Filed under: Romania
…Romania has sure changed a lot.
I was last here in March 2003, when I wrapped up a six-month visit. Back then I was amazed that even little provincial Alba Iulia, my hometown, had a store where you you could wander around picking up the merchandise – older, Communist-era stores had everything behind counters so you needed to approach a surly clerk for help – and that the shop displays were starting to look more affluent too.
Back then I was thrilled, too, that locally-based chains began to appear: when it comes to eating, it turns out that it is nice to not always have to wonder if what you’re ordering will be ok.
And toilet paper! No holes in it, nor did it look like some poor grade half-processed sandpaper.
Here’s what I’ve noticed in as of 2007:
- New money: not easily missed, a few zeroes have disappeared off our currency. Lei are divided into bani, and I had only ever heard my parents talking about bani, the mythical, Communist-era cents. Lei now come with coins! Mind you, the coins are simple, with little thought put into the design. Obviously the government expects inflation to make them obsolete again, so why waste time on putting pretty pictures on the coins? Worse, though, about the new money is that I can’t understand the prices. Ask for a price and people swing between the new numbers (say, a 14 lei bus ticket) and the old numbers (the same ticket is 140,000 lei). I never know what to pay.
- Returning migrant workers: at least one in three families have someone working abroad where conditions are better. Many families were split up in the early Noughties as people of all ages went to Italy, Spain, Britain, Germany, etc. to work both legally and illegally in agriculture, mining, construction, and the service industry. (The news in the West mostly reports on the gypsies abroad, but ethnically and culturally they are more visible and provide more sensationalist reportage. However, they are probably a minority in terms of the entire Romanian migrant population.) Romanians are starting to realize that conditions abroad, sometimes with 12- to 16-hour days and low pay, just keeps them alive, providing few savings. Others have managed to save money and have returned to start their lives anew in Romania.
- Immigrants: some people, however, are not returning to Romania. My parents keep mentioning people who realized, hey, I like Spain, Spain seems to like me ok, why don’t I sell my house in Romania and stay here? Thanks to the EU, now they can make that decision.
- Malls: when even Alba Iulia has a mall, now that must be making smug capitalists everywhere sleep better at night. I suspect the costs are still beyond most incomes. Pretty places, mind you. Luckily, there are a few homegrown stores among the influx of foreign companies.
- Job creation: not just in the malls, where I met a nutritionist actually almost practicing her trade. If I stayed here longer, I would probably find more evidence than just the service and retail industry.
- Shell gas stations: they are gone. The Russian Lukoil bought them. Or was it Petrom? Also, I thought there were more MOL stations here before (MOL is a Hungarian gas company).
- Book stores: ugh! The books look prettier, but Romanian culture is the loser in this globalization battle. Aside from a tourist section with a handful of coffee table books on Romania, a classics shelf with the canonical Romanian writers, and a trickle of contemporary Romanian authors, there is nothing about Romania. It’s all about the West now (with the odd Murakami novel thrown in, but he’s very washed-down Japanese anyhow) . Sure, I am glad that Romanians can be aware of what’s happening abroad. But this is coming at the cost of learning anything about our country. I am relieved that I stocked up on books about Romanian culture, language, customs, superstitions and literary analyses years ago.
- Museum improvements: I’ve only had the chance to visit four museums so far, but the Brukenthal has catalogues now, Alba Iulia’s Muzeul Unirii now has changing exhibits, Bran Castle has better security and an exhibit on its 20th century owners, and PeleÅŸ Castle has not crumbled since 1994 when I was there last. The latter may not seem like much, but considering that so many shady deals happen there between tourists and security guards, I can breathe a sigh of relief. Kudos to Romanian and Russian tourists for knowing to take photos without the flash. American tourists are destroying Italy and probably the rest of Europe; luckily, we have no American tourists.
- Credit cards: there are so many stores in which you can use them! However, between my parents warning me that I and twenty generations of my descendants will be robbed blind, and the fact that I had no idea credit cards came with PIN numbers, I haven’t been able to use one. This cost me a DVD on Transylvanian fortified medieval churches.
- MuÅŸchi Å¢igÄƒnesc: they’ve ruined my favourite deli meat! “Gypsy muscle” is now a greasy slab of tasteless nondescript meat! My parents reassured me that in the countryside there’s still real MuÅŸchi Å¢igÄƒnesc because they’re still slaughtering pigs the old-fashioned way, EU be damned.
- Old folks: you rarely see little old women in black kerchiefs around any more, even in the villages.
- Thatched roofs: two of the last houses with thatched roofs in my grandparents’ village have disappeared, foundations and all. The only evidence they existed is that I have photos of them from every single previous visit to Romania.
- Transylvanian fortified medieval churches: not really new, since they were constructed centuries ago in response to the Mongol invasions. But I just discovered them. I had visited some before I knew what they were. Now I have to read up on them, re-visit them and suck in their aura as I imagine the terrified medieval population of Transylvania cowering around. Plus, a tourist map gave me the idea of a late summer church-to-church tour by bike.
- Good customer service: wow. Was that a smile? Must be all the Romanians returned from working in Italian restaurants.
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