Saturday, January 22, 2022

Friday, October 29, 2021

Depression Knows No Zip Code: Romanian Edition

 For ten years I had a best friend.

Not a best GIRL friend. No one ever rivaled the girl who lived across the hall from me in Mary Park Hall and now lives across the world. She remains my top dog.

He was different. There was a trust and an intimacy in our relationship I’d never experienced in another. He saw me, as I was, and loved me deeply not in spite of it but because of it. After a betrayal we parted ways but there are times I miss him like a limb blown off in the war where phantom pains still ache on late, rainy nights.

All this to say I wish HE were here right now, as I board LH411 to BUC via MUC to tell me to chill the F out. This will be my 53rd or 54th country and my flights have to top out on the high hundreds yet I’m equal parts nervous and ambivalent about this latest adventure and I know if he were here he would say yo, B - you always do this before a trip and you always love it.

And he would be right.

It’s nice sometimes, even after a person has left your life, some of their love remains.

Heading to Bucharest from New York City on a warm beautiful autumn day wasn’t in the plans. But then again, was any of this? My proverbial dart and map coordinates landed on Sofia but when they shut down to covid cursed Americans I had to make a call and spend even more money at the airline to reroute a flight cancelled for reasons completely outside of my control.

It’s 1 am EST and I’ve landed on a tarmac so dark and moody I half expect a man in a trench coat and fedora to walk out of the shadows and say "here's looking at you, kid." I’m cold. I’m tired. And for the first time on foreign soil - I’m 40.

My travels are always that - travel, not vacations. I get a bit bougie about this but I’m seated in the recesses of Munich Airport alone, on plastic seats in the middle of the night with my increasingly heavy belongings strapped to my back and no real plan for once I reach my destination. Like the way I choose to do most things in life, my journeys are arduous and fraught with obstacles I take glee in overcoming.

Glee may be a stretch. Unexpected full frontal and an occasional *NSYNC concert are the only things I can recall eliciting such an emotion but in my now 15 years or so of travel there is a feeling I get. A joy derived even in the uncomfortable trek across the pond and I gotta tell you - I’m not feeling it.

This trip seems ill timed, ill conceived and inconvenient but I’ve made a promise to myself and, almost as importantly, to the memory of my father and now I am here, for two weeks, whether I like it or not.

I’m hoping it’s much more of the former.

Finally, nearly frozen I board the Soviet relic that is this aircraft and settle in for an hour and change in the less friendly and more limited visibility skies.

Luckily as the captain is making his announcements in both accented English and what I assume is Romanian but sounds like Russian to a rube like me a fellow passenger in the back unwittingly delights at least me with the sweet sounds of Rick Astley’s 80’s gold ‘Never Gonna Give You Up.’ The incongruous nature of the sights and sounds of this experience have me looking for hidden cameras - or David Lynch.

After deboarding into the dreary day one thing strikes me immediately - the quiet. Once I exit the airport you could hear a pin drop - a rarity I would imagine at any airport let alone an international hub.

Splashes of bright yellows and greens ushered me into city centre, along with Dua Lipa and the very strong scent of some sort of eastern block fragrance in my Uber.

Haris, my Airbnb host, had informed me they will not be ready for me for an hour minimum so I am left with time to burn on a chilly day after a long ass flight.

The car had passed a place that looked cute and open and that worked for me so after exiting the vehicle, I head back North. Bread and Butter is a hip eatery with menu items like Rooibos tea and homemade Romanian jelly nicely paired with their beautiful young waitresses, velvet banquets and a fantastic playlist.

This would suit me just fine for the autumn afternoon.

When I glance over my right shoulder and see a nearby Pizza Hut I know I’ve made the right decision.

Having booked a childproof apartment it only took me 49 minutes or so to unlock the various doors and manage the pre war life to the 6th floor to my humble abode for the next few days. Small, clean and warm - not much else is needed. Luxuriating in the full sized bed almost made me forget I had things to do - miles to log, food to acquire.

After a brief siesta I threw in my berry colored beanie - not even considering the mess of hair affixed on my head several countries ago and the dark circles etched beneath my dull eyes.

A Sunday city outside of the US has thrown me before so though the streets had some foot traffic the dusk was mostly filled with prides of crow and eerie silence.

Though I knew exactly where I wanted to dine my first night in town - I meandered through the streets of old town where a few of my favorite travel things resided. Beautiful, multilevel stationary stores, outdoor dining with heat lamps, and tiny tucked away in the recesses of alleys.

Stavropoleos Monastery Church Biserica Mănăstirii Stavropoleos is no bigger than a house in the middle class section of Los Angeles but as soon as I stepped past the wooden double doors and heard the sisters (note not sistas) harmonizing in Latin or Romanian or honestly any other language I didn’t recognize I burst into tears. I had taken cash out at the airport but the 100 lei bills received are often no good and they weren’t for the diminutive nun who shook her head and then offered me a single candle for free.

Filled with gratitude I gently lit my candle (s) and had a moment with the great beyond in the great present.

Meandering through Old Town it’s clear this is a university neighborhood and that crazy, inebriated, seemingly unstable men walk the streets with concerning looks and indecipherable speech all over the world after dark.

My feelings taste like one of two things at any given moment. Pizza or Burger King. After allowing myself such indulgences I generally feel like shit - yet eat them feelings right up again. After passing many a fine eatery I wander back to Burger King where a ‘Green Pass’ is required for dine in. It appears to be a scannable QR code given here post vaccine. I do not have one but the bouncer at the BK door is lovely and lets me in for my unique cultural experience nonetheless.

I dine, I dash (just kidding, I paid), and I walk back to my flat for a hot shower to warm up and a horizontal bed in which to lie, having been on a plane the last 15 hours.

It isn’t long before I’m slumbering to the sounds of Carol King singing my least favorite theme song of all time.

Early to bed, early to rise and by 2 am I am up and at ‘em- trying to work out all of my IT issues for the coming weeks on what is still a Sunday afternoon back in the states.

It’s impossible to know when feelings will strike. It’s been noted that perhaps I am more feeling than many - but I just happen to think I’m more in touch and, with some frequency, demonstrative. Earlier today I was speaking to a close friend who lost his father this summer and all he said was ‘I miss my dad’ and the tears began to well up, as they do now while I type this. It’s that simple - I miss my dad. Often. Always.

The adventures we’ve posthumously embarked upon together have been great and for me quite meaningful, but as I lay awake at 3:30 am in a small studio apartment in Bucharest there is no one in the world I want to call more than him. No one who’s voice or compassion or person is more needed or more appreciated and I’m just not sure that is something you ever get over.

Jet Lag - 1,Briana - 0.

Id waited till sunrise to fall back asleep and managed to sleep. All. Day.

Not only was I managing an almost opposite night and day sleep schedule but I also started my period upon arrival which, for you ladies - you know what I mean. For those ladies over 35 - you really know.

Around 3pm I made myself get up to spend sometime in the gloomy days of Bucharest in the fall. After all, my work day would begin just a few hours later.

Cișmigiu Gardens seemed to be a destination and not far from my flat. Before long I landed there almost unintentionally and entered the walls of lush green flowers j a still quiet Monday afternoon listening to early aughts R&B just to help with the transition. Thanks, Ne-Yo!

Nary a color in sight, save for a few trees yellowing. The white people (though I have seen a handful of POC) drape themselves in shades of black and grey to match the sky and … the history?

Bucharest is the kind of city that makes you want to smoke cigarettes over a casual conversation about socialism.

Having finally watched ‘Yesterday’ on the plane here my respect and adoration for The Beatles was revitalized and my dislike for making a girl ‘plain’ and just the friend by simply making her a brunette confirmed.

John, Paul, George and Ringo were by my side and in my ear as we exotics TK park and headed to Revolution Square. They were with me when I discovered that museums are closed Mondays and Tuesday and serenaded me back to Old Prince Court which was built for a 16th Century prince and has a connection to Brahm Stoker’s Dracula I cannot invest in too deeply because I really am a pussy when it comes to scary movies.

The Fab Four were also still echoing in my ears when we all discovered the Ole Prince Court was roped off. I was certainly not batting 1000 today, but Caru' cu bere was close by and apparently the place to eat.

I figured at least one meal today would be good.

Typically sleeping my day abroad away would fill me with anxiety in regret. Typically I wouldn’t do it.

I am not sure if it is my age or covid - but taking care of myself and lessening the risk of falling I’ll at any moment feels like a top priority so when I sat down to dine in bean and pork soup in a bread bowl with a local brew at 6pm and it was essentially breakfast, I felt ok about it. Maybe even grateful.

I leisurely read ‘Ladies of the Grand Tour’ and sipped on water with gas before taking the leap and saving down a waitress to order Childhood Cake in desperate hopes it would recapture mine. I gotta be honest - I was hoping for something in the funfetti family so when I was served a sliver of what I’m guessing is chocolate moose and marzipan with a fruit salad of pomegranate and apple it was very clear this was not childhood cake. It was child free cake - all too appropriate for my spinster sojourn, all the more so when a girlfriend from back home phoned me to discuss a former coworkers pregnancy and all the feelings wrapped up in other peoples life tentpoles.

She was hesitant to tell me why she was upset, knowing how badly I’ve wanted to be a mother for what seems like eternity and, now with no where to run and the 4 at the start of my age it’s time to accept the reality and bask in the things I do have in my life while trying to avoid the emptiness of the things I do not.

Regardless, I walked home. A woman’s work is never done and neither is mine - so I hopped on some work calls and set up for an evening of internet and hot tea. Don’t worry - it’s even less sexy than it sounds. Till tomorrow.

A melancholy morning led to a disastrous day. After schlepping my shit over the Sixt I was made to wait, then told I could not rent a car or drive in Romania because I did not have an international drivers license (an obstacle I’d already been suspicious about) and then informed I also could not be refunded the cost of the rental car by a less than sympathetic figure.

Exhaustion and hormones and frustration all built up in my tear ducts and I tried my hardest not to cry in front of car rental associate ratchet. I was only mildly successful. Lucky for me the hotel in which the rental desk was situated offered a spacious clean bathroom with enough privacy for me to have more than several minutes to myself to completely lose it.

Now what? I priced flights home, looked into testing centers, as I would need it be to return to the United States, and researched train schedules to get me to Brasov where I’d already booked a room for the night.

These obstacles that I always saw as part of the journey seemed insurmountable when as exhausted and honestly, burnt out, as I’d become.

Not only 40 years of high speed activity but a few months of working and running and existing had just worn me to the bone and a cold country, both literally and figuratively, were not the answer.

After calming myself I sat on a bench outside until I thought maybe food would help and ducked into the first eatery I passed.

Primus is a pub with an extensive menu all sure to be subpar but also had cozy booths and big windows that let the sun that just showed itself the first time, to seep in and offer some hope.

Or not.

Without going into too much detail (so unlike me, I know) I’ll just say I’m a bit burnt out and the series of unfortunate events and misfires today really brought that to the forefront and I shut down, entirely.

Having to dust myself off I ended up taking a long walk toward a strawberry milkshake sunset before work started but after very impulsively booking a room at the Radisson Blu Hotel where, after said walk, took a bubble bath (have I ever sounded more like a middle aged woman), logged into my computer, and ordered take at from Restaurant La Gil that had 4 stars on and claimed to be traditional Romanian cuisine.

Mashed potatoes, schnitzel, vegetable broth and pickled cucumber salad arrived very late, very cold and without utensils. Needless to say the pristine white down comforter is no longer pristine.

Luckily my day from hell lasted an eternity and it was well past 3 by the time I was able to fall asleep in hopes of starting anew tomorrow.

Let there be light.

The sun had come out for the first time since my arrival and after the debacle of yesterday I was in need of the fresh energy. Truly not knowing what to do next I put one foot in front of the other, showered, dressed, got in a car and headed to Gara de Nord. The train station is the main hub in Bucharest and, in addition to being the jumping off point for my Brasov excursion, provided me with an opportunity to purchase earrings for my mom, consume a delicious freshly made everything pretzel and sit on an outdated one train carriage wedged between an old woman with a crossword and a small child who was an asshole.

Id become spoiled by renting cars on recent adventures, having upgraded accommodations if only slightly as I grew older and my income remained stagnant. With that not being an option this go round I was hoping for a quiet, romantic ride up north.

Where is the Ethan Hawke to my Julia Delpy when I need it?

By the time we are closing in on Brasov I literally hate this child. I know I’m not allowed to say that … it’s parenting … they don’t know any better. I don’t care. I hate them. And I use the pronoun them because I truly can’t tell what this mini person that looks like a troll doll with the mane of a Victoria’s Secret angel - so basically a troll doll - is.

15 years ago a girl who had never been anywhere laid in her sleeper car on a night train through Spain and gazed at the light passing by herself upside the window. Listening to one of the three CDs she brought along with her discman for the journey: Alicia Keys, Duncan Sheik and Damien Rice. As a grown woman now sits on a train through the achingly autumnal countryside in Romania she has blue tooth headphones connected to her iPhone with endless amounts of musical options and she still chooses Duncan, a man she once approached at an airport to explain that his ‘music had profoundly effected her life’ and wonders how life has passed her by.

In an effort to shake the pall cast over my trip, and subsequently my life, I listen to melancholy music while gazing at the smattering of Bob Ross happy trees and just breathe through the journey.

Lucian picked me up at the TK train station and when he starts speaking to me in Romanian go blank. He asks where I am from - I say the United States and he puts on ‘special music just for me.’

Something about my tattered clothing backpacker look must have screamed house music because that is exactly what he turned on - rather loudly - and ‘Ok, Cool’ serenaded us to my destination.

A newfound empathy is discovered for those ding dongs who can never open my door in Manhattan as I struggle with yet another lock here. After some mild exasperation I enter apartment 505 and find it to be very clean, very cute and all mine for the next two nights (which I had decided about 20 mins ago).

I am exhausted. I am spent. I am not yet post melt down but I am here and must capitalize on that time.

I drop my bags, strap on my Brooks and head to old town, about 4 miles away in an attempt to see The Black Church, famous for reasons unknown but old as fuck. Please hold as I google… Biserica Neagră erected (hee hee) in 1542, is a large gothic structure with the largest mechanical organ and the largest collection of oriental (I think I can still say that) rugs outside of turkey. So there you go.

Their gift shop was phenomenal.

Pizza Roma sits in the town square adjacent to the Lutheran structure and has a single heating lamp so I’m sold. You know what they say, while in Brasov…

As the sun set the air grew cold and my time to retire was upon us. Besides, it was work time.

The air was clear and the sun was bright Thursday morning and my Uber was waiting outside. With limited means of transportation Alina was a bit of my savior, driving me the 45 minutes out of town to the Libearty Bear Sanctuary. I asked her during our $25 ride if it would be difficult to get a ride back Alina, my sister in spontaneity, decided she too would tour the sanctuary and wait for me to return with me - and get that fare as well I’m sure.

So just in case it’s unclear - I am not traveling with my Uber driver. Nothing sad about that…

A young American couple almost ruined the lush scenery when discussing they were coming from Italy to spend 3-4 weeks in Brasov before heading to Fez. These Portland like couples I see all over the world illicit both disgust and jealousy in me. I’m not proud of either.

Upon further eavesdropping it’s revealed he worked in the wine industry while she was ‘in finance’ and they quit their jobs last year to travel, do the occasional agro tourism work and generally just show me the life I would have killed for while I’m feeling very stuck in the one I’m not thrilled with currently.

Never is my self loathing more evident than when hating on a white woman from the United States clearly enthusiastic about travel and well versed in seeing the world.

If it weren’t for the chatty Americans I would have been more able to enjoy the crows soundtracking they crystal clear fall morning.

The tour, by design, of the sanctuary is small and the bears lovely to quietly watch. I had serious HT with some sort of caribou type character and a dog, but Max, the bitch brown bear bitch in the back of the sanctuary was the piece de resistance and, like most things I adore, he was at best indifferent to my presence.

Alina had taken the tour in Romanian for which I was grateful because I hate feeling responsible for someone else’s experience and, luckily for me, she was patiently waiting by the car when I was ready to leave.

I truly don’t know what I would have done with it her generosity and continue to be grateful for the kindness of strangers. Lord knows I rely on it. Often.

The ride back was silent and when we parted ways Alina thanked me profusely for the nice day. I tipped her generously.

I was near the base of the hike I’d planned on but felt that perhaps eating (it was 2pm by this point) was more important. A quick google brings up 10,000 positive reviews for the traditional food servers at Ceaun and with their outdoor dining on the cobble stoned streets it was a no brainer.

Many may think of Paris or New York as the fashion capital of the world. They’d be wrong. The boutiques in Brasov are made for me and having passed a plaid number in the window twice I popped in, tried it on, got confirmation via WhatsApp from a friend in Japan that I did in fact look fab and had a new outfit that will in no way fit into my backpack to accompany me to lunch and my hike.

Having sought out traditional fare, that is exactly what I got. Elderflower Leominster, potato bread and mashed bean and pickles were on the menu and soon to be in my belly.

Romania seems to be very covid aware and vegan friendly - two things that make me, perhaps misguidedly, see it as an advanced culture.

I can now speak with authority that mashed beans and pickles are gross but hey - you gotta try it.

Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s my melancholy manner. Maybe it’s reading a book about the grand tour ladies of the 18th century that has me wondering what I look like to those women who came before me.

It still baffles me when my mother tells me she could not wear pants to school until her senior year or after school sports weren’t an option for a little girl in the 50s. Her mother dropped out of school in the 8th grade to support her family and before my grandmother I truly have no idea another my female forefathers.

Would they have been proud or glad that all of their sacrifices and the changes in the world could lead to a woman of 40 not having children, beholden to no man and on a narrow street dining alone in Romania? Would they have been green on any level that I make and spend my own money as I see fit without worries about societal expectations (for the most part)? Would they look in wonder at what I can say and do and wear as a woman independent from any notion of a man?

Sometimes I feel sad for myself that I don’t have a family. That I have not fulfilled my female duty of procreation or indentured companionship. Sometimes I look at my contemporaries assigned to a more traditional life and feel a pang if superiority. I assume the truth lies somewhere between those two points.

The life and times of blue stocking Briana.

The hike up mount tampon is hard. Don’t let any of those travel sites fool you. Half way up I was exhausted and was rapidly losing interest in the rest of the ascent.

And, like everything else difficult or trying in life - I was so glad when I did. The mountains are endless with swatch’s of yellow and red and green with clear low sunlight leaking through the lush forest.

Much like the Hollywood sign in California the Brasov sign isn’t exactly reachable and those selfie moments you promise yourself you’re going to have when you’re don’t panting are for naught.

Regardless a brief siesta at the top with some fellow hikers was a nice reprieve before I began down the yellow path. Id taken the blue up not realizing it was the most challenging of the three. The irony of this was not lost on me.

Want to know what every woman longs to hear when hiking through the forest alone is …. It’s are you all by yourself phrased a myriad of ways aggressively in a language you don’t understand. The old Romanian man seemed genial enough and even gave it a shot in Italian - but when you’re in such a vulnerable position that is certainly not what you want to he asked.

I’m met with this question more often than one could imagine and the responses vary from pity to pride but it never ceases to make me FEEL more alone than I already clearly am built right into the conversation.

As I make my way back to the town square the sun is low and so is my energy. I pop into a chocolate shop for mystery Forest Gump treats and despite my best efforts a bottle of sparkling water vs flat which I do almost every time I’m not 100% focused on the task at hand.

I meander a bit more, book stores and boutiques. One jacket caught my attention that I walked out and went immediately back in to try it to on. Needless to say I did feel I could live without it and decided that what would really put a cap on this Romanian day was Shanghai Surprise - one of the few restaurants off the beaten path and with nary a customer.

We are closer to Asia than New York, right…

It also seemed like an opportunity for vegetables as I find this part of the word loves a good pork knuckle, can’t get enough mature cheese and thinks eggplant and mushrooms make the ultimate veggie surprise. Surprise - those both taste like butt!

Question - when your Uber driver is texting, scrolling through YouTube and taking selfies - are you supposed to acknowledge this or pretend you don’t notice? I chose the later and let home girl do her thing - but I gotta say, this isn’t the safest I’ve ever felt in a vehicle and it feels a bit like it perpetuates the sometimes unfair stereotype that my gender perhaps don’t rule behind the wheel. Anyway - her lashes and nails were on point. Hence the selfie sesh I guess.

Late to bed early to rise makes a girl tired, cranky and cries.

This trip has not been an overall positive experience and I feel like an asshole even saying that as I know my lifestyle in and of itself is a privilege- but sometimes it just bees like that.

I exited my Airbnb having discarded a dress, pajamas, two sweaters, a pair of leggings, my running shoes and some snacks to lighten my load. And does my load need lighting.

Ultimately I think I’ve burned myself the fuck out and then gone on an adventure that ran anything but smoothly.

Once again relying on the kindness of strangers I boarded the 11:15 train back to Bucharest.

Not only had I discarded my plans and my paid for ticket to Bran Castle but I’d spent nearly an hour on the phone with United the night before trying to get me to California earlier than planned and before my dad’s actual birthday - which may be the most heartbreaking part of it all.

I’m wracked with guilt having jumped ship from my own adventure but am trying hard to believe that A) a week in Romania ain’t so bad, B) there will, in fact, be a next trip and C) that sometimes you have to throw in the towel to save yourself.

Bagel chips and smart water in hand, seat 85 was a window seat but the real view was the gentleman across from me, mask covering half of his facial breathing holes, clearly deep in thought as we trotted along the truly gorgeous Stars Hollow inspired countryside.

Yet another Uber ride cancellation charge - despite their canceling on ME and I eventually end up at my pad very far out of town center but in a seemingly cute neighborhood. Not long after dropping my bags I head to walk the 6k to the walk up covid testing site where I get the brain tickle I’ve come to know so well and walk all they way back…

I stop in old town for one last Romanian meal including a loaf of delicious bread, a bowl of roasted red peppers and a white cabbage salad. Delish!

My quiet final evening was punctuated by the older American couple sat to my left which almost immediately reminded me why everyone hates Americans, including me.

Lots of complaining, lots of conjecture and a fair amount of maritial friction and monomtony as they combed through the robust menu with a fine toothed comb and my 15th dish of apple cake and tea couldn’t come fast enough.

It’s just occurred for me, perhaps for the first time ever, that in addition to my vague ethnicity, eclectic energy and certain je na c’est quote, part of the reason I fly under the radar is that I’m often quiet and so you can’t hear my accent or inherited national ignorance.

Or maybe I’m just fly.

One thing is for certain - it’s much more difficult to bathe in your own depression when silently hating the table next to you.