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Visa – a Romanian Vacation

A cop in a mini skirt with the cutest pistol you ever saw…

Visa: Don’t leave home without it. This is typically the catchphrase of American Express, not Visa. But if you’re an Australian about to travel to Eastern Europe, namely Romania, forget all that. You can leave your American Express card at home, but don’t bloody well forget your visa.

This was meant to be an article on the beauty of Romania, not some cutesy, if rather painfully trite, play on the word ‘visa’. Unfortunately, on this trip at least, I’m ill-equipped to expound upon the beauty of Romania, because I’m writing this as a bitter man, detained in the basement of the Bucharest airport.

You see, my airline failed to inform me that Australian citizens need visas (not the credit card, I have one, and tried that) to enter Romania. Okay, that is true, but I also failed to inform myself of this all-too-vital fact, which even the slightest bit of research would have uncovered.

Take heed, fellow Aussies: If you are planning a trip to Romania any time soon, get your visa in advance, or you will suffer the same fate as me.

However, now that this necessary caution has been entered and documented, let me add a brief, optimistic “unless…” to the above statement; for I’ve discovered that being detained by Romanian immigration authorities is not the unequivocal, Eastern European downer it perhaps ought to be.

And glinting from deep within this discovery, is a lesson that has use far beyond the land of the gypsies, Dracula and Nadia Comaneci. Oh, I’m not saying I’m the sage and master of anything, but I do believe that my imposed Romanian detention afforded me a glimpse into something that very much resembles the key to the tower of human happiness. At least a key to a great many of its doors.

Call her Nikita….

I did. Nikita may not in herself hold the key to human happiness, though many men would argue otherwise. Nikita and I’m strictly relying upon the Elton John classic for the name here, was the first Romanian I met. And, since I saw only about eight, she was also one of the last. She was the customs official who examined my passport before wagging her finger playfully at me and tilting her head sideways and smiling and singing:

“No, no Mr Australian, you’re not coming to Romania tonight. You have to come with me.”

“Hehehehe,” I chuckled and blushed. I’d never flirted with a customs officer before and never so badly wanted to. “Anywhere. You can take me anywhere.”

She stood and walked around the desk and I almost gagged. The bottom half of Nikita’s customs’ uniform was a miniskirt and high heels. Clipped to the waist of this unforgettable miniskirt was the cutest, smallest most adorable little pistol I’d ever seen. She walked up to me smiling, strutting a bit actually, and grabbed me at the bend of my elbow as though we were about to begin an evening promenade down Bucharest’s trendiest street.

“What a country!” I thought, hardly able to contain, among other things, my joy. “What a greeting!”

Then Nikita escorted me through a side doorway and deposited me in an office full of fat frowning members of Romania’s frontier police. She wheeled around briskly, mouthwateringly. I never saw her again.

Oh Nikita You will never know anything about my home

I’ll never know how good it feels to hold you

Nikita I need you so …

The prison

The prison was not a prison at all. The frontier police had no idea what to do with me. Evidently, they are not used to tourists arriving at their nation’s doorstep whose only offence is utter and almost inexplicable idiocy. A heated argument broke out amongst them, and though it was entirely in Romanian I knew they were debating what on earth to do with this Australian schlep who had boarded a plane to a country he had no legal right to enter. One fellow made a grab-him-by-the-throat slapping gesture (complete with “ch ch ch” sound effects) at which everyone looked at me and laughed. I smiled and nodded and said a little inner prayer.

Fortunately the slapping gesture was not brought into effect, and the debate over my fate continued. And continued…. Boy did it continue! After what must have been an hour and a half, I was told that I had to board the first flight to Bulgaria in the morning, and that I would be detained for the night – could they be serious? — in the Bucharesti international Airport business lounge.

“Business lounge? Did they say business lounge?” I didn’t say it, but I thought it. And I hoped it. The language barrier was too intense for me to immediately abandon my apprehensions over Eastern European prisons, body cavity searches and the thereafter vanishing of my identity due to my failure to pay a bribe… but still, I could’ve sworn I heard the phrase “business lounge”.

My Romanian nightmare turned into a bit of a dream as I descended the stairs to my prison, and found I’d heard correctly.

A large lavish room with leather couches, a fairly ridiculous array of biscuits and potato chips, and a 24 hour, absolutely free, open, and majestically stocked bar.


I didn’t have to actually enter Romania to learn that if you’ve spent 30 hours airport hopping (Rockhampton, Darwin, Mumbai, London, Bucharest) without a shower or a change of clothes, Ursus, Romania’s prized national beer, is a good way of taking off the edge.


I didn’t have to actually enter Romania to learn that if you’ve spent 30 hours airport hopping (Rockhampton, Darwin, Mumbai, London, Bucharest) without a shower or a change of clothes, drinking about 40 Urses, or Ursi or Ursus’ is a way of taking off the edge, but not necessarily a good one.

Happines is detained within you.

“Mate,” I addressed myself. “You’ve paid a lot of money for this little adventure. It’s turned out to be far more of an adventure than you bargained for, so – celebrate it! You’ve got more than your money’s worth.”

It’s amazing what an open bar and a closed-off country can teach a man. But there I was traveling for a unique experience or two and getting one of the most unique greetings to Romania any Australian has ever had. Nikita and her little pistol would almost have been enough to seal it, but the open bar, the bizarre imprisonment and the forced flight to Bulgaria made for an unforgettable traveling experience. Was it comfortable? No. (I slept on the floor beneath a lounge table).But anyone who travels for comfort may as well stay home, just as anyone who lives for comfort may as well stay in the most comfortable place of all – the womb.

I was a fool not to book a visa for Romania, but being foolish allowed me to stumble into a circumstantial wisdom that likely passes many more-practical people by: If you want to enjoy a moment in your life, just enjoy it. Or to very appropriately quote the Australian born, Romanian writer, J Donald Waters:

“The secret of happiness is the determination to be happy always, rather than wait for outer circumstances to make one happy.”

A Romanian visa: $50. A forced flight from Bucharest to Bulgaria: $240. The lessons I learned whilst imprisoned in the Bucharest Airport business class lounge: Priceless.

Okay, I’m getting all my credit card slogans mixed up. But at least I now know that inner joy and happiness are aspects of existence that Romania cannot issue visas for and Visa cannot charge interest on. Leave anything you want at home, but don’t leave home without knowing that.

And if you happen to visit Romania in the next few months, have an Ursus for me, say hello to Nikita, and please, please tell me what its like over there.

Alex Ternowetsky