Hey, hey, hey!
Yes, Romania is a random place to go. But, after putting the finishing touches on my midterm papers last week my friend Mimi and I hopped on a plane Wednesday evening to Bucharest, Romania’s capital. Trust me, we were (and still are) kind of baffled at how arbitrary the trip’s destination was. Long story short, two months ago we had a flight-booking snafu among our friend group and Mimi and I ended up with tickets to Bucharest. Instead of canceling them we decided to embrace the #abroadlife and go through with the trip— after all, when else would we have the chance to visit Romania? (Plus we couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the city one of our favorite Israeli songs is based on.)
The great thing about going somewhere we never intended to go (and really knew nothing about) was that our expectations (and plans) were nonexistent. We arrived in Bucharest on Wednesday morning, dropped our backpacks at our hostel, and got walking. While the hostel gave us an extremely detailed city map, and we both are fairly adequate navigators, we spent most of Friday completely turned around and lost in the city. Our first impressions of the city included: incredibly tasty tap water, clean streets, wide variety in architectural style, traces of communism, and absolutely endless tea shops, flower shops and bookshops (plus the fact that it was flipping COLD). Initially, the plethora of bookshops was surprising. Soon, though, we were reminded that Bucharest was only thirty years post-communist and that the right to buy, own, read and discuss literature of one’s choosing was likely one of the most treasured freedoms in the post-communist era.
Thursday evening we took our hostel’s advice and ate at “La Mama”— a restaurant known for traditional Romanian food. Once again, Mimi and I had no expectations and were surprised to find out that the Romanian diet actually includes quite a bit of vegetables. We ordered a traditional mushroom stew served over polenta, the Romanian versions of hummus (made with white beans) and baba ganoush, sautéed greens, and beets, topped it off with some delicious homemade wheat bread. Most of the meal we spent remarking how tasty everything was and how shocked we were that we didn’t have to chew on some large, random selection of Eastern European meats. #tgod
Friday morning we followed NYT travel column’s advice and had breakfast at a tiny artisan coffee shop in Bucharest’s old city. The interior design of the shop was #onpoint— funky lights made out of coffee mugs, a coffee mug mobile over the espresso bar, and espresso machine parts repurposed as door handles, hangers and drawer pulls. I was obsessed. After warming up with coffee (did I mention it was cold outside?) we attended a free walking tour of the old city. Our tour guide paraded us around to different sights— explaining Romania’s somewhat complex history. We also got to stop by the memorial to “Vlad the Impaler,” AKA Dracula. Our guide explained to us the method he used to impale people— but I can’t really tell you how it worked because my fingers were shoved in my ears after the first two seconds of the explanation. Truly disgusting. The rest of Friday was spent at the local beer garden for lunch, the Romanian National History Museum and a trendy modern-Romanian restaurant for dinner. We capped off the day with the most delicious gelato I’ve ever had (chocolate and coconut for me, mascarpone and fig for Mimi). No exaggeration. Who knew Romania could one-up Italy in the gelato game?
Saturday morning, eager to learn more about Romania’s communist-era, we went on a communism tour of Bucharest. Our tour guide led us around the center of the city— which had been reconstructed under the orders of Romania’s second and last communist leader, Ceauşescu. Ceauşescu, who controlled Romania from 1974-1989, had destroyed many of the city’s central buildings to build a massive governmental palace/building/Parliament— which today is the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. Ceauşescu was overthrown by the Romanian public and military, in 1989, marking the end of the communist era. While today communism in Romania is “officially dead”, our tour guide explained that the transition from communism to democracy is still occurring. Especially the older generations, she said, are still adjusting to a free society— one not controlled by a communist dictator, filled with secret police, citizen informants and strict rules. Mimi and I were fascinated by all of her perspectives, but found ourselves a little freaked out afterward— we will, after all, have our own power hungry, mansion building, self-obsessed leader come January 20th. Scary stuff.
We spent our remaining time on Saturday touring Ceauşescu’s building (which today houses Romania’s parliament) and visiting the Romanian Holocaust memorial (beautiful and heartbreaking) before a delicious Italian dinner and hopping on a red-eye back to the Holy Land. We arrived back home early Sunday morning, thoroughly exhausted and still a bit humored by the randomness of our trip.
With all that being said— the real highlight of the past week came yesterday when I went to Jerusalem with Hannah for an exhibition featuring her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. “Papa” as he is referred to, was born in Poland, survived the concentration camps as a teenager, moved to a transition camp in Italy and then eventually immigrated to New York. This year an Israeli high school partnered with a high school in the Polish town he grew up in to create an exhibition commemorating the Jews who lived in the town before the Holocaust. The students worked together to digitally impose current photos of the town, featuring Israeli and Polish students, onto photos of the town during the Holocaust period. This artwork was accompanied by testimonies from Jewish survivors, including Papa, who had been teenagers at the time. Absolutely incredible.
For me, though, what was even more moving was to see the collaboration between the Polish (many of whom had flown to Israel for the exhibition opening yesterday) and Israeli students. The teachers who helped coordinate the project explained to us that this is the first generation that is “removed” enough from the personal experiences and memories of the Holocaust to be able to bridge the emotional and traumatic divide between the surviving Jewish population and the Polish people. For older Polish-Jews who survived the Holocaust, like Papa, opening old wounds is too much to bear. And, for older Poles who witnessed or perpetrated the violence, the guilt they hold is often too overwhelming to address. But, for the grandchildren, those who are two generations removed from the personal pain and personal guilt, there is an opportunity for the rebuilding of humanity, respect, and peace. The Israeli students are curious about what their own lives might have been like today should the Holocaust not occurred and their ancestors have remained in Poland, and there is curiosity from the Polish students regarding the massive portion of their population and culture that was lost due to the Holocaust and immigration to Israel. The power of these overlapping curiosities was evident in the exhibition. The exhibition demonstrated a strong yearning for knowledge, acceptance, understanding and a sliver of something that might have even resembled forgiveness between the grandchildren of perpetrators and grandchildren of victims. Amazing how the world works.
And with that, I’ll leave you. A very happy Thanksgiving week to all! I’m anticipating a little homesickness come Thursday, but rest assured we will be celebrating here with all the classic American dishes— plus some challah and hummus of course!