Why Romania?

Romanian National Opera. 

Nadia Almasalkhi

Why was I visiting Romania? The first person to ask me was the customs agent, and the question (plus the fact that it was two in the morning) left me speechless. I supposed the honest answer was that the previous summer, when I had studied abroad in Spain, I met a classmate’s ex-roommate’s friend who was visiting from Tangier but studied in Bucharest and mentioned, off-handed, that it was a pretty nice place to visit. Plus the Airbnbs were pretty cheap. And so I visited.

“What is the reason for your visit?” he asked me again. Tourism, I blurted through my groggy stupor, almost as a question. 

My travel partner Sierra and I reconvened in the arrivals lounge. “What language do they speak here?” she asked, stunned at her own ignorance. “How do you even say ‘hello’?” Our unpreparedness was hitting us and launching us into giggle fits. “Why are we in Bucharest?”

Our Airbnb was on the edge of town along metro line 4. The sidewalks were cracked, the fences were rusted, and the whole area was shaded by trees and poorly maintained buildings. It made my heart swell–it was a far cry from the place I had been spending the semester in Geneva, Switzerland, where guilt struck with every step of your dirty boots on the pristine and somehow perpetually-freshly-cleaned sidewalks. Geneva felt like it was fighting off germs and you were one of many infections. Bucharest was like home, though. Bucharest was the lived-in city that invites you in. It reminded me of childhood summers spent in my father’s hometown of Damascus and of adventures in the abandoned buildings at the end of the street. That was why I was in Bucharest.

The next morning we went downtown, not quite in search of anything but cheap food. We took an Uber and I asked the driver to take us to a certain church, but as the car pulled away I realized that there were actually two churches in Bucharest with almost the exact same name. But honestly, every church in Bucharest was worth visiting. 

It happened to be Easter weekend for Orthodox Christians and women were walking out of churches all over town with scarves on their heads, holding palm fronds. Sierra and I slinked into the church, looking around nervously, waiting to see if anyone would tell us to leave. The inside was dark, lit only by a few hanging lights and small stained glass windows. Thick patterned carpets intersected with centuries-old painted walls. 

Every building was a testament to a piece of Romanian history and culture. Orthodox churches with bulbous domes stood next to communist-era concrete structures, which in turn rubbed knees with polished Austro-Hungarian-style buildings that looked more like they belonged in Paris than the former Eastern Bloc.

The old town was no different. The extravagant CEC Palace was a short cobblestone path away from the 18th century Stavropoleous Monastery, and then a block over from there was a weekly flea market where scarves and jewelry in traditional Romanian patterns were sold. Subway cars entirely coated in graffiti led to lush and overgrown gardens and parks. Those parks bordered a sleek and modern downtown area filled with hipsteresque nightclubs and daytime cafes that transformed into nighttime bars. That was why I was in Bucharest. 

Bucharest consistently reminded me of its own history, but it would be wrong to say that it is not an international city. Bucharest was filled with international cuisine and buzzed with foreign languages. Though no morning would be complete without traditional Romanian pastries, my favorite meal was at Mazzaj Cafe, a restaurant and hookah lounge founded by Syrians who had fled from the Syrian war. 

I landed in Romania expecting little more than a brief respite from the crushing everyday costs of studying in Switzerland. Eastern Europe, and Romania in particular, is usually overlooked by backpacking Americans, but in my travels through over a dozen countries, Bucharest was one of my favorite cities. The question “Why am I in Bucharest?” played in my head on repeat for hours on that first night, but by the time I left, my only question was “When am I going back?” I’ll let you know when I do.