I made quick friends with Raul, the young man who, along with his mother, ran the hostel I stayed at in Timisoara. He was very nice, and so excited to have guests to introduce to his hometown.
My last morning in town, I needed to print my RyanAir boarding pass back to London. For non-EU citizens, we are required to have a paper ticket rather than an electronic version. Don't ask me why, as it is the only airline that requires this (that I have encountered, anyways, comment if you know of another one). It's a bit annoying, as you cannot print it until 48 hours before your flight, which tends to lead to adventures trying to find print shops rather than enjoying your time in whatever city you're in.
This particular trip, I asked Raul if he had a printer at the hostel but unfortunately he did not. He advised me to walk to a nearby shopping mall that might be of assistance. The mall was situated in the part of town that had been built relatively recently, with every building screaming of Soviet influence. I arrived, entered though the grocery store at one end, and after circling twice finally found the store Raul had recommended. I approached the bored looking middle-aged man and tentatively asked if he spoke English. I received a grunt that sounded like a yes, so I asked if he could help me print something. "No." He said, apathetically. "Where can I go?" "I don't know." He responded with a shrug. "Not here. Maybe nearer the center."
All right, I thought. So I hiked off to the center of town (and by hiked I mean I walked about a mile, Timisoara is quite small). I walked up and down the streets, searching for any store that looked like it might be helpful. As I walked street after street, however, I began to get a little nervous. There was nothing. And then, finally, nearly half an hour of walking later, I found a print shop that did everything from paper to banners to posters. Relieved, I pushed open the door and a middle-aged woman appeared. As soon as she realized I didn't speak Romanian, she became instantly grouchy. Between my shortly worded questions and her intermediate English, she quickly understood what I needed and said, "yes, I can print. Where is your USB?" and she held out her hand. "Uh, my email good?" I asked? Cue deeper grouchiness. "No, only USB." And without waiting for me to say anything, she went back into the backroom. I just stood there staring at the place where she had been standing, feeling a mixture of annoyance/frustration/slight panic. I needed the ticket to get home to London!
I finally went into a posh hotel near the Orthodox Cathedral, pretended to be a guest, and the very nice man behind the counter printed it with no further questioning. After profusely thanking him for his help, I went back outside feeling much lighter. I had a couple of hours left to kill before I needed to go to the airport, so I began to wander the same streets I had just seen but this time without any stress. Suddenly, I realized a man was walking next to me and looking at me. I pointedly kept looking straight ahead, until the man literally tapped me with the piece of wood he was carrying (not a euphemism, he was actually carrying wood). I jumped away, only to let out a giggle of relief and joy: it was Raul!
"Where are you going?" he asked. "Oh, just exploring until I need to go. Maybe find somewhere to have a Romanian lunch." At that last sentence, his eyes lit up. "I need to drop this wood off at the hostel, but I'll go to lunch with you! I know of a great place." I accompanied him to drop the wood off, and then we headed off.
The restaurant was called Berăria 700, in an old cellar that made for a great atmosphere. I ordered cabbage rolls and rutabaga. It tasted great and, because it was Romania, it was quite cheap. Raul ordered a soup, though I forget which one. It was a cool February day, and both of us were happy for the warmth our meals provided.
While we ate, I told him about my morning. "Yes, before the RyanAir flight from London, we did not get too many tourists and they only came in summer. But now, the flight comes twice a week and we are always busy. I no longer have any days off because there are always tourists now."
He went on to talk about how most people did not like the sudden jump in foreigners, as the airline had obviously not asked them about it and they were stuck dealing with the masses. "Our infrastructure was not ready for the numbers. I wish that I could have a day off, or a week off like before, but we need the money so I cannot take a day off when I know there are guests. And it is the same for all of the hostel owners here. And culturally, we are not ready either. This is the first time that anyone has seen so many foreigners before. Especially the older people, they do not like it. I do like it, even though I have to always work, because I like to meet everybody and show them Timisoara. But the older people, they do not like it."
It reminded me of a guide book I once read that described Parisians in August. It was something along the lines of, "imagine if everyone you knew was on vacation, you were stuck at home, and your city was full of tourists who did not speak your language. You too might be a bit rude as a result."
It is a well-known stereotype that former USSR Europeans are a bit surly. I once interviewed for a job in Ukraine where the hiring manager asked me how I planned on working with the local employees, considering their unfriendliness to new people. "Oh, honey, it's not my first time speaking with Eastern Europeans" was my basic response. And I got the job! And promptly had it taken away due to a clerical issue, but hey, at least I got it!
In my first semester of my first year of university, my "Ethics in Society" professor asked us about this stereotype. "The Eastern Europeans are rude to people until they know them well enough to be nice to them. We are nice to people until we know them well enough to be rude. Which is better?" I remember my 18 year old mind feeling as though it was being blown wide apart. Now that I am older, I realize that Eastern Europeans are probably just as rude to their friends as Americans are to ours, but I still remember the cleverness of my professor's wording, used in order to try to get us to think of another culture without the Western superiority complex so many of us have.