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Romania and the Roms Okay, so I’ve been here nearly 4 years and the magazine is 1 year old, so perhaps it’s time I donated my view on Romania and the Roms – or perhaps not? Third world country, banana republic, economic back water, a political hierarchy more corrupt and inept than American accountancy practices (is that possible?) a bureaucratic nightmare, ignorant, stupid people, gypsies, beggars and thieves, a land overrun with savage rabid dogs – the arsehole of Europe. This is the image that
   1 Romania and the Roms Okay, so I’ve been here nearly 4 years and the magazine is 1 year old, so perhaps it’s time Idonated my view on Romania and the Roms – or perhaps not?Third world country, banana republic, economic back water, a political hierarchy morecorrupt and inept than American accountancy practices (is that possible?) a bureaucratic nightmare,ignorant, stupid people, gypsies, beggars and thieves, a land overrun with savage rabid dogs – thearsehole of Europe. This is the image that Romania has managed to project and how it is perceived by the rest of the world. Are they right? Well, yes and no.The first drive in from the airport was not too inspiring, huge unfinished tower blocks, withrusty cranes standing idle. Roads with more holes than Emmantal cheese. Every car was a Dacia (or at least 90% of them), old decrepit farting, spluttering vehicles driven by manic horn blaring psychopaths. First impressions were of entering something akin to the Wild West and apart fromthe geographical connotations, these were not to prove far wrong.There were however a few decent bars and restaurants and an expat community that wasmuch more concentrated than it is now. As one became used to the cities eccentricities one realisedthat it has somewhat of a rustic charm. Recently described as a cross between the chaos of Cairoand the socialism of Warsaw, 4 years ago you could have added Beirut during the civil war. Third world country? Yes definitely – any country that has such extreme poverty andextreme wealth, with very little middle class (middle income) deserves that title. How manycountries sell as many Mercedes as Fords? Romania did last year. Politics. Romania emerged from its “phoney” revolution in ’89 and I say phoney becauseapart from knocking off the “big C” very little changed. Yesterday’s Communists became today’sDemocrats and Iliescu was not the ideal person to lead Romania towards democracy and capitalism.1996 saw the election of the first ‘centre right’ government under President Constantinescu.These were the ‘good guys’ but they were inexperienced and naive, good intentions are not enough;the populace saw little or no improvement in the general standard of living. The older generationseven referring to the communist era as the “good old days” at lest then they all had a job,somewhere to live and food to eat. The problem is that although they were always poor, they didn’trealise how poor they were because everyone was the same. Now however, for many the situationhas deteriorated, they see a few people who are obscenely wealthy, read about corruption scandalswhere businessman and politicians are accused of stealing $ millions, they see shops with goodsthat they can never afford to buy. Many pensioners and others are struggling to feed, clothe and paytheir utility bills. Understandably they are angry, disillusioned with their Government, they didn’thave money, but they did have a vote. This was the situation at the last election in 2000 when thefragmented ‘centre right’ was wiped out. As a generalisation the old people voted for the ‘old red’Iliescu, the young and supposedly better educated for Vadim Tudor. Both alternatives were lookedupon as horrifying, Iliescu would put back the country’s development at least 3 years, Vadim Tudor would return it to the Stone Age.So who the hell was/is Vadim Tudor? Vilified by the press as baby eating, gypsy bashing, a psychopathic nationalist with the personality and I.Q. of a slug. This was how he was portrayed inthe press, both Romanian and International. But although they were probably right, they alwaysresorted to paranoiac hysteria as opposed to explaining their arguments. It was some of the most patronising journalism I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience. Most people are unaware thatVadim studied social psychology and he obviously learnt something.   2 Anyway, the ‘old red’ won the day. Surprisingly, he did not turn out to be the total disaster that we had been led to believe. He has mellowed with age and although never a brilliant politicianhas matured into a dignified ambassador for his country. He has also done his best (in public atleast)to fight corruption. Unfortunately, alas he is pissing in the wind. Basescu. One time Minister of Transport appeared from almost obscurity, unleashed a slick campaign and suddenly he’s mayor of Bucharest. Elected on a manifesto to clean up the city andstamp out corruption he says what he likes and he likes what he says but what’s more he means it.Despite the fact that we occasionally poke fun at him, this magazine actually admires him andwould be comfortable with the prospect of him taking the next Presidency. Economic wasteland.  Now I’m not an economist, so we’re not going to discuss balance of payments deficits etc. All I cando is give a personal impression. As I said earlier when I arrived there were only a few decentrestaurants/bars and 90% of the cars were Dacias. Now probably 30% of the cars are foreign andthere are new bars and restaurants every week. The Bucharest Mall and Carrefour have opened and both are doing well. Many of the old tower blocks have been finished and there are many other newdevelopments. There are several areas of the city (mainly in the North) that can only be describedas plush. And what about the Marriott? If this truly was an economic wasteland the Marriott shouldnever have opened here. Not only did they do so, but they have also achieved one of the highestoccupancy rates of the group in Europe. Obviously things are still very bad for most of the population, we are not witnessing on economic miracle here, but things are moving in the rightdirection slowly. Business Tycoons.   Yes, surprisingly Romania has a few and whilst I’m told you shouldn’task them where they got their first million dollars some of them have carved out empires in arelatively short period of time. Dubious business practices, bribery, corruption, opportunism, luck or just good judgement and connections? Probably a combination of the lot, but what cannot bedenied is that they are very switched on guys. Bureaucracy.   Bloody hell! Talk about a nation that hates trees. Forms for this, forms for thatand in bloody triplicate — I’m surprised you don’t need to fill in a form to buy a beer. A hangover from the communist era it is remarkably efficient, efficient at destroying initiative and enthusiasmand stifling foreign investment. Corruption.   When it comes to corruption the whole world acknowledges that Romania isgenuinely premier league. The newspapers are always full of stories and their favourite headline is‘scandal’. Corruption is endemic in Romanian government, both national and provisional. One wagonce said that it might be better if the country never changed its government because eventuallythey may have stolen enough and might get round to doing some work. Corruption will never bestamped out and they won’t even begin to make progress until some high profile figures are seen toreceive long prison sentences and have their assets confiscated. It is not only politicians that arecorrupt, but also the businessmen, public servants and the police.Let’s not get this totally out of proportion, there is corruption in every country, it’s just theyare more blazé and less sophisticated about it here. Is there much difference between someonesaying ‘Hi, I’m the Romanian minister of X, give me $ 1 million dollars and I’ll approve your  project’ and someone who says ‘Hi, I’m head of Arthur Andersen, I’m an accountant?’ Spaga.    Now spaga is corruption on a small scale and I’m sure you have all come across it, if not, you will do. Spaga oils the wheels of business and other things. Spaga is what you pay a policeman when you’re stopped in your car, he can always find something wrong with your drivingor your car if he looks hard enough. After all he knows (ha! ha!) the laws you don’t. Spaga is the   3 way of saying don’t waste my time and I won’t waste yours. And of course he is supplementing hisincome. This is not an ideal situation especially when you think you can get out of a drink drivingoffence for about $20. Great if you are pissed on the way home from the pub, appalling if your child is knocked over by a drunk driver.If you’re in business you will be harassed by petty officials looking to find some minor infringement so that they can say ‘Ah! I have found something wrong, it is a $500 fine or for  $50 Ican forget about it.’ Irritating but in most cases it’s better to pay, but don’t forget you can negotiate.Some people will not pay spaga on principal. I met one guy who was county manager for amajor Swiss company. He told me he never speaks to any official unless he is wired up (recordingthe conversation). When the subject of spaga is raised he says ‘Look, I didn’t ask to be sent here,my company is stupid enough to do business here, so   they must be prepared to pay the fine, Iwouldn’t give you the drip off the end of my nose”, at this point he calls security and has theofficial physically thrown out. Next he calls a courier firm and has the taped conversation sent tothe officials’ boss usually arriving before the luckless would be extortionist returns to his office. Is it dangerous?   The Roms can’t believe it when I tell them this is the safest city I’ve ever  been in. OK so since the ‘big C’ popped his clogs they are experiencing a bit of crime wave, butthis is only relative. You can walk around the centre of the city at all hours of the night with little or no chance of being mugged, you might get harassed by pimps (especially on Benneton comer onCalea Victoriei), but they’re just kids really, tell them to f@!% off. OK the outskirts of the city area bit rough and there are certainly some ‘serious’ people live here, but as a tourist or an expat goingabout your business you’re unlikely to encounter problems. In 4 years I’ve never witnessed a fightin a bar or club — enough said. Doing business in Romania.   There have been a number of guys who have flown in here,taken a look around and thought third world, stupid, ignorant people; I’m going to make a killinghere. Usually they don’t last long, those that do have to take a reality check. A lot of people havegot their fingers burnt, others have been blatantly ripped off. There are many opportunities here butthe foreigners who make the most of them are usually those who take the time to understand howthings work here.A friend of mine was on a flight to the States, there was this American guy sat next to himand he was in tears. It turned out that he was the country manager for some company and had beensummonsed home by his boss to explain why they had and picked up a profit tax bill for $200.000when his company had made a loss of $1 million. It was something to do with when an invoice israised it is at that point that tax becomes due, whether the invoice was paid or not. I’ve no idea if this is still the case and can’t be 100% sure it ever was. Reparations  . The previous Government and it has been endorsed by this one, decided that people dispossessed by the communists should be given their property back or at leastcompensated. Now on the face of things this seems all very honourable.I’ll digress here, I don't agree with reparations full stop, I don’t think that this generationshould be held liable for the actions of its predecessors. I don’t think that Germany should have paid compensation to the Jews. I think that Black Americans claims for reparations for slavery areludicrous. The human race is cruel, warlike and illogical but it’s the only one we’ve got and wehave to live with it.What next? Suing the Italians because your city was srcinally destroyed by the Romans? Or Mexico suing Spain over the wanton destruction and mindless vandalism of the Conquistadors?The Catholic Church was the biggest terrorist organisation the world has ever seen, sue the pope?   4 Get real. I do however think that the Church should pay compensation to all the children beingmolested by their priests —the reason, because it’s happening now.Back to Romania, now on the face of things this all seems very honourable. Unfortunately theestimates of cost vary from $4 to $60 billion dollars (though most Romanians I’ve met are verycynical about it ever being paid). In a country as poor as this one, that money would be better spent building roads, hospitals and schools or simply feeding the poor.  Is it expensive? Everyone thinks that Romania is a cheap place to live and if you live like anaverage Rom they’re right. Also if you’re an expat with a corporate package and a family it is.However many imported goods are as if not more expensive than the West. If you’re a single expatit’s not much cheaper than living in your own country where typically you might eat out once andgo the bar twice per week. Here because you have no family and fewer social ties you’ll probablyeat out and go to the bar every night. O.K. so you get more for your money but the expenditure isabout the same. Last week ‘whiskers’ went up 20% (it’s now more expensive that in England) andI’ve got two cats.  Roads. They haven’t built a decent road in this country since the Romans left. Do youremember when some religious geezer visited the city a couple of years ago, can’t remember hisname but you know the one, always mumbling, nodding his head and waving at people. Anyway,this was quite a big deal for folk in these parts and they didn’t want the popemobile (oh, yes that’sit, I remember it now he was the Pope) falling down a pothole. So they sent the boys out to fill inthe holes along the route then re-tarmac. A week later the tarmac had sunk the holes were back. The people. The Roms will tell you that they’re ‘Latin’ now I’m never quite sure whether they are offering this as an excuse and if so, for what. When pressed on what makes them Latinsthey will tell you that it is because the Romans were here. Well the Romans were in Britain,Germany, Egypt, 3 really Latin countries and they were never in Latin America, so obviously that’s bullshit.So, Latin or not this is very much kissy, kissy, touchy, feely land. Now where I come fromyou’d kiss a female family member or a girl you’d like to sleep with. Here everyone kisseseveryone else. You’re standing in the bar, a stunning young lady comes to you, kisses you on bothcheeks whilst standing very close to you and clutching your arm with both hands. You’re thinking‘wow I’m in here’ she’s thinking weren’t you some guy who sat 3 tables away, a week lastThursday.And what about shaking hands? I’ve been here so long that my right hand is smaller than myleft. I don’t have a problem with this, as they say ‘when in Rome – eat Chinese food, drive aJapanese car but throw Christians to the lions.’ As I say no problem except sometimes it takes along time to leave the pub. Girls. When I arrived 4 years ago you could walk into a bar, order a beer in English, youimmediately find an attractive young lady sat on each knee. Obviously they were stupid, not sostupid that they thought you were Brad Pitt, but they saw money and visa (not your flexible friend but a ticket out of here). By now however they are aware that we are almost as ignorant and probably bigger liars than the ‘average Bogdan’. Now I will explode a myth. When Romanians ask you what you like about the country theyexpect you to say the girls. It’s true Romanian girls are very attractive but there are attractive girlsall over the world. What’s more Romanian girls don’t wear very well. Stunning at 21 their way at24. It is very difficult to find an attractive girl over 25. An ex colleague of mine was commentingon this to a Romanian client. The Romanian smiled and said ‘Yes, you’re right, but there arecompensations, you can always f@!% an 18 year old.’
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