Monday, March 08, 2010


Monday 8 March 2010

I’ve been in Romania for two weeks now, and it’s been a very busy and interesting time. I have been so overwhelmed with the amount of work there is to do and with the strange and new environment that I have not felt like I had the time or wherewithal to sit down and try to capture it in writing. But if I don’t document my impressions soon, they will get even more jumbled than they already are (and my family will think I fell down a black hole!)

Today we were hit by a snowstorm, and it’s very cold. Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day, albeit very cold and windy. Most of the first two weeks were overcast with rain, fog, and cold. Immediately upon my arrival I was assailed by a whole host of new impressions. (Unfortunately I cannot illustrate them all with photographs, as no photography is allowed on the Romanian military base where I am living and working. So my photographs will be limited to my short trips outside the base.)

The fog and run-down buildings made for a kind of depressing, vaguely spooky atmosphere, especially at night. This is amplified by the incredible numbers of birds here. They are mainly some kind of crow or raven – very large black birds with huge grey beaks, that congregate here in the thousands (maybe tens of thousands). I never saw so many birds in one place in my life. They fly in from someplace else like clockwork just after six AM and six PM every day, making an incredible racket. They fill the trees in every direction, standing almost right next to each other on almost every branch – it’s really hard to grasp how many there are. The bare branches of the trees look like they are fully covered with leaves, except it is all birds. When disturbed, they take to the air in an explosion of flapping and cawing, and you can almost feel the rush of air from their wings. You actually sense the sky darkening above you. There are also a few other kinds of birds, including one interesting-looking one with a long black tail and black and white plumage. Most of the birds are these crows, however - very creepy.

The base itself is very quiet, with some Romanian military activity but mostly just the U.S. contingent and a lot of empty buildings and inactive fighter planes parked in open revetments. It was very strange for me as a recycled Cold Warrior to walk up close to Soviet-built MIG-29 and MIG 23 fighter jets, the kind we used to practice identifying in Threat briefings and exercises. It was interesting to me that although the Romanian language uses the Roman alphabet and the main markings of the aircraft used that, the smaller markings on the weapons pods and maintenance access hatches were all in Cyrillic lettering. One of the MIG 23’s had an amusing sticker on the side of the cockpit. It said “This is my second aircraft – my other one is a Mirage 2000”. :-)

My initial overall impression of decay and neglect is consistently upheld, pretty much wherever I have gone. Unlike the Middle East, where I think they just don’t care and don’t have a mindset of maintaining things, my sense is that here it is mainly a matter of money. They are a very small economy and are just not wealthy or well-developed. When I walked off-post I saw people tending their yards and gardens, raking and picking up sticks, etc. It was interesting to see people cleaning up rocks and dirt from the streets using a combination of snow shovels and hand-made brooms (long twigs tied to a stick, like a Halloween witch’s broom).

We have spent money upgrading the facilities on the base for U.S. troops to use, and those are very nice, although small and limited in scope. Although I’m in Europe, this is the smallest and most spartan base I’ve ever been on, in terms of the facilities available. They do a nice job with what they have, however, and of course the people who are stationed here permanently can go downtown Constanta, which I understand is a fair-sized city.

I have no vehicle, but I was able to walk downtown Mihail Kogalniceanu (hereinafter “MK”) last weekend for a cup of coffee and a look around.

This is the main sidewalk from the base to MK. There was a very pungent smell along the way that took me awhile to identify. Finally I remembered – it was the smell of composting grass. I also passed several dead animals (cats, dogs, and crows) which added to the smellscape.

This is a convenience store on the way into town. The Romanian language is, as suggested by its name, a Romance language like French, Italian, and Spanish. The Latin roots make many words easy to understand (e.g. Magazin Alimentar, Dispensar Veterinar, Politia Militar), but there are also plenty of words that I am totally clueless about. It’s still mostly “Greek” to me, although I’ve learned a few phrases.

The road to town goes past the neighboring Army base, which has this monument in front of it.

This little shrine was one of the few new-looking structures in town. You won’t see this in a public park in the USA!

This is the café where I stopped to have a cup of coffee. It was my first adventure with my German-Romanian phrase book. Ordering the coffee came down to hand gestures and pointing at the menu. While I drank it, I read the first few pages and tried to memorize some basic phrases.

This apartment building was right next to the café, and was much more characteristic of the types of buildings I saw. Very stark, bare, monotonous, and run-down.

I thought this house was interesting. Decaying roof, crumbling pavement, unpainted walls, and a satellite dish.

Not all the houses are run down. It’s easy to tell which families are prosperous. When they are painted, they seem to tend towards gay pastel colors.

This is the most common kind of car I’ve seen around here. It’s called a “Dacia”, and is a Romanian-built car. This is an older model – the newer ones don’t look so clunky, but I’ve only seen two of those and lots of the older ones. It’s way better than the Trabant of East Germany, and has to be better than the Yugo was. There are also the usual assortment of smaller European cars such as Opels, Renaults, Fords, Volkswagens, Fiats, etc., but almost none of the luxury cars such as Mercedes or BMW.

I’m not sure what this business is, as the word was not in my Romanian dictionary. But I suspect it has something to do with tire repair. (Hmmm… I wonder why?)

One thing about the country that stands out immediately is that there are stray dogs running around everywhere, and I mean *everywhere*. I have yet to see one with a collar or leash. They just seem to run around loose, both alone and in packs, and the people seem to accept it. Everywhere you look a dog is scrounging around in the trash or lurking in a doorway looking for a handout. When this one saw me looking at him, he jumped up and started across the road with a hopeful look. I noticed he was limping on one leg, and as a car honked its horn and screeched its tires as it swerved, it was obvious why. He went back and lay down by the dumpster when I kept on walking.

Yesterday we went out on a recon of a military training area, and I got to see some open country and some other villages. Unfortunately I did not have my camera out at the beginning of the drive, and so I missed getting pictures of some very quaint churches. I also saw some traditional wells, just like you would picture them, with a circular wall, a little roof, and a bucket on a rope with a handle to turn to raise it up and down. One village had big bright blue pipes with spigots sticking up out of the ground every couple of blocks. I thought they were fire hydrants of some kind until I saw a villager filling plastic water bottles at one. They were the community water system – a step up from the open well with the bucket.

In the Middle East it was goats and camels; here it seems to be goats and sheep. Somebody told me that you never see a herd of animals grazing in a field without a shepherd, because otherwise the animals will be stolen. The shepherd for this flock is just out of sight to the left.

Most of the roofs were made of rusty corrugated iron or clay tile, but there were a few thatched roofs on some of the houses and outbuildings.

These horse carts were everywhere on the roads, almost as numerous as the cars.

It’s a little blurry, but this was a very typical scene on the roads, a couple out running errands in their cart. We saw working farmers with loads of hay or whatever, as well as entire families riding in them. We also saw an awful lot of people walking on the streets and even on the highway carrying shopping bags. In one village I saw a few Romani (gypsies) with flamboyantly-colored clothing, head scarves, and large earrings, but I couldn’t get a photo before we had passed them.

I just had to get a picture of this. It was in the largest town we passed through, which was significantly more modern than the little villages along the way. I know that Transylvania is just a region of Romania, but the legend of Dracula is so firmly entrenched in our popular culture that it stood out and begged for a photo.

This is what most of the countryside looked like. A lot of it reminded me of eastern Wyoming or Montana, except that they were cultivated crops instead of grassland. It would resemble any farmland in the Midwestern United States, except for the almost complete absence of trees, buildings and fences of any kind. Periodically we would see large complexes of buildings off in the distance. I saw one such complex up close, and among other buildings it had a large open garage with about a dozen tractors in it. My theory is that their infrastructure is still organized around communal farms, or at least still physically configured as they were when the country was communist.

This is a view up the road as we headed back south towards MK. The fields on the left were a vast vineyard. Almost the only trees out in this area are the ones planted alongside the roads. Again, I bet it’s a lot prettier in the summertime when things are green. This was the best road we drove on – it’s a regular highway and we made pretty good time. Most of the roads were somewhere between bad and unbelievably awful, and we spent a lot of time just crawling along avoiding potholes and trying not to get stuck.

So – that is my initial set of impressions about Romania. I thought I might get a chance to travel a bit on a weekend, but it looks like that may not be a very good idea. People have told me that the train system is pretty bad, and that it would take most of the weekend just to get anyplace. I suppose I could pay a taxi, but it cost 100 Euros to get here from Bucharest, which means a weekend there would cost nearly $300 in taxi fees plus the hotel and meals, just to see what one person here called a “big, dirty city”. Hmmm. I’ve got the rest of the week to think about it. I may just do it – I mean, how often do you find yourself on the other side of the world with some free time? I’ll see if anything I read about Bucharest in my travel guide can entice me, and how I feel when Friday comes around.

Meanwhile I feel like I am making a difference in my job here. The work is challenging (and endless), and I am acutely aware of the limited amount I can accomplish in the short time I have. But I am enjoying it and the days pass quickly.

Mood: Upbeat
Music: The Eurythmics “Love is a Stranger”


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