“Bucharest is the little girl wearing her mother’s makeup, trying to be more mature and beautiful like everyone around her.”
Delivered by a native outside a McDonald’s in Bucharest’s city center, the metaphor couldn’t be more apt. In one of the EU’s poorest nations, the desperation to be as developed and respected as it’s western partners is glaringly apparent. Gleaming Starbucks and KFCs are nestled between buildings that threaten not to be standing tomorrow. Stately embassies line major streets, dotted with flowers and shaded benches, often next-door to crumbling mansions in the process of being reclaimed by what one would hope were once gardens. Modern malls and shopping centers can be found, impressive and shiny from a distance, but less welcoming up close, and sometimes unoccupied. The city may be a mess of contradiction and premature attempts at modernization that may embarrass a native (the rest of that sentiment was, “she looks like shit with that makeup all over her face. She’s not ready for it.”) but the effort is clear and endearing to a visitor; it’s a city you’ll want to root for.
When you stumble across the Romanian capital’s gems, they’re true “wow” moments. The Palace of the Parliament is the second largest building in the world (after the Pentagon in the United States), and its palatial scale is sure to impress. The dominance of the national bank’s baroque exterior and elegance of its richly appointed interior are likewise noteworthy. While some formerly grand homes may be in serious disrepair, there’s a decrepit beauty to them that’s difficult not to admire, like an elderly woman who was an obvious knockout in her prime. They’re more interesting to ogle than their freshly painted, younger-looking neighbors. By night, the darkness hides much of the city’s age, and the thriving city center reveals a raucous nightlife scene that pulses through the streets with youth and electricity. And because of the struggling economy, quality food and limitless drinks are yours for a drop in the bucket.
My host in Bucharest was Titus Iacob, 24, who studied foreign languages in the city before starting a masters program in security and diplomacy. Like everything else in the capital, Titus explains that gay rights are still in development in Bucharest, but notes that Romanians are more bark than bite, and are actually friendlier and more open-minded than they seem on the surface.
Out Traveler: How long have you lived in Bucharest?
Titus Iacob: I’ve been here since 2010. I came to study because Bucharest has the best Japanese language department in the country.
How long have you been out?
Two years, fully. I came out earlier to my mother and when I said, “I have a boyfriend” she asked, “well that was a thing—a phase—right?” I said, “No, it’s for life!” And it just went un-talked-about for awhile. Later, my current boyfriend and I went to the mountains with some friends and had a really bad car accident. One friend died. I was pretty injured, but my boyfriend was okay and he was able to rescue the rest of us. It was a miracle that he was able to find someone in the mountains while the rest of us were unconscious. Long story short, I had spinal problems and was paralyzed for a couple of months, and I decided that it was time to come out to my father. He was like, “Oh my god, I’m so happy!” I’d been distancing myself from him and he noticed and was upset that I was being so cold, so he was so happy to finally understand why, and that it was over. Since that point, both he and my mother are constantly asking about how my boyfriend is doing, and I feel like I have a normal relationship like all the people around me.
How is it for a gay person to get along in this city?
It’s not dangerous. Romanians have big mouths and are opinionated, but they won’t really do anything to you. It’s the best place in Romania, and the Balkans as far as I know. There’s only one club that constantly closes and reopens, so most gay people go to traditional clubs. It’s a mixed scene. Exclusively gay places here are more for…sleazy people.
Two places a visitor should go with just one day here?
The Village Museum, which is a free collection of traditional houses from all over Romania through the centuries. It’s really good for foreigners to see life prior to modernity in Romania, and it’s fun! On the weekends there are usually festivals, carnivals, or cultural events, too. And then just hang out in the old city center at night where everyone’s out together. Enjoy the crowd and the music and the night scene.
If you have an extra day, though, take a daytrip to Bran Castle (better known as Dracula’s Castle). It’s about two hours away by train.
Your favorite restaurant in Bucharest?
Café Verona, which is really nice restaurant/café in a shaded garden. It’s a hip, young place with great food and atmosphere. Bucharest is focused on bringing back casual, homey, vintage-looking places right now, and this is a good one.
One thing every visitor needs to know about your city before coming here?
Don’t be afraid to talk to the locals. Most of them seem cold to foreigners, but we’re really open and people here will talk to you about anything once you get them started. You won’t get that impression at first, but try it and you’ll see.