Letter From Romania

It’s been fun to post photos from here over the past few days – which has been easy, since contrary to what you might have heard, Romania is a lovely country.

But since there’s a break in the action for a few minutes (maybe 40), it is worth taking some time to say a few more serious words from here.

I’m a regular visitor here, and there are at least a couple of serious things that are worth sharing.

First, in terms of history, you know that old-favorite line about “Communism fell without a shot being fired”? Well, it’s not true, and you know that when you visit here. Communism fell with lots of shots being fired – almost all of them by the communists on the way out.

We all arrived on Thursday afternoon, and were hustled right into downtown Bucharest – since we would be in the city for review meetings on Friday. Less than a block from our hotel, right on the wide boulevard is the National Theater – and right in front of the National Theater is the “Ground Zero” of the uprising in December, 1989.

(The “ground zero” memorial in front of the National Theater.)

After Ceausescu’s disastrous “balcony speech,” civil unrest broke out. Students from the nearby university blocked the boulevard in front of the National Theater; the Securitate soon arrived, and a tense stand-off ensued. After some minutes, the Securitate troops opened fire on the unarmed students, killing and wounding dozens of them. That was the last straw, and the unrest turned into a full-fledged uprising.

We were taking a pre-dinner stroll around the general area, and on a side street I noticed a concrete building that was about five stories high. You could still clearly see on the facade the impact craters made by heavy-caliber machine gun bullets that had been fired by the Securitate. Those were some of the shot fired in the fall of communism.

Second – and this is particularly notable amidst all the economic gloom-and-doom – it’s quite breath-taking to see how quickly Bucharest continues to improve. Bucharest has multiple layers. When Romania gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1881, due to the similarity of the Latin-based language, the Romanians mainlined themselves to France – which, unlike today, was a good choice at the time for short-cutting and accelerating modernization. The dominant older architecture of Bucharest is clearly copied from late-19th-century French architecture, and it gives the city a certain degree of elegance – and it has been known as “the Paris of the east.” The communist era stuff is just wretched – ugly, blocky, badly-constructed concrete eyesores. The only upside to that crud is that (like the “original” Dacias) it was so badly built that it has all been falling apart.

(Dacia. Rhymes with “Gotcha.” They make decent cars now.)

But the most surprising change is how quickly new construction has been sprouting all over Bucharest – the place is unrecognizable (and much better) from what it was even three years ago. Due to low costs and low-and-flat taxes (everyone listening back home?), Romania has become a top-10 destination for international investment inflows. There are construction cranes everywhere, ultra-modern glass-and-steel office buildings have sprouted from what was nothing only a short time ago, and there seems to be commercial and residential construction going on everywhere.

Bucharest is now a very large city – depending on of whom one inquires, the general population of the area is something in the 3 to 4 million range. The traffic is sclerotic at busy times.

So it was something of a relief on Friday afternoon to decamp from Bucharest and bring all the rest of the things to be done northward to up here, at Sinaia in the mountains. If you come to Romania and just go to Bucharest, you would think that Romania is very flat. But it’s just the opposite; nearly all the rest of Romania ranges from hilly to (as the earlier photo-posts show) outright mountainous. Sinaia is in a gorge-like valley at an elevation of some 2500 feet – so the air is cool and fresh.

We’ll have a couple more days of work up here. Not bad.