My only regret in Romania

I regret not having taken advantage of people more.

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INTPs are pretty good at accepting the truth. We’re the type that is least prone to bias, but we’re certainly not immune when it comes to things like emotional trauma, which can damage our sensitive ’emotionalogical’ circuits. Anyhow, regret is one of those emotions we see as logically pointless and a waste of energy. To indulge in regret would mean that accepting the truth of the past is difficult, which it is not. Accept the things you cannot change, and focus on the things you can change. (However, one common INTP bias is to assume we can’t change something all too easily, usually something that requires social interaction.) You can reinvent the past, but you can’t change it.

With that gnarly introduction out of the way, I’ll talk about the only thing that I “bothered to regret about” in Romania.

I regret not having taken advantage of people[‘s kindness] more.

For anyone who’s known me for an extended period of time, this is not at all a controversial statement. On the contrary, it’s somewhat evident that I would be a better person if I was better at taking advantage of people. I’ll clarify for good measure, since INTPs can operate by pretty weird definitions (relative to everyone else) when it comes to standards of behavior (such as honesty).

To me, taking advantage of a person(s) means willfully taking and receiving what excess they were already willing to give, in a manner that results in a positive outcome for both parties.

Like I said, probably not the definition you expected. Why is it so conservative? Despite being prone to breaking rules, INTPs have a strong sense of moral principles. Mix that in with social awkwardness, a lifelong attraction to autonomy and independence, sometimes crippling beliefs about whether one in fact deserves good things, and an uncanny respect for other people’s right to be left alone. And that’s why you have such a strange definition. I mean, normal people would probably call that kind of behavior something else, not taking advantage, but I struggle to identify what it might be.

Life gets better for an INTP once they realize they deserve what they get and what they take. The INTP population is split in terms of this metric. I hypothesize the main predictors as being age and presence of childhood emotional trauma/repression. A large proportion of us (possibly even a majority) suffered from childhood trauma in some form. We’re at greater risk than other types because of how specific our needs are and how different it is from the norm.

Childhood trauma is obviously a barrier to healthy adult development, and it seems to be a rather polarizing barrier that is difficult to cross. Personally, I believe that I am now aware of the appropriate tools to overcome the limitations brought on by my own past. It has been two years since I first became self-aware, and although I made great leaps and bounds initially, it wasn’t until I reached another all-time low in February this year that I realized my methodologies were far too shallow and that I had to deconstruct myself once again to move away from the plateau.

In particular, the mindset that I needed to “fix myself, crawl out of the abyss, and become a normal, healthy adult” was harmful and unsustainable. Although it might not be so far from the essence of what I want to achieve, as a human being I cannot (successfully) navigate through emotional truth in such a precise manner. I’m a human, not a computer. I need principles, strategies, the use of the senses, feedback, reassurance, and light to guide me. But I digress, so I’ll try to wrap up my point quickly. Lasting positive change must come from a place of self-acceptance. (The media and commercials don’t want you to know that, because it’s not a message that sells; in fact, it scares us because it involves confronting our uncomfortable feelings rather than ‘powering through so quickly we don’t have to think about it.’) This leads to one of my favorite quotes, which is the mantra of Sierra Boggess (my favorite Christine Daaé by the way):

“You are enough! You are so enough, it’s unbelievable how enough you are!”

The incident I regret the most was the second time I consciously distanced myself from friendly locals because I didn’t want to burden them. I was afraid that they would invite me a second time, and ashamed to admit how much I would have wanted that. I was afraid that they wouldn’t invite me. I left in a hurry so that I wouldn’t put them in the position to have that decision over something I felt vulnerable about.

It was stupid, but understandable given my flawed upbringing. Expressing my true desires has always been a shame trigger for me, because I grew up under the idea that my wants and needs were mostly a source of trouble. This misconception was something I could not change as a child, so I accepted that “reality” and silenced my needs.

I should have loitered around. I should have expressed further interest, asserted my presence, and given myself a chance to be invited. Because of that cowardly decision, I never ended up discovering the limits of Romanian kindness, which had been one of my specific missions. (And I never got another chance to speak with the first girl to ever strike me as ‘angelic’ in appearance.)

While it still takes courage for me to accept kindness from others, I did eventually realize that I wasn’t the only one to gain from obliging. To be able to give freely is a privilege that I envy. But people received the benefit of my presence too, and if only for a few passing moments, I felt that it was real.

The ultimate question: did I find home in Romania?

I chose Romania with my head and it captured my heart.

I finally left Romania after more than a month, and with great sadness. In my previous megapost on travel advice myths for Romania, I gave a list of pros and cons that basically explains why Romania was a logical choice of destination for me. For those who prefer to be convinced with their heart or emotions or whatever, there was one common sentiment among visitors that definitely intrigued me: people say that they discover an unexpected sense of home in Romania. Even though it’s rather vague what is meant by this or how it could really be the case, my logical instincts believed it to be possible. But would I experience this too?

The social odds have always been against me, but I’ve been deliberately trying to improve my luck. After all, those of us born into bad luck have no better alternative but to manufacture better luck. I don’t feel like explaining this idea right now, but it’s something that’s important to me now even if it’s something I’ll outgrow later.

In short, I did find the feeling of home in Romania, multiple times. I think it can only happen when you least expect it. Maybe it can only happen because you don’t expect it. (‘Nonsense’, my left brain objects.) I felt that Bucharest could have been my workplace and haven, Brasov my coffee shop, Sibiu the place for childish delights, Cluj a social hub, Timisoara my campus, and everywhere in between the vast outdoors. Then again, everything I just mentioned is irrelevant. It’s not even the place, or the wonderful horrible buildings. It’s the people, and it could only be the people. There’s no home without people. “Happiness only real when shared.” ― Christopher McCandless.

The truth is, I don’t know what home is. I’m part of my family, but that doesn’t mean I have a place I feel that I belong to. On the contrary, I’ve often explicitly felt that I don’t belong. I struggle to grasp whether my sentiments about this profound homeliness in Romania is real or not. My feelings are real, but they may not be accurate. Even so, I don’t know if I care. The lie is often better than the truth, and it may not be a lie at all. I’ll bring it back with me if I can, because it’s so much better than what I have right now.

This post got a bit out of hand. I had actually wanted it to make sense. It made sense to me at one point. But I’m just going to stop here. All I can say is that Romanians are the some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met—a statement that I cannot possibly qualify. I chose Romania with my head and it captured my heart.

The face of Romanian men

In my previous post, “The face of Romanian women“, I described my impressions of Romanian women from the point of view of a foreigner.

Romanian guys

To be blunt, Romanian guys look intimidating to me. My instincts consistently tell me they look like they don’t want to be disturbed. If I think about it in terms of an overly serious expression or obvious signs that they’re busy with something, the same generally apply for Romanian women too. What the men have in addition to that is that they look rough even with a ‘neutral’ expression. What has this guy been through? Does he have a job? I wonder what he’s up to. Maybe better not to know. These are the kinds of thoughts that come to mind.

In terms of faces, I would describe the general impression as “hard faces”. Dark or various shades of gray hair is ubiquitous. Each age bracket has a prevalent hairstyle, and it suspiciously resembles a chronological progression. From the teenage years it starts as either unkempt or shortish, and then it just gets shorter and shorter through increasing states of baldness. I’m not sure whether this is due to genes, lifestyle factors, or a shortage of hair dryers. I think there is a distinct facial average at about age 50 and it may well remind me of a construction worker with a monk’s haircut. That said, there are “lucky” men at all ages and they flaunt their overgrowth either with no distinctive hair style (uncontrolled) or tidy with hair wax.

Guys in their early twenties or younger have more distinguishable characteristics, but there are a lot of things that are fairly uniform. The hair style, hair color, and skin color are the easiest to pin down. There are no obvious side effects of the meat-heavy diet and men who are overweight seem to be strictly beyond their teens. I feel like even the height is more uniform than what I’m used to. But to work in the other direction, like why aren’t there any guys who look totally goofy or stoned like you’d find in America or England for sure?

Another obvious thing is how much guys smile or don’t smile. Anyone who’s middle-aged or older never smiles more than 10% of any brief encounter, unless they’re that kind of elder who pats your back because they think you went against the grain in going to church or visiting the country at all. (Well, Asian tourists are indeed quite rare in Romania; I only spotted other Eastern Asians on seven separate occasions.) Younger people are capable of smiling for more than 10%. It seriously feels like there’s probably some specific year after which guys who were born grew up to smile as part of normal social interaction. Otherwise, the main triggers with older men are: “I like Romania” (especially if they don’t speak English); a mistranslation from Google; or use of some basic Romanian phrase (Hristos a înviat!).

So basically, Liam Neeson’s “I will find you and kill you” face is nothing compared to an older Romanian guy’s neutral expression. They’ll give you this blank death stare while asking questions like “Are you a student?” Something rather surprising happens when a little boy or girl (who ‘happens’ to be their son/daughter) approaches them. They instantly go from almost no smiling to all happy and cheerful, smiling 90% of the time (which would get very tiring for me personally). I cannot explain that degree of contrast or the reason behind it. The moment their kid leaves, it’s back to default state.

Despite, as I say, Romanian guys looking very intimidating to approach, every time I did it was apparent that my instincts were inaccurate in this social/cultural context. When I approached groups, they didn’t mind my interruption, and older men who looked menacing and unfriendly and too busy were generally not so at all; friendliness simply has a different face. I’m glad I allowed myself to be proven wrong again and again, otherwise I would have missed out on a lot.

The face of Romanian women

I stayed long enough in Romania to notice a few trends about Romanians, and here are my impressions from the point of view of a first-time visitor in Europe.

Romanian girls

In my opinion, Romanian girls are beautiful. I got asked this multiple times, and I was even forced to say this when I got adopted on a family road trip. So I’ve learned my lesson.

I’m usually good at guessing ages, but when it comes to Romanian girls I think there is a high degree of uncertainty. Some girls (especially in the 18-22 range) look way more mature than their age (probably the meat diet at work), and the opposite case is less common but the disparity can also be quite unexpected. For all age groups, I’d say that it’s uncommon for people to look like their exact age (relative to my foreign instincts). The elderly tend to not have aged well; it is difficult to observe a correlation between younger and older faces. There is a large variety of distinct faces, though it seems possible to identify a stereotypical young adult face, which may well also match the average of many faces. The majority of women are brunettes. It surprised me how dominant this proportion was.

Romanian girls are known to put effort into their presentation, which belies the supposed fact that fashion is a relatively new trend here. Personally, I found the wide array of winter styles all very pleasing and classy; the general level of everyday fashion was impeccable.

Young Romanian women generally seem interested in the topic of foreign languages, such as improving their English, picking up a third language, or just wishing either of these things. The motivating factors are probably an interest in travel, eagerness to communicate with foreigners, an environment where lots of people speak multiple languages, and the desire to live outside of Romania. The last one is quite noticeable due to a perceived low standard of living and other political/economic issues for young people in the country. (Interestingly, guys seem to be more accepting of their ‘fate’ in Romania.) If all else were even, knowing any of the most popular languages would open so many doors compared to knowing a pretty isolated language such as Romanian.

To go further into “stereotype” territory, the interest in languages translates into an even stronger interest in foreigners. There is a huge curiosity for people’s way of life outside Romania. Maybe it’s romanticized as being necessarily more exciting and luxurious, yet secure. I’ve heard a few things about Romanian women being more interested in foreign men than in Romanian guys, though I’m not qualified to say exactly to what extent in what aspects that it’s an exaggeration. I will however include a personal anecdote that I think highlights an unusual impression you may come across.

Special treatment

As a foreigner, when you’re introduced to Romanian girls on a friendly occasion (e.g., eating with family/friends), you’ll be the center of attention for the whole time. Part of that is general hospitality towards a guest and general Romanian friendliness, but there’s more. They will keep asking questions as long as you oblige. They will translate and explain things for you. They’ll seem unreasonably impressed by the simplest phrases you picked up like “Poftă bună” and comment that you can basically already speak Romanian. They will look at you like they haven’t seen a foreigner in years and they’re super curious because it’s an incredible opportunity. And that thing they do with their eyes… that alone is enough to make a guy feel helpless. There are multiple flavors of it, but the generic one is performed as if your words constantly remind them anew that conversation is the best thing since sliced bread and they simply cannot contain their surprise. Periodically, they may also conspicuously nudge and make other gestures to the friend who introduced you, as if to say:

 My gosh… how did you find this rare specimen?

And later:

I know you’re not gonna give him up but I would happily take him off you if you were hahaha… lucky you’re the one who found him.

It’s funny that they might even verbalize some of this sentiment—of course in far less creepy terms—but you kind of feel they’re not 100% joking and still thinking about it.

It may sound like I’m being sarcastic or imaginative, cause this almost sounds like something from anime. Then again, maybe this is considered normal in Europe and I’m the only one who doesn’t know 😀
Every country has its own strange behaviors and biases, and with this one I almost suspect there must be some achievement list being marked off (“meet a foreigner from country X”).

Last but not least, there’s the whole “I hope you like Romania” thing:

Why did you choose to come to Romania? Not for the vampires? Okay. I wouldn’t have chosen Romania myself… I mean a lot of people don’t come to Romania because everyone thinks of it as a poor and dangerous country and our buildings and everything you see maybe not so impressive. But since you’re here! There are wonderful things here too like the villages you should go see it and the culture is very special the nature beautiful too. Where have you been so far, what was your favorite part? Oh, so it wasn’t the women? Anyway I’m glad you’re in Romania and I hope you like it please tell your friends and family to visit Romania if you need any help at all you can ask me or ask around you should find someone who can speak English unless it’s in the countryside but people are friendly anyway they will try to help you even if they can’t speak English. Well then, goodbye have a safe trip remember we are here if you need anything, I hope you like Romania.

I’m confident you’ll here this talk one time or other if you try to make contact with everyday Romanians. There are so many things going on in this spiel, I think my “analysis” is that it’s unexpectedly adorable.

Getting around Romania without driving

It was an easy decision for me not to try and drive in Romania. I am bad at driving around unfamiliar infrastructure, not to mention navigation is the Achilles heel for me. Many tourist guides also highly recommend not driving for the sake of safety, especially at night.

Relying on public transport has its limitations and nuances, and I’ll try to cover some of them here.

  • In Bucharest you can pay for the subway using your credit card. Very convenient.
  • Buying a bus/tram ticket. Tickets are usually sold at specific ticket booths for a popular station, or apparently at nearby stalls if there’s no official ticket booth (but I’ve never personally tested this latter case). Some cities have automatic bus ticket machines that take 50 bani coins. If you’re out of luck, you’ll have to buy a bus/tram ticket from a more popular station, or it’s outside the vendor working hours and you can’t get a ticket anywhere except by buying off other locals. I’m not sure how long tickets last, but certainly for weeks. This means you can buy multiple tickets in advance instead of trying to buy only when you need and realizing you can’t buy one due to one of the above reasons.
  • There are such things as overcrowded buses. Try getting on one of the last five buses of the night from Baneasa shopping center. Watching it was hilarious for me: everyone desperately running to fit in, the whole bus being packed within a matter of seconds. And then I had to do it. It took a bit of bravery and hustling to fight for my right to an illegal bus ride :]
  • You will likely encounter a situation where you neglected to buy a bus/tram ticket beforehand and you no longer have that option because oh yeah it’s the weekend… Many locals ride without paying. The driver doesn’t care, the passengers don’t care, but the ticket officer does care. Ticket officers go checking for people who don’t pay by joining random rides, but usually the popular ones and during working hours. In certain cities (but apparently not Cluj-Napoca?), the chance of getting caught is low and the fine is not that bad. If you want a “genuine” local experience, you can try riding at least once without paying. If you want insurance, what you can do is buy one ticket but don’t use it. If an officer asks you for your ticket, hand him the ticket and he’ll time-stamp it for you, which is what you’re meant to do yourself by inserting your ticket into the machine on the bus when you enter. I was approached by an officer and he was super polite but he never explained what I was meant to do so I kept buying bus tickets and wondering why I couldn’t just re-use them since I didn’t know about the stamping thing. (And yes, you can probably survive off one or two tickets for a while by never getting them stamped until approached by an officer.) Note the stamping machine for paper tickets is usually separate to the one that locals use with their swipe card.
  • I read something vague like paper tickets are supposed to be in the process of being phased out (until they’re all sold out) in favor of paper cards that can be topped up. I only had to use paper cards once.
  • Uber is great when it’s available because there’s no possibility of getting ripped off, you don’t have to tip, you can save your precious stash of one leu bills, and your driver can’t misinterpret your destination. Unfortunately, the only city with a major Uber network is where you’re least likely to need it: Bucharest. I did get Uber rides in Brasov and Timisoara, but you need a bit of luck and a good location.
  • Taxi apps are still very useful for calling a cab without needing to speak a word of Romanian (or English, for that matter). They can also actually have better coverage than a local trying to call the single company number they’ve memorized. I used Speed Taxi in Bucharest and CleverTaxi in Cluj. If in doubt ask young locals what they use.
  • Avoid getting scammed by a cab driver. Check the prices written on the taxi (on the door and inside) are fair compared to any surrounding taxis. Once you’re going, make sure the fare meter is running and reads or blinks “Ocupat” on one of the two lines. If you realized you got tricked after the fact and they ask for a fixed price you don’t want to pay, you should argue if you want a lower price. Say no. Ask for a receipt. Say you won’t pay unless you have a receipt. Or only offer half the price they stated and see if they take it, else threaten to just leave. (You’ll have to be braver if you also have luggage in the back…) The taxi itself should be legit if you didn’t just enter a random one, so you can also start jotting down their information and call the taxi line to assist you.
    Note: This isn’t really about the money. You deserve to be treated fairly and not taken advantage of just because you’re a foreigner. The sentiment that you should pay more because you can afford it does not belong here.
  • Do not assume your taxi driver knows your destination no matter how popular it is. It’s common for taxi drivers to ask each other and people on the street where your destination is! Most don’t seem to remember names of places (in English or Romanian); they always ask for a street address and number. You will also likely have to direct them to the desired entrance (even if you don’t know yourself), otherwise you may have to walk quite a way round in some cases…
  • If you’re staying at a good location and your destination is within 30 minutes of walking, then taking the bus/tram might not be faster. This often applies even if you’re already at the bus/tram stop. It is possible to look up timetables, but it’s not that convenient and you might misinterpret it.
  • Most villages don’t have any taxis. A quick check is to see if you can see any from Google Maps street view at the train station for example.
  • If you find yourself in a village where locals say there aren’t any taxis, you can try ringing taxi numbers listed for that village online (but you’ll need a local to talk for you, and the local won’t understand English either). The other options are to try and hitch hike or offer the taxi fare to a local with a car. I didn’t succeed with either of these options. Instead, my most used options were to walk/run the whole way (NOT recommended), look helpless and get picked up by people who drove from a city (10/10 recommend but this doesn’t happen when you expect it to, so don’t rely on it), and give up and take the return bus/train.
  • Booking is rarely needed for trains or intercity buses, unless it’s a microbus—in which case it might become full, but a microbus isn’t a bus! (*Shrug*).
  • The CFR website allows you to buy train tickets online, which you need to print out. You automatically get a 10% discount or something for buying online (in advance). The confusing thing is that the website always allows you to buy next-day tickets, but the option to buy same-day tickets online disappears at some unknown and variable time before the train leaves, ranging from a few hours to the whole day.
  • Google Maps will show its many cracks. I noticed so many problems with Google Maps while in Romania. Which side of the street am I on? Apparently pedestrians also have to abide by one-way streets. Closing times are wrong. Nearby restaurants stated as 700m and 750m away don’t count as being within 800m filter. This restaurant is permanently closed. That’s the wrong location for this well-known bus station. Don’t tell me to walk across a private road. Why am I being shown inconsistent distances to my destination across three interfaces? Bus routes sometimes appear and sometimes don’t. That’s not the location of the volcano… How fast do you think I can walk across uneven ground? Why can’t you parse the address format lots of Romanian websites use? This road doesn’t have a footpath. I’m not gonna cross a whole neighborhood of aggressive dogs, even if they’re behind fences…
    The two most important pieces of advice I can give are: double check place names with their addresses, because Maps doesn’t always know the right place or name; and carefully research the actual locations for a nature scene/hike, because Maps can give you a misleading starting place—use an offline map app like Maps.Me because you could be stuck somewhere with very slow roaming (or none at all).
  • All the best hiking locations (waterfalls are the dream) are difficult to visit without a car, carpool, or an organized tour. (Note: I’m talking about the best pure nature scenes, certainly not anywhere you need an entry ticket for. I was determined but I still never managed to see a waterfall and I overstayed in Romania. I probably would have had better luck if I had tried to go when I was still in Bucharest, but I wasn’t intending to go back even though I could have.) To reach the destination where the hike starts, there are usually a couple of obstacles such as:
    • The bus/train only runs one, two, or three times daily, and usually rather early or late for hiking.
    • The ride at the specific time of day you want only runs a few days a week.
    • It is usually not possible to take a return trip on the same day, and the timetables are made to suit people staying at the village that need to spend a work day in the main city, not the other way round. Therefore, a hike would usually need prior planning multiple days in advanced and a night’s stay at the village.
    • You may need to take a train to an adjacent city before being able to take an intercity bus to your destination at all.
    • The village may not be close to the starting point for the hike. Good luck if there aren’t any taxis either…
    • If you get stranded your emergency contact (if any) has to be willing to drive typically three hours to pick you up and go all the way back.
    • Not that rare: the bus website does not indicate pricing, has out-of-date information, doesn’t state the locations of the stations, and phone support will hang up on English speakers. (This happened to me, except multiple sources had the wrong rendezvous for the intercity bus. Once I realized, none of the villagers knew where the real stop… if they even knew what I was trying to say… I was this close to getting to see Valul Miresei from Cluj to Răchiţele via Huedin.)
  • Don’t overdo it with walking. I used to associate walking with being ‘free’. It’s not free. It costs time and energy that you could spend elsewhere by catching a bus or taxi. Trying to walk to most places for a month took a noticeable toll on my body. I might have been able to manage the same amount of walking at home, but footpaths in Romania can get rather unfriendly, to say the least. (It wasn’t until I got a sports massage that I realized just how many different muscles in my legs were under stress. The massage was painful at times and hurt the day after as well, but I feel that compresses a week of passive recovery to a few days, which is worth it for me. And despite being painful initially I would say it overall eases my pain.)
  • It would really suck to miss an infrequent bus or train or minibus because of vague or incorrect information. Some say you can only get 100% reliable information from the ticket office by visiting in person or phoning. This is true in many cases. Unfortunately, word of mouth also sometimes completely replaces the use of online information. Even worse if the online information is not updated. The only source I’ve found to be reliably consistent is the CFR website, which is actually the one thing many locals specifically label as being too convoluted. (I guess walking to the station just to ask in person is considered easier?)
  • Don’t blindly trust local advice if you have a better option. Twice I planned to arrive just 10 minutes on time for a bus, only to have locals prevent me from making it because they had never heard of the bus company and didn’t believe there was a stop where the website indicated. In one case they (a cab driver) took me to a better transport service, but in the other I decreased my chances of catching the bus to zero by listening to them. The electronic billboard mislabeled my train and the young locals said to just wait. Instead of missing the train like that I just checked the manual billboard 😀
  • I only tried to hitchhike once from Salina Turda (a very crowded destination) and did not succeed (and in fact received rude gestures twice from the same guy), but I did get unexpectedly invited/adopted into a family road trip (when I was running to catch the last train) and to Easter Sunday lunch, both of which were priceless experiences. My very limited theory is that people in touristy locations are far less welcoming because it makes complete sense that you would have planned your own return trip. They’re also more likely to be trying to impress their SOs or in a defensive mood because tourists are somewhat competing with each other in terms of queues and getting the best photos, right?
  • Walking on the highways—reconsider. It’s better to do things the easier way. Some parts of the way there is a footpath, but a lot of the time you have to walk on the road with cars zooming by. If you’re “lucky” you can walk in a V-shaped street gutter instead. Feels safer but you may get injured from the awkwardness. Don’t do things the hard way for the sake of the challenge. Pick a better challenge instead.
The beauty that eluded me—Cascada Valul Miresei, Cluj.

Why is chocolate over-represented in Romanian snacks?

Maybe I can forgive Romania for it…

This question has plagued me for quite some time. I often go into a supermarket looking for snack food that I can take anywhere, is not messy to eat, and is okay as a substitute for lunch during a trip. The latter clause rules out anything chocolate-based in my mind. That’s just an instinctive behavior I’ve acquired in my life, I guess. But there’s just so much chocolate flavored everything in the supermarket that there aren’t many other flavors that I’m used to. (Not that I’m used to these chocolate combinations either!) We don’t get snacks with cherry or prune flavor in NZ. Apple is also relatively uncommon. Common ones are strawberry, vanilla, orange, lemon, raspberry. As a result of this discrepancy I usually walk out of a Romanian supermarket without any snacks, or just breakfast biscuits if I’m desperate. My instincts are just so messed up in this situation.

Good thing I finally found a tour guide for the hypermarket. She suggested a bunch of her personal favorites. I’m not sure how many of these are actually iconic (cozonac for sure though), but having these to try sure beats walking out empty handed all the time. Plus, I know who to blame if… just kidding. So here was the selection, which covered me for two meals:

IMG_0420_NEW
Clockwise from the top: cozonac from Auchan, Buggy pufuleți (plain), Kubeti (pizza flavor), Viva (cacao), Boromir croissant (chocolate and whipped cream). Center is Eti puf (strawberry flavor).

My reviews

I’m probably biased towards sweet foods because I’m sensitive to food that is too salty. But I don’t like things that are excessively sweet either. Note how half the things here contain chocolate, and chocolate is not something I crave.

Kubeti — pizza flavored crispy dried bread
You get the pizza flavor first, which is not too salty, and then you get the bread flavor, which is not too dry. As you alternate between the two, the flavor is balanced but something seems missing. You don’t get both flavors at the same time and it doesn’t exactly make you compelled to eat more.
7.5/10

Pufuleți — corn snack
Really weird flavor at first. Almost recognizable, texture is also almost recognizable until you realize its both soft and crunchy at the same time. The flavor doesn’t make sense to me but maybe if I eat it by the handful I’ll get used to it. Kinda… nope. It confuses me every time unless I don’t think about it. Can get a bit dry but the flavor is balanced and not overpowering.
7/10
8/10 the following day
Note: you will see lots of health warning articles regarding this product if you search it in Romanian. Probably not a good thing; its highly artificial nature might explain my first impressions.

Eti puf — “strawberry vermicelli marshmallow biscuits”
The biscuit base wasn’t what I was expecting, but the flavor is overall very balanced and not too sweet. The strawberry kick is good but the sprinkles are a tad too mild: very close but not quite. Not addictive, which is also a good thing.
9/10

Croissant — with chocolate and whipped cream
I have no words
9/10

Cozonac (sweet leavened bread) — with chocolate and cherries
I would really prefer it without the cherries because they’re too sweet. But it’s still pretty darn good.
9.5/10 without cherries

Viva — “cocoa cream filled pillows”
The cocoa cream center is a bit too sweet so the aftertaste kind of burns. But I can see why this was recommended with milk (which I didn’t have).
8.5/10

Verdict

Overall the chocolate stuff was consistent so maybe I forgive Romania for its over-represented chocolate flavors… (blink blink)

Myths, Must-sees, and Museums in Romania

Ultimately, you can only trust yourself.

I’ve stayed in Romania for over a month now, and it’s my first country in Europe. I had obviously done a fair bit of research in order to decide that this would be the right place for me to heal and discover more about myself and to take on new challenges. That said, you can never really know what a place is going to feel like in the moment and what happenings luck will bring about. My overview of Romania based on online sources was the following:

  • Pro: cheap living costs for tourists, whether staying in hotels or hostels
  • Pro: walkable/bikeable except in big cities
  • Pro: English-friendly in Bucharest
  • Pro: Good food
  • Pro: People are friendly towards foreigners
  • Pro: A lot of historical buildings and historical context
  • Pro: Cheap healthcare
  • Pro: Organic produce is available
  • Pro: Good internet
  • Pro: Visa-free travel for three months
  • Con: Poor customer service and information services
  • Con: Subway only in Bucharest
  • Con: Driving is highly unrecommended (especially at night) and traffic can be somewhat dangerous for pedestrians

Overall, I think this summary is fairly useful, and I picked Romania and Hungary because these two countries had a lot more pros and less cons than all the other cheap countries in Europe. The only thing I think is blatantly missing is that there is a lot of smoking (a con of course), though I’m told it’s a European thing.

In any case, what I want to address in this post is a collection of (sometimes random) things I didn’t expect about Romania. Most of them are things I read during my research on traveling in Romania that didn’t turn out to be accurate. Some of it I heard from locals, or are from my own initial prejudices, or are just things I wanted to draw attention to. Try not to take it too seriously.

It’s advisable to bring your own toilet paper

Let’s start with the important stuff first, right? So I heard that the toilet paper they use in Romania is 2-ply and rough. That’s true. It does have a different texture and thickness; it is rougher and stronger. Does that make it less comfortable? Slightly. I myself am a casual fan of good tissue paper, and if I had a cold (which I did) and had to blow my nose a lot for multiple days (which I did), I would definitely choose to use softer tissues if I could (which I did).

However, it’s a myth that you need to bring your own because you can get the good stuff from supermarkets such as Mega Image and any hypermarket (Kaufland, Carrefour, Auchan, etc). It does make some sense to bring your own (e.g., one or two rolls) if you have the space to spare and you’re just here for a short stay.

Romanian bottled water is excellent

In my home city, tap water is clean and drinkable. I drink close to two liters every day and I definitely notice the taste of water wherever I go. The budget brands of water in Romania are mediocre in terms of taste; my favorite brand is Borsec. That said, I understand that some people are used to drinking chlorinated water so they would likely have a different opinion about it.

Romanian food is always hearty, so to save money you can just order a soup at a restaurant and that will be enough!

My initial reactions were “who on earth said that?” Weeks later, I started to understand what they meant. They were specifically referring to Romanian food (or other local food), not food in Romania. For example, in Brasov you can get a good soup (my favorite is Gulaş, which is actually Hungarian) for about 15 lei, and if you add bread for 1-2 lei then you might well be satisfied with just that. (While we’re talking about Brasov, there’s also a 15 lei special of the day at Restaurantul Transilvania after which you’ll really be stuffed full because it’s soup with bread and a polenta and meat dish.) In Cluj the prices are also on the cheaper side, with local main dishes such as Varză a la Cluj for around 15 lei. The servings aren’t huge but they’re sufficient.

However, if you eat at non-Romanian restaurants your serving sizes will tend to be smaller regardless of how much you’re paying. So basically, what matters is both the cuisine and the general standards of the town/city. For example, in Bucharest my average restaurant bill was three times as much as in Brasov (the prices between cities really does matter; in fact you could take a return train trip and still save money for a meal!), or two times as much when I ate in Romanian restaurants in Bucharest. The thing is, there aren’t that many Romanian restaurants in Bucharest in the first place and I also couldn’t tell the difference based on names. So I had to explicitly search online for them or otherwise I wouldn’t have just stumbled upon Romanian restaurants.

I always manage to find the best places to eat authentic food at good prices by asking locals where they like to eat

I dislike it when travel snobs brag about how good and efficient they are at traveling, not just because I stand in a position of inexperience but also because I’m in the vocal minority that wants to stay in the same country for an extended amount of time to absorb lots of things, not just the juicy stuff. I’m also opposed to efficient travel (for this trip, not philosophically or anything) because it contradicts my personal needs and my primary goals. End of rant.

Erm, anyway, you’ll probably never hear that piece of “advice” when traveling in Romania specifically. Most Romanians don’t eat out often because they can’t afford it, and they certainly don’t eat breakfast at a restaurant (hence very few restaurants are open for breakfast apart from hotel restaurants, cafes, and 24/7 fast food places). A couple of times I asked locals for suggestions and they literally couldn’t name one restaurant they’d recommend. Most people eat homemade food because it’s way cheaper than eating out.

That said, of course some locals will be able to give you good advice. I think the best approach is to ask where you can eat cheaply, because that will also tend to indicate local food. If you ask for good food, no one really knows what you want and few people will have much knowledge about mid-range and higher priced restaurants.

Romanian food is good / I can afford to eat at higher-end restaurants so I might as well

This is mostly myth, the latter part being of my own preconceptions.

As everyone will warn you, Romanian food is very meat oriented. It’s also usually quite simple in nature, from the soups and salads to the meat dishes. And of course the bread: the bread served with a meal seems identical no matter where you eat it. It’s function of course is just to be a cheap filler. Sometimes you’ll wonder if a soup is just leftovers. (At some point I’ve even wondered if everything is leftovers!) Some sides and courses at home are just raw sliced vegetables.

So basically, if you love meat and you don’t mind simple dishes then you will find Romanian food tolerable at least because meat always tastes good to you, right? Romanian food isn’t “good”, and it’s kind of a meaningless ‘pro’ on the list. Romanian food is what it is. Unfortunately, if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian then you will struggle to find good choices when eating out. A lot of meats in Romania are unfamiliar to me, and even as someone who simply doesn’t love meat sometimes I struggle to find suitable choices too. My most pronounced battle has been trying to find acceptable pizza. Pizza is often quite affordable and the right portion size if you’re hungry. However, all the menus are meat, meat, meat, four cheeses, meat, and more meat. All the combinations of toppings seem virtually the same with little variation. There are no vegetarian choices and the meat component always dominates the flavor of the pizza. I find it mildly disgusting and regret my choice to try pizza every time.

What I’ve described so far isn’t really the heart of the matter. Once again, there’s Romanian food and food in Romania. There’s also the distinction between Romanian food in restaurants and homemade Romanian food. I would generalize (my own opinion) as follows:

  • Non-Romanian food at restaurants is usually not that good regardless of price, apart from a few exceptions in each city/town. Even fast food tastes better, and I’m not that into fast food.
  • Romanian food at restaurants are generally served with bigger portions at a cheaper price, and is more consistent than Italian/other food at pretentious restaurants despite its simplicity. I’m actually not a fussy eater; I’ll tend to finish anything on my plate as long as it’s not clearly harmful to my immediate health to do so. In this regard, I appreciate the pure and reliable simplicity of Romanian food. It is what it is. Foreign cuisines on the other hand can be hit or miss, with oriental food being the most unreliable.
  • Homemade Romanian food is the gold standard. Everyone says that and it’s no myth. The only thing it doesn’t trump is reputable fine dining. So I suppose I lied, Romanian food is actually good with the caveat that it has to be homemade. Homemade sarmale (a national dish) is so much better than restaurant sarmale (which isn’t so bad either). I also love eggplant salad and chicken + potato + mayonnaise + carrot + cucumber salad (I don’t know the name of this). Dessert is possibly the best though. There are different kinds of prăjitură (layered cake) but this category is my favorite! Prăjitură Fanta is irresistable. Cornulete cu gem is common. There are other categories of desserts that I didn’t get to eat homemade versions of: tort (cake for birthdays/weddings/etc), chec (rectangular bread-like cake without layers), cozonac (sweet bread made from yeast-based dough).

I wish I had realized this earlier: as curious as I was about European cuisine in general, there is little point to eating out at non-Romanian restaurants except for convenience reasons. You pay noticeably more for food that isn’t better and portions that are smaller. Although I could afford it, it actually makes a lot of sense to save the money because you can save enough to splurge on other things that might actually be worth it, not to mention you get to eat more authentic dishes too.

If you want to save money, ordering bread (if it’s not provided for free) is a good option, as well as bringing your own bottled water to restaurants. No one ever said anything when I insisted on not ordering water or anything to drink (except asking for confirmation sometimes), or when I drank my own water (although I tended to do this stealthily). I think they generally don’t care, because it’s not like they are really getting paid more whether or not you order a drink. (Well, technically 10% tip for a 10 lei hot chocolate… still, they are there to serve you and you can order or not order whatever you want.)

How can people survive if they can’t be bothered cooking and they can’t afford to eat out either?

There’s no myth to this, it’s just something I wondered for a while. In Bucharest I reckon some restaurants with a chef and a waitress would only get maybe ten customers a day, so how could they survive off the profits? (Someone told me that it’s a common business model for restaurants to make money off the appetizers—which are often around the same price as a main dish—and not that much at all on the mains.)

Anyhow, it took me way too long to try Romanian street food. If you want to live off 20 lei of food a day (or even half of that) for some reason, it’s possible by relying on the humble Covrigarie (pretzel shop). They sell pretzels and other things not limited to bread, pizzas, hot dogs, strudels, and other sweet pastries. There are also bakeries and other stores, the distinctions I’m not exactly sure about. Anyhow, prices are really cheap. Large pretzels starting at 0.5 lei. That’s ridiculous! One of the more reputable shops is Covrigarie Luca (with its non-traditional specialty: Covridog), but there aren’t necessarily that many of them in a given city so you may have to go elsewhere. Go to any popular place. There’s often a lot of students, so I guess that’s how they all survive!

There is also fast food on the street (technically they’re often at corner outlets) and inside malls, self-serve food/salads (such as within Springtime), and places where you can order lots of different things to put on your plate with custom amounts (such as the restaurants within hypermarkets). These options are cheaper than mid-range restaurants, but not necessarily the cheapest restaurants.

including those within hypermarkets.

Food in Romania is cheap

As I’ve mentioned, it depends on what you eat. Fruit and vegetables aren’t actually cheap, but of course cooking your own food is going to be cheaper than eating out. I think homemade Romanian food is the cheapest way to go (not that I cooked any), because they make their bread and salads in bulk. For example, I was told that eggplant salad is prepared by frying 40kg of eggplants, then freezing them until needed for the puree salad. Likewise, bread is also made in bulk. This is why there always seems to be an endless supply of bread and salad with no preparation time.

You should tip 10% at restaurants, etc etc

I’ve almost always tipped, but it’s optional and generally no one can/will pressure you to tip. I’ve found that some locals don’t always tip, which rather surprised me. Some people even recommend not tipping if you want to save money. That said, tips are always appreciated and you can tell by the way staff members react when you pay by card and leave a cash tip. Well, either that or they look at me and perceive an ignorant foreigner and assume I’m not going to tip.

People mention tipping a few lei for bellboys and when someone calls a taxi for you. I’ve never seen a situation where that would be seem normal (and who has ever seen a bellboy?), but what do I know.

One piece of advice I can give about tipping is about taking taxis. It’s normal to round up the taxi fare to a whole amount. I usually tip 2-3 lei just because I can and because I take somewhat short rides, but rounding up and tipping one extra is more than enough. The easiest way to control a scenario is if you have the exact cash you want to give, but if not, then most taxi drivers (especially younger ones) will try to take up to 5 lei as a tip for themselves by giving you less change. I find this kind of disgusting, not because I’m unwilling to pay that much, but because they’re openly trying to take advantage of you just because you look like you can’t be bothered setting things right because it’s a small amount for you. Truthfully, I generally do not contest these situations, but I highly recommend that you do, not for the money but to assert your right to be charged fairly like everyone else. (Even Americans who are so good at complaining often don’t dispute these discrepancies.) Lastly, my reason for this suggestion is also a practical one. You’re going to need all the one leu bills you can get. As people usually mention, balancing the denominations of your bank notes is something you will need to be aware of.

It’s really troublesome to have large banknotes

I worried about this for quite a bit, but in the end it’s not something worth worrying about. (Then again, what is?) 50 lei (and usually 100 lei) notes are generally acceptable at restaurants, ticket offices for trains, and on multi-city bus rides. I was unlucky enough to get mainly 200 lei notes when I withdrew money the second time from an ATM. Use large notes for hotel payments over 100 lei or at supermarkets and hypermarkets. Occasionally a cashier will express discomfort at being handed a 200 lei note for an 8.6 lei purchase of instant noodles and water, but most of them will just do their job. If they try to talk you into giving them other notes you have a right to decline, or if you just pretend not to understand they will give in. But you can make things easier for them by giving them 60 bani in coins for the example I gave; a lot of cashiers will attempt to make such a request. (Or you can even say you don’t want any coins as part of your change.)

Just to be clear, there are definitely times when you don’t want to be stuck without a sufficient supply of small banknotes, such as for taxi rides, at pretzel shops and in villages. All I’m saying is that there is a systematic and reliable way to change your large banknotes for smaller ones, the easiest way being to buy water (for example) at supermarkets while paying with large notes. As for coins, I’m always very clumsy with foreign coins and avoid using them. However, it’s considered bad to tip using coins so you can use them for when buying street food or just donate the smaller ones.

Hotels in Romania have really poor standards

The standards might be lower in general, but I don’t think it’s that bad if you choose places wisely. A hotel having one or two stars generally doesn’t mean much, but either way I’ve never had a problem with standards of cleanliness at a hotel or apartment or B&B or Airbnb. The worst I came across was things that looked a bit used but were actually clean. Sometimes the water supply/pressure is suboptimal, sometimes the wireless internet cuts out, sometimes there isn’t air conditioning, sometimes there aren’t enough power sockets, and usually there aren’t enough rubbish bins. What can I say? For 100 lei a night you won’t find luxury, but you should be able to find relative comfort if you’re careful. Bathrooms will usually be quite small, and for me it’s not worth saving money by getting a single bed room and having no space to put anything or ‘walk’. You will want to check a hotel’s photos to see if the rooms are spacious enough and whether or not they have a proper desk—most don’t.

What I can tell you is that you won’t get a perfect shower (good temperature control, sufficient and consistent pressure, and other ‘basics’) anywhere like at home unless you’re very very lucky, or you go to a spa.

There are a ridiculous number of museums in Bucharest, most with very good reviews on TripAdvisor and often labeled as must-do activities on travel guides and tourist maps too. There must be something to it!

I must say, museums in Bucharest are pretty weirdly named. It’s like they wanted them to be as confusing as possible. In addition to that, knowing the English name of the museum often won’t get you anywhere when asking for directions or taking a cab. In fact, knowing the official Romanian name might not get you anywhere either!

I tried to investigate by visiting several of the most recommended museums all in one day. I didn’t get very far, but I quickly realized the truth. There isn’t that much interesting stuff to put in museums. Why do they do it then? Maybe it has something to do with communism, the simple fact that it attracts tourists, lack of superior entertainment until recent times, or because it’s somewhat easy due to all these old-style things only being in the recent past for Romania while seeming quite traditional from the foreigner’s perspective. I don’t really know, but immersing yourself in museums isn’t strictly necessary to learn more about Romanian culture, past and present. In my time here I’ve probably visited more museums, castles, and churches than locals my age have visited in the last year. All this doesn’t make me any wiser or culturally aware, it just means I have every right to be sick of these attractions now.

Must-sees

“Must-see” is a relative term. What’s a must-see for one person is only a must-see for other people who also like that kind of thing. On the other hand, if there’s a museum that is widely regarded as a must-see but it just sounds mildly interesting, chances are you’ll find it mildly interesting.

I think as long as you do your due diligence, you’re never really missing out on anything. (Okay, some Brits I met on the train went on a day trip to Sinaia without knowing Peleș Castle was there… they missed out.) If you’re wondering whether to do something just because you’re afraid of missing out, you’re probably not. There’s no reason to blindly follow what other people think is interesting, just do what you really want to. That said, it’s good to venture into the unknown from time to time, because you might discover something unexpected.

But at least Palace of the Parliament is actually a must-see, right?

The Palace of the Parliament is the second largest administrative building in the world (after the Pentagon) and the heaviest building in the world. For most people the interesting aspect is its sheer size, while those with distinguished tastes in buildings may or may not find its architecture fascinating. That’s all there is to this attraction. The tour itself is inexpensive but kind of tiring (the full extended tour was not available when I went, but it still took two hours when the website said it would take 30 minutes) and the tour guide is likely to be boring. No matter what anyone might say, I cannot say that the Palace is a must-see and I wouldn’t have regretted it if I didn’t see it. But all the same you might as well go if you can, you get a good view of the city from the balcony and you get to be impressed and either marveled or disgusted by the sheer architectural feat of constructing such a building. Personally I would say the building is impressive but I would not call it beautiful. I certainly did not walk out of the building feeling cheerful, and I’m not entirely sure who could.

Booking a day in advance is highly advisable. Remember your passport. Don’t underestimate how long it takes to enter the building when being dropped off by taxi. I nearly missed the tour twice. (The second time the cab driver said he was dropping me off at the “alternative entrance”, which meant I sprinted inside, was escorted out because it was a separate section, had to sprint downhill, out of the perimeter, then inside and uphill again…)

You’re free to take pictures with your phone, but there is a fee if you want to take photos with a proper camera. I’d argue that it’s not worth paying, but I’ve read one online recommendation that the tour guide won’t care if you take pictures without having paid at the start. I wasn’t audacious enough to try but I think it’s true. By the same recommendation, I did however use my camera at the balcony without any problems. (Supposedly the logic is that it’s allowed because it’s not the inside of the building so the security concern of taking photos doesn’t apply?)

If a restaurant or attraction has a 4.5 star online rating then it must be okay

Verdict: False.

I’m a person who’s quite reliant on online reviews for a place. I scout nearby places using TripAdvisor, Google Maps, or AroundMe (another app), then I check ratings and reviews on TripAdvisor/Google/Facebook. Eventually I realized that the scouting part is okay but the online ratings are pretty meaningless. Also, many places to eat don’t have an online presence but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth visiting, so it’s good to consult with locals you trust.

But to clarify about online ratings, 4+ stars means a place could be worth considering. If a restaurant is less than 4 stars it must be truly terrible. Places rated between 4 stars and 5 stars cannot really be distinguished at all based on rating, it just means they aren’t horrible places.

I found this whole phenomenon of such a dysfunctional rating system unexpected, so let me detail my hypothesis for why it is the way it is. For one thing, very few people who make a transaction end up reviewing it. It takes a bit of effort even for simple things. Romania gets less overseas visitors than other countries, and I’ve already mentioned that relatively few locals frequent restaurants. In addition to that, providing online information isn’t exactly the norm in Romania. If many restaurants can get away with not providing an online menu, omitting prices, having a blank or broken website, listing the location as the name of the city, or not having a website at all, then why would customers invest much effort into writing online reviews? Visiting a place in person, phoning in, and word of mouth are the traditional means of acquiring reliable information. Your experience at a place was horrible? You rant about it to your friends, not online. There are very few online communities; it’s just not a thing. (If you look at Meetup groups, they’re completely dominated by IT-related topics.)

Inevitably, standards also differ between locals and non-locals. (Sorry not sorry, but Romanians don’t know what good sushi is.) Standards can also differ greatly between foreigners. I have to say it, but I think that people have noticeably lower standards here than in countries with higher standards of living. If your reference is other places in Romania or even nearby countries, then maybe some of these places suddenly do look good. But I still think that makes most of the ratings unreliable for foreigners.

I think there’s also another factor that’s present. Most people like to conform. If they see something rated 4.5 stars over hundreds of reviews they are less likely to leave their honest opinion that they found it mediocre. There’s lots of ways to justify this: “it’s probably just me cause I’m not that interested, but I can see why other people would like it”; “I’m just a casual visitor so I don’t want to offset the rating”; “it was good value even though I didn’t enjoy it”; “everyone seems to love it so people will assume I’m just a sour person if I say bad things about it.” These kinds of people probably don’t bother leaving a rating. I have to admit that sometimes I decide not leave a low rating on a restaurant with no reviews because I see no reason to harm their business. But I suspect that scenarios like the ones I describe are situations where people are likely to rate a place as 4 stars even though they didn’t enjoy it much. It’s not as extreme as with AliExpress reviews where the rule of thumb is “anything less than 5 stars will hurt a seller”, but it reminds me of it somehow even though it’s not the same at all.

Personally, I believe that for some things the most meaningful kind of review and rating should be based on your own experience, not on how a certain thing measures up to other similar things (especially when no clear standard exists). Movies, for example. They can’t really be compared according to a standard. I think tourist-dominated attractions count too, because the key question is whether the attraction is worth going to due to the potentially significant time/travel/organization required to reach that attraction in the first place. If you draw the short straw, you should rate accordingly. To some extent, this means ratings shouldn’t necessarily be averaged, because a reader must take into account whether the reviewer’s perspective and intent matches their own.

TLDR; good ratings in Romania are probably meaningless because people have low standards and also can’t be bothered leaving bad reviews.

It’s okay to rely on online sources for scouting worthy places to eat

We’ve covered most of this already but I’ll try to tie it all together. If you’re only going to eat at the fanciest restaurants (which will be non-Romanian unless you’re in a town/village), then sure, you’ll do fine. But even for online information junkies like me, you will miss a lot if you don’t take the plunge and try the more archaic approaches from time to time. Local guides for a city (written by foreigners) are okay if taken with a grain of salt.

If you have the time/interest, you may want to try the street food, vegetarian desserts from the Piața stalls, pretzels, other stuff from the bakery, and of course homemade food if possible!

You must try ciorbă, mămăligă, gulaș de cartofi, covrigi, plăcintă, sarmale, cozonac de casă, Varză a la Cluj, mici, …

Actually, I did try all of those things. Lots of people and online guides about Romania will give you a list of local specialties to try. But here’s the thing. It’s difficult. I tried a lot of things because I had a lot of time. You’re not going to find half these things by chance if you’re only in Romania for a week. Even if you have a host, they’ll probably serve mostly the same dishes. In order to eat Romanian food in Romania you have to be proactive about it and go hunting. I went on the extreme end, where I would go to the specific covrigarie, Piața, or restaurant to get the specific dish recommended by my trusted ‘consultant’. There are more efficient ways to do it, but I like to maximize my minimum gain, and I would rather dedicate a whole day to successfully acquiring these targeted foods than picking random local places over several days and trying things that don’t turn out to be traditional or iconic or memorable.

I must emphasize that it does take effort to try Romanian food in Romania, and even if you do that much, one does not simply tick off a list of traditional Romanian foods without deliberate planning.

This place should be open until…

In Romania, apparently Friday is kinda the start of the weekend. Shops may close earlier, even offices owned by the government too. Restaurants may close early on any day if they don’t have any customers, and of course you should consider that the kitchen in a restaurant will have its own (not necessarily regular) closing time. Lots of places close temporarily for no reason and without warning. Probably renovation. If you’re from the wrong timezone there’s the 24/7 McDonalds places, until you realize that’s for drive-thru only. (But they won’t tell you that.) The store locator for McDonalds is also preposterous—it’s basically a spreadsheet. Good luck with that. Sometimes the opening hours listed on Google are just wrong. And they still list permanently closed places, what’s up with that…

You should make a reservation for a restaurant

I don’t see why it would ever be necessary to book unless you’re eating at the finest restaurant in town or you’re going near closing time or you’re on a date. Unless you’re part of a large group. It’s very rare for a restaurant to be full.

You should buy train tickets online to secure a seat

Few people buy train tickets online. There’s generally no need to worry about a train being too full. (Same probably applies to buses but not microbuses.) But you can buy online if you want to; you can save 10% off that 18 lei for the effort of asking the receptionist to print your ticket for you.

Local advice: The CFR website is indecipherable. Ask about train schedules at the station instead.

The design of the website looks unfriendly, unfamiliar, and is far from perfect, but overall it makes more sense and is far more reliable than most public transport websites. If anything, I wish all transport-related websites could match their standard.

Local advice: You will get robbed by gypsies on the bus

I only came across gypsies once on the train to Racoș (to see Racoș volcano), but a guy from Sighișoara suggested that I didn’t enter the compartments to take a seat so as to avoid the gypsies. Instead, we stood outside for one and a half hours until the last twenty minutes of my ride. So actually I never got a good look, and I don’t really know how to recognize a gypsy or what’s so meant to be so uncomfortable about them. (I don’t really believe the part about being robbed; it’s almost impossible to take my wallet or phone without me realizing it, and violent crimes against foreigners don’t happen.)

But I digress. It was one of my emergency contacts in Bucharest that gave me this piece of ‘advice’ that I would get robbed on the bus. I stopped consulting him pretty quickly.

The fact is, you can’t simply trust locals for information. Ideally you should keep contact with reliable locals that you can consult often.

There’s a couple of different ways that I found locals to be unreliable. Information about Bucharest is always the most suspicious; you can hear completely contradictory advice about the same things, maybe because of how much it has changed over the last two decades. Old people tend to have a negative bias and are likely to give you outdated advice about things they haven’t done in many years. Young people often aren’t that patriotic either (however you put it, Romania has been through pretty rough political and economic times), and they are less likely to be aware of some of the relevant concerns a foreigner might have. I mean, I often get a “why would you come to Romania as your first country in Europe you probably notice a lot of bad things here I’m sorry about it but no I’m glad you came here do you like it I hope you like it Romania is really unique and has some really really great things too please tell your family and friends to visit Romania” vibe. Middle-aged working people are probably the best bet to find people who are knowledgeable, have experience, and have a more neutral perspective on how their city has changed over time.

I have other anecdotes, some more lighthearted and some more serious, but I’ll save the serious ones for more relevant posts. When I checked in at Brasov my apartment wasn’t ready so I headed to Council Square (just across the road actually) and was looking for a public toilet. I asked about six different groups of people where the toilet was, only two of which had some clue about it. It was kind of underground and I was standing within 50m of it the whole time. Even the travel agency staff situated closest to it had no idea. Some Romanian guys my age also had no idea what “Council Square” was.

Locals know a lot about their own city

Not true for restaurants, navigating, nearby hiking places, entertainment, finding a tailor, etc. Some people haven’t even taken a bus in decades!

Good ol’ Romanian hospitality backfires sometimes. Some people are overprotective and will prevent you from doing what you want to do. Such as seeing what gypsies are like, or taking the damn taxi instead of freezing in the rain at 4 °C for 20 minutes waiting for your contact who’s stuck in a traffic jam to pick you up and then being suffocated by their aircon. On different occasions, residents, staff, and cab drivers have talked me out of going to the specified meeting point for my intercity bus trips. “It’s not here, you must be thinking over there. There’s no bus/microbus/autobus (???) station here.” There’s always outdated information here or there, so don’t assume you’re the only one who doesn’t have the correct information. Sometimes you can only trust yourself and you have to stand your ground.

Locals can at least recommend good tourist attractions in their own city

Yes and no. Every local thinks their city is unique, and they’re not wrong, but after a few weeks in Romania (or even days for some people) everything starts to seem like the same thing just in a new city. I’m mainly talking about museums, castles, remnants of the old citadel and walls, and churches; those are the worst offenders. At least people who give suggestions have the right idea about how long you should spend at a place. When it comes to Bucharest, no one can even name half the museums and art galleries, so asking about the less popular places won’t give you much food for thought. I think maybe parks and a high vantage point are the most hassle-free things to enquire about.

Other travelers may be able to sympathize better with what things are really going to be memorable. But you still have to figure out how your preferences differ.

No one really knows what you want except you. Unless you don’t really know either, then just play along until you figure out what you don’t want and go from there.

Ultimately, you can only trust yourself.

Romania is a cheap place to live in

Sure, if you eat mămăligă (peasant food) every day. I’m just kidding. But it depends on the city. Hotel/apartment/B&B accomodation seems roughly uniform across cities and towns of different populations. The cost of eating out is the main variable. You can usually adjust what you order so as to control the cost, but if you always order a traditional soup and main (just as an example), it can cost you 15 lei to 50 lei depending on where you live. If you’re on a tight budget but you don’t cook, it seriously does make sense to relocate just for the lower cost of dining (due to the low cost of train fares).

The cost of entertainment such as concerts can also vary. Something big that’s advertised for months is going to be expensive, but something that’s advertised for weeks or is held in a pub won’t cost much. I got standing tickets to a sold-out piano + orchestra concert in Sibiu for just 10 lei! (And at least a third of the seats were free so you do get a seat after everyone else.)

Prices for outdoor activities can vary by more than two-fold, depending on the activity. Non-erotic massage prices can vary by more than one-fold. (It’s funny that in Bucharest, the cheapest option for a relaxing massage is run by a recently established erotic massage place.) Escape rooms cost roughly the same wherever; it’s not expensive but it’s not cheap.

Try not to have a medical emergency anywhere in Romania

This is obviously not a myth; it’s not even a statement. Although nothing happened to me personally, it seems accurate that emergency services may be rather slow at responding if you’re somewhere less populated or even just because it’s late at night. I would be rather nervous if I contracted rabies in Sinaia, for example, even though it’s full of tourists by day…

Romanians are highly religious

Romanians are very big on religious customs, the big thing I observed being Easter. Lots of people go to church, and the city is otherwise somewhat quiet during the Easter weekend. I might write about this in more detail later, as I went to all but one of the church services out of curiosity (and also nothing better to do with all the shops closed). Anyhow, even young people tend to know about the Orthodox customs, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily follow them so strictly anymore. Also, “being a Christian” doesn’t seem to have any connection at all to the ‘modern Western Christian vibe’ of being a good person and loving your neighbor. The customs are obvious but I’m not sure what spiritual aspects, if any, are present.

Tour in English

Personally, I can hardly decipher the thick accent of most Romanian tour guides (this is for when having a tour guide is compulsory to enter a given attraction), since they’re usually older. Even when I can understand fine, most tour guides use really boring content.

Authentic ROM taste

No myth here, I just wanted to save everyone from the same pains I went through due to my ignorance.

If you look for ice blocks there will always be a package with ROM in big letters over the colors of the Romanian flag. It’s an ice cream sandwich and I thought the text translated to “authentic flavor of Romania”. Boy was I wrong. Rom is a chocolate with a particular taste of rum; it doesn’t stand for Romania. It has other products with the same flavor, hence my discovering it through the Rom sandwich. The Rom brand preserves the same chocolate flavor from old times, and due to its marketing strategy ROM is basically a nostalgic reminder of communism. And it tastes horrible. Try it if you must. But if you ever wonder why sometimes chocolate flavored milk or yogurt or ice cream has a distinct foul chemical aftertaste, then it’s because you picked something ROM flavored.

Romanians are supportive of people learning Romanian

Initially I wasn’t sure how much Romanian I would pick up by spending a month here. Soon it became obvious that there wasn’t much point to learning Romanian for a couple of reasons. I learned to read (Romanian is phonemic), how to count, some common greetings and phrases, asking where something was, asking for the bill, and the names of common food/ingredients. But none of that counts as learning Romanian because it didn’t take much effort and I never had the intention of going through a language course or anything. In fact, a local convinced me not to bother because Romanian isn’t that useful worldwide.

A lot of online sources describe Romanian as not being that hard to learn (comparatively) and also mention about how locals are likely to respond to your attempts to speak Romanian. I can say straight up that Bucharest is generally a poor environment for trying to speak Romanian. People are unhappy and unfriendly, they keep themselves busy, they can speak English, and they surely can’t be bothered listening to your questionable pronunciation. I’m pretty sure that in some cases if I had spoken perfect Romanian but still only a few words (in normal INTP style), people would still have insisted on speaking English to me just because I looked like an obvious foreigner. Some people are patronizing and they can’t comprehend why you would even bother trying. I don’t know why exactly, maybe they just have the assumption that most visitors are only in Romania for a few days so it wouldn’t make sense.

Of course, Bucharest does not represent Romania. In other parts of Romania my efforts were generally more welcome. But I think there was the same underlying sense of “I’m impressed that you can be bothered learning Romanian. But why? In fact, why are you even in Romania of all places?” People seemed to be surprised / thrilled / impressed / unimpressed by the simplest phrases, so I’m not entirely sure if the surprise is in the perceived difficulty of learning phrases or the conscious decision to try and pick up any phrases at all.

There’s no point learning any Romanian / English is useless in some parts

In spite of what I said above, your experience varies from city to city and it depends a lot on the company you keep. Ultimately, I am glad that I did pick up some things in Romanian. Learning is a part of living, but to talk about more specific things the few things I did know were useful for interacting with locals who didn’t speak any English. The daily greetings, the Easter greetings, stuff like that, but also asking for assistance outside in general. Being able to comprehend prices even though you can just look at the display. Singing the hymns and songs in church. Simple things like that were somehow rewarding.

Romanians are surprisingly comfortable at telling you things in Romanian even when you have near 0% comprehension. I eventually realized that in terms of connecting with people, there was nothing to prove by using coherent English or Romanian. Often, the language or words themselves don’t actually matter; either way locals will be diligent in trying to find a way to convey something to you. Google Translate was also very handy. The bilingual audio conversion feature is pretty cool (as is the translation via camera), though I never got to have an actual conversation through it.

I guess my point is, many many language learners (myself probably included) tend to have the mindset that being able to mimic native-like speech is the only worthy end-goal one could have. What about having fun, or making the most of what little you know? Eventually, I owned up to the fact that I was butchering language and that I had no reason to be ashamed of it.