I found myself in Bucharest almost by chance. I hadn’t planned on visiting, but when I told my friend Joe that I was going to be in Romania, he told me that he’d had a really great experience couchsurfing there and suggested I meet and stay with his host.
I was a little apprehensive; mid-week couchsurfing can be a hassle when your poor host just needs to rest after a long day at work and wants a good night’s sleep before another early morning. I didn’t want to encroach. But, I figured, I could happily just spend my evening reading if that was the case, and it would give me a nice break on the long journey down to Veliko Tarnovo.
I needn’t have worried. Cristian came and picked me up from the train station and greeted me with such familiarity and warmth that I felt comfortable straight away. And despite not living far away he’d bought his car with him so that I wouldn’t have to walk through the cold with my heavy rucksack. I could have hugged him for his thoughtfulness.
“Do you want to go out or stay in?” He asked. “I thought you might want to see some of the city since you’re only here for one night, but if you’re tired we can stay in.”
Well, if he was up for going out – after being at work all day – I certainly couldn’t let my tiredness stop me. We dropped my bags off and headed into town.
Bucharest, as it turns out, is a bustling city any night of the week. Cristian usually made reservations at his favourite bars but I had been sketchy about when I’d arrive, and he hadn’t wanted to plan a big night out without knowing whether I’d be up for it. I didn’t think it would be a problem, this being a Tuesday night – but all his usual haunts turned us away, completely full.
The upside of it was that I got an impromptu tour through the streets of downtown Bucharest. Grand old buildings were lit up strikingly in the cold night, and our foggy breath created lazy shapes in the air as we wandered around, Cristian pointing out the sights.
We had a look at some of the bars he usually went to, which were full of raucious laughter and buzzing conversation, the women and men inside incredibly well dressed. I could almost have mistaken any of those bars for a trendy, expensive small bar in Sydney like Grandma’s or Grasshoppers, but leaning a little more towards classy than hipster in style.
We finally found a space for ourselves at ‘The Pub’, a newly opened establishment that featured tables each with individual beer taps’ where we were joined by two more of Cristian’s friends. I chose a cocktail while the others poured themselves beer, and we ordered plates of variously spiced homemade sausages and potatoes to share.
It was a lovely night. As the beers flowed freely I discovered more about Cristian and his friends. Cristian had grown up in communist Romania, which was fascinating enough – discussing what that was like and how things were changing – but he’d also become an economist for an international bank and lived in various cities around the world, including Milan and Amsterdam.
I think anyone who grows up under those circumstances and who has then done so much nonetheless has to be a very proactive and driven individual, and you could really tell that Cristian was.
He was so full of that joie de vivre, so involved not just in life – and he was that, going to music festivals, frequently hiking, hosting travellers from around the world and generally being up for adventure – but also in social issues. He talked about the brain drain Romania was experiencing due to the poor wage conditions compared to the rest of Europe, and his decision, despite living temporarily in other countries, to come back to Romania because the country needed that if progress was to continue.
It was wonderful to meet people who hadn’t just done a lot with their lives, but who had this attitude that anyone could, and that it wasn’t even a big deal. They comforted me when I worried about finding a job that I liked, completely understanding when I said that I couldn’t just work for a corporation doing something I didn’t believe in. “You have time,” Cristian assured me, “and you’re learning so much and doing so much while you travel. How much more adaptable and tolerant and capable has that made you?”
There were a lot of other stories and pieces of wisdom shared that night. Here were a bunch of people living the kind of life I wanted to lead, and who, despite being older, more experienced, and more successful, didn’t patronise me at all but treated me as a compete equal. I was so glad I’d come to Bucharest.
The next morning Cristian fed me generously and wouldn’t let me cook for him, saying that I hadn’t been there long enough to warrant it. While he went off to work he handed me a transport pass so I could get to the train station and left me at a friend’s cafe.
“Steam”, co-owned by Vlad Alexandru and Ursan Dan was a cute little place with free wifi, and Vlad stored my rucksack in his car so I could wander around freely if I wanted.
I had ordered a long black and was about to toss in some sugar when Vlad, in a pained voice, stopped me and entreated me to taste it first.
I took a little sip, not sure what to expect – I usually find coffee too bitter to have straight and need either milk or sugar to balance the flavour.
But this was a sweet, rich, kind of nutty coffee! I mean, people always describe coffee blends as nutty or with caramel undertones or some other BS, and I’ve always found that they’re full of it – but this coffee was a milder roast but with such nuanced depths of flavour. I’ve never been one for self control. This was the best coffee I’d ever had! I didn’t end up walking around, as I’d planned to, I just sat there and kept ordering successive cups of coffee.
Vlad, it turned out, was super into coffee – I know, anyone who owns a cafe has to be, to an extent – but this guy took it to a whole new level. Coffee was seriously his passion, and he could really talk about beans and roasting and milk and whatnot. He was a proper barista, he’d travelled the world to try beans and see other cafes, and had participated in various coffee competitions. It made Steam not just a shop, but a place for friends. Seriously, just check out the reviews people have given it on Facebook, and the fact that it’s got a perfect 5 star rating.
Vlad had an interesting story too – he’d also grown up under communism, left the country, and had been working in Berlin. But when he decided to open his own coffee shop he came back to Romania, because even though he wouldn’t make as much money as in Berlin, Romania needed it more.
How extraordinary, I thought, as I finally left Steam to catch my train. How often do you meet people who genuinely love what they do and who are actually following their dreams – and not just following their dreams, but trying to create positive change? Is this just a Bucharest people thing, or was I lucky enough to chance upon some truly exceptional people?
I wasn’t sure, but what I was sure about was that coming to Bucharest had definitely been a good idea. I worry sometimes when people tell me that I need to grow up and get real, that work is just something we do to make a living and that we don’t have to like it or agree with what we’re doing, and that the normal course of things is to get a job, get a car, get a house, get a mortgage.
I want to be like Cristian and Vlad, I want to do more with my life, I want to put something good into the world and I want to do something I believe in. They’d shown me that that was totally reasonable.
I reminded myself as I left that I really had to thank Joe for bringing me there.