Expat eye | Don’t turn around: brave new Romania mustn’t backslide

Newsroom 20/09/2019 | 08:44

With her home country mired in self-inflicted chaos, BR’s resident British expat reflects on the progress being made in Romania and worries about recent reversals.

By Debbie Stowe

While I was packing for my move to Romania in 2002, my mum brought me two cans of Heinz soup – in case I couldn’t “find anything to eat there”. Although I was touched by the concerned maternal gesture, I declined the offer, on the basis that as Romania had a population of about 20 million, presumably those people must be eating something and therefore food was available.

My parents had travelled a lot in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, and seen various conditions. They’d been followed in Russia, passed through police states, been offered cash for their clothes, as such items were not available locally – but always been fortunate enough to return to the liberty, prosperity and plenty of the UK. Oppressive political regimes, threats to democracy, shortages of basic goods, difficulty in going about one’s daily business; it reads like a list of bygone predicaments, or afflictions facing countries deep in the developing world – not a characterization of today’s United Kingdom. Or rather, Disunited Kingdom. But here we are. Even before the Brexit humiliation, the main thing I loved about Romania was that the country was moving in the right direction. Yes, the UK was objectively the “better” society – stronger institutions, more functional infrastructure, more diverse retail, gastronomic and cultural scenes, more developed public services and so on. But unlike the UK, whose “glory days” were long gone (again, even before Brexit), Romania seemed to be looking forward to its best times. 

Of course, with my Parliament prorogued, a scoundrel as my PM and my country on the brink, I’m more grateful than ever to have found a home in Bucharest. But even here, there is evidence of backsliding amid all the recent encouraging steps forward.

The civil unrest in Turkey in 2013 erupted over the urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. I understand it: parks, the places where we play with our children, stroll with our lovers, walk our dogs, catch up with friends over a drink, jog, cycle, play football, breathe fresh air, are vital for our psyches, especially in places where few have their own gardens, like Bucharest.

I’m glad that couldn’t happen to my local park, I remember thinking, confident that Cismigiu was too historical, too central, too close to City Hall to fall under the developer’s bulldozer. Wrong. Now EUR 10 million of “improvements” are planned, which apparently include concreting over large swathes of grass. Bucharest’s lively – and constantly busy – civil society has naturally risen up, to protect the century-old gardens.

A little further up the river, Glendale Cinema – a charming, independently-run movie theater open for more than two decades – closed its doors in May, the premises having effectively been seized by the authorities of Sector 1 under a new law, despite almost 2,500 fans signing a petition against the closure. Describing itself as a cinema and art café, your ticket included tea, and viewers were given an empty paper bag which could be filled and refilled from the popcorn machine in a little room off the main cinema hall. It was wonderfully quirky and great value – a change from the identikit, comfortable-but-soulless multiplexes that now proliferate.

Amid Romania’s recent scandals – murder in Caracal, the Colectiv nightclub fire, watered-down disinfectant in hospitals – the slight disfigurement of a park and closure of a cinema are not the most serious. Nobody will die. But they are examples of how authorities can abusively, and for arbitrary reasons, make our lives a little duller, a little poorer, a little less colorful and interesting. Since I first stepped off a plane in Bucharest, soupless, 17 years ago, I would say 90 percent of the changes I’ve seen have been positive. More varied gastronomic options, better service, greater efficiency, the smoking ban, EU integration, stronger anti-corruption efforts, faster internet – all have made life here easier and more enjoyable. True, prices have shot up – an inevitable consequence of opening up Western labor markets. And some of the quirkiness has been lost – I can no longer laugh about my local shop being called “Angst” or a wedding dress boutique being called “Mistake”. But, overall, Romania is on the up. I hope it doesn’t reverse course back to the bad old days, like my home country is inexplicably trying to do.

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