It was a cold day of February when I arrived in Bucharest. The Romanian capital is considered by many the little Paris of Eastern Europe for its similar architecture.
I rented a cozy apartment situated in Piata Unirii (Union Place), very close to the city centre and to the Palace of the Parliament: I could see its top floors and the Romanian flag waving on the building from the kitchen.
Casa Poporului (People’s House) – this is the name given to it by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu – is the second biggest administrative building after the Pentagon and the fourth largest building in the world. It has more than one thousand rooms and it’s almost entirely built with materials extracted within the Romanian territory: the wet dream of any autharchic despot.
Coming from a Mediterranean city like Naples, known for its sunny and warm climate, I found the first days of stay quite depressing: the ever grey sky of Bucharest in February overlooked the ever grey blocks of Communist memory which filled the sector I lived in. I spent the first days exploring the city alone, and despite the ubiquitous grey accompanied by a neverending thin rain, those were the days I first discovered real freedom.
That was really a big deal: a guy who used to live with his parents now had a big shared apartment at the centre of a European capital, with enough money to live in a decent way for five months; without the EU funds I couldn’t have afforded it.
Later on I began to contact other fellow Erasmus students: I met people from many countries, especially France, Spain and, of course, Romania. I’m still in touch with some of them, and we became really good friends.
The local section of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) played an important role by letting the students know each other more easily and organizing tours of Bucharest’s most important places that maybe I wouldn’t have visited independently.
The context in which Erasmus students find themselves at the beginning of their exchange program allows them to form cohesive groups and good friendships, because the situation is the same for everyone: alone in a completely unknown city where you will spend from 3 to 12 months of your life.
I also met interesting colleagues at the University of Bucharest – where I studied – with whom now our website has started a good virtual collaboration.
Contrarily to the stereotypes we’re used to hear in Western Europe, in general I found a well educated youth with a very good knowledge of the English language, way better than in countries like Italy or France. The transportation system was excellent, with buses and metro trains being brand new and usually in time (trams were generally very outdated). Other stereotypes were contrarywise confirmed: homelessness, poverty and alcoholism are still widespread and the Romani people (which constitute the second biggest minority in the country after Hungarians) are still heavily discriminated against, and left to fend for themselves. You could see ten year olds sniffing Aurolac – a toxic metallic paint used to suppress cold and hunger – even in the center of the city, in front of dozens of people.
I enjoyed the local food, especially the sarmale and the papanași, but toward the end of the Erasmus the need of pasta and Italian food in general (which was really expensive there) was reaching unbearable levels.
At some point my friends and I decided that Bucharest was not enough: taking advantage of the discounts given to university students, we explored the rest of the country traveling with the cheap and outdated Romanian railway lines. We mainly toured Transylvania and the sea coast, visiting small villages and cities like Brașov, Sighișoara and Sibiu, which I strongly recommend visiting for their beauty. We were always well received by the local people, especially in small villages, and found it really easy to hitchhike when trains or buses were not available.
What I find difficult is to answer to those who ask me if I liked Bucharest: the city has certainly beautiful spots and parks, but I find it pretty ugly overall, especially for the omnipresent Communist era blocks and the pervasive neglect of public spaces, even in the old city centre. The Romanian capital may be not the perfect destination for a casual trip, but it has everything an Erasmus student could ask.
Overall, this has been an amazing experience; everyone, from students to workers, should have the possibility to explore a European country and study at a foreign university. Check the websites of your universities or institutes to find the scholarships available: you will learn a lot, and you will probably come back as a different person. It’s really worth it.
Don’t get used to Erasmus too much though, you could end up in a small dispersed village at the Danube Delta drinking ţuică in a garage with two Romanian rappers.