The agent at Hertz said it would be a few minutes before the car was ready, so I walked past the taxi drivers and the family members waiting for arrivals to the far end of the Bucharest airport terminal, and the "coffee right" cafe.
Europop was on the radio and I paid $2, more or less, for a latte. The man sitting next to me was reading a Romanian newspaper article about Joseph Stalin. The man was in his mid-40s, dressed in a dark suit and red silk tie, eye-glasses completing the look of an Austrian executive. He spoke perfect English and explained that he was Romanian, flown into Bucharest for a day of business from his home in Timisoara, a city in the west of this Eastern European country.
"This is the poorest country in Europe," he said.
Then the man, Andrei Cubitchi, scoffed at Romania's joining of the European Union, January 1.
"The rich will get richer, the poor poorer," he said. "The big companies will bankrupt all the small ones."
Turned out Cubitchi had something to win or lose. A few years back, he sold his cell phone retail business and got into real estate. While we were chatting, he stopped to take a call, in English, from "Gunther". Cubitchi explained that he had a 7000 hectare property he'd promised to show to some Austrians, but he'd show it to Gunther too.
Then he told me about his apartment developments. "You put up some buildings and immediately you are making money," he said. Cubitchi said that real estate investments had increased 20 times over in the past five years. "You invest 1 million Euros then," he said, "and you've got 20 million now."
It was getting dark and I asked Cubitchi the best route to Sibiu, a historic town in Transylvania. He recommended waiting to drive in the morning, as the fog can be heavy in the plains north of Bucharest, and in the mountains. But I said good-bye and fetched the rental car.
Four kilometers north of the international airport, I passed the first horse-drawn cart. A kilometer or two later I passed three bicyclests, on the right, as a Mercedes sedan passed me on the left. The two-lane road wound past a power plant and old factories. Tight villages and open plains. Small cluters of country dwellers, old and young, navigated the rutted side of Highway 1 on foot. In the city of Brasov, crowds in leather coats marched between the anonymous facades of Soviet-era apartment blocks. I stopped at a Lukoil, as modern as any service station in Boston or Bucharest, and bought a Coke and a bag of popcorn. Dinner would wait until Sibiu, four hours later.
There, I parked the car and wandered across a wide town square to a sports bar, where I had arranged to meet an Italian friend. He was watching the Barcelona-Werder Bremen Champions League match. When it was over, we walked past a packed bar, just around the corner from the Church of Saint Mary, a high stone cathedral built between 1320 and 1520. We descended a flight of steps to a piano bar. An old man played jazz and a young man bass. The crowd, dressed urban chic, chatted quietly, and we ordered a nice Romanian merlot. It was nearly two a.m.