Saturday, 28 December 2013

Bucharest: A Walk In The Park

I think that you can judge a lot about a city from the way it looks after its common citizens - never mind getting them to work, keeping them from getting lost, or putting out their fires. Rather, I'm talking about completely free forms of entertainment, and beautiful public spaces. 

Judged purely on this scale, and on Bucharest's Parcul National in Sector 2 (off Bulevardul Basarabia), Bucharest scores impressively. Admittedly my wife did take some of the gloss off when she pointed out all the signboards reminding visitors that everything was the project of the Sector 2 municipality and mayor specifically (even listing his name), but it's great to see politicians finally giving back in a manner which makes a concrete difference.


No matter which path you walk down, you're greeted with enough seating space for quite possibly all of Bucharest simultaneously (a huge oversight in the actual city):


... and ...


Turn a corner, and you get to the star of the show:


Look mom, DUCKS!

A Mallard Wild Duck, thanks Google

... and ...


Apropos of nothing else military in the park, there are also a few of these ...


... and one of these ...

Apparently used to train parachutists...

Which just leaves time to get active by jumping onto the free-to-use adult exercise equipment (complete with handy instructions in English, go figure):


... and take one more look at that amazing view (bearing in mind again you're in central Bucharest!):


Romania Photos: Sinaia and Peles Castle

With so much time spent in Bucharest in Romania, it was great to finally get out 'into the mountains' - a three-hour trip by regional train - to Sinaia (not to be confused with Egypt's Sinai).


It's a really magical little town, over-flowing with architecture like this ...

... and this ...

... and ...

... and ...


Although you'll find taxis as usual, it's small enough to just walk up from the train station and explore via walkways like this ...


... where even the stray dogs are friendly ...


... and the squirrels are muscly ...


... and plenty of religious artifacts ...


... and reminders of mortality (this one to an 'unknown Romanian soldier') ...


... the real draw-card, however, is Peles Castle:


In typical Romanian fashion, it's free to photograph from the outside (there's even a sign proudly notifying you of this), but entry costs a hefty 50 lei per person. This is why so many people could be seen walking around the outside, and very few dared inside (my group didn't).

Fortunately, there was *plenty* to photograph outside, like this:


 .... and this ...


... and this ...


... and all in this beautiful setting ...


... with just a hint of the 'real' mountain peaks ...


... and another gorgeous walk ....


... and yes, more wild dogs playing in the snow:


Tourist top tip: there are ATMs ('Bancomats' in Romanian) in Sinaia, but none up near the castle, so make sure you draw plenty of cash for some of the curio stalls near the castle (prices range from only 2 lei for sweets to 100 lei for complex artwork).

My group then hopped into a shuttle bus (which leaves from outside the train station) and traveled to the nearby ski resort town of Azuga, where I had my first experience of skiing. For a novice it's hell on earth, for very little reward, but call me a sucker because I'm going back tomorrow!


Thursday, 26 December 2013

Lipscani in the daylight

The nice part of being a tourist is that it's easy to take photographs of things 'normal' people wouldn't bother to. Here's one such photograph, of Bucharest's newest mall: if this isn't an example of 'modern' Romania then I don't know what is.


If you're a tourist in Romania with no clue about such things, it turns out that the Panorama Mall (above) is ridiculously easy to find ... you just take the Metro to Aurel Vlaicu station, walk outside and to the right of the station, and you're there. It's definitely worth the trip if you're feeling homesick for malls (a *very* rare phenomenon in Romania still).

Recently on this blog I shared photographs I took of Bucharest's famous Lipscani district at night, and today I had an opportunity to head back to Lipscani in the daylight (ok ok, overcast winter fogginess). That's where I happened to spot this little unassuming signboard tucked away on a wall, and it all clicked into place (in Romanian streets are 'Strada').


I've already remarked here how poorly signposted (when I say poorly I mean 'not at all') this area is  for what's actually a well-documented tourist hotspot. Another top tourist tip is walk out of the Metro station at Piata Unirii, look for the McDonalds (hello Old Faithful), and head diagonally to the right from its door to a plain walkway heading between the buildings off the main Piata (you guessed it - 'Plaza' in Romanian).

Here you will see many wonderful things, including this ...


... and this ...


... and this ...


... which is worth looking closer at ...


... and this ...


... and this ...


... and this ...


... and this ...



... and of course a very early bust of Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad The Impaler, aka Dracula, before he was touristy, in front of what is known as Curtea Veche (old Princely Court) - currently undergoing heavy restoration.


And now you know ...

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

You know you're in Romania when...

How's your cholesterol level?
You know you're in Romania when you sit down for Christmas dinner and you've got deep-fried pork fat (jumari - picured alongside), sliced smoked pork fat (slanina), various bits of fatty meat and it's all chased by chocolate ... about the healthiest thing on your plate may be the cabbage leaves wrapping your mince and rice balls (sarmale). Top tip: lemon-flavoured Pepsi just about saves you from an instant heart attack.

If you're outside Romania reading this blog, chances are that a big question on your mind is 'Will I survive living in modern-day Romania?' If you're thinking about moving here, you're definitely going to have to have somebody close to you who you can rely on completely to guide you through the language and culture.

Yes, it's true: a lot of young educated people DO speak English with fluency. Yes, there ARE modern malls and brands you'll be familiar with. However, in my experience a lot of Romanian sales representatives in stores will say that they do speak English when you ask for their assistance, and yet then end up faltering as soon as you ask anything beyond a conversational level.

When it comes to older people, the situation is bleaker. My best memory of this is being stopped by a train conductor while I was walking down the passage of a long-distance train and asked a question in rapid-fire Romanian, to which I shrugged apologetically and said 'English sorry'. The conductor just nodded and turned away without a word.

Couple that with my earlier observations here about all popular Romanian-produced TV programming being in Romanian (including all news channels); 90% of the magazines being in Romanian (even when big brand names); all the bookshops containing only a single shelf with 'English fiction' (or 'Fictiune Limba Engleza' as you'll have to figure out) if you're lucky; and my only conclusion is that if you're serious about moving to Romania you're going to have to be prepared for a tricky two years as you absorb Romanian like a sponge.

You can try to learn Romanian from overseas if you want, like I did, but you'll discover that it's very difficult to connect with the lessons and that many of them default to the ultra-formal version of Romanian which is traditionally used with older people and not the informal language actually spoken by people with their friends. I know I've learned more Romanian in three weeks here than I did in months back in South Africa, but I also know it hasn't been easy.

So the bigger question then is, SHOULD you move to Romania? Honestly that's an intensely personal answer that will depend on you and your circumstances. Are you married to a Romanian citizen who will be there to help you, and do you have Romanian friends willing to offer more support? Are you prepared to not isolate yourself in an English bubble in order to fit into the Romanian reality? Do you have the skills needed that will help you get a job with the salary you need to sustain the minimum lifestyle you'll feel comfortable with (the reality is that Romanian salaries really ARE lower than comparative salaries back in South Africa and costs are mostly equitable)?

My worst experiences in Romania have involved shocking customer care levels, where my wife has related numerous rude comments made to her by 'sales' people in Romanian; and a rather odd feeling of unease around the paramilitary-like police officers (earlier here I recounted that my first experience of Romania was being stopped by an armed guard for just taking a photograph inside the airport).

The bad driving (where most people treat regular braking like emergency braking scenarios), the ghetto-like graffiti everywhere, the crumbling paint and walls, the grim-faced people rushing (to what?) in the subways ... there are a lot of things which could put you off Romania at first.

On the other hand, I've personally had amazing experiences with really friendly Romanian people on a personal level, where I've loved the hospitality and warm greetings. In short, it's pretty much like anywhere else then ... people are too busy for you and too wrapped up in their own worries until you break through that shield by actually getting to make friends and being a real person and not just a stranger in a strange land.

Nothing I've said here is new to immigrants or particularly unique to Romania: I think everybody knows that feeling lost and helpless and angry and full of doubt is part and parcel of the emigration experience. Stick it out and you will be living in a breathtakingly beautiful country with a world class Internet network (even the oldest buildings have dirt-cheap 20 MB/s cable!) and a lot of growth opportunities (and real work required to bring those opportunities into reality).

Best of all for newcomers, where public transport isn't good enough to get you where you need to be, the taxis are really affordable (in Cluj, for example, my wife and I took several taxi trips at only 6 lei each). There are some other weird things which will still catch you out, though: I still don't know why a four Euro prepaid mobile airtime voucher on Orange costs me 25 lei (5.61 Euro). Oh, and why do the tabloid newspapers have topless women posing next to their weather reports? Please somebody share some light on the connection!

*shrugs* At the end of the day it really will come down to your job, your home and your friends. The rest is just the background music to your life, and here that music is in Romanian.


Monday, 23 December 2013

Romania: Countryside Videos

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so some rough calculation tells me that a minute of a 30 frames-per-second video is then worth 1,8 million words!

If I really had to spend ten hours stuck on a train between Cluj and Bucharest staring at the countryside, it seemed like a good idea to video some of it to share with y'all.

Observations:
- Sorry about the dirty train window, which tended to confuse my camera's auto-focus at points.
- This winter is apparently one of the 'hottest' in recent Romanian history, so there's actually no snow expected for Christmas day and only a thin dusting of frost in most other places (apart from the mountains).
- New architectural developments in Romania are few and far between (I'd say 3% of total only!), and at least 80% is in dire need of paint and upgrading. In Bucharest you do see a lot of the oldest blocks being repainted, but I'm seriously concerned about what the countryside will look like in another 20 years without massive public investment into all buildings. I'm not going to talk about poverty here, because money is relative ... what concerns me more is a total lack of care on a mass scale. There's a world of difference between 'rural rustic' and 'falling apart', so I sincerely hope that Romania can find some solution for this problem on its own (without just relying on EU funds like most big ticket projects appear to).

With that aside, here are the videos

... the one with the forest:



... the one with the colourful houses:



... the one with the long grass:



... the one with the vistas:



... the one with the quaint buildings:



... and (of course) the one with the snow:

Cluj-Napoca: Snow, Mines and Sheep

If I've been silent for a bit here, it's because I've been in Cluj photographing up a storm. What better place to start this story than at the end, with the photograph I took in the bathroom of the train back from Cluj towards Bucharest (NB: I don't NORMALLY take photos here). It immediately reminded me of my earlier post here, English? Yes, I very good speak it.

Thank zou that the toilet was working!
Ok, so where to start with the journey... how about at the start for a change?

The train station at Cluj-Napoca, representative of all the bigger stations
That brings us right to this observation ... SNOW! My wife demonstrates the proper cold-weather gear for Romania:


More snow in Cluj...

Cluj city centre, with the National Theatre in the foreground:


A typical Cluj scene:


Even the doves in Cluj are wearing their cold-weather jackets:


Stick it out, and you can spot some beautiful architectural elements like this ...


... and this ...


... and this ...

From the National Theatre
If you've seen all of that in Cluj, then about all that's left is a trip out to the nearby salt mine, Salina Turda. The entry through a long passage is unassuming ...


... but then you see this and go 'Oh cool' ...

... and then you see this and go 'Oh wow' (seriously this will give you vertigo when you work out the correct scale) ...


... but then you see this, and you're all like OMG (rowing a boat at the bottom of a salt mine underground is officially a completely new life experience for me) ...


Here's a view from the bottom, looking up (thank goodness there are two modern elevators, or stairs if you're a masochist):


The view from outside is particularly pretty in Winter ...

Star Wars bunker anyone?
The full view ...


Unfortunately nothing lasts forever, so this was the view from the train window on the way back (I've got some great videos of the countryside I'll upload tomorrow):


And yes, this is rural Romania, so of course I managed to photograph some sheep (complete with brave shepherd lying on the frozen ground) ...


From sheep to Bucharest, it's actually good to be back in the bright lights :) And so the journey continues...