Stray Observations: Bucharest

Jul
1st
2010

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA — Alex has been a fantastic host these last six days. One of the great things about visiting friends on this trip is being able to drop my gear, take a long hot shower, use internet that works, and basically switch my brain off. After you’ve been roving around all over the place, in and out of cheap hotels, not knowing where you’ll be sleeping that night, it’s a very good thing to be on the sidelines of somebody else’s life, a world where people get up and work according to a schedule, cook dinner, have things to do, and so on.

I had things to do too, and used my last stop here in a big capital city to sort them all out. I had to hit up some embassies for visas, find Vespa parts, get my Vespa looked at, install a GPS wiring system that worked, work on this blog, etc. etc. etc. Herewith, some of the things I’ve noticed about this ‘burg:

1. The nightlife downtown has improved a whole lot. A few years ago, the old town, bounded on all sides by Ceaucescu-era hellblocks, comprised 2- and 3-storey 19th-century buildings that were in really bad shape, or condemned outright, and nobody really went there at night. Nowadays, the central old core of the city is unrecognizable: they’ve gone and pedestrianized all of the streets and now it’s massive warren of bars and restaurants and outdoor cafes, bigger than anywhere else I’ve seen apart from Istanbul. Thousands upon thousands of Bucharesters (and a few bewildered tourists) parade up and down this area till the wee hours, and there’s a little of everything for everybody. Two thumbs up.

Alex and I downtown

Alex and Raluca, also downtown

2. Driving here is unpleasant. The bulk of my interaction with locals on this trip, if you could call it interaction, is with other people on the road. And when it comes to driving, Bucharest just ain’t civilized. It’s the worst I’ve seen anywhere, in fact, a sort of perfect storm of incompetence and aggression. Drivers get right up behind you and lean on the horn, as if to say “Get the hell out of the way! I’m more important than you!” You see a lot of screaming matches between motorists, too, and I was on the receiving end of one such tirade. That one concluded with my antagonist, who was driving a rusted-out Dacia pickup truck and evidently wanted to run me over, hollering after me — in English, no less — “Watch your back, you idiot! Watch your back!” He then made the throat-slitting gesture. Jesus Christ. I still have no idea what I did wrong.

A GPS track of me, takin' care of business

Surely not everybody on the road in Bucharest was out to get me, though. I developed a theory that it must be something else, that Romanians suffer from a rare genetic mutation that short-circuits the motor response synapses in the brain. This condition effectively makes their hands and feet do the exact opposite of what the brain tells them to do. So, for example, the brain of a Romanian driver waiting at an intersection says: “I see a Vespa coming this way. I am not a bad person, so I will not pull out right in front of it, most likely sending the Vespa driver somersaulting over the hood of my car. Foot, do not stomp on the accelerator.” And then, of course, it’s hammer down all the way over into the midde lane. I think this theory has legs, and medical science should look into it immediately.

Also on the subject of unpleasant driving, Bucharest’s roads are generally OK. Except when they’re not. Every once in a while, a jacuzzi-sized pothole appears out of nowhere. I’m a bit worried about hitting one of these at speed, as my fork and suspension and exhaust would be toast. As would I, because something this big would definitely send me ass-over-teakettle.

You can see halfway to China

3. To get things done here, you have to know a guy who knows a guy. This leads to all sorts of interesting situations. It reminded me of Belgrade, where a friend calls in a favour who then calls in a favour from another friend and before long you end up with an entire civilization built on a vast, intricate ledger of favours owed and received. I dipped into Alex’s favour bank and before long I was following his friend on a scooter across town to see the Japanese guy, who fixes motorbikes. As you do. Everybody on two wheels, it turns out, knows the Japanese guy, and he’s an extremely cool dude. He came to Bucharest 15 years ago by way of California, to work on a film set, then met a girl and you know the rest of the story. (I wish I got his actual name. It’s emblazoned on a sticker on the side of my top box now, but sadly I cannot read Japanese.)

Got my GPS wiring installed by the Japanese guy!

That’s not to say the whole favour system is cut-and-dry. You do run into a lot of simple kindness from strangers, as I did from this dude named Tudor who I met at the Piaggio dealership. It turns out that Bucharest has a grand total of three (3) P-series Vespas, and probably even fewer spare parts at the dealership, which meant that I’d have to import some stuff from somewhere else. Tudor managed to get one very small yet important thing sorted out for me: that little rubber foot on the kickstand that had caused me so much grief back in Vukovar. A mechanic at the Piaggio dealership studied my worn-out part, and had a brainwave: head on down to the local medical supply shop and see if a rubber foot from a walking cane fits. Tudor led the way, and before long I was good to go.

The Romanian solution. Only 1 Euro!

Tudor’s motorcycling buddy, a sort of Romanian Silent Bob figure, also wordlessly offered me some raingear. Much appreciated.

So, that’s it. It’s been a slice, Bucharest. Next stop: fun & sun in Constanta!

The world's most-photographed Vespa in front of the world's heaviest building


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