My time in Romania began as a sort of hangover from Ukraine. I was on my own, and I hadn't had the time to plan because I was busy enjoying myself for the last two weeks. Although this caused my week in Romania to be a bit bumpy, the haphazard wandering led to some extraordinary opportunities and interesting interactions with locals and other travelers.
I took a bus from the airport to Piața Unirii, the central square of Bucharest, and walked to my first ever hostel. I was nervous at first about the forced social interaction inherent to the hostel life, but it turned out to be a very rewarding experience, as I am told most first time hostel-goers find. Podstel provided an atmosphere which lent itself to new friendships between both travelers and locals; friends of the owners would often come to cook meals at night, and many travelers and locals would come to eat and converse together in the garden. One night, there was a tea ceremony, during which a Romanian tea aficionado explained in great detail what makes a tea exceptional, how to prepare it, and even the Chinese origins of the words tea and chai. One backpacker who knew Mandarin chimed in to explain the tonal nuances of the root word "cha", which caused me a bit of anxiety while contemplating the complexity of Mandarin, but was very interesting nonetheless.
The owners informed me of a free walking tour of Bucharest which I and a few friends joined about halfway through the week. The tour guide showed us the "new" Bucharest (street art, post-communist monuments, bars and beer gardens) while connecting each part to the country's tumultuous history. After this tour, I felt I had a rudimentary understanding of Bucharest compared to the complete blindness I felt when I arrived.
Finally having settled in, I began to interact with some Romanians as I figured out my daily activities. Once, I forgot to tip a waitress and returned an hour later with a few Romanian lei. She cheerfully laughed in surprise, thanked me, and offered a tour of the enormous restaurant which had an impressive collection of industrially-inspired art. Another time, a convenience store worker struck up a conversation with me because he said he had seen me walking by. He thoughtfully recommended a number of places to visit in Transylvania, a large forested region in the north that is easily accessible by train.
Having been advised by a local, I bought tickets to the nearby towns of Sinaia and Brașov for a day trip. A friend at the hostel agreed to join me, and we left early in the morning. We arrived in Sinaia at about 9am and walked to Peleș castle, home of the first king of the independent state of Romania (King Carol I, 1839-1914). Although we were herded like sheep through the crowded halls of the castle, the brilliant interior was well worth it. Unbelievable items like twin Murano glass chandeliers, a 7000-piece arms collection, and commissioned works of Gustav Klimt adorned the sprawling labyrinth.
We had to dip out of the tour just before the end because our train to Brașov was too close. When we boarded the train, we noticed that there were open windows at the perfect height to rest your arms on the sills. For about an hour, I hung my head out of the window (like a dog) and gazed at Transylvania.
We arrived and began walking under the assumption that the beautiful city center was within a few blocks from the train station. This was not so, and we trudged through so many blocks of grey, industrial housing complexes that we began to think it didn't exist. We all but gave up and stopped at a restaurant to get some food and wifi, with which we were able to find our way. The day slowly turned around as we spotted the pastel facades of central Brașov contrasting with the tall green mountains behind them. We didn't bother to visit the tourist attractions - just walking around Brașov and talking to some other travelers filled the day.
I had a train back to Bucharest at night, and I immediately searched for an open window when I boarded. I stood for three hours, watching the moon rise and shine upon the passing Transylvanian forests.
At midnight, I arrived in Bucharest and took a seat on some stairs to rest before I planned to walk two miles to my AirBnB. A Romanian girl asked what street we were on, and we began speaking about where we'd come from and where we were going. I offered to share a cab with her and her friends, and she ended up inviting me to her apartment for a drink with them. When I told them how long I'd spent in Bucharest, she was taken aback. She explained that in her opinion, the best parts of Romania were up north in the mountains, while Bucharest was generally grey and boring. The experience was somewhat paradoxical - she confirmed that I'd planned my trip pretty terribly, but by inviting me into her home with her and her friends, she'd shown that it was not necessarily a mistake.