Fulbrighting in Romania, Chapter 1: Arrival

„It’s pronounced like „Yash,“ actually.“

Pronunciation guide:
Bucuresti = Bucharesht
Multumesc = muhlts-oo-mehsk („eh“ like „meh“)
Cu placere = koo plah-chair-ay

(Forgive my lack of both the Romanian diacritics and IPA notation–I figured this would just be easier for people to read and also learn a little…hell, learn Romanian with me!).

1 Arrival

Stripes and squares of land farmland in different autumn shades, with the hard edges of Bucharest breaking them up like a rip in fabric of the landscape, slowly came into focus as we continued our descent. My eyes still felt hot and achy, a result of only having snatched about four hours of foggy sleep over the course my two flights, but my body was slowly recalibrating as I shook off my lethargy and craned my neck to watch as we approached. Excitement began to rise in my chest as the wheels of the plane bumped along the runway, and I found myself almost floating out of the cabin in a haze that was a mix of exhaustion, satisfied happiness at having arrived, and astonishment that this could be real.

Looking around, I tuned my ears in to the chatter around me as if searching for a clear radio channel: only then, as the bouncing, rolling, almost mischievous sounds of the Romanian language came into focus, did the rising mist of excitement in my chest burst and sizzle and jolt me into full wakefulness. I grinned unashamedly and laughed aloud—I was really here. I was really a Fulbright scholar and I was really starting the next great adventure of my life, once again at home in Europe, but with a whole new culture and language to uncover.

My lazy, tired foot-dragging suddenly morphed into a determined swagger as I approached the border control. The man at the desk raised his eyebrows and offered me a polite smile as I pushed my passport and the Fulbright letter across the desk. He glanced at the passport, flicking through the pages with stamps and asking simply, “How many days will you stay?”

The grin resurfaced and I rocked back and forth on my feet to control my newfound energy. Ha. Days. Well, sir, as a matter of fact…“Nine months.”

Passport Man looked at me, eyebrows now raised in surprise. “Seriously?” His mouth seemed to twitch upwards in response to my grin, and after a second of scrutiny, he shrugged, amused, and stamped my booklet. “You will need a visa.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” I promised as I took my passport back and practically skipped through the doors, “I got this.”

I got this. I got this. Hell yeah, I got this.

Virgil, a short, somewhat vague-looking man with short grey hair and kind eyes, was waiting at the arrival gate to make sure that I had, indeed, “gotten” my luggage. He helped me lug the over-full bag to the compact van with the Fulbright sign in the window and moments later we were cruising down the highway. He gestured nonchalantly to the road ahead of us. “Welcome,” he said, with a slight dip of his head as if to excuse his English, “Eh, Bucuresti, the cars, traffic…” he waved his hand again as if to brush the cars aside, then shrugged. “But, you are welcome.”

Multumesc,” I said as clearly as I could, trying to convey that his English was most definitely better than my Romanian. My earnest face earned a chuckle from Virgil and he answered, “Ah, bine. Cu placere!” This was accompanied by another wave towards the changing scenery as we entered the city proper. “You see, Bucuresti. Capital of Romania!”

The capital, from the first moment, did not disappoint: trees still full with the last of their summer green suddenly parted to put the Arc de Triumph, smaller than its sister in Paris but just as grand in its aristocracy, on full display at the center of a large traffic circle. Survival of the fittest seemed to be the only traffic rule as Virgil swept us around the circle and further into the busy Sector 1 of Bucharest. Virgil played tour guide, pointing out a few landmarks until we pulled into a side street, parking in front of an inconspicuous hotel front with the name written above the door in simple block letters: PENSIUNEA HELVETIA.

Virgil, a true hero to all who have ever severely overpacked, helped me once again with my bags before bidding me goodnight and reminding me that he’d be back to take me to the airport for my final flight tomorrow at three in the afternoon, meaning I had about 24 hours to get a glimpse of Bucharest. Excellent, then, what would the first thing be on my list?

I made it to my small but comfortable room, and my body decided the answer as soon as I hit the clean white sheets: first, sleep. Then, adventure.

Two hours later, I found myself standing awkwardly in the lobby and frowning at the hotel’s front door. My nap, longer than I had meant it to be, had pushed my earlier exuberance to the back of my mind, and now a dull uncertainty thumped slowly in my chest in its place. Right, adventure…

            …shoot, where the hell do I even go?

My lack of knowledge of Bucharest yawned before me, a gaping pit separating me from any concrete plan. I ignored the little voice pointing out that, in spite of my excitement to uncover the opportunities ahead, that abyss, this hole punched in my plans, was reflective of the next nine months of my life—I was thrilled to be here, and I would charge ahead as I usually did, but this was the first time in a long, long while that I was charging without a thorough battle plan. Here I was in Romania, and would be arriving in my placement city tomorrow, and I was here to teach and share culture and…and…well, and what?

Irritated at myself and suddenly conscious that I was still staring angrily at the door, I banished these doubts. For pete’s sake, Mariah, you’re just going for a walk. You don’t need this existential crisis right now. Save it for when you get to Iasi, or something!

Sheesh.

With that, I gathered up my resolve and was about to jump into the cavern that was making a decision, pick any direction and wander as was befitting my mental preparedness, when the man at the front desk coughed politely to get my attention. “Ah, buna seara. Can I help you?”

Ohmygod, yes please. “Oh, well…I was just kind of wondering where to start.”

Although he couldn’t possibly guess the gravity that sentiment carried for me in that moment, he nodded thoughtfully and pondered. After a second, his face lit up and he pointed out the window to the swath of trees across the street. “You know the park? Right here. There is a festival tonight. Very big, with things to buy and food…”

Food? Oh, dude, you know what’s up. I thanked him and practically leapt out the door before I could change my mind.

The sky was still tinged navy blue as the sun slipped away and the city’s mellow yellow lights flickered on. Even in this quieter, residential corner of Sector 1, I could feel the city buzzing around me. The energy of Bucharest leaked through everything and kept the night and the creeping cold at bay as I crossed the street and meandered through a small copse of trees. Groups of people chatted at laughed on the sidewalk as I headed for the source of music ahead of me. A festival, how lucky, I love festivals…In another moment, I emerged from the trees to the open square of the park and froze again, mouth falling open. …holy shit.

            The open area stretched ahead of me to the base of a large stage, surrounded by people of all ages dancing and singing along with the traditionally-dressed performers. Large screens projected the spectacle for those in the back, and I stared in awe at the vivacious dancers twirling around the serene-looking woman singing. Her voice was full and comforting, alive with the stories the music was telling. As I watched and the songs changed, people began grabbing each other’s hands and forming circles; suddenly, half of the crowd was dancing, stepping in rhythm together with the beat of the music. I edged closer, hypnotized. As the song changed tempo and the circles slowed down to match, an older gentleman noticed me staring from the edges and reached out his hand to pull me into his group.

My stare shifted to my feet and I counted the beats under my breath as I tried to follow everyone else’s steps—right in, left tap, left out, right out, left in, oh drat, uh, right in—before the old man nudged me. I didn’t understand the Romanian he spoke laughingly to me, but I got the gist and forced myself to look up and let the music take over.

I danced three songs with the ever-growing circle of people, letting my shoulders relax as my feet found the rhythm and led me around in a merry dance that stomped my tired, nagging worries into the ground. I laughed in the crisp autumn air and watched my puff of breath fade into the night; the next few hours would be spent floating and exhilarated once again as I walked the length of the festival, gnawed gratefully on chunks of lamb smothered in garlic, and soaked up the magical atmosphere I had found myself in:

Wooden huts set up for the sale of traditional crafts, including stands laden with pastries, shopkeepers bustling to press and sell fresh juice, handmade jewelry and pottery across the spectrum of colors, a glassblower piping fire through a small ceramic dragon and twirling a gleaming droplet of molten glass into shape…

Singer after singer proudly belting folk songs and proclaiming their love for Bucharest with both upbeat melodies and slow, heartfelt ballads as dancers flashed their brightly colored and intricately detailed traditional outfits…

The spirit of every person around me, rising into the air with the clouds of their breath and filling the park, as warming and precious as the warmth from a cup of the hot spiced wine being sold…

All of this planted a seed comfortably in my heart by the time I returned to the hotel, full of both food and wonder, and now serene in the expectation of at least one thing to come in the near future:

I think I’m gonna love this place.

            The other uncertainty, I decided as I slipped at last into real restful sleep, will be part of the adventure.

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