Friday, August 31, 2007

History Lesson Pt II

...Continued (see, just like I promised)

Part II: Now

June, 2007.

My plane had just landed at Otopeni, Bucharest’s International airport. I was back.

It was a simple transatlantic call from Andreea, who had been one of my clients when I was here four years ago. We became easy friends, and, somehow, I think, she must have babysat ex-pats before, because she was a damn-site better at it than the people who’d actually brought me over to Bucharest the first time four years ago.

“What’re you doing right now?”

“Nothing much. Why?”

“Cuz, I have to go to a meeting this afternoon in Constanta and I thought you might like to go for a ride out of the city.” (Constanta is on the Black Sea along Romania’s mere 60 or so miles of coastline, about 140 miles east of Bucharest, an Eastern European summer resort destination.)


Andreea is an excellent tour guide, and seemed to know the subjects I might be interested in learning about, how to teach without preach, and when to keep quiet, how to slow down when I wanted to take a photo, all the important things. She would drop me off in some photogenic place, and then we’d meet in some prearranged coffee shop or park when she was done with her meeting. I saw a lot of Romania with her. Plus she gave me the courage to venture out on my own with my camera on the weekends when I had the red Dacia.

She’s a globally traveled Romanian, and I bet her English is better than yours. When I left Romania, she still worked for the country’s biggest telecom company, so, employee perk, every now and again I’d pick up the phone and hear that wonderful, accented, perfect English, just checking in to see how I was doing.

ANDREEEEEEA! Ce faci? (Chey fatch?) ( How ya doin'?) Give me a project so I can come see you.”

She moved on from the telecom company a couple of times. So when her last call came in, and she said, “Do you want to do a project in Romania for me? I have one that’s perfect for you.”

What could I answer but “Let-me-think-about-it-YES.”

“Great. You won’t believe how much it’s changed.”

So that’s how I got to Otopeni Airport. And got my first glimpse of how quickly things had gone from Nu (no.)(pronounced New) to Nou. (new.)(pronounced No.) (Oh, goodie, my first Bilingual Romanian word play!)

There were approximately eight million four hundred thousand six hundred and eleven cars in front of us in the parking lot trying to pay and get out. A lot more cars than I remembered, And we weren’t even out of the parking lot yet.

And not one of them was a Dacia. Andreea had a new Peugeot 407. We were drowning in a sea of other Peugeots, BMW’s, Mercedes, Toyota's, V Dubs, Renaults, Skoda’s (more about these later because I’m driving one) Fords, and all of them nou. Wow.

“What’s up with all the cars?” I asked. I don’t remember getting too clear an answer because Andreea was, I think busy communicating some loving gesture with her hands and arms at the idiots in front of us who hadn’t figured out that they were supposed to pay at a kiosk inside, then get their cars, and then drive up to the exit gate to turn their tickets in and leave. Instead they would drive up to the gate, realize their error, leave the car blocking everyone behind, run into the station and wait in line behind all the other illiterati who also didn’t read the directions. Learning new ways is hard.

Once it took me an hour to get out of the airport.These guys can't read!” she groused while executing a perfect cowboy maneuver around and ahead of a car about to use the exit gate as a rest stop. “Brava, Andreea! You go, girl!” Yee haw!

“I want to show you around the city before I take you to your hotel. I don’t think you will recognize Bucharest from before.”

Quel understatement! Was she ever right.

Besides all those things I told you about from when I was here before (oops, sorry, that just slipped out.) I didn’t tell you that the city had been crumbling. And now it wasn’t. That simple.

After the revolution in 1989 the outside of the buildings were neglected. Once the state didn’t own the bloc, individuals were allowed to buy their apartments. But since Owners Associations seemed a lot like the old overseers, nobody owned, therefore took any responsibility for, the exteriors. So they crumbled. During my first residence, though, those with enough money were buying men on scaffoldings to fix the crumble. They were everywhere. And they seemed to me to be moving slowly. And my snapshot of them shows – oh wait – I actually have the digital snapshot – I’ll post it here – was of a disintegrating city slightly beyond the verge of total deterioration. Scaffolds were as common as pizza parlors. They were gone now.

I guess you can tuck point a lot of buildings in 4 years.

I didn’t have to be in the city for an hour to feel the difference. The frustration and anger seemed evaporated. People were actually bustling. In Bucharest. I spotted some actual residents smiling. Eastern Europeans. Smiling. For no visible reason. Not at anything. Just smiling. OK, not all of them. There will always be scowlers till a few generations pass into history. But still, this was different. My cognitive dissonance antennae were twitching like crazy.

What’s the difference? Whatever it is, it’s HUGE!”

So here’s the deal, see: (I'll make this short because you've been reading too long, and even I'm getting bored with it.)

Remember that 50% income tax? It’s been cut to 16%.

More Money to take home in fatter envelopes, right?

Not necessarily.

Sure, more money. But no envelopes.

Because the banks finally decided to let people access their own money: First there were Debit Cards. No more dangerous-to-carry/would-take-an-ogre’s-mattress-to-store-it-all cash. You could put your money in the bank and take it out anytime you needed it. Or, hey, just wanted to see it. Bancomat. (ATM).

That’s not all. This cascade continues. The march of the multi-nationals finally figured out that the emerging countries were the only unexploited markets left. Romania was now an EU member. The European Union isn’t much of a big deal for you state-siders, but for previously disenfranchised Eastern and Central Europeans, being a member is like joining the same century as the rest of the world.


Multi-nationals bring jobs. EU brings start-your-own-business grants. Increasing real estate values bring - money- money-money-money.

Did I mention money?

Money to put (where else?), in the bank to get back out of a bancomat machine. Money in the bank to establish credit. Credit, by the way, was unheard of in 2003. Who would give credit to a Romanian with such a low paying (above the table) job?

So now there are debit cards, and credit cards. Now there is credit for people with high paying jobs from the multi-national companies, and the growing Romanian companies using the startup grants. And the two best things that credit buys best, precisely those things that Romanian’s have been most deprived of. (Now stop that! Not Air Jordans)

Those things you can’t ever save up enough cash for on low wages:


And cars.


And more cars.

It's a Romanian sign of the times. Cars. Cars. And more cars. If you'd been here before 2004, you wouldn't recognize the place. I wonder if my driver ever got the VW Passat he was lusting after? If so, that would be too bad. He should have dreamed bigger.

I hate history lessons. Next time I’m taking you to the bucanie (grocery store). Or we'll go for a cowboy drive on the crazy streets of Bucaresti (b-you-cuh-rest (breathe the i, don't actually pronounce it)).

To see Romania in 2003 through my eyes,
click here.

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