Exploring Romania

With my time in Romania running out, I wanted to get out of my apartment and visit parts of the country I hadn’t yet had the chance to see. And since Romania was beginning to reopen travel, I decided to go on a eleven day train trip across the country. I followed all of the rules and guidelines issued by the Romanian government and took all the precautions necessary in order to stay healthy and safe. I’m so glad I had the chance to take this trip and I enjoyed traveling over 2,000 kilometers across the beautiful countryside.

Oradea

I stopped in Oradea on my way to Cluj and had a really enjoyable time looking at the art noveau buildings, walking along the river, and making my way up a hill to a gorgeous view of the city. Highlights included the striking stained glass as Palatul Vulturul Negru, the numerous churches and states in Piata Unirii, and the panorama view on Ciuperca hill.

Cluj + Turda

Ended the night in Cluj-Napoca, which quickly became one of my top cities. It has the activity of Bucharest but with much better architecture for the most part. I loved the botanical garden (although was disappointed that the greenhouse and water tower were closed to visitors), had a delicious lunch a Roata (romanian restaurant that provided the traditional shots of house-made palinca or visinata as a aperitif), and walked over 12 miles in a tour across the city. I also took a bus to the nearby down of Turda to visit the underground salt mine that they have converted into a museum and amusement park of sorts. I love anything underground and this was no exception (although I had to constantly remind myself not to lick the walls).

Sighisoara

Oh my what a wonderful gem of a city! I was instantly charmed by the cobbled streets, colorful buildings, and quaint feel of the citadel/fortress area. I climbed the Scholars Stairs, stopped by the Dracula Investigation, an immerseive exhibit that tells the story of Vlad Tepes from his perspective, and walked through a serene cemetery on the hill. It was a wonderful two days there (and did I mention the colored buildings?).

Constanta

I was looking forward to visit the black sea and Constanta did not disappoint. Piata Ovidiu was active and a relaxing place to people watch. Enjoying the beach, visiting the astounding art museum, and watching the sunset while eating seafood and looking out over the water made for the perfect weekend. I also took a train ride down to Lake Techirghiol to participate in a traditional Romanian spa treatment of mud baths. We slathered the dark (somewhat smelly) mud all over us and then let it dry in the sun before rinsing off in the lake. I’m not sure I’m sold on the health benefits but it was a fun experience!

Sibiu

I pulled an all-nighter on the train ride from Constanta to Sibiu due to not having a sleeper car so I was rather tired when I arrived. Despite this, I had a delightful time sitting in Piata Mare feeding the pigeons and drinking some coffee. I also enjoyed the beautiful architecture and climbing the old town hall to see the incredible view from above.

Alba Iulia

This place pleasantly surprised me. I added this to my trip somewhat last minute because it was on the way to some of my other locations and I’m so glad I did. I spent such a fun and relaxing day wandering through the clean, educational, historical, and updated citadel. It felt so fresh and modern, very different from the other towns I had been visiting. There were interesting statues throughout the citadel, like the one of the lady selling roses.

Deva

This was another town that impressed me beyond what I was expecting. Deva was really just a stopping point on my way to visiting Hunedoara, so I hadn’t made many plans or preparations. Instead, I wandered the town in the evening after checking into my hotel. The city was so full of life and energy with beautiful lights, parks, and decorations everywhere I went. I also climbed the seemingly endless stairs up to Deva Fortress and enjoyed spectacular views of the entire area.

Hunedaora

My last stop on my trip was the famous Corvin Castle in Hunedoara. Visiting this felt like stepping out of Romania and into the world of Harry Potter or King Arthur. I LOVED everything about this castle and I can easily understand why it is voted one of the best castles in Europe. As I was walking back to the train station I noticed a cool doorway that looked like it was the front of a train. Turns out there is a model train museum in Hunedoara and I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the adorable worlds they created. One of my favorite things of traveling is getting to explore things that weren’t initially part of the plan, and the train museum was the perfect example of that.

Senses of Home

I think I’ve been feeling the isolation and sorrow of world events a little more acutely recently so I wanted to engage in an exercise in thinking of the ways I am still connected to people rather than focusing on the ways we are apart.

  • Sight
    • The view of the sunset from my balcony is breathtaking and I spend almost every evening here in Arad sitting outside enjoying the gorgeous colors. It helps me feel closer to my family, knowing that we’re looking at the same sun (even if its not technically in the same place in the sky for them).
    • I’ve always loved the constellation of Orion, even as a little girl. On my various travels, from South Africa to Vienna to Romania, I always make sure to look up at the night sky and find Orion.
  • Sound
    • A few nights ago I lay in bed and listened as my downstairs neighbors played Nessum Dorma. I was struck by how incredible it is that an American and a Romanian can listen to a song in a language that probably neither of us speaks and still be impacted by its beauty and message.
  • Taste
    • My friends in Arad have been so kind to invite me to Sunday lunch at their house on a regular basis. I think sharing food together helps to form connections and relationships more than almost any other activity and these meals have been no exception.
  • Smell
    • My walk to the grocery store includes passing a beautiful garden with honeysuckle growing near the sidewalk. Every time I walk past, I am transported to when my siblings and I would pick them and suck out the tiny drops of nectar from the flowers. I’m so far away but to me, honeysuckle smells like home.
  • Touch
    • Human contact has been limited (actually nonexistent) for pandemic reasons but this weekend I went out to one of the villages on the outskirts of Arad to visit a family that was going through a hard time. There was a little girl around 7 years old who stood and curiously watched us while we were there. When we were leaving, she suddenly ran out of the house and gave me a big hug. That girl and I speak a different language, are different ages, have a different nationality and will probably never meet again and yet that small gesture communicated so much.

Arad Emerging

On May 14, the State of Emergency decree ended and the government instituted the less serious State of Alert. In doing so, they reduced restrictions and increased freedom, including allowing certain businesses to reopen and removing the requirement that anyone traveling outside must carry a document declaring their approved reason. While the danger is by no means gone, I view this as a welcome sign of hope and renewed life.

One day before the restrictions lifted, I decided to take advantage of the approved “for exercise” reason for travel and take a walk in Arad. While I have lived here for a full three months now, Arad still does not feel familiar to me, since I have spent the majority of my time here completely indoors. The hour I spent walking down the quiet, almost completely abandoned streets, was peaceful and interesting. I met two stray dogs that seemed to be best buds –one dog repeatedly turned around to make sure his friend was following along. Winter turned into spring while I was stuck inside so I was delighted to see a variety of beautiful and colorful flowers growing up along the streets and in the cracks of the pavement. I can’t recall ever seeing poppies in real life before but I’m currently in love with how delicate and paper-thin the petals are. (Didn’t get a picture of the poppies, unfortunately). I didn’t realize it at the time, but this walk would stand out in stark contrast to my next venture outdoors.

The next day, I decided I would celebrate the relaxation of restrictions by taking another walk, this time along the river. Only the day before, I wandered deserted streets. Today, the park and riverside were scattered with groups of people (still maintaining appropriate social distance, for the most part). Children and teens roller-bladed or skateboarded, young adults drank beers and listened to music, parents relaxed on benches, people walked their dogs. Everyone seemed full of excitement and energy. It felt like a party or a holiday, despite the masks and distance. I sat on the steps by the river and took it in, enjoying the fresh breeze and the contagious joy. I felt giddy and elated at the prospect of just being there, in the moment, enjoying life, and I think other people shared my feelings. I know caution is still required and we haven’t reached the end of the tunnel, but I think that evening enabled people to forget their fear for a little while.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that Arad will ever feel like “my city,” at least during this stay in Romania. I’ve spent too much time inside and I’ve not had enough opportunities to get to know the people and the culture here. That being said, sitting on the stairs by the river, listening to the chatter and laughter and feeling the elation of freedom and joy was a moment I hope to remember for a long time. Arad feels like a city come back to life and I am honored to be a witness to that.

Budapest and Bratislava

Traveling (especially solo) is often an exercise in managing unexpected problems or inconveniences. The first inconvenience as I embarked on my trip to Budapest was the distance to the bus station in Arad. While Arad has two stations quite close to where I live, my bus was departing from the furthest one: about an hour and a half walk away from my apartment. Unfortunately, public transit would only bring me about 30 minutes closer and my bus left very early in the morning. While perhaps the most reasonable solution would have been to call a taxi, I was too frugal (and also timid about calling taxi services in Romanian) to adopt this plan. Instead, I chose to wake up before the sunrise in order to catch the first trolley and then walk the rest of the way along the highway that led to the station. After that first minor obstacle was overcome, I had a pleasant and uneventful trip to Budapest.

My first sight upon leaving the bus station in Budapest was the beautiful facade of one of the train/metro stations in the city. The gothic architecture was imposing against the grey and drizzly sky and I wished that all metro or train stations were this grand. I was reunited with my brother (who was studying at a university in Budapest) and we spent the day exploring–including walking up the many flights of stairs to the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica– and eating his favorite Hungarian treats.

While the main purpose of my trip to Budapest was to attend a concert at the end of the weekend, I wanted to take advantage of my time there to travel. So my brother and I bought bus tickets for a day trip to Bratislava. (The bus trip was shockingly good: they served us free coffee and hot chocolate. I would highly recommend).

While I knew very little about Bratislava and didn’t know what to expect, I was pleased by what we found. Bratislava was a charming little city with striking churches, beautiful views, and delicious food. We stopped at the photogenic Blue Church (of course, I needed that quintessential insta snap) before climbing our way up the hill to see the sights at the top near Bratislava castle. While the sky was dark and overcast for much of the day, it thankfully decided to hold off on actually raining. We ended the day eating traditional dumplings and garlic soup in a bread bowl before another pleasant ride back to Budapest.

My concert the next day was as fun as I anticipated, with the added surprise of my getting to go up on stage and sing along with the lead singer of the band. The next day I got on my bus, prepared for what I assumed would be an uneventful trip back to Arad. Boy was I wrong.

I’ve been thinking a lot more about border crossings since I’ve been in Romania. Prior to my time here, most of my border crossings had taken place at airports or on cruise ships, where most of the process is handled by other people. Crossing a border in a bus or car is more interesting because you never really know what to expect. Will they collect all your passports while you wait in the bus? Will you be required to leave the bus and hand in your passport to the officer personally? Some borders require handing your passport to two different set of border officers, one from each country. While I’ve had a variety of different experiences, this border crossing was unlike any other.

We were ordered to get off the bus and wait by the side of the road. By the time we had reached the Romanian border, it was already 10:30 pm. The minutes ticked by. Half an hour. Forty-five minutes. A few passengers were taken to a separate building. Finally, our entire group was corralled across the road to a set of makeshift trailers where officers asked our names and address of where we were staying in Romania. While all the information was being communicated in Romanian, I was able to gather that passengers on our bus had traveled from Italy and were suspected of exposure to coronavirus. At one point, a white van pulled up with fully covered individuals who hustled three passengers into the van before driving off.

One by one, we were brought into the trailer, asked questions about our health and travel history, and told to go to our destinations and stay inside for fourteen days. By the time everyone had been screened, it was 11:00 pm. We trudged back to the bus and headed to Arad. When I arrived, I retrieved my bags and departed from the bus. I asked the bus driver how I was expected to get to my apartment from the station. He told me “That’s the problem we all have. I don’t know.” The minor inconvenience of my distance from the station had now become a slightly larger obstacle as I stood on the cold pavement in the middle of the night.

Thankfully, the story ends well. I managed to call a taxi and get a ride back to my apartment (probably breaking my state-imposed quarantine, but what was I to do). The next 14 days were spent in quarantine. I was so blessed by all the people who helped me by providing me with groceries and food. At the time (this was very early March), coronavirus seemed far-off, without much impact on my daily life. Thinking back, it is truly remarkable how much has changed in such short a period of time. I am so glad I got the opportunity to travel to everywhere I did and although my other trips have been cancelled, I remember fondly all the new sights and experiences and look forward to when safe travel is once again an option.

The End of my Fulbright

When I started thinking about my Fulbright year, one of the opportunities I was most excited about was travel. Europe makes traveling to other countries astoundingly easy, especially compared to traveling to another country from the US. For $50 I could hop on a plane and end up in Berlin just a few hours later. I could take a bus for $10 and find myself in Ukraine or Moldova or Hungary. And so, at the beginning of my time in Romania, I resolved to average a new country a month as a way to fully take advantage of all the experiences I could gain.

It’s been two and a half months since my last trip. I’ve neglected to post about it and my situation for this long because, like everyone else, I was still processing and trying to come to terms with our new world. My big goal of exploring at least one new country a month, of course, has been laid aside. I will cover what happened in my visit to Budapest and Bratislava as well as the repercussions I dealt with upon my return to Romania in my next post. For this one, I wanted to provide an update and reflection on my current status.

In Mid March, the situation escalated rapidly for all Fulbright students. Because the Fulbright program is considered a government initiative, our status is pretty dependent on the official travel advisories. So when strict travel restrictions were placed on Italy and China, Fulbrighters in those countries were told to return to the US. As the situation got more serious in Romania and the rest of Europe, the Fulbright program advised all current grantees to return home immediately and receive alumni status. I chose to stay.

At the end of March, I anxiously watched from my apartment in Arad as the entire globe moved from a level 3 to a level 4 travel advisory. When that happened, the entire Fulbright program was ended, effectively immediately. I went from being an active Fulbright grantee with research and teaching plans to being an alumni and private citizen in Romania. I booked a flight with the travel agency Fulbright had contracted with to return to the US in the coming week. I had done everything I could to stay, but it was time to leave.

Among the host of other lessons I’ve learned from this pandemic, I’ve had to confront the truth that all the planning I could possibly do won’t guarantee the outcome I want. The world we live in so uncertain and unpredictable and no matter how much we think we are in control, we aren’t. This was true even before our current situation but I think it’s become clearer now. Early in April, I got an email from the travel agency letting me know one of my flights had been cancelled and they would look for another option. As my departure date grew closer, no flights could be found. For a third time, my plans changed.

I am still in Arad, spending my days reading, tutoring, and video chatting with family and friends. For now, I will stay here until my original flight back in July. While this time has been stressful and overwhelming, I feel incredibly grateful to have a wonderful place to stay, the means to support myself, and a healthy immune system. I am blessed to be safe and comfortable, something that can’t be said for countless others right now. This is officially the end of my Fulbright grant but despite it being cut short, I have met so many wonderful people, explored exciting and beautiful places, and learned more than I ever expected. I’m sure the next few months, even if not what I had originally intended, have a lot to teach me as well.

Vienna

I could say a lot about Vienna and the things we got to do during the visit. However, since it has already been a week since I’ve returned (and I’ve been posting a lot about my travels), I’m going to settle for letting my photos do the talking. I am so glad I visited this city (although its not cheap!) The history, the culture, and the variety of activities all made this a thoroughly enjoyable trip.

Bucharest and Snagov

One week of travel down, another week to go. This week included a few days spent in Bucharest before traveling to Vienna (to be discussed in a later blog post). One thing I love about Bucharest is how I am always able to find something new to do when I am there. This time, I invested in a little culture, a little alcohol, and a little shopping. Specifically, the National Museum of Art in Romania, a tuica and palinca tasting (traditional Romanian spirits), and a fun trip to Piata Obor, a massive market full of fresh veggies, fruits, and meats.

A moment that stood out to me in the art museum was a small room off to the side labeled “In Memoriam Vacaresti.” Inside was simple room with pieces of art from the walls of a monastery. This monastery had a significant and long history and was full of beautiful artwork and treasures. During Ceausescu’s rule, he had it torn down. The few pieces in that room were all that is left of this important piece of history. It served as a sobering reminder of the destruction of communism.

While all of those experiences were brand new to me, I also got to introduce others to old experiences in Bucharest that I enjoy. The park near the National Theatre of Bucharest was one of the first places I visited when I arrived in Romania and also a place I return to when people come to visit me. And of course, enjoying traditional Romanian food is something I continue to do throughout my time in Romania and something I introduce all of my visitors to.

Because we had 3 days in Bucharest, we decided to embark on a day trip outside the city limits. I had wanted to go see Snagov Monastery for a while (the burial spot of Vlad the Impaler) so we decided to stop by. We discovered a charming little island monastery with ponies and five (FIVE) friendly dogs all begging for pats (we obliged). The monastery was beautiful inside and had a lot of interesting information about Vlad. While waiting for the bus back to Bucharest, I also discovered three adorable minions made out of tires!

By the time I arrive in Arad, I will have been traveling and living out of a backpack for 17 days. While I am certainly looking forward to settling back into a routine, I have loved my time on the road. I feel adventurous, independent, and incredibly proud of myself for being able to tackle all of the challenges that arise while traveling in foreign countries.

Chisinau

This blog is quickly becoming a travel blog (and likely will continue that way for a bit) but I am just so excited about all the wonderful places I have the opportunity to explore through my Fulbright. Last Saturday I spent the day in Chisinau with my mother. I knew I needed to stop by Chisinau before leaving Suceava since they were so close and I really wish I had more time in the city.

While the city certainly has its fair share of unattractive square, concrete buildings, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of buildings with beautiful a architecture. I found it an enjoyable city to walk through, taking in the bustle of activity, the variety of shops, and the places of historic importance. We wandered around the vibrant Piata Centrala, full of vendors selling everything from essential oils to cooking pans to grains, fruits, and meats. I was especially in awe of the stands that sold pomegranates with a few pieces of fruit cut open to display the gems inside, sparkling in the light. They really looked like gemstones.

I also absolutely loved visiting the National Art Museum of Moldova. The exterior and interior were both gorgeous and I was impressed by the diversity and quantity of the exhibits inside. The staff working there were also incredibly friendly and kind. For dinner, my mother and I stopped at a cute french cafe near the art museum for some quiche and Moldovan wine. I wish I had the opportunity to try more wine while I was there, as the one I tried was quite delicious.

I am very glad I got the chance to visit Chisinau, even if just briefly. It truly is an underrated city and one well-worth returning too if I get the chance.

Iasi

Being away from family for an extended period of time is hard and I am so blessed and grateful that my mother and brother were able to come visit me this week. We had a wonderful time touring Bucharest and taking a day trip to Ploiesti, where we visited a charming clock museum. I was so caught up in enjoying the time with them I unfortunately didn’t take any photos, but suffice it to say, I enjoyed every second. We especially enjoyed a few activities in Bucharest including stopping at Nominoe, a cafe that served traditional french food from the region of Brittany. The owner enthusiastically explained to us the history of the food we were eating and we enjoyed every bite. I was also impressed by our visit to the National History Museum of Bucharest which had a powerful exhibit on communism and the Revolution. It was well-designed, detailed, and compelling.

My brother only stayed the weekend and when he left, my mother and I took the train up to Suceava. We spent a few days where she helped me finalize packing, met my friends, and then we took a trip out into the Bucovina countryside to see the Bucovina Monastery. She was as impressed as I was the first time I saw them. Throughout this winter the weather had been surprisingly warm. It took a visit from my mother (when I promised mild weather!) for it to finally drop to below freezing temperatures. At least we got to see the snowy mountain and countryside!

We departed Suceava and made our way to Iasi, a city I had been meaning to visit for a long time had never found the time. I wish I had gone sooner, as the city was full of life, beautiful buildings, and interesting things to see and do. We met up with a fellow Fulbrighter who did a wonderful job as tour guide.

The first thing we did in Iasi was visit the Georghe Assachi Library. We saw countless photos online of the library and it was even better in person. My favorite part was the three big bowls we discovered full of colorful pieces of paper. On the paper were different quotes about books and the three bowls held slips translated in three different languages (one being English). I pulled the quote “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need” by Marcus Tullius Cicero.

After a delicious lunch at a Gault-Millau restaurant, we wandered through the city looking at the beautiful churches and buildings, including Catedrala Mitropolitana, Palatul Culturii (with a statue of Stefan Cel Mare), and Mănăstirea Trei Ierarhi. In the evening, we made our way to the bus station to take the bus from Iasi to Chisinau, ready for our next adventure.

Newspaper and TV

On Sunday the newspaper I spoke with published the article about me (The article is here, for viewing pleasure). While it was exciting to see the positive response from people in Romania, the best thing that resulted from the article was I received an invitation from the principal of a local high school to come speak to the students at the school. I spoke to about 100 students as well as a local television station, sharing my experience in Romania, a little bit about the Fulbright program, and answering questions they had. I expected the event to take around half an hour but I ended up spending almost two hours with the students. They asked thoughtful, mature, and complex questions that impressed and challenged me. While I wish I had more time to spend in Suceava getting to experience things like this, I am so grateful that the newspaper article opened up this opportunity.