I'm actually writing this one from Seattle, just got in last night.
Colleague Matt P. was in Bucharest last week (in fact he's still there as I write). I definitely had a fun time showing him some of the city; he and I and Victor (also briefly in town) and 2 of the people from RDC had dinner one evening at the Count Dracula Club, which I had written about earlier (surprisingly good Romanian food, perfectly reasonable prices, blah, blah). What I hadn't discovered the other time (because I'd had an early dinner) was the one over-the-top aspect of the thing: about 10 pm they start up some ominous horror-film music, which is the prelude to about a 30 minute performance in which an actor dressed as Dracula wanders around, declaims various near-incomprehensible speeches (mostly but not entirely in heavily accented English), "captures" a female customer, etc. Silly, but in the spirit of the whole thing, I suppose. I still recommend this place, but know that if you have a low tolerance for silliness, you should dine early or very late.
Matt seems to be enjoying Bucharest. Initially, they had placed him in the hotel near the office that I had looked at and found too bland; after one night he came over and took a room at the Capitol, where I've been staying, torn up lobby and all. (Actually, considering that the lobby is a construction site right now, they are keeping it pretty neat.) We did a good amount of basic city wandering and had some very good meals. When I left, he borrowed my phrasebook and dictionary.
Quite a contrast to two other colleagues who will remain nameless, who seemed to confine themselves to the three blocks between the Hilton and the office and basically seemed to be seeing how well they could insulate themselves from Bucharest while there on business.
I seem to be making really good progress with the language on my own, but I plan to study more systematically, with a teacher, when I'm back in 2 weeks. Already I'm getting to where I can usually follow the gist of newscasts, song lyrics, etc. (much harder than corporate email), and with the aid of a dictionary I can even read theater reviews and the like. This is probably the fastest I've ever learned a language. I still speak with apalling lack of grammar (that's the main reason for the teacher), but my pronunciation has actually gotten good enough that a US-based Romanian-born anesthesiologist I sat next to on the plane home remarked on my very accurate pronunciation of place names. Good for the ego.
Also, good for finally starting to meet a few people: it's really hard to walk up to a stranger in a bar and try saying hello in a language you can't speak.
Saturday, the day before I left, I finally went out to Obor, site of Bucharest's biggest public market. Big, indeed. Counting both the partially enclosed public market and the adjoining "Magazin Universal" ("Univeral Store"), which provides indoor spaces for small retail businesses, it was comparable in dimension to Seattle's Pike Place Market or London's Petticoat Lane. The range of goods was probably the best I've seen in Bucharest. Not too much at the real luxury end, but just by way of examples, there are probably about 20 places selling CDs and tapes, 30 selling cloth, 15 or 20 fishmongers, maybe 50 butchers, etc. Hell, there are probably 25 people just wandering around hawking braids of garlic and half a dozen selling their home-grown medicinal herbs. Quite a bit of hawking, people "singing their wares" and all that.
I definitely found a better selection of local music for sale here than in the center of town. I found a few CDs (notably one by a rather good pop band called Hi-Q) that were unavailable in the stores in the center. As Matt pointed out, it's rather like the fact that you won't find much of a selection of Seattle music at Sam Goody downtown.
Prices at Obor were typically about 20% lower than at the Amzei market near the office, and the selection was better. On the other hand, from anywhere I'm going to be spending time, it's a bit of a trek. Still, I'll certainly be back.
Out past Obor, you are still in (urban density) Bucharest, but you are [in terms of participation in the "First World"] in a place that is to the center of Bucharest what the center of Bucharest is to, say, Gramercy Park. (That's a NYC reference: Seattle readers may substitute "Belltown" for "Gramercy Park"; Londoners can maybe go for "Islington"; if you don't know any of those cities, how exactly are you and I acquainted?). Many of the women (and some of the men) are dressed in traditional clothing; the streets are "paved" only in the sense that they are mostly covered with stones; there are a lot more gypsies; dogs are liable to run in packs and there are even some horses; you are far more likely to find a store selling builder's supplies than knickknacks.
Met a very interesting older man from England who was at our hotel for the weekend. Since the death a few years ago of his wife, who hated to travel, he has been going everywhere from Rio to Beijing: Romania was the 42nd country he has visited. Total character: he describes himself as a semi-retired children's entertainer, but along the way it came up that when young he used to do a shell-game hustle (which some of you may be familiar with; it's sort of like 3-card monte, only working with three nutshells and a pea) and that he is a competent pickpocket, which he claims he's only ever done as performance, but I wouldn't bet on it. Anyway, even in his 70s he looked like he was the sort of person who could pretty much take a city by storm: I saw him successfully charming street kids with whom he had no common language beyond their knowing how to beg in English.
BTW, for those who've asked, yes, Dilema did run one of my Columbus illustrations (the one with the angel), and they did spell my name right when they credited me. And I could even mostly read Adrian's article that it accompanied.
I passed through Amsterdam for a few hours on the way home yesterday; ate my ritual Vlammse Frites (French - well, Belgian - fries), wandered as far as the Jordaan, set up a hotel reservation to stay at the Prins Hendrik for one night in May and made it back in time for my plane home, on which I finally saw Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence, which is not bad. Much of the family-dynamics stuff is well handled (although some descends into total goopy sentimentality), the "Flesh Fair" sequence is certainly more chilling than anything he managed in Schindler's List, the sequence of David praying to the blue fairy is beautiful, and the Dr. Know sequence could be out of the best of the Firesign Theater.
It's going to be a few weeks before I send out another one of these, because I imagine there won't be much to narrate about being home in Seattle. When I go back, I'll be staying in my newly leased Bucharest apartment by Cişmigiu (Cismigiu), with a really cool terrace (for which I will need to get some chairs) and my very own keys. Write to you then!La revedere,
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