București din nou

by vpundir | September 24th, 2008

Swiss Air is selling tickets for flights to Bucharest leaving next day (on the 23rd) for £180, so I take the plunge and buy one online. The latest check-in time is 5.20 am, and the flight through Zurich arrives in București at 1pm. No problem, I’ve done worse times than that.

In line with the plan, I get home by 1 am on Monday night (or Tuesday morning, depending on how you look at it), grab stuff from around the place under the euphemism of „packing”, and get out of the house by 3.30am, proud of my acievement.

As it turns out, however, travelling in London at night isn’t all that it’s slated to be – many of the famed 24-hour and night services get cancelled, and all you can do is wait for the next one. And if you are stuck in an area with no taxis in sight, it could take a while to get there. Revising my plan of how to get to Heathrow a few time, I finally reach the Swiss check-in at 5.35 am, via Oxford Circus, Paddington Station and the trusty Heathrow Connect.

I’m told there is no way I can check in now even though I don’t have any luggage to check in. So I go to the Swiss ticket counter to figure out what to do. The person on duty there is extremely understanding and helpful, but he can’t get me on this flight. How about the next flight? There is nothing he can get me today that would help me catch my connection. How about from City airport through Geneva? There’s just one flight, and it has already left. I can get the same flight tomorrow for £180 if I like. Waitaminit! How about I get the same flight tomorrow, but get only one way, since I still can use the return I bought yesterday is still valid, right? Wrong! Apparently, if I miss the first leg of the flight, the whole ticket is cancelled, including the return journey. Whaaat?! And in any case, a one-way ticket is more expensive than the return ticket. Again, whaaat?! Yes, he calmly tells me – while Lon-Buc-Lon costs £180 „only”, Lon-Buc would set me back by £430 or so. Hmmm…mindboggling! That’s all I can say about that.

So the £180 is sunk cost, and the best offer he can make is same flights, with outgoing on Wednesday morning for an additional £180. Well, since I am already here, how about you get me to Zurich today, and I’ll take the Bucharest connection from there tomorrow.

„Sure! That will cost you £380”

„Nevermind, then.”

Maybe I should check Tarom, British Airways or Lufthansa, he suggests. Well, I know from my web search just yesterday afternoon that BA and Tarom are horribly expensive. Perhaps I could check Lufthansa out. Lufthansa is willing to take me there today for a sum of £520. And while Tarom counter is not open, their associates at Alitalia inform me that it will probably cost me about £600 to get on this afternoon’s flight.

Back at the Swiss desk, the helpful agent hands me a leaflet for http://www.missedaflight.com/, a service for (as the name indicates) helping passengers who have missed a flight to make alternative travel arrangements through the company’s supposed special deals with budget and regular airlines, which has been operating out of Gatwick for a while and just yesterday distributed flyers to airline desks at Heathrow indicating that they would be serving this airport too now. The Swiss agent doesn’t know whether these folks are any good, but reckons that it’s worth a shot. So I call the number, and am told to go to Terminal 5 and speak with BA because they have a direct flight and SHOULD have the cheapest rates. What about all your special deals with all these airlines, folks? I already know about BA, its flight, and its expensive fares. Ehhh!

So, it is clear: I am not leaving today. It’s like a sign – the last time I ran into so many roadblocks and missed a flight was when I was going home to India from USA in 2006…and the airline (BA, which is why I hate them with a vengeance) ended up losing ALL my luggage. But now, as then, I will trudge on.

So, back at Swiss desk to buy a ticket for tomorrow. The agent suggests that I should go up to the lobby, log in to the Net and buy the ticket online as there is a £15 fee to buy the ticket at the counter (or a £15 discount to buy it online, depending on how you look at it). Also, while I am at it, I should file a request for refund of my unused ticket for today, because though the fare class is unrefundable, I should be able to get the taxes refunded and, as it happens, taxes form almost 67% of the amount I have paid.

After buying the ticket online, I get back in town and finish off a day’s worth of work. I was scheduled to have a telephonic interview with an Australian company tomorrow morning but since I’ll be flying at the time, I reschedule it for my stopover in Zurich. The day done, I return to Heathrow the next morning with some time to spare.

The flight to Zurich is painless, and my interviewer calls dutifully at the appointed time, and I take the call in the Smokers’ Lounge which is quiet and has an electric plug to charge my phone’s battery which seems to have run out. The interview is going well when my phone reboots itself and then shuts down completely – evidently the battery wasn’t being charged. A few futile attempts later, it is clear that nothing can be done, and that I must proceed to the boarding gate. The only glimmer of hope is that I did warn my interviewer that this might happen and apologized in advance.

Thankfully the connection is slightly late too, and I get to București Otopeni International Airport safely on the afternoon of the 24th. The Immigrations Officer is having a little bit of trouble accepting that I am the same guy as the one whose photograph is affixed in my passport, but finally I am able to find a picture with short hair on a visa and thereby to convince her.

Walking out of the Arrivals lounge, one is confronted by taxi drivers aggressively vending their services. But they are not half as aggressive as those outside train stations in Delhi, where I have been trained, and hence I skilfully dodge them and make a beeline for the ATM – I have pledged to do this trip using public transportation as much as possible because for one it is the way to really discover a country and for another it provides a greater interface with local people.

I remember from the Hostelling International’s website that bus number 783 goes to the city centre and that Villa Helga is 200 metres from there. So the task at hand is just to find the bus stop. The teenager at the information desk doesn’t understand English, but when spoken to in Romanian sends me downstairs to the other side of the building. As I walk outside of the building, I am perplexed as there don’t seem to be any signs or queues or any other indications that there is a bus stop around. Did I even understand the instructions given by that boy correctly?

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a man in a reflective jacket in some distance. So I go up to him and ask, “Unde este stația de autobuz?” He tells me that it is in front of the gate, and points me back to where I came from. I turn around to see that a group of 3-4 people has gathered around the place.

On my way back towards the gate, a lost looking guy asks me if I know where the bus stop is. Come along, I say. He is a Swiss computer programmer, has lived in San Francisco for about 6 months, and is on his way to Bulgaria for the wedding of a friend. His destination is closer from here than from Sofia, which explains why he has landed here, and he plans to spend the few hours he has in București to explore the city. He tried to find a locker or a cloak room to keep his luggage at the airport, but evidently nobody understood him.

We don’t have to wait long at the bus stop after buying the RON 7 return ticket (valid for 3 months) for the express line 783 from the nearby ticket-counter. I’m impressed by the bus we have boarded – it appears to much nicer than many of the TfL buses back in London. Oddly, though, even though passengers can board the bus from either of the two doors, the ticket-validation machine is installed only by the driver’s seat. So when the bus is crowded, one boarding through the back door must have to wrestle through the crowd to get the ticket validated.

An LCD panel shows the updates on the journey – the route, approaching bus stops, connections available etc. – quite a bit like Jacksonville FL. And it is pretty amusing, due to the harried and rushed people around us, to hear the endearing calm recorded voice go “Uitați stația…” announcing the name of the stop and the connections available from it.

What throws me off a bit is that I can’t see any shelters or boards that indicate a bus-stop at the places we are stopping. I’m sure that because of the adequate help of the LCD and LED panels and the announcer-lady, we will find the right stop to get off, but my concern is about how, if one is walking down the pavement, does one find a bus stop to board a bus. Finally, I notice the tiny, easy-to-miss signs reading “RATB” and bus numbers, stuck on what seem to be electric poles near the bus stops. Well, that’s not much help, I think to myself. My concerns are finally alleviated as we enter the city and proper bus-stop shelters start appearing.

By now, I have sort of unofficially become the București guide of the Swiss guy, telling him about the places to go to and places to see (I must say that it is a strange feeling to be doing this in a country that I don’t reside it). I forewarn him as we are approaching Arcul de Triumf and he manages to take a surprisingly good picture from the moving bus. Alighting from the bus at Piața Unirii, which to the best of my knowledge and belief is the city centre, he wonders aloud how to find a place to keep his bag for a couple of hours to as to freely roam about and get a feel of the town. Since the hostel is supposed to be close-by, I tell him that he could probably leave it at the reception there.

How do we figure out which direction to take, though? No problem! I grab this excellent opportunity to practice my Romanian, and ask a lady at the book stall where the Mihai Eminescu Road is. She doesn’t know, but calls over another lady from a nearby stall and asks her. Apparently, it is not too far from Piața Română which we passed by on the bus. As the ladies utter Piața Română, my brain registers something odd about the pronounciation, though I can’t put my finger at exactly what it is. In any event, the lady from the bookstalls even opens up a map from her shop and shows Mihai Eminescu Road to us.

While it is possible to take a bus, we choose to walk up there, passing Piața Universității, and turning right at Piața Română. It has been significantly longer than 200 meteres, and the hostel is nowhere in sight. The Swiss guy gives up soon, and decides that a better idea for him would be to give a few bucks to one of the building security guards and have him take care of the bag for a couple of hours.

I keep inching ahead till finally I see a window with a YHA sticker on it. It seems to be the right place – the adjacent houses have respectively the preceding and succeeding building numbers. But where’s the entrance to Villa Helga? The shopkeeper next door tells me to use the black side-gate, which I open gingerly because there are no indications whatsoever that this is indeed the hostel. Thankfully it is, and though I don’t have a reservation, the welcome is warm and unreserved. As the hostess shows me around, I have but one question: Can I use Internet in here? Yes, I can, and it would cost me €1 per hour.

After laying claim on a bed by the window, and quickly cleaning up, I ask the hosts about whether Palatul Parlamentului might still be open at this hour – I’ve been there before, but my camera’s battery ran out, and it’s worth visiting again just to take pictures from the balcony. I’m told that most places, including Palatul Parlamentului and Palatul lui Cotroceni close at 4pm. Since it is already quarter to 4, it is not even worth an attempt right now.

So what CAN I do? Not much, right now, but at night I could eat at the Caru cu Bere and check out the Lăptăria lui Enache, both near Piața Universității, my hostess tells me. Caru cu Bere serves has been serving traditional Romanian cuisine for over a century, and though the name of Enache’s Milkbar may evoke images of Korova (from A Clockwork Orange), apparently we don’t live in the 70’s anymore. She hands me a Xeroxed map of the area, and retires.

So maybe I should check my email. To this end I try to get hold of the host, whom I find in the TV room watching what seems to be a FoxNewsesque tirade-dressed-as-debate. How do I use my laptop to access the Internet? Well, I can’t because he has let people plug out the Ethernet cable from the one computer in the house for use with their laptops, and his computer has been damaged in the process. So the only way to use Internet is at the PC in the TV room, though he plans to install wireless soon. Fine by me! Oh, by the way, what’s with the 200m from town centre? He looks genuinely surprised – apparently it’s a typo, and he corrects it right away: 200m from bus stop for buses going to centre.

Hmmm…I’ll just go grab a bottle of water from the non-stop shop (24-hour store) next door before I get online.

The shopkeeper is sitting on the steps and signals me to go ahead in. Inside, I don’t see water. So I ask „Nu ai apă plată?”

Turns out the fridge is behind me, partly hidden by the door. So I get a bottle of Dorna and an Orange prepaid SIM card. He says that I speak Romanian well.

„Nuuu!”, I protest „Vorbesc numai puțin.”

„Vorbiți puțin ba pronunțarea dumneavoastră e mai bună decât niște români.”

„Haha! Mulțumesc!”

Enough of an ego boost. Now on to more important things.

So I check my emails and write a few, including one to my interviewer asking if he could call be again to finish off the interview the next morning. Surprisingly, as late as it is in Sydney, he replies almost immediately confirming that he would like to do so. Load off my head!

An English guest of Spanish origin, who has been watching the music channels, asks me, for some reason, whether I am Belgian. Well, I am not, thank you very much.

From an email I gather that a friend in London had her place broken into and robbed. These days you never know!

Anyway, so far it looks like I should go up to Moldova and be back around Saturday night. In order to visit the Moldovița, Sucevița, Voroneț and Putna monasteries and Marginea village, it seems that the best thing to do would be to get to Suceava. The Romanian Railways website says that there is an early morning train to Suceava, and the next train is late in the afternoon. I should take the early morning train so as to save daytime for sightseeing etc.

All that settled, it’s time to walk around the city and enjoy the evening breeze. I have used the Net for about 2 hrs, but when I ask my host how much I owe him, he waves me away, telling me that I don’t need to pay. Some way down the Mihai Eminescu road, a little „Fructe și legume” stall reminds me that I should probably eat something. The pears look nice and the prices are displayed in kilograms, so I ask if I can buy a quarter of a kilo. The lady is so happy to see me speak Romanian that she offers the ask for free. Of course, I pay her for the pears, but it feels pretty good.

Piața Unirii is as commercial and full of bustle as it was last year. I am disappointed to see that the green lighting is gone – it made the tree-lined sidewalks look so mystical and romantic.

So I walk down to Palatul Parlamentului, which looks much more regal and interesting at night. The weather has been dry, and the cool breeze feels nice – perfect for a long walk.

Trying to find the Caru cu Bere is turning out to be an exercise in futility and I am hungry, so I decide to dine at a restaurant with badly executed ceiling replica of the Sistine Chapel murals and eminently forgettable food. Lăptăria would have to wait for another day as I haven’t slept a wink in 3 nights and I have an interview and a train to catch early in the morning.

In the morning, my Australian interviewer calls dutifully and I have a good conversation with him. A quick look at the watch at the end of the conversation, however, suggests that I have missed the morning train to Suceava has left. So I’ll just go ahead and catch up on a few more hours’ sleep.

Finally upon reaching Gara de Nord (North Station), I buy a ticket to the first Moldova-bound train, which is the 12:00 noon train to Iași for RON 73.40. Since I have over an hour on my hands, I decide to go back to Piața Română and Piața Universitații to click some pictures.

The most striking feature of the Piața Română is the Academia de Studii Economice building with bold red letters saying „www.ase.ro” on its top. While the building itself is interesting, I am most intrigued by the fact that I have never seen a public high-education institution display its website address more prominently, or even as prominently as, its official name. I don’t know whether to attribute ASE’s display to the web-marketing savvy of its public relations people or more generally to the Internet-friendliness of the Romanian people.

While crossing the street I see a statue of the Capitoline wolf with Romulus and Remus (a stone replica of the bronze statue in Campidoglio). That’s when I finally realize that it is not Piața Română (Romanian Square) but Piața Romană (Roman Square).

Piața Romană is also home to a great, big visual joke, though most Romanians probably don’t give it as much as a second glance. One of the buildings flanking the square is a residential building masted with „Lukoil Uleiuri de Motor” in bold letters. And right next to this message is a giant Coca-Cola bottle pouring its contents into a glass. Maybe I have a very strange sense of humor, but I am certainly tickled by the visual.

Next, I walk down to Piața Universității with whose name I have had some cofusion. Well, it seems that though it is usually referred to as Piața Universității, its official name is Piața 21 Decembrie 1989. Additionally, my host was correct: there is a milestone here that clearly says „București 0 km”…this is the real town-centre.

I quickly take pictures of the milestone, the four statues, students’ church and Jos Pălăria restaurant, and return to Gara de Nord. The train station itself also has a few good subjects and I happily click away.

A couple of days ago Explorish had emailed me a list of some of the greatest places I can visit. Now, in order to figure out how to organize my trip, it would probably be best to see how they are located with respect to each other. With this end in mind, I visit the bookstalls and the bookshop at the station, but none of them sells a map of Romania.

Since there’s still a little time left, I decide to grab a bite at one of the restaurants. While nibbling on my pizza, I get distracted by a loud noise for a moment, and when I turn back, my camera is gone. It’s time for my train, but I like the camera quite a bit so I feel I should at least try to find it.

I ask the janitor mopping the floor, but she doesn’t seem to understand one word coming out of my mouth, so I go back to the nice girl who took my order. She directs me to a stout, moustachioed man who seems to crawl when he walks, drawl when he speaks, and think even more slowly. Anyhow, he follows me to the table I was at, asks the janitor, takes me back to the cas register, shows me the board that says that the shop cannot be held responsible for items lost, and shrugs his shoulders.

My train to Iași has left by now and, in any case, I have decided that I must allow for some self-doubt and allow for the slight possibility that I might have left it at one of the bookstalls I visted after taking the photos at the station. Unfortunately, as expected, nothing comes out of that quest. Last attempt is to try to find a Lost And Found office. The Information counter lady doesn’t know anything about it, nor does the Public Relations lady. The policeman directs me to an officer around the corner, and the folk there direct me back to the police station. Ehh, nevermind.

While usually I am pretty aware of my surroundings, I guess I was a bit preoccupied because it’s pretty clear that someone specifically followed me with the purpose of grabbing the camera – With the camera slung on my shoulder, I was basically roaming about with „TOURIST” printed in bold letters on my forehead. Come to think of it, even if I didn’t have the camera on the shoulder, I still have „TOURIST” printed in bold letters on my forehead anyway. So there!

Another RON 73.40 ticket and on to my train for Suceava.

Click here to check out my pictures from București of 24 Sept 2008.

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