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. 😊



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 ,“trebuie să coborâți” which means, “have to get off”, 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, “pardon” 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 roșu, 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, “I had not thought that at all”. 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 Dăncilă and she would be the county’s 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.