Brief update: 13 days in Bucharest

My time so far in Bucharest has still been characterized by having a cold; it’s not unusual for me to take 2 weeks or so to recover. I mentioned trying a few remedies such as taking an Epsom + ginger bath and drinking chicken soup during the first days of symptoms. Did they make a difference? It’s impossible for me to say anything conclusive, but I did start the phlegm-expelling phase significantly sooner than usual. (I have to expel about 95% of my total produced phlegm in order to go back to normal.) From an objective (i.e., non-scientific) point of view, if home remedies make you feel better (without actually harming you)—even if it’s only due to the placebo effect—that’s all that matters.

I’ll just share a few snippets about living in Bucharest so far. I’m staying in Hello Hotels, which is in Sector 1. I eat just one or two proper meals a day due to my cold. (I would probably have recovered quicker if I forced myself to eat more, but nevertheless an interesting thing I found was that eating cakes seemed to help the most for coughing up phlegm.) It’s been difficult adjusting to 11 hours time difference. Since this is my first taste of Europe, most items on a menu are unfamiliar. Basically just pizza and hamburgers would be my only comfort options. Apparently Romanians eat breakfast at home, so few places are open in the morning. Past midnight it’s not so convenient either (Google seems to have inaccurate opening hours sometimes), but you can find a 24/7 supermarket or maybe even a 24/7 McDonald’s.

When you research about Bucharest and Romania in general, there’s lot of conflicting information about healthcare, the chances of getting pick-pocketed, etc. Everyone agrees that Bucharest has changed a lot for the better, so my running theory is this: don’t always trust what locals say, especially older ones. They’re probably more likely to hang on to old impressions and act overprotective.

Food here is cheaper than in NZ, but not that much cheaper. Portions served at restaurants are not big; whoever said that was perhaps referring to the countryside (but I can’t confirm this yet). And ordering a soup certainly isn’t enough, but it’s still an efficient choice if you order it with bread. I frequently spend around $20 for a meal in NZ (more than the average student), and with that amount you can have more variety (a drink other than water, plus soup or salad) for the same price. Keep in mind that with food and services in Romania, price doesn’t dictate quality.

From what I’ve read, the most likely way that a tourist’s life might be at risk is from a traffic accident. Not to say that the risk is high, but it does seem to overshadow the risk of dying as a result of undetected exposure to rabies or to violent crimes. (To confirm, both of these risks are rather low. I did consider getting a rabies vaccination, but it is moderately expensive and requires weeks for a series of jabs that I didn’t have time to do. I’m a hypochondriac in case it’s not obvious.) Anyhow, the basic rules are to obey traffic lights, cross at pedestrian crossings, follow locals if in doubt, and definitely look both ways (there are plenty of one-way streets so you can’t always look one way then the other). However, traffic lights take a while to toggle so many people do decide to jaywalk. Interestingly, it seems to me about half of locals jaywalk at a given crossing while half do not. There’s an almost tangible sense of wariness among those who choose not to jaywalk; it would seem to suggest that cars can speedily appear out of nowhere.

Many people smoke, young and old alike. Rubbish heaps are often stacked on the street. Dogs are like people here—there’s social class, poverty, segregation, disabilities, violence, and homelessness. Romanian women do indeed dress well: stylishly and not scantily. I doubt it’s just because of the colder early spring weather. A random thing I noticed was that when people walk together in mixed-gender groups, with the exception of single couples, there are almost always more guys than girls. I have no particular theory for this. I can also confirm that Romanians do like their PDAs, including people lying down together in embrace. I suppose parks are a relatively romantic setting compared to in NZ. The large parks are big, with stalls and small shops within, plenty of seats, water features, and of course lots of plant features. The spaces are really designed for many people to share, and it makes me think of NZ parks as somewhat minimalistic in comparison. (Though there simply aren’t that many people using them anyway!)

Considering I haven’t ridden a bus or subway yet, I’m not in the most informed position to say this, but Bucharest does seem uniform in its convenient metropolitan nature. There are many supermarkets, especially Mega Image stores, and there are always food outlets here or there. But that’s also a downside in the sense that there’s no one street or block that is tightly packed with things of interest. The buildings and architecture here is a key highlight for many visitors, but I’ll talk about that in another post.

Another thing people disagree about is the drinkableness of tap water in Bucharest. Some say it’s fine to drink untreated tap water, others say boil it and filter it and also get a shower filter because there are contaminants in the water that can affect your skin. Because I live in NZ where tap water is clean (and in fact I drink water from a well), I’m fairly picky about the taste of water. Romanian is meant to have really good bottled water, although I find the taste just okay. I buy a 2L bottle from the supermarket on most days. Tap water has a bad odor so I rinse my drink bottle with bottled water. (Ironic?) I’ve decided not to be quite so paranoid, so when I make instant noodles or tea or Nesquik I boil tap water rather than bottled water. Maybe the water still tastes bad, but the flavor gets masked. I haven’t noticed any residue collecting in the kettle (which I bought from Kaufland supermarket), but there seems to be residue on the shower head in my hotel room. I can also say that my hair has never been so rebellious. It refuses to go smooth or flat.

Note: It turns out that I was drinking the mediocre brand of bottled water, Dorna. This post describes water and other beverages in Romania in good detail.


Hotel Denisa review

Review for Hotel Denisa, Bucharest
Note: Hotel Denisa ceased to operate in June 2017

I chose Hotel Denisa as a convenient place to catch up on some sleep after 37 hours of transit. They offer a free shuttle from the airport, which is less than 10 minutes drive away. The cost was NZ$76 for two nights in a standard single room. There were some cheaper hotels, but I wanted somewhere that had a reliable reputation without being too expensive.

There are three rooms: bedroom, living room, and bathroom. The bedroom and living room look elegant, whereas the bathroom does not. Everything was clean, save for a leaf or two on the carpet. The bedroom has a full size bed, comfortable pillows (in my opinion), a small TV set, a bedside cabinet, a wardrobe with coat hangers and two robes. The living room is quite spacious and has another TV, a couch, a few chairs, a small table, a fridge inside a closet, a rubbish bin, and another closet. I would not call the table a laptop-friendly workspace, and you can’t fit much inside the fridge due to the ‘minibar drinks’ in there already. There’s plenty of empty floor space if you want to yoga or something.

The bathroom is adequate, with shower, toilet, basin, and no bathtub. Comes with hairdryer, soap, shampoo/shower gel, shoe shiner, and shower cap. The water pressure is on the low side. In my room, the shower was disappointing because of the low water pressure and because temperature was hard to control and sometimes went hot or cold for no reason.

The room is air conditioned, but in the end I mostly turned it off. At this time of writing it’s March, which means temperatures like 8 degrees Celsius at night. The thing is, the whole hotel seems to be heated, so if anything the room was actually too hot for me. The location of the hotel is good for going to the airport, but probably not sightseeing. The hotel is quiet, has a games room downstairs, and there’s a restaurant out the front (though I never went to it). My minimal interactions with the staff went fine; at least a few of them speak English. There are restaurants and supermarkets within about 20 minutes of walking.

In summary, I would recommend Hotel Denisa for a short stay if you just want a quiet stop before or after the airport. If you’re a veteran explorer with infinite energy, limited time, and/or a very tight budget, then there are more suitable places provided that you’re booking more than a week in advance.

Day Zero (transit)

TLDR; don’t catch a cold before a long transit and brush your teeth every 12 hours!

My 37 hour transit from NZ to Bucharest/Romania (via Changi/Singapore and Frankfurt/Germany) was chiefly characterized by the unpleasantness of having a cold, which had just started to show its symptoms the day before. Shortly before setting off I took an Epsom + ginger bath. I’ve never tried it before, but I was pretty desperate and had nothing to lose. The first flight, direct to Changi, was pure torture. Watching movies was necessary to make time pass at a reasonable rate, but I eventually decided to try and sleep, just shivering and sweating there for an eternity until at some point I noticed that it wasn’t that cold anymore. Coughing for some reason made my shoulders ache badly enough that by the end of the flight, I had completely exhausted all possible resting positions. The night before departure I had the chance to change my seat to be next to an empty middle seat. That was the right time, but instead I decided to wait until just a few hours before take-off, which was too late. I’ve always been a window seat person for the view, but after day zero I’m seriously going to reconsider. I’ve found there’s no real benefit in comfort (and inferior bathroom access) since my head can’t reach the window for support, at least not without a space-consuming travel pillow.

Another downside that audiophiles might mention is being closer to the plane engines. Anyhow, I had bought a set of Sony MDRZX110NC noise-cancelling headphones just for this trip, and I can attest to everything they say about it. Great price, not the best at its job but it does perform it, can function without battery (without noise cancellation of course), and fragile-looking build. NZ is really bad in terms of being able to buy reputable consumer electronics at the lower price range, so this time I didn’t have to spend hours and hours (like usual) compulsively researching my options. This was literally the only viable choice below $400, and I happen to be satisfied.

I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I was wanting to see cool stuff in the Harry Potter world, but I just wasn’t sucked in by the plot so I found it boring. I did eventually care about the characters by the end, though only because of the comparatively cohesive romantic elements, not because I thought the characters were relatable in general.

During the descent to Changi, I experienced an overbearing pressure in my ears as my hearing became muffled. It was quite painful. (On the pain scale, not as bad as getting kicked in the balls, but still bad enough that distracting yourself is not possible.) I later regained hearing in my right ear but not my left. I read that this phenomenon is related to having a swollen Eustachian tube (or two) when you have a cold. I tried the Valsalva manoeuvre and everything to no avail. It was worse than being deaf in one ear because my tinnitus also went on overdrive in my left air, in addition to the muffling effect. In spite of this, I got by fine with buying things at the airports. It turns out with simple interactions you often don’t need to hear what a person is saying. During subsequent flights, I would regain most of my hearing during the ascent, only to lose it and go through immense pain again when descending.

My layover in Changi Airport was six hours. I found the adored fly in the men’s bathroom that I remember reading from an opinion article. Yes, Changi Airport was certainly impressive. It’s huge and has excellent facilities, including a free sleeper zone, a free 24/7 movie theater (which I used for sleeping too), somewhat affordable massage services (which I missed out on in the end), free city tours (unfortunately not the right time of day for my layover), multiple garden exhibits, and many other luxuries. I was almost tempted to use one of the baby change “rooms”, since no one was using them and to me each unit just looked like a private enclosed couch with a small table. It’s hard to describe, but maybe I misinterpreted and the baby change rooms were actually in the adjacent restrooms, even though the ‘baby change’ signage was specifically above these units? By the time of my return trip, I’ll be brave enough to check it out, okay? It might have been the perfect place to nap without having to physically guard your belongings.

13 hour flight to Frankfurt. Movies, 4-5 hours of sleep, movies. I tend to have an exceptionally poor memory of movies, so I’ll spare you from my opinions and me from the embarrassment of admitting that I can’t remember all movies that I watch. (In fact I’d usually be on the lucky side if I can readily recall the names of three main characters in any given movie. I don’t know why I’m like that but it means my post-movies discussions always refer to “the main character” and “the other important person”, etc.) I found Lufthansa’s service for this flight to be comparable to Singapore Airline’s. Singapore Airlines does have more food choice and that fantastic Kapiti (NZ by the way) ice cream. The check-in lady actually warned me that they’d be plenty of meal/snack times with SA but I didn’t really believe her, so I also wasn’t able to decipher the awkwardly long menu that didn’t seem to list meals in chronological (Circadian?) order. As for Lufthansa, all I had heard previously was that it operates in Europe and they used to be questionable. While the SA stewardesses (and stewards too, I suppose) are unmatched in handsomeness, I overall preferred Lufthansa’s service for their efficiency.

Frankfurt Airport was bound to be disappointing after Changi. Despite having four hours, I decided not to visit multiple terminals as I didn’t fancy going through their thorough customs check multiple times. I had to empty 80% of my bag because they make you take out all electronics, gels, and fluids. (I also had to drink all my water on the spot.) I bought an iced tea drink later to find that the listed price didn’t include tax. I guess that explained the need for a certain tax refund booth. I also ordered a chicken soup at a bar, since chicken soup is known for helping with cold relief and recovery. When I was ordering, I failed to get the attention of the barmaid, despite standing directly opposite and saying hi when she wasn’t interacting with anyone else.

By the way, I seem to have some innate set of traits that allows me to be overlooked more than the usual person. I’ve been overlooked by restaurant staff, flight attendants, and people whose job is to give out free stuff to everyone. Been locked in a bookstore at closing time until I decided to ‘reveal’ myself. I really don’t know how to explain it, since I’m not super short and I don’t wear active camouflage. Maybe I’m the ultimate beta male and I have some kind of aura with an evolutionary cloaking effect? Maybe it’s because I’m an Asian guy that’s usually alone, so I probably look like a high school loiterer who doesn’t have money OR friends. My usual clothes don’t help either, but lately I’ve been working diligently on upgrading from tracksuit pants and T-shirts. My most plausible theory so far is that cool people are socially attuned in such a way as to minimize the wasted  energy of conscious attention given to unlikely human sources of (mutual) benefit. Please let me know if you have a better theory.

Anyway, the barmaid was not responsible for taking orders, the manager was. I ordered the chicken soup, awkwardly hanged around thinking to pay up front (my mistake, I’ve never actually ordered beer at any real bar before, but then I remembered the concept of a tab), and not being gestured to pick a real seat. I decided to just sit at the bar counter so they couldn’t possibly forget about me. The manager had to awkwardly inform the barmaid of my existence for my spoon. Not sure if I was grateful. Come pay time, the manager walked around with a portable EFTPOS machine and explained that I had to enter a tip and otherwise press the green button. I had never heard about tipping in Germany (and yes I am a confirmed idiot when it comes to general and geographical knowledge) and I only knew that tipping was 10% in Romania. In the heat of the moment I thought about how awkward the experience was and chose to press only the green button. The manager then checked the tip amount rather diligently and responded something like “so service was nothing eh.” I’ve never refused to tip before and I don’t expect to do it again. After checking online, it seems a 5% tip would have been fair in this situation.

I browsed around some other restaurants after that in search of dessert. Tiramisu caught my eye but after not being able to figure out where to order and no one taking notice, I bailed. I don’t tend to enjoy looking clueless (even though I usually am) when it comes to interacting with staff, and that’s a bias that I need to work on or else I might miss out on opportunities that are available to more visible people.

The last flight from Frankfurt to Bucharest with Lufthansa was somewhat bare. No audio entertainment, I didn’t a magazine or even a sick bag. They gave out a decent bakery snack though. At Bucharest Otopeni Airport (official name Henri Coandă for some reason), the immigration officer commented that my estimated 30-day stay in Romania was “long”, but didn’t ask for any proof of when/how I intended to leave the country. At customs, there were two “no declarations” lanes and one declaration lane. They didn’t seem to post what needed to be declared but I figured my wine counted at least. Therefore, I took the path of declaration, which was about 5m long and sidestepped into an empty tattered room. Yep, good ol’ customs. I was probably the only person to take that lane, but heck, I brought a book called ‘The Road Less Traveled’ with me. (Okay, not a good excuse for short-sightedness.) I withdrew cash from an ATM (… dilemma of choice, but remember to choose “without conversion”), found my hotel taxi (free service), checked in and slept the rest of the day. After I check out of this hotel (Hotel Denisa) I’ll write a review about it.