Since the beginning of this year I’ve been “slow traveling” in all the cities I’ve visited. This term that means that rather than a few quick days in each place to do some sight seeing and then moving on, I spend a few weeks or a few months in each city, getting to know local people and experience the city in a way that allows me to learn about the culture a little deeper and make lasting friendships. However, I tried the quick tourist route in Romania for the last two and a half weeks, covering a lot of ground and seeing several cities and mountains. I definitely felt a bit rushed, since I just got an overview of each place and didn’t get to spend so much time with the people I met. But even so, I met a lot of incredible people and really enjoyed my short visits and long train rides between cities. I spent the first week visiting cities and the second week hiking in the mountains, so this post will be about the cities.
(If you’re into linguistics and curious about the ș in Timișoara, it is pronounced as a voiceless post alveolar fricative.) I was expecting the city to be small and quaint, but the first thing I saw when I stepped off the bus and into the main square was a womens weight lifting match. People crowded around and cheered, and I joined the crowd with my big backpack and hiking boots, cheering for my favorite, who won in the end. Actually, the city is lively and is the third largest city in Romania, with a population of about 320,000. There are three main squares, or piatas, and especially in the summer there are a lot of events going on throughout the day and into the night. I watched an open air theatre show done by a Polish company, called, W Zdrowym Ciele Zdrowy Duch, which means, In a Healthy Body, Healthy Mind. After the show I asked a lot of people around if anyone understood Polish but unfortunately no one did, so I was unable to discuss it very thoroughly with anyone. But it started out with people running on treadmills at the gym, all cheerful, listening to music on headphones. One by one people stopped running, waved to their friends and left the stage. Then it turned into a war, and had many images and scenes showing people being bombed and drowning. The images on the screen and the lighting made it very emotional. Finally at the end, the people were back on the treadmill, but this time they were running in the war, from the shooting and fighting. One by one they fell from the treadmills, waving to their friends and leaving the stage, until just one person was left.
After the show I met Catalina and Alex, two students who came together from a smaller town (I forget the name) to study. One is a psychologist and and one an artist, with big plans for their careers when they graduate. I spent the evening with them and they showed me all around the town and took me to try Ciorba de Burta, a traditional Romanian soup made of cow stomach. We talked about their university, music, tv shows and Romanian history. American artists are very popular in Romania so we had a lot of music tastes in common, but they also told me about a few Romanian artists to check out. I was so happy to meet both of these new friends; they are kind and intelligent and I can tell they are going to make a big difference one day.
I also met Istvan, my waiter at a restaurant who left his nursing career to follow his true passion as a waiter and sommelier. It was exciting to feel his love for what he does, learn a little about wine and talk about life in Timișoara. He said it is possible to build a life for yourself there as long as you are willing to work hard for what you want. Istvan’s family is Hungarian but he was born and raised in Arad, a small town a few hours away. I think when someone lives in a country other than their place of origin it can be difficult to figure out their identity, balancing a desire to keep your heritage and native language but also wanting to embrace the culture in the place where you are living and to be a member of the life there as well. Istvan expressed some of this from the place where he grew up, but said that since he has been living in Timișoara he has met so many people from other places, has spoken Romanian, Hungarian, English, etc. and has realized that while it is important to remember ones heritage and use their native language it is also valuable to have an overall sense of community with everyone, no matter where they are from. Actually, Timișoara is predicted to become the multicultural capital of Europe by 2021, so this city is a great place to spend time and immerse yourself in that kind of environment.
My next move was a sixteen hour train ride to Bucarești, with a stop in Oradea where I hung out for a few hours. There I met really kind people who were curious about where I was from and where I was going. They all wished me a nice visit and suggested to me their favorite places in Romania. When I first rolled into Oradea I thought, this place is the middle of nowhere. And then I realized, I really like being in the middle of nowhere. I can always find someone interesting to observe, a unique photo opportunity, and I can experience a piece of local life, uninterrupted by the tourism industry. When I first left to travel I expected it to be a whirlwind of excitement and colors and bright lights. While some of it is like that, a majority of my time is spent sitting and waiting. Waiting for the train or bus, waiting in a line, waiting for a bed in a hostel…and I have found these to be the prime situations for writing inspiration or talking to the person next to me and hearing a snippet about their life. It’s one of the most unexpectedly beautiful experiences that I’ve found while traveling.
In Bucharest I met up with my friend Christian who I had met in Bosnia, as both of us were traveling there at the same time. He is a super generous guy who always has a lot of thought and research to back up his opinions. He works in IT and said that is definitely the most successful field in Bucharest. He and I became good friends as he took a week’s vacation from work and showed me Vama Veche, which is a popular seaside destination, where you can camp in tents, swim in the Black Sea, and at night it’s like a festival with different music stages all along the beach. We checked out a Romanian folk station, and spent some time dancing to traditional songs. It was fantastic to see people of all ages letting loose and singing, linking arms and dancing in a circle, everyone smiling and being friends. I spent about five days in Bucharest, which has really interesting architecture because of the mix of monasteries, churches and communist buildings, the most interesting being the Palace of Parliament, which is the heaviest building in the world because of all the bronze and marble. My favorite place in the city was the square outside the National Bank, where I sat several times watching tourists and local people walking through, selling art and performing. I was never bored there. My other favorite was Carol Park, which surrounds a lake, has great running paths, areas of peace and quiet, but also restaurants and bars.
There are a lot of book shops in Bucharest and I saw many people sitting and reading in the city. I bought a book of philosophy by Emil Cioran and got to know the girl at the bookstore in the meantime. Bucharest is full of people who came from smaller towns and villages as it is the capital city and holds the most opportunity for good jobs. I would love to come back and spend more time experiencing the art and music and getting to see the way the city ticks and to feel its comings and goings.
Stay tuned for my hiking stories!