A few weeks after Ben and I first met at a bar in Manhattan, I told him I was leaving for Belarus. “On vacation,” I explained, and he gave me a look that said, “Why?”
Later he told me he had thought I was kidding.
Let’s just say that Ben had a very different idea of a getaway than I did. He’d taken Italian and studied abroad in Florence, the art lover’s paradise. I’d studied Russian in college and dreamed of endless borscht and black bread.
Ten months later, it was time for our first trip abroad. Both of us were avid travelers, and we knew that this would be a huge test for our relationship.
I, of course, was dead set on traveling to another former Communist state. Riga sounded romantic! Vilnius would be an adventure! Bratislava would be a blast! Ben, though, was more into the western part of Europe. “What about Madrid?” he offered.
I was not interested in Madrid, Paris, London or any other top European destination.
So, lacking any sort of consensus, we turned to Lonely Planet’s website and started perusing. That’s when we stumbled upon Romania. The main photo featured an old man sitting atop one of the greenest mountains I’d ever seen and playing some sort of wooden flute. It looked absolutely idyllic.
Because Romania had been behind the Iron Curtain, it fit the bill for me. For Ben, it was perfect because Romanian was a romance language, and therefore, he reasoned, the country was probably somewhat like Western Europe.
Romania it was! We booked the flight.
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A week later we also had a plan. As city lovers, we’d spend a few days in Bucharest, Romania’s capital. Then, we’d head to Sinaia, a lush vacation spot in the mountains, and then Brasov, a ski town that had great hiking in the summer.
It was a hot day in July when we woke up in Bucharest. We set out timidly at first, not ready to pass judgments as we stepped through the crumbling streets. With the sun beating on our heads as we passed blocky, dystopian apartments stacked to our right and our left, as well as a staggering number of people without arms and legs, it was clear that we were both trying to find something positive to say about this place. That’s when I spotted a puppy. “Oh, what a cute–” I started before realizing that it was foaming at the mouth.
“Run!” Ben instructed.
It was when we headed out that night and found that the scene consisted of vacant streets lined with boarded up buildings and the occasional half-empty restaurant, we started to think that maybe we should’ve skipped Bucharest altogether.
So, we headed to Sinaia. We caught the train on time, and readied for a two-hour ride. But two hours passed and it seemed we were nowhere near our destination. And to make matters worse, the train stopped every ten minutes–both at stations and in the middle of nowhere due to construction–and it was never clear for which because there were no announcements. Four hours into the ride, our neighbor told us that we’d missed our stop by about fifteen miles.
Before we’d gotten on the train, I’d felt the tension mounting. Nothing was going according to plan, and because it was getting stressful, I felt like we might begin to take our frustrations out on each other.
But for some reason, the train ride had calmed me. We were on vacation, after all. Why we had chosen to go to Romania, we no longer had any idea. There did not seem to be any must-see sights except for Transylvania, Dracula’s old ‘hood, where we had specifically chosen not to go. (I thought it might be too touristy.)
Romania was our adventure. We had no phone. Internet cafes offered painfully slow connections. We had five more days in this crazy place. It was going to be awesome.
That mindset switch changed everything. When we exited the train on a highway only a few hours before it would get dark, we just decided to start walking. Along the way, we found a monastery where we spied on the monks and explored the church, and then later we climbed over a fence and landed in a beautiful village.
Ben found an innkeeper who spoke Italian and guided us to a minibus that brought us to the stunning and serene Sinaia. Fifty dollars bought us a luxurious hotel room.
On our big hike there, the trail markings abruptly ended and we faced sharply inclined hills that we tumbled down, skinning our knees. We climbed for hours, seeing no one and growing more and more desperate. “We’re screwed,” we agreed. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, we sighted an elderly couple walking blithely down a paved trail.
Was Romania the problem—or were we?
For all of our past travel experiences, we made a lot of idiotic mistakes. There were also things that we did that I look back on and wonder, why?
Like finding an outdoor concert in the center of Bucharest and dozing off on the grass behind it. Why didn’t we just use the chairs? Or sitting on a bench in Sinaia and eating oily sardines from a can. The thought of that now makes me sick to my stomach.
But most importantly, we survived Romania with our relationship intact and later, after we got married, we went on to travel to many more countries, including Italy at Ben’s request and Slovakia at mine.
Still, Romania with all of its frustrations and surprises showed us that we could have a good time simply seeing the world together. And that there was something beautiful about enjoying a destination that everyone who heard our stories decided would not be on their bucket list.
Rachel Sales is the co-founder and editor of Pink Pangea, the community for women travelers.
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