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 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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