Joe Mabel > Travel writing > Letters from Romania 2001-2002 > With a Song in My Heart and a Hole in My Pants

With a Song in My Heart and a Hole in My Pants

7 Mar 2002

My Romanian lessons have begun. My teacher is a bright young woman named Andreea, who usually teaches English to Romanians (hers is quite good and rather British) but is glad to try the other way around. I believe things are progressing well, though it's a bit early to tell.

Through the lessons, I am discovering a few things about the Romanian language generally, notably:

  • A regular verb in Romanian is sort of like a sunny day in Seattle in February: they exist, but if you were to show up in town and wait for one to come along before you looked for work, you might starve first. When it finally arrives, you bask in its unexpected radiance. Truly, I have never seen a language with so many irregular verbs. Of course the verbs for "to be" ("a fi ") and "to have " ( "a avea") are irregular - that's par for the course - but we're talking about irregular verbs for "to eat" ("a mânca", presumably related to our "munch"), "to work" ("a lucra", like "lucre" or "lucrative"), etc. And it seems not to be like Spanish, where even for the "irregular" verbs, there are liable to be a dozen that are irregular in exactly the same way, forming sort of a second-order regularity of their own. [Or, maybe more to the point, it takes a while to see such patterns, and being Andreea's first student of this material, she probably hadn't ever given this much thought.] Each irregular verb seems to be irregular in its own charming little way, and there is nothing to do about it but to but to memorize conjugations one by one.
  • As for the "regular" verbs, there are six different regular patterns of conjugation (Spanish has three), and this doesn't count the fact that two different verbs that ostensibly conjugate the same way may have their accents fall in different places.
  • While Romanian is ostensibly written phonetically, it isn't like Spanish or Italian, which are really written phonetically. (On the other hand, it isn't like English or French, where you need to know etymology to guess at a spelling.) "Ea" can be anything from the diphthong in the English "crayon" to the vowel in the English word "cat", as pronounced by a New Yorker (like me). A terminal "i" can be anything from the vowel sound in the English "be" to a slight exhalation of breath and a "softening" of the preceding consonant. Etc.
  • At least it isn't Hungarian, which has words longer than a Wagnerian opera. OK, so I'm exaggerating. But I bet they have words longer than some pieces by Satie.

    I went Tuesday night to a bar/club called Twice, a well-done conversion of a very large villa not far from the center of Bucharest, to hear the Romanian band Taxi external link. (Twice actually has a very serious website external link. Here in Bucharest I can access it at fiber-optic speed, but I suspect that if you try to access it from elsewhere you will get to experience what it is like for me here to try to access Seattle or NYC.) [Larry Glickman says he did fine accessing this from Seattle.] The evening was sponsored by a magazine called 20 Ani external link, sort of a Romanian "Cosmo Junior". 20 Ani ("20 Years") clearly refers to the typical age of their mostly female readership. One could get into the show either by paying 50,000 lei (about US$1.60, not much to an American but rather more to a Romanian, especially for a Tuesday night, and even moreso to go to a bar with no particularly cheap drinks) or with a coupon from the magazine. Add that to the fact that there was some sort of cover girl contest as well and you get a lot of twenty-nothing stick figures in vinyl and denim, many looking like adolescents who had somehow borrowed big sister's breasts along with her makeup and bare midriff outfit. Please understand, thin is fine, lean and muscular is very attractive, but somewhere past thin is tissue damage, anorexia, etc., and a few too many of these girls were in that slightly scary model-thin part of the range.

    More actually attractive were a lot of young women who weren't trying nearly so hard. There were also a lot of press people (one of them a man who must have been about 80) and an otherwise rather varied crowd who were there for the music, the scene, or both. The press and the models were just too damn cool to come down near the stage (well, OK, I'm sure some of the model types were planning to dance to the recorded stuff after the band was finished), which was just fine by me: I got to see the show from about 15 feet, with nothing blocking my view except the occasional overly mobile videocam operator. (Because Bucharest is the capital of a small, poor country, an event like this draws TV cameras, plus in this case quite a few amateur photographers and videographers).

    Taxi external link, for those of you who don't know them (I believe that's probably all but three of you) are a quite talented Romanian band. Their web site is in Romanian, of course, but at least you can see what they look like. Also, here external link are a bunch of their lyrics, also in Romanian of course, but you might want to look at the song "Americanofonia", which you will probably largely understand, for reasons that will become apparent when you look at the lyrics. Their sound is rather eclectic (think Nick Lowe for those to whom that means anything). 40-ish lead singer Dan Teodorescu has a bit of a late Seventies Stiff Records stage presence, too: simultaneously nerdy and aggressive, sometimes singing quite melodically, other times spitting out the lyrics as if the audience or the world had somehow offended him.

    Like him, the rest of the band are musically rock solid, but the others are total shoegazers, with zero (if not negative) stage presence. The lead guitarist came up to the front of the stage for his solos, but all that meant was that he was three feet closer. The night I saw them, they were joined by a quite talented twentysomething female vocalist with copper-dyed hair, who alternately looked like she was rather enjoying herself (especially when part of the audience started knocking balloons about) and like she was slightly peeved that so many people had shown up to watch her work. Hope she stays with them: her voice was a positive contribution.

    In short, a rather paradoxical combination of impressive musical interplay and a stage affect that might as well be that of one quite solid solo performer. I bet they'd be more relaxed in the studio or playing a party in somebody's living room.

    The set was a bit short, to my thinking, probably about 40-45 minutes, but it was solid and varied, so I have no complaint. Oh, and the bar served a very good screwdriver, which cost about twice the price of admisssion. That's not a complaint, either: about US$3 for Smirnoff and good orange juice is more than fair.

    Taking the bad with the good: I had an experience this week which some of my co-workers tell me is emblematic of what doesn't work about Romania. On what turned out to be bad advice, I had turned down the offer of laundry service with my apartment, at an extra $50 a month. That seemed exorbitant: after all, it's half the per capita GNP. Now I understand that the service is a bargain.

    (At one point they were going to put a washer in for me, but it's really not very feasible, because the drains aren't that great and it would probably flood the bathroom.)

    Apparently, with very rare exceptions, storefront laundry establishments here charge pretty much like dry cleaners. I checked our several, went to the least expensive, and still paid more to get a week's laundry done than I had spent for a day in Braşov (Brasov), transportation included...and I had traveled to Brasov first class and done touristy stuff there.

    The laundry service, on the other hand, was definitely not first class. They lost a couple of items, damaged others (e.g. they burned holes in poly/lycra garments by ironing them badly, and the garments in question didn't need ironing in the first place), etc. Between the high price and the damage to clothes, I think I effectively spent as much for one load of laundry as I would have for the entire three months of the laundry service that comes with the apartment.

    I suppose that the only reasonable alternative to the $50 a month service would be to take a (very cheap, maybe $1-2 each way) taxi to do my own laundry at Nuf Nuf, which may be Bucharest's only self-service laundromat (rather nice, I'm told, but not in the center of town; [as of May 2006, they seem not to be answering their phone]), but I think I'm busy enough not to want to give up the time, so I have opted for the convenience of paying to having my laundry picked up twice a week by the woman who already comes by to clean and to change the sheets and towels. I hope she sees at least some of the money herself.

    I hear it's snowing in Seattle. Here it's about 10 centigrade in the early morning, probably will get up to 15 or 20 (that's 50, 59, and 68, respectively for you Fahrenheiters). May I gloat? Even with new professionally implemented holes in my underwear?


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    Originally written: March 8, 2002
    Last modified: May 8, 2006

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