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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Givens

Vignettes from Romania

A Train and the Hunt for Coffee

The night train rolls into the station in Vienna. It looks like one of those trains you always see in movies about Eastern Europe. It’s operated by a Romanian company, and Romania is not a wealthy nation, so they have been using the same train cars for a number of years.

Never having done something like this before, I look at our reservation. We walk down the platform and find our coach. I attempt to show my reservation to the steward, who is standing outside the train, but he just waves me through. This is my first encounter with a Romanian person.

We enter the coach and seek out our room. We have reserved a couchette, a car with four “beds” and sheets. It’s a relatively cheap way to sleep on a train, and the journey is 18 hours between Vienna and Bucharest.

The car is obviously from the 1980s. Everything from the grey cushions with red outlines to the single, suspicious power outlet scream it.

“At least it’s comfortable,” I comment, as we lug our baggage into the room.

We store our things and make our beds, ready to settle in for the long ride. We have to make our beds ourselves, but the sheets, pillowcases, duvets, and duvet covers are all there. It’s nearly 8:00 at night when we board, so we let the boys play for a while in the small room, then get them ready for bed.

After the boys go to sleep, I go up and make my bed. We have to turn off the lights, since the boys are asleep, so I lie in my bed and watch YouTube on my phone until it’s time for me to sleep as well.

I take a melatonin gummy, which I brought with me to help me sleep in all these new places, and close my eyes. I let the gentle swaying of the train on the tracks lull me to sleep.

It’s about 2:00 am when I am awakened. The Hungarian passport control boards the train and asks to see our passports. They must turn on the lights and search our cabin to make sure there are no stowaways. The process takes maybe 10 minutes, but it seems like an hour. Thankfully the boys don’t wake up. He finally turns of the lights and leaves. I go back to sleep.

Thirty minutes later I am again awakened. This time it’s the Romanian passport control. Since Romania isn’t in the European Schengen area, there are required passport checks when entering, no matter where you’re from. This time the process is faster, and I go back to sleep.

The boys awaken around 6:00. This is normal for them when traveling. When they are awake, there is no hope for me to go back to sleep, so I rouse myself and get up. There is one thought on my mind: “Coffee.”

I wait for a while in the cabin, then I ask Elijah if he wants to help me find the cafe car to get some coffee. Of course he does.

We walk both ways on the train, but are unable to find the cafe. If I don’t get my coffee, the boys may not survive the rest of our trip to Bucharest. I try one last strategy.

“Do you know where I can get coffee?” I ask the steward, who’s been awake for at least an hour already.

He replies in broken English, “the cafe car,” and indicates the direction. We must not have gone far enough.

“I’m sorry. I must not have gone far enough that direction,” I tell him, preparing to walk again.

He stops me.

“Give me 10 minutes. I will go get coffee.”

I thank him and return to our cabin. Less than 10 minutes later, he knocks at the door. He has coffee.

I follow him to the supply room, where he pours two cups of coffee from a carafe. Then come the inevitable questions.

I tell him we’re from the USA, but that we live in France. He tells me he was born and raised in Romania. He of course asks why we are living in France, but his English isn’t good enough to comprehend my reply fully. My Romanian is nonexistent, so we just smile at each other.

I thank him for the coffee and return to my cabin.

This was my first experience interacting with a Romanian person. This man seemed cold and reserved the previous night when he waved us onto the train and came to check our tickets later. But he was friendly and willing to go get coffee for me this morning, when I couldn’t find the cafe myself.

“Perhaps he’s just doing his job,” I think to myself. After my later interactions with Romanian people, I realise I am wrong. Romanian people are truly kind and welcoming. They just take a while to open up.

An Uber ride in Bucharest

We arrive in a train at the station in Bucharest Romania after three days of travel. We’re rather tired, so we hire an Uber to take us to pick up our rental car. It’s about a thirty minute trip. The Uber costs us $7.

The man arrives to pick us up. He’s around 55 years old, slightly short in stature. He doesn’t talk much at first.

“This is our first time in Romania,” I tell him to break the ice.

“Where are you from?” He asks.

“We’re from the United States, but we live in France. Are you from here?”

“I was born and raised in Bucharest,” he tells me.

We make small talk. I ask him what kinds of food I should try. He gives me the names of some dishes I can’t pronounce.

“What is your favourite place in Romania?” I query.

“I love all Romania,” he tells me.

“I hear Romania is going to be part of the Schengen Zone soon,” I say, curious of his thoughts.

“I don’t care,” he replies, “Schengen or no Schengen, it makes no difference to me. My life is the same.”

He’s right. I’d asked the question because we had been awakened by passport control in both Hungary and Romania during the night on the train. If Romania were in the Schengen Zone, there would be no passport control. His words cause me to realise how privileged I am. For me, being Schengen would be positive because of a minor annoyance when crossing borders. For him, his life is the same either way.

Romania is a poor country. You can tell just by walking its streets or driving in its pothole-filled roads. To the average person here, international politics are unimportant when they are struggling to make enough money to feed their family.

And this man is old enough to have lived through the worst, darkest period in Romanian history, when their country was ruled by a dictator who lived lavishly while his people starved. Perhaps this is why most Romanian people are so stoic. They have been betrayed and oppressed by their own people. Maybe that’s why they’re so slow to trust. All of this is simply conjecture for me, but it does cause me to think.

I believed him when he said, “I love all Romania.” He and his fellow Romanians should. They have much to be proud of, and I hope they continue working to make their home a better place.

The English Girl

The waiter begins to speak to us in Romanian at a restaurant in the town of Sibiu. It’s a beautiful little city in the Transylvania mountains.

“I’m sorry, we don’t speak Romanian. Do you speak English?” I ask.

“No,” he replies and goes to get a coworker.

“I’m the English girl!” The woman exclaims when she comes to our table.

“Thank goodness!” Is our relieved answer.

“Where are you from?” She enquires as she begins to take our order.

“We’re from the US!” Elijah declares proudly.

“Yes, but we currently live in France,” Rachel interjects.

Every time we share this piece of information, we are asked the same inevitable questions: “What part of the US are you from?” “What part of France do you live in?” “Are you in France for work?”

All of these questions are discussed with the waitress. Her English is very good. We learn that she plays Minecraft, a passion she shares with Elijah.

“We work at a safe house for women and children who are migrants in Calais,” we tell her when she asks the final question.

“That’s amazing!” She exclaims! “I used to work for an organization that helps resettle people in Romania. I helped them learn about Romanian culture and systems. Some of the people I worked with are my best friends.”

“Wow! That’s super cool!” Is our reply.

“Yes, it’s an important work that you’re doing. I’ve loved meeting people from around the world and trying different foods,” she tells us.

“Have you tried Ethiopian food?” We ask. Ethiopian food has become one of our favourite cultural cuisines since we’ve lived in France.

“No, I haven’t worked with any Ethiopian people,” she replies.

“Well, you need to make friends with an Ethiopian person,” I tell her.

“Yes, I will make friends with an Ethiopian person and then ask them to cook for me,” she jests.

“I’m sure they’d be happy to!” I respond. I mean what I say.

I was curious about immigration in Romania after we returned home that day, so I did some Googling. According to the articles I read, Romania is very welcoming to people for resettlement from around the world. As a country that borders Ukraine, they were found to have responded quickly and efficiently to the refugee crisis there.

And that’s not all. They are welcoming to people of all nationalities who need a safe place to live. One of the guests that passed through the Maria Skobtsova House spent a number of months in Romania. She learned some Romanian, and only had good things to say about it.

If you can’t tell from my posts, I love Romania. The people here are not initially friendly most often, but they are kind. Ask the right questions or bring up the right topics, and they readily open up, always ready to share their opinions.

People like this woman are what make Romania such a beautiful place. The mountains of Transylvania are stunning. The rolling hills and countryside are some of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen. But it’s the people that make it truly beautiful.

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