I know, right? But that’s exactly what i asked one of my hosts in Bucharest half-jokingly when she pointed to the clotheslines outside the living room window of their ground floor apartment.
I say half-jokingly because i must admit i still carried some of the prejudice i had entered Romania with a couple of weeks before — a prejudice that compounded itself an order of magnitude over through the exonym for the Romani people, and another one for conflating them with the Romanian nationality. I’m aware that publicly acknowledging prejudice can come across as patronizing and still be hurtful to its target. I see no better way to internalize personal progress on the front — kindly let me know if you do 🙂
This is the second in a series of articles on how my prejudices and expectations about each country i visited during my latest cycle touring journey (the North Cape Hypothesis) were challenged by my actual experience in them. I hope that this reading will encourage you to reflect upon and challenge whatever prejudice might be alive inside you right now, regardless of whom they target. I would also love to hear your reactions to this piece, so please feel invited to comment at the bottom or write me an email!
The negative spiral of hearsay
Romania was the second country i visited in the North Cape Hypothesis. I spent a total of 21 days in the country riding between Drobeta-Turnu Severin, where i’d entered from Serbia, and Galați, where i left to Moldova. This included a 10-day layover in the capital and largest city, Bucharest.
By this point you might have correctly guessed that nobody stole my clothes or anything else in Romania. It might have actually been the country (at least among the 12 i visited during that tour) where i was given the most from locals — in particular, it is where i was offered money (cash!) the most — that must be the exact opposite of being robbed!
Nevertheless, i’d been very apprehensive about cycle touring in Romania — this might be where it will finally happen to me on a cycle tour, isn’t it?
How the hell did this develop?
All encounters with Romanian nationals i can recall before entering the country for the first time on April 11th, 2017 had been positive experiences: a peer during graduate school in the US — the jolly bunch who adopted me for an evening at a bar in Montréal, after i had been ditched by some Couchsurfers who never showed up — my high-spirited housemate for about a year in Copenhagen, and a couple other acquaintances from the boardgames meetup at around the same time — my friend Bogdan Budai, who also happens to be one of the greatest sources of inspiration for my transition into my current lifestyle — the panhandler in Malmö who attended to my suitcase while i figured out how to get to the airport to catch my flight to Serbia and hop on the touring rig that would soon bring me into her country — i can immediately think of at least another handful of such neutral-to-positive firsthand experiences, and not even a single negative one.
On the other hand, much of what i remember having heard about Romanians before going into Romania had not been very positive.
Research indicates that we might be wired to internalize negative impressions more saliently than positive ones. Thus, i won’t repeat what i’ve heard here, as just the title of this article and what has been implied so far might already be enough of a disservice to Romanians, Gypsies and our hopes for a flourishing global civilization — if you’ve heard bad things about them, you probably know what i’m talking about — and if you haven’t, i hope to convince you that you don’t need to.
Alright, how did it go?
My experience in Romania was overwhelmingly positive. I can’t say it was 100% positive, but it must have been close to that. To give you a better idea of what i mean, let me briefly share with you my most uncomfortable moment in the country.
I was passing through yet another small village along the Danube when it came the time to refill my water bottles and get something sweet to eat. Towards the end of the village, i pulled into a typical magazin mixt — a small shop for everyday staples outside of which you may also find locals having a drink. The shop proper was located inside a gated patio. There were two men drinking next to the gate, and another party of three young people at a table in the back.
As usual, i immediately had their attention. Contrary to what nearly always happens, this time they seemed suspicious rather than interested though. One of the men at the gate asked me if i was the police, and the young guy at the table in the back would not believe i was just a traveler from Brazil.
Inside the shop, circumstances were more neutral, but i was getting increasingly sensitive to any signals from the environment. When i realized nobody had offered to pay for my carbohydrates, my spider sense went off — let’s not linger here — i’ll refill my water bottles in the next village.
Back outside the shop, the harassment persisted. The young guy in the back, who still didn’t believe i was from Brazil and had started quizzing me about my home country, wanted me to come over. One of the women sitting with him then asked me for money — to me that’s a clear sign that you’re not being treated as a guest.
Whatever it was that was brewing there might have well turned out alright — i did not stay long enough to find out.
Are you serious!?
Yes — i was dead serious when i wrote the alarm went off when i noticed that nobody had offered to pay for my croissant — that’s simply how well i had been treated in the countryside along my way up to that point!!
When i pulled into another such magazin mixt to refill my water bottles for the night a few days before in Bistrița, i couldn’t leave without a chat, a bottle of soda and a cup of coffee with Sorin, Emi, Alin, Marius and Stan, who also offered me food. Later that same day, when i asked the shepherds one village over if i could pitch my tent somewhere in their field, they pointed me to where i’d be better protected from the wind.
Next day, i once again couldn’t clear the village of Botoșești-Paia without first following Cosme to the shop, where i was offered a place to sit, a cup of coffee, some sweets for the road, and even asked when i’d visit them again!
When i pulled into a little patch of forest just outside of Caracal to find a place to pitch my tent, i ran into this happy family having a barbecue.
Surprise, surprise — they didn’t let me go without first filling my belly with the proceeds from their grilling and a couple of beers. The sausages and cake they gave me for the road lasted for another couple of days, and the bottle of wine for another several. I asked Razvan if there was something i could do for them — “no — actually, yes — it would be nice if you told people about your experience in Romania.”
Here i am 🙂
Next day in the morning, on my out of the forest where i had set camp the night before, i pulled into another magazin mixt to ask if i could use their Internet for a few minutes. What developed has been one of my most heartwarming encounters to date on a cycle tour. The shop owner, Leonica, has remained one of my most diligent followers. She constantly responds to my social media dispatches with much-appreciated words of encouragement. They always remind me of the hospitality with which they treated me, making sure i had everything i needed before i got back on the road.
In many occasions such hospitality came completely unsolicited. The morning after meeting Leonica, i was merely 8km into my ride and had no reason whatsoever to stop when i heard a call from the roadside offering me a cup of coffee at Florin and Florina’s bar.
The longer i stayed inside, the more the prospect of braving the chilly and drizzly weather back outside seemed unappealing. The coffee had by then turned into Easter cake, then sarmale, then a drink — “what else do you need? — you can ask anything you want,” Florin kept repeating in Spanish every time he offered me something. He meant it — “would you be able to offer me a place to spend the night?” — “no problem — stay, we’ll eat, drink, chat, tomorrow morning we’ll give you a hearty breakfast and you’ll be back on the road feeling better than ever.” I ended up staying with their friend Marcel, who’s retired and lives alone — i wouldn’t refuse to keep an old man company for one night in exchange for so much hospitality!
And what did i do when a good place to wild camp or an invitation to stay inside didn’t happen? In Romania, gas stations continued to be the perfect place to pitch a tent for the night where someone hadn’t already offered me a room — just like i’d experienced in Serbia and Turkey, they’ll give you water, access to the toilet, and make sure you’re within the security camera’s range.
Campsite by night, hot spot by day — ironically, i don’t think i’d be able to cycle tour without the support from gas stations, which i probably visit more often than someone traveling by car!
On my way out of Florin and Florina’s towards Giurgiu, i eventually stopped by this one in Zimnicea to get some candy, refill my water bottles, and perhaps also use the Internet. Martin told me i could sit there for as long as iwanted, and actually suggested i stay for the night. Along the way, he and his brother Florin kept bringing me food, which was in turn supplemented by coffee and soda from random customers coming in and out. Martin had tears in his eyes as i left — “why are you sad?” — “because i just learned about who you are and what you’re doing, and now you’re leaving” — that put tears in mine.
I soon realized that taking pictures and writing down the names of every single person i had a nontrivial interaction with would be impractical. The ladies in the picture below, which some of you might recognize from my previous post in the Trelograms series, refilled my water bottles.
Towards the end of that same day, i asked another such group of lovely ladies chatting by the bench outside if they knew where i could sleep in my tent for one night. They gave me a lead three villages over, and when i was about to thank them and get back on my way one of them said, “wait!” and ran inside — she came back with enough food for another couple of days — “drum bun!“
Truly honorable mentions
What if i told you that the above is barely scratching the surface of my positive experience in Romania? In fact, all of the above is merely the countryside highlights of what happened within my first few days in the country up to that uncomfortable incident.
I’m deliberately leaving out of this story all the support and friendship i could so effortlessly find in the cities of Craiova, Bucharest and Galați from Alex, Raz, Alex, Dana, Nico, Anca, Paul, Lulu, Mihai, Robin, Dan and Giorgiana through Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. Can i at least share my experience touching Ioana’s bathroom tiles?
I’m also leaving out the tremendous amount of support and friendship i continued to find in the countryside after leaving Bucharest, most notably from Liviu, Margareta, Viorica and all other folks at Viorica’s magazin mixt, where a request for a safe place to pitch my tent for one night turned into an invitation to stay for the whole weekend and return more leisurely in the future.
To be clear, i never felt entitled to any of this hospitality — i’d simply gotten used to it, and probably reacted a lot more defensively than i need have when confronted with suspicion. This is one of the main reasons i want to speak better the language of my hosts in my next cycle touring project, which will likely involve a larger amount of time in a smaller number of countries. I wonder how the situation would have developed had i been able to interject, “why are you asking me these questions? — what do you expect from me?”
Does Romania deserve the reputation they have at least through much of Western Europe? I invite you to go check it out and see for yourself.
If your experience turns out anything like mine though, i must warn you Romanians might indeed steal something from you — a big piece of your heart!