After the Revolution

Owen Bennett-Jones

The thrice-weekly flights of Romania’s national airline Tarom from Bucharest to London have an atmosphere all their own. In the bleak waiting-room, most of the passengers stand and settle in for the inevitable delay. The room contains a few Romanians excited to be on their way to Western Europe and many more West Europeans delighted to be on their way back to civilisation as they know it. Most of the West Europeans came to Romania filled with good intentions. Aid workers, nurses, theatre groups, sports teams arrived keen to discover more about a country that has been effectively off limits for the past two decades. But by the time they leave much of the good will has been worn out and many feel angry, depressed and insulted.

As the flight is postponed for another two hours the would-be passengers begin to swop stories about their experiences in Romania. Those who have been in the country the longest deliver the most vigorous harangues. They describe the old people’s home where, instead of taking a bath, the inmates are once a week lined up naked against a wall and hosed down by the staff; the orphanage where the nurses refuse to touch the children, preferring to throw food at them. Small wonder that the two-year-olds, after a lifetime in their cots, grab the bars and slowly rock back and forth with the intensity of people driven insane.

Of course, there are experiences to offset the horror stories. I recently came across a Romanian I knew in one of Bucharest’s ubiquitous queues. He had been waiting three hours for cooking oil but as we chatted the girl who had been sullenly – and infuriatingly slowly – handing out the half-litre bottles, clocked off for lunch. We were caught up in a huge surge, the glass bottles went flying and an oil slick seeped over the supermarket floor. By the time we were propelled to the pick-up point there were only cracked, empty bottles left. As my friend walked away disconsolately, a woman armed with at least a dozen bottles offered him a couple.

The shortages are on the face of it insuperable, but they have not affected the Romanians’ sense of hospitality. Ask any Romanian and they will tell you that there is no cheese, no flour, no sugar, no eggs. But set foot in a Romanian home and you will immediately be offered cake and a brandy; stay for lunch and you’ll be given a feast. There is food in Bucharest, but getting it requires patience, ingenuity and connections. I mentioned to a Romanian friend that I was going to the diplomat’s shop where many scarce items are available. He begged to come with me. At the door he was immediately spotted and aggressively turned away. I tried to persuade the doorman to let him in. ‘Can’t you read?’ the doorman screamed at Mihail: ‘No Romanians allowed.’ Mihail turned away, uncomplaining, and waited for two hours in the early-morning frost while I queued to buy food. But then, all the people I was in line with were Romanians – Romanians with the right connections.

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