Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > Romania: Exile in Delfinului
This weekend, despite freezing temperatures and the fact that I am still occasionally hacking up phlegm, I decided to go out and do some exploring.
For starters, I went to the opera again - I guess this no longer counts as exploring, but what the heck - to see Verdi's Nabucco. Again, a fine production, but since I've already told you all that the opera company here are great and I'm no opera critic, I don't have much more to say.
Other adventures of the weekend...
You come up out of the Metro to a rather wide, busy road with trams running down the middle. There are a number of small freestanding vendor stalls, not quite a marketplace, but you can get newpapers, snacks, etc. There is a fork in the busy road, with a gas station. On the far side is a small, well tended cemetary with a military guardpost and a modern Romanian Orthodox Church (Church of the Martyr Heroes).
All of the graves belong to members of the military who died in the fighting in '89, and the church is dedicated to these "martyrs". At first sight the neatly aligned grave markers seem identical, although closer inspection shows a wide variety of photos and inscriptions, rather a variety of small boxes to shelter candles, etc. Most of the dead were in their late teens or just beyond, although there are a handful of older officers.
One has to presume that it is a polite fiction that everyone who died was fighting on the side of the revolution. A co-worker of mine tells me that most of the deaths were due not to deliberate fighting but to chaos and blundering: for example, two armored groups, both supporting the revolution, got into a battle at the airport, each thinking the other was on the pro-Ceausescu side.
Some of the terasas (not in the parks, but the private ones along some streets) throw up tent-like structures, power up some sort of heather and become (rather drafty) indoor bars for the winter. They seem to be popular with boozy middle aged men.
Wandering rather randomly by foot and tram, I came upon two markets east of the center: a small market called Hala Traian and a much larger market in and around what was a communist-era exhibition hall [that's what I thought at the time; actually it was one of the infamous "hunger circuses"] near Piaţa Delfinului. ["Piaţa" / "Piata" means both "market" and "plaza," in the sense of public square. Often they are one and the same.] The former was notable mainly because its closest thing to a supermarket had some bizarre order-pay-collect system that involved waiting in a long line to buy even a candy bar. There was one good bakery; the selection of produce was meager. However, the latter was probably an even better market than Amzei, the one near my office and reputedly Bucharest's best.
The market at Delfinului [I believe the market is properly called "Pantelimon"] sits just off of the Piata Delfinului, behind some 12-story communist era apartment monoliths, near a spot where two now-frozen lakes come almost together. Like Amzei, it has a reasonable variety of fresh produce and various common staples; far more than Amzei, it offered home-canned foods, clothing, utensils, and all sorts of useful and useless bric-a-brac. At mid-day on a Saturday, it was thronged with customers, and street vendors extended it for a block and a half toward the Piat'a.
I bought a little bit of food (I was far from my room and didn't want to haul food). I bought a fork (something I've been missing, adds to those eating-in-the-hotel-room options). I had a conversation in Romanian explaining to a woman at the tram stop that I was pretty much lost, and got directions about how to get back to the center of town.
I randomly stumbled upon the little Muzeu Pallady (price of admission 20,000 lei, about 65 US cents). The collection includes a small number of paintings by Theodor Pallady, and a miscellany of European art and furniture and small Asian art objects, but the real highlight is the building itself, an 18th century merchant's home that has somehow survived all the vicissitudes of time. (The neighborhood around it had no small number of interesting houses; the one right across the street, certainly over a hundred years old, has been turned into a wholesale and retail beverage depot.)
Maybe the highlight of the weekend's explorations was the Café de la Joie. The cafe is practically hidden in a little alley of bookseller's stalls just off the Piaţa Universitaţii (Piata Universitatii). There is one small sign, but when you enter the marked building, it seems like you've walked into an apartment house or office building or something like that. There was a building guard at the entrance, but his attitude ran more to "what are you doing here?" than "you must be looking for the cafe." I persevered, for which I am very thankful.
The cafe is in the basement. It's small-ish (maybe a dozen tables and a small bar), largely candle-lit, with quite a few small framed mirrors on the walls. The menu is distinctly French, and judging by the dishes I had (a sort of a warm salad of squid and vegetables and some dessert crepes - I guess the latter is as much Romanian as French) it is up to French standards. [I've since been told that some of the meat dishes fall short.] It is not up to French prices: my bill worked out to about seven dollars.
Service was very good, in a way one tends not to see here: competent, calm, not showy, and not servile. The waitress spoke a little English, I speak a little Romanian, we muddled through in a combination of English, French and Romanian, she explained that the first dish I tried to order can only be done for 2 or more people, I even managed to get a coherent explanation of the dish I was ordering, etc. And when I left a rather good tip, the waitress checked with me to make sure I wasn't making a mistake: most places here, they'd just pocket the money and figure that if I had accidentally tipped too large, that must just make me a sucker.
Any of you who ever make it to Bucharest for more than, like, a day, do not skip this place.
I'm beginning to see that a lot of what is worthwhile here is scattered a bit out from the center. The older (pre-WWII) neighborhoods are generally interesting, with almost as many good restaurants, shops, bars, clubs, etc. as the downtown. On the other hand, the Communist-era neighborhoods don't have much: the boulevards feel like 12-story chasms with a strip mall on each side, and otherwise the only things oriented to the street are if the ground floor apartment at the corner of a building or nearest the front door has been turned into a convenience store, liquor store, drug store, etc.
Speaking, for a moment, of Communist-era neighborhoods, the buildings are at least solidly built, most of the apartments have balconies (often glassed in). Individually, they are not bad buildings, certainly better than most US public housing and even some cheaply constructed US commercial apartment buildings. It's just the unrelenting sameness of so many very similar large, drab buildings. Not that the borough of Queens is a lot better, but you can always get on the subway and go to Manhattan.
Finally had lunch today with a co-worker at the nearly 200-year-old Hanul lui Manuc. The ciorba de legume (vegetable soup) was beautiful (like a first-rate ministrone soup, minus the noodles). The rest was just OK: I suspect that this would be a better place for meat eaters. Also, I'm glad things here are generally cheap, because this is one of those places that prices everything per 100 grammes, so it's guesswork what you will actually be charged. (They claimed that everything they served us was about 200 grammes, which was probably close enough to true. I suspect that if they don't like you, or if they are busy, your meal miraculously gets heavier.)
Someone asked me in an email, "What do Romanians eat?" Well, on one level, the answer is the rich eat a lot of meat and the poor eat a lot of cabbage and potatoes. However, a few things seem distinctive enough to be worth mentioning:
Other than that, it mostly runs to meat, and I'm not the one to ask. I do see a lot of shwarma. Speaking of which, if I'm really lucky, the shwarma place also does felafel.
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