The ground beef situation in Romania is a little bizarre.
Surprisingly, hamburgers at McDonald’s are amazing. By far the biggest and tastiest burger on their menu is the “Big Tasty.” The pickles taste fresh, the tomatoes seem like they’re straight from someone’s garden, the buns are delicious, and the hamburger patties taste almost like they just came off a backyard grill. I know, weird, isn’t it? I’m used to McDonald’s tasting a lot more like rubber.
That’s where the ground beef happiness ends, from what we’ve found. I ordered a “hamburger” at a roadside kiosk a while back. It was more like a chilli-flavored meatloaf sandwich. It tasted great, but the meat was crumbly and mushy, and this concoction would never pass for a hamburger in the States.
A week ago, I thought, “Enough of the desperate hamburger situation! I’m buying the most expensive ground beef I can find and we’re making our own burgers.” Not gonna try that again. The burger patties turned out mushy and crumbly, barely holding their shape, and every bite was scattered with inedible fat chunks. The tomatoes from the market and sesame seed buns we got from the bakery, however, were amazing.
So, don’t come to Romania expecting some sort of ground beef heaven. Well, not unless you plan on going to McDonald’s every day.
Today, we kicked boredom in the butt and just had some fun. We took some wise advice (thanks Michael) and just got into the city to have fun, see some sights, talk to some people, and see what makes Bucharest tick.
First, we let Susie take care of the kids while Jessie and I took a good long walk. We walked about 5 km from our apartment to Palatul Parlamentului (Palace of the Parliament), listed according to some as the second largest building in the world, right behind the Pentagon. Technically speaking, one of Boeing’s factories is bigger (makes sense, right?), as are a number of other similar buildings, but I guess they don’t count.
Either way, Palatul Paramentului is huge. We wanted to get close, but since yesterday they had 30,000 extra soccer fans in the area, it was all sanctioned off. We did snap this photo:
And right across the street is Parcul Izvor (Spring Park), which has a huge play area for kids, outdoor exercise equipment, tons of open space to lounge around in, and a bunch of nice, shady trees. We found a good-looking tree and sat down for a while, enjoying the quiet and serenity of the park in the midst of 3 million busy city-dwellers. The park was pretty packed with people hanging out, mostly in their teens and twenties, but it’s crazy how peaceful and remote it felt.
Here’s a shot of the playground – the kids are so excited to check it out:
After lounging around for a bit, we decided to check out nearby Cismigiu Park, one of Bucharest’s largest and most beautiful parks. The park, again, was packed with people – old guys playing chess and backgammon, young couples walking hand-in-hand, moms playing with their kids, college students studying for classes, businessmen conducting meetings… It’s like a whole little magical world inside a big city. It smells like a state park, there’s giant old trees everywhere, there’s a lake and a canal with boaters quietly uh… boating along. There’s even a really awesome, creatively-designed playground and an old-school carnival. Just adds to the magical feel of the place.
After the park, we started heading back, got lost for a while (nothing makes sense about this city), and ordered fast-food at a roadside kiosk. I got a soda, a big thing of fries, and a huge “hamburger” for $3, and Jessie got a giant chicken shaorma wrap and a lemonade for about $2.50. My “hamburger” is in quotations because it wasn’t really a hamburger. It tasted great, but it wasn’t a hamburger. It was a mushed-up meat and veggie patty that tasted like a bowl of chilli, with toppings of ketchup, corn, cucumbers, and two types of cabbage. It wasn’t a hamburger, but it was really good. And the bun was simply amazing.
Well, we finished our explorations by buying a couple of unlimited monthly subway passes (for under $15 each), taking the subway back toward our apartment, getting lost again, and finally coming home to a bunch of happy kids.
I was tired when we finally got home, but I wanted to do something special with the girls, so I took them out to buy groceries and more water (they really like the experience), and we stopped at a small shop to get ice cream (îngheţată) and played on a really ghetto playground near our house. It’s super small and, like many things in Bucharest, is covered in graffiti and has piles of trash scattered around. Kind of like Milwaukee was.
So today I learned Romanians don’t have the same concept of time as we do in America. In America, you don’t call people after 9pm unless you’re in college, and you definitely don’t come to their house that late. In Romania, it doesn’t matter. Our landlord, Marian, stopped by at 10:30 this evening to check up on us. He’s really an awesome guy, and every time he comes, we feel really happy. Tonight, he came with his wife Monica, his son Aleksander (spellings may be wrong), and their tiny little miniature schnauzer Maia. They speak very little English, and our Romanian is equally bad, so we have a fun time communicating with each other through mime, Google Translate, and broken phrases. He changed out some lightbulbs, brought us a brand-new mop and bucket, fixed the washing machine, and explained that he took care of our crabby neighbor for us. Basically, in as best we could understand, the neighbor is crazy, so Marian recommended not talking to him. Problem fixed. 🙂
While Marian was over, our Chinese neighbor Lai popped out and I found out he speaks fluent Romanian. He and Marian talked for a while and then Lai told me, “Marian is a good man. He is very good.” And then, “Remember, if you need anything, you just knock and I am here. This is a strange place.” Then he was gone.
I love these people!
Before Marian and his family left, Marian asked us, “You… from… England?” “Nu, nu, Statele Unite,” we told him. His eyes light up, “Oh, Americans! Yes! Good. Oraş?” He was asking what city we were from. “Milwaukee, linga Chicago… Milwaukee Brewers… baseball!” “Yes, good! I know.” He’s the second person we’ve met here who knows of the Brewers. One guy, Razvan from the electronics store, watches them religiously.
Well, today I learned a lot. We experienced some of the fun of Bucharest, we learned how to ask for ice cream really well, we found some of the places where people go to chill and relax, we tried out the subway, we discovered some great places for our kids, and, most importantly, I remembered how much I love this country and these people. We’re going to be doing a lot more exploring and wandering and praying. I need it – it opens my eyes to how God feels about this place, and it gets me out there where the people are working and resting and having fun.
OK, two funny stories before I close. I’d heard some statements from guidebooks that Romanians are inherently terrible at giving directions. This is probably partly because 1) their cities don’t make any sense, and 2) roads are rarely labeled with street signs. However, even given these handicaps, today I found out just how bad they are. No Romanians we talked to could help us find where we were going. Even when there was a giant map on a wall that we were all looking at, the Romanian guy sent us the wrong way. He was really, really nice and seemed very concerned that we were lost, but ultimately his directions sent us exactly opposite of where we were going. If our GPS was working, this wouldn’t be such an issue, but it’s having problems with all the tall apartment buildings around. Where is Tyler Marenes when you need him?
Second funny story. Outside the grocery store, there’s a lane of taxis, then a median in the road, then a lane of traffic coming one way, then another median, then some train tracks for the tramvai (trolley), then another median, then a final lane of traffic coming the other way. It’s pretty busy and chaotic and we’ve almost been run over by both cars and tramvaii a few times. Anyway, when the girls and I were waiting in the first median, right before the lane of traffic, this bent up old woman decided she’d had enough waiting, so she just walked out into traffic in front of a car, forcing it to stop. She stared down the driver, waved her cane at him, and then slowly edged out to stop another lane of traffic. She managed to stop all three lanes of traffic by pointing her cane, giving drivers the evil eye, and wandering back and forth between lanes erratically. It was quite an impressive feat, and not once was I worried for her. She clearly had it under control the whole time. Finally, after she stopped all the lanes of traffic, she crossed, just in time for the light to turn red anyway.
Only in Romania. 🙂