Romania, like everywhere else if you look hard enough, is a country of contrasts. The first impression you get, on leaving Otopeni International Airport, is of coils of black-coated wire cabling hung up on the posts, as if the installation company thought it was a good place for storage. The second impression you get is of buildings of every kind: some aged with discoloured concrete and rusting metal; others brand new with modern design and architecture. Many times they are right next to each other.

Infrastructure
In some areas, quite a few of the buildings exist in a state of semi-repair, or demolition, or construction, or at least looking as though they need repairs, or tenants. For some buildings, only the concrete frame is in place. Very close to the centre of town there is a block (as in a city block of land) with four enormous buildings, stately, with fluted columns at the front. Apparently Ceaucescu intended them to be Romania’s radio city, but they are empty shells, still looking majestic but friable along the edges.

On the whole, the impression you get of Bucharest by a glance at its infrastructure is of trying to start an old car on a cold day: it won’t at first; it tries and fails, but with care slowly comes closer to starting up. The idea that it will start eventually is because of the modern high-rise buildings and businesses that are operating in Romania. Not just McDonald’s either – thankfully, there seem to be few of these – but there are many clothing retail chains of all kinds and styles, from high-end to be-sloganed teeshirts. Then again, I’m comparing Bucharest with Perth, the cultural Rip van Winkle of cities.

Transport
Dacia, Romania’s national car company, is now owned by Renault, makes the most common kind of car in Romania, the Logan. Both the police and all taxi companies seem to invariably use Logans, whose engine sizes are carefully ranged between 1.4, 1.5, and 1.6 litres. The Duster is Dacia’s 4WD/SUV. There are few other kinds of Dacia: occasionally an old 1310 or Solenza.

Public transport includes trams and buses. Sometimes the trams run down the same road lanes as the cars. Some streets are bitumen in parts, and in others, old half-bricks. Potholes can be frequent and deep in some areas, while in others the roads are excellent.

If you aren’t able to afford a car, you don’t want to be blind or in a wheelchair, especially if you have no one to help you around. There are in fact wheelchair ramps or what appear to be: they’re almost always too narrow or too steep to be wheelchair ramps, so they’re probably for people too infirm to use stairs. I did see a ramp that was undoubtedly suitable for wheelchairs; however, it had a cord strung across it, notice that it shouldn’t be used, for an unknown reason. The footpaths are reasonably wide if not always in the best condition, but the kerbs are mostly the barrier type: not sloping but perpendicular to the path and road.

The street sweepers are people not machines, and do a bang-up job of keeping the roads and paths clean, but given the surfeit of dogs, whether stray or owned, canine landmines are often to be seen – unless your vision isn’t good, in which case, finding Fido’s flops on your footwear will happen unpleasantly often.

Language
I’ve not written much about the Romanian language. I’ve been told Romanian is the closest living language to Latin, and its closest contemporary sibling is Portuguese, which also comes from Latin; as do Spanish, French, and Italian. However, modern Romanian has been influenced by its neighbours, so both Western European countries, including German and particularly French (Bucharest was called “little Paris”), and its closer Slavic neighbours have influenced the Romanian tongue.

Like any language, Romanian has words that sound similar but whose meanings are worlds apart. For example, sârut mâna (sounds like “sir-root mirna”) is a very polite greeting or farewell, said specifically to older people of the opposite sex. Approximately translated, the phrase means “I kiss your hand.” But slur over the en (“n”) in mâna and the word sounds like a particular sexual activity. You understand, then, that the importance of precise diction cannot be overemphasised.

Again, when a Romanian says something that sounds like a exclamation with a common swearword, spelled in Romanian Eu fac, it isn’t that he’s been unpleasantly surprised, say by finding a large hairy spider with bulbous chelicerae in the shoe he was just about to put on; he’s telling you that he’s doing something. Occasionally you’ll find other linguistic filips, like a sign advertising the “Cruella Wellness Center”.

Living
Shops are usually small, although there are large and very modern malls; large by most standards, not by those in Singapore or Dubai. Shops are usually on the ground floor of apartment blocks along main streets. Common shops are dentists, pharmacies, tyre shops, car washes, and notary publics. Banks can often be found next to bottle shops and gambling halls: the owners have done their demographic research. Often at traffic lights there are people begging for money, or selling small bunches of flowers or car accessories. They are there regularly: entrepreneurs without shops, and sometimes without goods. Some of those begging carry small cards of Orthodox saints, or cross themselves to stir the piety of drivers. While most of the beggars have full use of their senses and limbs, others use crutches to get around the cars, because they are missing a leg.

Some fun facts about Romania: the tax rate is, unless you’re obscenely rich, a flat 60%. Yes, 60%. The Palace of the People, a monument to Ceaucescu’s ego, is the second largest building in the world, smaller only than the Pentagon. The papanach is a delicious dessert like a small spherical doughnut with jam inside and cream on top. Romania has very fertile soil, and used to be known as the breadbasket of Europe. It is also a source of various quantities of natural mineral resources, including gold, silver, cobalt, titanium, molybdenum, strontium, wolfram, and vanadium. It is, of course, the country in which Transylvania is located, the home of Vlad Tepes, the inspiration of Count Dracula.

Australia could do with a dose of Romanian life. The Australian archetype was once independent, tough, and stoic. But now? Well, there’s a riddle that goes: how do you know a airplane is carrying Australians? Because when the engines are turned off, the whining continues. Australia, not for nothing, was called “the lucky country.” Unfortunately, the good life in Australia has prevented us from growing up – which is what hardship does – so instead we care about little except our own comfort (and occasionally the government that makes life more expensive). This doesn’t mean some Australians, through no fault of their own, find it difficult to make ends meet: it means the majority of complainers should compare their lives with that of other citizens of the global village – and shut up.

I’m not talking about the perhaps acerbic, tongue-in-cheek complaints meant as social commentary, but the whines of the pampered who have nothing more pressing to worry about than getting their 4WD serviced; 35-year-old children who are willing to have someone fired because a tree they liked was cut down. In Australia, such whinging would be answered by half a dozen government officials rushing to investigate the issue, suspending the officer in charge of the work, writing soothing letters to the complainant and defensive letters to the media. In Romania, I suspect such a hypothetical complaint would be met as it should be: with a flat stare of disbelief at the pettiness. It should also be followed with a suggestion to toughen up, princess.

That’s why I like Romania.

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