During my winter break from university in Ireland, I had everything planned out: I would go home for two weeks, then continue on to London, then spend some time in Romania. I cut out the middle of these journeys, London – I ran into travel exhaustion, which for me tends to be both mental and physical. I like to think of myself as invincible, but when I got off the bus in Limerick after arriving from Idaho, I was so tired I couldn’t think straight. That night, I called to cancel my flights. I knew I was going to lose a ton of money, but after the Great Plane Pukefest of December 2017, I knew I needed to give my body a break, especially since I was also planning on going to Romania. To be honest, I was also feeling a little depressed. I was missing my family, who I’d just left behind again. I literally did nothing but sleep for a week, and at the end of it, I was still tired. I felt a little guilty for wasting so much time, and it probably would have been better if I had gotten up and exercised or gone out to do something. I’m not always great at managing my symptoms. Nevertheless, by the end of that week, I was ready for another adventure, and I knew that once I got going, I’d be fine.
I had been wanting to take advantage of being back in Europe to visit Romania again and work at the orphanage, if I could. I knew that many of my kids would still be there, and I wanted to see the places and people I’d come to love again.
I had planned a couple of days in Bucharest, which I hadn’t gotten to see the first time (except the airport, with which I quickly became intimately familiar). I planned to see the sights and then travel on to Iaşi, where I’d spend the bulk of my time.
Day One: Behemoth Buildings and Beethoven
Before I went to Romania the first time, I read a lot about the history (big surprise). I became fascinated by the rule of communism in the country, and especially by the Romanians’ relatively bloodless uprising in 1989. Bucharest is the city where communism has left its biggest mark. Infamous dictator Nicolae Ceauceşcu ran the country from here. After visiting Pyongyang, North Korea in the 70s, Ceauceşcu became obsessed with the grandiose, yet monolithic architecture he saw there, and vowed to make it a reality in Romania.
Where am I going with this, you might wonder? The answer is into the largest administrative building in the world:
This gargantuan thing is the Palatul Parlamentului (Palace of Parliament), which Ceauceşcu commissioned in 1984. I know it doesn’t look that big in the picture, but just to give you an idea, my tour lasted about two hours, and in that time, we covered about five percent of the building. Five.
As you can see, the interior is just as ostentatious as the outside – almost obscenely so. Can you believe the chief architect, Anca Petrescu, was only 28 when she began work on this project?
If you’re wondering why not all the chandeliers are on in the pictures, it’s because it’s estimated that it costs $6 million every year just to heat and light this building. There’s absolutely no way the government could keep anything running. And you thought your utilities were bad.
Ceauceşcu never actually got to live in the palace – he was executed by his own people before it was finished. They were going to demolish it, but it was literally cheaper to just complete it. Today, it’s the seat of the Romanian parliament, and other groups like the UN often hold meetings there, as well.
From the balcony, you can see the imposing Piața Unirii, which Ceauceşcu fashioned after the Champs-Élysées in Paris (and deliberately made a little wider and longer):
Luckily, in his “restructuring” of Bucharest (which even included moving historic churches into backyards), Ceauceşcu couldn’t entirely get rid of the beautiful architecture that earned the city the nickname Little Paris before communism. It was this part, the Old Town, that I set out to explore next.
I was looking for Curtea Veche (the Old, or Princely, Court), which has to do with – you guessed it, Vlad the Impaler. Built during Vlad’s epically bloodthirsty reign, it only began to be dug up by archaeologists in 1953. But it was closed for renovations. I may or may not have thought about gate-crashing before a policeman walked up.
I also struck out with the famous Mănăstirea Stavropoleos, a monastery for nuns in the heart of the city. I was hoping to look at their collection of Byzantine music books (the largest in Romania), but all I got to see was the outside, which was admittedly still amazing:
I then went to eat at Caru cu’ Bere, which has been a staple in Bucharest since it was built in 1899. Here, I reveled in Neo-Gothic architecture while being serenaded by a string quartet and eating a delicious goulash, all for about $12 USD:
On the way back across the city to find a park, I stumbled on this little beauty, a glass-topped passageway called Macca-Villacrosse:
One thing I like about Europe is the parks. We definitely have them in Idaho, but they’re not on such a grandiose scale. (However, you can sit down on the grass without thousands of fat, malevolent pigeons congregating ominously next to you. It’s a trade-off.) Bucharest has two famous parks, and I visited the first, Cişmigiu, after wandering the Old Town. It was full of people walking and skating on the ice rink that had popped up. I just sat and watched for a while, soaking in the festive spirit. I don’t know why I feel so at home in Romania. There are so many differences in culture and language, but it’s my favorite country in the world of the ones I’ve visited. I love the people so much: their kindness, their patience, their incredible bravery.
After my rest in the park, I wandered through the cultural heart of Bucharest. When I noticed the Royal Palace had been opened for the first time in a while, I went in to have a peek:
Nearly all of the surrounding streets showcase such beauty. Here is the inside of the Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest’s famous music hall, where I saw a piano concert later that evening (the outside of the building is the featured picture for this post):
As I listened to the pianist play one of my all-time favorite pieces, Beethoven’s Appassionata, I thought how lucky I am to be getting to see and experience a little of the different people and places in the world. It’s easy to get caught up in the little difficulties in my life (thesis, anyone?) but the more I come into contact with others, the more I realize how privileged I am. My life is so easy compared to so many. That’s why I like traveling – it puts things into perspective.
Day Two: A Walk in the Park
This was the day I did the most walking, by far: I’d estimate about seven or eight miles in total. Also, it was petrifyingly cold, which I have kind of gotten away from living in Ireland.
I could have taken the metro out to the park, but as a claustrophobic person, I avoid this whenever possible. Plus, the best way to explore a city is to wander its streets. Usually I do this by running in the morning, but running sucks in the cold, so I’m on an indefinite hiatus.
I walked past shops, monuments, and even a couple of embassies. The first notable thing I came across was the famous Arcul de Triumf, a replica of the Paris version. The first incarnation, a wooden structure, was built after Romania gained independence by uniting the three provinces of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania in 1878. The current, more stable arc was built in 1936. Every December 1, which is Romania’s national holiday (and also my birthday), military parades are held under it.
Next up was the Muzeul de Satului (Museum of Villages). I had never seen anything like this before. It is a cultural museum showcasing Romania’s different types of houses and barns from all over the country. It contains 272 houses, which were transported from all over Romania and placed in the park. Everything from the mud houses of Neamț to the wooden churches of Maramureş were represented.
It was fascinating to take a step into Romanian culture and see the way people lived (and sometimes still live) in villages. I’ve mostly spent time in Romanian cities, and I made a vow to explore more of the countryside on my next visit. I also made a new friend:
This little guy followed me through the museum (I’m apparently one of the only tourists crazy enough to visit in January), and by the end, I was walking through surrounded by approximately 95 cats of all shapes and sizes. I have accepted my place as a crazy cat lady, so this didn’t bother me.
I exited the museum to take in the surrounding Parcul Herăstrău, a beautiful lakeside area which has been inhabited by humans since the Paleolithic Age. Its lakeside walk is enchanting, and I ended up doing the whole loop, if only to try to get some warmth into my bones. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work, mostly because I had accidentally left my winter gloves at home. The only thing that did was to get a cup of hot chocolate from a vending machine (I love you, Europe) and a delicious Romanian-style kebab from a street vendor.
After my chilly walk and warming food, I headed to the Muzeul Naţional de Artă al României – specifically to their medieval art section, which is excellent. Most of this, as you can imagine, was religious in nature. I’m very partial to Orthodox art. The ikon-style painting is always so beautiful. I’m fascinated by the differences between it and Western Christian art.
That effectively ended my two amazing days in Bucharest. I’m so glad I got to experience the capital for the first time. The next morning I got on an early-morning flight to Iaşi, the city I fell in love with almost two years ago.
When I got to Iaşi, it was just like when I had been home in Idaho the previous month. I had friends here, I had a job to do (volunteering at the orphanage and the group homes). I knew all the restaurants and all the sites. I even knew the quickest ways to get places (which is nice, because I’m always late). I hadn’t seen it in winter, of course, but in that, too, it felt very familiar:
It was so good to see Teo, Mario, and my babies again. I was surprised by how big some of them had gotten. It felt like no time had passed at all. Many of the nurses I’d become friends with were still working there. I spent as much time at the orphanage during the day as I could, and at night, I went to the group homes to hang out with the kids.
Since the new volunteers hadn’t come for the semester yet, I had almost two weeks to myself to take turns with all the kids in the orphanage, a privilege which I selfishly enjoyed. I held babies, played improvised basketball, and sang songs, and I loved it.
There was one little girl I’ll call Ana who I remembered as a baby from my last time in Iaşi; she’s now a precocious, intelligent little girl who loves to be read to. She doesn’t let her rare and sometimes difficult skin condition, which causes her to break out in scabs and sores, stop her from doing what she wants to do. She taught me strength and determination. I met a little boy I’ll call Radu. Teo told me that when he came, he was severely undernourished. Now, he is a healthy little chunk with an infectious smile who loves to give hugs and help with the younger kids. He taught me that happiness is a state of mind, not a situation.
I enjoyed talking to the nurses, some familiar and others new friends, who care for the children. They are such good, patient, strong women. Many of them have their own kids to worry about at home, and yet they are still there for the kids at the orphanage and group homes, making them food, giving them baths, teaching them how to share. For many kids, these are the first positive role models they’ve had in their lives, and they do such a wonderful job.
At the group homes, I’d only worked with boys before. At the first apartment I went to, I was introduced to five little girls and one little boy who I got to know really well. There were two sweet little sisters who reminded me very much of the two brothers I’d enjoyed playing with the first time. I wondered where they were now, and if they liked their new family. Just like those brothers, the sisters left soon after I did for a new home. It made me sad, and I know it makes the women who care for them even sadder, but it’s what’s best for the kids. The world goes around, and things change, but a piece of my heart will always be in Iaşi, even if I’m not truly Romanian.
On my second-to-last night in Iaşi, I went to dinner with my friend Ruxandra, a doctor. She introduced me to Cuban food at a great restaurant and we talked about our mutual interest in music, children, and travel. It was so great to relax and simply enjoy an evening. I’ve missed my good friends and the mentoring they’ve given me, even if they don’t realize it.
On the plane back to Ireland, I cried. But it was a happy sadness. After a little more than two weeks in Romania, my heart and mind were full of so many wonderful, positive experiences that I didn’t think I could hold it all in. This is the place where I first truly learned service, and my love of teaching children. It’s where I determined to make it part of my life and career. Hopefully, in the next few months, I will do just that.