October 7, 2015

I’m from the barrio

Here I am, having a beer in the courtyard of a blues bar, listening to a Turkish band cover Smooth by Santana. The guitarist is killing it. I'm now in Istanbul--the Pera area to be exact. Yesterday was our final day in Bucharest and we didn't get to our hotel in Istanbul until 2am, so no journal entry (sorry, mom). I will quickly note that our final day in Bucharest was exactly what I'd hoped it be. I was able to walk around Revolution Square and see the potato (Memorial of Rebirth) up close. We had a final amble through the old city, and capped off the day with Sergiu and Adriana for dinner in their courtyard under a canopy of grape vines. 

My dad and I are staying at the Pera Tulip Hotel, the same hotel he and mom stayed at when they visited five years ago. It's situated in the more European side of the city near Galata Tower. We took off around eleven this morning, walking down İstiklal Avenue towards the Galata Bridge. You could see several mosques in the distance while walking down the hill with their slim, circular minarets. It was interesting to compare them to what I had seen in Morocco, where their style is square or octagonal. 

Our first activity of the day was taking the ferry along the Bosphorus. In retrospect, this probably wasn't the best activity to kick off my first day in a new city. I wanted to get into the streets and instead we were embarking on an hour-and-a-half boat ride that left the city and traveled north of the Bosphorus Bridge.  There's no denying that it was a beautiful trip, especially with sun being out. But my energy level was craving something a bit more hands on.

Nevertheless, we cruised along the strait while enjoying a cup of tea, which I soon realized was what my dad most loved about this trip, which he also did with my mom five years ago. There are advantages to traveling with someone who is a bit familiar with the city. For example, I had no clue that the bottom level of the Galata Bridge was packed with restaurants. My dad clued me into that because, yep, you guess it: He went there with my mom five years ago. But there's also the potential downside of having an attraction over-hyped and then feeling let down once you arrive for a first impression. 

Fortunately Istanbul is a city that doesn't let down. After the ferry ride, we continued on to the spice bazaar, picking up some pastries for dessert. Again, my experience in Morocco--specifically Fez--came to mind. There's a lot of similarities, yet Istanbul so far appears much more polished and new. I got a similar impression in the Grand Bazaar. I was going in expecting a similar experience to Fez or Marrakesh, and there were similarities, but what really impressed me was how orderly and modern it felt. 

We wandered around aimlessly for a long time before heading back to the hotel to clean up for dinner. The restaurant we picked out...
...Sorry. It's really hard writing right now with this band butchering Smoke On The Water. It's step below drunk karaoke. I don't understand how the street cats can sleep with this racket. Speaking of which, there's a cat curled up on my backpack, which at first grossed me out, but now I think it's kind of sweet. My new Turkish pet.

Back to dinner, we ate at The Number 19 Dining, a cozy spot near our hotel. This place had amazing food that had that home-cooked-meal feel to it. What was most interesting was the way they presented their dining options. Rather than a menu, they had the dishes spread out in the front of the restaurant and you picked from them, after which they would bring it out to the table. Kind of a high-end potluck. Like, I said, the food was great and the concept even better.

After dinner, we walked the entire length of İstiklal--even more impressive at night. It's the widest (and longest) pedestrian-only road I've ever seen...
...Sorry, again. I have a cat update. There are now two cats curled up on my backpack sleeping, and a weird albino-looking one on the outskirts. It's eyeing my roasted peanuts.

İstiklal. Huge. We walked a lot, I bought some Turkish Delights, and now I'm here with my cats, Turkish cornball of a bro-dude-cover-band, and empty pint of beer.
So far the distractions have been endless. Everything deserves attention and admiration and I'm beginning to think three days isn't enough.

October 5, 2015

Winding down

Though we have four days remaining of our trip, in many ways it feels like this experience is coming to an end. My energy is a bit low, I have a touch of homesickness, and my patience is wearing thin. At the same time I'm feeling anxious about fitting in every last thing I want to do or see in Bucharest before we leave tomorrow night for Istanbul. 

Yesterday was a wifi-less day, which is why there was no blog post. Of course, I was fine with that because, as I mentioned before, my impatience has made it so that I dread having to sit down before going to bed and summarize an entire day's worth of experiences in tidy little paragraphs. I'm especially dreading having to write about yesterday because so much happened in the form of conversations. 

We spent the entire day in Galați with family, arriving first at Radu and Veorica's home, where we would be staying that night. We arrived to an enormous spread of food, and place settings with multiple dishes--a sign that more food is to come. We spent the afternoon eating and drinking, beginning at the dining table and then moving into the back courtyard to sit in hammocks and lawn chairs. It was the perfect pace for a sunny Sunday. 

The whole family in Galați was there, joined by Radu's two sons, Radulicu and Ionuț--they were the final two cousins I had yet to meet. After finishing lunch, we all moved on to Nicoleta's home, where another enormous spread of food awaited us. My dad was able to spend more time with Sonia and share family stories, while I was busy sampling some of Nicoleta's homemade brandies. Noticing how much I enjoyed the cherry brandy, she packed some for me in a giant water bottle to take back home.

I also had the chance to get to know my cousins better as we spent a good amount of time talking in the courtyard about current events, video games, and what life was like under communist rule. On the whole, yesterday was about strengthening newly formed bonds and learning more about my family's history and why certain things are the way they are. 

 

October 3, 2015

Bist-raw

 Happy International Coffee Day!

Happy International Coffee Day!

We had a super lazy morning--didn't even set an alarm! It turned out that our hotel has an awesome breakfast buffet, so we pigged out. After that we loaded into the car for a very short trip to the Cemetery Eternitatea (just on the edge of the city) where Dad's grandfather, grandmother, uncle, and aunt are buried. We were a little confused as to whether or not the uncle (Ticu) is actually buried there, because we didn't see his name marked anywhere. 

Dad went to buy a candle to light at their grave site. While he was doing that, I happened upon a little side building (next to the church) where they had a slanted platform behind a glass divider on which bodies were laid out for viewing. It was an interesting thing to stumble upon. 

After our visit to the cemetery, we left the car at the hotel and walked down towards the palace for lunch at a raw-vegan restaurant called Vivid. Dad was super skeptical, but it turned out to be so delicious. We were also told that today is International Coffee Day, so they gave us free (fair trade) coffee!

We walked through the palace grounds, which is where all the museums are located. It was a beautiful area with large lawns and fountains. It seemed like everyone was out strolling about. 

The rest of the day was very laid back. We walked back to the hotel and I did a bit of light shopping along the way. Dad and I split off so I could take a nap while he tracked down Abuela Tania's college. Dinner was also pretty simple, with dessert taking the spotlight. We shared a profiterol-- 3 cream-puff pastries with ice cream and whipped cream. 

 Where's dad? (look close, you'll find him)

Where's dad? (look close, you'll find him)

Tomorrow we hit the road at 8am for Galați. Our alarms are set for 7am, so I'm calling it quits early tonight. 

October 3, 2015

A check-in with Dad

Prior to leaving for our trip, my mom created a journal for my dad with a series of writing prompts, quotes, and even travel-themed crossword puzzles. It's a great idea, and my dad has faithfully dedicated an hour each night to the journal. However, last night over dinner he said, "I should have shared with your mother that I do not like writing in journals". 
Nevertheless, after returning to our hotel room, he sat at the desk and continued writing.

October 2, 2015

If you’ve seen one

There's this scene in Singing In The Rain where Debbie Reynolds flippantly explains why she doesn't go to the movies that often: "If you've seen one, you've seen them all." Is it wrong that I started feeling that way in regards to the painted monasteries? I only started to feel this way once we reached our final monastery today. I suppose 5 is the magic number in this case. 

 Sucevița Monastery

Sucevița Monastery

We first visited the Sucevița Monastery, followed by the Humorului Monastery. The former is not only the largest monastery in the Bucovina region, but also has the most impressive frescoes (in my opinion). Because of this, Humorului was sort of setup to disappoint. It's significantly smaller, and the surrounding courtyard bare in comparison to the other monasteries. However, there were people inside the church who were in the process of restoring the frescoes, so we were able to observe how they slowly (very slowly) bring the paintings back to life. 

 This tower was bigger than the church 

This tower was bigger than the church 

It's unfortunate, yet understandable, that photographs cannot be taken inside the churches. Looking at the exterior of the churches you would expect the interior to be the same. But it's actually much more vibrant and complex. It's beautiful the way the paintings climb up the interior of the domes to depict various stories from the bible. 

After our final monastery visits, we set off for Iași and once again enjoyed a beautiful drive. There was this one town we passed through that had bags of potatoes propped up on benches in front of people's homes. It seemed like everyone in that town was in the potato business, which had me wondering how anyone could make a profit with such steep competition. 

We arrived in Iași around 6pm and booked a couple of nights at Hotel Unirea, so we'll be staying put for a day before Dad goes all road warrior on me again. We got to walk around a bit after eating at a place called CUIB. Good vegetarian food and atmosphere. 

October 1, 2015

Acasa Celibidache

We left Onești fairly early this morning after stopping off at a patisserie for some coffee and breakfast strudels. Dad also got himself an eclair because...why not. We took the road North to Roman, a city large enough to appear highlighted on our road map, but too small for a mention in our guidebooks. Roman is the city where my grandmother was born and raised, and where her family home still [barely] stands. This was also the home where my uncle was born and raised, hence his bust perched on the front lawn. 

The house was built in 1887, presumably by or for our grandfather Demostene Celibidache. It would make sense given the timeline and his appointment to the city government. The hazier details are ones we hope to have clarified when we see Sonia again on Sunday.

While in Roman, we happened upon a march or parade or dedication of some sort. From what my dad could make out, a group of military personnel were being acknowledged and blessed by an Orthodox priest for some impending battle. But, as my dad quickly pointed out, none of the service people looked young enough to be in fighting condition. And it was true. Not only that, but who's Romania about to go off and fight?

Mystery unsolved, we left in the direction of our next destinations, two large Orthodox convents located near Târgu Neamț. The first convent we visited was a bit of a let down. I was actually confused as to whether or not we were allowed to be there. It just felt unwelcoming and unremarkable. The second convent was a whole other story.

 Agapia Convent

Agapia Convent

The Agapia Convent is incredibly beautiful and one of the most tranquil places I've ever visited. The interior courtyard of the convent is full of roses and wildflowers, and is extremely quiet--but not the eerie kind of quiet. Outside of the fortified walls are rolling evergreen hills that make the convent feel completely isolated. They even had a museum of random Eastern-Orthodox artifacts as well as art by Nicolae Grigorescu, who was responsible for painting the interior of the church after it's restoration.

After the visit to the convent, we continued our way North to Gura Humorului, a more tourist-friendly spot given it's central location to the painted monasteries of Southern Bucovina. I should mention that our drive since Sinaia has been incredibly beautiful. The landscape has changed from forested mountain ranges, to farmland, to rolling meadows...And the architecture becomes more ornate and less touched by the country's communist past. 

Upon arriving in Gura Humorului, we found ourselves with a bunch of extra time, so we booked a room at the very cute, very reasonably-priced Hilde's Residence, and then jumped back into the car to see our first painted monastery. 

Voroneț Monastery is just a few kilometers north of Gura Humorului and is known as the "blue" monastery. Supposedly the color blue used in the paintings is one that no one has been able to reproduce since. I don't know how true that is, I haven't fact-checked, but there you go.

 Detailed view of the Voroneț Monastery's exterior wall

Detailed view of the Voroneț Monastery's exterior wall

What I will say is that the inside of the church made my jaw drop. From floor to the very-high domed ceilings, are painted elaborate frescoes and icons in crazy bright colors. Inside the church were some before-and-after photos showing was the paintings looked like prior to the restoration. It was remarkable to see how well they were able to restore the details and saturation of the originals. 

Tomorrow we will visit two more of the painted monasteries that lay further in the North. After that, we'll zip clear across to the East for Iași. 

September 30, 2015

Back on track

There was no blog post yesterday because I spent the entire day and night in bed sleeping. I had been battling a bit of a sore throat leading up until then and decided to let my body have all of yesterday to heal itself. I'm now back to feeling great and somewhere in the middle of Nowhere, Romania.

We're actually in Onești, staying in a quaint motel/restaurant called Hanul Marisano. Their food isn't half bad and there was live music to boot. I can actually hear the drum machine/vocals/lone saxophone from our room. Oh, that reminds me. Dad and I are sharing a room that cost maybe $40 and consists of 1 bathroom, 2 tiny twin beds, and 0 windows. But it's just one night and who needs windows to look out of when they're sleeping?  

So, how'd we get here this late at night? We left Bucharest this morning after breakfast and made way for Peleș Castle, located near Sinaia in the Transylvania region of Romania. Yes, this is Dracula land. But rather than go for the "dracula castle" in Bran, we opted for the more ornate and historically accurate option to the South. I could also tell my dad was put off by the idea of any Dracula-tourism, so this seemed like the best bet for an authentic Romania castle experience.

And it was. Although we received a thorough tour of the interior, it was the exterior of the castle that really impressed me.  Not only did it have some amazing woodwork to contrast the stone facade, it was also surrounded by rosebushes, statues, and set against the forested Bucegi Mountains. 

Another unexpected surprise was the drive from Sinaia to our current destination. We drove through the Bucegi Mountains, then through farmlands, multiple flocks of sheep, and a multitude of small, perhaps nameless villages. As we drove through one, Dad had to weave aside for some cows that decided to take a walk in the middle of the road. 

September 28, 2015

Sonia

Today was the day we packed into the car and drove 3 hours to Galați to meet Sonia (my grandmother's youngest sister) as well as my father's two other cousins, Radu and Nicoleta. I was anxious to see just how much Sonia would look like my grandmother Tania and found her to not only resemble her quite a bit, but also share several mannerisms.

Something I was not expecting--maybe because of how preoccupied I was with what Sonia would be like--was how incredibly warm, affectionate, and hospitable the family is. We gathered at Nicoleta's home, and the most impressive and enormous spread was awaiting us on the dining room. It was crazy. That wasn't even the whole meal. There were three courses that followed the spread!

Although most of the conversation was in Romanian, I was able to follow along better than I had expected. It also turned out that Nicoleta is fluent in English (and teaches it, no less) and several other relatives including her son, Andrei. One thing that was interesting to see was how everyone would talk over each other, which reminded me a lot of my Colombian relatives.

 l to r: Andrei, Aleco, Serge, Sergiu, Radu

l to r: Andrei, Aleco, Serge, Sergiu, Radu

Sonia's eyes are identical to Tania's. It reminded me so much of how I would seek validation or approval from my grandmother and never know whether she was proud of me or ambivalent or just plain out of it. I suppose towards the end she was mostly out of it and that's probably why our relationship strengthened during that time more so than in the past. She no longer cared that I was lousy at French or hopelessly lacked grace in my dancing skills. 

When we left, Sonia took my face in her hands and told me how glad she was to meet me. She then asked if she reminded me of Tania. That's when I lost it. Yes, there were the physical similarities, but there were also the moments when I caught her sneaking food to the family dog from the dining table, and the way she threw up her hands when she didn't know the answer to a question.  Not to mention that very moment while I was sitting next to her as she was tucked into bed surrounded by the same style of paintings and knick-knacks my grandmother collected. It was uncanny and it took me back to when I could hug my grandmother the way I was hugging her in that moment.

 [a portion of] The Celibidache Family

[a portion of] The Celibidache Family

September 27, 2015

Bravo, bravo

I did not write yesterday because by the time I was able to, I had already been awake for 24 hours straight and the last thing I wanted to do was stay up for a bit longer to write about a day that I mainly slept-walk through. So, let's pretend yesterday didn't happen even though it did involve a wonderful dinner at Sergiu & Adriana's home, where we will be staying during our visit in Bucharest.

Today was our crash course into Bucharest sightseeing and history. Although this might be an unpopular thing to say, I have found myself really drawn to the communist-era architecture. Probably because it's unlike anything I've ever seen before. Of course, the older architecture that has been preserved in the city is even more beautiful. It's just there's so much more intrigue and rawness to the country's communist history.

We drove around the city for a bit before parking and walking around the old part of town. This is where the city best lives up to it's previous reputation as "little Paris". This entire area is closed off to motor vehicles, so we were able to walk around and sit outside for a coffee and snack.

We visited one of the older Orthodox churches, where we bought candles to light for our living and deceased relatives/friends. The candles are lit and placed in (what appeared to be) bronze lockers--one labeled vii (for the living) and  "adormiti" (asleep, or rather, deceased). We lit a few for each and crossed ourselves after placing them in the lockers. 

After wandering through the old part of town, we continued to Herăstrău Park, to visit the Natural Village Museum. Wow. This museum does not receive the credit it should in travel guides. It is an outdoor museum and contains the traditional houses from around the various regions in Romania. Even Serge, who isn't a fan of museums, enjoyed himself. What was most interesting to observe was the similarity the houses from the Moldova region had to those of my grandparents, or rather, the parents of Serge and my dad. Some of the houses were outfitted with furniture and other domestic tools which struck a strong resemblance to the way my grandparents decorated their home.

After the museum, we enjoyed a cocktail on the lake (in the same park) before dashing off to dinner reservations at Caru' cu Bere. We were told this was the place to go for a traditional Romanian meal. Plus, they had dancers perform traditional dances--one of which was...flamenco? It was an interesting moment for me in which my two heritages clashed in an unsuspecting manner. But what really took the cake was when dad was asked by a very attractive dancer to join him on the floor. 

We also had a somewhat sad looking Marcel Marceau come up to us with various hats and other costume props who offered to have our fortunes told by his pet parakeets. My fortune was spot on, and I paraphrase: "Do not listen to men, do not trust them. Whatever you do, do not follow the advice of men." At least, that's how I remember it.

September 23, 2015

Romanian roots

 Celibidache family: (l to r) Sonia, Ticu, Tania, Sergiu, Coca, Maria, Demostene, Heleni

Celibidache family: (l to r) Sonia, Ticu, Tania, Sergiu, Coca, Maria, Demostene, Heleni

In two days time, my dad and I will be boarding a plane for Bucharest, Romania. This trip has been a long time coming, especially for him. My dad's parents were from Romania and lived there until WWII. A little over four months ago, my grandfather Petre passed away, which inspired us to finally take this trip. 

 (l to r) Eliana, Gabi, Aleco, Tania, Serge, Sergiu, Me, Petre

(l to r) Eliana, Gabi, Aleco, Tania, Serge, Sergiu, Me, Petre

Pictured above is my grandmother, Tania, along with her brother, Sergiu, who was the only Romania relative I ever met (along with his wife and son). Their youngest sibling, Sonia, is still alive and living in Galați, a city located in the region of Moldavia. We will be meeting/visiting her along with a handful of other cousins, aunts, and uncles. 

Until recently I had no idea how many relatives we had (alive or deceased) in Romania. The only exposure my sister and I had to my dad's family was during our occasional summer trips to my Uncle Sergiu's mill in France, where we would spend time with him, my Aunt Ioana, Serge, and my grandparents. These annual check-ins with distant, older relatives felt exotic and foreign in comparison to my mother's family; large, loud, affectionate, involved. It was easier for my sister and I to gravitate to that side of the family and adopt those cultural identities. Now I will get to see what the other half of my heritage is like and what that means to our identities.

Our trip will take us from Bucharest > Brașov > Roman > Suceava > Iași > Galați > Constanța

After Romania, we plan to spend three days in Istanbul.