Thursday, 12 December 2013

Romania: Day Who's Counting Anymore?

If you've just landed here, welcome and scroll down a bit ... the touristy stuff is there. Here's a few random thoughts I can share, because it's one of the few joys of having a blog.

Travelling internationally isn't all fun and games, let me tell you. For me, it's particularly difficult because I'm not wrapped up in some little tourist cocoon, being bused between iconic locations with a tour guide to cluck around after me.

I'm not staying in a hotel in Bucharest. I'm staying in an apartment block like everybody else lives in here. I don't have a car: I rely fully on public transport, like most of Romania does. I'm not eating at restaurants: I'm grabbing pastries from the patisseries that everybody else uses. I don't understand the language, but I can make a few informed guesses and for the rest just slip through it, lost in my own world of English thoughts.

Most of all, I'm not going to touristy places, despite what this blog up to now might imply: I'm standing in queues with the rest of 'regular' Romanians while my wife tries to deal with some administration related to her apartment and registering our marriage in South Africa here. I'm pressed into the sides of trams during rush hour by a throng of Romanians. I'm being hustled along on the pavements by impatient Romanians on their way to or from work. Oh, and I'm married to a Romanian woman, if not at home back in her home country (she's pretty distressed by a lot of Bucharest's decay), then at least comfortable with the language and routes.

It's an interesting way to discover a country, trust me. It opens your eyes to the country as it is, not as the tourism department would like you to think it is. From that perspective, it's exactly what I wanted, but it's also scary because it's so raw. It's a lot to process, and it's not easy.

I still keep rewinding to last week (only last week????), sitting cramped and tired in my plane's seat, en route to Bucharest. It's an amazing mental shift, going from 'Gee, I'm looking forward to Romania', to the touch-down of the plane's wheels on Romanian soil, and the realisation that 'I AM in Romania'.

Listening to myself now, it sounds like I'm a novice. I've travelled internationally before (to the UK), and flown countless times in South Africa, so I can only pencil my total sense of unsettlement down to the language difference here. It's a very primal thing: it's like my animal brain is constantly analysing all the sounds and messages and trying to make sense of it, and for the most part coming up with nothing but confusion.

You'd think you could ignore it, but Bucharest is a modern city. There is the constant flood of messages and input you'll get anywhere else ... and almost all of it's in Romanian. There are only two channels out of over 30 on TV which are English as they are imported from the US (National Geographic and the History Channel, fyi), and even THOSE are overlaid by Romanian sub-titles (my brain is used to lazily reading English sub-titles instead of listening closely to dialogue, so this is jarring).

[UPDATE (17/12/2013): Ok ok, after re-tuning the old TV I've managed to discover a few additional English-language imports on Romanian cable: Discovery Channel, CNN (News in English, yay!), MTV etc. It's still not the same, however, never mind the Romanian sub-titles - Romanian news is still in Romanian, as is all the other local programming.]

Spongebob Squarepants is there, but with Romanian voice-overs. ALL TV news channels are in Romanian (no CNN or BBC, sorry for you). All the rules and instructions on signs in public spaces are in Romanian (the guide on how to use the prepaid system for the public transport system is exclusively in Romanian - terribly useful for tourists, I'm sure). I wouldn't even be able to order a McDonalds meal if my wife wasn't around to tell me that in Romania you can actually choose wedges instead of just fries.

Fortunately for me the reason I'm in Romania is to produce an English-language research project, speaking to some Romanian journalists in English (which they've proven capable at), but given all of the above it feels wrong. I actually feel embarrassed speaking English here, because as a journalist I am used to making people comfortable and now by definition I'm asking people to speak in something other than their first language.

Talk about a wake-up call. It's a preview of what all immigrants go through, but from the other side of the fence. I feel alternately angry, depressed or just plain homesick (I'd never have expected that). Upon reflection I don't think I'd look to move to Romania unless I was in an English-speaking role with English-speaking friends surrounding me, and then I ask myself what's the point?

The funniest thing is walking down the street behind a Romanian kid speaking fluently to his mother, and feeling ridiculously jealous of the kid. Here's this kid, so much more skillful in Romanian than I am, and I'd give anything to just experience Romania like that for a bit.

I'm not an idiot, don't get me wrong. Speaking Romanian won't make some of the rude people here any friendlier. It won't take the graffiti off the walls. It won't make the drivers happier to stop for pedestrians on the roads. It won't remove the informal sellers peddling their wares on the trams and pavements with their insistent calls.

My challenge then is experiencing the real Romania as Romanians experience it, but with an additional inescapable burden of language I cannot just buy myself out from under. Again, it's not easy. It's not comfortable. It's painfully real.

Welcome to Romania.


  1. Hi and welcome to Romania.
    Regarding the TV in English you should be very happy with Romania. In Spain or Germany everything (including the movies) is doubled in country's language. I don't know what TV subscription you have but for sure you can ask for CNN and euronews and also a lot of other channels in foreign languages as German or French.
    Good luck!

    1. Haha, yeah, German and French should really help me. Don't know what package I'm on here - it was just active in my wife's apartment - but I reckon it's probably the cheapest cable TV about. Pro TV is about the most exciting thing, and that's for the adverts and the weatherman's funny banter with the news anchors (which I can't understand but my wife sometimes translates the best bits for me). It's ok, at least the Internet is available in the evenings for my English fix.

  2. You have to adapt to Romania, not Romania to you. if you have too many English-language channels you will never learn to speak Romanian.