I have a real soft spot for Romania. People often seem baffled as to why I choose to focus so much on Romania. Even a lot of Romanians don’t understand. Well here’s why, people:
It’s the foreign country I’ve spent the most time in – several weeks in a city called Cluj-Napoca and a couple months now in the capital, Bucharest. I spent Halloween at “Dracula’s Castle” in Bran and Christmas in nearby mountainous beauty Brasov. I saw a medieval city (Sighisoara) and a 19th-century royal castle (Peles Castle in Sinaia) and a citadel on a mountain originally built in the 13th century (Rasnov). I saw the valley in Transylvania, the forest in the Carpathian Mountains, and the Black Sea coast at Constanta. I saw small villages that I imagine looked about the same a century ago and the rapidly re-developing capital of two million people. (I also marched in protests that overturned the government, so there’s that.) It’s truly a diverse and often extremely beautiful country.
If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. But enough of the Romanian Tourist Board plug.
Romania is admittedly a sometimes rough place for gay people. The Eastern Orthodox Church is extremely powerful and extremely hostile. It also happens to be partially publicly funded, whether you want your tax money to go to the church or not. As in Russia, the Church is actively involved in suppressing gay rights legislation.
Socially, the gay experience is mixed. As I wrote about Budapest, there is definitely an active underground gay community. I’ve met many gay people who have a perfectly happy social life with a large circle of friends and a dating pool they’re happy with. There is also one (but only one) successful gay club in the city that gets pretty packed on the weekends, which is the only time that it’s open. There are a few others that are known to be gay friendly.
But these are the people who have managed to find their way into a gay social life. The community has a bit of a small-town feel in that the people who are open, social, and dating generally know each other. And as I said there is only one specifically gay club (and one niche bar I’ll write about later). In a city of two million people, that means that there are potentially tens of thousands of gay people who are left out of the loop. Not intentionally, I’m sure; they just haven’t managed to find the loop to get in it.
I was lucky in that I met some people who included me in their circle very quickly. My other attempts at being social were complicated by the fact that I was never sure who was talking to me just to talk to me and who was going to ask me for money. My first night in town, I logged onto the apps (natch) and in the first 24 hours received no fewer than four offers of sex for money. I think that the assumption is that as an American I have money to burn and should therefore be expected to throw it at every pretty boy that walks by. Oh, that it were so! Little do they know that I’m a poor grad student living off student loans.
Some gay people here, like other not-so-gay-friendly places these days, are able to fill at least some of their social needs through social media like Grindr and Planet Romeo, which seem to be almost as actively used here as other large cities.
Romania does have a social/political organization called ACCEPT, an HIV/AIDS organization, and a newly formed social group called Mosaiq. Gay Pride happens but is not well-attended by LGBT people. I was impressed by the size of the ACCEPT offices and staff when I visited them. But in a country of 20 million people, perhaps I shouldn’t have been. They also have small branches in several of the medium-sized cities around the country.
Real-talk: Unlike much of Romania, Bucharest is not pretty. The city that was once called ‘the Paris of the East’ between the World Wars for its culture and architecture was deeply scarred by communism and continues to show it. There are definite signs of development, and I have no doubt that in 10 or 20 years renovations will restore some of its former glory. But for now it’s mostly shades of gray, with the exception of a few buildings, green spaces, and newer neighborhoods in the north.
But it’s also a fascinating place with delightfully crazy people (you know who you are) and an interesting history before, during, and after communism. Old Town is a unique gem of a neighborhood that’s full of great nightlife. And a stroll down Calea Victoriei (Victory Street) will take you past monuments, art museums, and luxury shopping. So go!
And the next time you feel like looking down on Romania, ask yourself how many castles, mountain citadels, and Carpathian forests you’ve been to lately.