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Thanks For the Memories

2007: I had a borderline awful time in Bucharest—and I kind of miss it

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/23/2009

BY THE TIME WE reached the flea market, I had to confess that everything wasn't going as planned. In Bucharest, Romania, a flea market crops up every Sunday morning along the banks of the mighty Dambovitza River, where you can finds odd crafts and various Soviet-era artifacts—or so I was led to believe. By the internet. By travel books. By the usual ways I go about finding slightly off-the-beaten-path things to do in slightly off-the-beaten-path places. The girlfriend and I were holidaying in Bucharest in late November in 2007, continuing an Eastern Europe traveling kick we'd been on the past few years. For us, Eastern Europe was different, exciting. And Eastern Europe, where a number of countries hadn't adopted the Euro yet, was affordable. We were considering Bulgaria for 2008.

Bucharest, though, wasn't living up to our expectations—which aren't high. We're a good traveling pair with a good system: I'm the dork who does research, reads travel books, contacts people who live there via social-networking sites, figures out public transportation before I've ever been there, jots down notes of oddball places to check out, foodstuffs to try, local digestifs to drink, etcetera; she tells me what she'd like to do and I figure out how to make it happen. We stay in affordable, modest flats in neighborhoods outside of tourist districts. The daily goals: hit one cultural attraction of some kind, then find good places to eat, drink, chat, and huff cigarettes indoors. That's it. Ideally we encounter fun people, see things not in guidebooks, and have great stories to tell.

But while walking through a cold November wind toward a muddy intersection near the Dambovitza, which is about as wide as Charles Street, it slowly dawned on us that Bucharest was winning. For the past few days we had been wandering around a city undergoing a radical facelift. Tremendous construction was going, with the ostensible goal of beautifying some of the drab concrete edifices that sprouted up during the Nicolae Ceausescu years of communism. It no doubt would be lovely when finished—and parts of this city are Paris spectacular—but at the time, it meant absent sidewalks, blocks and blocks of walking along muddy planks, local maps being completely inaccurate, and some information being absolutely wrong: The flea market turned out to be more like a junkyard and used-car lot, as men hawked car parts, used cars sat caked in construction dust with prices written in thin film of debris on the windshield, and that was it. And it was almost entirely male, men who, according to the girlfriend, looked like they just got out of prison or were on their way there.

Now, don't go thinking we're some lily-livered American tourists who frown when shit doesn't go right. While we're close enough to our youth to want to explore and not so young that we're completely foolish, we want to go places and experience things. We want to be curious about those parts of the world that too often get looked over. We want to go to those places that play the sports we've never heard of that get aired at 5 a.m. during the Olympics. Our dream trips involve Addis Ababa, Tashkent, Tehran, Tirana.

And we thought we had been doing pretty good so far, working our way toward roads less traveled. Budapest was amazing. We incorrectly took a chain of trams and buses to its rural countryside looking for Szoborpark, where all the Soviet-era statuary has been placed. We visited—and will never forget—the House of Terror, a high-tech interactive museum of crimes against humanity housed in the former Hungarian secret police headquarters. Belgrade was just as memorable. We had been driven, in reverse, at a high-speed down a one-way street. We witnessed a local law enforcement officer accept a 10€ bribe to overlook a moving violation. We bought our liters of Jelen pivo at the late-night bodega. We passed the old woman cleaning a splayed pig en route to the outdoor bathroom at the cute café. We popped in for a quick espresso at a bar in Novi Beograd where the bathrooms were Turkish, the TVs flashed football scores with betting lines, and you kind felt like you just wandered into The Accused.

Bucharest, though, felt like it wasn't ready for visitors quite yet, even those who don't expect much. Modest attractions were limited, entire streets and blocks were barricaded for construction, and some things just weren't really open at all—none of which turned up during research in the weeks leading up to our departure. We visited the National Museum of Romanian History, located in a gorgeous former Postal Services Palace on the Calea Victoriei. After we bought our ticket an English-speaking employee was summoned to give us the lay of the exhibits. He pointed to one wing. "Over there, there's nothing," he said, before turning to point toward the opposite wing. "Over there, there's nothing. Upstairs, there's nothing." He pointed over his shoulder. "Here is Trajan's Column, and downstairs are the Romanian Crown Jewels," he offered, before making eye contact with me, "but . . . men don't like it so much."

If you repeat this comic encounter multiple times on a daily basis over about a week, you can see how we started to feel like Bucharest was winning. For instance: while standing at the Piata Revolutei being the gawker with the digital camera taking a photo of the Rebirth Memorial, designed by Alexandru Ghildus to memorialize the people who died in the revolution (see above), a man walked by and scoffed at me: "Revolution?" he said, gesturing at the monument. "It's a potato on a stick."

Those are the charming moments. I had a woman try to work a con on me in three languages. I was asked if I wanted "female company" walking through the subway. And I'm pretty sure I was marked to have my pocket picked: I was followed from a bookstore to a cash point by a chain-smoking young man in a baseball cap, who waited about 20 yards away from me while I got money and started toward me again when I was headed back the way I came. I stopped, backed against one of the storefronts, put all of my cash and belongings inside of my sport coat instead of my overcoat, started back toward the way I came, and as the man approached me coming the opposite direction, I accelerated and ran into him first, before continuing on my way, wondering if I was about to get clocked. By the second to the last day there, as we scurried across one of the many, many, many traffic roundabouts that make crossing the street an extreme sport, the girlfriend verbalized what we were both thinking: "I can't wait to get back to the safe, safe streets of Baltimore."

I'm not bitter about the trip, or even disappointed. In fact, the absurdity of Bucharest has actually accrued a nostalgic patina in my memory. Sure, it was frigid cold and a series of bumbling adventures, but at least I was there. In the middle part of this decade, saving money over the course a year to make one of these trips was feasible. Freelance work helped, but it was more a matter of squirreling away a little bit here, a little bit there, so that once a year an actual, leaving-the-country vacation became possible.

And as far as I'm concerned, leaving the country is a good thing. Leaving the country is good for the soul. Leaving the country puts the piddly little shit that eats at your daily life in perspective. Leaving the country helps keep you sane.

And for a while there, I was actually able to do it. This was how I could take advantage of my country's strong economy. Or so I thought. By 2008 the dollar's global purchasing power was in retreat, air travel prices were going up, publishing freelance budgets across the country were shrinking, and it was getting harder and harder to squirrel away anything from the paycheck. Soon, saving money was less important than just making sure everything got paid, ideally in the neighbor of "on time."

You can see where this is going: I still haven't been to Bulgaria. Yet.

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