We piled into our host's tiny car--me, my luggage, Alex (another American journalist), Alex's luggage, and two Romanian editors--and whizzed out of the Henri Coanda Airport toward the city center.
I craned my neck to get my first glimpse of Bucharest, but it looked much like any trip from any city airport anywhere: trees, buildings, traffic, feral dogs...
We shall get to the dogs in a bit.
They dropped us at our hotel, the Golden Tulip; I dumped my luggage; Alex opted to hang out and rest, and then I climbed back in the car with Adi and Cristian and they took me to their newsroom.
Here I must pause and explain that Adi and Cristian are magazine editors, and the brains and enthusiasm behind the conference. Their newsroom is in an apartment a couple of miles from the hotel, on the sixth floor of a magnificent, slightly decrepit old building. "We can take the elevator," Adi suggested, and I said no, let's walk. They exchanged quick glances. I had said the right thing, apparently; normally, they walk up the stairs and if someone opts for the elevator they have to pay a fine, which goes to their beer fund. Ah, journalists are the same the world over.
Up we went, up up up, and when we got to the fifth floor I heard tremendous barking and a dog flinging itself against an apartment door, and the editors told me that that was the "monster" and in two years they've never actually seen it, but when they hear it they know they have only one more flight of stairs to go.
The apartment where they produce their magazine is spacious. In the front room are their desks with laptops and cell phones--what else do you need, really, these days? Behind them is a balcony that looks out over the rooftops of Bucharest.
There's a sitting room, a big dining room, two spacious bathrooms, and--voila!--a tiny kitchen, where one Romanian editor and one American editor were busily preparing Thanksgiving dinner on the tiniest stove I have ever seen.
It was a miracle of efficiency, Thanksgiving dinner in such a tiny tiny space, and it smelled so good. I would not be missing Thanksgiving after all!
I had brought the cranberries, fresh and only slightly squished after their long journey from Minnesota. I handed them over and then, since the kitchen clearly was not going to hold more than two people and since I am less than useless preparing a feast, announced that I was going for a walk.
Another editor--a young man named Gabi--said he'd go with me, and that was terrific of him because not only would I otherwise have gotten completely, thoroughly and forever lost, but he was able to provide me with a running commentary of context for what I was looking at.
I do not now remember everywhere we walked, just that we walked for two hours and it grew dark and started to rain, and I peppered poor Gabi with dozens, if not hundreds of questions. Why do so many of the old buildings look French? Where was Ceausescu killed? What are those blue sidewalk stalls selling? Underwear? Really? (Not all of them, but some of them.) What's that building? What's that building? What's that building?
We were on busy Magheru Boulevard at University Square and Gabi was telling me about the big earthquake of 1977 that had destroyed so many buildings, when an older man heard us talking, and stopped. He pointed across the square and told me in pretty good English that a lovely church had once stood there. After the earthquake, the apartment building next to it had crumbled, but the church still stood. Ceausecu, never a church lover, ordered the church torn down anyway. The priest objected and was thrown into prison for two years.
The man then kissed his hand at me. "Thank you for visiting my country," he said, gave a beaming smile and a little nod, and walked on.
It was a beautiful night. The rain was really just a gentle mist, and walking kept me warm. We walked past lovely old churches--including the oldest church in Bucharest, dating to the 1500s--through the Old City and its cobblestone streets, past ornate French-inspired structures (Bucharest was once known as "Little Paris," and even has its own small Arc de Triumph), past Communist-era monstrosities, all the way to the People's Palace.
Speaking of Communist-era monstrosities.
We did not go inside, did not even walk right up to it, just gawked at it from across a wide busy road. All I could see was one tiny part of it, looming through the mist; the People's Palace, built by Ceaucescu, is beyond enormous. It is the second-largest building in the world, sprawling over a huge expanse of land--some 30,000 homes and 22 churches were demolished to make way for it, and it goes many meters underground as well.
(This aerial picture is obviously not mine--the Romanian journalists were wonderful hosts, but did not go so far as to rent me a helicopter--but it's from the link above, and I am including it so you can see the whole damn thing.)
And then back through the rainy streets to the newsroom.
The apartment was filling up. Alex had arrived, and Pat, the fourth American journalist, as well as 20 or 25 young Romanian journalists. After a brief bit of excitement when I accidentally locked myself in one of the bathrooms, we filed in for dinner.
Roast turkey, mashed potatoes, carrot salad, stuffing, Peg Meier's drunken cranberries (little did Peg know, back in Minnesota, that she was being talked about on a rainy night in Bucharest), homemade cornbread, three kinds of pie, free-flowing wine--it was a traditional Thanksgiving feast, but with strangers, dozens and dozens of strangers.
You know me and parties. I tried to hide. Went in the foyer and started studying my Bucharest city guide as though it were the most interesting thing in the world. But someone came and gently led me back into the busy, bustling, happy room and we all sat down to eat.
With the wine flowing and the constant chatter it was impossible not to take part. And everyone was so kind, so interesting, so funny, so -- well, so much like journalists, with whom I am supremely comfortable, that the meal whizzed by.
And then we stood, one at a time, and gave thanks. It was lovely, lovely, lovely, with some people thankful for their spouses and partners, and some thankful for good health and good fortune, or the meal and the party, one person thankful that her dog Boscoe was still hanging in there in her absence (I compulsively had checked my e-mail right before dinner), and everyone thankful for friends. A few people teared up. We toasted, and applauded, and cheered. And then, about 9 p.m., after the pumpkin pie, the jet lag suddenly hit (or maybe it was the L-tryptophan in the turkey). Someone got Alex and me back into a car and dropped us off at the hotel, and with many cries of good night, happy thanksgiving, they sped away into the dark.
I brushed my teeth. I fell into bed. I ate my fistful of dried cherries, to help me sleep. And as I drifted off, I could hear, outside my eighth-floor window, barking dogs.
Ah yes. The feral dogs. I still have to tell you about the feral dogs.