Romanian Honeymoon, September & October 2017
Day 2, Zurich to Bucharest – September 27
After our horrendously long flight and layover, we were tired. We were so tired. I can’t even begin to articulate just how tired we were because I think the last time I had been that tired was when I was, like, ten years younger or something and was actually capable of having fun. (I kid. I’m all kinds of fun. I’m also all kinds of too old to be staying up for 24 hours at a time like why didn’t I sleep on the plane?!)
I kept expecting to have some kind of culture shock, but I guess maybe it just manifested as excitement. Things changed the moment we were given our gate for the flight to Bucharest (which, by the way, in Zurich they wait to give you your gate number until like thirty minutes before boarding it is extremely stressful holy shit) and we settled in; our bags were checked at the gate (of course) because they were huge (of course) even though we’d managed to bring them on the flight from the United States, and we had to go through an interesting process of having our passports and boarding passes checked. Fun fact: if you’re traveling in the EU as a non-EU citizen, you get to go through a lot of extra check points. It’s great fun! (It’s not.)
Boarding the plane, though… I have been listening to Romanian music since I was in high school, so for probably around 15 years now. I’ve been learning the language for several years on my own, I’ve been watching Romanian movies and television shows and it was the coolest thing ever to suddenly hear people all around me speaking Romanian. Which makes sense, right? Everyone on the plane was going to Romania and, as I’ve mentioned before it’s not exactly a popular vacation destination, it really began to sink in then that we were going to Romania.
Arrival in Bucharest, or Oh Wow Yes This Is Another Country But Also It Looks Like The American Midwest
The flight was pleasant enough, but after the 8.5 hour adventure the day before it seemed to go by extremely quick. Still on Swiss Airlines, we were given little cheese sandwiches that I apparently did not photograph, and I spent most of the flight looking out the window and listening to the conversations around me. (Really, I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard that many people talking on a plane? It was kind of fun.) The most jarring thing, though, was the fact that did you know that Romania looks just like Wisconsin when you’re flying over it? Seriously. Look at this:
I was torn between being slightly disappointed and completely amused. I knew Romania had lots of farmland, but I hadn’t been expecting it to literally look like where we’d come from in the United States. In fact, Romania and Wisconsin are pretty close to being on the same latitude, and I knew this, but it didn’t make it any less weird.
Checking in through customs was interesting, though being tightly packed in with probably hundreds of other people as we made our way to the kiosks was stressful. No one had told me in advance if my husband and I would need to split up or approach the window together, but we watched a few other couples and ended up going to the passport check counter separately, since that seemed to be the thing to do.
“Bună ziua!” (Hello!) I told the passport control guy.
“You speak Romanian?!” the passport control guy blurted out as he looked over my passport. He nudged the guy in the cubicle with him and pointed out that I speak Romanian. It was kind of surreal, actually, since I’d literally only said one thing, but I apparently made the guy’s day and it made me feel pretty good about the trip in general. Like we were going to be okay, that this wasn’t a total mistake!
The conversation was brief and not as stressful as the movies make it out to be, we were only asked why we were visiting and how long we were staying, which would turn out to be a stark difference from how things were when we returned to the United States three weeks later, and it wasn’t long before we were on our way. We collected our bags, used a neat kiosk to order a taxi, and jetted off to our AirBnB in the Militari district, which isn’t exactly a common place for tourists to stay, so our taxi driver was a little confused, but we ended up loving it.
Primary Objective: Find Something to Eat
We checked in, met our host’s wife and got into the apartment. Right away we noticed a few things that were different from apartments we were used to, maybe because it was an AirBnB and therefor sort of like a hotel room or because it was refurbished communist bloc housing, but we had to adjust to things like the washing machine was in the bathroom (which seems to be a common European thing, at least), the air conditioning was a wall unit and not central air, and the kitchen was set up somewhat differently: our refrigerator was in the entry way and there wasn’t an oven. It turns out that Romanians do a lot of cooking on the stove top (they boil meat frequently, which let me tell you I was not prepared for how good that would taste) and it kind of changed up our plan a little bit for what we were going to cook while we were there. Still, though, we needed to rest for a few minutes, unpack, and then eat. At this point it was around six in the evening and we had only had tiny sandwiches and Fanta and I knew I was going to be miserable if I didn’t have something.
Lesson #3: Don’t try to grocery shop right when you arrive.
Going to the grocery store in another state is hard enough when you don’t know what the layout is or what foods are locally popular, but it is incredibly difficult to cope with when it’s in another language entirely and you don’t know where things are and the culture is different. If you plan on cooking your own meals, wait to go to the grocery store until you’ve slept and/or settled in a little bit. Your first day or night, just focus on getting comfortable and getting rest and treat yourself to some take-out food or a local restaurant. You’ll want a clear head for tackling a foreign grocery.
According to the itinerary I’d set, we had planned to just shop and eat dinner in the apartment, but after realizing that we were too tired for that and our plans to, like, bake a pasta had just gone out the window we did some quick googling and realized there was a Pizza Hut not too far from us. We picked something familiar on purpose, thinking it would be easier to order. It was also in a shopping mall with a food court, so we figured worst case scenario we’d just find something else in the food court. We didn’t really want McDonald’s after such a long trip, so Pizza Hut seemed fairly simple.
What we were not counting on was the following series of events:
1. The realization that the metro cards have an arrow on them for no apparent reason that does not point in the direction you insert them into the machine.
2. Getting off of the metro and realizing we had no real landmarks to look for because oh right this is a different country we have no idea where we are and deciding to just follow the mass of people walking down the street assuming they’d probably head in the direction we wanted.
3. Arriving at what we had anticipated being a regular shopping mall and instead being greeted with the sight of this miniature glow-up Epcot situation:
What you are looking at in that big blue light up ball is the entrance to AFI Cotroceni, which also has an IMAX theater in it because of course it does. I didn’t really know what to expect with regard to shopping in Romania, but I really did not expect to walk into fucking Mall of
America Romania right after stepping off the plane. This mall, you guys, this mall. It has all your usual things you find in malls. Bookstores, shoe stores, a grocery store, half of a floor dedicated to an arcade, a climbing wall, an ice skating rink, some kind of adventure park (?!) and yes it was a bit much. It was as if after the fall of Communism someone was like “You know what would be great? If we went all in on capitalism!” and they just really went hard with it.
I fucking loved it.
You know, after we went back on a day when we hadn’t been traveling for 30 hours.
That first night, though… we spent like an hour just wandering around being lost. Then we looked at the gigantic restaurant selection, wandered around, and eventually ended up in Pizza Hut on the top floor where the poor hostess tried her best to find us a server who spoke English. The pizza was great, though. Nothing like American Pizza Hut. I mean, for one, it was edible, but they also had some great topping combos that we just don’t get here.
It’s also worth noting here that according to the internet, AFI Cotroceni isn’t actually that much bigger than our local malls, but for one, we weren’t expecting anything of that scale, and for two it’s all about how the space is used. While our local malls are just one floor and have a few gigantic anchor stores, the area at AFI is arranged much differently on two levels.
Eventually we did make it out to the grocery store, and it was awful. That merits a post in and of itself, but we were not at all prepared for the cultural differences involved in grocery shopping. We did get used to it throughout the trip, but by the time we were finished and walked back across the street to our apartment all I wanted to do was sleep for the rest of my life, and I kind of wanted to go home.
Except I couldn’t do either, so we settled for a cooking channel and attempting to settle in to at least get some sleep so that we could enjoy the rest of the trip and hopefully feel more prepared to tackle being in another country in the morning.