How To Play Marunti

30 august 2007

When you first come to Romania, you will inevitably be invited to play a game. The invitation will come unannounced and you will have no choice about whether to play unless you are quite prepared.

The game’s rules are not enshrined in any rulebook, nor is there any official name, but it is nonetheless the game of Marun?i (maroonts).

The word marunt means a lot of things, including “remainder”, “bit” or “leftover” as well as “little piece”. In this case however it means change, referring to money, especially coins.

When you go into any store of any size and the total rings up to be something less than even than the size of any single bill, ie 1.60 lei instead of a much more pleasing 2 lei, the game of Marun?i has now begun! Gird your loins and hunker down for the negotiations have now begun.

Option one: hand the cashier 2 lei and make a sad face and moan about how you wish with all of your heart that you had change (marun?i), the offending 60 bani, but due to your grandmother’s recent illness, the crop failure down in the Banat, the incompetence of the Romanian government and other signs of a hex upon your miserable life, you simply do not have it.

You will know you have won this round of Marun?i if you get a 50 bani coin back. Smile, for victory is yours!

Option two: Despite your pleadings and “woe is me” tale, the hawk-faced cashier gives you the “stone” face and all your acting is for naught. You simply will not get 50 bani from her.

Instead she will force you to buy several cheap items to make up the 40 bani difference, located at the register for just this purpose. Your choices are:

1) A box of matches
2) A piece of generic hard candy
3) A small tube of instant coffee powder
4) Bouillon cube
5) A single piece of gum

The gum and bouillon cube are often worth 20 bani, the rest 10 bani apiece. Your only hope of calling this round of Marun?i a draw is to NOT let the cashier choose your “consolation prize” and instead argue for matches instead of candy , or whatever your preference may be.

Warning: No matter how friendly you are, do NOT attempt to return to the store at a later date with a large sack of matches and hard candy and attempt to use this as “coin of the realm” to buy something. They will not be amused ;)

Welcome to Romania and good luck playing Marun?i.

Peace


I am alive

28 iunie 2007

Well I know some people in my "real life" read this so let me just post this: I am alive and fine. :)

I’ve been traveling all over Romania lately and will likely do so a lot more in the next few weeks as well. What can I say? It’s my last chance to see this country. That’s life. I want to see what I can when I can.

More when I can.

Peace


Lazy Blogger

26 mai 2007

Well I realize I’ve been a downright lazy poster on here and that’s something for which there is nothing to blame but my own laziness.

I’ve been working a lot and that’s been a good thing (we all need income, right?) and I’ve been walking around a lot, enjoying the absolutely fantastic weather but I still should’ve been blogging more. Blogging is something like an exercise program – it works best when you do a little every day instead of a lot once in a while :)

I’m still in the gorgeous city of Brasov but will soon head to Cluj. I should’ve been there a long time ago but I just love this city so much and I’ve also been working a lot so the two of those factors have been a major impediment to any eagerness to head back to Cluj. I guess one of the major benefits of my "lifestyle" is I have a lot of flexibility in terms of what I do and when I do it.

Besides blogging about my own life, I’ve also been wanting to say a few words about Romania and Romanian culture and language. What’s been strange to me is that it’s becoming more and more difficult for me to do that – more and more difficult for me to completely retain my identity as an American and not as some kind of quasi-Romanian.

To give you a brief illustration:

The other day I went to McDonald’s for some french fries (absurdly overpriced but see below). The price was 4 "new" lei. The currency switched in 2005 and all of the old bills have been entirely removed from circulation. However most Romanians (and me included) tend to talk and think of the "old" lei. So in this case the cash register said 4 lei but both I and the cashier were thinking "40 thousand" of the old lei.

I handed her a 10 lei bill to pay, which is 100,000 lei in the old money. She then apologized for not having the right change and gave me only a 50 bani coin, which is 5000 old lei.

Just in case you’re confused, the price is 4 lei, I paid with 10, therefore the change was supposed to be 6 lei . She attempted to give me 6 (thousand) old lei instead of 60,000 old lei because all that registered in her mind was the number "six". So instead of giving me 6 lei she gave me 50 bani (bani are "cents").

To make it even simpler, imagine in America if you went to a store and bought something for 4 bucks and you paid with 10 and the cashier gave you 60 cents back instead of 6 dollars.

Now the reason I told you all of this isn’t just to show you how people still get confused by the old currency but because when she did this I snapped back at her in Romanian without even thinking. She apologized immediately after realizing the mistake and it was no big deal for me but it wasn’t until I was walking out of the store that I had reacted in Romanian without even hesitating. Making the order was easy as I knew what I wanted to say but when I was surprised by the shortchanging I still kept my mind in "Romanian mode" I guess and that was surprising to me because I hadn’t realized it was so deeply embedded.

It also used to be in this very same town (Brasov) that the wait staff in the downtown restaurants would greet me in English. They’re used to a lot of tourists and I guess I looked sufficiently foreign enough to be identified as one. Well I still dress and look the same but now I find people address me in Romanian. I’ll hear them at the next table helping a tourist in English but with me it’s in Romanian. I don’t have much of an explanation for that really. I guess I could speak English with them too but I almost always speak Romanian with Romanians simply as a sign of respect because I’m in their country.

By the way, I usually detest American fast food joints (even when I’m in America) and Romanian food is so much better but there is one redeeming reason to go to McDonald’s or another American place (like KFC ): the french fries. Not only are they good (in my opinion) but french fries from a Romanian fast food place are absolutely horrible. The Romanian places will make a batch in the morning and leave it all day and just microwave it when you order it. Obviously that ruins the flavor and texture. So if all you want is some french fries, find an American place.

That being said, if you sit down at a restaurant in Romania and order fries, they’re just as good or sometimes better than a fast food place. They’re also made when you order them and come out fresh and crispy like they’re supposed to be. So it’s only when you’re choosing fast food that you should avoid Romanian french fries.

So I guess my point of all of the above is simply how it’s getting harder and harder to be "objective" and look in from the "outside" at Romania and Romanian culture. Things which would immediately appear strange and odd have become normal here for me. There are some Romanian customs which irk me and those I tend to remember simply because I have no desire to adopt them but the ones I do like are hard to bring to mind because they seem "obvious".

I really, really want to write an entire article about Romanian things which bug the snot out of me but that seems to be entirely too negative for my taste, and I really DO love Romania so that seems a bit ungrateful. Maybe I’ll write a kind of "cheers" and "jeers" of what I like/dislike about Romanian culture so we keep it in balance.

In the meantime, I’ve managed to add some new photos. Some are on the link in the sidebar to my "photoblog" and some are on the Flickr link, so take your pick as I don’t think there’s too much overlap.

Pax


Photo Time

11 mai 2007

Ok I think I’ve got at least one photograph correctly uploaded so you can see what it looks like today in Brasov.

If I am right, you should see a thumbnail fairly high up on the right-hand column. Clicking on that should take you to the full-size photo.

If I have correctly gotten the hang of this, I’ll keep adding more photographs. Hope you enjoy!

Pax


A Perfect Day

11 mai 2007

Oh my goodness, I am literally writing this to you from paradise.

As I said yesterday, I made it to Brasov, down from the mountains. I’ve always loved this city and I recommend it to everyone who ever even thinks about coming to Brasov. But today is especially gorgeous because it’s out first warm day of the year! It’s been somewhat warm and sunny in the south but in Transylvania up until now it’s been somewhat chilly and dreary. Today however is deliciously warm and the sun is shining and the water in the fountain is simply sparkling.

Up in the mountains I was crouched up in the attic trying to get a weak signal. Here in the central square in Brasov (within spitting distance of the famous Black Church) I have three different free wi-fi signals to use to upload this. What more could I ask for?

I’ve got my charger now from America (thanks!) and it works perfectly. I am now back to using my beloved Mac laptop and I feel truly liberated. I’ve been able to keep up with my day job and still have time to sit here and soak in the rays and watch the foot traffic and enjoy an absolutely perfect day.

I’ve also got my camera and I will do my best to try and upload these photos so you too can share a little slice of paradise with me ;) I’m still kind of new to the Mac so I’m tinkering around with image editing software but when I get it straightened out I will begin putting some more photos online. I also know this blog now has a photo page feature and I will try and get that working as well. Just be patient a little bit more and we’ll be "cooking with gas" once again.

Here’s a little tip for any American tourist in Romania: if you’re desperately homesick for the same kind of weak, burned, coffee you’re used to, then buy your coffees in the American fastfood chains like KFC or McDonald’s. That is my recommendation if you can’t handle the superbly brewed espressos made from real Arabica beans that they sell for half the price in delightful sidewalk terraces and cafes here ;)

I almost feel like a local as yesterday I saw a poor, dazed Australian tourist walking around with a Lonely Planet guidebook open and was having serious trouble finding a pensiune (small inn/hotel) in town. There’s nothing better than both helping out a fellow traveler as well as being able to give directions.

For some reason (and I’ve got my theories), most Romanians are genetically incapable of giving even the most simple of directions even to a place they know well that’s in a city they’ve lived in all their lives. It always used to frustrate me greatly that I would ask people where something was and get vague, incomplete directions, replete with Communist-era street names (which haven’t been used for 18 years now) and references to local nicknames for buildings. Therefore there’s some kind of inner righteousness that gets satisfied whenever I’m able to give someone directions somewhere, with double brownie points for when I do it in Romanian language for a Romanian ;)

If you’re planning on coming to Brasov or anywhere else in Romania, I recommend you look for maps online before you come. I don ‘t have the link with me at the moment but I do know there are several good city maps online including with searchable addresses (for Cluj I’m sure this is true).

If paper maps are your thing, the best place to find them is in the nicest bookstore in town. The word for bookstore is libraria (library is biblioteca) and there’s always one somewhere in the heart of downtown. You’ll be out of luck if you’re trying to find one of a city different from where you are (i.e. a Cluj map in Brasov) but you generally can find one of the town where you are.

If you’re a true techno geek, there are GPS maps online for Bucharest so you can both see where you are and find out where you want to go . Considering the insanity that is Bucharest, the GPS thing is probably a good idea. I haven’t tried it yet but I do know it is available. I don’t really get into the whole GPS thing since I’ve got a fairly good inborn navigational system but I haven’t tried getting around Bucharest on my own either ;)

After this weekend, I’m not sure what my plans are. I’ve got some work to take care of while I’m here (even with wi-fi in the house where I’m staying) and then I’ll probably head back to Cluj for a while because I’ve got some local stuff to take care of, primarily getting my long-term visa and for that I will need some help.

So that’s it for now but I will be updating a lot more frequently now that I’ve come down from the mountains (literally). I loved the peace and quiet and natural setting up there but sometimes it’s nice to be in the city where there are stores, phone cards and high-speed internet available.

Pax


Back in Business ;)

10 mai 2007

Well I’ll keep this short but I’ve made it down from the mountains and back to "civilization", in other words the gorgeous town of Brasov. I am indeed in fact sitting in a lovely cafe in downtown looking at the tourists having fun and using the free Wi-Fi .

Will write more shortly!

Pax


Iarba Verde in May

6 mai 2007

Well folks it’s coming up on Memorial Day in America, a big holiday, but we had ours here in Romania back on May first. Originally a true labor holiday (as well as being connected to some fertility rites), the Communists co-opted the day as the pan-movement universal day to celebrate the Workers with a big W. Practically every Romanian city has a street named "May 1" from those days but now it’s mostly just a day off from work and a chance to party.

May 1 happened to fall on a Tuesday this year so most bugetari (literally "those of the budget" but meaning government workers) had the preceding Monday off as well as many private employers. Therefore it was quite a nice four-day weekend for lots of people even if the temperatures were a little bit chilly (and it rained at the beach from what I heard).

Which gives me a perfect segue to explain a Romanian custom of iarb? verde (lit: "green grass") or sometimes called aer liber (lit: "free (unrestricted) air"). During the Communist era, there was a strong push to urbanize the population. That plus better economic incentives in the post-Revolution era have created a large segment of the population which lives in densely-packed apartment blocks or choked city streets. I’ve spent the majority of my time in Romania living in cities and I can tell you it can be very overwhelming: cars honking and zooming by at all hours, people shouting and laughing on the streets, music blasting out of car and apartment windows, blowing dust, etc.

Therefore city-dwelling Romanians take every opportunity they can to get to iarb? verde, literally head out of the city to find the first piece of greenery they can find. They’ll pack a picnic lunch, park the car on a strip of greenery somewhere, crank up the tunes on the car stereo and have a little cookout. Then at the end of the day they’ll head back home. Those with a little more money might do the same, only spend the night at an inn or hotel (as did many people at the hotel where I live).

The standard Romanian "cookout" for a day of aer liber is: mici (also called mititei, both literally meaning "small ones") and/or pork chops and/or slanin?, all of which is grilled. A salad of raw vegetables, most typically tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and radishes is prepared on-site with maybe a dash of salt and pepper and oil. And all of this is eaten with a few slices of bread and several bottles of beer, sometimes wine and very often ?uica (or rachior, etc) with soft drinks (sucuri) for the kids.

A brief explanation about some of the food items mentioned above:

mici (MEETCH) – This is the "hotdog" of Romania although not because it resembles an American hotdog but because of its universal consumption. Mici are small, dark-colored sausages that are sold and eaten just about everywhere in Romania, usually at a very economical price and served with a dollop of mustard. I myself don’t eat sausage but I’ve had mici before and I’ve never met any foreigner who didn’t like them (if they eat sausage meats).

slanin? (SLAH-NEENA) – I might be slightly wrong about how this is made but I believe slanin? is made by smoking pork fat. It is literally a big chunk of pure fat and contains no meat. I’ve seen Romanians eat it "raw" but they prefer it best when it is grilled and served with (raw) onions. It’s fine if you don’t eat slanin? but Romanians tend to get a little offended if you express disgust at consuming slices of pure pig fat so don’t do it.

?uica (TSWEEKA) – There are about 10 different synonyms and variations of this but essentially what I’m referring to is the most popular Romanian (almost always homemade) liquor. It’s a very strong spirit and is called "Romanian whiskey" in some guidebooks but it isn’t a whiskey at all but rather made from fruit, most typically prunes. Romanian drinkers are connoisseurs of the various methods of making this drink and if you stay here long enough, you’ll discover your favorite. If you want to make a friend for life, learn to compliment someone on the ?uica they made themselves ;)

suc (SOOK) – Technically speaking, the word suc just means "juice" and should only refer to the liquid extracted from a fruit. The technical term for a soft drink is bauturi racoritoare (lit: "cooling/refreshing drinks") but that’s a mouthful even for Romanians and so everyone just says suc to mean soft drink. Americans tend to mean carbonated drinks like colas or Sprite type beverages when they say "soft drinks" while Romanians tend to more commonly mean drinks with a lot less (or no) carbonation, often just sugar water with a dose of fruit flavor, or often bizarrely drinks that mix sugar, aspartame and sucrose as sweeteners. If you have an aversion to chemical sweeteners or dietary sensitivies, read the labels very carefully as Romanians tend to just go for whatever tastes best without regard to content.

It’s worth noting here that "cola" is generally considered a separate category from "suc" in general and is referred to by that name. Therefore a "suc" is usually any type of sweetened non-alcoholic beverage from Sprite to third-rate fruit "drinks" but generally not Coca-Cola type beverages.

So that’s basically your typical Romanian warm-weather holiday and every weekend or day off, Romanians will leave the cities in droves to have a little iarb? verde time. Unlike the United States and other countries, every square inch of property isn’t fenced off and boundaried and so you’ll see Romanians parking just about anywhere that doesn’t seem to obviously belong to someone.

I once was riding the train from Oradea to Cluj and there’s a segment in Bihor Province where the train track parallels the river there. I was riding on a May 1 day I believe (or maybe it was just a warm Spring weekend) and anywhere someone could inch a car near the river banks they were camped out there for the day and having a little aer liber.

Bonus: if you ever get a chance, ride that train from Oradea to Cluj as the scenery is absolutely spectacular. I’ve been on that route in both winter and summertime and it’s just gorgeous and a wonderful way to see Romania from the comfort of a train. If you take the train from Budapest to Cluj, you’ll be on this route ;)

I’m not sure where you, dear Reader, are but hopefully you’re enjoying a nice warm Spring day and perhaps you too might feel the urge for a little iarb? verde or picnic. If so, I heartily recommend it and all I ask is that you take a sip of your favorite beverage for me ;)

Pax


Iarba Verde in May

6 mai 2007

Well folks it’s coming up on Memorial Day in America, a big holiday, but we had ours here in Romania back on May first. Originally a true labor holiday (as well as being connected to some fertility rites), the Communists co-opted the day as the pan-movement universal day to celebrate the Workers with a big W. Practically every Romanian city has a street named "May 1" from those days but now it’s mostly just a day off from work and a chance to party.

May 1 happened to fall on a Tuesday this year so most bugetari (literally "those of the budget" but meaning government workers) had the preceding Monday off as well as many private employers. Therefore it was quite a nice four-day weekend for lots of people even if the temperatures were a little bit chilly (and it rained at the beach from what I heard).

Which gives me a perfect segue to explain a Romanian custom of iarb? verde (lit: "green grass") or sometimes called aer liber (lit: "free (unrestricted) air"). During the Communist era, there was a strong push to urbanize the population. That plus better economic incentives in the post-Revolution era have created a large segment of the population which lives in densely-packed apartment blocks or choked city streets. I’ve spent the majority of my time in Romania living in cities and I can tell you it can be very overwhelming: cars honking and zooming by at all hours, people shouting and laughing on the streets, music blasting out of car and apartment windows, blowing dust, etc.

Therefore city-dwelling Romanians take every opportunity they can to get to iarb? verde, literally head out of the city to find the first piece of greenery they can find. They’ll pack a picnic lunch, park the car on a strip of greenery somewhere, crank up the tunes on the car stereo and have a little cookout. Then at the end of the day they’ll head back home. Those with a little more money might do the same, only spend the night at an inn or hotel (as did many people at the hotel where I live).

The standard Romanian "cookout" for a day of aer liber is: mici (also called mititei, both literally meaning "small ones") and/or pork chops and/or slanin?, all of which is grilled. A salad of raw vegetables, most typically tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and radishes is prepared on-site with maybe a dash of salt and pepper and oil. And all of this is eaten with a few slices of bread and several bottles of beer, sometimes wine and very often ?uica (or rachior, etc) with soft drinks (sucuri) for the kids.

A brief explanation about some of the food items mentioned above:

mici (MEETCH) – This is the "hotdog" of Romania although not because it resembles an American hotdog but because of its universal consumption. Mici are small, dark-colored sausages that are sold and eaten just about everywhere in Romania, usually at a very economical price and served with a dollop of mustard. I myself don’t eat sausage but I’ve had mici before and I’ve never met any foreigner who didn’t like them (if they eat sausage meats).

slanin? (SLAH-NEENA) – I might be slightly wrong about how this is made but I believe slanin? is made by smoking pork fat. It is literally a big chunk of pure fat and contains no meat. I’ve seen Romanians eat it "raw" but they prefer it best when it is grilled and served with (raw) onions. It’s fine if you don’t eat slanin? but Romanians tend to get a little offended if you express disgust at consuming slices of pure pig fat so don’t do it.

?uica (TSWEEKA) – There are about 10 different synonyms and variations of this but essentially what I’m referring to is the most popular Romanian (almost always homemade) liquor. It’s a very strong spirit and is called "Romanian whiskey" in some guidebooks but it isn’t a whiskey at all but rather made from fruit, most typically prunes. Romanian drinkers are connoisseurs of the various methods of making this drink and if you stay here long enough, you’ll discover your favorite. If you want to make a friend for life, learn to compliment someone on the ?uica they made themselves ;)

suc (SOOK) – Technically speaking, the word suc just means "juice" and should only refer to the liquid extracted from a fruit. The technical term for a soft drink is bauturi racoritoare (lit: "cooling/refreshing drinks") but that’s a mouthful even for Romanians and so everyone just says suc to mean soft drink. Americans tend to mean carbonated drinks like colas or Sprite type beverages when they say "soft drinks" while Romanians tend to more commonly mean drinks with a lot less (or no) carbonation, often just sugar water with a dose of fruit flavor, or often bizarrely drinks that mix sugar, aspartame and sucrose as sweeteners. If you have an aversion to chemical sweeteners or dietary sensitivies, read the labels very carefully as Romanians tend to just go for whatever tastes best without regard to content.

It’s worth noting here that "cola" is generally considered a separate category from "suc" in general and is referred to by that name. Therefore a "suc" is usually any type of sweetened non-alcoholic beverage from Sprite to third-rate fruit "drinks" but generally not Coca-Cola type beverages.

So that’s basically your typical Romanian warm-weather holiday and every weekend or day off, Romanians will leave the cities in droves to have a little iarb? verde time. Unlike the United States and other countries, every square inch of property isn’t fenced off and boundaried and so you’ll see Romanians parking just about anywhere that doesn’t seem to obviously belong to someone.

I once was riding the train from Oradea to Cluj and there’s a segment in Bihor Province where the train track parallels the river there. I was riding on a May 1 day I believe (or maybe it was just a warm Spring weekend) and anywhere someone could inch a car near the river banks they were camped out there for the day and having a little aer liber.

Bonus: if you ever get a chance, ride that train from Oradea to Cluj as the scenery is absolutely spectacular. I’ve been on that route in both winter and summertime and it’s just gorgeous and a wonderful way to see Romania from the comfort of a train. If you take the train from Budapest to Cluj, you’ll be on this route ;)

I’m not sure where you, dear Reader, are but hopefully you’re enjoying a nice warm Spring day and perhaps you too might feel the urge for a little iarb? verde or picnic. If so, I heartily recommend it and all I ask is that you take a sip of your favorite beverage for me ;)

Pax


A Brief Intro to Romanian Etiquette

27 aprilie 2007

Well I’ve got a little time on my hands this morning and I’ve been "back" in Romania a while now so I thought I’d scribble a little guide to basic Romanian etiquette.

Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list but it’s a few things to keep in mind when visiting or living in Romania.

1) Whenever anyone who is not a total stranger eats some kind of food in front of you, or eats with you or eats within range of your vision, wish them either "pofta mare" or "pofta buna".

Literally this phrase means "big appetite" or "large appetite", the same as "bon appetit" in English/French. And anytime you eat in front of someone else, they will wish you the same. The standard response is "multumesc" or "mersi" (thank you).

Romanians almost never say "grace" or conduct any other rituals before eating other than the mutual wishing of "bon appetit".

2) When you shake someone’s hand, always, always, always do it with the right hand. If you’re holding something in your right hand, set it down and shake hands. If your right hand is wet, dry it off. Do whatever you have to do but use the right hand only.

3) When you are introduced to someone, it is generally the custom (with some exceptions – see below) to shake hands. Whether you shake hands or not, when you’re directly looking at the person you spontaneously state your first name. You don’t need to do the American style, "Hi my name is [name], how do you do?" just say your first name only.

4) Whenever you shake someone’s hand at any time, it’s a one time grasp of the fingers in the "normal" style and without any pumping or excessive squeezing of any kind.

If you’re a man and you’re being introduced to someone and they’re within shaking hands range, shake the person’s hand. Don’t squeeze it super hard in a display of machoism, just shake it neutrally. If you’re a man shaking a woman’s hand, shake it very, very gently.

If you’re a woman and you’re being introduced to someone, you can shake hands or not but it’s more common if you’re meeting a man. Shake hands as limply and weakly as possible, basically hold your hand out to be briefly grasped.

If you’re a man and you’re encountering another man you know, it’s a sign of respect to shake hands. The easiest way to learn when this is appropriate is wait for the Romanian person to stick their hand out and then you know you’re on a "shake and greet" basis.

If you’re a man and you’re encountering another woman you know, skip the handshakes forevermore. If you know them only a little, you nod your head slightly and that’s it. If you know them better or you haven’t seen them in a while, you kiss them on each cheek one time. If you’re not sure what to do, skip the cheek kissing and nobody will be offended.

If you’re a woman and you’re encountering another man you know very well, then move in for the one kiss on each cheek. Otherwise do nothing but say hello . If you’re not sure what to do, do nothing and nobody will be offended.

If you’re a woman and you’re encountering another woman you know very well, you’ll do the one kiss on each cheek thing. If you’re unsure whether you’re at that level yet, wait until the other woman initiates the cheek kissing thing and then you’ll know.

Therefore the rule of thumb is shake someone’s hand loosely (with the right hand) one time and state your name when being introduced. After that, go by what others are doing and if you’re unsure what to do, do nothing.

5) There are four ways to say the English phrase "excuse me" in Romanian:

When you didn’t hear or understand what someone says, say "poftim?" whether it’s a friend or stranger. Saying "ce?" in some circumstances is okay with friends but "ce cu tine?" means "what’s the matter with you?" and therefore "ce" alone can be misconstrued.

When you’re making your way through a crowd and want to say "excuse me" say "pardon".

When you accidentally bump into someone or want to apologize for some kind of mistake you’ve made, say "ma scuzati" (mah skoozats).

If you stop a stranger to ask for directions or something else, begin by saying "sa nu va suparati" (sah new vah super ats) or "sa nu va deranjati" (dare ahn jats) which means "Please don’t be angry/upset".

6) If you’re a woman, don’t smoke on the street. You can smoke anywhere else, including in a bar with a window to the street or even at a terrace that’s half on the street. Just don’t walk down the street and smoke as it’s considered "whorish" behavior for some reason although nobody will ever tell you this (but me).

7) You can wear whatever kind of clothes you want, including some pretty outlandish or odd stuff, but it must always be clean (free of stains especially) and without wrinkles. Always. If your shoes or pantlegs are dirty, change as soon as you possibly can.

8) Whenever you leave any kind of store or business whatsoever, from food market to restaurant to large department store , say "la revedere" (goodbye) to the clerk or person you interacted with. Even if you come in and just browse and don’t buy, it’s best to say "la revedere" when you leave. If you shop there every day of your life for 10 years, still say "la revedere" when you leave.

It seems incredibly odd to do this at first, especially because it literally means "see you later" and you might never be in that store again in your life, but it’s not America, is it? :)

Basically you must say "goodbye" in some fashion whenever you leave someone and "la revedere" is used for all occasions except people you are very close with. With them you can say either "pa" (bye) or "ciao" (chow).

9) If you ever serve anyone some food or drinks, do it from the person’s right. If you are being served, be aware that they’re gonna set down your dishes from the right so make a space accordingly if you need to.

10) There are several ways to say "hello" and it is sometimes (semi)obligatory.

When answering the phone, say "Alo"

From the early morning hours until about 8:00 or 9:00am say "Buna dimineata" (boonah deemeenatsa)

All day long say "buna ziua" (boonah zeewah)

Starting either when it gets dark (winter) or about 6:00 or 7:00 pm, say "buna seara" (boona sara).

If you are very familiar with someone it is possible to say just "buna" as it is. Saying "noapte buna" (goodnight) is reserved only for when you or the other person is heading off to bed to go to sleep.

If you vaguely know anyone whatsoever, always say "hello". Always. This includes: neighbors in your apartment building, store clerks where you shop regularly and any work or school colleagues you’ve spoken to ever before in your life. If you’re in a small town or village or any rural setting, say "hello" to every single person you encounter no matter what.

If it is a close friend or acquaintance you can either say "ciao" or "servus" (Transylvania only) and you’ll know when this is appropriate because they will do it to you.

Special note: Starting on easter Sunday and continuing for a few days afterwards, people greet each other with "Hristos a inviat" (Christ has risen) instead of or before saying "hello". The response to this must be "adverat a inviat" (truly he has risen) and if that’s too much of a mouthful for you just say "adeverat".

11) Regardless of your religious beliefs and regardless of how little someone you’re talking to appears to be religious, be aware that loose talk or "blasphemous" speech about Christianity is not very well tolerated at all. Don’t ridicule religious (especially Romanian Orthodox) customs or traditions even in an attempt to make a light-hearted joke of some kind.

Romanian speech doesn’t have any of the swear words that English does such as "God damnit" which use religious phrases to connote anything unpleasant so don’t do so yourself.

Romanians assume everyone is a Christian on some level or another so anything other than that (from Judaism to agnosticism to atheism) is almost incomprehensible and is not worth bringing up unless you really need to.

Even if someone appears to not be much of a believer, basically it’s never a good idea to attack or be overly critical of Christian beliefs. Save the theological debates for only your very closest friends.

12) Throwing garbage on the street is rude but commonplace and tolerated. However don’t spit or "hawk a loogie" on the street. Burping is slightly crass but is generally tolerated without comment especially when done by a man and is not such a major faux pas as it is in America.

13) Romanians dislike air currents or air movement of any kind ("curent" in Romanian language) and believe it causes sickness. Therefore don’t turn on a fan, air conditioner or open a window when around Romanians unless it is extremely hot or you see others do it first.

Romanians believe sickness enters the body through the ears primarily and also via an unprotected neck/throat area. Therefore you will often see people with scarves or mufflers over their ears or wads of cotton jammed in their eardrums.

14) If you are not using a public bathroom (toilet) and there is any kind of identifiable leavings or traces on the bowl after you flush (I’m speaking delicately here), you must use the brush to remove these immediately. I’m telling you this for your own good!

15) Whenever you enter any kind of store, use the shopping cart or handbasket that’s provided no matter what. If you’re buying a single candy bar, get the basket, place the candy bar in the basket and proceed to the checkout.

16) With extremely few exceptions, no stores will provide plastic or paper bags for your purchases. Therefore bring your own from home or (in some cases) buy them at the store.

17) Romanian stores often "mysteriously" run out of smaller change (less than 1 leu/10,000 old lei – the green bill) and will make a long, sad face about how they wish they could give you your change but can’t. They will often instead give you a piece of candy or other oddities (like a single creamer for coffee) in lieu of change.

Whatever you do, you can’t spend that candy or coffee creamer the next time you go shopping so you’re just out of luck. The best thing to do is save your coins from shopping at larger stores and then you won’t get caught out with a pocketful of candy you don’t want.

18) " Cafea naturala " means real coffee and "Ness" means instant coffee. If you order real coffee, it is usually served black with two packets of sugar and a small spoon on the side. If you want milk you have to ask for it and it costs extra (often 50 bani or 5000 old lei) and is usually a single creamer and not real milk.

If you order "Ness" it’s going to come automatically with a tremendous dose of sugar added in there for you. Therefore if you want something different (less or no sugar) with Ness or more sugar with real coffee, you have to ask.

19) If you order tea (ceai), you’ll almost never get real tea. Most Romanians only drink herbal or fruit teas and so if tea is your thing, buy it at the grocery store and bring it with you.

20) No matter who you are, after you order at a Romanian restaurant, the waiter/ waitress will snatch it away from you. If you’re obviously a foreigner (and sometimes if you’re a local), the final bill might have been slightly "adjusted" upwards.

If you’re ever suspicious that the prices are too high or the bill isn’t correct, ask for or get the menu back and carefully examine your bill. The waiter/waitress will make a large hue and cry about how "sorry" they are for the "mistake" but it’s your money so stand up for it.

The good news is that this happens a lot less often now than in the past. Usually if you get a machine printed bill or receipt, everything’s fine. It’s the handwritten ones you need to examine more carefully.

21) If you’re in a taxi anywhere in the country, 99% of the time they’ll start the meter (called the "ceas" or clock in Romanian) and the total price is completely legitimate. Only a small "rounding up" tip is necessary or expected.

In Bucharest however the taxi drivers are often aggressive and surly and will query you before you even get in about where you want to go. They will often not turn the meter on and so be very careful when negotiating a price with these lunatics.

22) City buses stop only at pre-determined stops which are often quite far apart. In the middle of the day, the bus will stop at every stop automatically. Sometimes however during the night or when it’s not very crowded, you will need to press the button to request the stop.

Bus tickets (and tickets for the tramvai (tram) and subway in Bucharest) are never bought while on board. You have to use your magical homing skills to find a small dilapidated shack (kiosk) where these are sold at differing, sometimes odd hours.

The tickets change color at the beginning of each month so don’t hoard tickets at the end of the month. The tickets are valid until you board the bus (or tramvai etc) and then you have to find some kind of machine to "validate" the ticket.

If you’re lucky, there’s a nice modern machine where you insert your ticket and some kind of information is printed on it. If you’re on an ancient bus in Cluj for example, then you have to look for a round metal button that punches an octagonal hole in the end of your ticket using mechanical means.

Most cities sell either single-use tickets (more rare) or double-use tickets (more common). Therefore be careful not to "validate" your ticket on both ends if it’s a double-use ticket.

The bus driver will never interact with the passengers. Sometimes a ticket inspector will board the vehicle (often in civilian clothes) and will then do a spontaneous check to see who has a validated ticket. If you’re caught riding without one, there is a large fine and it’s a major hassle if you don’t speak fluent Romanian.

If you want to avoid even any long conversation with the inspector, just hold your validated ticket in plain sight while you’re on board and then he will just pass you by without saying anything.

23) The expression to ask someone what time it is in Romanian is "cat e ceasul" (cut eh chasool). You might be too timid to ask someone but I’m telling you this because you will get asked yourself.

Romanians tell time in the "British" style, meaning they say the hour and the minute up to 29 minutes (for example: it’s 1:12 or 4:29), and say "minus" for the other half of the hour (for example: it’s six minus 25 or 4 minus 14). You can just say the hour and the number no matter what (it’s four fifty-four) if you want but be aware people will tell you odd mathematical subtraction equations if you ask them what time it is.

24) In general, Romanians are usually on time especially for business or professional meetings. With friends and acquaintances it’s ok to run a little late without it offending anyone (up to about an hour in most circumstances).

Sometimes, Romanians have an odd fixation with exact measurements of time. For example if you order a pizza or call for a taxi, they’ll tell you something like "it’ll be there in six minutes". They may be right and they may be wrong but that’s what they say.

25) On the other hand, "imediat" in Romanian sounds like the English word "immediately". Be aware that "imediat" means anywhere from a minute to 15 minutes.

"Acuma" (now) sometimes means now but often means anywhere from 1-5 minutes. "Chiar acuma" (right now) means 1-3 minutes.

26) Feel free to blast your music as loud as you want to from about 10am to 1pm and 4pm to 8pm. If you don’t wish to do this, be aware that your neighbors will unless you live in a cave in the mountains and then you don’t have any neighbors, do you?

27) An otherwise intelligent and rational Romanian will almost always have contempt or an extreme dislike for Gypsies (Rroma). Any compliments or favorable comments about Gypsies will not be received very well and you won’t win any friends by saying anything nice about Gypsies.

In some parts of the country, Gypsy women wear colorful skirts and headscarves and again, saying something nice about this won’t be well received. All Romanians have long-winded, boring "grudges" against Gypsies concerning some tedious incident in their past so just don’t bring up the subject except to complain about them.

Romanians consider Gypsies to be thieves and "tricksters" of the first order and yet will routinely do business with them and deal with them in a polite but reserved manner. In other words, despite all the contempt and dislike for Gypsies, there’s very little actual hatred or physical acts of prejudice.

28) If someone sneezes, say "noroc" (luck) or "sanatate" (health).

29) When drinking an alcoholic beverage with someone (or a group), say "noroc" (for "cheers") and clink glasses before taking the first sip.

30) In Romanian, as in most languages, there are two forms of address – the informal (tu) and the formal (dumnevoastra).

Use the formal mode of address with:

Anyone you don’t know (clerk, person on the street, etc)
Anyone visibly older than you by 10 years or more (and especially the elderly)
Anyone you work for
The parents of your friends or someone you’re dating (or married to)

Use the informal mode of address with:

A small child, even a total stranger
Your closest friends and buddies
The close friends of YOUR close friends, even when meeting them for the first time
Someone who has directly told you to use the informal mode

Romanians aren’t sticklers for the informal like say, Germans are, but it’s just generally good practice to always use the formal mode when you’re not sure.

If you are a foreigner and use the informal mode of address when you should be using the formal, people will rarely get visibly upset but it’s just bad taste to do so.

That should get you started!

Pax


Alo from the Top of the Mountain

25 aprilie 2007

Hello and greetings to one and all!

I’ve gotten a couple of emails asking if I was all right, and did I arrive ok in Romania and the answer to both is “yes”.

I’ve had the devil of a time getting online so I’ll just explain about that as a way of introduction. Plus I know a few people from the “home front” read this, so it’ll be kind of an “open email” to all of you ;)

My friend Princess B from Romania owns a small hotel or inn at the top of a mountain outside of the city of Cluj-Napoca. I arrived in Romania about a month ago and made my way here, thinking I’d spend a couple weeks here as “vacation” and rest and catching up with her and other people I know here.

All that went well. And then I began to look for ways to “live” here, including getting a cell phone and internet connection. While this is hardly Mount Everest up here, it’s a pretty remote location and there are no “fix” or “landline” phones to speak of. Therefore any internet connection was going to be something wireless, through the air, via one of the cell phone companies.

Without boring you with too many details, there are four cell phone companies here: Orange (used to be called “Dialog”), Vodafone (used to be “Connex”), Cosmote (new in 2005) and Zapp. The first three have some options by which you subscribe for a year and get a minimal amount of data transfer after you buy an extremely expensive wireless modem or cell phone which functions as a modem. The “good folks” at Orange for instance wanted 200 Euros just for the cell phone/modem combo. Cosmote meanwhile wanted me not only to subscribe to a data plan and buy a modem gizmo but also be a voice subscriber as well. Thanks but no thanks.

On the upside, Orange and Vodafone get very good reception here in the mountains. But with the price and not needing to commit a year of my life for a bit of online access, I went with Zapp because they were the only ones who had a prepay internet plan where you buy scratch-off cards and get X amount of hours of connectivity. It’s not exactly cheap (7 hours for 10 bucks) but then again there’s no commitment other than buying the modem itself.

Because I now have a “real” job on the internet and my last computer was becoming a museum piece, I invested in a new computer last year: an Apple (Macintosh) laptop. Well when I went down to the Zapp people and we were talking over the prices and options and I went to buy the modem and get some internet access, the Zapp Man’s face fell and he told me somberly that I was s–t out of luck because Zapp has no “drivers” for Mac for the wireless modem. They don’t have any in Cluj and they don’t have any in Bucharest nor in Portugal or Czech Republic or anywhere else that Zapp does business.

All would be lost except I had anticipated this very thing (hey I’m used to Romania now) and I had already done my research on the internet (in America of course) and found a “driver” (really just a script) written by a hacker in Czech Republic. Once I ran that and showed the Zapp Man that indeed you can use Macs with the Zapp modem, his face lit up like a Christmas tree. He then began whispering to me sotto voce that if I was patient he would “make some calls” to the big bosses down in Bucharest and I’d get a major reduction in the price of the modem.

Well friends, that’s exactly what he did. So in the off chance that you’re a Mac user and want to use a Zapp wireless modem, you now can thanks to little old me :)

So for a day I was quite happy. I had my nice Mac laptop and my nice little Zapp modem (smaller than a pack of cards) and in town I was connecting to the internet with ease. And then I came back up to the mountains here and that’s when the adventure began.

Zapp told me and I knew this already but they don’t exactly have the strongest signal here. In fact I can’t get a connection anywhere in any of the hotel’s rooms. I walked all over this mountain with the laptop, waving the modem around like Spock with his tricorder, trying to see where I could get a signal. I even climbed up to the top of the highest peak here seeing if I could get some kind of reception.

After much hiking, I found exactly three spots where I could pick up Zapp’s signal: at the edge of the garbage dump up the road, the attic of the inn here and at a set of picnic tables near the edge of the forest. The garbage dump is out and the attic is rather cramped so I began to go out daily to my “office”, which is to say the picnic table.

I’ve taken a photo of my “office” and once I’m back in town and straightened out a few other things I’ll show it to all of you here. But to get an idea of what it’s like, when I first got here we had a blizzard and then later the snow partially melted but it is still pretty cold. If we get up to 70F that’s a very hot day for these parts. So I’m out there like a nut on a picnic table with snow at my feet and surrounded by the obligatory (for Romania) mangy half-wild dogs, downloading my work at the blistering speed of 2KB per second.

And all of that was fine for about a week and I was communicating back home and getting some work done. And then one day after a few hours at the “office” my battery was almost dead so I headed over to the local bar/cafe to drink a coffee. And while I was there I asked the guy if I could “borrow” his electricity for a moment and charge the laptop’s battery. He said “sure” and that’s when I made my fatal mistake because that building is a Communist-era eyesore and we’re out here literally at the end of a dirt road and the electricity is not exactly well regulated. A surge in current leapt out of the socket (I saw the sparks) and fried my charger (power supply).

The good news is the computer itself is fine. The bad news is that this is Romania, I’m living in a tiny village at the top of a mountain and finding Apple products is practically impossible. So I’ve been here, there and everywhere calling and seeking out companies who might be able to help. At one point I walked into a grimy little office behind the BNR building in Cluj (for those who know it, it’s impossible to miss) and saw a guy with the same model laptop as I have, and he stuck his charger plug into my computer for a second and I begged him to let me borrow it for an hour but he said “no”. And neither he nor his affiliates in Bucharest have a charger, will have a charger or have any idea when in the rest of their lives they might one day lay an eye on a charger like I need.

So for anyone who uses a Mac in Romania you have a couple of options, you can either check out www.apple.ro or go to the only authorized reseller I’m aware of at www.istyle.ro – they’re all very nice people but at the moment they don’t have the charger I need. Romanian websites are like Romanian menus in restaurants – there’s a lot of nice stuff written on there but it means nothing: you have to ask what’s available. And if you think Apple prices are high in America whew they are twice as expensive in Europe. Even if you’re going to Britain and use a Mac I’d stock up on anything you might need in America.

I ended up ordering the charger online at an American website and having it shipped over here via a friend. Even with the airmail charge and taxes and everything it comes out 50 dollars cheaper than buying it either in Romania (if they had it) or from an Apple store in Europe. Unbelievable.

So I am now waiting for said charger to arrive. How am I therefore online? Well once the “sport” hotel fried my laptop charger, I was desperate. I ended up scurrying around and borrowing someone’s ancient Windows desktop. It works fine but because it’s not a laptop, I can’t take it to my “office”. I now have to drag it up two flights of stairs, set it up in the attic, download/upload whatever I need, then disassemble the whole thing and cart it back down two flights of stairs. And on a good day I do that just once :)

And then if that wasn’t enough, last week I ran out of prepay online access. I knew I was running low and Princess B was going to Cluj (the city) and I gave her some money to buy me some more credit. She ended up not doing it for a semi-valid reason, on Friday I ran out of credit, the Zapp people took some kind of company-wise impromptu “holiday” on Saturday, no stores are open in Romania on Sunday, and I had a work project due first thing Monday morning. The “good news” is that Monday morning in America is Monday afternoon here. The “bad news” is I literally had to stand by the computer as Princess B went to the Zapp office when they first opened and then I had to scramble to get the assignment in on time.

Ah well, it worked out fine and it’ll just have to keep working out more or less fine until that charger gets here and I can eventually escape this mountain and get into town somewhere and get online anytime I want to (and faster than 2Kb/s). I have about pulled my hair out at times with all of this (and much more) but then I’ve remembered how much patience Romania has taught me in the past and indeed that’s true even now. A friend I’ve made since I’ve got here always tells me trece, which means “this too shall pass” and she’s right, it will.

I’ve got to get some work done here so for now I’ll end this here. In between times when I’m fiddling with computer stuff, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the local villagers here and that’s been a really interesting adventure unto itself and worth its own post, which must come later. Suffice it to say that it’s been quite a change going from urban USA to a remote village in Romania but definitely worthwhile.

Who can say when I will be able to write more but for now I wish you all a pleasant day or NIGHT from the end of the dirt road somewhere in the mountains outside of Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Pax


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