2006: Back to Bucharest, Day 1

Left Thursday, May 18th early to Bucharest for part 2 of the adventure. I almost had a meltdown during my connection in Dulles–I could not find my passport and boarding pass to Amsterdam. The United Airlines attendent at the gate said “You better run back to the airplane and find it!” I was stunned; there was not enuff time. So, hoping to avoid the run, I rifled through every zipper, pouch, and pocket I had, over and over, but still no passport and boarding pass. At this moment, I thought that entire trip was going to be a bust. I began to get really hot. 🙂

So, I ran back to the other gate and asked the attendent to search the plane (that I just exited from). She was quite nice and helpful. They found it!

I then ran back to the other gate — carrying my extremely heavy bags — and just made the flight. Phew!

I upgraded to Business Class since the rest of the flight was paid via Mileage Plus miles. It was fantastic!

I am now in the Amsterdam airport at the “Communications Zone” and paid 6 euros for 30 minutes.

Heading to Bucharest in about 30 minutes.

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2006: Back to Bucharest, Day 2

Day Two – Saturday

Breakfast with Mariana and Vali. Finally, left house around noon. Drove through Bucharest. Really getting hot and humid… crazy. Drove to South of Bucharest, Sector 5, and met with real estate agent. We drove down a terribly bumpy street with typical gypsy neighborhood with lots of cut, dirty, very tanned children playing and lots of mangy dogs sleeping and wandering. It’s hard to actually see the “houses” because each home has a tin or wooden fence — usually in serious disrepair — blocking from the street.

Eventually, we drove up behind a small white pickup truck that had two men and woman sitting in it. The door opened and a large, round woman with a determined and serious expression got out and approached our car. She ignored me and immediately began talking to Mariana. After a few minutes, she got back into the truck and we followed her through more bumpy, dirt “roads” too the first house.

When we arrived, I met the two men with our real estate agent. One was her husband, he had a nice, warm face but appeared weathered and worn — he looked a little Russian to me (sorta like a stereotype of what an American would expect of a middle-aged Russian worker who spent his entire life doing physical labor). The other man was her son. He spoke almost perfect English and wore a hip t-shirt and jeans, and gave me a smile and was quite pleasant (but, clearly playing his part of making friends with the American). Still, he seemed like a nice person.

The owners of the house came out to greet us. And, as usual, they practically ignored me and began talking with the real estate agent and Mariana. I don’t think any of these people mean me any disrespect, in any way, but still kinda weird. So, as usual, I introduced myself to each of them with my out-stretched hand and a smiling “Buna” (I think this means “hello”). They immediately become friendly and appear a little embarrassed, but make good eye contact and appear friendly.

The wife appeared in her late fifties, a bit round, and with an fairly extreme case of what I believe is Vitelago (sp?) — a skin disorder (virus?) that removes the color of the skin (melan?) and results in patches of albinism all over her face and body. She had a curiously yellow color to her hair.

The husband appeared a bit older, but also quite strong. He had the same worn, weathered look as the real estate agent’s husband. Clearly, a man that had lived a long, hard, physical life.

The house was similar to Gina’s. A very narrow lot (say 22 feet) that stretches narrowly back from the street. This entire area is covered by a patched trellis which is sparsely covered with very healthy-looking grape vines. (Turns out these are edible red grapes and is a common occurrence in these houses). On the left was a reasonably clean, albeit cracked and worn concrete area that ran almost to the back of the lot (75 feet?). In front of the house, was an extremely well-kept garden with healthy tomatoes and other herbs and vegetables growing.

You enter the house by walking down the concrete pave way and turn right into the house. You enter through a very small indoor porch area — paved tiles, but more of a narrow mud room than anything else–and on your left is the smallest “kitchen” an American has ever seen. Actually, it’s barely a kitchen at all. There is a very small four burner stove powered by propane, a bit of counter space (that’s being generous), and a very small sink area. There is a very small refrigerator in the hallway. Note that these rooms do not meet OSHA standards. 🙂

Once you move the six feet or so through the porch area, you enter the first “camere” or room. In Romanian, they describe houses as “a 3 camere house”, meaning that it has three rooms, which can be used for anything, but that it might also have a tiny kitchen and if you are lucky, a toilet (notice that I did not say bathroom).

The rooms in this area of Bucharest (Sector 5) seem identical to me. The walls are often painted sky blue with a white ceiling. The floors is always covered with middle eastern-ish rugs. Usually, the walls are covered with the same type of rugs. Most rooms have a crucifix or picture of Jesus. The rooms typically have a worn sofa and other stuff in the room. But, rarely is there a bed, tables and chairs, and of course, no soft chairs or nice furniture. Oh, and the biggest room I saw was maybe 12×12′, but more typically the rooms are about 8’x10′. Often, the next room is accessible only through the first room and contains the same or less. So, practically no privacy to anyone in the house. I think the third room was off the porch and was like the others. We had to leave the house to see the storage area and “toilet.” the toilet was a board with a hole and a toilet seat on it, which leeched into a septic tank that leeched into a small covered dirt area (say 10’x10′) — this area was at the end of the paved area.

The place was very well-kept and clean, considering the environment. The couple clearly took pride in their home and made the best of it. They were very friendly and smiling the entire time we were there. I got a clear impression that these folks had lived a hard life, but were quite happy. I was very curious to know more about them, but this was not appropriate to ask about.

They were especially proud of the outdoor shower that they had constructed. There was a poorly built cantilever extension from their roof jutting out over the pavement. I could not see what was holding the concrete slab up! On top of this, they fastened a tank of water that was heated by the sun, and enabled them to have warm showers outside on the pavement. Their pride and excitement about this “extra” was apparent.

They had an extremely old dog, who also appeared to have lived a rough life. She had some sort of nasty rash or mange, and was recently shaved to address the problem. She was a sweet little dog–looked like 1/3rd dachshund, 1/3rd beagle, and a 33/100ths of everything else–and received my scratchy affections with glee.

We left and I shook their hands with a warm “multimesc” (“thank you).

They were asking 37,000 euros (about $45,000).

Mariana noted that the neighbors were more gypsy than she thought. We were under the impression that this part of Rahova (in Bucharest) was a mixed neighborhood (which implied that it’s “better”). But, on the way out, my observant host noticed this and was already concerned that Gina (our kids’ birth mother) may have some “tribal” difficulties. I was not sure how she knew this, but later turned out to be dead on.

And so, my day had begun. And, I was discouraged already.

The next house was better. It had a very nice tin (?) room that was supported by healthy-looking wood beams. The room was surprisingly high sloped and tall, possibly with future potential for dormers or expansion.

We were greeted by another large woman in an attractive eastern European cotton dress. She was clearly gypsy, but had nice hair and was well-kept in the European manner. She made eye contact with me and showed a lot of warmth and confidence. I could tell that this woman had her life in control and was happy. It’s weird how you can pick up on these types of things so quickly. She introduced us to her mother, who was sitting at a table on the paved area. She also was very warm and comfortable. She was dressed in the classic black hooded dress of old Romania (I think). I was take aback at the comfort, confidence, and warmth of both of these woman.

This lot was a little wider; but still in the 25′ neighborhood. But, everything about this house was different. The street was paved, (albeit potholes), the surrounding houses looked better kept and larger, and the people on the street looked in better shape (cleaner, healthier, and nicer dressed). The long paved area on the left side was in very good condition. There was even paved room in front of the house, and thus providing a nice overall entry and appearance.

The house was in much better shape than the previous one and certainly Gina’s current home. It was very well-maintained and clean. The rooms were large and had nicer furniture, but still in the same category as other gypsy homes I’ve seen. But, clearly something here was tangibly better, The second room–off to the right of the first room–had nice doors on it and a large bed. This was the first bed I’d seen in a gypsy house. This “bedroom” was very nicely appointed and maintained (given the environment).

Again, we saw the same type of “micro” kitchen. Unfortunately, they do not have running water in the house. However, this could be arranged at a price. And, there was no gas; the classic, Romanian “stove” was wood-burning. Note that these stoves are glossy, ceramic-tiled cubes with small metal doors at the bottom front. These can be converted to gas later. There was not a stove in the second bedroom.

We left the house and continued down the pave way to a third room. This was similar to the first and in good condition. Off this room was a door to a fourth unfinished room with dirt floor and incomplete walls and ceiling (a mushroom cellar). There was a roughed out toilet area as well. They had plans to add a real bathroom, but ran out of money. This could be finished later.

As we were leaving, I discovered a very small, unused lot (25’x12′) adjacent to the back of this lot. I inquired and was told that this was owned by the city. So, maybe there’s a chance that this lot could be acquired later….we’ll see.

So, while there is no running water, gas, or sewage, we liked the house. 😉

It is listed at 53,000 euros ($65,000).

This home proved to be the best and only home that I (and Mariana) could imagine buying. [April 2007: Damn! I should have bought this house! Hindsight…sigh.]

Mariana and I had lunch at a pleasant pizza place in a park in the center of Bucharest. The only thing to mention was that tomato sauce is extra and comes “on the side.” This is how they do it in Romania. Weird… but ok of course, since we all must get along and not make fun of weird things that others do. 🙂

So, after lunch we headed over to Gina’s to say hello. I was extremely nervous and had butterflies in my belly as we drove up to the house.

Just like the last time, the house was bubbling with activity. They were expecting us and were sitting in the small, dirt area out their house (and inside the safe confines of their dilapidated fence). Gina greeted me with a warm smile and I kissed her on both cheeks and gave her a hug (I don’t think that they hug much). Mariana and I said hello to the three daughters (all in their mid- to late-twenties, Gina’s sister Maria, a couple of the little kids, and a female distant relative (who was ignored until about 30 minutes later). The three oldest daughters have a classic gypsy look to their face. They all thin and very muscular — if I saw them in California, I would assume that they work out with weights daily — but, of course, this is not the case and probably due to carrying the water jug from the public faucet down the street, as well as good genes. The daughters are all very pleasant and sincere — the only exception is Constantina (second oldest) who has a very deep voice and appears a little gruff at times. She also has been seeing a doctor about her “thyroid problems.” We plan to take her to the doctor later this week.

I was offered one of the few tiny padded stools and took my usual place of honor, far from the latrine, and covered by a tarp to protect me from the sun. It seems that their house is in a constant state of redesign and transition as they continue to scrape together tiny improvements and modifications, in what seems like a daily basis. There also seems to a constant stream of friends and visitors just hanging out at the house.

So, with Mariana as translator, I asked how each person was, one-by-one. The youngest, Florin has a cloudy patch in his eye—he’s blind in that eye. It looked like a cataract to me, but we will take him to an ophthalmologist later.

Next, we met up with Camelia. She is another real estate agent. I met her on the Internet. 🙂

She runs a small real estate operation and is married to a Belgian citizen. Anyway, Camelia took us to a very nice neighborhood in Rahova. To be honest, this was clearly the nicest neighborhood (physically) that we had seen in Sector 5 so far. I was very impressed by this area. The children on the street appeared very clean and happy, and really looked no different than kids in my neighborhood at home (except for the fact that we Americans are so afraid of child abduction that we don’t let our kids play in our front yards anymore).

Unfortunately, the house was disgusting (smelled of wet animals) and the guy who was showing us the place (owner?) was doing everything besides scratching his private parts to prove to us how uninteresting we were. I could not believe how he behaved. I think that this place was originally a business, possibly car repair and simply did not feel like a home.

Mariana and I went back to their place and we had another traditional Romanian dinner, made by her mother. We started with a soup ??? The next course was a chicken dish cooked in a tomato broth stew that resembled a Hungarian stew (I think); it was a light sauce that tasted of paprika? with onions and garlic.

We got home around 2am and I crashed hard. Unfortunately, I was soon woken by a wide assortment of drunken revelers as they exited the nearby nightclub (right in the middle of a nice neighborhood!–as they exited the club and made as much noise as possible, yelling and talking as loudly as possible. The noise was coming strictly from the men and I had the impression that this was their chance to be assert their power (and frustration).

2006: Back to Bucharest, Day 3-4

Day Three – Sunday

I barely slept last night. But, was filled with excitement of the coming day. Got up, took a shower, and had a light breakfast. The yogurt in Romania is very creamy and tastes like a real dairy product.

Picked up Gina and surprised by Sandu, her brother. We met Sandu last summer when we dropped Gina off at a wedding. Took them to see three houses: closed one, first one, and garden place. Sandu was reasonable and helpful.

Stopped for pizza (same place) and talked with Gina and Sandu over beer for an hour about Florin and other kids.

Day Four – Monday

Met with Leslie Hawke (Ethan Hawke’s mother) at noon. Lunch at nearby rest. Little dog Fletcher. PowerPoint preso. Called newspaper about an interview. Back to the office and tried to help with Outlook Express. 😉

Picked up Gina and Florin. Visit to the eye hospital. Immediately prescribed cornea replacement! Cornea Herpes!

In the car on the way home, told Gina and Florin that I wanted to move fwd with house, but I had some conditions. Namely, that Florin and Corina go to school and graduate with HS degree. I told him that HE could buy his Mom a new house by doing this. [May 2007: Unfortunately, this talk was not enough and Florin continued to skip school quite often for the next year…]

Stopped and picked up pastries for the family. Dropped Florin off and asked Corina to come out to the car. We sat in the car for a half an hour and told her the same thing. I asked her why she stopped going to school (gypsy kids hitting her, bad school, etc.). But, promised to finish. She dreams of being a hair stylist. I told her that I would help her buy a new house for her Mom and follow her dream. And, that I want her to become a strong, independent woman.

Exhausted. Stopped at Belle Epoch tavern near Mariana’s house and had two beers (incredible Belgian blonde beer that tasted like spices).

Home for dinner (amazing repeat of a previous dinner, wow). I had a glass of “Romanian brandy” — it tasted like Cognac. very nice.

Could not sleep again…

2006: Back to Bucharest, Day 5

Day Five – Tuesday

10am Took Corina and Gina to Leslie Hawke’s “center” at a public school near their house. We met with Daniella – a tall, striking women who runs the center. Daniella is a psychologist and clearly knows what she is doing. She has the dark, orange-red dyed hair that I sometimes see in Romanian women. She understands English (and speaks it), but prefers to speak Romanian, so Mariana translated whenever Daniella spoke. The program is intended to get kids back into school, catch up, and graduate. They have after school and summer programs, with a focus on computers, English, and mathematics. Daniella came across as a very intelligent and caring woman—I knew the Corina and Florin (and Gina) would be in good hands. To tell you the truth, this is the first time that I felt this way in all my dealings in Romania. I almost cried a few times during our conversation—I was so taken by the warmth and intelligence of the place, that it moved me to tears thinking that these kids can get some help.

I asked Daniella to speak to Gina and Corina (not me) since I often find that they get left out of the conversations. Daniella understood this and did a great job. Corina appeared emotional a few times during the conversation as well. Gina paid close attention to everything and handled the meeting quite well.

They have two large rooms in the school. One room is the office and resource area, with lots of computers connected to the Internet. There were students and teaching assistants busy at work.

The next room was a classroom with two large tables. There were about 12 kids sitting at the tables working on assignments. They ranged from 12 to 16 years old. They were all clearly Rroma and looked very happy and engaged. I observed the room carefully and got a great vibe on the level of academics, organization of the room, and the overall mood of the place. I was very impressed.

Note that the school was a classic urban school with a classical, large building design. There was a large concrete play area outside the school with a bunch of kids playing. These children were well-dressed, clean, and very confident – I could see a marked difference from the Rroma neighborhood. It was especially disturbing because the school was walking distance to Gina’s house. Later, we were told that Gina’s kids are zoned to a different school (much worse) – I had a funny feeling that there may be more than geographic zoning going on here (pure speculation).

At the end of the meeting, Daniella agreed to take on Corina and Florin. She also told me that she can provide counseling for Gina (something that Leslie mentioned). I have great hope that this center can help in ways that I cannot.

We dropped Gina and Corina off and headed to our next appointment. We met with the first real estate agent, Viatoria and her son, Stefan. We had lunch in a horrible neighborhood where young teen boys walked around with brown bags containing glue – they were slowly killing themselves.

We went back to their house and picked up Gina and Florin for a second opinion in his eye problem. This was a private eye clinic—it was quite impressive, with new machines and modern facilities. After a fifteen minute wait, the doctor examined Florin while I stayed outside (I insisted that Gina attend, instead of me). Afterwards, the doctor–a very tall woman with an extremely serious personality—invited me in to hear the results. She had the same diagnosis and recommendation: cornea transplant. She said that we can get on the “paying” list, which was about 100 already, and wait for one to arrive. This could be anywhere from 6-12 months, since Romania does not have an organ program.

We took Gina and Florin back to their house, said our goodbyes, and left.

Mariana had to go to the country to meet with officials about her B&B (sound problems) and we said our goodbyes. She assigned Tini to take care of me on Wednesday.

That night, Leslie had invited me to the 2006 Pantene Beauty Awards, where she was nominated for the biggest award: “The Spirit of Beauty”, given to great people. So, Tini and I showered and dolled up like rock stars (jeans, hair, etc.) and went to this black tie event. I was stunned! The event took place the the National Theater in the center of the city. The build is a classic grand theater with a roman-style façade, long steps, and columns. We walked up the red carpet with the other “celebrities” and were shocked by the scene inside.

As we entered the huge lobby, we were greeted by beautiful models and many photographers and a couple film crews. It felt like the Academy Awards to me. We were served champagne and immediately began our scan of the crowd. First, I must say that the women in this room were stunning, in dress and pure beauty—both of us were stuttering like 13-year olds. This was the closest that I’ve ever been to a Euro/celeb/party/crowd. We were eyed by a lot of people, since we stood out—mostly our clothes and stunned faces.

Eventually, we found Leslie—thank God she remembered me—who saved us. She was sitting on a stairwell with a group of her friends, a beautiful and impressive entourage. Tara Anderson introduced herself to us—she is the daughter of the CEO of the major Romanian cable company (Astral?). She looked like Cameron Diaz’s twin sister and was very friendly and warm (to us out-of-place losers). Her date, Renoir, was about 6’-10”, very handsome, and wearing an impressive suit that only a celebrity could pull off. He was from South Africa and produces rock videos. They had a few other friends—one that I remember since he had a mane of black dreadlocks down to his waste and was dressed in really cool, wild suit.

At some point, Leslie and her entourage made a dash for the theater. As they were leaving, Leslie turned and invited us to join them. This was our chance to really join the Cool Club—I’ve been waiting since high school for this moment. It didn’t last long, When we entered the theatre, Leslie and a few of her team were escorted a VIP row, and Tini and I made quick move to the cheap seats. Actually, the theater had no cheap seats—it was a classically, beautiful theater hall where every seat was great. We sat in a sea of models, actors, and other celebrities, sprinkled with nobodies like Tini and I.

Leslie won! Hooray! Clearly she deserved it.

Afterwards, she invited us to have drinks with her party, but I decided not to push my luck—I had not said or done anything really stupid yet—and opted to go home. Tini and I stopped at the Belle Epoche for a beer, and took homemade cake home for Vali and me.

2006: Amsterdam fun, part 4

Regina Bustamante, Plaxo’s Director of Globalization, found a company with offices in Bucharest and told me to meet with them, if I had time. So, Wednesday morning Tini and I drove over to their office and had a meeting. It turns out that their major office is in San Jose and this is their engineering office. We met with an IT guy and the Office Manager. They were very nice and seemed quite competent.

Next we had lunch at the City Grill and sweated like pigs during a nice meal inside. Afterwards, we walked over to Leslie’s office so that I could help with some computer issues. I spent about an hour with ??? and made progress. I also suggested that Leslie meet Tina (Tini’s girlfriend) who is graduating with a Social Working degree very soon. I also told Leslie that I might want to do some fundraising for her back in Silicon Valley. My idea is to round up as many successful Romanians as I can find and try to get them to make personal or business donations to Leslie’s NPO. I hope to do this over the next few months.

Headed to the airport and flew to Amsterdam.

Arrived at 7 pm, hopped in a taxi, and got dropped off at the Eden-Rembrandt Hotel just off Eden-Rembrandt Plein (square). The hotel is very new and modern, and fantastic. I checked into my room and found a note from Dan to meet him and Mark at a “coffeehouse.” Before I could leave, Dan arrived, raring to go.

Took a walk through town and headed straight for one of Dan’s favorite coffeeshops (The Rockery). It is a tiny place right on the street with crazy artwork and décor everywhere. There’s room for about six tables and a bar, where they served juices and sodas. You can go downstairs to the “store” and review the produce. Everything reeks of old building and pot. The lighting is low and mysterious—these places all of an interesting, thick feeling to them. There’s a split door with the top-halve open and a small wooden counter on it. Standing behind the door/counter is a Jamaican guy in dreadlocks who does not look happy to see me. [Dan later explained that these guys are all like this and that one needs to get into their vibe—slow, mellow, easy—before talking with them. Anyway, I told him that I’ve never been here before and was curious. He looked at me like I just told him the world was about to end and flipped a wooden card on counter to reveal the “menu.” No surprises here—it was a menu that sold pot and hash, with several varieties and prices. I asked him—to his dismay and apparent anger—how one chooses. He said something like “well, mon, eet depend on wetar you wont eet in da body or da head…” I said, “um, er, …” and he got even madder at me. Mon, you gotta to chill… 🙂

We stopped for dinner (after much debate) at a Tapas restaurant. The food was fantastic.

Next, of course, we headed to the famous Red Light District (RLD) to see what all the fuss was about. I tried to get Dan and Mark to go to a “show”–just for the intellectual curiosity of course–but they were not interested. The area is in the very center of Amsterdam and is beautiful old Europe, very….. well Amsterdam and Dutchy. [I know that some Nederlands will want to kill me for that.] The tall, stone row houses crowd around the many canals as throngs of people trek up and down the streets while staring in at the women for sale and bar hopping as they go. Of course, there are numerous “shows” that offer everything from bananas to couples—the guys out front are very aggressive in trying to get you in.

I have a growing feeling that Amsterdam is the perfect European city for an American to live in…