Monday, October 17, 2005

Sometimes We Make Exceptions

I wasn't feeling too sprightly before my very long trip (with 4 plane changes and two 6-hour layovers in Boston and Munich), but by the time I landed in Munich I was a mere shell of a person. The lack of sleep pre-trip was due in part to my European Shoe Anxiety syndrome, which arises before every trip I take to Europe. It's the basic incompatibility between comfort and fashion. Going to Romania presents a particular challenge, as there is a great deal of walking over various types of terrain as well as a footwear aesthetic that is at odds with my arch pain.

During the first weekend after my arrival, we all went up north to Cluj for orientation. On the way we stopped in Sibiu, a beautiful medieval city that I had visited two years ago. What I had remembered most about Sibiu were the old cobblestone streets, shiny with pools of rain. This time the sun was out, the vast central plaza was fenced off, and jackhammers were tearing the street up in layers. High on a post was an artist's rendering of the new plaza, due to be completed in late 2006. It showed a vast expanse of brand new stones, laid out in a red and white diamond pattern. The sign also announced that Sibiu had been named the European Cultural Capital for 2007. Around the square, the facades of old buildings were being retouched with bright new paint, new stores were opening, and the sidewalk cafes had temporarily become more sidewalk than cafe. Walking around in my ugly comfortable shoes, I felt sad and indignant about the dusty piles of old, polished stone. History was literally being swept away and replaced with those new, sharp-edged chunks of granite that I didn't think were nearly as pretty. I complained about this to my new Romanian friend Dan, as though I had some claim to the city after spending only a few hours there. The truth of the matter is that the new stones will probably be more high-heel friendly, and thus less dangerous for ankle-boot-clad Romanians and their fashionable European counterparts. But I still liked the old ones better.

When we got to Cluj, Dan decided to take a few of us to one of his old haunts. Cluj is a pretty university city with lots of old architecture. It is a much more manageable city than Bucharest, in that it's smaller, friendlier, and less chaotic. It's also colder and wetter, so we were looking forward to the warm intimacy of the cellar cafe that Dan described, with folksy music playing and candles burning on the tables. We had a little trouble finding it, because it had been renamed and extensively renovated. The entranceway to "Diesel" featured a new foreign currency exchange desk, a coat check, and three surly young gentlemen dressed in black. They confiscated my water bottle and cast a disapproving glance at our shoes. We decided to go in anyway, since Dan was curious. The old wood furniture Dan described had been replaced with ultra-modern, white plastic furniture and panels of red light on the tabletops and along the bar. There was a blinding strobe light, a couple flat-panel TV's, and an assortment of beautiful women. We ordered some pricey cocktails and took in the ambiance, since it was too loud to converse. When our waiter handed out extensive karaoke menus and told that each of us would be expected to perform, I panicked a bit. It was English-only night, but I wasn't up to channeling Britney Spears or Celine Dion or Cristina Aguilera. We decided to escape while we could.

On our way out, I caught one of the surly guys checking out my shoes again. I looked at him and said, "It was nice you let us in, even with these ugly shoes on." He said dryly, "Sometimes we make exceptions."


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