All for a cup of joe.

Starbucks. The sign had my complete attention. For a moment. I’ve been through this before. A Starbucks sign is not a guarantee. Coffee, to be sure. But coffee is easy to be had. In this town, you barely have to walk a block to get a coffee. Espresso. Espresso dublu. Espresso macchiato. Anything your heart desires–unless your heart desires, oh, dearest heart desire, a cup of good, plain brewed coffee. In a mug. A little cold cream. No cinnamon. No chocolate dust. Something that leaves you feeling not just buzzed, but a little full after sipping for twenty minutes, half an hour. Longer if it’s big or you can get a refill.

But if you are in a country where the barista was born into a Latinate language, brewed coffee is a remote possibility.

Except. Really? Yes! A cone shaped apparatus, a vessel, and a tap. This Starbucks serves brewed coffee. And, blessing upon blessing, unlike any other food outlet in a mall, it has the soothing characteristic of a true local café–no loud music. Too busy right now, and too late in the day. Tomorrow. I will return tomorrow.

I set out early the next day. The day before, I had walked to the mall, a destination chosen because it was large, built only 10 years ago, and thus a place where I could possibly buy a replacement for the Apple laptop power supply cord I left on my kitchen counter in Canada. The walk had taken about an hour, but that’s because I stopped to take photos along the way. I could walk again, but I’d like to take the bus. Last week, a student taught me how to buy a bus ticket from the machine at the bus stop just outside the school. We didn’t actually buy a ticket, but he showed me how. Not so hard. Like an ATM, there are language options. Press the stripey flag icon, you get English.

We should have bought a ticket that day. Because the next day, when I went back to practice on my own, my two one-lei bills in hand in order to pay cash, the machine didn’t work. Nor did it work the next day. They’ve put the machine on the sunny side of the street and, now that the rain has stopped, I think the touch screen is simply overheating. But this morning I’m out early, it’s still chilly. I go with hope.

No luck. The screen is already hot to the touch. Okay, we’ll just make finding an alternate ticket machine part of the excursion.

The bus stop by the school is called the Sora, the name of the small mall at the same IMG_1737location with the basement 24-hour grocery/convenience store. It seemed odd to me that this barely noteworthy mall should be such a landmark that you can use it to give directions to a taxi, or that people who have no idea where the Unitarian school is will, after moments of tortured explanation of where I’m staying, exclaim, “Oh, it’s beside the Sora!”

I get it now. The Sora isn’t a landmark because of the mall. It is a landmark because it is the name of the transit hub. Where an electronic display will tell you when to expect the bus you want. And you can, sometimes, on rainy days, buy bus tickets. Nothing else like it in a three block radius.

I turn to our friend Google. “Where to buy transit tickets in Cluj.” Turns out, I can buy them with my phone by SMS. This is exciting. I try this. I am lacking “credits.” A lack of credits on my cell phone, though, is something even I know how to fix.

I head to the Orange outlet near the school. (Orange is the Telus/Rogers/AT&T of Europe.) I know to approach the young, attractive person by the door, tell them why I’m visiting the store, and have them issue me a number and assign me to a counter where someone speaks English. This person will have little patience (I know this, too, from experience), but they will speak English.

I feel competent in the lineup. I have finally located the screen at this end of the store that tells me which number this, the “Expres” desk, is working on. Number 20. I am Number 22. Unlike previous visits, I am not going to have to stand in line holding my ticket in front of me waiting to be waved forward. My confidence builds.

It doesn’t take long to figure out Number, let’s say, 19 is working on something quite complicated to do with their billing. Number 19 appears almost done, but then the young attractive person arrives with a Number 11, wavy blond hair in a ponytail augmented with small barrettes, who is anxious, perhaps as a result of standing in the wrong line, and who is going to get to go next. Number 19 flips to the next page of the sheaf of papers in their hand and Number 11 begins to look downright distraught.

Just a few of the coffee shops within a block of my front door.

The presumptive Number 20 finally pockets their troublesome phone, a counter person calls Number 21, and a tall person in a black leather jacket (there are a lot of these here) with a Number 20 ticket steps up, claiming space before the couple with a small box, a receipt, and a Post-it note with “21” in ink gets a chance. Number 19 finally leaves and an agitated, squat Number 24 with burgundy coloured thinning curls and a matching burgundy wool coat tries to elbow in before our near frantic Number 11 can get to the counter.

A block further away there are more.

Sent back to the line, Number 24 nudges me and gesturing with her nose asks to see my number. There passes between us a wordless understanding that, yes, I will have my turn before her. She settles more heavily into her shoes.

Plus kiosks. Even a machine.

When my turn arrives, the explanation that I want to buy bus tickets with my phone goes well. At first. The counter person wants me to buy credits in Euros. I’m not planning on riding the bus a lot and can’t really think in Euros, given they are not the cash currency here. We finally settle that they will load my phone with the equivalent of 10 lei, for which I pay 10 lei 80 ban and which, using SMS, turns out to be less than enough for four bus rides. I am almost annoyed when I figure this out, but then I remember that two lei is about 75 Canadian cents and I tell myself to get a grip.

Where I often go for a morning write.


The bus is great. Crowded with university students, men with grey stubble, parents with strollers. I recognize the bus stop. I head towards the large metal letters that are the promise of coffee in a mug and an unlimited welcome at a window seat. In my pursuit of this goal, I have walked past half a dozen cafés, eschewed an equal number of coffee kiosks, and turned my eyes from the fresh-baked offerings of innumerable bakeries. (In my neighbourhood in the heart of the old city, there are at least two on every block.) I know what a Starbucks croissant is like and don’t expect much from the one I will buy here. I have made a cultural choice and I’m sticking with it.

I settle in, add the contents of a creamer to my mug, and sigh.

The coffee is lukewarm. I am a long, long way from home.


IMG_1747My regular kiosk. Just outside the Sora. Americano, splash of milk.


5 thoughts on “All for a cup of joe.

  1. What a great post! A good story, well told, and well illustrated. From the number of coffee outlets and bakeries, it seems that Romania runs on caffeine and carbohydrates. I especially liked your description of waiting for your number to be served in the Orange (mobile phone) outlet. What a delightful account (at least for the reader, if not for you) of the cultural idiosyncrasies one encounters when living abroad. Reminds me of the two hours I spent mailing a package at an Argentine post office.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Michelle,,,This is Joan S from Seattle. I’m so enjoying your blog! Years and years ago I hitch hiked in Europe for a year, plus the “old ” Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, to name a few other places where I had no clue about the language. Somehow we got through it though, as you certainly seem to be doing. Isn’t it amazing to figure out how to buy a bus ticket! Try reading Greek signs,,,written in Greek, to figure out which way the bus was going. “My Greek” was what I learned because I was in a sorority in the U of M. It helped!
    Anyhow,,,I’m very impressed by your spirit and positive reactions. You’ll remember this trip for the rest of your life. Go girl!

    Liked by 1 person


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