Agitating for housing, not against tech, is the solution to San Francisco’s housing crisis

Posted by tobymuresianu on Apr 8, 2014 in Politics, Tech, Thoughts, Travel

Housing prices in San Francisco are insane, and it’s become a large problem. Yet the root cause is that San Francisco is great, and one of the side effects is that people want to move there. As problems for cities go, this is a good one to have.

Where it gets hairy, though, is that while 75,000 people have moved in in the last 10 years, only 17,000 new housing units have been built in the same time. Supply and demand being a phenomenon not unique to San Francisco, the result has been skyrocketing rents, and longtime residents (longtime in San Francisco meaning more than 3 years) getting displaced.

To put it in perspective; when I lived in the city as a semi-professional comedian and app developer (or if you prefer to say it, marginally employed person) in 2009, I paid $800/month for a room at 17th and Dolores that, based on craigslist, now fetches closer to $2000. I won’t tell you how many casino lounges you have to perform in to make that, but it’s a lot.

But I’m a bad financial example (sorry, Mom and Dad). My friend has a decently paying tech job that she’s been at for a few years. She was told that the rent in her shared single-family home in a non-central neighborhood would go from $3500 to $5600. With apartments on craigslist getting hundreds of replies, costing thousands, or charging $250 to live an hour away and sleep with the landlord, she may have to move to a different city. This would be a loss for her and the San Francisco (not to mention the landlord). Not only has she built a life here while being financially responsible, she also runs popular comedy shows and volunteers. Her roommates are similarly financially stable and do things that help make San Francisco an interesting and attractive place to live, but are now struggling to live there themselves. It would be a shame if San Francisco stopped being a diverse and vibrant place, but instead a San Francsico-style theme park where you can kind of experience what the culture was like while paying $6 for a (fair-trade) soda.

Everyone agrees action is needed. What’s been disappointing to me, though, that most of the ire I’ve seen has been focused on the most recent arrivals in the city – tech workers who are able to afford the increased rent.

They are an easy target (we’re dorks), but it’s an unfortunate approach for a number of reasons. One, because it ignores the root of the problem – an artificially constrained housing supply. Two, it at times takes the tone of a simple anti-immigration platform that undermines the tolerance that San Francisco supposedly embodies. And three, if it by some miracle stopgap measures succeed in curbing the growth of the city, it will be at the expense of an opportunity for San Francisco to become a greater than it already is.

First, why is housing construction artificially restrained? For starters, it often takes 10 years for new housing to be approved in San Francisco, and it can be arbitrarily altered by a diverse rainbow of public hearings and planning commissions, with the result being housing policy “based not so much on our city’s dire housing needs but on who can turn out the most people at a public hearing”. In addition to this slowing the supply to a trickle, it also increases the expenses developers take on to build new buildings, which will inevitably result in higher prices when/if the buildings are actually built. The situation is exacerbated by an elevated rate of vacant housing stock whether due to regulations or other reasons but a lack of physical supply is still the greatest long-term cause.

New construction is always something that people moan and clamor about and then forget about after they are actually built. In fact, these housing restrictions have been in place since the 1980s and originated with resistance to skyscrapers that now make up downtown on the grounds they’d spoil the view, though these are now completely accepted if not iconic parts of the skyline.

The good news here is that because the situation with housing permits is so subject to public opinion, if San Francisco activists were advocating for increased construction, they would be able to change things for the better. Unfortunately, they haven’t been. I think this is for two reasons – an assumption business must be the source of all problems, and because new transplants to the city are simply an easier target than the parts of their own community who are resisting the necessary changes.

So instead activists have focused energy on undermining the Google Bus on dubious environmental grounds (because obviously mass transit is terrible for the environment) and harassing its founder by ripping off Fight Club in order to try and make the city less hospitable for tech workers. Being anti-immigration is the last sentiment you’d expect from San Franciscians. Yet stereotyping the tech community, lamenting how they are taking over neighborhoods and how the “real” San Francisco is getting lost are all sentiments that seem at home in any anti-immigration campaign.

Ignored is are the facts that we as citizens have the freedom to move wherever we want and the basic hypocrisy that all San Francisco residents immigrated at some point, often over economically-rooted anti-immigrant sentiment. Also, this protectionism diminishes the very real contributions of the tech community to San Francisco – where it has lead to world-class technologies, and where many are interesting members of society who also bring money into the city that helps fund social programs and small businesses. Most cities bend over backwards to attract well-paying jobs and citizens who hold them for the money they bring into the community and public coffers. It’s surprising how many San Franciscans best case take them for granted and worst case treat them with suspicion.

Finally, resisting construction robs San Francisco of an opportunity to become greater than it is. San Francisco is a case study for why liberal capitalism can work. You have educated people who move to a city, create successful businesses, and are willing to pay high taxes and create a good social support network. Despite right-wing talk nationally of cutting taxes and social programs to boost the economy, SF has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. If it was allowed to grow, with fair and standardized requirements for mixed income or eco-friendly construction, it could be even more of an example for other cities to emulate. And if you think San Francisco is a great city – as I do – isn’t it selfish to keep it for yourself, rather than wanting other people to move there and enjoy it, simply because you moved there first?

Further, while the specter of inequality features prominently in much writing about the housing situation, a construction boom would bring with it lots of construction jobs that would benefit the working class and the businesses they support. If the goal is honestly to help the working class, and not just try to appropriate them as moral justification, a curb in construction that pushes rent prices higher for cosmetic purposes does much more harm than good. I know it’s shocking to think that people who dress up in lycra circus suits to block the Google Bus might not actually be that connected to the working class, but I have my suspicions.

It is not manifest destiny for San Francisco activists to complain about inequality and then when the city becomes increasingly gentrified anyway blame the powerful while ignoring the fact they could have prevented it. The truth is that construction is beneficial and vilification of tech workers isn’t. It’s my hope that sooner rather than later consensus becomes that allowing the city to grow is the best solution to the housing crunch, and that not only is gentrification reduced because of it, but hostility and inequality are as well.

And you know what? People can still make fun of tech workers. As people who grew up on math team, we’re used to it.


Staying Hungary

Posted by tobymuresianu on Aug 2, 2013 in Travel

Sometimes when I am working in Europe, I get the chance to perform someplace where people don’t speak English. It’s better than it sounds. English is a close second to Love as the universal language, and there’s enough expats to fill a bar anywhere. This time I ended up doing a night in Budapest, Hungary.

Our first stop was the flat we were staying, which had been booked over an apartment share website (HungAirBnb?). I’d been fretting in my mind whether some material I’d written about the Huns would be relevant, so when the person showing us the apartment’s name was Attila I sighed in relief.

It turns out Hungarians are still proud of the Huns, though most of Europe remembers them for the whole massacring villagers thing, and genetic tests indicate modern Hungarians are less descended from the huns than from those villagers. It’s sort of similar to the relationship Romania has with the Romans – essentially forming your national identity via Stockholm Syndrome.

Attila the Hungarian seemed nice enough – he didn’t trample us under a war horse or anything – though he did try to convince the promoter that the two bedroom apartment the promoter had booked only included the use of one bedroom with two beds on it unless we paid extra. Eventually the promoter convinced him otherwise. Perhaps their time honored practice of extorting tribute has faded into a more gentle haggling.

In any case, the apartment was built during communist times, or at least I hope nobody was paid for making it. Some of the typical Eastern Bloc User Friendliness:

* A shower curtain that curved around a few feet in front of the shower, presumably to hide the view of all the water on the floor.

* A showerhead that did not reach the shower head holder combined with a water heater that didn’t work, so showering was done by holding a showerhead blasting cold water inches from your skin. Though this could have been by design in order to conserve water, or keep it off the floor after they realized where they’d put the shower curtain.

So close, yet so far

* In yet another effort to conserve water, the toilet did not have a bowl full of water and is shaped somewhat like a waterfall. Basically, the way it works is (WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES AHEAD) your turds drop down onto a flat piece of plastic, where they sit as though on an examination table, instantly filling the adjacent rooms with the unmistakable odor of dry feces. After finishing your business and attempting to flush, a pitiful sound emerges from the device and you are left to stare at your handiwork as it lies like a beached whale with water gently lapping by it like the receding tide. You are then forced to flush dozens of times until the forces of erosion eventually carry the log down the hole like the worlds most disgusting water slide, or use the cleaning brush to speed nature along. Is this too gross for a blog? It was too gross for my life, but it still happened.

The only other noteworthy aspect to the apartment was that like many buildings in Budapest, it was built around a courtyard, though there was only cement at the bottom. It was hard not to imagine people being held over the edge and interrogated Goodfellas-style.

Now do we get to use both bedrooms in the apartment?

After dropping our bags, I headed into town with the opening comedian, Neil Morgan, an Irishman who lives in Brno, Czech Republic. One of the interesting parts of Euro integration is that in addition to Polish people moving to Britain, a lot of Irish and English have moved to places like Brno where multinational tech companies have set up offices and call centers, so that customers in Britain think they are getting local phone support.

Budapest has many attractions, including the largest Synagogue outside of New York:

1% of the Budapest Synagogue

Where to get the chosen information

As well as statues of people on razor scooters being ridden by kids like razor scooters:

Lenin’s first razor scooter

and, of course, Mary Poppins:

Apparently the umbrella took her here.

Budapest has a very familiar, cinematic feel, and for good reason – it has been filmed more than any other city, though typically as a “stand-in” city for others: Paris, Rome, etc. As you walk through the boulevards you almost expect to see flashy car-chases screeching through them, or hear those bank alarms and European police sirens go off right before Jason Statham knocks over your fruit stand. No such luck on our trip, though.

On a previous tour of central Europe, I’d met Dave Thompson, a wonderful British comedian who played Tinky Winky on the Teletubbies and wrote a book called “The Sex Life of a Comedian,” presumably because it was a less creepy title than “The Sex Life of a Teletubby.” He had settled in Budapest because he claimed that Hungarian women were the most beautiful in the world. While usually this is just local pride in this case I couldn’t help but notice (I’m not made of stone) that women were consistently extremely beautiful; I would place it as city with the fifth most beautiful women I’ve seen, after New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and if you are a girl, whatever city you live in (so smooth).

Even more than the architecture or the women, though, I found myself most attracted to the beauty of the exchange rates (I am made of Jew). An overstuffed falafel sandwich will run you the equivalent of $2 including tax. On the other hand, all the food I had was pretty bad, but that may be more a result of me frequenting $2 kebab places than anything.

After about two hours of walking around, it was time for the show. In the upstairs showroom, we played to a mostly full crowd of about 50 people; summers tend to dent comedy turnouts in any language. Unlike other shows I’ve done in Europe, they were mostly locals, with a few expats and a couple Romanians who came out because they recognized my name as Romanian. Someday I hope people will recognize my name as my name rather than simply belonging to my ethnicity, but since it’s more common for people to recognize my name as simply a jumble of vowels that they have no idea how to pronounce I’ll take whatever I can get.

The show was very fun, and unusual in that there was a guest set before my performance by an opera singer, who ended up being a bit late to the show as he had just won a chess tournament down the road. It was also the first time I shared the stage with someone’s puppy who wandered across the stage; her lack of stage fright at such a young age was pretty remarkable and I see stardom in her future. It was the happiest I’ve ever been to have someone come up on stage, and it didn’t distract from the show at all; if YouTube has taught us anything, it’s that people pay more attention to anything there are puppies involved in.

After the show, we went out to a “ruin pub”, a phenomenon unique to Budapest. After the fall of the socialist state, there were a bunch of buildings with courtyards that were derelict and owned by the state. The fall of the socialism coinciding with strong demand for alcohol, a few entrepreneurs starting putting bars in abandoned courtyards, graffitiing them up, and staying one step ahead of the police until they made enough money to buy the buildings outright. Tragically, after feeling like very saavy authentic tourists it turned out we were in a faux-ruin-pub just built to look like one – the Hungarian club equivalent of buying pre-distressed jeans. You can’t win em all, but on the plus side, their bathroom was light years better than I (shudder to) imagine authentic ones would be.

After many shots of Palinka (Hungary’s local hard liquor or cough syrup, I wasn’t sure) it was time to pass out in our pleasantly separate bedrooms, though only after setting our alarms for a horribly early hour to take the train to Neil’s adopted hometown of Brno. Would have liked to spend more time in Budapest and have my fingers crossed I’ll return there to do a show (or open for an opera singer) soon.


Egypt moves to arrest its Jon Stewart

Posted by tobymuresianu on Mar 30, 2013 in Clips, Travel

The government of Mohamed Morsi is moving to arrest one of its prominent critics – Bassem Youssef, a former doctor and now television personality who models his show after the Daily Show, which you may have seen him on.

Al Jazeera reports:

Youssef said he would hand himself over on Sunday, “unless they kindly send a police van today and save me the transportation hassle”

As a (sometimes) political comedian, I wish I had those kind of guts. It’s a reminder that as much as we as Americans revere people like Lenny Bruce, there are still comedians making sacrifices as great or greater than him today.

While Youssef obviously performs in Arabic, I was able to find a subtitled version of his show. While watching it, you notice a few things:

        • Even in translation it’s surprisingly funny (though of course there’s some Egyptian references you may not get)
        • You feel much more of connection to Egyptians than by reading banal news reports, and
        • He really does look like John Stewart.



Hopefully through this ordeal he’s able to draw more attention to the ridiculousness of those in power.


Performing in Romania – Part 3: Swearing and trying to leave

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 12, 2012 in Travel

Part 2 ended at a train station, where I waited in a line of 10 people for 30 minutes and missed my train while the ticket salesperson entered each transaction in several communist-looking registries in an attempt to illustrate the failures of socialism. Finally, I got to the front 2 minutes before the last train that would get me to my show on time – and had her slam a “position closed” sign down.

After doing so, she gestured me (and the person next to me) towards a booth marked “International departures”, which had been open and empty the entire time. The person took our money and gave us our tickets in about 12 seconds – completely ignoring the ledgers or computer system – and we made the train just before the doors closed.

Unfortunately, the last train was a commuter train that took 4.5 hours to go the 115 miles to Bucharest, as it stopped in literally every town between there and Brasov. Romanians had told me that Romania is beautiful outside of Bucharest. Spoiler alert – there’s trees and farms and stuff. So it’s technically pretty, but in exactly the same way as every place else in the world.


Romania? Wyoming? It’s impossible to tell.

Without much to do, I struck up a conversation with Anatoly, the guy who’d been next to me in line. He was a square-jawed guy in tight jeans and a leather jacket who looked about 30 but told me he was 19.

“What were you doing in Brasov?” I asked. “I help my father set up identification printing business,” he replied. “How was it?” I followed up. “We do not get along. When I grew up he in Spain hiding from law.” replied Anatoly.

One interesting phenomenon I’d encountered in Romania was that people derided Gypsies for being criminals, but a surprising amount of the ethnic Romanians I met were also criminals. I couldn’t surpress my curiousity.

“What do you think about Gypsies?” I inquired. “Do not trust Gypsy – they steal,” he explained.

“They are very clever and they trick you. One of my friends, gypsy woman offer to tell her fortune for free. She say okay, Gypsy woman say to get better reading is best to have gold because it is spiritual medal, in a handkerchief. So my friend give her some earrings, bracelet. Gypsy woman put gold in handkerchief, but my friend, she never take her eyes off of it. Woman tell her, you going to find husband, have children, all this type of thing. Then she give back her handkerchief and hurry off, but when my friend opens handkerchief, is only stones inside.”

So don’t fall for that one.

“What do you do for a living?” I inquired. “I fish.” came the reply. “How is business?” I prodded. “Not good – I have to steal.” he stated casually.

Soon we moved on to a safer topic – learning Romanian swear words.

While most cultures are content with their versions of “Fuck you” and “Go fuck yourself”, in Romania swears are colorful, complex and bizarre. Some favorites (spelled phonetically):

Slobozisa twarte terfele care sow fatoot lutot Bucareschtu petine – “May the whores who fuck all Bucharest come on you with period blood.”

Somora Copime un Podunch du kill – “May you find your children in 1-kilo bags” (a reference to them being dismembered by killers).

as well as the disarmingly simple –

Bugatesh pula un hutia Limbie – “let me to introduce my dick to your tongue box”

We got to Bucharest about 45 minutes before my show was to start. Anatoly gave me his number. “If you are in trouble, you call me.” he said. I didn’t want to envision the scenario that would lead to this, though he was a nice guy.

Our final show was in a movie theater in a humungous and sterile mall filled with international luxury brands. In the food court, I ate a traditional Romanian dish of a sort of polenta cornbread, though as I was a vegetarian the meat that usually goes on it was replaced by about 3lbs of empty calories:

Traditional Romanian source of heart disease

Traditional Romanian source of heart disease

We performed in front of one of the screens in a movie theater. Only about 20 people were at the show, tragically, as it was my best of the three. All my material about Romania was polished (read: I’d stopped telling the jokes that sucked) and it was the most interactive show – there were a few hecklers, but they were very friendly and drunk so it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

After the show, we went back to the hotel bar to get similarly drunk with the show producers. It turned out one of them was actually one of the hecklers, a very energetic Dutchman who pulled out a laptop and showed me a PowerPoint of a skyscraper under construction and explained that he was the lead architect of one of the world’s tallest buildings being built in Dubai. I don’t know whether this was accurate, but I’m going to be safe and never enter that building.

Our flight the next morning was at 5, so I hit my bed to get a few hours of sleep while Yianni and David headed to a nearby bar whose claim to fame was having been open continuously since the fall of communism, possibly with the same patrons.

A blink later, I was up and jumping into a cab with two extermely drunk comics – one of whom puked repeatedly out the side of the car on the way to the airport. On arriving, we handed the rest of our Romanian currency over to the highly agitated cab driver, in what ended up still being a very reasonable fare for us by Western standards, and stumbled through the airport and onto our plane to London, a world away.

Post script – later on, I revisited the family tree that was suspiciously absent of anyone in my family. Suddenly discovered a familiar looking family cluster; it turned out my father, aunt uncle and Grandfather were all on the chart, but their first names had been translated into Romanian (My dad John Muresianu, for example, was listed as Ion Muresianu). So I am related to Andrei Muresianu after all – he’s my great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle.

Andrei Muresianu

I knew I saw a resemblance!

That’s all – thanks so much for reading! If you enjoyed it, be sure to subscribe via RSS, facebook, twitter or email to find out when the next articles are up.


Performing in Romania – Part 2

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 10, 2012 in Travel

Rain poured down from the gray skies of Bucharest. I pulled my coat closer and stepped on the train, wondering what I might find at my family’s ancestral home in Transylvania. Okay, I just wanted to write that sentence, but it was true.

As mentioned in Part 1, I was travelling from Bucharest to Brasov, Romania, where some of my ancestors lived – specifically Andrei Muresianu, author of the Romanian National Anthem, whose house had been turned into a museum.

On arriving, while I was pretty sure the museum was locally important, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find it on my own. I got into a cab and asked to go the Muresianu family museum. “Where?” he asked. I named the square where it was located. “Where?” he asked again. I reconsidered the “locally important” thing.

Finally, through a mixture of basic English, Spanish and Romanian, he smiled, nodded, and drove me about 20 minutes to the “Mures hotel” in a completely different part of town. I got a tourist map of Brasov from the hotel and we were able to navigate to the square.


Home sweet ancestral home.

Move over, Hollywood!

Move over, Hollywood!

Translylvanian squares, apparently, are pretty typical for Europe. One or two shops were Dracula-themed, but Vampires didn’t seem to be a huge contributer to the overall economy, for (culturally) better or for (financially) worse. Then I turned into a corner and there it was – the holy grail of my ancestry.

Entrance to Muresianu House

Not pictured: Choir of angels

On entering, I was greeted by a friendly older curator who wanted to help but didn’t speak English. He attempted to solve this problem by speaking Romanian louder and slower. I wasn’t sure whether he just wanted me to know how it felt for foreigners to visit America.

I took out my ID and attempted to communicate that I was a member of the Muresianu family, unsure if he’d figured that out from the fact that I was visiting the museum. He gave me a personal tour, though I’m pretty sure anyone would have gotten one, since there was nobody else there.

It was a pleasant, well-maintained museum with a few rooms. The first one was focused on Andrei Muresianu and contained photographs, a bust, and a few badass portraits:

That's right!

That’s my granddaddy!

I drew a picture of a family tree on some scrap paper and showed it to the guide, hoping to figure out how many generations back I was descended from Andrei Muresianu. The guide happily lead me over to one printed on a wall which, to my shock, showed that Andrei Muresianu had no grandchildren.

That's right!

Never mind!

I wasn’t sure what to think. Had my grandfather, when immigrated to the US, just made up a new identity? The guide said I might be descended from a different branch, but I had to do some introspection. Was the blood that ran through my veins the blood of the man in the painting, holding the glowing document while peasants cowered before it? or was it the man who used that guy’s name to get laid? I was not optimistic.

The Muresianu family. Not pictured: Me

The Muresianu family. Not pictured: Me

After looking at the exhibits for a few more minutes, I went to leave but the guide insisted that I look at a different room full of old musical instruments. I wasn’t sure what to do but felt like it would be bad form to start playing them (particularly as I was no longer positive I was part of the family).

I looked at them for a few minutes, then went to leave, but was guided to another room full some kinds of rocks and crystals apparently on loan from a nearby museum. A guide put on a Romanian film about them. I think they turned the volume up a little higher so I could understand.

Phallic rock exhibit, Brasov, Romania

Phallic rocks are the same in every language.

I got back to the train station about 15 minutes before my train left – ordinarily fine, but the ticket line wasn’t moving at all. Looking forward the teller was frenetically entering each transaction in a computer, in a manual ledger, and separately running it on the register in an attempt (from what I could tell) to further illustrate the problems with socialist economies. Mission accomplished.

As people pressed forward, the guy next to me said if we missed it there was another train afterwards, though it took twice as long – which made me nervous, as it was the last one I could get and still make my show. 25 minutes later, we’d missed our first train and were about to miss the second when we got to the front of the line just in time for the teller to slam down a “Position Closed” sign.

To be continued in part 3!


Episode 3 – Teo from Romania

Posted by tobymuresianu on Oct 1, 2012 in Episodes, Travel

Following up the previous blog post, we have an interview with Teo, owner of the 99 Club in Bucharest and one of the founding fathers of Romanian stand-up. Enjoy!



Performing in Romania – Part 1

Posted by tobymuresianu on Sep 28, 2012 in Travel

Earlier this year, I stepped off a plane for my shows in Bucharest, Romania, more excited than I’d been in years. Not only because the 6 year old behind me had been using my headrest for football practice, or even just to be walking alive off a flight on Wizzair, a discount Hungarian airline that makes Southwest look like the Concorde.

I was excited because I’m part Romanian, and my dad had told me our family was kind of a big deal over there as we were directly descended from Andrei Muresianu, author of the Romanian National Anthem. Like many who grew up in generalized suburban American culture I was always fascinated by any interesting parts of my ethnic background, so getting to explore my roots and perform in Romania felt like an adventure. An adventure which would begin by desperately slurping at a water fountain since Wizzair doesn’t provide free water.

Size of tray table on Wizzair, Hungarian Low-Cost Airline

I tried to use my Passport to make the tray table look small, but it just made my passport look menu-sized.

Many people in the US may not know much about Romania, so here’s a quick summary. It’s a country in Eastern Europe mostly known for Dracula, gymnastics, and being called the worst country in the world on television. It was behind the Iron Curtain from the end of World War 2 to 1989, and Bucharest is the capitol and a city of about 2 million people.

My first impression upon driving into the city was that Romania is very gray. I’d always assumed it just looked that way in movies since they were usually about the undead, but much of the infrastructure looked like it had been through a war, with dark, crumbling buildings dotting the cityscape. Happily, it turned out that this wasn’t due to a war, but instead simply to how much Romanians smoked.

Building in Romania

A new building 15 minutes after Romanian smokers move in.

Our hotel, fortunately, was a pleasant building featuring picnic tables with sun umbrellas, a cobblestone walkway, and hardcore, explicit American rap music blaring in the lobby while bellhops and waiters went about their day – either unaware what “motherfuckers dropping like pop, pop” meant or being quietly supportive of the idea. The interior was spotless and clean as Scandanavia, or how I assume Scandinavia is from my visits to Ikea showrooms, but with the addition of giant photos of models on the walls for aesthetic purposes.

Artwork on loan from Supercuts.

Artwork on loan from Supercuts.

It was explained that nobody cares about the exteriors of most buildings because the government owns them, but people take great care of the interiors that they do own. There is probably a lesson in socialism here.

After checking in, the other comics – David Whitney, a Brit, and Yianni, an Australian – and I left to explore. Immediately after leaving the hotel, a friendly local asked if we were interested in the best blow job in the city. This would be the first Gypsy we met. I’d always been excited to see gypsies, because part of me had lumped them in with elves and warlocks as a fantastical creature never actually seen in person. Apparently they are real, and in addition to traveling in colorful wagons and dressing in patchwork clothing, they also specialize in world-class blow-job distribution. Soon afterward I saw a gypsy with two trained mice running in circles around the brim of his hat putting a parrot on the shoulder of a disinterested tourist. As soon as I raised my camera, though, the battery ran out. Unfortunate coincidence? Or gypsy magic? I will let you be the judge.

We wandered around looking for food, passing bakeries peddling treats for 1 lei (~25 cents). Giddy with foreign-exchange-rate-excitement-syndrome, we picked out a corner bistro intent on dining like kings for some spare change. After overhearing our English, the waiter immediately came over and enthusiastically recommended the steak – which, being Jewish, I immediately identified as by far the most expensive item on the menu. Dave, however, jumped at the opportunity and proceeded to raise the GDP of the country several percentage points through a valuable influx of foreign hard currency. One way or another the food was really good, despite taking approximately 45 minutes to come and the waiter adding that a 20% tip was “standard” and then pretending not to have change. Yelp has not caught on in Romania yet.

That evening we headed to our first show at Mojo, a very cool British nightclub in Bucharest. Unlike other gigs I’ve done in Eastern Europe, the majority of the audience was local, with a scattering of expats and internationals. The show went well, though the all-important end of my set was spotty as some jokes didn’t carry across borders, as sometimes happens the first night in a new country. Bummed out at the realization I would not actually be carried off on the shoulders of my countrymen and into the arms of throngs of eastern European women taking a break from the set of the latest James Bond movie, I decided to call it an early night after 11 or 12 beers. I grabbed a falafel from a stand staffed by Romanians in Ottoman Empire-style costumes which would probably be considered racist in the US, I headed to the hotel, and went to bed.

Shot from www.mojomusic.ro. Not pictures - photographer who was clearly standing onstage during comedian's set.

Shot from Mojo’s website. I imagine comedian is telling a joke about the photographer behind him.

The next day I explored on my own, making an excursion to a grocery store (where my excitement at shopping like the locals was tempered by the reality of trying to determine whether novel foods labeled in a foreign alphabet were vegetarian or not), visiting the local Frank Zappa-themed club, and more. Romanians I met around the city tended to be nice, and younger ones spoke good English. I’d been warned that cab drivers would try to rip you off and I should always insist they use the meter, but in practice “ripping you off” meant charging $5 for a cab ride across the city instead of $3. Since I was coming from London, where you can’t get into a cab without taking out a third mortgage, I couldn’t muster too much outrage.

Frank Zappa Themed Nightclub, Bucharest

I hope this is a franchise.

That night we went to a fully Romanian stand-up comedy club, 99 Club, to perform for about 75 people at an experimental night of English comedy there. My plan was to open on a few jokes I’d written around some Romanian words and references that a Romanian-American friend of mine had taught me. I rehearsed beforehand with Teo, the Romanian host and owner of the club, who informed me my attempts were way off, then repeated back what sounded like the exact same pronunciation. Teo opened by performing in Romanian to a very good response, Dave Whitney hosted and got them going in English, and then it was my turn. My stomach jumped as I did my initial jokes – looking a crowd in the eyes and then speaking a punchline in a language you don’t understand feels like jumping off a bridge with a bungie cord tied to you and hoping it works – but to my relief they were met by good, non-mocking laughter, and the rest of my set was really fun as well.

99 Club in Bucharest

99 Club. Not pictured – me nervous onstage.

After the show, I talked with Teo and Domnul (another Romanian comedian) about my plan to go to Brasov, a smaller city, to visit a small Muresianu family museum my dad had found online. After hearing it, Domnul exclaimed “I have a joke about that museum!”. “Really? How does it go?” I asked. “It is about – eh – why would anyone want to go there? It’s just some dude’s house.” he replied. I refrained from explaining at length the importance of Andrei Muresianu in the hearts of the Romanian people.

After interviewing Teo for my podcast, the other comics and I went back to his apartment to drink home-made liquor (this is a big thing over there). A few friends came over and we drank and ate snacks while watching clips of Jim Gaffigan and Bill Burr on his computer. Overall, a very similar experience to countless nights I’d spent in America, though this time we were drinking hard liquor distilled from cherries by his neighbor. Teo was a huge fan of it, though to me it tasted like a blend of light cherry cough syrup mixed with fear that I would go blind. It ended up being totally fine and overall more palatable than most store-bought liquors you find, so I fully recommend it if you ever get a chance to visit Teo’s neighbor.

Coming next – the interview with Teo!

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