Thursday, 2 January 2014
100th Post: Back in South Africa
It's been an amazingly emotional journey for my wife and I ... for her, reconnecting to Romania after a ten year's absence; and for me, accompanying her and supporting her through that experience. I won't lie that it's a relief to be back in South Africa, but that's only because I feel like I'm in control of my life again and not just a victim of circumstance: here I understand the language on the TV news, I had my car I could jump into, and when I wanted to reconnect my television I knew the number I had to phone (living in a country is a million of small experiences).
When we left Bucharest it was another overcast winter morning, around 1 degree Celsius again, and even though we were anticipating the heat (30 degrees Celsius and car air-conditioner on maximum), we were really caught out by the bright golden sunshine and vibrant colours of summer. You really do end up squinting like a mole, as your brain tries to re-orientate itself to 'back-home'.
Five things I liked about Romania:
1: Cheap things: personal taxi rides costing 6 lei (R18) for short-distance hops to 25 lei (R75) for an airport transfer; a cross-country parcel couriered from Cluj-Napoca (in the north) to Bucharest (in the south) for only 25 lei (R75); a heavy-duty winter jacket imported from China for 80 lei (R240)
2: An efficient public transport system: I've previously used an Oyster Card to navigate London's public transport, but it was still fantastic to have access to the same thing in the form of a pre-paid RATB card in Bucharest to swipe for trains, trams and buses. Trips cost less than 2 lei (R6), and long-distance over-land trips by train are also affordable: we paid 19 lei (R57) for a three-hour trip on a regional train between Bucharest and Sinaia, and 100 lei (R300) for an express ten-hour trip between Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca.
3: The simple things in life: Being able to buy a pie for 3 lei (R9) was good. Walking out of the cold in Romania into buildings that are so warm thanks to omnipresent hot-water-powered radiators on the walls that you immediately strip off your jacket was great. Having access to a 20 MB/s unlimited internet connection and 50+ cable TV channels which is so cheap was brilliant.
4: Beautiful public parks: In Johannesburg you're lucky if you get a small patch of grass with two trees and one bench to sit on as a 'public space'. In Bucharest you have numerous MASSIVE parks with walk-ways lined with benches, complete with lakes (ducks pre-installed) and free exercise equipment.
5: Friendly people: this is going to seem completely in contradiction to point 2 below, but I had numerous amazing experiences with friendly people who my wife and I really got on with, and who treated us like family.
Five things I didn't like about Romania (more applicable in Bucharest than elsewhere):
1: Rude salespeople and customer service people: Yes, there were exceptions to this, but there were so many cases of people who are meant to serve customers being arrogant or dismissive that it was crazy.
2: Unhappy people with somewhere to get to in a hurry: Bucharest was very different primarily because in Johannesburg we live more isolated lifestyles. Everybody is in their cars, so it's rare that you're ever stuck in a moving stream of walking people (apart from heading towards a concert). I'm not saying that all South African people are cheerful all the time, but the number of silent and clearly depressed people cutting you off all the time while walking in the Bucharest Metro stations was truly overwhelming.
3: The cost of 'familiar' things to me: Whether we're talking about McDonalds medium meals costing 30 lei (R90!) or laptops for 2 000 lei (R6 000) without Windows pre-installed, there were plenty of times you'd get caught out as a visitor. Airports are always more expensive for food, but it amazes me that a 3 lei bottle of Nestea you could buy in the Metro vending machines cost 9 lei (R27) in the airport vending machines.
4: Being treated like a potential criminal everywhere: something you quickly get used to in Bucharest is constant surveillance. People will follow you in stores and even museums (!) to keep an eye on you. There will be more people at the check-out area scrutinising that you haven't hidden anything under your jacket in your trolley. I guess this is an indicator of high levels of petty theft, but understanding it doesn't make it fun.
5: Just how little English you find in Romania. It's like if you're a foreign tourist and want to find out about Dracula, you're covered in Romania. Nobody, however, has really contemplated that there might possibly be English-speakers in Romania needing to read warning signs ('Iesire' means 'Exit' didn't you know), magazines (even popular global brands are in Romanian), instructions (even on public transport - all tourists use taxis, not), labels, or understand even a single local TV news channel (they're all in Romanian).
More than all of the above, the desperate state of buildings really worries me (even Government buildings like railway stations). Yes, in Bucharest some apartment blocks are being re-painted, but for every one of those you can spot buildings which haven't been touched since the 1970s. It's not just one or two buildings ... it's so many that I think that Romania has already lost the battle. The required investment now is just too huge. What's it all going to look like in another 20 years? I've already remarked that people have clearly given up trying to paint over the graffiti on the buildings' exteriors, but it goes so much further than that and it's so damn sad because you can see the greatness lying underneath.
There's amazing natural beauty in Romania. There's a great infrastructure for keeping the average person fed, warm and at work on-time. There's also a huge amount of economic pressure and everybody has a tale about unscrupulous employers willing to fire you at the drop of a hat ... I realise that given the low average salaries many of the things I found affordable were actually relatively average, and the things which were expensive really are exorbitant.
So would I go back to Romania again? Without a doubt: I've got new friends there, and a vast country to still explore. Would I ever pretend that it's a tourist's dream? Not yet, not by a long way - at the very least, not unless you as a foreigner first put in a significant amount of work to learn Romanian (not the formal kind you get out of books, but the informal rapid-fire spoken form with all of its contractions).
Thank you Romania for memories of a lifetime (e.g. skiing down Azuga's bumpy and icy 'snow' out-of-control to wrap myself around the only signboard pole on the slope). Here's to next time.