Saturday, December 2, 2017

Lessons from Romanian Taxi Drivers

"In this spot you'll see many crosses." 

Our taxi driver from the Bucharest Airport had spent the last twenty minutes pointing out various plazas, buildings, and neighborhoods he thought might interest us.

"They're here as a memorial. Many people died here 27 years ago. I was there." He went on to tell us that the tiny patch of grass we were parked next to at a stoplight was the location of a violent protest that lead to many casualties. He described hundreds of citizens crowding in, creating barricades between themselves and the communist soldiers with anything they could find, including outdoor furniture and  cars.

"The next day," he continued, "it wasn't on the news. Nothing was ever reported. I know that people knew, they must have heard all of the gunshots. The only way people really knew what was going on was from listening to the Americans report it."

Though a sobering start to our quick trip to Bucharest, it was eye-opening to realize that their political struggle is still so recent. 

The mood quickly lightened when we arrived at our Airbnb, only to realize that our windows were directly behind a billboard for Pirates of the Caribbean (right behind the eyes), and it looked like a scary giant was watching our every move.

The next day was raining, so we lightened the gloom with a trip to Starbucks and the spa. The driver who brought us to the spa was eager for business, and told us that for $100, he'd take us wherever we wanted the next day. Though taking the train may have been less expensive, it eliminated a lot of extra travel time, as well as made our Sunday much more convenient! We wanted to maximize our time Sunday as much as possible, and $100 seemed like a reasonable price for a personal tour guide, so we took him up on his offer. 

The ride was lovely, winding through lush green forests and past homes made from rustic wood with little lace curtains in the windows. 

Some looked like gingerbread houses, with carefully molded window frames and interestingly shaped roofs. As we drove, he asked us what we knew of Romanian culture, and I was ashamed to admit that I knew very little. Before hopping in on Carrie's "40th Country by 40" trip, my knowledge of Romania didn't extend much past the vampire legends of Transylvania. Luckily for me, she jumped in with her background knowledge, having grown up watching Romanian gymnasts dominate in the Olympics. 

The rest of the ride was an incredible history lesson, full of the enthusiasm only a local could deliver. 

He brought up videos on his phone of Nadia Comaneci's unbelievable routines, and played Gheorghe Zamfir's traditional pan flute folk music. One of the songs, Dor de Romania, was particularly beautiful. He told us that in Romanian, 'dor' is a word for the pain/sadness/need you feel when someone you love is away from you. It can also refer to the longing for a place, or the need to fill a hole in your heart. From what I can understand, it's both beautiful and immensely sad and something I can absolutely relate to. 

Like our first taxi driver, he shared some of Romania's more turbulent history. 

Of course, all information has to be taken with a grain of salt, but it was fascinating to hear his perspective of his country's history nonetheless. During World War II, Romania allied itself with Hitler in hopes that the strength of Germany's army would help them win back Moldova from Russia's control. They joined the Allied forces eventually, but was still considered a losing country along with Italy, Japan, and Hungary. He pointed out Ploiesti, his hometown, which was heavily bombed by the USA. Though discussion of war between our countries was uncomfortable, the facts were delivered without the slightest animosity towards anyone but Russia, who still control most of Moldova (apparently a very sensitive subject). He told us that in addition to defeating Russian armies, Romanian people also defended Europe from the Turkish and Austrian Empires. To be honest, so much was shared that it's all a little fuzzy at this point. I remember him saying something about hiding women, children, as well as national treasure in the caves below during the fighting. Since then, the treasure was stolen by Russia, who bartered (in his words, blackmailed) for partial control of Moldova with this treasure. 

Whew! Lots of history during the 80km drive from Bucharest to Peles Castle!

Just a little more: Senaia, the location of Peles Castle, was named after Mount Sinai, where Moses was given the 10 Commandments. The palace is only about 100 years old, though the city is 200 years old, and some homes are as old as 500. Other fun fact: Yesterday I watched "The Christmas Prince" on Netflix (so bad, yet so good), and was so excited to see that his castle was Peles Castle! The short walk to the castle, as well as the grounds, were incredibly beautiful.

The drive back to Bucharest was less fact-filled, though we did learn a little about the Romanian language. 

There are many similarities to Italian because the Ancient Romans conquered the area. Romanian is a combination of Italian and the local language from thousands of years ago. Side note: I'm presenting a lot of ideas as fact, so I really hope that our taxi driver knew what he was talking about. We stopped for lunch with him and his wife, who had quietly spent the day in the front seat. He did all of the ordering for us, and we ended up trying a number of local dishes. I had Ciorba de Perisoare which is a very tasty sour meatball soup. He ordered Mititei la Gratar, which are traditional grilled minced meat rolls. In case you needed another fact, "Noroc" is Romanian for cheers! After lunch, we made our way back to enjoy a few hours exploring Bucharest before a late flight back to Milan.

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