Bucharest down the pan

The most fascinating little book that you have (probably) yet to read this year is this gem from Alex Drace-Francis and Wendy Bracewell, both of whom we know – disclosure klaxon – from our days at SSEES: Where to Go in Europe.

Where-to-go-in-Europe

It’s a simple idea: an anthology of travellers’ accounts of confronting the need to find somewhere to go while on the road. It’s a universal problem, one that everyone – from pauper to prince – faces at some stage, so it’s probably not too much of a surprise to discover just how often lavish descriptions of public toilets – be they luxurious, appalling or simply baffling – appear in even the most studied and learned accounts of international travel. As the curators explain in the pun-tastic introduction (written, of course, in Krapets, Bulgaria):

Travel writing, charged with all that seems anomalous about foreign parts, often enjoys the license of discussing matters which might be considered taboo at home. This may account for the sheer quantity of information about lavatorial habits and toilet technologies (or their absence) to be found in the writings of those who have left behind the conveniences of home and have ventured out into the world.

What is less surprising perhaps is how often the simple toilet is used to confirm existing prejudices about a country or its people, or even its economic system. After all, a perennial lack of soft toilet paper (or any toilet paper at all) was often cited in the western world as all the proof we need that communism was doomed (or, as Drace-Francis puts it: ‘the scarcity of toilet paper became a metonymic byword for the socialist utopia caught short’).

The first (and perhaps most graphic) vignette in the collection is that of a 15th century pilgrim travelling Europe in search of spiritual guidance who has his faith well and truly tested by the state of the loos – or what passed for such things – along the way, particularly on a galley he takes across the English Channel. The description of trying to get to the ‘facilities’ at night will horrify and amuse in equal measure.

Yet even 600 years later travel writers still put all sorts of emphasis on the civility of the local bogs. Indeed, we were prompted to go through some of our own work and were far from shocked to find more than a passing reference to the condition of various toilets. Even in the latest issue of Bucharest In Your Pocket we include a small section on the subject. Then again, given how decent public toilets in Bucharest are few and far between it would be amiss if we did not point our readers towards those which do exist (in the Universitate Underpass and at Gara de Nord). Indeed, we devote more words to the state of the toilets at Gara de Nord (we report them as being ‘reasonably if not impeccably clean but certainly usable, the gents at least’) than we do to either the ticket or the left luggage offices.

Other than that, all Bucharest can offer by way of public toilets are either the awful, stinking portaloos which look terrible, not least when dumped somewhere with little thought or futuristic yet impractical automated toilets which are again often placed with no rationale or consideration whatsoever.

So for anyone who has ever been caught short in Bucharest it may come as a bit of an eye-opener to come across (in the book) the words of a Croatian visitor to Bucharest in the 1930s:

Drace-Francis-Exceprt

The luxurious public toilets our correspondent is referring to are – we think – those at Izvor whose entrance pergola remains even though the loos themselves have long been closed. Bucharest’s top architectural blogger Valentin Mandache wrote about them a few years ago. You can see his article and photos here.

Bucharest: the city where even the public toilets have gone down the drain.

Anyway, do buy the book: it’s a bargain £4.79 on Amazon for your Kindle – so you don’t need to be flush to buy it – and it offers a fascinating peak under Europe’s toilet seat. It reveals far more about how we see ourselves and each other than any amount of verbal diarrhea ever could. We needn’t add that the short, sharp chapters are perfect for visits to the privy.

Making Bucharest’s streets safer for children

Small steps.

Having witnessed – for the umpteenth time – yet another near miss involving a dickhead driver and small children, the amazing Mrs. Bucharest Life yesterday decided to try and make one tiny part of Bucharest safer for children. As such, she has started a campaign to have traffic lights installed at the intersection of Bulevardul Marasesti and Strada Cuza Voda. This intersection:

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The dickhead driver of the orange jeep thought it would be nice to provide the children of School 79 with another obstacle

The dickhead driver of the orange jeep thought it would be nice to provide the children of School 79 with another obstacle

Currently, children going to or coming from School 79 on Strada Cuza Voda have to use a simple, poorly marked pedestrian crossing, which – as anyone who has tried to use a pedestrian crossing in Bucharest will know – is not easy. Drivers – usually coming at great speed from the Bulevardul Dimitrie Cantemir/Marasesti intesection 300 metres or so away (itself the scene of the most accidents in the whole of Sector 4, we understand) rarely stop at the pedestrian crossing: even if there are children waiting to cross. (And when they do stop, they usually stop on the crossing). Worse, many impatient drivers pull out from behind cars which have stopped in order to overtake on the crossing, not giving any thought to the fact that the car in front might have stopped because, erm, there are children crossing. This is when accidents happen. Given that the delightful drivers of Bucharest are not likely to change their habits, the only way to prevent further incidents is to install traffic lights at the intersection so that cars are forced to stop. That is what we are now trying to achieve.

The first thing we did was to contact the local police: Sectia 14 is right next to School 79. Though they said they did not deal with such things, they did say who does – the Brigada Rutiera Bucuresti (Bucharest Traffic Police) – and provided the telephone number.

When we contacted the Brigada Rutiera they were polite and helpful, and explained the procedure. Firstly, we need to prepare a formal application stating our motives. This we will do, backed up with a petition including the signatures of as many parents at the school as possible. The application will be presented to the Brigada Rutiera and the Administratia Drumirilor, before being passed on to the local council, who will have to approve it. Once approved, a tender is held and the work carried out. All very easy in theory: we will see how it pans out, and keep you posted. It is worth noting however that the Brigada Rutiera were reassuring in their assertion that there is no reason it cannot be done, although they were just as keen to point out that it may take a while.

As with anything in this city we will believe it when we see it, but we are going to try our utmost to make it happen.

Meantime, if you know the intersection in question and want to sign our petition or help us out in any other way, do get in touch.

Great bookshops do not look like great bookshops

After an early dinner at the rather wonderful Marin Grill on Strada Gabroveni (do go: you can feast for next to nothing on fresh sardines, sea bass, octopus and mussels – all grilled on a hotplate to order) Mrs. Bucharest Life wanted to go and have a look at the much talked about and much photographed Carturesti Carusel bookshop on Strada Lipscani.

When it opened a few months ago it was very much the cat’s whiskers and generated hundreds, if not thousands of articles and blog posts – both inside and outside of Romania – heralding the place as the most amazing bookshop ever to open in Bucharest. This one is particularly hilarious:

“The Carousel of Light”, as it is known, thoroughly deserves it sobriquet: sunrays stream through the high windows and glass ceiling and fill the hollow middle of the building before bouncing off white pillars, balconies, walls and staircases. Four separate mezzanine levels encircle the hollow, rippling Gaudi-esque balcony railings on one side… (goes on for quite some time).

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Design-wise of course, although the language is over the top, they were absolutely right. The place is indeed a triumph, a loving and gorgeous renovation of a Lipscani building originally built in the 19th century, used for some time as a department store but neglected for decades. Inside and out the building looks terrific; there are books and gifts on three floors, an exhibition space and a bistro on the upper level. It’s hip, it’s trendy and it’s successful. It’s also what Lipscani needs and is indeed getting: shops. Strada Lipscani itself is now home to more shops than bars and restaurants, and the area’s mix is becoming more that of a regular high street. As we wrote a month or so ago Old Town suffered from too many pubs, bars and restaurants opening in too short a space of time, all thinking that the location alone would guarantee success. As the less successful ones close, it is shops which are increasingly taking their place. Lipscani was for centuries a commercial area, it is good to see it becoming one again.

Anyway, back to Carturesti Carusel, which is not all it’s cracked up to be. For if you put the design aspect to one side for a moment and focus solely on its merits as a bookshop, it comes up short. Way short. Look at the photos: the vast majority of the shop is just empty space. The actual number of books on sale is in fact rather modest; you will find a selection no bigger than that on offer in many other bookshops in Bucharest. We looked for two books we were interested in buying: Lucian Boia’s latest, and a children’s book our youngest wanted. They had neither. Mrs. Bucharest Life found a few books however, so it wasn’t a totally wasted trip. The shop is also a nice place to spend half an hour, we’re not disputing that.

Yet in our experience (which, when it comes to bookshops, is vast: it’s one area we can speak on with a decent amount of authority) great bookshops do not look like great bookshops. They are usually a total mess. Think of Foyles: it takes an hour to find what you are looking for, but find it you will. Any of the bookshops on the Charing Cross Road (there are still a few left) are the same: creaky floors, rickety staircases down to dusty basements, books all over the place and nary enough space to move. Even a bog-standard branch of Waterstones will have piles of books on the floor, the stairs and just about anywhere they can find a square-yard of space for them.

Indeed, in our opinion Carturesti’s other central Bucharest store on Magheru is far better than Carusel: it looks and feels a lot more like a proper bookshop. In fact, so does the one at the AFI Palace Cotroceni. Carusel looks lovely – we are happy to admit that, and fair play to them for allowing people to take photos: unique amongst all shops in Romania! – but as a bookstore we think it’s only average.

Nasty foreigners to blame

Remember the second half of 2013? When the lunatic fringes of the British press (the Daily Mail and Daily Express in particular) were whipping up a panic over the imminent arrival of zillions of Romanians and Bulgarians on January 1st 2014?

It was all tosh of course (the numbers of those who arrived were minimal), but the panic was great enough to give a huge boost to UKIP, Britain’s far-right, racist anti-immigration party.

Yet since taking 27.5 per cent in European elections last year, UKIP’s support has predictably tanked. In last week’s general election just 12 per cent voted for the party, and its leader Nigel Farage suffered personal humiliation, taking just third place in his constituency. Voters sent just one UKIP MP to Westminster: Duncan Carswell, a former Tory elected more for his personal popularity than that of his party. Indeed, Carswell is now expected to go crawling back to the Tories with his tail between his legs as soon as he can politely get away with it. UKIP is now on its death bed, and the UK’s in/out EU referendum (to be held in 2017, probably) will kill it off for good.

Anyway, back when UKIP was a thing, we well remember Romanians claiming with great pride that they had no comparable anti-EU, anti-foreigner parties.

It is increasingly clear that they do have such a party, and that it has been running the country for some time: the PSD.

Indeed, the PSD is just one of a number of anti-EU, anti-foreigner, anti-enlightenment parties and NGOs in Romania: there are almost certainly as many anti-immigration loons here as there are in Britain. These organisations can be found on both the far-right and far-left of Romanian politics. They oppose the modern world, globalisation and general well-being on the grounds that such things are not ‘traditional’. The idea that Romania is an increasingly rich, modern and tolerant country which looks west and not east terrifies and deeply offends them. And while there is often Russian money behind these groups, many are daft enough to do Russia’s bidding for free. The world is as full today of useful idiots as ever it was.

The latest target of these groups is the president, Klaus Iohannis, very much seen by the PSD and by the traditionalists as a nasty foreigner who does not put Romania’s interests first.

The rather large stick that the nationalists have tried to beat ‘the German’ with is a wooden one: a tree trunk, in fact. They accuse the president – who last month sent a new logging law back to parliament for revision – of siding with an Austrian logging company instead of ‘saving Romania’s forests.’ To show how much they care about the environment the PSD – through various agencies – organised an anti-Iohannis protest on Sunday, poorly disguised as a march against the deforestation of Romania. Many well-meaning yet naive Romanians were taken in and took part: after all, saving Romania’s forests is a worthy cause. It’s certainly a cause we support.

There is a huge problem with illegal logging in Romania, and there has been ever since 1990. Much of this is driven by poverty: peasants with land not fit for agriculture and with no hope of gainful employment have often been forced to sell their forested land without asking too many questions as to what the buyer intends to do with it. Yet to suggest that Romania’s forests will best be served by adopting the PSD’s new logging law is ridiculous: the law has been written almost to order for the PSD’s clientele and would in all likeliness increase the amount of Romanian trees being chopped down each year. Iohannis was right in sending it back to parliament.

If you read Romanian, this article explains what’s going on very well. In brief, while the PSD is pointing the finger at Iohannis for taking the side of the Austrian logging company Schweighofer (there is no proof that Iohannis – who has no direct control over Romania’s forests – did), prime minister Victor Ponta’s father-in-law, Ilie Sarbu, is currently under investigation for his role in a multi-million euro fraud centred on… illegal logging. What’s more, one of Sarbu’s conspirators (and himself under investigation) is the boss of the state logging company Romsilva, Adam Craciunescu. Amazingly, Ponta – who likes us to think he cares about Romania’s forests – has not yet seen fit to remove Craciunescu (a member – shock! – of the PSD) from his post.

What’s more, in 2003 the Romanian government of convicted fraudster Adrian Nastase (also, quelle surprise, from the PSD) passed an emergency ordinance all but ordering Romsilva to sign long-term contracts with large international logging companies, including Schweighofer. It was also Nastase’s government which sold the Romanian state oil company Petrom (and its reserves) to the Austrian oil group OMV for a price often said to be way below the real market value.

Still, let’s blame everything on those nasty foreigners, eh?

If the Schweighofer case were a one-off it would not be so troubling. Yet it is not. Ponta’s war on supermarkets (owned by nasty foreigners, of course) is another troubling case. It is clear that the PSD and its agencies are increasingly trying to place the blame for all that goes wrong in Romania at the door of the EU and of us nasty foreigners, what with our commitment to market economics and enlightenment values.

Should we, as foreign immigrants, be worried? Probably not. The target is Iohannis. The PSD’s tactic is to portray him as a foreigner (easily done in the PSD heartlands of Northern Moldova and Muntenia, where Iohannis will always be viewed as suspicious, not least because he is not Orthodox) and then fall back on the last resort of desperate nationalists: blame foreign influence for Romania’s woes. Iohannis is immediately guilty by association. Foreign = Bad, Iohannis = Foreign, Iohannis = Bad.

And you thought such chauvinism was the preserve of UKIP? Think again: Romania is not immune.

Three things

Three things about the UK’s general election results:

1. The Greens took more than a million votes and kept their MP. We donated to their campaign despite not being able to vote and are delighted with the result. They also picked up 18 local council seats.

2. For all those calling for proportional representation (PR), think about this: if we’d had PR last night Ukip would have taken 80-odd seats.

3. If Cameron is good to his word the UK will now hold a simple, in/out referendum on EU membership. We think that’s actually no bad thing. The government will campaign to stay in, so will Labour, so will the SNP, so will the Greens. The ins will win by a fairly big margin, and with that the whole issue of the UK’s EU membership will be put to bed for a generation. Ukip – particularly after Farage’s personal humiliation – will be toast. Forget all that talk of coming second in so many constituencies: once their raison d’etre no longer exists, they will disintegrate quickly.