Vocabulary Lessons in Bucharest


The day my “teach yourself Romanian” book and CD arrived in the mail it was late August and I was living with my parents in Montreal for the summer. I was thirty-two years old, engaged in heavy research on Bucharest, a project that mostly consisted of writing lists of things to buy that I had heard would be hard to procure in Romania. I had been offered a postdoctoral fellowship there and was preparing for an academic year abroad—ten months in a country I knew next to nothing about.

Aeropress and coffee filters. Jeans in size 14 (and 16). Tricked-out cosmetics kit. Like a relentless detective, I sought out and interrogated friends of friends of friends of friends—people who had lived in Bucharest and Eastern Europe five, ten, fifteen years ago. Instead of asking what I needed to know, I asked what I needed to buy. One woman even suggested I pack tampons with applicators. I ordered some, which arrived packed with the Romanian language book in a brown package. I sliced open the box and gleefully set to work on my lessons. I learned a few basic greetings, including my magic phrase: nu vorbesc româneşte—I do not speak Romanian—and then promptly put the book on a shelf, where it would remain to this day, collecting dust. The phrase stuck to the tip of my tongue like fly paper, or maple syrup. I am still often tempted to use it when tourists stop me in the subway asking for directions.

It was unwise to throw aside my Romanian lessons. I should have known better: having lived in many different places, I know that verbal communication is the only way to truly feel at home in a new place, and, more importantly, to understand a people and a place.

I was a PhD student in French history beginning the archival work on my dissertation history the first time I moved to France many years ago. As I began my life as a researcher, years of public school French and life in a bilingual city had allowed me to easily find my place in a foreign land, with my only fear being I’d be condescendingly called out as “la p’tite cousine Quebecoise,” the little Quebecoise cousin. In any case I have always been accustomed to this kind of teasing: it has been awfully hard to shake my Canadianisms, even after ten years of living abroad. Yet, at the time, as a graduate student of French history, I at least felt I knew France well. Had I not been bilingual, I’d probably still have made sense of Paris because she already felt like a sort of crazy old glamorous aunt with incredible hats and a collection of perfumes in crystal bottles.

My decisions about my language preparation betrayed my unfamiliarity with the history and context of a post-Communist society. Instead of learning to communicate, I filtered my nerves about the trip through the lens of high Capitalism: what to buy, how to pack. I imagined the country as an endless series of food lines, black and white boulevards, and drab stores full of clothing in size Nadia Comaneci.

There was also, I hate to admit it now, some good, old-fashioned hubris about being bilingual. I told myself that my French skills had made my college course in Italian “so much easier,” and that Romanian, another member of the Romance language family, couldn’t be much harder. In actual fact, my French had never made the Italian easier. I spent an entire year in class struggling to roll r’s, and when I finally got to Italy that summer years ago, the only thing I could do with the language was order gelato. I could have used the bigger sized trousers then.

I’ll figure out the Romanian, I told myself. I’ll learn it there. Then I threw two Balkan region guidebooks, a phrasebook with a cartoon illustration of a grinning Count Dracula on the cover, and some coffee paraphernalia into my suitcases.

The weeks between the language book’s arrival and my departure felt like minutes. After eighteen hours across three flights, I beamed while greeting my driver with “Buna ziua,”—hello—when he arrived to pick me up at Henri Coandă International airport. A bundle of nerves, I felt myself begin to utter the French “Bonjour” and quickly tried to correct it as the words spilled out of my mouth. The phrase sounded like a meaningless garbled string of consonants, my best French combined with my best imitation of the man from the language book’s accompanying CD. He held a sign up with my name printed on it with the suffix, PhD, attached in thick lettering. In contrast to my ridiculously messy greeting, the letters of the words were marked out neatly and clearly with a black felt tip marker. This was who I was. I felt important.

Upon arriving at my apartment, I was surprised to find ordinary corner stores and supermarkets in my neighborhood, and immediately came to regret all the material preparation I had done in advance. The woman I had spoken to who had lived in Bucharest a decade ago had described a completely different city to me. I hadn’t imagined things would have changed so much over ten years. I had also blatantly ignored another former Bucharestian friend who had told me earlier that summer not to worry, that I wasn’t moving to the Amazon. She laughed heartily when I informed her in my first week that not only were there a variety of tampons available (with applicators), there were also several kinds of peanut butter—something I had trouble finding in more familiar corners of Europe. I saw billboards for European and American clothing brands adorning enormous Communist block housing units along sprawling million-lane boulevards. A Coca Cola sign with broken neon lights looked over Piața Unirii—Unity Place—the biggest city square I had ever seen. I gleefully filled my cart with an array of items reminding me of home on my first short shopping trip at the corner store. But when the cashier asked me in Romanian if I needed a bag, I responded with “Noapte Buna,” the Romanian for goodnight.

In spite of these early communication blunders, I discovered there were many corners of Bucharest where I could get by without Romanian words. In stores, restaurants, and bars I often encountered English-speaking Romanians who were willing and eager to engage me in my mother tongue. With some friends of friends to whom I was introduced, I spoke in French, recalling a long stretch of decades in which France was the Romanian ideal of civilization and French, the true lingua Franca. At the Institute for Advanced Study where I worked, and among my new Romanian colleagues, I quickly realized that educated Romanians—from Bucharest and beyond—are among the most cosmopolitan polyglots one could ever imagine meeting on the outer edges of the European Union. I marveled while listening to these glamorous and worldly intellectuals switch back and forth between Romanian and English, French and German, Greek and Latin. While I usually feel empowered when speaking French in American settings, here, I often felt embarrassed by my provincial Quebec Anglophone accent. I strained, as I had done in France, to conceal my wide Canadian vowels.

Where the languages of Romania’s new-ish western-style Capitalism and its twenty-first century heir of nineteenth-century elite European intellectual life felt familiar to me, I fit right in. But there were other spaces in which I had neither the context, nor the words, to navigate. Linguistic clashes gave way to culture clashes, pointing out how utterly clueless I was to very ordinary aspects of Romanians’ everyday lives.

When the college hired a handler to take a number of international fellows to the Inspectoratul General pentru Imigrări—the Romanian authority for immigration—to acquire short-term residency visas, I may as well have been back in Ceaușescu’s Bucharest. The building downtown was gray, and so was everything in it. Gray paint peeling off the walls, dust-frosted buzzing neon lights, dull metal chairs, and lines of foreigners wilting in a queue, filling out piles of forms and clutching sheets of stamps. We waited in line for no less than eight hours before reaching the foggy plexiglass window. A Romanian woman with wild hair and thick eyelashes coated by mascara that looked like spider legs communicated to our handler that one of the fellows had filled out an insurance proof form wrong and would have to return with proper documents. He left in tears as she and the handler shouted at one another. I felt terrible for the poor souls in line who clearly did not speak Romanian (or English) and did not have handlers to yell at the clerks for them. I learned that day that yelling is an important part of Romanian bureaucratic language.

Even beyond the grey halls of the municipal authority, I was constantly reminded that Bucharest’s native denizens were in on something big that I could never break into, with or without language. My experiences in taxis illustrated an essential characteristic of this city in the midst of difficult transitions. Taxi drivers pretended to not understand the basic Romanian instructions I had cautiously prepared in advance, instead choosing to take me on terrifyingly jerky loop-de-loops around the city. I could never get into a taxi off the street or at the train station, because the driver—whether a gruff old man with a moustache, or a handsome young macho guy in studded skinny jeans—would flatly refuse to turn on the meter. The first time this happened, the taxi driver chewed on a cigar and angrily said “no, no,” when I pointed to the meter. When he stuck out a few of his fat, tobacco-stained sausage fingers, quoting me a price five times what should have been the actual amount, I was able to hop out the door and run away before he started the engine. The one taxi driver I ever encountered who spoke English and who had, strangely enough, lived for ten years in Montreal, explained to me on an early morning ride to a train station that the reason cab drivers were so aggressively cut-throat was because the city, through corrupt dealings, had offered too many permits to cab companies to operate within the city limits. Prices were driven down to nothing, and so drivers often take any opportunity to make extra cash. I guessed that as a non-Romanian speaking female foreigner, I was probably a jackpot. I paid my driver a tip three times the cost of the ride. I continued to feel afraid to participate in this makeshift “cab-italist” economy. Within a few weeks I found that I could dispatch a taxi without revealing that I was a foreigner or a woman by using a phone application—and use no other words than mulțumesc, “thank you.”

It took me about a month to muster up the courage to go to a real Romanian market. In the US and Canada, and even places in Western Europe, farmer’s markets are decidedly bourgeois yuppie affairs, with high priced organic goods and handsome homemade household items with adorable labels. I had just assumed the market here would be pricier too. In any event, the supermarkets just seemed easier and more familiar, with their long dairy cases, meat counters, and aisles of boxes, cans, and bags. At the supermarket checkout, I could see the total Romanian Lei I owed on the register, and really didn’t have to speak at all. My Balkan and Eastern European colleagues informed me that the reverse was the case in this part of the world: farmers’ market produce is cheaper and, they assured me, better than at the supermarket. “Smell this tomato!” my Macedonian friend barked at me in a Mega Image supermarket. “What does it smell like, Erin? Nothing!!”

I learned my lesson when I accompanied her to the daily farmers’ market across the street from the big supermarket. It was an open space over a dusty concrete floor featuring an arrangement of tables covered fruit, herbs, vegetables, flowers, and surrounded by refrigerated cases, all manned by Romanian farmers, butchers, or cheesemakers. Elderly peasants with colorful scarves sat outside with their own bundles of fragrant green onions, chives, and garlic at half the price of produce inside the market. My friend shoved a heart-shaped tomato in my face. It indeed smelled wonderful—sweet, like a ripe fruit warmed by the sun. I haven’t been able to find that good of a tomato since then.

My friend wandered off while I carefully inspected the tables of produce. I couldn’t speak. I had no words. I couldn’t tell the vendors what I wanted. But then a forty-something-year-old woman with dark brown hair and a Minnie Mouse sweatshirt leaned over a table covered with fat tomatoes and bunches of dill and gave me a toothy grin while greeting me in Romanian. I responded awkwardly, and started pointing at the fruits and vegetables I wanted, holding up fingers to show her the amounts I needed. She responded first with the words for the items, and then confirmation of my request. Roșii, mere, castraveți, cepe, fasole. Tomatoes, apples, cucumbers, onions, beans. I repeated the words after her. I was hooked, and ready to return.

The rotund cheese guy and his wife who looked like they shared the same body, swapping heads on alternating days, were my favorite bi-weekly encounters. I slowly pronounced the words written on each card sticking out from bricks and piles of cheese: telemea de vaca, branza afumat—salty fresh cheese from cows’ milk (feta-ish, as I’ve described it since), smoked cheese—and used my hands as an imaginary scoop to show them the amount I needed. They never failed to laugh with their bellies while stuffing the cheese into small plastic bags they’d knot with their fingers. The butcher’s counter, a pretty shade of Pantone pink, was always packed with meat of all cuts and marbles stacked up under glass for me to point at, and struggle to pronounce. Vită, friptura, vițel, pui. Beef, roast, veal, chicken. Cârnați, pork sausages, reminded me of carnatzl, the long skinny dried beef sausage that hangs in the windows of Montreal’s kosher delis, and tasted even better with mustard. Not once did the baker with the lip liner smile at me, but I didn’t mind because her bread (pâine) wasn’t great anyhow.

On cold days, the vendors bundled themselves in wool and scarves, and on hot days they’d sit and sweat along with their produce. In winter, potatoes of all kinds were a mainstay at the market, and in summertime my friends and I would go back three or four times a week to purchase huge bags of cherries (cireșe) and whole watermelon (pepene) to munch on while sitting on our balconies in 40 degree Celsius heat. Branza dulce—a fluffy unsalted “sweet” fresh cheese not unlike cottage cheese—tasted great with fruit. At least once or twice every week I’d visit my favorite vendors, who fed me with words and produce and made sure that even though I was a foreigner, a stranger, that I’d get what I needed to feel, and eventually cook, like a local.

While I developed interpretive skills that extended beyond my thin vocabulary, in some ways living in Bucharest would have been easier had I taken my language preparation more seriously. I may have been able to ask more questions, to take (or defend myself in) more taxis. I might have been able to read more newspapers with ease, to listen to the radio, and to quickly translate more passionate slogans scrawled on banners and posters in November after the deadly Collectiv nightclub fire that killed dozens of people and sent thousands to the streets to protest. I might have been able to understand and perhaps respond to the angry words being spat at me by a drunken passerby while standing outside and admiring the Templul Coral synagogue. I might have been able to flirt back with handsome Romanian baristas sporting hipster beards making macchiatos just like the ones I get at my favorite place in Montreal. As a traveler, a young adult, a Jew, and a woman, I must say the most frustrating thing about getting to know my temporary new home was not that I had no idea what was going on, but rather that words had never failed me before. I felt unhinged in my moments of isolation, and frustrated in my muteness.

As an academic, I use words all the time. As a bilingual person, I have often taken for granted my enormous warehouse of words that could make me feel at home in at least a few parts of the world where—to be clear once again—I already am privileged to not feel quite so foreign. When I arrived in Romania, I had neither words, nor context, but I struggled to build up both. Alongside my market vocabulary and conversation lessons, I devoured my favorite scholars’ essays and reflections on words and language. When European historian Tony Judt began to lose his ability to communicate under the impact of ALS, he ruminated on words’ meanings to the intellectual and to the public sphere in a beautiful essay he wrote for the New York Review of Books in 2010. He describes how, having grown up in a family of multiple languages, words became his “thing.” For Judt, words have the special power to shape the level of popular discourse and the ways people communicate with one another, day to day. As scholarly writing becomes increasingly professionalized and obscure, he wrote, popular and more quotidian communication becomes increasingly poor. His is a critique of a culture in which words lose their value, but not their power.

I recognized that in his essay, Judt was not talking about learning a foreign language on the fly. But in my lack of words, I still felt the sting of his comments on the classical western rhetorical tradition: “confused words suggested confused ideas at best, dissimulation at worst.” As an academic, I felt that my confusion in Romania was finally painting me into the obscure corner toward which I had been terrified of heading along the roads of my academic career. On those days I felt truly confused by my environment and interactions, I panicked. Would I ever actually understand what was going on around me? Would my confusion spread to other parts of my understanding? Was I becoming… ignorant? My worst nightmare was coming true: I was losing my grip, my brains, and my mind.

For a few months, I felt truly lost between these two worlds: a cosmopolitan, elite intellectual Romania, in which I could chatter on with my colleagues in English and French about European colonialism, late Antique Monks, and Ukrainian politics; and the bigger cultural and historical context of Romania with which I so desperately wanted to engage. Without words, and over many months, I came to see Romania as a part of a bigger and more complicated Europe than I had previously imagined, a land of radical contrasts and unimaginable beauty that far surpassed my preconceived notions of Communist desolation and Dracula clichés.

For short moments, the city could make a lot of sense. In springtime, I walked down my pretty street, admiring vibrant purple flowers cascading down lazy green vines wrapped loosely around electricity poles and telephone cables. “Bucharest isn’t so strange,” I remember thinking. “It’s just like any other cit…” Before I could complete my thought, a man in a parka walking four feet in front of me grunted something incomprehensible, spun on his heel and zipped down his trousers to urinate on the sidewalk, facing me. At that moment I wished I could say some choice words to him in Romanian instead of crossing the street, trying to look calm while choking back my disgust.

But being wordless was also a personal challenge for which I had very little arsenal. This was not a typical thirty-something-year-old’s experience. People younger than myself seem to have the interest and energy for jumping into foreign contexts to “find themselves,” and I had often sneered at the idea that the world “out there” would show me anything new about myself. After all, I had nothing to do with the world. My place was in the archives, in a library, my role, a passionate, yet objective observer. But in having to improvise a totally new way of encountering Europe—a place and an idea I had spent years believing I had known and understood materially, intellectually, and culturally—I also had to digest the fact that I may have known, and continue to know, very little.

Words would not have made Romania any less strange to me, and they probably would not have made me any less foreign. Lost in a city, and lost more generally, my wordlessness in Romania forced me to shut up for a bit, to walk uninhibited in a new world, with boundless curiosity, energy, and a bit of well-placed fear. Disarmed of the things that make me feel normal and safe, I started to learn.

My Romanian vocabulary lessons continue to hold meaning now that I have regained my words. I am still uncertain about my place in a rapidly transforming world, and still often afraid. I may no longer be in Romania, but I am still far from home, still wandering, still searching, and still waiting. A stranger in a strange land, I travel with my coffee press and my oversized makeup bag, and struggle to interpret old and new words in a rapidly transforming world that so often seems barely legible. I wonder if maybe we all are, and if maybe we all do.

But in Bucharest, I know I figured something out. In Bucharest, I accepted my position as an outsider, and tried instead to identify ways and places I could observe and engage with Romanian life and culture in different modes, sometimes with, and sometimes without words. And I shut up and I listened. And, at the end of my year, on my final taxi ride out of Bucharest to Henri Coandă airport, when the driver started humming “It’s Raining Men” along with the radio, I was almost too pleased to bob my head and hum along with him, neither one of us saying a word.


Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.

Erin Corber is a Canadian, a world traveler, a bread baker, and a historian of modern France, Europe, and Jewry. Hailing from Montreal and holding a PhD from Indiana University, Bloomington, she is currently based in Washington, DC, working on a book about Jewish life, physicality, and body cultures in France in the years between the two world wars. More from this author →