Friday, December 16, 2005

Romania - Final Thoughts

Sadly, my Romania trip is coming to an end. I'm off to US for the holidays and then starting school in Boston in January. On my last night in Romania, my cousin Titi asked me what I thought about Romania overall. I had been thinking about this question for a while. My short answer is, I believe Romania is a country full of vitality and hope and that, in due course, it will reach the same standard of living as other European countries. Intelligent, ambitious, young people like my cousins will be the key to this country's transformation from a communist stalwart to a modern democratic society.

My long answer needed another experience before I could vocalize it. That experience came the next day on the way to the airport. As usual, I called our friendly and honest taxi driver, Daniel, who promptly showed up in his rickety Dacia ready to whisk me away. Daniel's car is an interesting machine. It runs on both methane gas and gasoline. Methane gas is much cheaper than gasoline so he retrofitted his car to go back and forth between the two types of fuel at the flip of a switch. Typical Romanian ingenuity! During the trip he ran out of methane gas and had to pull over and switch to gasoline as we no time to refill. Although his car was made to run on gasoline, the engine had a terrible time with it and kept sputtering along all the way to the airport. According to Daniel, the car was now used to running on methane gas and didn't like gasoline anymore. Oh well, he wasn't going to worry to much about it because he was planning to get a new car in a couple of years.

Afterwards, I thought about this experience and realized its metaphorical analogy to my impressions about Romania. Romania is like Daniel's rickety old car. After running on communist subsidies for so many years, the country sputters along on a combination of democracy and market capitalism. The new banking system that offers personal and mortgage loans (something unheard of in the old communist days) and the competitive mobile phone systems are like new parts added to an old engine block to make it run better. Fancy new stores and restaurants are like new trims and finishings. But despite the appearances, the frame still shows signs of rust. Endemic corruption and stiffling bureaucracy will be as hard to eliminate as the rust on an old car. Like a bad powertrain that can't transfer the engine power efficiently to the wheels, the road and rail infrastrcture is showing signs of age and must be upgraded soon. The temptation to switch back to the old ways of doing things is huge, but Romania has no time for it. It must catch the EU train coming January 2007.

Varza a la Cluj (Cabbage a la Cluj)

In the pantheon of Romanian food, Cluj owns the naming rights for one of the more popular dishes: cabbage a la Cluj. Few cities in Romania can claim this honor so we decided to investigate what makes Cluj so popular with tourists and taste buds alike. Cluj, the unnofficial capital of Transylvania, is a cosmpolitan city that draws its vitality from the thousands of students who attend one of Romania's best universities, Babes-Bolyai University. The mix of Romanians and the Hungarian minority adds to its complexity and sophistication. In the late 90's Cluj was swept by a Romanian nationalist movement that sought to remove many of the Hungarian minority's rights, but today the ethnic tensions have died down and the two ethnic groups seem to live comfortably together. One evening, we went to a screening of experimental short films at Tranzit, a local internet cafe, and met a couple of Hungarian students. I asked one of them what he thought about the nationalist movement. He told me that many Hungarians were quite scared of it, but that things are much better now.

I liked Cluj. The city just seemed to have its act together. The Melody hotel in the center square offered a reasonably priced room with a beautiful view of the evangelical church. If in Bucharest we had trouble finding a good cafe, Cluj gave us a choice of three excellent cafes (and a tea room) on just one corner of the main square. The city infrastructure seemed to work reasonably well, too. Soon after we arrived we got our first parking violation ticket for parking without a permit on one of the main city streets. After that we parked our car Romanian style on the sidewalk right next to the main square (the hotel claimed it was "their" parking spot; we didn't argue).

Cluj even has a sushi restaurant, if you can believe it. In landlocked Transylvania, a Japanese chef decided that Romanian taste buds need to experience more than just "varza a la Cluj", so he opened a sushi restaurant that draws a small, but curious Romanian crowd. We went there one night with a couple of friends. I was impressed with the atmosphere (our Romanian waiter was wearing a kimono!), but I couldn't say the same about the food. It must just be me. I always prefer a good local food like "varza a la Cluj".

Saturday, December 03, 2005

On The Road Again

We're off to new adventures in Transylvania, gathering new material for our blog. Unfortunately, this means our blog will not be updated as often as we would like during the trip.
After a short stint in Victoria, my hometown, and Sibiu we're off to Cluj and Bistrita. Right now we're in Cluj and we love it. We've parked our car in Piata Unirii (literally) and put up for two nights at the Melody Hotel right smack in the center of the city. We'll get back with pictures and travel impressions.