So we’d heard rumors of plain-clothes RATB officials who sneak aboard busses, trams, and trolleybuses to check to make sure everyone paid for the trip, but I hadn’t seen any until yesterday.
Thankfully, too, because we’d forgotten to pay more than once. It’s never been intentional. It just kinda’ happens sometimes if we’re in a hurry, the tram is really crowded, we’re trying to figure out if we’re headed in the right direction, or we’re trying to keep our kids from getting eaten by dogs or run over by cars. 🙂 Sometimes you just forget.
Before I go further into my experience with the RATB KGB, a little background. RATB (pronounced Air-Ahh-tay-bay and standing for Regia Autonomă de Transport București) is the body that governs all Bucharest-area public transport – tramvai, troleibuz, and autobuz. Every city in Romania with public transport has an RAT-something. Bucharest has RATB, Cluj has RATC, Timișoara has RATT, Brașov is RATBv, and so on… Nice and orderly.
Yesterday, I needed to take the tram to a meeting I had with a medical student, so I hopped on board. I waved my card in front of the reader, but it was broken and never deducted money from my account. So I slowly squirmed my way through the crowded tram to get toward another card reader that I hoped would work. I waved my card, it worked fine, and then I stood there and waited for my stop.
People in Romania stare at you way more than in America. It’s just not inappropriate here. It’s kinda’ cool that there’s no stigma against it but really unnerving at the same time. People here also stand really close to you. At first it freaked me out and I would tend to back up to give myself room to breathe, but now I’m mostly used to it.
So yesterday, as I waited, standing on the tram, lost in my thoughts, it didn’t really surprise me that a short Romanian woman in a white collared shirt would stand right in front of me staring at me. I just thought, “Oh, she’s a Romanian.” Then she mumbled something really quietly, still staring intently at me.
“Poftim?” I said, to which she responded in another hushed, mumbled response that I had no chance of understanding.
At this point, I was losing hope that I would ever understand what she was trying to say, so I decided to try to ignore her. Why was she staring at me, standing inches from my face? I didn’t know, but I would pretend she wasn’t even there, or that it was normal.
I hoped my attempts would convince her to leave and stare at someone else, but it didn’t work. She continued to stare. Then I suddenly noticed her hand, holding an RATB badge.
I tried to tell her I paid, she mumbled something in return and stared even harder, so I pulled out my wallet and showed her my card. She grabbed it, held it up to the reader and, as far as I could tell, made me pay for another tram trip. I told her, in extremely well-spoken Romanian, “No, not two. One.” Now it was her turn to ignore me.
The second ride she made me pay for only cost an extra $0.30, but I let it ruin the rest of my trip on the tram. Now it’s funny, but at the time, I was really annoyed, not so much at her but at this culture that I don’t understand. I love Romanians, but I sure don’t pretend to understand them. They constantly talk about how bad things are, they stare at us all the time, they stand really close to you, they mutter a lot, they’re obsessed with appearances, they speak this strange language we can’t understand…
In spite of the stuff I don’t understand, I really do love these people, and it’s fun to figure this place out. One day, it’ll feel just like home, but right now, it’s still mostly a foreign country to us.
The power just went out for a second. Car alarms started going off like crazy, dogs started barking, and some guy belted out an Arabic-sounding tune at the top of his lungs. Why? Who knows, it’s Bucharest.
I love this city. It’s frustrating at times, but I love it. People don’t smile enough here, but when they do, you know it’s real. The driving is crazed, but it actually feels like people are more attentive and better drivers than in America, where it’s easy to zone out and not pay attention. Things that should take 5 minutes take 5 hours here, which is frustrating, but it teaches you patience. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself, that something good should result from all this waiting and running around we end up doing most days.
Part of all waiting comes from the fact that we don’t understand Romanian perfectly yet, partly it’s a result of traffic congestion, partly it’s just figuring out a new city and culture, and partly it’s just that things in Bucharest operate at a different speed than in the US. Anyway, you do learn to wait on God, not get stressed about it, and trust that things will get done in His time. And that’s a good thing.
Today was filled with errands, lots of errands. The guys from IKEA (pronounced ee-KAY-uh in Romanian) were supposed to come by at 8 to build the kids’ bunk-beds, so we got everybody out of bed early and cleared out their room so the guys could come and do their work without Barbie dolls, dressers, and mattresses being in the way. By the time 8 rolled around, we were ready to go.
But we were the only ones who were ready. We got to do that whole waiting thing for another hour before the guys came to build the beds. I was just about to surrender and just build the beds myself when we heard a buzz on the interfon. One hour late isn’t too bad, especially when you consider Time Warner Cable tells you they’ll be by “sometime between noon and 5 pm” to install your internet. At least IKEA had a target in mind.
Last night, when IKEA called to let me know they’d be coming today, I tried to tell the guy on the phone “Good evening,” but my tongue slipped and I accidentally told him, “Good stairs” instead. For some reason, he didn’t say it back to me. People here are so unfriendly. 😉
So today the bunk-beds got built, which is awesome, because now the girls can sleep in beds and not just on mattresses on the floor. That’ll help with all the “Daddy, Illiana’s sticking her butt on my mattress” scenarios we’ve been having.
I’ve mentioned that one of the frustrating things with learning Romanian here is that so many people speak English way better than we speak Romanian. As a result, when people notice we’re pretty rough with Romanian, they tend to just talk to us in English so we can actually communicate. This makes it hard to practice our Romanian because few people will let us actually speak it. For instance, today, Susie wanted to buy us a pitcher with a water filter so we don’t have to keep going to the store for water every couple days. We’ll miss our Bucovina water, but we’ll probably end up saving close to $50 every month if we use the filter instead of bottled water. Anyway, I went to the mall to buy one, and I started off pretty well talking to the saleswoman in Romanian, but I got hung up on a few words that I didn’t know, so she just switched to perfect English. I still tried to use as much Romanian as I could, but she only spoke in English from that point on. Frustrating.
The open-air markets are different, though. Very few people there speak any English to us, and they’re all really willing to help us speak Romanian better. If we goof up a verb form or the gender of a noun, they’ll smile and then lovingly (and slowly) speak the correct form for us and then keep saying it until we’ve got it down. I love it. And if we don’t know what they’re saying, they don’t switch to English!
We had to get some fruits and vegetables, so we went back to the market again today. A lot of venders recognized us, and some even asked where the kids were (Susie was watching them). I can’t wait to get our Gospel tract translated into Romanian so we can hand it out to everyone we’re meeting, especially those we’ll see on a continual basis like these venders at the market.
After the market, we needed some bread so we swung by the bakery on the way home again. The same woman was working there as every other time we’ve gone, and she gave us a big smile when we told her what we wanted. I think her smile was because she recognized us and not because I told her “Good stairs.”
Sometimes, it feels like we’re not really making any impact being here in Romania, foreigners unfamiliar with the language and culture, but people have been telling us that our presence itself is a huge witness, even though we can’t say much yet. No one here thinks an American would ever choose to leave behind the American Dream and come live in Bucharest. Everyone who hears we’ve moved here from America is completely amazed and dumbfounded. Us being here makes a clear statement of taking up your cross and following Jesus, especially because so many Romanians think so highly of America and so poorly of their own nation. We think it’s awesome here, but let ’em think we’re making a huge sacrifice.
Today, we finally officially entered the realm of RATB (Regia Autonomă de Transport Bucureşti, Bucharest’s system of autobuz, tramvai, and troleibuz). Metrorex runs the underground subway network, and RATB runs the busses, trams, and trolleys. After talking with a few different Romanians and browsing RATB’s website for a few hours one day, we finally worked up the nerve to plunge into its depths and take a couple of tramvai to the open-air market because it was pretty far to walk. Getting the passes was relatively easy, if a bit comedic from our end. I tried to purchase three cards and put 10 lei’s worth of rides on each one, but for some reason the RATB employee would only let me put 13 lei on each. Why? I don’t know, but she took a long time to explain the reason in rapid Romanian. All I understood was when she asked if I understood. I didn’t, but I didn’t want to hear it again, so I did what every foreigner does when in the same situation – I lied and simply said “yes.”
The cost was 51 lei, but she only asked for 50. One of the cool things about Romania is that people aren’t as exact with money. A lot of places we’ve been round up or down a little if it brings everything to an easier amount to deal with. Almost every time we go to the grocery store, we save a few bani because they round the price down. It’s amounted to maybe saving $2 total since we’ve been here, but it’s kinda’ cool that people aren’t as stressed about it. Clerks in America would get fired for not having their drawers exactly right. People don’t seem to do it every time, and not every place is so loose about it, but it’s happened enough to seem normal now.
So we conquered the tram today. We forgot to look at a map before we left, got off at the wrong stop once, wandered around confused a little bit, accidentally rode without paying twice… but now we can say that we have ridden the tram, and it was good. This will help a ton with accessing parts of the city that the Subway doesn’t reach, since there’s a tram stop right outside our building.
Well, I don’t have anything majorly “spiritual” for you today, but here’s a handful of funny things with the kids I thought you all might appreciate:
– There’s a home improvement store near our house called “Mr. Bricolage.” It looks really awesome and I want to check it out sometime (especially since my tools from IKEA are proving incredibly ineffective), but we haven’t popped in there yet. Anyway, today, because it seemed appropriate, we nicknamed Isaac “Mr. Bricolage.”
– We bought some strawberries from the market today, and they tasted incredible – better than any I can remember from America. Naomi ate so many of them it made her stomach hurt. The whole time she was eating them, she made oohing and aahing noises and groans and giggles. At one point, she burst out, “These strawberries taste so good I feel like I’m having a baby!” So for all you women who’ve complained about childbirth, the truth is out. Now I know what it really feels like, eating a bowl of delicious strawberries. From this time forth, you will receive no more sympathy from me. Go have those babies, and enjoy every minute of it.
– A couple days ago, Illiana told me, “Mama’s smart.” Then she paused and looked like she was thinking hard. “Wait, no, I mean she’s smart like a girl. She’s like girl smart.” I don’t claim to understand that one either.