I spent a week in artificial reality. Ostensibly it was a week of work in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, at a European conference. But the week could have been spent almost anywhere.
It was a plush, comfortable but bland hotel on the very edge of the city, where we ate, slept and worked in the same building. The conference participants and hotel staff all spoke good English. There was air conditioning throughout, protecting us from the forty degree temperatures outside. The rooms were comfy. The wireless internet was (mostly) reliable. The food was bland. The beers were relatively cheap. There was little reason to leave and by day three I had yet to do so, and even then that was to a bland, soulless Carrefour supermarket on the adjacent retail park, just about the only thing of note in the area other than a drained reservoir and a busy dual carriageway.
This is when travel becomes lazy and all sense of place is lost. However, it was work, so that was the way it had to be. Outside was just… well, another world. Inside, this was our world: everything we needed and did was contained in the building, a vast network of corridors, lifts with bland pop music, and spacious meeting rooms, all of which you will find in hotels the world over.
It was a shock to the system, therefore, when our large group headed into the city centre for dinner one night, to be exposed to the most ridiculous heat. We were sitting outside until late into the night and it didn’t drop below thirty degrees all evening. I took comfort in the fact that all of our group, including those from other hot European countries, were struggling too. This was, after all, the middle of the summer, quite far inland, in the south of Europe. It’s too hot for most people, surely. Too hot for anything.
It was a frustratingly brief chance to see a little more of the city, though, with Bucharest presenting just snapshots rather than experiences; sights that briefly lifted the sense of artificial reality and added a sense of place, a sense of character, a sense of story. A man on a bike with his toddler son balanced on the handlebars, neither wearing helmets in busy traffic. Road works for a new motorway flyover. Beautifully ornate buildings. Rundown tower blocks. Couples and groups out for a walk. Pop music from a taxi stereo. Toots of horns in congested traffic. All the signs of life that bring a place into focus from its cocoon of unreality; but signs that were to be seen and heard, not experienced.
There was better luck on our final day, however, with a free afternoon for sightseeing and then another meal out with the group. I spent a couple of hours of the afternoon in the company of two Esperantists, who showed me the city through local eyes and pointed out some interesting facets to Bucharest. Although at a cross-roads of influences, from Soviet to Ottoman, the city retained a strong Romance influence, with architecture that would not have been out of place in France. The Paris of the East, it is often called.
After that, I intended to wander around and follow my nose, exploring the city at whim. I bumped into some colleagues, however, and though I was secretly disappointed not to be left to my own devices, to turn down their invitation to join them would have been rude. Plus, they were better map readers than me, and pointed out I’d been heading in the wrong direction towards our shared objective, the famous and enormous Palace of the Parliament.
More walking and photos followed. In that hour or two we got a real sense of the city. Pretty, though frequently rough around the edges, a city that was comfortable in its skin, confident without being showy. Stray dogs roamed the city nonchalantly, many with ear tags that seem, from a quick internet search, to be an indicator of participation in a sterilisation programme.
After our evening meal with the rest of the group, four of us shunned the prospect of a loud, late and expensive night out for a taxi back to the hotel.
This was, we knew, something of a lottery, in that we had been warned of the numerous unofficial taxis who would be untrustworthy, would refuse to use their meter, and who would attempt to rip you off. Our group of four, though, discussed tactics and agreed to play hardball. The first taxi we got into did have a meter, but the driver quoted a price double what we knew to be fair so given we were in stationary traffic we just got out.
The second taxi we approached quoted us four times the fair price, so we just laughed and walked away, ignoring his protestations of “my friends, my friends, wait…!”
It was third time lucky, though, when we haggled another taxi down to a price we were very happy with, and off we went.
“How do you find Romania?” the driver asked. I was sitting in the front so did most of the talking back.
“It has an engagingly edgy, unself-conscious air to it, some lovely French-style architecture, but the heat is unbearable and the food is verging on shit,” was the response I wanted to give. Instead, I simply said “I like it. Very nice place and very beautiful.”
“Yes, very beautiful country,” the driver agreed. “Very beautiful women too. You want beautiful women? I can take you to nightclub. You can have beautiful woman.”
“I already have beautiful woman back home,” I said.
“My friend owns nightclub,” the taxi driver persisted. “50 lei, you can eat food, have drinks, and have beautiful women. You in jacuzzi, beautiful women, whisky with ice! Good, no?”
I was taken aback by his objectionable offer. I was from Scotland, I pointed out to him, and struggling in the heat: I needed a lukewarm shower not a jacuzzi. And as for the offer of prostitutes and a whisky with ice, the morally obscenity of his invitation disgusted me.
I mean, come on – ice in whisky??
He eventually gave up on the sales pitch, and when we arrived at the hotel we ensured we paid him exactly the agreed fare and got a receipt. We entered the hotel lobby again, bathing in the delightful air conditioning. Over an ice cold beer at the hotel bar we celebrated our hard negotiation against the taxi driver.
It had been fun to be in the real Bucharest for a few hours, but after the intolerable heat of outside world there was a stressless and familiar comfort when we returned to the artificial reality. When you prefer a soulless hotel to the vibrancy of a major European city’s nightlife, then you know it’s time to go home.
I needed to be up early for my flight the next day. I said my goodbyes to the others and headed to bed, desperately looking forward to returning to the cool climes of Scotland.
The music in the lift was Phil Collins’ “One More Night”.