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Does anyone else have perma-smell associations for whole countries? One scent that transports your brain to a specific country, drops you on a random street and makes you dreamily reminisce about the life you could have had with the achingly cute girl that worked at the local travel agency that not so subtly offered to give you a 'private tour' (nudge-nudge) and you distractedly turned her down because you had to go review three hotels and two restaurants that afternoon and you then decide that you're a thick-skulled jackass for not noticing the palpable flirty signs until you thought about it two days later while sitting on the train to the next city and then you wonder how the hell anyone that is so painfully unobservant could possibly be trusted to be a travel writer? Show of hands?
Some countrywide perma-smell association examples: France smells like butter. Italy smells like garlic. Romania smells like a mix of pălincă and grass (with a hint of manure).
So what's the overriding smell I associate with the US? French fry grease. It's everywhere. If you're saying to yourself "Well it doesn't smell like French fry grease at my house!", you're wrong grandma. It most certainly does, you've just gotten used to it.
People are often taken off guard when I tell them that I've spent about 17 cumulative months in Romania. Inevitably, wooden stake at the ready, they start digging about what the hell kept me here so long.
Is it the low cost of living? Initially yes, but with the US dollar tanking and the Romanian lei gaining, I could almost live cheaper in Miami these days.
Is it the scantly clad girls? Well, duh.
Is it the orgy of high-speed file sharing going on that's better than any software store, CD shop and on-demand satellite service combined? I don't know what you mean detective.
But, there's a bunch of non-financial, non-depraved and non-somewhat illegal reasons as well. Though hardly pious, a primary incentive to get good and comfortable here for a while is the availability and shocking low price of decent alcohol, namely wine.
Before you read another word, click over to yellowpages.com and locate the Romanian restaurant nearest to your home (if you are actually in Romania, you are not eligible for this exercise).
So, how far away is the restaurant? Depending on your continent, it's anywhere from 1,000 to 12,000 miles away, right? With the rare, screwball exception (Los Gatos, California comes to mind), you just don't see Romanian restaurants abroad. Why is that? Some might be tempted to wryly reply "Because if I wanted to eat cabbage, potatoes and cornmeal mush, I'd go back to summer camp in Alabama."
Certainly, Romanians love their cornmeal mush like few other sentient beings in the known universe, but Romanian cuisine is far more complex and surprisingly savory than most people know.
Gallery: Romanian food images
There's a hardcore subset of people wandering around Southern Bucovina visiting all the monasteries by foot - backpacks piled high with camping gear, all-weather clothing, muesli and vampire bat spray. I'm not one of those people. I retired from carrying all my crap on my back in 1994 when a chronic back injury combined with a Dr. Seuss caliber over-stuffed backpack aged my spine about 50 years in four months.
I'm a wheelie bag guy now and proud of it. Some backpacker purists feel that wheelie bags are a cop out. These people are dough heads. Furthermore, at the end of the day of wheelie bagging I feel great and I smell divine. At the end of a day of backpacking, most people look like refugees in need of an industrial jet-wash with a mixture of bleach and tomato juice.
The only downside to wheelie bagging (well, some call it a 'down side', I call it 'the best part') is that you are limited to day trips, like the one I'm taking now: the 'Prince Charles Walk' from Putna Monastery to Sucevi?a Monastery.
Gallery: Romania, Putna Monastery
Suceava gets a bad rap, primarily from elitist dorks lacking an appreciation for the delicate art of Cement Feng Shui.
OK, there's no exoticizing it, Suceava is largely a butt-fugly series of gray streets, buildings and plazas. The city was one of the many victims of Ceau??escu's systemization initiative in the 1980s and short of bulldozing the entire city (again) and rebuilding to 18th century specifications, Suceava is never going to suffer an excess of aesthetic superlatives.
It would be so easy for Suceava to sit back and succumb to its mind-bending visual tedium, taking out its discontent on a super-sized Ceau??escu bazooka target in the main square, but they haven't given up the fight. Well, they haven't given up the feeble effort, at any rate. Being the closest thing to a major metropolitan area that Southern Bucovina has to offer, Suceava serves as the primary staging area for a number of regional day-trips with, by my estimation, the best tourism infrastructure in Romania outside of Transylvania. The civic weight of these minor accolades has seemingly instilled Suceava with a rising feistiness which is currently asserting itself in a variety of modest ways. Most recently, an agreeable landscaping project, consisting mainly of a sea of flowers, has unfolded on their main street (??tefan cel Mare) to beat back what was otherwise an interminable concrete buffet. However, at the moment the flowers are being overshadowed, literally, by the nationwide movement to replace all water mains with new EU-approved components. In their short-sighted glee to move the project forward, multiple streets have been simultaneously jack-hammered into dust creating, among other things, twisting debris storms every time the wind kicks up.
Dateline: Suceava, Romania
First, a quick geography lesson. Don't go looking for 'Southern Bucovina' in the south on your map of Romania. It is, in fact, in the north. Like many parts of Europe, land was grabbed and dealt during WWI and WWII without regard for historical ethnic and cultural boundaries. I'm writing this offline, so I can't research and confirm, but relying on my perennially air-tight knowledge of world history, the region of Bucovina was split in half when Southern Bucovina was handed to Romania and Northern Bucovina was packed up and trucked up to Sweden as a part of the Helsinki Convention of 1492, brokered by Abraham Lincoln, Attila the Hun and Buddha.
Most of the Painted Monasteries in this region were erected by Stephan the Great and his son Petru Rare?? in the 15th and 16th centuries and are collectively honored with UNESCO World Heritage status. The story goes that armies gathering and waiting to do battle with the Turks would hunker down inside these fortified monasteries. Since most of the peasant soldiers were illiterate and unable to enter the churches (and bored senseless after their Gameboys died), biblical stories were painted cartoon-style on the exteriors to educate and entertain. Many of the two millimeter thick frescos have miraculously survived despite centuries of direct exposure to harsh weather, neglect and the efforts of medieval vandals – keep an eye out for the "Dave was here" and "Clapton is God" engraved graffiti with dates in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Being a homeless, shameless, godless freelance travel writer isn't all glamour, Nike endorsement deals and Friday nights at the Viper Room canoodling with Natalie Portman. There are innumerable indignities associated with this lifestyle, including the startling, nay shocking, confession I am about to make: I have not seen a dentist in over four years.
Now rest assured that during this time I have been brushing and flossing with a ferocity only known to those who have no health insurance and little disposable income, who occasionally suffer the odd nightmare where his teeth crumble into shards while biting into an apple and Natalie Portman abruptly decides that she wants to see other people.
Even so, after four years, punctuated with occasional mysterious aches and an increased sensitivity to ice, I felt compelled to finally see a dentist. Romania may not be the first destination one thinks of when considering medical tourism (or even the 50th) and indeed, generally speaking, one shouldn't. Pretty much all of the competent doctors leave here at the first opportunity for better pay and a lifestyle where a trip to the post office to pick up a package isn't a half day ordeal. Even President B??sescu couldn't find a doctor he trusted to repair a herniated disc last year, choosing to get the work done in Vienna. But dentists are another story. Since it's not nearly as easy for them to find work abroad, even the Jedi Knights of Romanian dentistry are more or less stuck here (though EU membership may change all that).
One of the things that I love about Romania is that there's still a sweet naivety in many aspects of life. The largest peasant society in Europe still thrives in the northern Maramure?? region (though EU membership seems destined to squash it), even the die-hardiest urban resident has a close relative in the countryside who routinely provides them with eggs, cream, milk, cheese, onions or potatoes and access to a lightning-fast, wide open file sharing network (where one can freely download software, games, music, TV series and movies, sometimes within hours after they hit the theaters in the US) still comes standard with all internet service. Is this country cute or what?
Among these facets is the enduring, widespread practice of worry-free hitchhiking. Virtually every Romanian has done it, including little old ladies and even children on the way to/from school in the next village. With dirt-cheap and surprisingly reliable trains, buses and maxitaxis crisscrossing the country, in truth, there's usually little need to bother hitchhiking, but some truly arresting areas remain inaccessible by public transport and if you'd prefer not to expose yourself to the ass-tightening milieu that is driving in Romania, there may come a time during your visit which calls for polishing up your thumb.
If you're a regular reader over at my laugh-riot, almost-award-winning blog, Killing Batteries (and if not, why exactly?), you'll know that I do my share of complaining. It's my way. I must complain to vent pent up rage or I'd have gone ape$hit on some deserving cop/hostel clerk/bus driver/post office employee by now and I'd be blogging about the food and internet cutouts at Sing Sing rather than various locations around Europe.
Well, I've held my tongue long enough. I'm about to open up a can of 'Leif-Flavored Foot Up Your Ass' on the entire Romanian population for their alarming, baffling and idiotic penchant for wanton littering.
I've already commented in this travelogue about trash lining the sides of most roads and collecting in the immediate orbit of any tourist sight, but my ability to overlook this finally snapped when the Little Vampire and I took a day hike at the Bucegi Mountains.
Gallery: Bucegi Mountain, Romania
Why is it that the top two tourist destinations in Romania have virtually no signage to assist the, you know, tourists? Seriously, this mystery has kept me up at night and driving in maddening circles during the day, cursing the mothers of city officials who are apparently still diverting their sign budgets to keep apartments for their mistresses by the Black Sea.
Let's start with Bucharest. First off, this hellhole is one of Europe's worst capital cities, so anyone coming here for a pleasure stay is either vastly ill-informed or they're giving it a pity visit, because their plane landed here and they had no other choice. Bucharest has minimal satisfying activities, it's expensive (by Romanian standards) and there's an army of thieves and pickpockets freely roaming the streets including the armada of illegal taxis that still bafflingly operate with impunity, despite repeated declarations by officials (via live-feed from their Black Sea villas) to crack down.
Bucharest has exactly zero signs directing people to such vital locations like important plazas, the train station or the airport (until you're just 2km short of the bloody thing and planes are roaring overhead, where they've posted a no-brainer sign pointing straight on - nice effort jackasses). On the contrary, if you, say, want a Big Mac, there's thousands of signs blanketing the city clearly pointing the way to the nearest McDonald's, with distances and GPS coordinates just for good measure. Say what you want about McDonald's, at least they understand the simple concept of 'If You Point to It, They Will Come – Faster', while Romanians still largely adhere to the perennial 'Find It On Your Own, I Don't Care If It Takes You All Day. Do You Have A Cigarette?'.