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My god, someone's made off with all the tea

One of the things you might notice when you delve into the Romanian culture is their penchant for privacy. Homes in town don’t boast open driveways where visitors can wander willy-nilly up to the front door; almost all, at least in our small town of Sebeș, are walled in, with a car/pedestrian doorway that remains locked. The front door is then located in a courtyard type area beyond the wall. Occasionally you’ll run across houses with iron-railed gates so that the home is visible from the street, but more often than not, all you’ll be able to see is the tops of the homes on the other side of the concrete wall. With very few exceptions, the windows visible from the street are all shuttered as well.

And thus it was with our new home, located conveniently in the center of town. Our contact, who lived just a few houses away, was letting us stay in her family home. It belonged to her parents, who had both passed on and the house had been empty for some time. Libby worked with her sister and that was the impetus to check out Romania. Our original plan was to try Ireland, where we both had a plethora of connections, but the more we contemplated it, the more we asked ourselves, why not? We both knew the hell out of Ireland. Romania, on the other hand, was a mystery, an unexplored potential culture shock. Who ever laid on his death bed wracked with remorse that he’d experienced another culture?

The interior of our temporary home was in the process of being completely redone, with all of the main living areas completed. There was a spare room and a second bathroom, both unfinished, but we had all we needed. It was all newly painted with a new kitchen and bathroom, including a gas stove and washing machine. New sheets and memory foam bed, and a bottle of homemade liquor as an added surprise. Our contact’s grandmother had even donated a beautiful rug.

Grocery stores
There were several grocery stores all within a few minutes’ walk, a hardware store, restaurants . . . and very few bars, in the western sense. Romanians in general, it turns out, don’t have the same association with their corner pub as many of the western countries. Restaurants will often have a bar area, but it’s only where staff fill drink orders. Patrons sit at tables usually in groups. It’s not all that common to find an individual sitting alone at the bar. In reality, home seems to be where much of the sociality occurs.

Perhaps the hardest culture shock for me in Romania wasn’t the language barrier, although that was a problem. I was hardest hit by the scarcity of plain tea. As we hit the grocery store on our first day, I located the coffee aisle, with plenty to choose from. Opposite the coffee, selections of tea stared back at me, all different flavors: lemon, raspberry, peach, vanilla, herbal, mixed flavors that sound like they would have made a nice pie, but there was one option conspicuously missing: tea. For those not in the know, tea is a drink derived from the tea plant (aka Camellia sinensis).

Now I’ve only had a half cup of coffee in my life, and that was by accident, so when my eyes scanned the shelves full of fruity “teas,” then rescanned them and finally scrutinized each box, my heart sunk and panic began to set in. I was going to be here for three months. Surely someone must like . . . actual tea.

We loaded up with everything else and marched it back to our new home, then we headed for another store in search of fulfillment for my single-most important daily requirement. On the second to top shelf of the second store, at the very end, there were a few boxes of Twinings English Breakfast Tea in packets of 25. Hell, I’d be through a box in a week. I grabbed a few and breathed a sigh of relief. I had a source. Now I only hoped they’d stock enough to keep me in good supply for three months.

And now I’ll sum up Romanian grocery stores: good selections of tubular meats, plenty of alcohol choices, from three-liter bottles of beer, to domestic and imported wines to Beefeater Gin and Cuban rum; freshly baked offerings, amazingly reasonable prices, and a dearth of real tea. Like a lot of European grocery stores, you’ll want to bring your own bags, as stores charge for them.

Language issues
Romanian newcomers might also notice English in random places like merchandise signs, on the sides of tractor trailers, and on some cereal box headers, but not the text underneath (that threw me for a loop). Don’t expect many people in small towns to understand English. You’ll find a few, but if you don’t speak Romanian, you’ll find yourself pointing a lot and looking at the cash register or bill to determine what you owe. One good suggestion is to look up Romanian words online and write them down so you can show a clerk if you need something. Restaurant menus seem to offer rough English translations more often than not.

​Our arrival in Romania (or "our previous bus experiences didn’t prepare us for this"

Sibiu was Europe’s 2007 cultural capital and the youthful energy in town was abundant. Most of the bars and restaurants sported at least a few young adults sucking on a sweet cancer stick or two by the front entrance. At nearly 10 p.m., there were even children playing outside some of the restaurants, indicating to us that we were in a safe city.

Our hotel, Casa Luxemburg, was centrally located near the large square and overlooking Liars’ Bridge, in the heart of Sibiu’s historic district. The hotel had a character that major chains can’t reproduce, a personality that only comes in buildings that are centuries old. Our room—accessed via a winding staircase—was set up with all the amenities you’d expect, including a coffee maker and mini fridge.

It was Thursday night. We were wired and tired, but also hungry, so we ventured into the neighborhood in search of food. The steep-roofed 17th century buildings and large square were well lit, accenting the upper town’s distinctly Germanic feel.

There were plenty of choices for a sit-down meal, but we only wanted a quick bite, so we located a shop with everything we needed—including a beer for me—a hundred yards from our hotel, loaded up and returned to the room.

In the morning, we strolled around the cobbled streets, the large square, Piața Mare, a thin layer of fresh snow covering the odd car, rooftop or crusty old man. But our time was short. Sibiu was a stunningly beautiful town and it deserved a lot more attention, so we vowed to return for a longer stay to do some exploring.

Meanwhile, there was a bus to Sebeș at 12:45 p.m., and we needed to be on it. After a few minutes of fumbling around and packing our bags, we were off in a hurry.

The bus stop was only a ten-minute walk, but time never cooperates and we didn’t take into consideration the fact that even Google Maps can get confusing.

We ended up in a rush and the cobbled roadways and sidewalks broke a wheel on Libby’s luggage. In the end, we were just in time. Unfortunately, the bus system in Romania—as we would learn—is more of an art form than a well-oiled machine. In fact, it’s more of a trade secret. They don’t seem to want visitors to know what’s going on.

We didn’t speak Romanian and the folks at the bus/train terminal didn’t speak English. Add in the fact that there are a number of different bus companies, no posted schedules and that online schedules aren’t necessarily accurate, and we were in trouble.

We found the only bus leaving about the time that the Sebeș bus was scheduled and it seemed to be on a route that would pass through the town, but it didn’t display Sebeș as a stop. An English-speaking passenger was kind enough to ask the driver of the bus if it was stopping in Sebeș and it wasn’t. Apparently, the train would be going there in a little over three hours, but in the meantime, we had all of our luggage and nothing to do with it. In addition, no one seemed to know about a bus to Sebeș.

A lucky break

It was just about then that a man of about 60 approached us, having overheard our predicament. For 120 lei (about $30), he would take us to Sebeș in his car. Keep in mind that the town was 45-60 minutes away depending on wintry weather and the bus was about $2.

We thanked the man and said we’d give his offer some thought, impending headlines of two missing tourists seeping into our minds. We tried to reach our Romanian contact, but there was no cell phone service, which led us to some degree of dire straits. Should we trust a man hanging out at a bus terminal? Should we just try for a cab? Could we even trust a cab driver?

The stranger had given us his cell number so our Romanian contact could call him, but since we didn’t have service, we just pretended to relay the information. He then figured we’d given his number to an acquaintance, which gave us peace of mind, making our decision a little easier.

We ultimately rolled the dice and accepted the man’s offer, double checking that he didn’t mean 120 lei per passenger. Our driver was Jan. He had a small car and only spoke minimal English, having taught himself Italian, German and French. The heat was blasted en route because of the condensation on the windshield, and it produced more than a few drops of perspiration, but hey, we were heading in the right direction.

The ride was otherwise uneventful. He gave us our first real glimpse into the Romanian people and it was heartening.

According to Jan, he’d fought in the 1989 revolution against the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. He’d been shot in the leg and he still had shrapnel rattling around inside to prove it. His license, which he produced, indicated that he’d been arrested for his part in the uprising. Jan ended up being a very congenial man, willing, he said, to die for Romania. He had a daughter in Bucharest and one in Italy, and after dropping us off safely in Sebeș, he offered to come back if we needed any more rides.

We walked a hundred yards down a cobbled alleyway and stared at the metal gate keeping us out of our new home.

A 48-second tour of Sebes, Romania

Trouble at the Romanian airport

I wouldn’t have thought there’d be much to say about a flight from Boston to Sibiu that hasn’t been said in a thousand travel articles, but I did discover something completely new and unexpected during our Munich layover: napcabs. In a nutshell, you can lock yourself away in your own private chambers and catch up on your lost sleep or just find the quiet time you need to finish that business proposal. The “cabs” are turned over after every stay, so there’s a fresh set of sheets awaiting you should you decide to partake. It isn’t free, but hey, come on, a mini hotel room in the middle of the airport?

A great idea in Munich Airport: napcabs.

After further investigation, I ran across a list of similar options in USA Today. We didn’t make use of the service, but I’ll admit, the future of flight has a new ray of hope.

Munich Airport also features walled-off areas with reclined chairs and resting quarters (secluded mini-sofas where one can curl up, hidden away behind privacy screens). It was a welcome change from the overfilled, stadium-type, airport seating to which all air travelers are accustomed. Passengers with children—at least during our layover—seemed to realize this was a spot for quiet solitude and kept the wee ones from creating any undue hubbub. What a difference a little consideration can make.

As an American, I was expecting airport staff members to hit us up for the rest-inducing amenity, but this is Europe and you don’t necessarily have to pay for every individual crumb of solace.

Trouble in Sibiu

Our welcome at Romania’s Sibiu Airport could have been better. Libby passed through without any problem, but when I followed, our situation turned sticky. Apparently, we stood out. And as any international traveler can tell you, being singled out by Customs and Immigration officials is never the preferred route.

We have several theories about what went wrong, starting with two tourists traveling together with passports from different countries (mine was Irish, hers American). However, I was only born in Ireland; I live in America. So, they might have seen that I didn’t have a residence in Ireland, which in turn might have piqued the official’s curiosity. Plus, we were flying through a small airport. And then we were staying three months in a pretty small town. Who in their right mind travels to a small town in Romania for an extended vacation?

Needless to say, they asked us to indulge them.

Their first step was to call our Romanian contact, the sister of a friend. No problem there.

Then we had to unpack everything. We didn’t bring a heck of a lot for a couple on a three-month hiatus, nonetheless, our two checked bags and two carry-ons were pretty stuffed.

Out came everything.

And by this time, the airport was closed. We were the only “civvies” left, surrounded by a half-dozen security personnel who seemed to want nothing more than to go home.

“What’s this?” the not-so-nice officer asked me.

“That’s a bottle of hot sauce.”

“What is it?”

“You put it on food to make it spicier.”

“What’s this?”

“That’s a letter from an 84-year old woman in Texas. I received it the day before we left and I brought it to remind me to write her back. She hasn’t caught on to this whole email fad.”

(Our new best friend proceeded to read the entire letter and I can tell you with utmost certainty, there was nothing a customs official would find remotely interesting in it.)

“What’s this?” he asked of my mini Star Trek notebook.

“That’s a notebook.”

“It seems pretty fancy.”

“It’s a knickknack, a trinket. It says ‘Captain’s Log’ on the front because I hope to be the captain of a starship someday. A man needs a dream. The Star Fleet logo doesn’t even represent anything yet and it won’t for several hundred years. Seriously, it’s a notebook, just a silly one.”

For a while we thought we weren’t going to be let in to the country. That’s the attitude we were picking up from the lead officer. We had planned a three-month visit and that had collapsed into the very real possibility that we’d be forced to stay in the airport overnight and buy a flight out the next morning to somewhere else.

I mean, who with an ounce of joy in his soul would hassle a Star Trek fan? I should point out that I didn’t really make any of those snarky comments, so shake it from your mind if you thought we were anything but respectful.

Then they came across my American passport and they needed to go run that through the system. I don’t know if they were disappointed that we weren’t troublemakers, but the lead man kind of seemed like he was.

In the end, we gave them our cell phone numbers and they returned our passports. We then jammed everything back into our bags with the help of a passing rhinoceros and headed out the sliding doors.

As the lights were being shut off at the airport, the nice agent called us a taxi and we rode, shaking and silent, to our hotel in Sibiu. It was after 9 p.m. and we were both banjaxed from 38 hours of travel, and wired from our hair-raising introduction to Romania.

Thank the stars, things got better . . .

No beating around the bush in Europe. This is outside the smoking lounge in Munich.

Heading to Romania

You might say I’ve grown accustomed to my life in New England: the readily available plethora of cuisines, the hugely talented musical scene, the capitalistic, consumer-friendly conveniences. But I often feel like a stagnant cog in the machine, an unwilling target of potential revenue for the ravenous multi-national conglomerates, moving from the sofa to the car in bland repetitiveness, and it makes the comforts a little less enticing.

And as I approach 50, there’s a string pulling me in another direction, a longing to get back on the road, to try something completely different. So, my partner Libby and I made plans to move somewhere we’d never considered—Romania.

It’s starting to get real. Our flight leaves in four days.

I’ve done my fair share of traveling with over 22 years in an internationally touring Irish folk band. Some of the most enduring and enjoyable memories involved being invited into close-knit circles of friends and families, where people I’d never met sang songs at the drop of a hat or introduced me to local gastronomical favorites. I’m eager to experience that again. So now I’m on the hunt for new music and culture to add to my bag of memories.

We’ll be staying in a town called Sebeș, in southern Transylvania, roughly the size of the city in which we now live. And while we’ve done our research, we can’t really know what we’re going to find. Apparently, English is common, especially among younger folks, but our Romanian is non-existent, so we’ll likely need to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Between the United States and Ireland, I hold dual-citizenship, so I’m lucky enough to be able to stay anywhere I like in Europe. Our original foray will be limited to three months, given that we’ve purchased round-trip tickets. Past that, it will depend on what we can make happen while we’re there.

So why Romania? As any philosopher worth his or her salt would reply, why not?

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