Roaming in Romania

Early this month, I spent eight days in Romania. A few people asked if I were comfortable traveling to "that part of the world." NATO bombing over Yugoslavia was still under way at the time.

Of course I was. I merely wanted Tarom to not fly through Yugoslav airspace. It would not have anyway. There wasn't a chance I would be hit by a bomb and, I assumed, not much chance anyone would be rude to me because of the NATO action. So, it seemed a waste that travelers would avoid a destination that has a rich variety of attractions and offers inexpensive European travel.

We encountered a Dutch group whose guide said the operator of the program had to cancel all remaining departures of a summer series to Romania because of the Balkan air war. The tourist office in New York says such cancellations are a bigger issue in Europe, where Romania is a mass-market product. Americans who go there are more sophisticated and better traveled, and hence less easily spooked.

Mine was a self-drive trip with an American who has several Romanian friends. We had one conversation about news events, and I surmised that many Romanians were not too happy about the NATO bombings.

As our dinner hostess said, "We see this and we think it could happen to us." (There are minorities in Romania; however, ethnic relations are not comparable to those in Kosovo.) She also asked why the West acted to help Kosovars when it did not help Romanians rid themselves of former president Nicolae Ceausescu.

Curbing ethnic murder is not comparable to overthrowing a government, but I suspect her latter point reflected a key regret for our hostess. Indeed, she later amended her remarks to blame Romanians for not throwing the communists out sooner.

Meanwhile, our dealings with service personnel or the man on the street were never governed by world events. We found Romanians helpful and friendly, and I include the traffic cop who pulled us over for speeding.

Road signage in Romania is quite good for finding your way from point A to point B, and stop signs are easy: They say Stop. But we saw few speed limit signs and do not know how often we drove too fast.

Once caught, my friend (the driver) worked hard to do what anyone does when faced with a guy with a fistful of blank speeding tickets: Grovel with dignity. Then, unexpectedly, the policeman shouted "Vive America!" and sent us on our way. He produced a good laugh and a vivid memory for two American tourists.

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