Can the Euro survive, let’s see if Romania can add to the floundering union/empire.
To visit Romania is to be transported back in time. The former Soviet country is a decaying snapshot of the 1970s. Romania is listed as one of Europe’s most corrupt countries, and it is obvious that a large portion of public funds has not been spent on public works and general upkeep. Roads are in disrepair, buildings are falling down, and the overall feeling is decidedly Athenian.
Wages in Romania are extremely low. A barista will earn less than US$2 per hour. An entire generation of Romanian kids has therefore been raised by aunts, grandparents, and even older siblings while their parents went abroad in search of decent remuneration. These economic orphans all seem desperate to escape the limited prospects their nation presents. They study hard, work part-time jobs, scrimp and save with the hope of leaving their homeland for a better life.
Young Romanians are extremely generous though, and my local connections continuously attempted to shout rounds of drinks and meals that would have represented a week’s worth of their wages. As a highly paid foreign correspondent with a company credit card, I gratefully paid every bill with a flourish.
For those that remain in Romania, factory work appears the most likely employment path, assembling widgets for German companies taking advantage of the wage differential. For these workers, the prospect of home ownership and economic advancement is a distant dream.
The architecture of Romania is distinct for its utter grimness. Designed by communists, its chief objective was to crush any form of capitalist hopes or aspirations that might have emerged in the populace. Humans are products of their environment, and the communists took their control to the extremes. Soviet-era apartments are small, cramped, ugly, poorly lit, badly designed, damp, and filled with mosquitoes. It is hard to imagine any type of creativity springing from such a setting.
Gypsies still abound throughout Romania and grubby-faced children can be seen playing on streets, lighting small fires while their parents travel the decaying streets in horse-drawn buggies. Godfather gypsies live in outrageously sized mansions while their army of beggars and pickpockets fan out across the continent and send back sweet, sweet Euros from wealthier cities. Many half-built mansions have been abandoned during the construction process and now house stray animals and vermin.
Romanians are especially superstitious folk and universally fear an unseen force called currente. A rough translation would be moving air. A motorcyclist wearing a T-shirt would be susceptible to currente. The open window of a house or car would provide the opportunity for currente to enter and spread its evil power. The sufferer will be afflicted by mysterious ailments, from headaches to colds and fevers. Even the young and educated generation fear this ghostly energy. A window was smashed during a storm, nervous folk stepped sound the broken glass and spoke ominously of the all-powerful currente.
Just as it seemed I might be getting a handle on the Romanian way of life, a small, sleepy, rural town was transformed on a Friday night. Never in my life have I witnessed so many privately-owned luxury vehicles in one location. The town was off the tourist trail. It was surrounded by sunflower farms – its only apparent source of income, and suddenly late-model Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes were everywhere. Steroid-pumped men queued for Big Macs and Happy Meals.
Crime is the only plausible explanation for this wealth. Large volumes of drugs or trafficked persons must be passing through the region. No other conclusion can be reached. Unless massive EU funding is being collected for enterprises that do not exist. Locals shrugged and laughed off my inquiries concerning this incongruent display of abundance.
As a history buff, I went out of my way to visit Timisoara, the town that started the revolution of 1989 that saw ruthless communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife shoved up against a wall and shot by a hastily arranged firing squad. On December 15, 1989, locals gathered in Timisoara to protest the reassignment of local pastor Laszló Tőkés, who was an outspoken critic of the Ceausescu regime. Security forces moved in and 66 people were killed. This repression only fanned the flames, and thousands of Romanians took to the streets.
Ceausescu quickly returned from a holiday in Iran, and on December 15 held a rally in the capital to demonstrate his grip on power. Cheers turned to jeers. Ceausescu fled via helicopter before being arrested, tried and executed on Christmas day. Shockwaves were felt across the globe. The Cold War was still an active conflict at this point.
Romania is a riddle. Poverty is widespread until Friday night when the mobsters come out to play. Wages are minuscule. Young generations see no future in staying. Mired in corruption, it appears a listless relic of a brutal communist era. Hold your suitcases close. Tip generously. Shout the bar if you’re so inclined. Prices are cheap. The people are largely friendly. The nation must be a huge drain on EU coffers unless criminal activity is included in its productivity figures. Perhaps it is just a barely functional narco-state.
Anyway, visit Romania one day. There are European supermarkets on every corner. Bottled water and cured meats are plentiful. The sunflower seeds are first rate, and the nation is steeped in unforgettable history.
G G Novack – Foreign Correspondent, Fearless Corruption Investigator