An Eejit Abroad: Romanian Public Transit, By CB Makem

An Eejit Abroad
By CB Makem

Let’s just assume you’ve never traveled via the Romanian public transit system. You might feel like you’ve missed out, that it’s a fast-fleeting dream that seems eternally out of reach as the months and years roll on. Ho-ho! Fret not, dear reader, for I have experienced it firsthand and will heretofore attempt to encapsulate the adventure, so you’ll feel like you’re actually there.

We’ll start with a bit of history… Do you see what I did there? I mentioned history which shook off all those scissorbills who are too lazy to learn anything and we’re left with just the curious—and let’s admit it—far more interesting readers. Congratulations!

Now I have it on good authority that when the Bailey Building and Loan finally collapsed after Mr. Potter crushed them with $8,000 worth of unanticipated revenue, Uncle Billy made his way to Romania looking for a new business opportunity. It turns out he started advising the locals on how to run public transportation.

You see, Libby and I schlepped our way to the Sibiu bus terminal on our first morning in Romania (note: rolling suitcases are not well suited to cobbled streets) and the first thing we noticed was that the scheduling information online didn’t match anything we could find at the station.

Then a strange man broke away from a group of ne’er-do-wells loitering around the parking lot and offered to take us wherever we wanted to go in his car. We thanked him, but explained that we didn’t want to end up on a Romanian milk carton with three months in the country still ahead of us. With nervous smiles, we bid him adieu and pointed ourselves in the direction of the bus tickets, that didn’t exist.

(This is where a crazyediting job of Uncle Billy discussing public transportation with some Romanian politicians would be hilarious.)

The fields were in full bloom in early spring on the outskirts of Sebeș.

Well, we had to call the man back from his ne’er-do-well comrades and ask how much for the hour-long journey. He said he’d do it for 100 lei (about $25). Well, kidnapping or no kidnapping, that was a ruddy fair price. We lugged our bags to his car, and stuffed ourselves inside, and with the heat punched up to 110 (required to keep the windows defrosted, he contended), we were off, talking as best we could, he with broken English and we with no Romanian.

We couldn’t have been more wrong to think ill of the man, and it upsets me to admit I had a prejudice based on ignorance. It turns out Jan had fought in the country’s 1989 revolution against the communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and had been shot in the leg (he showed us the wound). The regime fell, but Jan went to jail for his part in the uprising. He still had the criminal conviction inscribed on his license, which he showed us as well. He delivered us in good cheer to our temporary home and I left him with a tip, because, well, he deserved it.

Our temporary home in Sebeș seemed bleak when we first arrived, but it was anything but. Notice the concrete telephone poles.

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Our home for three months in Romania was smack dab in the middle of a town called Sebeș. The first thing I noticed upon entering the town were the concrete telephone poles. Then I realized the houses were almost all walled in, their own individual gated communities. I could only assume it was a privacy issue leftover from communism, when people were really only free to speak their minds fully in their own homes.

Sibiu is well known for its houses that look like they’re watching you. In reality, the windows help to vent the attics.

Now these were endearing traits for a westerner, but our new temporary home was sans television, which as most westerners would agree, is most certainly not an endearing trait. (FYI, being TV-less is not standard in Romanian households).

You know what? It’s kind of easy to get used to life without a TV, and quite frankly, in some ways, it was more enjoyable. We still had internet, and it was zippier than our connection back in the States, so we were happy as clams.

Now keep in mind that you’ll find plenty of people who can speak English in Romanian cities, but it’s not quite as prevalent in the towns. To be sure, our grasp of the local language was confined to “pardon me,” “red wine,” the numbers one and two, and “no mushrooms.” (Don’t worry, we did manage to discern a few other important lessons along the way. For example, the speed limit is your age times 5; each of the four Romanian food groups—pizza, meat, hamburgers and cabbage—contains meat; crosswalks are taken so seriously that, no fooling, you could kidnap the Lindbergh baby and as long as you were between a zebra crossing, people would wonder if they could actually do anything. Also, you can rent vehicles without a credit card. We rented our cars from one of the mobile phone stores in town.

Sibiu at night is absolutely breathtaking, especially around its big square

Fun fact: Every book in English sold in Romania mentions Romania within its pages. Pretty incredible, right? Is it true? I don’t know, but it’s a theory I’m working on.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? Well, I’ll tell you. We lived off the English sections of bookstores while living in Transylvania. Now, of course we purchased a couple vampire novels, which mentioned Romania, Transylvania being in the heart of the country, but all of the other books contained the country as well, often just in passing.

And not just small-time books here. We bought The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware, Time and Time Againby Ben Elton and other fairly well-known titles. And each one had at least one Romanian utterance.

That can’t be right, says you. Why would that be? Does the country have an unwritten rule or a law that encourages book importers to only import books that mention Romania? Do western publishers have otherwise meaningless lines mentioning random places in popular novels that they interchange based on the country in which the book is being sold?

The sad thing is that I’m not devoted enough to actually grab another copy of any of these books now that we’re back in the States to see if they still contain mentions of this particular eastern European country. And so, I leave it to you, dear reader. If you are in the midst of The Woman in Cabin 10 or Time and Time Again, or any of the other books we read there that we can’t recall the names of, please keep an eye out for Romania, and let me know what happens.

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