Romania At Dawn
In City and Village, the Only Common Sight Was the Blue Flag with Yellow Stars
I entered Romania for the first time in the middle of the night. As the bus made its way deeper and deeper into the country, I saw the sun rising in the east; I saw the fast growing cities of Arad and Timisoara waking up, and I saw the remains of what seemed to be long forgotten villages, inhabited only by elderly people whose children have long since left for work in the cities.
And in city or village, the only common sight was the European Union’s big blue flag with a circle of yellow stars, on cars, on billboards, and flying high over gardens and clock towers.
It was another 10 hours before I reached Bucharest, and I witnessed again and again the many things which have defined Eastern Europe for me, part Slovenian, part Swedish, and long a resident of Croatia: visible economic inequality among people, beautiful natural landscape and so much more potential than is being realized, and the smiles and easiness of the people, who approach you with a feeling of optimism almost non-existent in the developed West. While I saw street dogs in the cities and in the country side, while I saw towns with no billboards, and while I saw garbage even in gardens that people didn’t bother picking up, one could still on occasion see the European flag flying high.
Then at last, after 21 hours in the bus, past the new European Cultural Capital, Sibiu, and the medieval town of Brasov, I finally arrived in Bucharest. The closer I got to the capital, the higher the visible standard of living; the cars and roads got better, the houses bigger. What I did not anticipate though, were the traffic jams. With a population of 22 million, Romania’s economy is growing at 6.4% a year, among the fastest in Europe and in the top 50 in the world; in just a few years, car sales have boomed, leaving the city with over 1 million cars on the streets daily. While Romania struggles to expand the highway system to accommodate this, I sat and waited, as my bus crawled, meter-by-meter, towards its final destination.
Finally, exhausted from the journey, I stepped out of the bus to the embrace of my good friend Petru. We picked up some eats at a local restaurant and entered the compound where my friend lives. There, I felt at home – and not because I had ever been there before, but because of the warmth of a people willing to welcome a stranger into their country.
Their stories are powerful: Nelu Ciobanu, in his 40’s, tried as a young man to "escape" communism, even made it to the border with the West undetected before he changed his mind. Unwilling to leave his homeland, he turned back to stay in Romania hoping for better days. What he had only dreamed of, he said, the children of today’s Romania will be able to actually achieve.
The new freedoms were also important to Florin Calinescu.
"But first, we need to concentrate on the price that we have to pay [as a country]," Calinescu said. "We can no longer dictate our own national policies as we could before, and many of our skilled workers and bright minds will probably leave the country to seek higher wages in Europe."
Over the week that I spent in European Romania, I felt I was witnessing a country on the rise, industries seemed to be springing up left and right, homes were being built; people saw a middle class developing, and foreigners, seeing a very promising market, were investing and advertising. The fear is that along with prosperity will come the "McDonaldization" of Romania.
All in all, maybe it is true that Romania – and all of the other Eastern European states for that matter – need the European Union more than the Union needs then. But then again there may be some important things that some of the "old" Union members can learn, or perhaps re-learn, from the new: that we work to live, rather than live to work. This mindless consumerism is too often the price of prosperity.