“Very important,” the man serving breakfast said. “Très important, molto importante,” he said to other guests as they wandered into the dining room. What was so very important was to walk a couple of metres to the reception to get a signed coupon for breakfast. Who knows what chaos could ensue if the right coupon weren’t issued then collected a couple of seconds later.
Having handed over all the proper documentation to claim my expected repast, I slumped into a chair at the nearest table. “Coffee please,” I replied when he asked me what I wanted. “No,” he said, “you have to pick from menus 1, 2, 3 or 4. 1 and 4 include coffee,” he helpfully guided me. He seemed quite definite that coffee alone was not part of the deal. I overheard the other guests being told the same. Nervously we eyed each other and scanned our menus. Menus 1 and 4 did include coffee, as well as sausage and mustard, and cheese. Menu 4 had the added bonus of a yoghurt. Menus 2 and 3 were the tea options, with jam and toast, and ham. Sausage and tea was out of the question, coffee with toast clearly preposterous. But hell, we’re in Central Europe, cheese and meat for breakfast is what we should expect, right? So I plumped for option 4, needing a coffee option, but motivated by yoghurt. The man seemed to approve, all the more so when the Italians and French around me, for whom protein for breakfast is clearly alien, made their choices of toast and tea or coffee and sausage. And soon it was all there in front of me, a steaming frankfurter slathered in mustard, three types of processed cheese, a basket of white crusty bread, and a cup of the least appealing coffee I’ve seen in a long time. Tomorrow I’m off to the cafe on the corner.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by the little man’s desire to control his outpost of Bucharest. Bucharest seems rather Latin to me, Athenian in some respects, not somewhere where the Leninist doctrines and command and control naturally take hold, you’d think. Rather than the bureaucratic inspector issuing a livestock permit for each hen the peasant hatches from an egg in the plains of East Germany, here I imagine corrupt colonels keeping the hen for themselves. So seeing this man defend his little system because it has to be done that way, for no personal gain other than the satisfaction of a task completed, a job well done, was a little out of place. Here was a man who should have been issuing permits to drive Dacias in 1985, not stuck in a back street guesthouse inspecting signatures on the back of a handwritten breakfast coupon. Or perhaps I am being a tad patronising…
It wasn’t the best start to my second day in Bucharest. Not the best because the first day had been somewhat disappointing too. Back in England, my mother, who has never checked an FCO website or considered a vaccination when traveling in Guatemala or wherever, took it upon herself to read and indeed memorise the ‘dangers’ section of my Lonely Planet Romania – and panic accordingly. Two things she nagged about as I left the country: taxi rip-offs and rabid feral dogs on the streets who had killed a Japanese tourist just recently.
So as I was arguing with my taxi driver from the airport who wanted to charge me 325 lei (65 pounds) for a twenty minute journey at 6am (my flight having been delayed five hours), a certain apprehension overcame me. I managed to drop him by 200 lei, still four or so times what I should have paid but a shouting burly man in a dark backstreet is hard to ignore.
So I got on with my day – palaces, polenta, Balkan beers and folk art.
But on my way back to my hotel, at midnight, it happened. Of course it happened. A dog ran out of the darkness.
And bit me on the leg.