Bucharest Sending the Muppet Brothers a Message

Stephen F. Dennstedt

We are in Bucharest, Romania for one week. And we frankly think it is sending us a message loud and clear—it is time for you two guys to leave Romania. My previous post described our initial disillusionment with Bucharest: it is a big city (with just under 2-million residents) and is cold, dank and more than a little depressing.

Romania is a remarkable country and well worth visiting. But I cannot recommend Bucharest. Like many big cities around the world it seems to be jaded, cynical and just plain rude. I am not an expert when it comes to international politics but I can only imagine life was difficult here under communist rule.

Romania is no longer a communist country and now boasts a quasi-democratic form of government. But the pall of communism continues to hang heavy over Bucharest (at least in Sector 3 where we are) and it’s easy to imagine yourself back in a highly regulated and austere communist Eastern Bloc country at the height of the Cold War. But I try to refrain from commenting on local politics during our travels because as an American I am woefully ignorant of world affairs—so I stay silent.

Internet File Photo

Since arriving in Romania almost three months ago we have met some truly amazing people: Ingrid in Oradea, Timea in Cluj-Napoca, Emanuel, Mona and Sorin in Sighișoara and Gheorghe in Rasnov. We will never forget these people who graciously and warmly welcomed us to their country and helped us gain useful insights into its proud and diverse history, people, culture food and drink. Through their open generosity Romania will always have a warm place in our hearts—thank you my friends one and all for your wonderful gift to us. I think the heart and soul of Romania is in Transylvania—I would give Bucharest a pass.

Internet File Photo

Last night we hiked further downtown for dinner at a Chinese restaurant we had seen the day before. We managed to navigate the non-English menu and our waiter’s broken English to order our meal (no tourists or travellers in sight—just locals). We each had a large Ciuc Premium beer before our meal arrived and then the power went out—I didn’t think it would be a problem because most cooking is with gas. Then we saw some commotion outside and faint signs of smoke indicating a transformer had blown. Our food arrived and we began to eat in the dark—no problem. Or so we thought but things escalated.

Communist Era Apartment Buildings – Bucharest, Romania (Internet File Photo)

Our waiter returned and told us the restaurant was closing even though we had just started eating. I asked if we could finish our meal first (and I thought he said yes) but it might have been lost in translation. By this time the street outside was filling up with wildly gesticulating people and more and more smoke and the waiter came back moments later and said we had to leave—NOW. We grabbed our coats and stepped outside to chaos—the building next door was completely engulfed in fire and the first fire trucks and police were arriving on scene. Guess it wasn’t a transformer after all. Wow—who knew?

Ingrid Uszkai – Oradea, Romania

Being an honest guy I asked our waiter what we owed him instead of just quickly walking away. After all we had finished our two large beers and about a third of our meal—he said 15 RON or $3.68 USD which sounded fair. But when I opened my wallet to extract 15 RON he quickly changed the amount to 50 RON—I think he saw I had a large amount of cash in my wallet. Complete bullshit—it wasn’t our fault the building next door caught fire and we had to leave without finishing much of our meal. But I wasn’t going to make an issue of it even though I’m sure the money went directly into his pocket and not into the restaurant’s till.

Emanuel Enache – Sighișoara, Romania

That’s often the difference between big cities and most small towns and villages. This scenario could have happened just as easily in New York City, London or Paris as Bucharest. It’s dog-eat-dog in the big cities, every man for himself, where in the smaller towns folks seem to be more honest for the most part—the same is true in the USA. Across the globe many people think all Americans are rich and entitled and therefore fair game—and by comparison we often are I guess. Maybe this young man is barely getting by and saw an opportunity or maybe he is just a thief. It doesn’t really matter—I know I did the right thing.

Gheorghe Samoilă – Rasnov, Romania

Field Notes: My last two posts have been negative and I’m sorry about that. But that’s the reality (ups & downs) of travelling like we do. And we wouldn’t change a thing. Romania is AMAZING and 98% of our experiences have been positive to the max. It’s unfortunate that we’re winding up our time in Romania on a sour note but we’ll remember the positives (Ingrid, Timea, Emanuel, Mona, Sorin and Gheorghe) long after the negatives have faded. Bucharest is an anomaly as far as we’re concerned: dreary weather, dreary architecture, jaded big city people struggling to get by. Plus I’m coming down with another cold. SFD



The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Famous 1970’s quote from legend Jim McKay: Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports … the thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat … the human drama of athletic competition … This is “ABC’s Wide World of Sports!”

This quote reminds me of the way Joel and I (the Muppet Brothers) trek the world and our motto (mantra): live simple, live cheap, live free. We’ve been on the road constantly since early 2012 and we’re still enjoying our nomadic way of life.

Travelling the way we do requires a lot of flexibility & adaptability and not everyone is up for that kind of travel, adventure and uncertainty. For example we stay at inexpensive hostels, guesthouses and local non-tourist hotels instead of five-star hotels or all-inclusive resorts (where a guest’s every whim is both indulged and catered to). We look for “authentic” experiences and that quest brings with it a certain amount of risk—things don’t always go as planned. So our travels are more rollercoaster-like in the sense that the the thrill of victory and agony of defeat scenario is ever-present—but I think that’s true of life in general isn’t it.

Communist Era Apartment Buildings – Bucharest, Romania (Internet File Photo)

Our Cuban friend Tony was fond of saying: when things don’t go as planned is when the adventure begins. And he was right of course—those are the times you tend to remember. Having completed six-plus years of adventure-travel in the Southern Hemisphere (Mexico, Cuba, Central America and South America) I can assure you that travel plans can go awry in a heartbeat at any given moment—but we always survived (and often thrived) when meeting challenges along the way. We’re now finishing up our three-month visit to Romania: Oradea, Cluj-Napoca, Sighisoara, Brasov and finally Bucharest (which was intentionally left for last).

Tripoli Hostel & Restaurant – Bucharest, Romania (Internet File Photo)

Since arriving in Romania we’ve been on a steady high—the thrill of victory. Prices have been low (half to two-thirds of what we experienced in Western Europe), accommodations have been nice, people have been friendly & helpful, food & drink have been delicious and the countryside (especially Transylvania) has been beautiful. Travelling from Brasov to Bucharest by mini-van yesterday took us through the dramatic snow-capped Carpathian Mountains. But now we’re back in a big city (just under 2-million residents in Bucharest) and we usually don’t like big cities much—Bucharest is big, dank and dreary this time of year.

Our Bedroom – Tripoli Hostel & Restaurant (Internet File Photo)

My first impression is that Bucharest is oppressive (and a little depressive) in the old communist, Eastern Bloc kind of way. It reminds me of Graham Greene’s The Third Man filmed in 1949 with Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton. Though The Third Man took place in post World War II Vienna the look and atmosphere in Bucharest is much the same. The only reason we’re here is because it’s close to Bulgaria our next stop—and we only booked a week. Given a choice we would rather be back in Sighisoara or Brasov. I wouldn’t be so dramatic as to say it’s the agony of defeat but I might by the end of our week’s stay here.

Tripoli Hostel & Restaurant (Internet File Photo)

We’re staying at the Tripoli Hostel & Restaurant in Sector 3 of Bucharest. We booked a private twin room with private bath for less than $15 USD pp per night which includes free in-room wi-fi. It has a (very) small downstairs Lebanese restaurant onsite which is convenient because the closest cafes and restaurants are about twenty minutes away by foot. We ate an early dinner there last night which cost us 30 RON pp or $7.50 USD pp including our beer—it was our first time eating Lebanese food which is like Arabic, Persian and Turkish food (which we love). It wasn’t awful but was definitely sub par compared to other recent meals.

Varna, Bulgaria (Internet File Photo)

We had breakfast there this morning for 15 RON pp or $3.67 USD pp but it wasn’t great—orange soda (carbonated) substituted for orange juice, overcooked scrambled eggs, some very strong-flavoured cubes of cheese, two small slices of mystery meat (like bologna), olives, bread, butter & jam and some very sludgy coffee (the cup’s bottom ¼-inch was nothing but grounds). All of this only after waking up the young man sleeping on the sofa at 8 a.m. in the morning (scheduled breakfast hours are 7 a.m. – 10 a.m. in the morning). The entire establishment appears to be owned and operated by a local Lebanese family.

Varna, Bulgaria (Internet File Photo)

Everyone is friendly but it’s a down-on-its-heels kind of place. No one eats here except the family and staff—part way through our meal last night a couple came in, took one look around, and headed right back out the door. But it’s cheap, relatively clean and doable—at least for a week. We’re in a pretty bleak part of town (especially this time of year) so I don’t think we’ll be exploring much. We’ll probably spend most of our time in the room watching old movies, napping and staying warm. From Bucharest we’ll cross the border to Bulgaria and travel to Varna on the Black Sea where we’ll spend Christmas and New Year’s.

Field Notes: Don’t misconstrue this post as a complete “downer” because it’s not. And keep in mind we just got here. But the old communist architecture combined with the weather makes this a rather bleak and dismal place compared to the other beautiful sights we’ve seen in Romania. When you think of the Cold War and communist Eastern Bloc countries Bucharest could be the poster child. But as mentioned earlier we look for “authentic” experiences and by God this looks like one of those “authentic” experiences for better or worse. But as they say it’s all good. SFD 

My 1967 Christmas With “Uncle Ho”

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Christmas 1967 marked my eleventh month in-country. I only had two months remaining of my thirteen-month combat tour (I arrived in Vietnam in January to rain and mud). It was still raining and muddy. I would return to “The World” in early February 1968: God willing and the Creek don’t rise – Benjamin Hawkins.

I was that lucky guy we Marines called a “Short-timer.” Soon to catch the “Freedom Bird” back to CONUS (Continental United States). I was more than ready to leave the Nam. The monsoon season had arrived and the fighting had died down—we hunkered in our dank hooches behind our perimeter wire.

Short-timers were a paranoid and superstitious lot and I was no different. With just two months left in-country I knew I was going to get wounded or killed. And sure enough my paranoia was well founded because on January 30th the Vietnamese launched the biggest offensive of the war—the 1968 Têt Offensive. My unit lost two KIA (Killed in Action) and a score of WIA (Wounded in Action) that morning and they kept trying to kill me until I finally left on February 8th—but I was one of the lucky ones.

Chu Lai, South Vietnam

But this was Christmas 1967 and the Têt Offensive hadn’t launched yet. My C.A.R.E. packages from my family and fiancée arrived safe & sound and my hooch was in a festive mood. My mom sent a small Christmas tree about six inches tall (complete with batteries) and it glittered in the dim light. She also included some homemade fudge and cookies that somehow survived the trip (stale but reasonably intact). Everyone back home sent holiday wishes via letters and my dad sent me a paperback book. My fiancée also sent treats and a long letter describing our wedding plans—we were to be married immediately on my return.

The Ubiquitous Zippo Lighter

Much to the chagrin of my hooch-mates my mom also included two cans of Dennison’s Chili con Carne with Beans (my favourite hot chili). The cans were easily opened with my Marine Corps P-38 can opener (which always hung from my dog tags) but I couldn’t warm them up. No problem—I just ate them cold (delicious for me but my hooch-mates suffered mightily later in the evening). Nuff said. We pooled our resources and shared our Christmas bounty—unknown to the others I had bought a couple of bottles Hiram Walker’s Ten High whiskey earlier from a unit of the ROK (South Korean) Marines “Tiger Battalion” billeted close to us.

Sergeant Stephen F. Dennstedt USMC 1965-1971 (Vietnam 1967-1968)

As I opened the bottles of whiskey and passed them around I was an instant hero among my comrades. I arrived in Vietnam as a young and inexperienced nineteen year old Marine Corporal and left the Nam as a seasoned veteran—I promoted to Sergeant soon after arriving in Vietnam and then shortly after that I celebrated my twentieth birthday. But that Christmas night I was the man of the hour and a good time was had by all. At least I think it was because my memory is a little fuzzy—there wasn’t any whiskey left the next morning just hangovers. The Têt Offensive arrived, I got home safe and my fiancée and I got married.

My Marine Corps Dress Blues

Field Notes: So who was “Uncle Ho” you ask. Uncle Ho was Ho Chi Minh leader of North Vietnam. He was our constant nemesis and boogeyman. My 1967 Christmas in Vietnam was fifty-one years ago—wow, time flies when you’re having fun. My war (conflict) has been over for a very long time but we still have troops across the globe engaged in daily combat. It’s a tough time to be away from home and loved ones but they manage like troops have managed for hundreds of years. Uncle Ho is long dead and Vietnam reunified—I’ve been back twice for extended visits (2004 and 2008). Enjoy your Christmas Season folks. SFD  

Reflection 101: The Morality of Proxy Wars

I came across this older post this morning … and I still like it and think it has merit. Hence the reblog. 🙂

Expat Journal: Postcards from the Edge

Stephen F. Dennstedt

One could easily make the argument that there is no morality in war—proxy or otherwise. But if we were to substitute the word pragmatic for morality the argument might become a little more confused (less black and white). Admittedly, I am not a military historian but I am a bit of an amateur historian with an eye cocked towards Man’s folly.

On many levels we are a sorry-ass species. So noble on the one hand and so barbarous on the other. Scientists tell us that our closest living (non-human) relative is the chimpanzee, and one only need study the behaviour of chimps to get a glimpse into our own violent psyche. We’re a species who can define a moral code but can seldom live by its tenants.

A comparison of Clint’s genetic blueprints with that of the human genome shows that our closest living relatives share 96…

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My Political Nostradamus Prediction for 2019

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Michel de Nostredame, usually Latinised as Nostradamus, was a French physician and reputed seer, who is best known for his book Les Propheties, a collection of 942 poetic quatrains allegedly predicting future events. The book was first published in 1555 and has rarely been out of print since his death. I am not a Nostradamus.

Neither am I a lawyer with a JD degree: The Juris Doctor degree also known as the Doctor of Jurisprudence degree is a professional degree in law and one of several Doctor of Law degrees. And politically I am a registered Independent with leanings toward the Libertarian side of things, fiscally conservative while socially progressive.

I’m old enough (71 at this writing) to have lived through two impeachment proceedings though one (Richard M. Nixon) never went to trial. Only two U.S. Presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Both presidents were acquitted in trials that were held by the Senate because the two-thirds majority votes needed to convict them were not reached—both presidents remained in office and served out the rest of their terms. What now?

Whether you believe in the guilt or innocence of Donald J. Trump et al here is my prediction going forward. I think Robert S. Mueller III will be wrapping up his Russia investigation soon and I think it will prove fatal to the Trump administration. Mueller and his select team will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the suspicions that have surrounded Trump, his family, his inner circle and members of his administration relative to conspiracy (when collusion becomes a crime) and obstruction of justice are all true. Faced with overwhelming evidence I think the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will have to vote to impeach.

I think Trump and members of his immediate family (Don Junior, Ivanka, Jared Kushner and possibly even Eric Trump) will be indicted (along with others in Trump’s inner circle). Knowing he would probably be acquitted if his impeachment went to trial in the Senate (it would take a two-thirds majority to win a conviction in the GOP held Senate) I think he will nonetheless cut a deal at that point ala Nixon: I think he will pardon his family and possibly other co-conspirators and then resign contingent upon receiving a pardon from the Vice President. But it’s my understanding that a pardon from Mike Pence would only cover Federal charges.

Once he is no longer a sitting President I think individual States (like New York) will go after all of them with a vengeance for their various nefarious business dealings both at home and abroad—I see a slow and painful process ahead but their financial empire will be slowly dismantled. The powers that be will pursue them both criminally and civilly—will any see real jail time. I can’t predict that. If they’re found guilty I hope they do but that could well be years from now. Our country is suffering a severe test of faith in our institutions and elected representatives, I hope the democracy of our founding fathers emerges victorious and intact.

Field Notes: This is a political post and given the times almost any political post tends to be provocative. I am not trying to be provocative—I just wanted to go on record with my prediction. Whether you agree with it or not isn’t the point—the point is we live in interesting times that require some thinking. I think best while writing. This isn’t a forum for debate—it’s just my opinion. If you have a different opinion that’s all well and good but you don’t have to share it here. I’m sure you have other outlets where you can express your opinion. But I hope you will give some thought to our country, its future and what it stands for. SFD   


One Christmas Package, Three Treasures

It’s the Christmas Season here in Romania, decorated trees and colourful lights everywhere. Snow is once again forecast for this Wednesday. Last year at this time we were in Dublin, Ireland. Enjoy your time with family & friends.

Expat Journal: Postcards from the Edge

Stephen F. Dennstedt

The Christmas Season will soon be upon us. Christmas for me, like so many others, can be a difficult time. Christmas is about family and I don’t have much family left. My son, my granddaughter and my younger brother—all the rest are gone for various reasons. It’s about the only time of the year that I feel truly lonely.

I am a solitary creature and spend vast amounts of time alone but I am rarely lonely. Christmas is the exception. Growing up in 1950s USA my brothers and I had GREAT Christmases, we were far from being overindulged but our folks always made Christmas special. They were kids of the Depression and knew how to stretch a good time.

Christmas songs, for me, evoke Christmas memories of happier (more innocent) times. Joel and I will be spending Christmas and New Years in Dublin, Ireland (maybe a white…

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People I Meet: Gheorghe Samoilă or “Samo”

Gheorghe Samoilă – Rasnov, Romania

I met Gheorghe Samoilă while touring Rasnov Fortress in Rasnov, Romania this morning. Gheorghe is seventy-one years old (like me) and I thought he had a great face. Nine years ago “Samo” as he is known became one of only three guardians (like docents in the USA) of the Rasnov Fortress because of his passion for history. He also loves talking to visitors and sharing his wealth of knowledge. With a twinkle in his eye he showed me around the small alcove he occupies in the fortress and various items in his private collection—he does all of this for free. He doesn’t speak English so what information I gleaned came from my guide.

He worked all his life as a metrologist at Zarnesti—what is a metrologist you might very well ask. Metrology (measurement science) is an interesting and unusual profession. Some practitioners design measurement systems or instruments. Others perform calibrations. Still others do basic research into underlying scientific principles. I had never heard of it either so don’t feel bad. Many of the objects in his collection are old but some are reproductions of weapons: swords, daggers, knives and even battle-axes. If I heard correctly (and I think I did) he made many of the reproductions himself in retirement after returning to Rasnov.

He has also collected old medieval articles of clothing which he displays and often wears—he dresses in character to further enhance the visitor’s experience. I wish I could have spent more time with him because he was the highlight of the morning—my guide, a twenty-eight year old named Tudor, really likes him too and enjoys introducing him to his customers whenever possible. It was my lucky day because “Samo” was on duty interesting face and all. Just look at his intense expression and furry traditional clothing. I am fond of saying: it’s not the churches, castles, museums and tourist sites I remember—it’s the people I meet.

Field Notes: I photographed “Samo” with my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR and Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM ultra wide-angle zoom lens. Experienced photographers know this isn’t the greatest lens for shooting portraits but it was on my camera because I was photographing both Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) and Rasnov Fortress. I shot at 1/30s (handheld) @ f/4 ISO 320 @ 35mm. I wanted the shallowest DOF possible which is hard at 35mm and I stepped back to reduce any distortion on his face. I tweaked the DOF in PSE15 and converted the colour image to B&W for dramatic effect. I think I like the result. SFD

Stephen F. Dennstedt