Letter from a Romanian correspondent

July 30, 2019

In Letters To Finkelstein

I grew up in a big industrial city on the Danube river, at a time when the world still moved at a slower pace. In the heart of the city, centenary one-store buildings displayed their eclectic architectural styles; farther, they were scattered among lines of smaller or bigger blocks of flats, surrounded by green areas, a common sight for most of southern and eastern Romanian cities. Its peaceful streets were lined with majestical old lindens, and a long green cliff run along the Danube shore. I still associate life quality, more than anything, with living in a green city.
Then, years ago, I moved to the capital. Bucharest’s popular surname is “the city we all love to hate” and, as Romanian realities in general, is full of contrasts.
Not so far ago, it still had the charm of a village. Beautiful old trees bordered narrow meandering streets with tiny village-like houses and courtyards, and bourgeois fantasist-kitschy houses. A rural flavour has made its way through all political regimes and historical periods. In the 70s, one could still hear pigs being slaughtered for Christmas, and here and there people were still growing poultry in their courtyards. Even now, the general socialising style bears some visible traits specific to small communities. A “how do you do” question takes serious time to be answered, familiarity installs very fast between strangers, and in a block of flats, neighbours know a lot (if not every) detail on the others’ respective lives.
The American journalist John Reed visited the city and made some sharp observations around 1915: “To look at it all you would imagine that Bucharest was as ancient as Sofia or Belgrade. The white stone weathers so swiftly under the hot, dry sun, the oily rich soil bears such a mellowing abundance of vegetation, life is so complex and sophisticated – yet thirty years ago there was nothing here but a wretched village, some old churches, and an older monastery which was the seat of a princely family. Bucharest is a get-rich city, and modern Rumanian civilization is like that – a mushroom growth of thirty years. The fat plain is one of the greatest grain-growing regions in the world, and there are mountains covered with fine timber; but the mainspring of wealth is the oil region. There are oil kings and timber kings and land kings, quickly and fabulously wealthy. It costs more to live in Bucharest than in New York. (…)
It will be said that I have judged Rumanians by the people of Bucharest, and that Bucharest is not all Rumania. But I insist that the metropolis reflects the dominant traits of any nation – that Paris is essentially French, Berlin essentially Prussian, and Bucharest thoroughly Rumanian. Sometimes there are peasants on the street; the men in white linen trousers, and shirts that fall to their knees, embroidered in delicate designs of flowers, the women in richly decorated linen skirts and blouses of drawn work exquisitely worked in colour, chains of gold coins hanging around their necks. They fit into the comic-opera scheme of things. But one hour by automobile from Bucharest you come upon a village where the people live in burrows in the ground, covered with roofs of dirt and straw. The ground their burrows are dug in is owned by a boyar – a landowning noble – who keeps a racing stable in France, and they till his land for him. Two per cent of the population can read and write. There is no school there. Several years ago the proprietor himself built a school for his people, on condition that the government would take it over and support it; for three years now it has been used as a storehouse.
These peasants eat nothing but corn – not because they are vegetarians but because they are too poor to eat meat. And the church provides frequent fasts, which are the subject of laudatory comments on ‘frugality and thrift’ by satisfied landowners.” (
Things didn’t change much in between wars, a period highly idealised now in opposition to the communist era. Circumstances abruptly changed when the socialist state decided to modernise the country and level the huge wealth differences of its inhabitants. The city extended fast as enormous housing estates were built, following urban renewal plans, or systematisation, in the 1960s and 1970s. The aim was to deliver 300,000 units between 1960 and 1965 and subsequently 100,000 per year. It’s less visible in the city center, but the result is that around 80% of the housing stock of Bucharest consists today of socialist era buildings.
These endless standardised blocks of flats, despised nowadays as being insupportably uniform and not enough aesthetically pleasing, welcomed hundreds of thousands of workers from all over the country. Back in those times, the former peasants or the poor workers invited to dwell in them along musicians, engineers or intellectuals, didn’t complain they weren’t beautiful enough. They were happy to have running water, indoor toilets and heating, and be able to live and work in a city. In comparison with their cramped village houses with packed-earth floors, it was a luxury, and it constituted an important social promotion.
In the 1980s, a decade of IMF debt repayment austerity, poorer quality apartments were built, with less space around, and less attention to their aesthetics. Slowly, these desired models of equality started being regarded as too austere and dehumanising. Consumer goods were of increasingly mediocre quality and the shelves of the grocery stores were increasingly depleted. If a decade ago the socialist state rewarded its citizens with the access to these resources, now the opposite was perceived to happen – the state was limitingthe resources destined to them.
The systematisation completely altered the face of the city, but it wasn’t flawless. Big central boulevards lined with tall blocks of flats and huge neoclassic buildings proudly displayed the new architecture style of “great socialism achievements”. Yet, hidden behind them, one could unexpectedly find plenty of tiny village-like houses with their respective courtyards. A specific cultural flavour surreptitiously accompanied the communist discourse: the city was systematized à la Roumaine.
The ancient regime was bitterly accused of destroying, with its demolitions, a part of the city’s life and history. Nevertheless, after 89 the process continued, guided no more by propaganda or industrialisation needs but by the logic of pure profit. Glass & steel giants replaced old houses, so as the architectural chaos of the city be complete. Once more, the juxtaposition of differences, once so striking, between wealth and poverty, old and new, was reinstated. As for the corruption, it never left, but now it could openly flourish, being no more subdued by firmly traced directives coming from a central authority.
The city fabric changed once again. The role of the state regulating anything from economic decisions to social protection was relentlessly questioned, even demonised. Hence, urban planning abruptly went to the opposite extreme – from the authoritarian top-down approach of the previous era, to the complete lack of vision or interest for it from the authorities.
That’s how real estate developers could pursue their interests undisturbed. Large hypermarkets and shopping malls invaded the heart of the city. Lack of such retail spaces before 89 was used as an argument in their support. It comes as no surprise, in the wake of the general frustration that went on for years. Once I heard someone recount his first visit in the Occident, after the fall of the regime. The guy remembered the first thing he did was kneeling before a supermarket full of goods, and crying. Consuming became the new meaning of life.
Now it’s full of supermarkets everywhere. The peasant markets still functioning in the city lost the fight with the supermarkets opened in their immediate vicinity. Either they closed, or were forced to diminish the quality of the grocery they sold.
The city’s green spaces diminished, even if it desperately needs them. When not “retroceded” to wealthy entrepreneurs, green spaces and parks are being increasingly concreted.
Sometimes is hard to tell corruption from stupidity – a few years ago, the city hall started to systematically cut the city’s big, splendid trees. It’s called “toileting” (aka trees being cut to where the branches start, indifferent of age, species, or time of the year). It seems their wood serves as gratis coal for the stoves or barbeques of the city hall’s employees. Bucharest has about 8,449 inhabitants per sq. km, with particular areas inside the housing estates reaching a density of 14,000 inhabitants per sq. km. It’s one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. Apart from being overcrowded, it is extremely hot and dusty during summertime, not to mention over polluted. But the primitive teams mowing down its green treasures can’t be stopped. Boulevards see their trees cut down to be replaced with pre-prepared turf and seasonal flowers, and have up to three sidewalks borders, one in top of the other, all of which are often replaced. (It seems flowers & borders are big affairs for mayors.)
As always, Romanians seem very committed in destroying invaluable things in everybody’s interest for a few’ gain.
When I came, Bucharest was much greener and less polluted and suffocated by cars. But things can change fast here, as John Reed noticed (except for some persistent cultural habits). The number of cars circulating on the city’s streets raised at a fast pace in the last 30 years. As the administration didn’t consider worthwhile to invest in its infrastructure, Bucharest is now the most congested city in Europe (and number 3 in the world, after Bangkok and Mexico City). Very often sidewalks are hijacked as parking lots, rendering them inaccessible to pedestrians. Owning an expensive car became the symbol of high social statute and wealth, more than owning a house or anything else, so there is no wonder Bucharest proudly displays the biggest quantity of most expensive cars in Europe. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Porsches and huge 4×4 can be seen spending hours blocked in traffic, in a noisy, dusty and polluted city. And are being worn-out fast on the city’s broken roads.
It reminds me how a century ago foreign travellers recounted that local boyars bought the most expensive carriages in Europe to show off their wealth. Their carriages broke quite fast, too, as roads were as disastrous as today, so they had to replace them quite often. They hold lavisher parties than those in Paris, and spent their leisure time at the theatres and Opera. But once outside the boyars’ manors, deep mud reigned everywhere, and a deep, cruel poverty. It seems it never passed their mind better roads would be worth investing, being a gain for everybody.
Funny how cultural traits transmit in time.
Contrasts don’t imply only Bucharest’s architecture. With all its problems, the city stays one of the most expensive to rent or buy a home in Europe, comparing the income of local inhabitants and the price per square meter of living space. Still, we are a country of home-owners – 96% of Romanian families live in owner-occupied dwellings. The enthusiasm stems mainly from the lack of viable housing alternatives. Renting is even more expensive, and laws protect the owner, not the lodger. I was once given 3 days to quit a place I was renting, and had to leave my belongings in an open attic space for months, while I lived in a friend’s house who took pity on me, until I found something else to rent. Also, someone who’s not a home owner enjoys the social statute of a cast-off, as I learned the hard way.
The current situation is also a heritage of the transition. In 1990, the state owned 70% of apartments. Once the government began to sell these properties, people rushed to buy the homes they were living in, almost for nothing. Romania’s devalued currency, paired with growing inflation, created a strange situation where the price of an apartment in 1991 matched the price of a TV in 1994.
Soon, the government was to stop building new housing units, and retreated from bearing any moral or financial responsibility for housing the population. More than a third of Romania’s housing is now in disrepair, with structural issues, heating problems, and little protection against earthquakes (Romania’s risk is the highest in Europe). Many owners simply cannot afford repairs.
After peregrinating for years as a lodger in other’s homes, I finally settled down in a quiet area. There are old unrestored houses all around, less circulation, some trees still left around. Year by year, I see a concerning evolution – surrounding streets have seen their trees cut, expensive cars came to occupy every road side, here and there old houses left to ruin are demolished to make place to better investments.
I enjoy what I still can. Weaved into the crazy life rhythm of today, there still shine peaceful moments of silence, interrupted only by a dog barking from a nearby courtyard. Vestiges of a village’ flavour can still be felt. One of my neighbours, a gentle old lady, constantly brings me the tchorba and sarmale she regularly cooks. There still are nesting birds in the tree in front of my windows, and, even if less and less are coming, I still wake up in the mornings in their joyful chirps.