night -- and discovered that we were already two days past the magic date. Since Doug had a big meeting today, it was up to me to drive across the border, turn and come back with a shiny new stamp in my passport.
Serbia held Parliamentary elections on December 28. That was almost two weeks ago, but hey, we've been travelling and the kids were sick.
Besides, not much has happened since then. You think a Serbian government can form in just two weeks? They're just starting the negotiations.
Anyhow, it's generally agreed that the elections did not have a very good outcome. Somewhere between "disappointment" and "catastrophe" is the consensus.
I'm now going to discuss the election results in a little detail. If you want to jump overboard and start swimming for shore, now's your chance.
I also met Father Teoctist Arapasu, Romania's Patriarch. Well, we shook hands and exchanged nods, though we didn't actually talk. He was very impressive in his Patriarchal robes.
When I got home and googled him, I was amazed to find that Fr. Teoctist was born in 1915. He's 88 years old! What's surprising about this is that he really, really doesn't look it. I wouldn't have guessed he was a day past 75. He was moving right along, shaking hands and working the crowd, still perfectly quick on his feet. Pretty impressive for a guy who's almost 90.
Teoctist is another guy with an interesting story. He became Patriarch under Ceausescu, and worked quite closely with the Communist authorities: he served as a deputy in the National Assembly, acquiesced in the government's destruction of "inappropriate" churches, and was a key member of the Ceausescu-sponsored National Peace Committee. And when the first demonstrations against Ceausescu began, he sent the dictator a telegram of support.
Romanian Christmas traditions are surprisingly similar to those in Germany, actually. Advent wreaths, presents on Christmas Eve, the decorating... all seems very home-y to me. There are two traditions which we don't have, though: the pig and the carollers.
First, the pig. It's traditional to slaughter a pig for Christmas. Our maid told us of the 170-kilo pig they slaughtered in her home village near Bucharest last week and this morning, I saw two men carrying a dead pig into one of our neighbor's house. The pig of our maid was so fat, it couldn't walk the last couple months of its life. What a fate.
In any case, the pigs are slaughtered and butchered and turned into ham, bacon and sausages. It's dubbed a rural tradition but with all the pigs I've seen lately, I think it's a true Romanian Christmas thing.
The other tradition are the colindatori (carollers). Groups of people -- mostly men in my limited experience -- go from house to house in the Christmas season and sing Christmas carols. And boy, do they sing beautifully. For some days now, they've either come to our door or to the neighbors, so we always get to hear the carollers sing in the evening. It's incredibly wonderful. Here's a site where you can listen to the instrumentals of those carols -- now imagine this sung a capella by good male singers. Hmm. Nice.
Yes, you're supposed to pay them. But I think it's nice enough even with that mundane aspect.
I used to read a lot of magazines. I used to subscribe to magazines. I'd get three, four, five of them every week, and I would read them all, cover to cover.
Then I had children.
These days I only have time to read one magazine regularly, and it's the Economist. You can argue with my choice, but there it is.
The thing is, in the Balkans, buying the Economist is not always a simple matter of strolling down to the local newsstand. Ha ha, pas de tout.
In Belgrade, it was very much a game of chance. The Economist would arrive in the country sometime on Friday, usually. And there were five or six magazine vendors who might carry it. Or then again, maybe not. So every Friday evening I would trot around downtown Belgrade, going from one vendor to another. Sometimes it would be at the first or second one; sometimes I would visit all of them with no luck. Sometimes it wouldn't appear until Saturday or even Monday. Nobody could ever explain why.
In Bucharest, it's still a game of chance, but the rules are a little different. The
Well, not really, because we already had a bout of snow in October. This episode seems much more time-appropriate, though.
It's been snowing the last ten minutes or so. It's just past 3:30 on the second advent Sunday, all my men are asleep and I'm wondering whether the snow will stay so that we can build a snowman tomorrow.
[a bit later] Well -- Douglas and Alan woke up as I was writing this, and the snow stopped after just dusting our street. Now it's turning into a very grey late afternoon, dull winter light and the birds huddling in the trees.
Time to make cookies.
Today is the day of Mos Nicolae, whom I know as St. Nikolaus. Doug had a moment of confusion that a Romanian tradition is so well known to me, until he realized that we have the exact same tradition in Germany, as well.
It's a children's holiday, both here and in Germany -- not meaning to imply that older children (aka adults) aren't happy about Mos Nicolae paying them a visit, too.
In the night to the 6th of December, children put their shoes (or boots, they fit more loot) out for St. Nikolaus to fill them. If the child has been good this past year, he will find his boots filled with goodies like nuts, tangerines, sweets and maybe a little present. If he has been a pain, he gets only a stick (presumably to be hit with).
... no, the million lei bill will be released on December 5 -- allegedly to make holiday shopping easier. One Dollar buys 33,800 Lei at the moment - so yes, the million bill will alleviate the cash flow some. However, I think they should have just scratched away a zero or two or three. But nobody asks me... :-)
... things would be different.
Well, yes. That's because I'm not a zoo person. Most of the times, I just feel very sorry for the animals and that's a gut feeling I can't control. Don't give me the arguments about the conservation of species -- if I see a tiger in a cage, I feel bad for him.
Let's begin at the beginning, though. It was Saturday morning, a glorious sunny day, we had two restless kids on our hands and decided it was the perfect occasion to visit the zoo.
We were prepared for the worst and were pleasantly surprised. The Bucharest Zoo is tucked away in a green, foresty area at the northern end of Bucharest (Baneasa). It's very pleasant out there and has a distinct country feel to it. That is, if you don't venture into the huge construction site that is the residential area of Baneasa and Pipera -- but that's besides the point here.
We arrived early, at about 10 o'clock. The zoo had opened its doors only an hour earlier and there weren't that many cars around. We couldn't spot a parking area, so we just parked our car alongside the road - which turned out to be the parking area because we were charged 30,000 Lei (about 80 European cents) for two hours parking by an authentic looking guy with authentic looking parking stubs.
Another 30,000 Lei brought us into the zoo. Compared to Belgrade, this zoo is, well, rather nice. Much less concrete than the Belgrade zoo, much more metal -- see picture.
(Again, these are thumbnails. Click on the picture to view a larger version.)
If Romania is not getting ready for an imminent war, or preparing for Bush or the Pope to visit, then my next guess is that they are practising for a huge military display on December 1, Romania's national day.
For two days now, soldiers grace the streets everywhere, fighter planes and choppers thunder over our house frequently and I've never seen so much police since we arrived.
Our maid and nanny don't know what this is about. Does anyone else?
Romanians are really nice people -- the ones I met and talked to, anyhow -- and they have the saddest stories to tell. One of those stories I just heard this morning, from the nurse at our family doctor's office (yes, we have one now).
She's a charming woman, looks a bit like a pixie with blonde hair and a sparkle in her eyes. Her English is excellent and fluent. So I asked her how she came to speak so well.
Well. She had a scholarship for a nursing school in Dallas, TX, and got her degree there. She was full of high hopes and daring dreams when she came back to Romania with her newly minted degree as a scrub nurse.
The first setback came when she had to realize that the Romanian Medical Board doesn't recognize the professional title of a "scrub nurse". Her diploma was not accepted.
I visited the Romanian Senate last week. I was there to testify before the Senate Committee on the Budget, which was reviewing the new draft Fiscal Code. (Did anyone actually want to know that? I don't talk about my job much here, in part because I doubt too many of you are interested. Anyhow.)
The Senate is the upper chamber of the Romanian Parliament, and it's not supposed to be where it is. I mean, it's supposed to be in the House of Parliament -- that's the huge building that used to be Ceaucescu's Palace of the People. After Ceausescu fell, the Romanians couldn't think of a better use for it, so they decided to move their Parliament into it. And the Chamber of Deputies -- that's the lower chamber of Parliament, equivalent to our House of Representatives -- moved there in 1996.
But the Senate hasn't. They don't want to. They want to stay where they are.
Where they are is a different big building altogether. It's the former headquarters of Romania's Communist Party, downtown on Piatsa Universitii.
Now, it's easy to lump all large public buildings from the Communist period together (big, ugly, inefficient), but in fact they are not all alike. And while the former CP headquarters is not an attractive building, I can see why the Senators prefer it.
Anca pointed me to a web page of a medical clinic that offers subsriptions - an altogether alien thought for a German. They also have a page that lists prices for services (presumably for non-members). I was amazed to find that a visit to a general practitioner costs $10 for Romanians and $50 if you're not a "romanian language speaker".
Alan swallowed a key yesterday.
I'm sparing you the grisly details of choking, Heimlich maneuver, desperate searching for a key, not finding a key.
I have to admit I was feeling quite helpless. I mean, a key is such an odd shape - a marble or a coin I wouldn't have freaked quite that much over, but a sharp, pointy little key? (Not such a little key, either - about 4 cm long and 2 cm wide - and please, don't ask how he got hold of it in the first place!)
I called our American health insurance for expats which has a 24/7 emergency service. They put me on with a nurse and a pediatrician. Both recommended to bring Alan to a hospital and have him x-rayed, to make sure that the key wasn't stuck in the airways or in the esophagus.
We've been in Bucharest for four months now, after two years in Belgrade. So how do they compare? Here are some first impressions.
General layout. Belgrade is defined by its two spectacular rivers and its hills. Bucharest is mostly flat as a tabletop, and the only river is the tiny and stagnant Dumbovitsa. Point: Belgrade.
Streets. Both cities are very confusing to navigate, with a complicated mess of non-parallel streets connecting various sqares and circles. Bucharest's famous "piatsas" (very large traffic circles) do not help much.
Belgrade's streets are in better condition. Much better. One third of Bucharest's street grid seems to be under construction -- very, very slow construction. And much of the rest is in just awful shape -- crumbling asphalt, decaying road shoulders. The potholes can be terrifying.
But Bucharest at least has trees, pretty much everywhere; and the annoying Serbian habit of parking on the sidewalk doesn't seem to exist here. Yet.
Call this one a tie.
Svoboda Square, in Ruse, is nice. Really nice.
It's a huge square, so big it's really a small park, with grass and lots of trees. In the center is an enormous statue of Mother Bulgaria stomping on the Turks. Around the sides are various big buildings: the City Hall, the courthouse. Several of these buildings are quite impressive and a couple of them are downright attractive. There are also lots of cafes, restaurants, and little shops.
Ruse is a small city on the Bulgarian side of the Danube. If you enter it by the Friendship Bridge, the first thing you'll notice is the set of enormous cranes on the shore of the river; Ruse is a shipyard and a port. Whether it's a busy port or not I can't say. None of those cranes budged an inch while we were there, but then, it was a Sunday.
We came into Ruse driving sort of randomly in what we hoped was the direction of the city center. By this time we were feeling a certain urgency. Alan was getting restless and bored after two hours in the car, the baby was getting hungry, and I needed a bathroom. Still, we did feel a certain frisson of pleasure when we realized that we were reading signs in Cyrillic again: PYCE for Ruse, XOTNL (with backwards-N) for Hotel, PECTOPAH for Restaurant, and so on. Nice to know the skills hadn't decayed.
We drove past several kilometers of mysterious pipeline, some sort of enormous memorial, around a couple of traffic circles, and ended up parked in front of a large apartment block. It was a random block somewhere in the neighborhood of the train station, chosen solely because it had a playground in front, so that I could run Alan up and down the swings and slides while Claudia nursed the baby.
-- Ruse, like every other city in Eastern Europe, has a lot of pretty dreary looking apartment blocks. The ones in this particular part of the city were notable for being at the less awful end of the post-Communist spectrum. That is, they were big ugly unfriendly-looking things, but they did not look as if pieces were about to fall off of them, and some had plots of green grass between them, with benches and a playground. "This is actually rather nice," I said to Claudia. "Boy, have our standards shifted," she replied.
But anyhow. I put Alan on the swings, and... there was this woman beating carpets. They were Turkish-looking carpets, very colorful. The woman had a headscarf and no expression whatsoever on her face. But she had a carpet beater, and she was hanging the carpets on a rack right next to the playground, and whack, whack, whack, she was just beating the hell out of these carpets.
It was fascinating. I mean, I'd seen carpet beaters before, but I had never actually seen one used to beat a carpet. It was fascinating for Alan, too. Except that he, being not quite nineteen months old, did not bother to politely conceal his interest. No, he stared. Absolutely motionless; enthralled. With his mouth hanging open.
This went on for a good ten minutes: the woman kept beating the carpets, and Alan just stood there staring at her. I put him on the swing; he swung, but he continued to stare with unbroken intensity. He didn't lose interest until she stopped. She, meanwhile, never changed her expression or acknowledged his existence in any way.
More in a bit...
Crossing the Danube between Giurgiu (Romania) and Ruse (Bulgaria) is an interesting experience.
At this point the Danube is, as my dear wife has pointed out, frickin' huge. It's big like the Mississippi or the Amazon. More than half a mile across, and deep.
So the bridge is big too. And from a distance, it's a remarkable sight. Almost 3 km or two miles long long -- it arches up and up for a while before going across -- and high: more than 60m/200 feet (say 20 stories) above the water. The view is spectacular. And at either end, there are these... things. Big rectangular towers supported by Greek pillars, like the Parthenon but five times as tall. "Like the Argonath in The Lord of the Rings," said Claudia, and she was right.
Well and good. And then you get past the pillar-things, and you're on the bridge, and it's...
...narrow. Really, really narrow. One lane each way, and not a wide lane. One truck could just barely pass another truck, with inches to spare. No shoulders. No side lanes. No provision for pedestrians or bikers. (Those two people who are biking from Liverpool to Australia claim that they rode their bicycles across it in March 2003; but then, they are insane.)
The road itself is almost deserted. Going over to Bulgaria, there was one truck on the bridge with us. Coming back, one car. Okay, it was Sunday, but still.
At the customs and immigration points on either end, we repeatedly had to wait while officials who had wandered away from their windows came trotting back.
It's weird. Especially when you go home and look at the map and realize that this is the only bridge across the Danube for a long, long way in either direction. The nearest bridge upstream is over 100 miles east; the next downstream bridge is nearly 300 (!) miles downstream.
For bonus weirdness points, at the exact middle of the bridge there is a ditch, and one lane is closed. So, all road contact between the two countries for hundreds of miles around -- cars, trucks, buses -- bottlenecks down to a single lane that goes over a ditch. Which is fine, because there's no traffic anyhow.
The bridge is officially a "friendship bridge". Somehow it makes me think of two people shaking hands while leaning as far away from each other as possible.
Bucharest is teeming with beggars and most of them are kids. The "street kids" might well be one of the biggest social challenges for the Romanians and the government. So far, they haven't done really well. There are quite a few private initiatives which do great work but they keep running against walls in the form of stupid laws, regulations and requirements which were clearly devised by men in green silk rooms. There is a moratorium on international adoptions for Romanian children until the new law on adoption will be passed. This law is being worked on for years now and in the meantime, the state orphanages are bursting with kids and the situation there is a nightmare.
Floreasca market is right around the corner from us. It's a big (indoor) green market and I buy fruit, vegetables and eggs there. It's relatively cheap and the produce is fresh and appetizing.
The little Gypsy beggar boy who hangs around Floreasca is about seven years old and he has stolen my heart. He asked me for some money as I was loading groceries into the car. Knowing that many street kids spend their money on glue, I have the strict rule not to hand out money. So I gave him a banana.
Did I make someone happy.
His face lit up like a Christmas tree and he nearly toppled over with the many thank-you's and have-a-long-life's. Then he made himself comfortable on the stairs in front of the market and devoured his banana in no time. As I pulled out of the parking space to drive home, he jumped up and down and waved and smiled. He was by far the most cheerful and polite little beggar boy that I've ever encountered. He's cute and looks smart, with alert deep brown eyes.
I want to take him home, give him a bath and fresh clothes, feed him until his stomach aches and watch him sleep in a warm and comfy bed. I want to rescue him out of this pit that Bucharest is for so many, many kids. I've learned here that one cannot rescue every one of them. I've learned that one is much more likely to be bound by stupid government rules than encouraged to do something about the street kids. In the end, there is very little one can do. But a little is better than nothing and a banana or a warm meat pastry now and then makes a big difference to that little boy's stomach.
For all who think they might be able to spare some cash and want to support the work of the Children Relief Network for the Bucharest street kids, click here and donate a dollar or two. I know these people and they do wonderful work. Every little bit helps.
Having a car registered in Romania is a serious pain in the neck. It involves extensive paperwork and hanging around a dozen of different offices for days at a time. So far, we have chickened out - that means, however, that we have to leave the country every three months with the car in order to avoid penalties or having the car taken from us.
This necessary trip wasn't due until the middle of November but with our planned trip to the States, we had the idea of going on Sunday and getting it out of the way for the next three months. So we packed up kids, snacks, money (good idea, as it turned out), filled up the tank, and were on our way to Ruse in Bulgaria.
Well, the drive was as advertised - hair-raising encounters with unmarked construction sites, your everyday crazy Romanian drivers and a near-death experience with a cow were the high points. It was a darn big cow, too.
Romanians and Bulgarians don't like each other and if you didn't know, you could tell by their elaborate border design. I've crossed a border or two but this one deserves some description.
First, they don't make it easy to find. For some reason or another, the road to this border is circuitous and not well marked. At one point, I suggested to Doug that the signs were actually a ruse to lure us into the backwoods and club us over the heads, then make off with our car. The street was really bad and a flock of ducks was taking a nap on it, too. As it were, we were in fact on our way to Ruse (and how's that for a nice play with words, eh?).
I swear I can tell you in which country I am just by the way peoples' faces look like when they walk in the streets. Any traveler will know what I'm speaking of.
Here in Romania, it seems as if the entire country is gripped by one collective bad mood. Make that very bad mood. People almost glare at you. The fact that they hardly even smile at Alan emphasises just how unusual it is to smile at a stranger. Not that this deters me most of the times. When people make eye contact with me on the street -- and it's funny, but they do -- then I smile. Very rarely do I get a smile back and if, it's a shy and quick one, as if they were doing something shameful. The only exception are mothers and very old people, but they don't smile at me, they smile at the kids. So there's that.
The other day, I walked up Strada Roma with Alan and David in their Lil' Limo double stroller. We get a lot of interested and baffled looks with this stroller. It seems to be a very unusual thing to have.
So we walked along and I see this woman coming down the sidewalk in our direction. Dark, short hair and slim figure, rather arresting looking. She is carrying a toddler on her hips and next to her walks an elderly woman, pushing a stroller with another toddler. She looks up, sees me and the babies and gives me this warm, wide smile. It felt so good to be smiled at like that. I gave her a big smile back and felt a little rush of joy. So simple to make me happy. And I thought - how nice! Finally someone who's not ashamed of smiling! There is hope for this people!
And as she walks past me, she nodds and says, in a perferct American accent, "Hi", and then continues to listen to the woman next to her talking in English.
Well. My little rush of happiness got a bit dampened by the fact that it was, in fact, not a Romanian stranger smiling at me.
But that disappointment just lasted for second or so. Then I started looking forward to our next visit to the States for yet another reason: lots of smiles there. Nice.
We went to a Romanian wedding last weekend. The groom was our friend Milo, a Serbian-American attorney. Milo has been consulting all over the region for the last few years. Some time ago, while working in Bucharest, he met a lovely Romanian woman (also a lawyer). One thing eventually led to another, and so there we all were.
It was our first Orthodox wedding ceremony, and it was very interesting. It was in the Sfetu Eleftereu church in central Bucharest. This is a beatiful large church, obviously recently renovated; the interior is dark and cavernous, but every surface is covered with paintings, in a very interesting sort of Byzantine-Academic style. Chairs were available, but everybody stood.
We visited Mogosoaia this weekend, too.
Mogosoia is a former royal palace that has seen a bit more history than is really good for it. It was built in the late 1600s by a fellow named Constantine Brancoveanu, who was the ruler of Wallachia. (Wallachia is now southern Romania.) Brancoveanu was an enlightened fellow with a taste for modern architecture, so his palace was an interesting mix of traditional Byzantine construction (lots of Roman arches) and elements imported from elsewhere (like a Venetian loggia, Baroque decoration, and some very fancy Austrian-style brickwork).
Alas, Brancoveanu conspired against his overlord, the Ottoman Sultan. The Sultan didn't take it well, and had Brancoveanu taken to Istanbul, tortured, and beheaded. (His wife recovered his head and brought it back, and Brancoveanu eventually became a national hero and martyr, but never mind that now.) The Sultan had Mogosoia turned into a "han" -- a sort of Motel-6 for caravans -- and for the next century or so, that's what it was.
By the mid-1800s it was pretty run down. But by that time Romania was independent of the Ottomans, and an aristocratic family bought the crumbling old palace and renovated it.
Some things here in the Balkans (or, maybe better, Eastern European countries) just require too much time and effort.
I mentioned that moving from country to country means having to find a new source for meat every couple of years, finding a good supermarket (takes months, sometimes), a green market, an organic food store, clothes and shoe stores for the children...
So I'm knitting socks for Douglas. I confess, the latest pair was started sometime in March and the project was abandonned when the nice weather arrived. The unfinished sock including yarn and needles moved with us in June. Now, it's rainy here in Bucharest and cool and I decided to break out the needles and finish those socks off.
I'm knitting with five double-pointed needles, what in German is called a "Nadelspiel" (game of needles). One needle was missing. I'm sure I'll find it one day, I just can't find it now and I want to knit now. I'm impatient in these matters. I can't knit those socks with only four needles. So I decided to go out and purchase a new set of five double-pointed needles.
Hah. You thought it was so easy.
Driving IN Bucharest is even more terrifying than driving in Romania in general. More potholes, many more cars -- none of them any slower than on the country roads -- and secret codes that no foreigner can understand. Forget skyboarding or base jumping. Driving a Bucharest traffic circle is the adrenaline surge thrill adventure of modern times.
Everybody goes fast, and lane markings are... suggestions, at best. Everybody swerves around potholes, so you have to be constantly alert for random-seeming high-G maneuvers by the other drivers.
The only rule that Bucharest drivers consistently follow is the one about stopping for zebra crossings. This would be a lot more admirable if the zebra crossings weren't in such weird places. They tend to be right in the middle of the busiest roads. Possibly this made sense under Communism, when nobody had cars, but today it's a recipe for disaster. You're doing 70 km/hr down the street, and then, wham, the guy in front of you brakes at full power.
Did I mention that most of the zebras haven't been repainted since the Ceausescus got on that helicopter? And that the signs for them are often conveniently tucked away behind a tree? Local drivers know where they are anyhow; the poor foreigner must be constantly, knuckle-clenchingly, alert.
Bucharest is now ringed by half a dozen big suburban mega-stores -- Selgros, Metro, Carrefour, Praktiker. (For our American readers: these are the European equivalents to Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Home Depot, and the like.) I'm visiting them one by one, in my protracted and probably Quixotic quest for a dryer that will fit in our pantry. (More on this later, perhaps). So tomorrow I will drive up to Selgros, very carefully...
I don't recommend it. Driving from Germany to Romania -- from ca. Frankfurt to Bucharest -- is a 3-day drive and it's three days on rapidly declining roads. Add a colicky baby (i.e. very little rest at night) and a heat wave of epic proportions and you have my latest trip.
Michael drove (with) us and that was a good thing - he's a very good driver with fast reaction time and a calm temper. I would have freaked halfway through. What am I saying - I did freak halfway through but it didn't matter much since I was just the navigator...
We had several near-misses by Romanian suicidal drivers (they like to pass you
in the dusk in curves at high speed), including that one bicylist who drove smack across the road between us and the car in front of us, at most 30 feet away and us travelling at 70 mph, and the memorable moment when we had two trucks side by side facing us as we came around a steep curve in the Carpathian mountains. I swear Romanian drivers have a sixth sense, something that tells them when it's only risky to pass and when it's suicidal. There is no other explanation for the fact that we saw only one accident.
It took us six hours to cover 800 km in Germany and Austria. 6 hours to cover 400 km in Hungary. Ten hours to cover 600 km in Romania. Says all, I think.
Just a short entry to say that we're all together under one roof, at last.
On Saturday, Claudia and her brother Michael left Germany in our 1990 Mitsubishi, with baby David in the back seat. They drove 500 miles/800 km to the outskirts of Vienna, where they stayed the night. (The hotel claimed to be full, but changed its mind when Claudia played The Baby Card.)
Sunday, Annamarie drove me and Alan to the airport. After a tearful goodbye (Alan loves his grandmother, and she him), we took Tarom (your Eastern European national airline of choice) to Bucharest. Alan made friends with the man in the seat ahead, the woman across the aisle, and the twelve year old boy next to us. Pretty normal flight, in other words. Meanwhile Claudia and Michael drove another 600 km, through Austria and Hungary and into Transylvania, where they stopped for the night in the small city of Deva. No vampires or haunted ruins, but an ex-communist hotel with a really creepy shower.
(Somewhere in Transylvania they outran the heat wave. Up to then it had been really unpleasant -- 35 to 37 degrees [mid 90s Fahrenheit]. The old Mitsubishi has no aircon, so they had to put damp cloths on the baby to keep him cool.)
Monday, the babysitter came at 8 am, I was off to work half an hour later, and Michael and Claudia made the last leg in just six hours or so. One traffic jam and a few terrifying near-misses with Romanian drivers later, they were pulling into our street.
Okay, maybe that wasn't so short. But anyhow, here we finally are.
I woke up at dawn. The train was rolling along smoothly, the teenage girls in the next compartment had finally giggled themselves to sleep, and the sky outside was filling up with light. I got out of bed and looked out the window.
Outside was an absolutely flat plain. Fields of straggly, unhealthy looking corn alternated with fields of sunflowers. Miles away in the distance, at the edge of vision, a line of cypress trees marched against the horizon.
And that was all. There were no roads. No towns. No grain elevators. I looked in all directions but I couldn't see... anything. Just absolutely flat land,
Man, I like Belgrade.
Not that Bucharest isn't just fine. Bucharest is very nice. But Belgrade... Belgrade has that special something.
It's hard to put my finger on just what. It isn't a particularly beautiful city architecturally; there are a lot of nice old buildings, but also a lot of nasty crumbling socialist stuff. And the air's not very clean, and it can get really unpleasantly sticky in summer.
But it doesn't matter. Somehow I just like Belgrade. Is it the cherry strudel at the little cafe on Teraziye? The view from the top of the Hotel Casina? The friendly booksellers on the Knez Mihajlova? The summer outfits? The mostly honest taxi drivers? The countless little cafes? The rivers?
Or maybe it's just that I have friends there, so I see the place differently.
Anyhow, it was good to be back. I took the overnight train on Thursday night, which gave me three days and two nights. The Hotel Casina is a grubby little place with painfully slow elevators, but it sits in the center of town, and if you know which room to ask for, you can get a balcony with a breathtaking view: eight stories down to Teraziye, with the cathedral to your left, the pedestrian mall on your right, and the Sava River directly in front of you. It's really something.
(Oddly enough, the balcony rooms cost the same as the no-balcony rooms. This suggests to me that the Hotel Casina is still owned by the state. In a few years someone will buy it, and turn those rooms into very, very expensive apartments. Progress, I suppose.)
It was a very full three days, with friends and business and shopping and more friends. At the end, I was very glad to collapse back on to the train. There was something wrong with the electrical system in the sleeper car and the lights wouldn't work and -- this is how tired I was -- I didn't care. I didn't even want to read (well, not much). I fell asleep as soon as we crossed the border and didn't wake up until sunrise, seven hours later and 500 kilometers further east.
Mm, Belgrade. Hope to see you again soon.
The Palace of the People was Nicolae Ceaucescu's great monument to... well, himself, really. He had to destroy much of downtown Bucharest to build it; it was completed less than six months before the Revolution. Life Problems for Dictators: you finally get your house finished the way you like it, and then you're put up against a wall and shot.
Anyhow, the Palace of the People is either the second or the fourth largest building in the world, depending on who you talk to. The Lonely Planet says that "Romanians have a love-hate relationship" with it. Maybe. I haven't yet met a Romanian who didn't hate the damn thing.
This weekend I was walking around the downtown for several hours. (It beats sitting at home bored and lonely and missing Claudia. Also, I'm running out of books to read.)
It's really hot here. I'm beginning to think that it's not such a good idea to be in the third trimester in June/July. I'm dreaming of a pool. It's said that the French village has a "Club" (pronounced French, please) which boasts a pool. I will have to investigate that. I'm very grateful that our apartment (and the new house) has air conditioning. Drip, drip, drip...
That's our new address in Bucharest. I will post some pictures as soon as the move with the USB cable for my digital camera has arrived - so let me just quickly sketch the main characteristics.
It's an apartment in a villa, although from the look of it, you'd think it's the entire villa. We have the main entry, amidst flower beds, lilacs and a wildly growing vine with real grapes on it. There is a little courtyard where Alan (and his brother?) can roam around a bit -- the park is also not far away. On the first floor there are living/dining room, the kitchen with a pantry and a toilet. Second floor are three bedrooms (well, two bedrooms and a study, really) and two bathrooms. One of the bathrooms has a shower, the other one has a bathtub. There is also a little balcony on the second floor. The rooms are very high (about 12 feet) and the entire house has parquet floors. The rooms aren't very big but the general feeling is of airiness and lightness. I fell completely in love with it the moment I saw it. I think we will be very happy there.
The location is also very good - just five minutes by foot from Doug's office and right next to one of the busier streets of Bucharest, somewhat north of the center. We have quick access to the road to the airport and the big supermarkets. The park with a big lake and several playgrounds is just ten minutes by foot and there is plenty of shopping around, including a 24-hour supermarket. The neighboorhood consists entirely of old villas and mansions and how we got this house, that used to be rented out for 3750 Euros, for $2500, I don't know. The landlord belongs to the German minority here in Romania, maybe that had something to do with it.
In any case, we have living quarters now and will begin to live there starting next week. Next steps are: get permanent visas and our move going (only with a lease can you get a permanent visa and only with a permanent visa can you import your move). Get internet hook-up. Get settled a bit. Have my Mom, who will arrive next Monday, help me shop for little items and select curtains and such.
We are very happy with our find. So - who's going to come and visit us, then?
So today Alan and I got stuck in the elevator of our temporary quarters. Between two floors, with the classic view of the concrete floor and half a door below it and half a door above it. I pushed all the various buttons available, hoping that I wouldn't need the alarm button. I tried opening either of the doors which didn't work - to my relief, actually. I didn't want those doors to open, fearing I'd be tempted to crawl out just when the elevator started moving again. Severed spine and all that. Too much TV, I know.
Well, nothing budged. I rang the alarm bell and... nothing happened. I mean, the alarm bell rang but no reassuring voice spoke out of the loudspeaker (which, btw, I couldn't see anywhere anyway). For the first time that I ever pushed the alarm button it was very anticlimactic.
Next step: I banged against the lower door until the guys from "Alarm Service" who have their office right next to the elevator door finally deemed to look what all the ruckus was about. The first guy only spoke Romanian and left again to get another guy who spoke some English and together they managed to inquire why I was banging the door.
In a hurry and not much time -- just letting the world know that we arrived well and survived (with some dignity) our first encounter with the famous hustlers of Bucharest (them being the luggage carriers at the Gara du Nord).
We found an internet cafe just around the corner from where we live - with an astonishingly fast connection! - so expect some more soon!
[Doug here] We took the overnight train, which leaves Belgrade around 6 pm, crosses the border at about 8:30, and then rolls on through the night to arrive in Bucharest at 7:15 the following morning.
Our experiences of the ride were... varied.
After the border formailites, everybody went into their cabins and it got very quiet. I leaned out the window for a little while, looking at the stars and watching the vast empty plain of the Banat go by in the darkness. Then I climbed into the upper berth, read a good book for an hour (_Dark Star_ by Alan Furst, and thank you Carlos for recommending it), lay awake for a little while listening to the sound of the train, and finally fell into a deep and healing slumber.
Natasha, our baby sitter, had the next compartment to herself. Unfortunately, it was her first time leaving Yugoslavia, /and/ her first time in a sleeper car, and I guess it was all just too strange; poor Natasha didn't fall asleep until far into the night and was distinctly woozy today.
Well, not really, since Bucharest isn't on the Danube. But we are moving further east and will be arriving in Bucharest on Sunday, June 1st.
We already have a full plate for the first week: Doug's starting to work on Monday and I will have to dedicate my time hunting for a place to live. It seems that the rental market in Bucharest is at least as hot as in Belgrade - at least, that's what the prices indicate. My, I could easily rent a nice home in the DC area for what we will have to pay in Bucharest. Let's hope that we can find something equally nice as in Belgrade.
As much as we are looking forward to moving to Bucharest and to being EMPLOYED (can you spell regular pay? We still haven't been paid once for this year!), leaving Belgrade is a bittersweet experience.
We live just a couple of blocks from a green market, which is a big plaza full of little stands selling fruits and vegetables. Because central Belgrade is somewhat lacking in supermarkets, we go to the green market regularly, two or three times a week.
Pushing a stroller around the market can be strenuous. The ancient paving stones are cracked and tipped, and often damp and slippery too -- the market is cleaned by sprays from high pressure hoses, which washes the loose lettuce leaves and gunk away but makes navigation that much trickier. On the other hand, the sellers love babies. We regularly get extra odds and ends -- a free head of lettuce, a couple of bonus bananas -- because Alan has smiled at some horny-handed farmer.
And he smiles a lot, because he loves the green market.
We live about three blocks from the main campus of the University of Belgrade. "Main campus" means about four buildings, as the Uni is scattered all over the city. Still, one of those four is the University Library, a very dignified looking building that's painted a curiously pleasing shade of pink.
(At this point I'll just mention in passing that Belgrade has some of the loveliest buildings in Eastern Europe, cheek by jowl with some of the ugliest. More on this topic later.)
Three interesting things about the Library. One, you can't get very far inside -- it's still run on the socialist principle of Authorized Personnel Only. That's not just foreigners, by the way -- even students can't get in without a special permit. (Because, I guess, you wouldn't want students just wandering in and out of a library.)
One cannot call Belgrade a child-friendly city. I have yet to see a restaurant with a changing table or a policeman who will keep Belgrade drivers from parking on the sidewalks, not forcing mothers with strollers to sway into the streets and take it up with cars, trucks and buses.
No bus is equipped for strollers; not only are they always over-crowded but one would not fit through the doors. Aisles in supermarkets are so narrow that one better leaves the kid at home. I'm not even mentioning the bad air quality outside and the much worse air quality in restaurants, cafs or trains. Serbians are very Balkan when it comes to smoking.
However, in other respects Belgrade is the most child-friendly city I've ever been to.