Before I went to Romania several people warned me it might be dangerous, that I should look out. Oh man were they right–why just the other morning a calf escaped and took off down the dirt road with his new wobbly legs splayed all about with dad and granny chasing after him. I mean, who know what might have happened to us.
While I acknowledge that a couple of weeks in Romania does not make me an expert on it’s culture, I strongly believe in having my own first hand experiences and I want to share with you what I learned.
First some myths:
Romania is dangerous. Close encounters with runaway calves aside, Romania is not dangerous to tourists. Sure, the area around the train station in Bucharest is a bit dodgy, but no worse than in any other European city. And just like in the rest of Europe, you should be vigilant about pickpockets. The drivers seem to do a lot of passing on narrow streets, on curves and around blind corners–so, if like me, you’re nervous in cars, it’s best to take public transportation or hire a tour guide. Otherwise, I’d rank Romania the second safest country I’ve visited, after Germany.
Wild, potentially rabid dogs are running around in packs. Many sources, including my guide book, led me fear I would be constantly dodging rabid dogs—didn’t happen. There were some sad-eyed mutts about that broke my heart, but no scary dogs. Well, there was this pup. As you can tell, he scared the pants off of me.
Public bathrooms are disgusting pits. As someone with a minor bathroom phobia, this one worried me the most. I am relieved (pun intended) to inform you that this too is a myth. While bathrooms were not omnipresent, we managed to find decent bathrooms almost everywhere. I used the toilet in a train station in central Bucharest, bracing myself for a nose holding sprint, and to my surprise, it was clean and freshly mopped. Bathrooms inside the trains themselves were not particularly pleasant, but no worse than in any other European country.
Romanians are totally psyched about Dracula. Dracula kitsch, as far as we saw, is confined mostly to Sighișoara. (I’m sure that Bran Castle also has it’s share of Dracula cheesiness, but we didn’t go there.) Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a literary character. Romania’s historical Dracula is Vlad III, the one-time Prince of Wallachia, is often confused with his dad Vlad II Dracul. At any rate, Dracula is a major tourist draw for visitors to Romania, but seems to be of little interest to actual Romanians.
And now, a few tips:
Use cash. Romania is a cash economy. While you can use a credit card in larger cities, cash is needed everywhere else. Every time I hit up and ATM machine I wished I pulled out twice as much.
BWOT (bring your own toilet paper). We brought several mini-rolls and used up almost all of our supply.
Stay in a guest house. Guest houses are cheap, clean and ideal for cultural immersion. If you have an option to buy breakfast or dinner at your guest house, do it.
Choose home-cooked foods and grocery store delis over restaurants. If you have a chance to eat a home-cooked meal in Romania, go for it. These people know how to cook delicious, rich meals with locally produced ingredients. Larger groceries have surprisingly excellent prepared foods at low prices. We also had great luck with cafeteria-style steam table cusine–it was fresh, tasty and budget friendly. The restaurants we ate at in Romania, however, were quite mediocre.
Be alert on the train. Romania trains are affordable, punctual, and cover much of the country, but the stops are poorly sign-posted and the stations are not announced at the stops. If you’re not paying attention, you could easily miss your stop.
Meet people. People are the keepers of their culture. We found Romanians to be savvy, friendly and low key. Also, their children are exceptionally beautiful.
And now some thoughts about gypsies.
There are a lot of Roma people (aka gypsies) in Romania. They appear to live entirely apart from the rest of Romanians. Having spoke with several Romanians about the Roma people, I have to say that there is a huge problem with racist discrimination against gypsies in Romania. I am uncomfortable writing this, especially since I am from the USA and my country has it’s own dark history of denying civil rights to minorities. Also, and this is even more difficult to write about, I have my own stereotypes about gypsies to deal with. When I see gypsies while traveling, I often assume that they want to rob me, and I hold my bag a little tighter. After several Romanians told me that the gypsies survive by crime and prostitution, we had an enlightening conversation with a British expat who has made Northern Romania his adopted home. He told us that the Roma families have been living in the same villages for many years but are treated like outlaws. They have little redress if a crime is committed against them by Romania people. People feel free to shout invectives out the window of cars to gypsies who are minding their own business.
I would be curious to learn more about the lives of gypsies in Romania from people with first hand experience. From my limited experience, gypsies are victims of institutionalized discrimination and a wide-spread denial of civil rights. In the otherwise lovely country of Romania, this is troubling indeed.