A Solo Traveler’s First-Day Friendly Romanian Experience

We are always happy to hear about people visiting our country and we are curious to know what they thought about their visit here. Raju Parakkal, professor of international relations at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, USA has visited our country several times. He writes and researches about Romania and our culture and he was kind enough to tell us about his experience. Here is his story:

August 2018 was not my first trip to Romania. I had visited in March 2017 when it was still wintry. But the trip in 2018 was the first time I was going to Romania without anyone waiting to receive me at the Bucharest airport in Otopeni. So, I was kind of on my own for the next 10 days in Romania. But I was excited. The trip in 2017 was in the winter, so this summer trip felt very different. I was looking forward to a different scenery and different sights and sounds. But I was also looking forward to enjoying some of the familiar things that keep me connected and captivated to this enchanting country. My Romanian itinerary was packed and planned with a lot of the exciting things I had dreamed about doing in this land that feels like “home” to me. 

I was flying in to Bucharest from Sofia, Bulgaria, where I had reached a few days ago from Philadelphia, USA, where I live and work as a university professor. I boarded the Tarom twin-turboprop that fine morning for the one-hour flight from Sofia to Bucharest. As I settled into my seat, I exchanged a “hello” with my neighbor, who I believe was pleasantly surprised to find a non-European on a regional eastern European flight. Or, maybe she was just being friendly. She was Romanian and flying back home after attending a conference in Bulgaria. We became friends very quickly as she realized my love for her country and its culture and my connections to Romania. She introduced me to her two friends sitting across the aisle, one of whom was a professor herself. In a matter of minutes we had a nice conversation going. Think about that. In the first few minutes of boarding the flight to Romania, I was already good friends with three Romanians who were strangers to me just 10 minutes ago. That doesn’t happen often with me elsewhere and I am not exactly the shy type.

I need to give my new friend a name because this article is a lot about her as typical of the helpful and friendly nature of most Romanians. So, let’s call her Cristina (not her real name). We chatted away as the flight climbed above the Vitosha Mountains of Sofia and roared towards Romania. As we crossed over to Romania and the green fields of the Romanian countryside started appearing in view, I felt the elation of a lifetime. This trip was six months in the making and I will be on the ground in Romania in a matter of minutes. I was shamelessly giddy with excitement but keeping my poise all the same…like a teenager on a second date.P

View from the plane

Cristina asked me where I was headed after we landed in Bucharest. The plane was scheduled to touch down at noon. I said I was staying the night in Sighișoara at a pensiunea and had a long wait for my evening train from Bucharest Gara Nord that would reach close to midnight in Sighișoara. To my pleasant surprise, Cristina was headed to Sighișoara herself! But she had a bus reservation from the airport to Sighișoara. She lived in Mediașand Sighișoara was the closest stop to Mediașfor this bus service. Interestingly, Cristina’s bus would reach Sighișoara a full six hours ahead of my train. Screw the train and my first-class reservation, I said. I am taking the bus! I can hit bed hours earlier in Sighișoara than if I took the train. And, I would have good company until Sighișoara.

As we landed at the Henri Coandă airport in Bucharest, memories of my previous year’s trip started flashing in my mind. There was a reason. That was a cold, dark winter night when I landed. I was probably the only non-Romanian on that flight from Rome. It was around 10:30 pm when we landed. As I walked up to the immigration counter, the officer behind the glass plane looked surprised to see me. She was sure I was on a business trip. I said “no”, I am a tourist. She stopped her work and gave me a long and surprised yet polite stare. She didn’t know what to do – I had a valid Schengen tourist visa that was good for Romania but in her mind, I was fairly certain, she was thinking, “why is this Indian man coming to Romania during the cold winter as a tourist and he certainly doesn’t look like the skiing type.” I realized she wasn’t going to let me into her beautiful country just like that. After pondering for a bit, she turned to her colleague in the next booth for reassurance. I believe she told her colleague in Romanian, “he says he’s a tourist.” I also believe they had a chuckle together at my expense, although it wasn’t offensive at all. The colleague shrugged his shoulders and appeared to suggest that I had a valid visa, all my documents looked fine, and so there’s nothing they needed to worry about me. Reassured, she let me in to Romania with a smile. 

It wasn’t cold or dark when I landed this time in Bucharest, but I still wanted to avoid any immigration issues. So, I had arranged my documents in my backpack for easy access, anticipating some friendly questions. And, friendly questions I got from a friendly immigration officer. It went something like this:

I handover my Indian passport with the Bulgarian visa, which is good for entry to Romania too (and, vice versa).

Officer (a professional but polite late-30s guy): “How long are you going to be in Romania?”

Me: “Until the 17th. On the 17th, I will take a flight back to Sofia.”

Officer: “May I see your flight ticket?”

I handover my really long, four-page flight ticket. I can see his head almost spinning from looking at the long list of flight reservations (there were a total of eight flights between four countries on the ticket for the three-week trip).

Officer: “What is the purpose of your visit?”

Me (expecting shock and surprise based on my previous immigration experience in Romania): “Vacation, tourism.”

Officer (expectedly surprised and in disbelief because Indians usually come to Romania on business, work, or student visas and rarely ever for tourism…that’s sad, because they don’t know what they are missing.): “Really? What places are you traveling to in Romania?”

Me: “Tonight I’m staying in Sighișoara. The next day I will travel to Cluj, and then to Brașov and back to Bucharest. (I wanted to add that I have day trips planned to the Maramureșcountryside and to Viscri village in Transylvania but I figured that was enough).” 

He takes a quick look at my hotel reservations, lifts his head, and says: “So, you have been to Romania before?”

(He could have checked his system for this information but I’m pretty sure my locally-perfect pronunciation of each of those Romanian towns and cities convinced him this wasn’t my first visit to his country – learning basic Romanian has helped me.) 

Me: “Yes, I visited last year but couldn’t go to these places.”

By now, the officer has a contended smile on his face, happy that this Indian man really likes his country.

Officer: “So, you reallylike Romania?”

I was pleasantly surprised at that question but gathered myself quickly to engage in some friendly banter.

Me: “No…I really loveRomania. It’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world. And the people are really nice and the food is great.” 

At this point, the officer is full-on beaming. I collect my documents, put them back in my backpack, and thank him. He nods with a smile and wishes me a pleasant time in his country.

While I was exchanging pleasantries with the immigration officer, Cristina and her two friends were patiently waiting for me on the other side of immigration. Being Romanians, they could clear immigration in a jiffy. They assumed I had got into some immigration trouble and asked if I needed any help from them. They were very happy when I said everything was fine. 

After we got our bags, Cristina helped me get a bus ticket for Sighișoara on the same bus she was taking. There was no long-distance bus counter at the airport, so I wouldn’t have known of the bus option if not for Cristina. While waiting for the bus to arrive, she and I did some snacks-shopping for the bus trip at the very-helpful Carrefour Express supermarket just outside the arrivals terminal. P

On the bus ride from Otopeni to Sighișoara. The Bucegi Mountains slowly begin to appear in view as we near Busteni. There were definitely more flowers and colors this time than when I visited in winter 2017.
The Bucegi Mountains (at Busteni). These majestic mountains add to the enchantment that’s Romania.

We reached Sighișoara around 5 pm and Cristina’s sister was waiting for her at the bus station to pick her up and drive her to Mediaș. Romanian summers can be very hot and even though my pensiunea was only walking distance from the bus station, Cristina and her sister dropped me off in their car so I wouldn’t have to struggle with my bag in the sweltering heat.

I couldn’t thank Cristina enough for all the help and company she gave me that day right from Sofia and all the way to Sighișoara. From being an extremely pleasant company, to helping me buy the bus ticket, sharing her snacks, giving tips on traveling in Romania, and finally, dropping me off at the pensiunea, Cristina was totally an angel. To Cristina, I know I thanked you in person and we are now good friends, but if you ever get to read this article, please know how thankful I’m even now.  

At the pensiunea, once I was in my room I cracked open a cold Ursus and thought about the day’s wonderful experiences. I was pleasantly surprised at Cristina for being so friendly and helpful. It truly felt like a higher power had planned this enjoyable encounter for me. Her friends were also very friendly and accommodating. The immigraton officer was nice and polite too. The elderly man at the pensiunea who checked me in and spoke no word of any language other than Romanian, made sure I was comfortable and well taken care of. In short, I couldn’t have asked for a better first day on this trip in this beautiful land. But I reminded myself I shouldn’t be thatsurprised. This is Romania. Most people are extremely friendly and helpful, especially if you are a stranger in their land. I experienced that the last time I was here. They made me feel at home then as well and even gathered together to celebrate my birthday. The world really doesn’t know this friendly side about Romania and of the people here in this land. Maybe they should. Maybe I should write about it someday. Someday soon, I thought.

With the Ursus having cooled me down a bit on a hot Romanian summer day, I stepped out of the pensiunea to catch a glimpse of beautiful Sighișoara in the evening twilight sun. And, to have my dinner of mamaliga and sarmale. Of course, with some fine local palinca. P

The Târnava Mare River, Sighișoara

Sighișoara in the summer twilight
The fine Transylvanian palinca I had that evening at Hotel Restaurant Bulevard, Sighișoara

About the author: Raju Parakkal is a professor of international relations at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, USA. Among other academic and personal interests, he also researches and writes about Romania and its culture, society, and economy. He can be reached at rajuparakkal@gmail.com

Disclaimer: All views and photos are personal and belong to the author.






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