The tour bus has been winding through the street of Bucharest Romania for a while now and it is apparent that they are mostly stalling until our hotel accommodations are ready. We have driven by and photographed the huge parliament building formerly known as the “people’s palace” twice, and passed numerous pretty squares, many statues, and a lovely opera house and huge museum. We don’t care. We are tired. We’ve seen remarkably similar things for the past nine days and we just want to get to our rooms, kick off our shoes and take warm showers. Such is the life of a group traveler.
I don’t like exploring new places by way of preplanned itineraries and I don’t like having to go everywhere with a group. I like doing my own thing. But I was offered the opportunity to go with my sister, a small business owner in the travel industry, as she researched a particular tour operator. See eastern Europe at a wonderful discount. So here I am on a bus in Bucharest, watching twenty or so of my fellow tourists who are from China laugh when they discover that the big exhibit at the museum here features the famous Terracotta warriors from back home.
My sister and I have gotten along well over this trying week of schlepping around on a schedule, but once we get to our room we have a rare argument, and it has to do with looking pretty. Not us. Romania.
On the endless bus ride around town, we both studied the massive grey condo buildings that house the occupants of Bucharest, many of them erected when the country went rapidly from a mostly agrarian economy in the 1940’s to a largely industrial one under the particularly oppressive communist dictatorship that took root here after WWII. Other older buildings were recycled into condos as these were built. Now all their owners have used their ingenuity and limited resources to improve their lives. Air conditioning units of all shapes and sizes are randomly distributed over the exterior, and the ubiquitous balconies have undergone ad hoc conversions into sun rooms of every imaginable style and color.
To me, it was a riotous explosion of resourcefulness. Maybe not pretty, but commendable. To my sister, it was a riotous explosion of ugliness, particularly on the many formerly beautiful older converted buildings. Maybe understandable, but still such a shame.
“What they really need is some sort of home owners association,” she asserts. She clearly has not had the less than pleasant run-ins with a home owners association that I have had.
“Are you kidding? First communism, then home owner’s associations? What have you got against these people?” I ask.
She is thinking of a small historical town she lives near in in western Illinois. Strict restrictions keep its historical buildings authentic and pretty. The owners are glad to comply, or they can live elsewhere. Hordes of visitors from Chicago come every summer weekend to marvel at the quaintness and bring in tourist dollars. Everyone is happy.
I am thinking of an article I read in a Lonely Planet book bemoaning the disappearance of the cute thatched roofs in Ireland. The visiting author thought that the transition to more modern but ugly roofs was a shame until he talked to someone who lived there. Thatched roofs leak. They are drafty, hard to maintain and harbor mice. If you like them so much, go build your own house with one, a helpful Irishman said. We don’t have any obligation to be uncomfortable just to look cute for you. This is our home.
I side with the local Irishman, although I admit that it is more of a dilemma for a tourist destination like Ireland, a place that makes a good deal of its income from those who come see its cuteness. Bucharest, however, is not a place trying particularly hard to attract tourists. It is simply a city that people call home, filled with folks like me just trying to get by who don’t want to be told how to manage their own living space so that they will look pretty to tourists like me who are merely passing through.
“Fair enough,” my sister concedes. “They can build their homes any way they want. But I don’t have to drive around the city and look at them.” I agree that she does not. And with that we decide that we are done sightseeing for this trip. Forget the museum, massive parliament building or anything else. We are not going anywhere except to go get lunch. We wander down a side street and settle on a very pretty little café and everybody is happy, including our waitress.
If you would like to read other posts from this trip check out “That which does not kill us …. thoughts from Budapest” on my blog for the novel x0. Also check out “A lot of pissed-off people ….. thoughts from Belgrade” on my website for the novel z2.