22 Apr 98
Tooling Around Romania
It is Wednesday evening and I have to catch the 5:56 train to Sibiu which
is near the center of Romania and on the other side of the Transylvanian
Alps. On leaving Bucharest the train crosses a flat expanse of farm land,
alternately grass green and dirt brown. Lines of poplar trees tuft the
plain in the distance.
After Ploiest the hills rise around you as you enter a valley leading
to a mountain pass. A shallow river rushes down its rocky bed churning
white water as it passes the larger rocks. You pass villages with flowering
fruit trees in every back yard.
The Carpathians appear dabbed with white snow near the higher summits.
Individual clouds hang out in the steep recesses between peaks. At last
the rain sounds against the train windows. Rising ribbons of steel work
their way through the narrowing valley floor, Sinaia, Azuga, The hillsides
covered with barely budded birches interspersed with tall forest green
pines, the hillside a russet brown mat.
Four hours later, I arrived at Sibiu. The hotel I stayed in, the Imperatorul
Romana, was once visited by Franz Liszt who played the piano in the dining
room, the dining room that has a glass ceiling that can be rolled back,
allowing guests to dance under the stars. But I have time only to sleep.
Click here for some pictures of Sibiu.
In the morning I conducted by interviews and caught an afternoon train
back to Bucharest. Pulling out of the Sibiu station, I watched the rusting
railroad cars on the sidetracks, the unpainted water tanks, the discarded
equipment: the detritus of a failed and foolish effort at industrialization.
All so new that it is still interesting, it still has its fascination.
The countryside begins to undulate as we approach the mountain pass and
the fields crawl up the lower slopes. As the bumps become hills, trees
replace the fields. Here and there a small village, each building capped
in red tiles. Here the forsythia are still in bloom.
The pass narrows and suddenly we pass through a tunnel, then another,
and yet another. Now the stream that races the train is flowing in the
opposite direction and down we descend through the valley.
As the valley floor widens the roofs of the houses turn from the red terra
cotta so popular in Transylvania to shiny tin. Must be due to the altitude
Entering the plain we see the lines of poplars and large copses, soft
with the distance. Near the train are dried brown furrows, occasionally
sheep grazing in the fields, and as we approach cities, the ever-present
concrete structures of all kinds.
Looking out the window you can see magpies, crows, rooks, and the occasional
stork nest. Storks lay multiple eggs and hatch them but after the brood
has started to grow they choose the two largest and toss the others out
of the nest. There is only enough food for two.
A metaphor for what Romania has been though?
23 Apr 98
Things I LIKE about Bucharest/Romania:
-The people, so Latin, so delightful, so friendly.
-The frequent ringing of large numbers of church bells
-The complete lack of chain link fences. Fences here are of stone or iron
or sometimes, concrete.
-The "no parking posts" about a foot high with red circles near
the top. Since Romanians have yet to distinguish between a sidewalk and
a parking lot, these post are put along the curb and right across the
sidewalk to allow access to porte-cocheres. Looking up while walking can
get you a broken shin.
-The neo-classical French architecture
-The surface transit system, where they never seem to collect fares. I
have how fares are supposed to be collected: you purchase ticket at booths
located near the larger stops and you put your ticket in a puncher inside
the bus or tram. Different trams on the same route have different punch
patterns so the theory of enforcement is there but watching how few people
punch anything tells me a lot about enforcement -- or the lack thereof.
Did I mention that transportation agencies are big money losers here in
-Romanian TV. There is a question in my mind if there is anything that
can properly be called Romanian TV. What you find on the tube here is
very American or very international. European MTV, The Bundy Family dubbed
in German (I am not kidding. If you thought they were funny in English,
you will split a gut listening to the German. Actually, there is something
rather appropriate in seeing/hearing the Bundy's in German.)
What is rapidly becoming my favorite show is "Esmerelda," the
charming and heart wrenching soap opera about a beautiful blind girl who
reads her lines. She always stares straight ahead into the camera even
when the person she is talking to is on her immediate left or right. Her
eyes charmingly go left and right as she reads her lines.
Above, the fair Esmerelda
reading her lines. Her ability to keep her eyes wide open all the
time is shows what a great actress she is. She is saying, "No,
Dominga. Even if I get married to Jose Armando"
The other characters are nearly as well realized. There is the evil middle
aged woman who always has a look on her face that would wither grass.
The enormous mamacita character who tends to everything and everyone and
is always distressed on behalf of one or the other but never does anything
There is an evil doctor who rides a big black horse and wears a big black,
flowing cape and has half a face, the other half having been lost in some
unfortunate fire in an earlier episode.
Esmerelda is always led by the hand and in the rare moments she is alone
someone is always on the other side of the pool and is beckoning her on.
I suspect she doesn't swim.
What gives me deep insight into this show is the fact that the show is
in Spanish and is subtitled in Romanian. I try to be home by 6:00 PM so
that I can see every one of its sixty minutes.
Things I DISLIKE about Bucharest/Romania:
-The way the people here drive. Put a Romanian behind the wheel of a car
and he becomes some cross between Mario Andretti and Vlad the Impaler.
-The air pollution! "Carbon monoxide, that old Detroit perfume,"
while not as vile as that in Bangkok, is a very serious problem. For all
the nice things here, you feel that you are paying in some other -- health
related -- way.
-The dust and GRIT!!!!! While sitting on my tiny patio typing on my PowerBook,
a gritty dust collects on my screen. It is everywhere in this city.
-The noise pollution. Cars are much noisier here than in the States. And
one other odd sound-related fact. At home, I can tell from the sound of
tires on the pavement if it is raining and the roads are wet but not in
Bucharest. Here the sound the tires on the asphalt produce a "wet"
sound all the time.
-The beggars. You start out thinking about the "unfortunate"
beggars and end up thinking about them as "importunate" beggars.
They won't give up; they pursue you down the street, pressing the back
of their hand against your arm. I have learned the Romanian for "Get
lost!" but it doesn't do much good. They are the money-sucking Draculas
24 Apr 98
Service: Unclear on the Principle
I have spoken about how 45 years of communism have seemingly destroyed
the ability -- at least of the older generation -- to grasp the concept
of service. This is not surprising. Under communism, someone working in
a restaurant had their job whether or not there were customers. Having
a lot of customers only reduced the quality of life, er, the quality of
work. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that wait staff have
a negative attitude about "service"; indeed, it is not surprising
that many do not understand the term at all, at least, not as it is understood
in a service economy like ours.
The hair stylist shop in the Majestic Hotel -- a very Western oriented
hotel -- is an example. The stylist shop has business hours painted neatly
on the glass door but it was closed although the hours indicated it should
be open on the day that I tried to get my hair cut. Do you think I will
ever go back? Do you think anyone there even notices that?
The newspaper shop in the Intercontinental Hotel -- another very Western
oriented business -- is periodically closed [forgive the pun] for no clear
reason. When I ask at the desk, they tell me that the shop is independently
operated and they have no say in the matter. They never get it that they
SHOULD have a say in the matter in order to guarantee service to their
In Brashov, the waitress asked about my meal when I left the french fries
on the plate. They were soggy, glistening with grease -- disgustingly
so. I simply said they were all soggy. She seemed surprised that I didn't
In Baia Mare's Carpati Hotel, there were two very generously sized 6 person
elevators but one of them was almost continuously out of service and sometimes
both were. This didn't seem to disturb anyone at the desk. It disturbed
me on the 4th floor and I had to walk down the stairs only to find that
the staircase had been barricaded on the third floor so that some reconstruction
could proceed unhindered by people on the staircase. I went back up and
eventually found my way down by the service staircase (unmarked) and exited
through the kitchen. When this happened to me again, I pushed the wall
down on the third floor figuring that I was doing some old lady a big
favor (how we rationalize the use of force!).
Of course they called someone to fix the elevator. I know. I saw him checking
out the elevator that worked. Nothing was done to the one that didn't
Don't confuse the question of service with the poor quality of some of
the products one is forced to use here. The leading example of this is
what I call the "Communist Charmin." Remember the "Please
don't squeeze the Charmin!" ad with that addled store manager? They
have it differently here. "Everyone must suffer for the motherland
and in their tenderest parts!!" Fortunately, there are decent and,
er, delicate, products here that treat your tenders right. You have to
look for them but they are available.
Don't confuse the question of service with inefficiency or efficiency.
I saw nine (9) guys install one gas meter -- I saw it with my own eyes.
The desire to pad employment lists is something that as an Irishman, I
can understand even if I don't approve of it.
Don't confuse the question of service with the unavailability of certain
important products. For instance, I have yet to be able to find any sources
of sharp cheddar cheese, maple syrup, maple sugar candy, peanut butter
(although this is rumored to be at the Amzei market) or Grand Marnier.
The poor service I am talking about is a failure to grasp what traveling
people want and need in a hotel or restaurant or store, whatever. Until
Romanians become clear on the principle this country will not be the tourist
venue that it deserves to be.