I greeted Virgil with an over-the-top wave, and his usually passive, somewhat glum-looking face turned into a smile. The afternoon light was fast waning in Bucharest as we returned to the Pensiunea, and the same woman at the front desk also smiled to see me again. I dumped my bag and full-body-flopped onto the bed, feeling a serious sense of deja-vu as I went through nearly the same motions in nearly the same place as I had a bare three days ago. After a moment of checking in with my body and mind (no, I wasn’t hallucinating, yes, time had passed, yes, I was really in Romania about to attend my orientation as a Fulbright scholar), I decided the best way to make myself more comfortable would be to do what I do best: take action.
I reached for my phone, foregoing wrangling with my memory as to who, exactly, from the cohort of my new Fulbright colleagues had also already arrived in Bucharest and instead jumping straight into the easy-access, instant gratification of social media. Bare moments after throwing a “hey, anyone else in town and want to grab a beer?” onto the Facebook page we had made to introduce ourselves and keep in touch over the summer, and I had a handful of excited responses.
These were colleagues, or maybe friends, whom I had not yet met in person, but in another half hour, that would finally change. After going back and forth between chats, four of us had a location picked—Distrikt 42, a hip-looking bar in the Bucharest old town, would serve as our rendezvous point. Thankfully, the Fulbrighter who was actually placed in Bucharest, Bridget, was great help in clarifying directions, and another minute later I was reshouldering my jacket, dropping my room key at the front desk, and striding out the door into the cooled evening air.
The streets surrounding my hotel were as I remembered them from my outing to the park, busy with people and cars but not unfriendly to a stranger passing through. I wound my way down the stairs of the nearest metro and was pleasantly surprised to find the wide tunnels cleaner than anything I had seen in Paris or New York. I sent up a silent thank you to the gods of public transportation, assuming that they had purposefully made driving in Bucharest traffic as terrifying as possible as part of a trade-off that rendered using the metro as painless as possible. Romania’s always surprising me.
(That thought would come back to me constantly throughout my time in this country, but maybe it’s fitting that it started on orientation weekend in the capital).
The train sped through the dark underground smoothly, arriving at the large hub of Universitatea in pleasingly short time. Keeping my hands in my pockets and my eyes focused ahead of me, I tried to blend in with the jumbled flow of people as I climbed back up into the not-so-fresh downtown Bucharest air, turning this way and that and hoping I didn’t have a sign above my head that screamed “NEW IN TOWN” as I pinpointed where Bridget had told me to meet.
“The kind of weird-looking statue of people in front of the National Theatre” was, of course, rather hard to miss.
The over-dramatized, emotional faces of the stone actors towered above me, and I could have laughed as I stared at the artwork—it really could have been a mirror of my time in the theatre and the people I had known there. Arms akimbo, mouth open, eyes wide, shouting whatever it was I had on my mind to the world because if there was anything a theatre person refuses to be, it’s ignored. Before I could spend more time shaking my head at the oddly fitting realism of the absurd statue and how it called to me from my life working the stage, a young woman with springy hair the color of fallen oak leaves waved to me and welcomed me to her new hometown with a hug.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you!” Bridget and I took turns swapping exclamations, agreeing over how surreal it all seemed and laughing at the statue together one last time before we turned away to start the night. I gestured for her to lead the way, and we soon found ourselves staring at a small statue of the famed Roman she-wolf, with infant Remus and Romulus suckling under her. Behind the statue was the yawning mouth of a street that, had it not been for the loud pulsing lights pouring from the storefronts beyond it, would have been easy to pass by without much second thought. Bridget pointed into the street, giving me a moment to soak the atmosphere in before we dove into it. “This is part of the old town. We’ll find the bar in there somewhere. Do you have GPS? Hang on, maybe I do…”
“Oh, I got it,” I chimed, feeling lucky to have sniffed out a wifi connection. The green line on my screen showed us winding into the midst of the busy heart of Bucharest, truly on the hunt for a good beer. “Let’s go.”
We only had to double back once and politely swerve around a handful of waiters calling us into their respective restaurants before the unique steampunk front of the Distrikt42 bar came into sight. Huge gears, small gears, interlocked bolts and sockets patterned the walls, with a large wooden model of a flying ship hung from the ceiling, frozen mid-swoop. The low lighting gave the bar a relaxed, hip atmosphere, certainly making it a magnet on the night-out scene. We found a table for four with ease around the side of the building, unfortunately not directly in the tastefully-decorated front room, although we agreed that it was a nice trade-off for being able to hear each other over the music.
Bridget spoke with a keen interest in life and forward-thinking focus on her goals; her background in all things linguistics, including two other languages that we had in common, and her clear love for travelling and learning helped us click together immediately. We passed the time together jovially, sharing an appetizer platter and laughing over my Romanian pronunciation, before Sarah appeared, slightly out of breath but stylish and striking with bright eyes and infectious energy. “Hey, sorry, I ended up taking an Uber and then walked all over finding this place! It’s a maze in here!”
Sarah and I each took the opportunity to order a beer, and before the conversation got back to our previous flow, we found ourselves standing again with exclamations of welcome for Matthew, who had arrived as if dropped out of the sky. He accepted the empty seat and sank into it gratefully—his travel to Bucharest from his placement city of Sibiu, and then finding us in the warren of the old city, had been perhaps a little too much for one evening, but that’s what good Romanian beer was invented for, after all.
The four of us, never having met in person until just now as new glasses of golden Romanian beer were plunked in front of us, spend almost another hour chatting, swapping stories and interests and hopes for the year ahead. As the night grew longer, the Bucharest streets grew fuller. The heartbeat of the city picked up as the clock of the day wound down, but for the four of us, tired Americans who still felt a little in over our heads in this incredible place, it might as well have been Cinderella’s midnight; almost without questioning, we all decided to turn in at the same time and traded goodnights.
I tossed back the last of my second beer while Sarah and Matthew cheered and Bridget laughed, and as easily as we had met, we all drifted apart again to spend the night in our respective rooms. This time, after I made myself comfortable on the tightly-stretched mattress, it took a few minutes for my brain to slow enough for sleep to catch up to me: tomorrow would bring more people to meet, some rules to learn, some expectations that I hoped not only to follow but to exceed.
Finally, my body relaxed and I let my thoughts slip away in to the darkness.
Do I have to get up? I don’t teach tod—
I started awake, smacking my alarm to shut it up and springing out of bed. I grabbed the professional clothes that I had thankfully had the wherewithal to get out of my suitcase the night before, snagged the small travel bag with the essential IDs and breath mints, and bounded down the stairs. Monica had also bunked in this hotel, although we’d only seen each other in passing last night, and we had fixed a time for breakfast. I was running about ten minutes late to meet her and the other Fulbrighters, all new faces to me, who were assigned to this little bed and breakfast, but even as the smell of fresh coffee hit my brain and fully woke me up, I couldn’t worry about the finer points of “time” too much—everything ran a little bit late in Romania, after all.
Breakfast in the small, quaintly doily-decorated dining room was as large and excellent as my last stay, complete with fresh coffee and multiple cheeses. Monica was already there, along with three other new colleagues, and Sarah slipped in moments behind me.
We chatted and slurped coffee, joking about how we would need it for the long day of facts and information about to be thrown at us. Chealin, sweet and bubbly despite having just arrived in the country the day before, was talking excitedly about soon meeting her new Romanian colleagues at her placement in Craiova, and Stephen and Kaleigh were looking forward to living in historic, scenic Brasov for the year. We kept up our chatter, filling each other in on our backgrounds from across the US and our goals in Romania as we walked the short stretch from the hotel to the Fulbright Commission, just in time to grab more coffee and tea and pick seats in the meeting room.
Several chairs faced us, arranged in front of the large curving French-style windows that brought light into the room. Only a few minutes past the appointed time, and we were underway with a slew of more official introductions, not only amongst each other but also from the kind people who would be directing us throughout our time here. The Fulbright officials were warm and enthusiastic, and the representatives from the State Department, including my friend Jeff from the flight a few days before, were straight-to-the-point with their information for us (ranging from “avoid packs of dogs” to “please don’t pose with the Hungarian separatist flag”) but pleased to welcome us.
Hours of information, questions, and discussion were broken up by frequent coffee breaks and light fare for lunch—chicken bites, tasty Romanian dips and breads, and endless corvigi pretzel sticks. Still, even with the breaks, we were all relieved to trickle out of the squareish building in the late afternoon, eager to snag brief naps and change clothes before we were treated to a reception later that evening.
Now, when someone invites me to a reception, I personally know that I’m accustomed to more light finger-food fare, snacks, appetizers, and people dressed in business casual clothing standing around chatting together in a somewhat plain but tastefully decorated open room. Nothing in my experience with professional events, receptions, or otherwise prepared me for the elaborate, stunning old-style building, deep red wall and gilded windows that would house an evening of stuffing myself on a everything offered to me from a fully stocked buffet table. Romanian traditional dishes and schick appetizers crowded together on my plate, and everything I ate washed down well with deep red wine.
The delicious food and stunningly elegant-yet-comfortable atmosphere went to our heads (along with the wine), and I spent the entire evening delving far, far deeper than casual small-talk with my new colleagues. Sophia, full of energy and a powerful storyteller, recounted experiences that left our table in silent awe. Sarah told wild stories from her time in Kyrgzstan, everything from feasting traditions to the local oddities she was already missing.
As the evening and good cheer flowed on, and most of the guests took their leave, I migrated over to a table where Jeff, my diplomat friend, held an engrossed audience captive with his memories from working with the State Department in some truly dangerous areas of the world. I shook my head in wonder at the people around me and stretched my near-empty glass out to accept a refill from another friendly diplomat, John*, who rolled his eyes with good humor at the scene around us.
“Not what you expected in Romania, huh?” he asked as I sipped the wine and relaxed again into my chair. I shrugged.
“To be honest, I’m not sure what I expected. I visited here once before, but only Brasov, for a few days with a friend. That’s the experience that made me want to come back, honestly. I’m looking forward to…discovering the rest of the country, I guess.”
“It’s a nice place,” John agreed, but he said it as if he were biting his tongue, cutting himself off from finishing a thought. I raised an eyebrow at him and asked, half-serious and half-joking, “So, does that mean you like your job, or what?”
I hadn’t been expecting an honest answer, but John opened his mouth, paused, looked me dead in the eye, and replied flatly, “I liked it a lot better eight months ago, let’s put it like that.”
I blinked. Eight months—oh, right. Before the disastrous election that had put a toddler in charge of our nation. I burst out laughing, and John and I clinked glasses. His sardonic smile told me that in him, I had a real friend. “Cheers,” we said, “to Romania.”
It wasn’t until almost another two hours later, when only our table, a mix of American and Romanian Fulbrighters and two laughing, cheerful diplomats were the only guests left and the waiters had begun to shutter and lock the beautiful tall windows that we stood to go. After another few drinks and a discussion that to me seemed to encompass every topic in the world, John and Jeff made sure I had their contact information, and a new Romanian friend helped me pick a cab to get back to my hotel safely.
The wine and late hour dulled my excitement, but the evening had refueled my stores of energy and left a glow of happiness inside my chest as I slipped into sleep. Morning came far too quickly, but at least it was a morning of exploration rather than another meeting—the end to our orientation weekend was a trip to the nearby Peles Castle, former home to Romanian princes and kings in the beautiful Carpathian mountains.
A bus-load of American academics, all of us wide-eyed staring at the peaks of mountains through the fog, arrived at one of the most historical and subtly magnificent buildings in modern Romania. Peles Castle looked like it were straight out of a Disney film and could have been the Beast’s castle, if the Beast were into dark wooden interiors and crossbeams along with his spiral towers. I gazed about me in wonder, remembering the first time I had visited this seemingly timeless monument that bridged the gap between the Old Times of vampire lore, kings, and myths of cursed mountains to the modern age of tourism and urbanity. That visit three years ago with my friend from Brasov had inspired me to choose Romania as I applied to the Fulbright, and now, here I was again. I raised my camera to attempt to capture the view of the mountains and valley sprawling out around the Castle and clicked—the pictures were a little foggy, but to me, it couldn’t have been a more beautiful day.
After another lavish lunch of delicious Romanian fare, we huddled for silly group pictures and piled back into the bus. Monica and I would be flying together back to Iasi, full of knowledge and laying new plans.
And so did our orientation weekend come to a picturesque end. I had a sneaking feeling that I would be back in Bucharest sooner rather than later, of course, or maybe travelling across Romania to meet up with my new companions. Among the gifts this country and program would bring me, I knew from the past two days laughing and wondering with people I had never before met, would be friendship on a whole new level…almost as inspiring as mountains we found it in.