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10 Things Romania Does (A Bit) Differently - Part 1

A few days ago, after walking into a grocery store, I couldn't help noticing I was in a state of trepidation. The reason? I'd walked in with my gym bag, purposely avoiding the security guy at the entrance. I felt his eyes must be following me and that a loud, "Hey, you!" would ring out the moment I turned into an aisle.

It turns out that the longer you live somewhere, the more you get used to it. A truism, of course. What is not immediately apparent is that this isn't necessarily a good thing, especially when you find that you've become used to something you may have found, at some point in the past, in another place, entirely unacceptable.

This is why, now that I've crossed over the honeymoon period of my move to Romania, I find my enthusiasm for life here wanes when, for the 286th time, I  am forced to walk into a supermarket through the designated entrance point, even if an empty checkout is much closer and no less accessible. Then, upon entry, a grumpy looking old guy wearing an oversize bomber jacket is waiting to greet me, and every other shopper, with a monosyllabic command like, "open it", "give it", or "receipt". You can only avoid the interaction if you walk in barehanded, or if you're a rebel like I am.

So you can imagine my displeasure when I became conscious of this particular dread; the unique feeling that I've done something wrong simply by walking into a store where I'm about to spend my money; as if I didn't just walk into the store with my own things,  but just walked out with theirs. A few years ago I'd scoff at the notion, but now I'm ingrained enough in the local culture to play along (or is it the reverse, the culture is ingrained in me?).

But this is Romania, where an honest shopper is a considered a thief and where the actual thieves are, more often than not, government ministers.

So with the occasion, I thought I'd make a highly randomized list of things that are 'just different' here. It's not all bad, really, but if you're from across the ocean (any ocean) it is not what you're used to either.

1. Supermarkets.
When you visit a supermarket (inside a mall) you can only enter at designated entrances, set about a mile apart from each other at opposite ends. When you walk in, you must also submit your bags to a search, and sometimes store them away in lockers (which usually have no locks), while trusting that an underpaid, bored, and irritable guard will make sure they're still there by the time you come back. Actually, that's an unfair characterization. Their boredom often turns them into a sort of overly diligent greeter, tasked with applying stickers on half-filled water bottles and other consumables. That's right, if you walk into a grocery store with a bottle of water you need to make sure the guard marks it with a sticker, otherwise you'll be paying for it again at the checkout.

(To be fair to the guards their job is their job and they mostly seem to do their best, but it's still a stupid system.)

2. Paying at a restaurant.
When you finish your meal at the restaurant, you'd better be sure about your method of payment. The server sometimes asks whether you're paying cash or card ("kesh sau card"), but not always. If you want to pay by debit or credit card, and the bill is made out to cash, you're going to have a hell of a time convincing a now-annoyed waiter to cancel the order and enter it all over again just to save you a trip to the ATM. It's generally not worth the hassle or the trip, so don't mess this up. Seriously, this is the way to ruin an otherwise pleasant dining experience.

3. Pizza.
Pizza can be just as appetizing in Romania, but the process needs some getting used to if you're new to the way it's done in Europe.
Firstly, you won't often make your own customized pizza. It is doable, but considered highly irregular, maybe even rude, and is a sure way to get something you didn't ask for on your pie  - or nothing that you did. You're best off sticking to classic Neapolitan recipes; Margherita, Diavola, Capriciosa, Boscaiola, or the even more exotic variants with ingredients like carbonara sauce, sweet corn, spinach, or potatoes. But don't worry, unless you eat pizza on the daily, you'll learn what all these names mean after a brief two or three year period.
I should also point out that the sizes may differ from what you're used to, especially if you're coming from a place where one rectangular 'Party Pizza' can serve twenty people and dimensions are otherwise measured in inches. Simply put, pizza here is  meant to be a one person dish. It's about the size of a medium in America, and you're not expected to share. It's also not uncommon to see people eating their pizza with a knife and fork.
The consistency is different, too. It has a thin, soft dough, which, in a wood burning oven, is baked through in about a minute and a half. The tomato sauce, cheese, and the other ingredients are spread on thinly, so there is no cheese pull effect unless you double or triple the mozzarella.
If places like Domino's or other franchises have shaped your notion of pizza, you will still recognize the dish in front of you, but it might not be exactly what you expected.

4. Public transport.
As an experience this is also different and more in tune with the rest of Europe and not unique to Romania, but it's still worth explaining.
In some bus stations there are still tiny stalls where a faceless lady will sell you tickets - you only see her hands as she takes your money and hands over your ticket - but these booths are mostly being replaced by automated ticket machines. You can even use text messaging to pay your fare nowadays.
When the bus arrives you can hop in through any door, but you have to make sure to stamp/validate your ticket on little readers located on the poles inside. There' a hefty fine and considerable hassle if you 'forget' to validate and a controller comes aboard.
The driver has nothing to do with fares and fare enforcement. Drivers are generally ensconced in a tiny booth up front, which they sometimes like to decorate so it looks like a mini-living room complete with icons, a tea kettle, and house slippers. Unless an old buddy hops aboard, there is rarely any interaction between him and the passengers.

5. Air Conditioning. 
Saying that A/C is not highly appreciated in Romania is an understatement. As the man-made cousin of the menacing 'curent' (draft),  Romanians view it with suspicion. It doesn't matter if it's 42 C outside, it is preferable to baste in one's own juices and end up a puddle on the sun-beaten sidewalks of Bucharest than to risk exposure to such pernicious technology. As far as Romanians are concerned, any A/C blasting appliance ought to carry biohazard warnings. This means you'll only really get A/C at malls, offices, modern restaurants (maybe), and at the homes of people who either aren't really Romanian or  maybe just not right in the head. A/C units are typically mounted on walls and like to blow directly in your face, preferably at full blast, and, if you ask the waiter to turn it down a notch, the unit only has an 'on' or 'off' setting. If you have one at home you know that, in fact, it has several settings, various fan orientations, and even a thermostat to stop it from blowing if gets too cold. But it's still mounted on the wall because, unless you live in a mall, there's no such thing as central air conditioning here.

Continue to Part 2


  1. Haha... 'Curent!!!!' My favourite Romanian catchphrase. Drives me nuts! I don't have the pizza experience as I don't eat it more than once every couple of years, but I can understand the frustration of the pizza connoisseur. You might be amused by an article I've just had published in an expat magazine:
    If you're interested in doing a blog swap - your piece on my blog, and vice versa, I'd be delighted.

  2. so go back home to america mate pun intended ☺πŸ€—at least we still have some ounces of culture and common decency .p.s i prefer my windows opened till late november , i dont eatpizza its an italian dish whythe f i would look for it in romania ..anyway you wee king actually .the medical system is a disaster, the politicians suck but pretty much we can blame it on you the expats☺πŸ€—πŸ˜€πŸ˜€

    1. It's worth taking a long look at ourselves every now and then, just to see if there are improvements to be made. Coincidentally, I think that is something America doesn't do very well - which is why I'm not interested in going back.

    2. I can only interpret your comment as sarcasm. Because the "Romanian" culture you are referring to doesn't really exist. Common decency? In Romania more than America? That's laughable at best. The politicians suck because dumb Romanian people who think they are decent, smart and culture choose them to lead them. Not because expats did anything. If your comment is not sarcasm, then you are dumb as fuck. No pun intended... Mate.

  3. I got stuck once in the cash or card standoff. It was ugly. I'm from Romania but I've been living abroad for quite a while so I didn't know about it and when it happened I stomped my foot in the ground and did request a change over. Their excuse was, yeah but it's too much paperwork, I need approval from the boss. I got into a discussion with "the boss" who was so crass, he started showing me the POS saying you don't even know what POS means. Debunking the "current" is like talking about evolution with a bible basher. Actually the theory of evolution has been removed from school curriculum.

  4. In every western country when you go in a grocery store or any kind of Hypermarket(Marshals-US, Tesco-Europe) with a backpack, gym bag, mostly a big bag I was always requested to leave my backpack at the entrance.

  5. some things are true in this post, some are kinda exaggerated or nor really aligned with the reality. like i have that feeling of being watched in stores too, but honestly it's more because i'm paranoid like that and not because the guard is super strict :)). i never had to pay for something i entered with and didn't have it marked. also often when i offer to show them my bag/have it sealed they say it's ok and let me pass.
    in bucharest (and i think you live here too) almost always you're being asked how do you want to pay the bill. some waiters may get grumpy if you change, but it's not that tragic as you make it sound:) as for pizza you have some that offer do-it-yourself pizza or that offer you the option to add or take out ingredients even tho' indeed there aren't many. try fabio pizza: it's good and you can customized almost everything about your pizza.
    public transport: while there are ladies in booths in bus stations, they don't sell tickets, but they charge for you an electronic card. you can charge the same card online by yourself too, check ratb's site.
    lastly the ac: while i am not a fan of it either (mostly because: hot summer outside, cold winter inside equals a good old cold and i get this almost every summer at work), it's simply not true that romanians don't have ACs at home. if you look at buildings it's actually hard to spot an apartment or house without it. older houses (usually in the countryside) may manage without one either because they're cooler or the climate permits, but in cities?! no way! sure we'd like to manage without them like in the past (we had such a climate that we needed to be more focused on being warm in the winter than cool in the summer), but we can't; the summers are not what they used to be anymore. we have a recent history with ACs because of this, we also have other ways of heating and the houses are usually build from other materials then across the ocean so that's why you may find the systems different.

  6. We don't smile for no reason like you do (reference to tickets lady)
    Our buses and roads are way better than yours, also most services offer tickes in bus.
    Fast food does not offer custom pizza, try a restaurant ;)
    We are more sociable, you don't like it ? You're free to leave.
    What else you don't like here ? Yes, you're free to leave !

  7. Nice article. 5&8 are the best. Really LOLed.

  8. I enjoyed reading it. Is not far fetched from the truth.

  9. People are so sensitive. There's obviously things to dislike wherever you go. I'm reading this blog as we prep for a month and a half vacation to Romania. My husband is Romanian and we live in Texas. Every place has pros and cons. There are definitely things I prefer about Romania, except their wages... We may have moved there years ago if the wages were a bit better... We often help family from there when they struggle and they are mostly well educated and have decent jobs. I also have an American mom that works for low pay in the US and barely scrapes by living with her brother that she doesn't like, so.. perspective.

  10. I must add on the AC front... They have some weird superstitions sometimes about airflow. I remember it was hot out and a woman with a baby got upset that the window was open on the bus and made us close it. Ugh... Apparently, they didn't hear about babies dying from overheating...

  11. Wages are still comparatively low, it's true - but then most things cost less here, too. Swings, roundabouts... Enjoy your month here!


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