around the world – part 17.7 (bucharest)

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October 3, 2006 by juniorannex

Tuesday 03 October 2006:

Well, I have successfully arrived here in Bucharest and what a different world. In summary Bucharest is a study in contrasts – simultaneously dingy and broken down complete with abject poverty on full display, while at the same time all sorts of new construction, high end retail and flashy cars are also very much apparent.  Right now you can see clearly how life was for most under the Ceausescu Regime – something which will likely disappear as Romania integrates with the EU – but also you can see where this city is headed.

First a bit of background for you: Romania surrendered to the Red Army in 1944 and then after fell loosely under the Soviet Bloc. I say loosely because the sort of communism in effect here in Romania had a distinctly nationalist flavour which became more pronounced in 1965 when Ceausescu came to power.  The legacy of Ceausescu is to this day one of revilement and to a certain extent a perverse pride. Revilement because during his rule he became a suspicious paranoid despot which had far reaching and immediately felt effects on his subjects – but also a bit of perverse pride as Romania under Ceausescu carved an independent path for itself separate from those (Czech, Poland, East Germany, Hungary etc) under the heel of the Soviet Union.  Pride too because despite the abject poverty which Ceausescu reduced Romania to, many seem to take that as the sort of challenge and badge of suffering that only Romanians can bear up under.

He is particularly despised for the quite unnecessary and sheer economic stupidity imposed on his people – particularly in Bucharest.  He and his paranoid crew embarked on a program of ‘systemization’ – new-speak for a particularly invidious form of collectivisation. Systemization meant housing the workers in identical apartment blocks (the better to control them) while erasing whole villages or historic areas.  Simultaneously, about 30 years ago, he decided that two immense construction projects should remake the heart of old Bucharest – the first was an imposing Parliament building (now the second largest office building inthe world) and the second, a grand boulevard to rival the Champs de Elysee (sp?).

In constructing the first he took out huge loans and subsequently impoverished the nation in meeting the terms of the loans, consuming approximately the entire available economic surplus for a decade or more in the late 1970s and 1980s. No expense was spared in constructing Parliament. Granite, marble and lavish ornate fittings were conceived and built for every room in the building no matter its final intended purpose. It is to this day the most easily distinguished landmark in the city. Although it isn’t the tallest building, its isolation in an immense park means that from almost anywhere you are able to glimpse it.

Second, running due east from the parliament building for about 2km is a grand boulevard, originally entitled the ‘Boulevard of the Victory of Socialism’, adorned with countless fountains marching down the centre and lined its entire length with 10 storey ersatz greco roman apartment buildings. To make way for this project, approximately 10000 dwellings, churches historic buildings etc were bulldozed and the occupants made homeless. Some of the most important historic budding in Bucharest were simply obliterated for this project – all to house the communist party elite. On first view, it is quite impressive and one might be forgiven in assuming that the remainder of the city is as grand.

Sadly, the entire project is one huge Potemkin village. The reverse side of these ornate apartment buildings are plain, facing out onto the streets immediately behind – where the housing stock ranges from hovels to 4 and 5 storey buildings standing in spite of themselves. (Not surprisingly, under the free market economy, some of those properties have soared in value – even for buildings one might charitably describe as slums). As you drive along the boulevard the sight-lines down each cross street were carefully managed with similar ersatz greco-roman apartments stretching away from the boulevard, but only for a block or two. Without exaggerating too much, I can state that every building constructed during the communist regime is crumbling – gaping holes and chunks are missing from balconies – window frames cracked and broken. Even the ‘showcase’ buildings intended for the communist elite, on close inspection, are in quite sad shape. Most of these apartment blocks would not be offered even as low income housing in Canada.

The downtown is dingy, and dusty. In fact it is rare and remarkable to witness a clean automobile. The air is heavily polluted and one can feel it your lungs – the grime probably arises as a result of at least three factors combining to undermine whatever natural beauty would otherwise be seen.  Firstly, since the fall of the Ceausescu regime and the adoption of market economy nearly everyone seems to be on the move – via automobile that is.  From the ubiquitous DACIA beaters to brand new Land Rovers and Mercedes the streets are clogged at all hours.  Partly this comes about from Bucharestis habit of double and triple parking, parking half on the sidewalk, in the medians – anywhere a car can be parked legally or not.  Secondly, the economy of Romania is very much industrial – think Hamilton circa 1950 and you will get an idea. Every building more than 5 years old is coated with soot and grime – pollution from every source seems to cling to all surfaces. Thirdly, I have yet to see any municipal services dedicated to cleaning the city – whether it be picking up garbage or washing down the streets. Garbage blown into the cracks and edges is everywhere, while sand and dust coat the streets. In fact I suspect that at least two services would do a booming business here – mechanics specializing in front end alignments (how many curbs do you need to climb before the handling becomes a bit dodgy?), and any service which actually removed garbage.

A survey of Bucharest isn’t complete without acknowledging the highly visible extremes between the rich and poor. There appears to be no middle class – or if there is one they are likely hiding their relative advantage so as not to be targeted by the many poor.  It is not uncommon to see Porsche SUVs, Land Rovers, Mercedes parked outside ritzy restaurants, while on the opposite sidewalk, sit dozens of poor. In fact, almost any business catering to the newly rich has their own private security force. Another aspect which poverty has wrought on this city is the dozens of abandoned dogs and elderly beggars.

By Tuesday morning, one member of the German delegation had been accosted by professional pickpockets, losing all of his cash in the process. Monday night another delegation were targets at a restaurant – three men sat down behind them and attempted to remove a wallet from one of the jackets hanging on the back of a chair. Also on Monday night we were accosted twice in the Greek restaurant next to our hotel, once by a young child flogging toys out of a plastic bag and once by a very elderly female beggar who glowered at us with her palm held out. Each of them timed their approach so as to appear when our waiter had left to enter our order at the kitchen.

But how about the meeting itself you might ask? Our Romanian hosts have been very hospitable – hosting the meeting in the very large and ornate Officers’ Mess a couple of blocks off the main boulevard. Each morning upon departing the hotel in our bus motorcade, we have been escorted by three military police cars, clearing a route through rush hour traffic. At times we are caught up in the traffic and can’t get through any more quickly than the local commuters but whenever an opportunity presents itself in the form of an open space, our police escort races ahead, blocks the intersection and we rush through. I can’t help but wonder if the residents instinctively resent us for the reminder of the perks once offered to the communist elite. It is hard enough getting across town during rush hour and then along come the NATO delegates barging through. To cap it off, once clear of the main boulevard, we proceed along at breakneck pace into the oncoming lanes with two police cars about 50m in front clearing two lanes over to the curb – making friends with the locals no doubt!

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Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron'scruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. C.S. Lewis

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