Sunday, June 29, 2008

Toilet Tax

I felt like I had walked into an episode of The Amazing Race today. We left our hotel, then walked to the underground metro station. We took the metro to the Gara de Nord, the train station. After we bought train tickets, we walked around for a while then took a taxi back to the station. We then rode the three hour train ride to Braşov. Amazing Race, we are ready for you!(But only if it's in Romania...)

The train was hot, humid and stuffy. We were hesitant to open the window of our compartment as there were two older Romanian passengers sharing it with us and Ben informed me that old people there are afraid of wind, because it might make them sick. So we spent some of the trip standing outside in the hall, at the window there. A lot of the Romanian countryside was beautiful, especially when we got into the Transylvanian Alps. We passed one village that we did not have time to visit called Sinaia, home of Castle Peleş, the residence of the exiled king. Maybe next time...

We finally arrived in Braşov, which was originally a Saxon fortress complete with high walls and a moat. It is nestled up against the mountains, and is home to the Black Church, given its name because it nearly burned down and the walls are still blackened from the smoke, but they spent much of the twentieth century restoring it.

Right off the bat in Braşov, I had an unusual experience. I went to use the bathroom at the train station. Inside the bathroom, a very thin woman with a deep voice came up to me and started yelling something. She held up some money and pointed to the stalls and I got super confused. I went back out to Ben and asked him if I needed money to go to the bathroom, all the while being followed by this loud, jabbering lady. He gave me 1 lei and told me I needed to pay a tax. I gave it to the lady and she threw it on the floor. Another woman picked it up and handed me three squares of toilet paper. I had to pay to pee. I instantly thought of "Urinetown." After I came out, Ben asked me,

"What was that man doing in the women's restroom?"

"What man?"

"The one yelling at you."

"That was a man?"

Maybe it was his short shorts and very thin legs, or his long, stringy, dyed blond hair, or the fact that he was hanging out in a ladies' room, but I seriously thought that dude was a woman.

We took a taxi to the piaţa, or plaza, in the oldest part of Braşov, and we had lunch at a restaurant. Again, I was not in love with the traditional Romanian food, but I did get to order a Pepsi. I figured that if I stayed long enough in Romania, I would undoubtedly lose 10 lbs. When I sit down to eat, I like to EAT. None of this starving stuff. Especially after so much walking.

After lunch, we toured the Black Church, then hiked up to the old walls of the fortress.

We walked along one stretch of wall to the telecabina, or tram, that takes you up to the top of the mountain. Along the way, we passed a man and woman who were yelling at a little girl climbing up the hill. Ben translated. He said that the man was telling her that he was going to throw something at her head. The family ended up being in the same telecabina with us and after we all got off at the bottom, he was yelling at her again. "Now he says he's going to kick her," Ben said. So I felt better about my parenting practices at that point and scored one point for America for not generally screaming out threats of abuse in public.

Speaking of kids, you don't really ever see them in Romania. Every time I did, I would get so excited: "Hey look, Ben, a cutie little one!" Ben explained to me that people don't usually have kids until they are older (just like in the U.S.) and then they ship them off to live with their grandparents in the country until they are teens so both parents can work (not like the U.S.) He said one single woman he worked with wanted to raise her own kids and no one could believe she would be so crazy. She also said that she didn't like her mom that much, but adored her grandmother. Go figure. The thing is, Romanians all wear these stony expressions all the time and no one smiles at strangers or even looks at them. It was nice being a tourist because you can be invisible, but the general moroseness can be unsettling. However, the few Romanians I saw with children were completely different. They smiled and laughed and were lively (OK, with the exception of Mean McGrumpy Dad in Braşov)and it made me so happy to see that. It also made me miss my babies!

After coming out of the telecabina station, we visited another bathroom and paid another tax. Near as I could tell, you are paying a tax to have them keep the floors super clean, because both of the floors of the bathrooms I had been in were freshly mopped and both attendants stood there holding mops, ready for anything, I guess. I mean, what else is there to keep you occupied if you're a toilet tax collector? Re-fold all the toilet paper squares, mop, fold more, mop again... It has probably made it on my list of top ten least desirable jobs.

It started to rain a lot at that point so we booked it to a taxi and got back to the train station. Nothing too exciting happened on the way back to Bucharest, except that I took a nap and at one point a man came sliding down the hall pushing himself with his hands, as if his legs were paralyzed. He went from compartment to compartment, asking for money. All the Romanians just stared at him or ignored him completely. Ben told me that begging is illegal and Romanians are racist against gypsies. He also added: "How in the world did he get on the train in that condition?" Naive me. I hadn't thought of that...

After we got back to the city, we took a taxi to Benihana at the Howard Johnson. You know you are in a strange country when you walk into a Japanese restaurant and feel like you are home again. It was awesome. The only other couple at our hibachi was an Italian couple. The man spoke a little English and so we asked him why he was in Romania. He said he had come there to go to Benihana. What are the odds? It turns out, he owns a Japanese restaurant in Rome called Shinto and so he visits other chains to see how it's done. He is, after all, from Rome. At one point, his wife almost put an entire glob of wasabe in her mouth. We were relieved that her husband caught her just in time. With the exception of us and two other tables, the entire restaurant was empty the entire evening. Those Romanians are missing out on a little piece of Japanese-American heaven. Also, I really want to go to Rome-maybe in another ten years...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Me no speak Romanian

I am sitting in our hotel room in Bucharest. I probably woke up around 5 am and I felt like blogging. Today is Saturday, June 28. I flew out of Salt Lake on Thursday afternoon, quite unsure what to expect.

That day, when we pulled up to the airport, I felt a little sick to my stomach about saying good-bye to my kids, especially the baby ones. Luckily, both the twins were asleep so I didn’t have to endure the cutest little “bye-byes” ever heard on the planet. Ethan and Mila gave me fake sad faces, but they were pretty engrossed in Mila’s Top Secret Brazil spy game, so they weren’t really that sad. Ethan didn’t “have tears” as he had promised me he would, but that was probably a good thing after all.

I went into the airport and got through security pretty quickly, then sat there wondering why I had checked in two hours early for my international flight. We eventually boarded and were on our way to Paris. I really liked Air France. They fed us a lot, which is always good, and I loved that everything was in English and French. Even half the flight attendants were French. I watched a really dumb movie, Fool’s Gold, then slipped myself half an Ambien and passed out. I’m not really clear on what happened after that. All I know is that roughly four hours later, my land surveyor neighbor from Tucson was asking me if I wanted to borrow some eye drops, so either I was doing something embarrassing like snoring or drooling and he graciously woke me up, or else I just kind of came to on my own and I must have been blinking a lot. Either way, I was grateful for the eye drops.

When we got to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I quickly found the tram to take me to the gate to make my connection to Bucharest. The problem is, I thought the gate was in the F terminal and it was actually in B. So I actually circled the entire airport once, got off at F, went up the stairs to have a man look at my ticket and say B, then went back down and circled the airport again, all the while panicking that I would miss my flight. However, amidst my panic, I enjoyed being in Paris for a moment and trying out my rusty French. I think I only said “2B,” “oui,” and “merci,” but it was awesome.

I finally made it to the right gate with a few minutes to spare and burst onto a plane full of people who looked Romanian. I took my seat next to a couple. The lady turned to me and asked something in Romanian, to which I smiled and said “I don’t…speak…Romanian” like an idiot. She gave me a dismissive gesture with her hand and turned to her husband and said something, probably “It’s just another dumb blonde American…” The flight attendant’s voice came over the intercom and said something that made everyone look at their watches and grumble, so I assumed they had said we wouldn’t be leaving yet. Even blonde Americans can figure out some things. I got an idea. I turned to my neighbor and asked, “Parlez-vous francais?” She did, and we were able to break the language barrier. I loved that five minutes before, we were a Romanian and American, just staring at each other blankly, and now we could use a third language to communicate. So cool. I told her that Ben was working for a lawyer in Bucharest and today was our ten year anniversary and we had four children, two of them twins. She told me that she had been at some conference in Paris and her husband just walked around while she was there and they had one son who was studying archeology. After that conversation, I felt like maybe we were friends until they served lunch. I couldn't bring myself to eat anything. Maybe it was the carrot-turnip-mayonnaise salad, maybe it was all of the airplane food I'd already consumed. At any rate, my neighbors devoured their lunch then looked at my untouched food suspiciously. I wanted to say, "Je n'ai pas faim--j'ai deja mange beaucoup!" But I didn't--I sat there, thinking, "Great--I haven't even gotten to the country and I've offended the people by not eating their gross airplane food."

This is what Ben told me to expect when I got to the Romanian airport: “You will exit the plane on to the tarmac and be ushered into a stinky bus. You will then pass through a passport check. If you get in the wrong line, they will yell at you. After that, go straight to the baggage claim and go right to where the baggage shoots out, so your bag doesn't get stolen. In Romania, things such as lines, politeness, and patience have not yet been invented, so push to the front. If your bag is missing, go to the second office. If you go to the first one, they will yell at you. After you file a claim, come outside and look for me. Don't go with some person holding a sign with your name on it. (Apparently, my husband also thinks I might be a dumb American blonde.)

So, here's how it actually went down: the bus wasn't really that stinky, no one yelled at me, but they did lose my luggage. And boy, was he ever right about there being no such thing as politeness. I was standing in the "line" to the lost baggage office and yet five men cut right in front of me. Not one, FIVE. MEN. Ethan would have been screaming his head off: "Ladies first, ladies first!!!"

Luckily, I was sort of planning on them losing my luggage so I was not too distraught and I had a carry-on stocked with clothes and toiletries. I was finally able to go out and see Ben and I got to listen to him call the lost and found office from outside the airport and converse with them about my bag in Romanian. It was hot (As in, I love listening to my husband speak Romanian. But it was also about 95 degrees.) Then we took off in a taxi to head for the hotel.

Romania is a fascinating place. There are all of these huge, beautiful old buildings adorned with graffiti and window air conditioning units, set amidst dilapidated streets and littered sidewalks. Ben got it right when he said that the air smells of garbage mixed with cigarette smoke. They drive like crazy people and yet wear no seat belts. The taxis don’t even have seat belts.

After checking into the Hotel Venezia, we walked to a restaurant called La Mama, which served traditional Romanian fare. I loved the meatball soup with borsch and herbs, but did not really enjoy the meat cooked in cabbage with polenta, which was the most Romanian of all dishes, according to Ben. Over dinner, Ben told me about his past month here and I especially enjoyed hearing about the boss at his firm, who always greeted Ben and his friend with “My wonderful American friends…” Apparently, he sounded exactly like the Count on Sesame Street, but with a lisp. I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet him. We walked around some of the city and I marveled some more at the gorgeous buildings that no one can afford to maintain. Ben told me the history of the Revolution of December 1989 as we stood in Revolution Square. He said there’s actually a video on Youtube of Ceausescu, the last Communist president in Romania, standing on the balcony of the CC Building in the Square, trying to pacify the starving citizens who were hissing at him. The day was supposed to be a celebration of him and he was actually shocked that the people were so angry. I just can’t believe that all of this change has occurred within this country within my lifetime. It’s crazy to be in Eastern Europe.

I will have more stories and pictures in the next post...

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I need your help. Remember how I'm going to get on a plane this Thursday in Salt Lake and step off the same plane in Paris? Yeah, so I need book recommendations. Now, I tend to be one of those people who rarely will sit down and read a whole book in one sitting. I just can't read for that long. There have been very few books that have captivated me enough to cause me to read for hours on end. It's not that I don't love reading--I just generally "snack" instead of "binge."

What book that you've read would you DARE me to just try and put down? If your comment is passionate enough, I will buy the book and if your glowing endorsement pays off, I will write a blog about how awesome you are as a prize! (I would send you a homemade gift, but I'm not very crafty.)

As a frame of reference, the books I have probably loved the most in recent memory are: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, and that seventh book about the magical kid with the glasses--heard of it, much?

I'll be waiting...

(Please don't say The Host by that Mormon chick, whatsername...)

Friday, June 13, 2008

So, Ben is in Romania...

...and I am not. And we're surviving. And no, he's not hunting vampires, although if he was, maybe I could write a super special book about it and become a millionaire after every last person in the universe read it. But no, he's working (for free) at a law firm in Bucharest and the work is kind of boring so he mainly just looks forward to the weekends when he and his friend make excursions to Dracula's Castle (to hunt vampires), so I'm so happy he's enjoying his playing, ahem, working.

Because Ben won't be here to celebrate Father's Day with us (I'm already suffering panic attacks thinking about another Sunday in church alone), I thought I would post a few recent gems that have proceeded out of the mouth of his seven-year old, who, I am fast learning, might just be a carbon copy of her father.

Mila was playing Monopoly with my friend Jenny when she was babysitting and Mila demanded, "Jenny, give me my rent!" When Jenny reminded her to say "Please," Mila retorted, "This is business!"

Yesterday, when we were driving to T-Ball practice, I was encouraging Ethan to exercise his free agency in standing up to his bossy friends. Mila jumped in and went off on a tirade, which included the following:

"This is a free country. This is America, not...England! England has a king who tells you what you have to do and you have no choice but here in America we have a President who lets you do whatever you want!"

"This is America, land of the free, home of the brave! Well, just forget the home of the brave part, but you are free!"

It seriously went on for at least five minutes. So. Awesome.

Finally, Ben told me before he left that Mila approached him one evening while I was at rehearsal with great concern. She said quietly, "Daddy, I said a really bad word today, but I didn't try to..." When Ben asked her what happened, she told him that she had been making up silly rhymes and after she made up one with the word "duck," all of the kids in her class started to laugh at her. They told her that she had said a bad word and she had no idea what they were talking about, but she was super embarrassed.

That story breaks my heart for a number of reasons. First of all, why did all of the other kids know THAT word? Seriously. Wake up, parents! Also, that particular bubble of innocence is burst forever. My sweet little girl now knows that word for the rest of her life. Poor little thing. I'm so glad she's made it this far at least. You guys, I just might die when she gets to junior high and high school. We're all about taking it slow here. I mean, maybe, if she asks nicely enough, we will let her go on a date when she's eighteen. MAYBE.

**Happy Father's Day, babe! I will never forget the day Mila was born and I saw you transform before my eyes. I have never seen a grown man push a little baby cart around with such pride, or swaddle a tiny 6 pound thing with such care, or insist on changing every single teeny diaper. I fell in love all over again. We miss you!

(I scanned a few pictures from the dark ages before digital cameras)