People
Thankfully for the native Anglo, almost everyone speaks reasonably good English. Romanians are friendly and hospitable, although they tend to be reserved around people they don’t know. Possibly this is related to the fact that theft is a problem, which is why security guards are everywhere, even during the day. Security guards take their jobs seriously, and generally the only indication you get from them that you’ve somehow offended against a rule of order is a point with the chin, and perhaps a grunt. On the other hand, the youth, while high-spirited and energetic, seem polite and self-controlled. It’s almost like you’ve stepped back in time to the 1950s.

Food
The national Romanian food is meat. Any kind. One popular food is mici (it’s pronounced “mitsh”), basically a rissole made of various minced meats, usually pork and mutton or lamb; grilled and served with bread and mustard. The Romanians have their own take on the haggis, called drob, thankfully served only at Easter. Made of lamb, it looks like disturbingly grey meatloaf.

Romanians are partial to eggs and cheese – it isn’t the best place for vegans – and are not unaware of the existence of fruits and vegetables, from which they seem to keep their distance, although they have a nodding acquaintance with eggplants and tomatoes, and occasionally spring onions.

Travelling outside the major cities, it isn’t uncommon to see the countryfolk selling their products at the roadside: watermelons, berries, honey, even freshly-caught fish, their blood pooling at the bottom of white plastic shopping bags.

Romanians do the restaurant business well. The food and the décor are as good as you’d find anywhere else, although of course whether you like it depends on your taste and on each individual restaurant.

A note for Australians: it’s an unpleasant fact that Romanians, like most of the world, neither know nor care about Vegemite. The closest you’ll get is to eat your toast with a chaser of warm Guinness.

Fashion
Have you ever seen a person who was dressed in real life like the models in the advertisements for high-end clothing stores? Neither had I until I visited Romania. Many of the younger people, those who never knew life in Romania before the downfall of Ceaucescu in 1989, look like they’ve just finished a modelling job and are on their way to some exclusive salon that most people have never heard of and into which still fewer would be granted ingress. I for one would never have imagined cardigans as an item in the discerning fashionista’s wardrobe but I have seen more people under 30 wearing cardigans – fitted, grey cardigans – than any country should legally allow. The current hairstyle for men is a mohawk without the commitment: the hair in the centre tufted up, and the sides cut short and combed down.

Traffic
In most cities the roads are of a high standard. In Bucharest, the capital city, the roads are of varying conditions, from very good to nearly impassable. There’s no way of knowing which conditions applies to any road. As in any other country, there are places where lanes merge but the only indication that this is happening is when cars on all sides of you are getting uncomfortably, paint-scratchingly, wing-mirror-crushingly, bumper-bendingly close. Trams run in the city, and the tram lines in the middle of the street can be used as an extra lane – which you shouldn’t do unless you want a fine of several hundred Euros. If you were ever stuck for a present to give the Grim Reaper, you can find one in Bucharest. Just look for a combination of tram lines, merging lanes, and people turning from one street to another.

In Bucharest, there are two speeds on the road: dangerously fast, and “if you get nervous, you might want to look away now.” The two cardinal rules of driving in Bucharest are “me first” and “don’t get caught”. In fact, where there are traffic rules, penalties are harsh. Pedestrians always have the right of way, even if the lights aren’t in their favour. In fact this is one of the ways you can lose your license; by driving through a zebra crossing while pedestrians are walking across it. And losing your license means just that. Not for three, six, or twelve months but for good. You have to pass a driving test again.

There are three kinds of drivers in Romania: patient, impatient and taxi drivers. Any person can be a combination of the first two. Romanians know how chaotic Bucharest is: in fact, they themselves say that if you can drive (safely) in Bucharest, you can drive anywhere, although they do add the caveat that driving in the Ukraine is also not easy. Given this, Romanian drivers are usually tolerant of people making mistakes while driving, like cutting in front. Usually a lifted hand of apology will be offered and accepted. Occasionally, with outstandingly bad driving or someone who’s impatient, especially if you’re too slow taking off from traffic lights or a stop sign, you’ll receive a horn blast from the cars behind.

In many countries, people who are a danger to themselves and others are usually put in prison or a safe place away from the public, and perhaps given medication and/or psychotherapy. In Bucharest they are given a car and a taxi license. If the Rebel pilots who tried to destroy the Death Star were Bucharest taxi drivers, even Darth Vader couldn’t have hit them. That said, if you want to get around Bucharest quickly, you’re probably safer in a taxi than anywhere else.

Despite this, if you have decided to drive in Bucharest you need three items. 1. A tank. 2. A horn. 3. A finger. You will need (1) to get to where you’re going without major injury; (2) to warn other drivers of their dangerous proximity to you; and (3) if you receive an excessively long blast from (2) from another driver, to indicate you became aware of the danger after the first second, and the next five seconds of horn blowing was at best redundant.

To see
Romania has several large natural areas and places of historic interest, such as being the resident nation of Vlad Tepes, the namesake for Stoker’s Dracula. It has arguably the windiest road in the world, the Transfagarasan. (If you pronounce it correctly it sounds almost like an insult.) Bucharest is home to the second largest building in the world, the People’s Palace. It is Romania’s seat of government, was built by order of Ceaucescu, who didn’t live to see its completion, and paid for at a cost that no people would be willing to pay, in money or sweat or blood. It’s as close to cubic as any building in the world, having as many floors below ground as above.

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