Week three, everyday Bucharest

I started this blog to try to capture my everyday experiences of moving to a new country. I set out this morning with the intention of trying to see things differently. I am not that good at taking pictures, but I hope to post a few snaps too.

The name of the Romanian grocery store which is everywhere in Romania is Megaimage. Today I annoyed the security guard at the local Megaimage for going in the exit instead of the entrance and I also annoyed the cashier for putting the basket on the counter. I am sure the security guard was tutting me as I left and I felt like the foolish English person.

On the plus side I visited the small country market, everyone here calls it, “the peasant market”, next to where I live today and was brave enough to buy tomatoes knowing that no-one selling produce from the countryside would speak English. I succeeded and have tried the tomatoes, they’re lovely.

I have also been shown how to use busses and trams by a nice colleague and I now know how to say the name of my road to a cab driver without them refusing to take me. When I did not know how to use the bus I took the (exceptionally cheap) cabs when I had a lot of shopping, and I am not sure why I was refused, it was either because the journey was too short and too cheap, or because as my Romanian colleague explained, the way I pronounced the name of my road; Unirii sounds like urine in Romanian.

I did a few nice cultural things with Jeremy when he was here, but it seems I have spent a lot of time buying boring things..such as bins and sheets. There was nothing really at the flat. My bed is too large, it seems to be for a whole family and I have now bought the wrong sized replacement sheet twice. I suppose, this means I should just stick with the one sheet and wash it weekly, while the sun is shining.

With the assistance of the landlord we managed do set up Wi-Fi, so things are getting sorted.


Body shock at the neighbourhood gym

Does anyone else need to perform a whole host of rituals and associational visits before going somewhere new? I occasionally experience a hangover of social anxiety which demands that I perform a number of trial visits when I scope a new place or activity out before I manage a proper visit. It took me a whole year of occasionally popping in to the neighbourhood gym to ask about the price of the monthly membership and check out the classes on offer before I actually joined! This September I succeeded in taking one free trial class in whole body– essentially a weight lifting and abs class and I then returned and joined the gym for a month. I only attended the whole body class by mistake as I thought I was attending pilates. I felt very fearful when I saw the weights, but managed to remain in the class and I coped with being shouted at in Romanian and I completed exercises I found quite challenging by gritting my teeth and trying to mindfully do the exercises in time with the music.

For the majority of my life I have avoided gyms and seen them as the bastion of body obsessed, boring people. I recognise this as me being socially elitist and this went hand in hand with me identifying as a subcultural misfit. Conveniently I excused myself from those everyday activities which did not fit with my subcultural identity; I could easily avoid gyms as they were not the sort of place that weirdo music bods felt comfortable.

However, I am now a grown adult person and try to avoid this sort of teenager thinking. I have been developing poor routines of inactivity and action needs to be taken. Aside from weekly zumba, in the evenings I slump on the sofa watching Netflix, or natter on the phone to family and friends. It is very pleasant but I am worried that my sofa surfing skills are reaching expert plus level. And heck, I want to be svelte for as long as possible, and if being svelte isn’t technically what overweight on the BMI chart means, then at least looking OK in a pair of jeans and slim from a distance, will do. So I had to join the gym rather than risk the impending waist thickening of middle years that novels featuring female characters of around my age, describe.

My first thoughts on entering the class are, “crikey all the Romanian women are so young and slim, what are they doing here?” But perhaps that is how they became so slim and beautiful I think. All the women are nattering and pinching non-existent fat on their legs and lazily limbering up. Some of the women are attaching weights to the metal rods that we later lift. Fortunately there are a couple of women who are around my age, probably not my age, but a little younger, one woman who is a bit scruffy smiles at me.

Our teacher Mihai arrives and he has quite a lot of noisy conversational banter with the young women. He is smart, around about 30 years old, with a very slim waist and although slight, he has muscley arms and a V shaped upper body. I cannot understand the banter but I assume it is something like the English weather routine, not exactly part of the class, but necessary to put everyone at ease. He does not speak English and does not immediately notice I cannot understand what he is saying. We start with some warm-up exercises, lunges and jumps and then move straight onto lifting our 4 kg weights with encouragement and a lot of shouting from Mihai.

I feel scared hat I will drop the weight, prior to lifting but quickly realise that 4kg is really not that heavy and I can easily lift the weight up above my head. It becomes much harder as we repeat each exercise around fifteen times. All the time Mihai is shouting the number of repetitions we have to do in Romanian, and there is dance music on in the background. Some of the exercises are really difficult. In particular, lifting a weight while bending your knees and sticking your bum out with your back straight. Mihai approaches me as I do this wrong, realises that I cannot understand his instructions and shouts “stop” and shows me how to bend down and lift with a straight back, I copy him and sometimes get it right, but it is difficult and painful and I feel rather self-conscious. A young woman next to me smiles weakly whilst grimacing. All of the exercises seem rather fast and I struggle to keep up.

I try not to focus on the pain or difficulty and try to escape into the music. I think about concentrating on the sensations of exercising. I recently attended a mindfulness training day, and this seems like a good opportunity to practice it, if I could only stop thinking. We are lifting weights in front of a mirror. I cannot understand why the mirror I am in front of makes me look squareish. It must be a slightly distorting mirror as Mihai also looks a little square and squat too, when he certainly is not. My palms are damp and smell like metal from the metal bar I am lifting, I am sweating all over, and the back of my head is wet with sweat. I am having a body odour incident too, and I notice a hormonal smell that I occasionally excrete at moments of high stress, or high intensity work-outs it seems. I hope no one has noticed.

After around forty minutes of weight lifting exercises, mostly with bended legs and bums sticking out, we move onto the relative safety of abs exercises on the floor. I sort of fake some running on the spot in the squat-thrust position and do some half-hearted abdominal crunches, and think, ” this must be like training in the army and thank god this is nearly over…”

At the end of the class, my legs and arms feel wobbly and weak, and I find it hard to walk as it feels as if my legs will give way. I feel proud of myself and manage to make a lame joke about improving my Romanian counting to a couple of the ladies who kindly speak to me in the changing room.

Once I have returned to the peace and sanctity of my flat in the block next door, I imagine my body has already changed and I see newly strong arms and a slightly less flabby middle in the mirror. Later I write a brief Facebook entry about the class and my friends tease me implying that 4kg is not very impressive when it comes to lifting weights. However, they did not know I had to discard a lot of anti-gym negativity to get myself into the class and that process took a whole year. Even though lifting 4kg may not be much of a boast, sometimes trying new things is a real buzz.

The doors of the 104 bus swing open: everyday bus ride in Bucharest.

The doors of the 104 bus swing open, and ten people get off the back of the bus. I step up into the warm fug of the 7.45 am bus and jam myself in with the other people getting on.

Some of the young professional women who live in my apartment block wear heady, expensive perfumes like opium, which linger in the lift and stick in the back of my throat on transit to the ground floor on my way out. However, I do not notice these smells on the bus, so I assume they do not travel to work by bus.

I am experimenting in making a curry sauce with the minimal Asian seasoning options available in Bucharest so I imagine my hair smells of curry spices. I have intentionally reduced my personal garlic in-take in order to lessen the likelihood of emitting the pungent aroma of the vampire killing member of the onion family, as I am often being squashed into someone else’s armpit on my morning journey, and someone is often squashing into me. But I doubt anyone has noticed that I have subtly altered my diet, for the benefit of my fellow travellers.

Few younger people travel on the bus at this time in the morning. Instead it seems to be mostly people in their mid-forties and older people. Hardly anyone seems to wear formal office wear and most people seem to be in jeans or comfortable clothes with dark hats of different shapes and long coats covering up their winter clothes. I feel quite smart in my teaching gear.

A woman in a seat by the window passes her travel card to someone next to her, who passes it to someone else who passes it to a person next to the card validation machine. Once the person at the end of the chain has validated the card it is sent safely back to the woman next to the window. This appears to me as a smoothly mechanical act of cooperation.

My sixth-formers, who are privileged young people, have told me they do not travel on the bus. They listen patiently when I mention my observations about the unwritten norms of Bucharest bus travel, once again. When getting off, people say ,‚Äútrebuie sńÉ cobor√Ę»õi‚ÄĚ which means, ‚Äúhave to get off‚ÄĚ, people say this one stop before they get off, and before that, they will swap places with you, to stand in an invisible holding section near the doors, where those who want to exit usually stand. Since I am used to just moving to get off when the bus stops, without complicated preambles, it takes several weeks to get used to the right way to do it. Also my method of getting off involves saying, ‚Äúpardon‚ÄĚ a lot. Frequent pardons are probably unnecessary, but that is the peculiar English way of moving about which I have adopted. I could probably improve upon this, with guidance from a Romanian person.

I sometimes see older women with freshly cut flowers on the bus, presumably taking the flowers to market. People take extra care not to bump into their precious wares. I guess that these cut stems probably have a total sale value equivalent to seven to ten pounds.

Every morning we go around a huge round-about and many people cross themselves several times. At first I thought people were doing this as they were worried about the bus driver’s ability to navigate the road which seemed odd, as I have found the bus drivers in Bucharest to be without exception, very good. However my friend informed me that followers of the Eastern Orthodox religion do this, because they are showing their respect to God when they are passing a church.

One morning I see two builders, probably ten years younger than me, in their mid-thirties sitting in front of me, on their way to work. They are both slender and their faces are furrowed with lines. I think that they have probably experienced some hardships. I believe I look younger than them and I think of the responsibilities of feeding the children they probably have and I wonder how it is possible to get by on the average builders’ wage which is probably the minimum wage of 322 euros per month. There are plenty of signs of regeneration and new building works occurring in Bucharest, but it must be hard to recruit people to work in the Romanian construction industry, as although wages are rising, they are still a lot lower than in other European countries.

Many people on the bus are using their phones. I am on my way to teach a sociology lesson, and I think I am probably the only one doing an online Marxist commodity fetishism quiz. I get 100 % in my quiz. I want to use the quiz with my sociology students, but need to check my own understanding first. I briefly ponder the waste of moving to another country, in that it has been necessary to buy many things I used to have at home. I feel a pang of guilt about a few of the items characterised by built in obsolescence, that I picked up as quickly as possible to fill a space in my flat. I needed a kettle and a hoover.

In Bucharest there are a number of lovely markets selling beautiful, traditional authentic Romanian products, made by peasants, artists and artisan crafts people. My favourite one is at the Peasant Museum, an intriguing anthropological cultural centre. At Christmas I spent a fair amount of time considering whether my family or friends would appreciate a pair of large woollen hand-knitted socks for Christmas. I consider the work that goes into making those socks, and I imagine the person selling them to also be the person who made them and feel that they must be imbued with a special kind of magic which accompanies carefully hand-crafted objects.

I peer over at other people on their phones, and look at them texting friends and using social media and whatsapp. I smugly think, I bet no one else is contemplating commodity fetishism at 7.55am in the morning. However, I am possibly wrong on this account as most Romanian people I have met, are very knowledgeable about matters related to Romanian culture, history and life under communism. I suspect the word hegemony, is in common usage, as the IT guy at my school, knew what it meant and how to spell it when he reset my IT password for me. I need to avoid making assumptions as in this country as I clearly have a lot to learn.

1, In Karl Marx’s critique of political economy, commodity fetishism is the perception of the social relationships involved in production, not as relationships among people, but as economic relationships among the money and commodities exchanged in market trade. (Wikipedia)

2, Note: Hegemony is associated particularly with Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. It is the idea that the ruling class can manipulate the value system and ideas of a society, so that their view becomes the world view of everyone in society and becomes accepted as common sense. Gramsci used it to explain the way that the ruling class dominate the proletariat, not through force but through consent, which is achieved through ideological domination.

More wide-ranging adventures, within the same 250 metres, (since I don’t want to fall over )

Jan 20th 2018

Today I spent the evening re-reading a few old diary entries. Six years ago, I was returning home to Wiltshire after Christmas and I accidentally got on the wrong train and ended up in Western Super-mare. I decided to celebrate the anarchy of that adventure by having a cup of tea and a cheese and pickle sandwich in the provincial station café.

My recent everyday adventures are a little more wide-ranging. I found myself leaving my all day training, in a large Northern Bucharest hotel, on a Saturday, (eeugh,) to walk with my colleagues into a large snow storm of clumpy flakes. Fortunately my nice colleague gave me a lift back to my street.

snowy unirii

All of my UK shoes are unsuited to this pavement, since the paving stones near where I live are very slippery in the icy slush. A woman walking past me warns me in Romanian not to step on the red ceramic tiles, I recognise the word ro»ôu, for red.

I cannot understand why my local non-megaimage shop has large ceramic tiles on the wide steps up to the shop, since it is now like walking on a glassy rink. It is almost impossible to stay upright long enough to enter the shop and buy my emergency provisions of a beer, toilet roll and a pear.

I was unable to go to Megaimage for those, because I have recently started chatting to a young Romanian man who works there and speaks English. A few weeks back he asked me if I liked punk music and we had had a brief conversation about music in Romania, and he had told me about his New Year travails. Earlier in the day we engaged in a slightly embarrassing encounter. The previous week, I had forgotten to pick up my coleslaw which I accidentally left on the counter and I did not return to collect it. One week later, he had remembered and told me that he had kept my receipt, and had to throw the coleslaw away as it was smelling, (bad, I assume) and I thought he said that he wanted me to pay for it again and I felt confused. However, he was actually trying to tell me that he had not charged me for it and did not want me to think he had stolen it. I was sad he had thought this and said, ‚ÄúI had not thought that at all‚ÄĚ. I tried to smile a lot to make-up for the awkwardness and assured him that the mistake was all mine, since I am a rather forgetful person. In truth, I would not have cared if he taken it at all, but perhaps I should have cared, as I suppose he was telling me that he is an honest, non-corrupt person. I had no reason to think otherwise.


Today there was a massive demonstration of tens of thousands of people in Bucharest against anti-democratic legislation which will make it difficult to prosecute and fight Romanian government corruption. There were also other large anti-government protests around the country. Protestors, and the majority of ordinary Romanians see the proposed legislation as allowing government officials to steal from them with impunity, since the legislation will potentially allow appropriations of amounts under 200,00 euros to go unprosecuted. In addition, video and audio recordings will not be submitted as evidence against government corruption in court. This is seen as backsliding in the fight against corruption, and it also contravenes European laws. Romania has been facing pressure from other European countries to follow European laws. Since last week Romania has been without a prime-minister as the recent Social Democrat leader, Tudose was removed as he lost the confidence of the party. The proposed replacement candidate is a female MEP named DńÉncilńÉ and she would be the county‚Äôs first female prime-minister and the third one to take office this year.

Protesters block a main boulevard during a protest in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018. Tens of thousands of Romanians on Saturday protested against legislation passed by Parliament which ... - Easy Branches

(Image is from site below: see hyperlink)

Europe Easy Branches image and article

Huge anti-corruption protests have been occurring weekly for more than a year. I have been informed by my colleagues and my landlord that politics in Romania is very complicated, but everyone I have spoken to thinks the government is criminally corrupt.

Since I wrote this post, two week’s ago Dancila has been elected as the first female prime-minister and the weather is now unseasonably warm and mild. Yesterday it was 16 degrees and no sign of the big snow my colleagues predicted. The snowy weather of a couple of week’s ago seems hard to remember.

(Image of the frozen river- Splaiul Unirii.)

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Brasov: medieval walled city of dreamy spires and mountains

I had been looking forward to visiting the medieval walled city of Brasov, in the Carpathian mountains in Transylvania, since I arrived in Bucharest. Everyone I have met  has told me that Bucharest is nothing like the rest of Romania, and that in order to appreciate Romania properly, I need to also get out of the city and explore the countryside. I am as enchanted by the  mystique of Transilvanian  castles and  mountains, home to wild boar and bears as any other tourist.


Last weekend I was invited to Brasov by my new friends Louisa, Tim and their eleven year old son. I was lucky to be the guest of the most easy-going, genial of family trios. They kindly showed me some of the historical sights even though they  had most certainly seen some of them before. They may well have known what was just around the corner of the next cobbled street with russett, higgledy-piggledy roofs and the faint mist of Autumn wood-smoke, but they seemed as delighted as me, at each new sight. Brasov appears as a dusty, more quaint version of a Disney fairy-tale with its defensive castle gates and Gothic church spire, but as my hosts informed me, this is the real medieval deal.

This was a whistle-stop  weekend tour, starting with an exciting slow, train-ride. I arrived exactly on time at Bucharest Gara de Nord station to meet my friends. I felt as if I had gone back to the 1940s and this did not feel like the main train station in Romania. It only has eight lines serving the whole of the country.  The huge letterinig on the arrival and departure boards looked Art Deco inspired and there were black and white images of Bucharest through history, hanging on boards in the station, which added to the vintage ambience. All around people were bustling outside the main departure boards. There was a throng of people waiting for the Brasov train. I had the feeling of being slightly at sea, due to the unfamiliarity of the experience, but my excitement was piqued on seeing the old fashioned heavy looking train.

Tim and Lousia had booked our seats in advance, and we found ourselves in a wooden, separate cabin, within the train. We were sharing with a polite¬† Romanian man. I had the feeling of being in Hitchcock’s, “Strangers on a train,” 1950s set, the train was warm and comfortable,¬† but it lacked the glamour of the dining car in Strangers on a Train. I was invited to sit at the window seat, and the train¬† meandered through the towns, villages and mountains. An hour before our destination, we saw snow on the tracks and the air started to cool down despite the sunshine.

As soon as we arrived in the centre of the old town, we saw a local craft market selling the usual countryside produce, honey, local crafts and on this occasion an abundance of real fur coats, hats and gloves. This was something of a shock to my veggie sensibilities and I instead admired the lovely cloth structured tents and thought about the sheep-skin slippers. I used to dismiss slippers as the bourgeois and  homely symbol of the unadventurous, but now those furry slippers look really inviting. But dash, they are still made from real sheep-skin.

After lunch, in a modern vegetarian restaurant chosen by Louisa with tofu on the menu, (quite surprising) and impatient, bass-heavy funk on the sound system, we made the long climb up a small mountain to our hotel. We watched the old town, getting smaller, next to the mountain behind  and we  puffed our way up the hill. The hotel was peaceful and quiet, and it had a large lobby full of wide ranging succulent plants and three scruffy  kittens playing in front of the hotel.

On our walk¬†back down to the town in the afternoon, we drank in the beautiful views and then¬† walked around the walls of the town investigating the towers and bastions. Each of the defensive towers was looked after by a craftsmen’s guild from the town, this was¬†apparently a medieval tradition.¬† The town of Brasov was established initially by German Saxon colonists, and they were invited, (according to Wikipedia) by Hungarian kings to establish the towns, build mines, and cultivate the land of Transylvania at different stages between 1141 and 1300. Tim informed me that the spired Gate at the East of the city, was to keep out potential invaders, as it was at the¬†intersection of trade routes linking the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe¬† but it also marked a physical border between the adjacent Romanian settlement of Schei, and the Germanic settlement. (Apologies to any history buffs for a lack of detail here.)

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We also visited the Gothic spired cathedral named the  Biserica Neagra, as  it is a blackish colour as the early evening descended. We stood in front of a statue of Johannes Honterus, an imposing pointing statue and Tim delivered a little potted history and told us that this figure was apparently the founder of the Lutheran evangelical protestant tradition. We walked off up the cobbled streets, chatting a bit about different types of protestant and catholic Christianity, and I wished that my memory for historic detail was better, when it comes to contributing to conversations like these. We also ate and drank very well in a restaurant until around 10pm before climbing the lung squeezing hill, once again to the hotel.

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We had a few other lovely experiences in our short visit, as we also went up in a cable car to Tampa mountain in the Carpathians the following day, where we looked out at the city of Brasov sitting within the  impressive landscape of mountains. We rested at a look-out point, sitting quietly,  and we noticed that throughout the valley the sound of numerous individual dogs barking was echoing. This was a curious experience and we exchanged our views on this.

I also enjoyed just walking in the old town square, seeing the colourful clowns with balloons, the high quality street musicians, two mandolin players and a guitarist, playing a Goran Bregovic tune and sitting on a bench sharing Charlie’s chimney cake. I have learnt about chimney cakes from my friends, you buy them at quaint wooden street stalls. They are a Hungarian street food snack, something like a long skinny hollow doughnut, with a crisp and sugary exterior and a soft doughy inside.

I look forward to having some visitors next year, so I can return to Brasov and visit some of the other medieval towns and cities which are also apparently equally beautiful.