Bucharest Metro Challenge: A New Record

Remember the Bucharest Metro Challenge? We first did it in 2010, had our record beaten in 2011 and then failed to get it back in 2013.

Well, there’s a new standard to beat: Costin Iftode’s time (which had stood since 2011) has been beaten by Razvan Ionescu and Călin Darie, who did it a couple of weeks ago in 3 hours, 18 minutes and 15 seconds. You can read all about it here (in Romanian).

We plan on having another go sometime this summer.

Straight out of the petty-nationalist textbook

How many times have we seen this kind of thing?

If, as a foreigner, you dare to suggest that Romania is anything less than perfect (or that it may not have been perfect at some point in its entire history) you can expect a three-pronged attacked from petty-nationalists.

First off, a personal insult.

Second, the suggestion that – as a foreigner – you have no right to comment on Romania in anything other than glowing terms.

Thirdly, you will be told that your country is as bad or worse.

This, therefore, is straight out of the petty-nationalist textbook:

Textbook-stuff

This was the original post we had the temerity on which to comment.

A story worth telling

Made_in_RomaniaAfter a week in Greece we decamped last Monday to Istanbul, where Brother-in-law of Bucharest Life – a major in the Romanian army – is currently stationed with Nato. (That Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta left Turkey the day after we arrived was a coincidence).

Anyway, one of the highlights of the week was a visit to this place: the Rahmi M. Koc Museum. Ostensibly a transport museum, it is a whole lot more: we expected to spend half an hour looking at a few old trains but ended up spending much of the day there. It’s a huge museum with an extensive range of exhibits both inside and out, including loads of hands-on science stuff for the kids, an amazing classic car collection, a submarine (which you can explore) and a narrow-gauge railway offering trips up and down the Golden Horn. Oh, and a locomotive Made in Romania.

Yet of all the gems on display, perhaps the most amazing is this American World War ll bomber, Hadley’s Harem, which crashed into the sea off the coast of Southern Turkey in 1943 while trying to reach Cyprus after being hit during a raid on the oil fields of… Ploiesti.

Hadleys_Harem_2

The captions tell the story of the bomber better than we could. It’s a story worth telling: no wonder the Turks saw fit to salvage the aircraft.

Hadleys_Harem_3

Hadleys_Harem_1

One other note from Istanbul:

Having ridden on the vintage tram which runs up and down Istiklal Cadessi, Son of Bucharest Life suggested something similar for Bucharest. A vintage tram running the length of Strada Lipscani perhaps? If you think that Bucharest doesn’t have any vintage trams, see this post from 2009.

Greek Life

Not in short supply

Not in short supply

We’ve spent the past week in Greece, a week which has of course been one of the more interesting in the country’s recent history. Yet as much as we’d love to confirm the scenes of chaos and panic reported by just about every media outlet in the world, we can’t. Instead, we have been witness to little more than the usual Greek summer experience of fine seafood, warm hospitality and bargain prices. The only difference between this and any other Greek holiday we have ever taken has been the weather: something of a disappointment for the first few days (Tuesday reminded us of childhood holidays on Ayr beach). Oh, and everybody wants to be paid in cash: cards are no longer an option in most places.

We have also had more than the usual number of phonecalls from home, no surprise given that half of Romania spends its summer holiday in Greece and, given the hyperbolic nature of news reporting, is worried that the stories of empty cashpoints, empty shelves and Ceausescu-era-like queues at petrol stations are all true. We can confirm that – at least as we write these lines, on Thursday evening on the island of Evia – they are not.

Let’s start with the cashpoints.

Yes, capital controls are currently in place for Greeks, who are limited to cash withdrawals of €60 per day. However, all cards issued by non-Greek banks are not subject to these limits and the only limits are those imposed by the issuing banks.

You can still generally pay by credit or debit card if you insist, but we suggest that you bring and pay in cash wherever possible. This is as a courtesy to your hosts as much as anything else: your hotel or pension owner may have to wait weeks to get his or her hands on your money if you pay by card. Given that he or she will have salaries to pay, do the right thing and pay cash. If you really must use your card, do so at supermarkets, petrol stations and larger businesses.

Which brings us on to the subject of petrol.

One of the more bizarre phonecalls we have had this week has been about to the availability of petrol. We have been told by panicked relatives that it is running low and that there are queues at petrol stations as locals panic buy. We must fill up our car now, apparently.

Well, this was the scene at our local petrol station this afternoon:

Scenes

Scenes

No queue, plenty of petrol and prices way cheaper than Romania.

We can also confirm that Greek supermarkets are not running out of basic necessities, there is no shortage of beer or fresh seafood in the portside tavernas, and the ferries are not on strike.

Not yet, anyway.

We leave on Sunday, the day of a referendum on whether or not Greece should accept the IMF/ECB’s latest offer of financing (an offer no longer on the table, awkwardly). As things stand the vote looks like going the Greek government’s way (as in a resounding No). What happens then is anyone’s guess, but we do not expect panic and shortages, neither do any of the many Greeks we have spoken to. Life will go on pretty much as it always has in this part of Europe: at its own pace. At one restaurant last night we sat down at a table, the owner brought us menus and then sped off on his moped, returning with a woman (presumably the cook) some minutes later. Crisis? What crisis? Indeed, the whole situation was probably best summed up by one fisherman we talked to on Wednesday: ‘Fish, lots. Money, kaput.’

Even so, for the benefit of the bedwetters worrying about what effect the current crisis will have on their precious holidays, we have the following advice:

1. Bring euros: enough to pay for everything except petrol, including accommodation. Do not rely on debit and credit cards.

2. As we write, ATMs are still working with no limits in place for foreigners. While you may have to queue, however, the lines are well-ordered, locals friendly and in no way resentful (at least outwardly) that you can withdraw as much money as your own financial status allows (which in our case is less than a Greek).

3. In restaurants and bars let your waiter know as you order that you will be paying cash and that you will not be requiring any kind of receipt: you will be treated like a king.

No income tax, no VAT

No income tax, no VAT

4. Petrol and (especially) diesel are cheaper in Greece than in either Romania or Bulgaria. Do not worry about petrol stations ‘running out.’ Petrol stations are also one of few places where debit and credit cards are still tolerated if not welcome.

5. Enjoy yourself: you are on holiday. Remember that Greece is fine, and that the overwhelming majority of the Greek people are fine: it is the Greek state which is right royally buggered.

Finally, a question for the (many) Romanian commentators whose deep analysis of the Greek crisis can be summed up as ‘the Greeks are fundamentally lazy and want something for nothing:’ You’d be happy for people to write off the entire nation of Romania in the same way, would you?

Thought not.

Happy holidays.

The Week in Bucharest Life

Or, The Mystery of the Disappearing Prime Minister.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta went rogue this week (well, more rogue than usual), attending the opening ceremony of something called the European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. (No, we’ve never heard of them either. They’re big in Azerbaijan apparently).

Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis, did not attend, instead choosing to observe the unofficial boycott of the event by European Union leaders in protest at Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record. Ponta on the other hand, not really giving two hoots about human rights or any such nonsense, couldn’t resist the chance to mix with such enlightened company as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarussian President Aleskandr Lukashenko and Recep Erdogan of Turkey: tyrants one and all.

The plot then thickened on Sunday when from Baku Ponta flew not back to Romania but to Turkey, aboard Erdogan’s presidential plane no less.

Ostensibly, Ponta is in Turkey for an operation on his knee, injured last month while playing basketball. That he was due at the DNA on Monday for questioning regarding the ongoing investigation into alleged acts of corruption is of course purely coincidental. Iohannis called Ponta’s presence at the games a ‘foreign policy gaffe’ and confirmed that he had not been informed of the PM’s intention to go to Baku, nor that he would be having an operation in Turkey and therefore temporarily unable to serve as prime minister.

Gabriel Oprea, leader of the UNPR and well-known for his love of dressing up as a soldier, is Romania’s prime minister until Ponta returns to work. He can only serve as interim for 45 days however: after that Iohannis must appoint a new prime minister. Interestingly, one of Oprea’s first declarations after taking the reigns on Monday was to state that if the PSD continued with its bid to change the penal code (making it more difficult to arrest, investigate and bring corrupt politicians to book) he would have to put the national interest first and leave the ruling coalition. This has ruffled a few PSD feathers. While the government might well survive a confidence vote without the UNPR, it would be touch and go, not least as more than a few PSD members would probably take the opportunity to jump ship.

As such, Ponta’s absence – and almost total lack of communication – becomes stranger still.

We should state at this point that while it may be morally reprehensible for a Romanian politician to choose to be treated abroad, Ponta is not the first. Both Calin Popescu Tariceanu – while serving as prime minister – and Traian Basescu – while in the president’s office – underwent surgery in Vienna.

Yet Ponta’s case is still very fishy. We do not doubt the fact that he has a knee injury, but the timing of the operation, its location and the length of absence reek to high heaven of funny goings on. We have no idea what the thinking behind it all is: it may simply be that Ponta wanted to lie low for a while in the hope that the controversy surrounding him (and the pressure to resign) would dissipate. It hasn’t. Indeed, he has simply brought more light on himself. Romania awaits his return, as does the DNA.

Perhaps they will be waiting for him? That’s what happened to the Mayor of Bucharest’s Sector 1, Andrei Chiliman of the PNL, on Thursday, as he returned from a visit of his own (to Brussels) to find the DNA waiting for him at Otopeni Airport. Chiliman has been named as a suspect in a corruption case centered on the renovation of blocks in his sector (Chiliman is accused of taking some enormous bribes). Victor Ponta’s brother-in-law (See how it works yet?) is a suspect in the same case. What will be interesting is what the PNL do: if they practice what they preach he will be suspended from the party until he is either found guilty (and kicked out for good) or acquitted (and the suspension lifted).

In other crime-fighting news, the leader of the Romanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry from 2007-2014 was on Thursday convicted of peddling influence and sentenced to five years in prison.

Meantime, any dreams we may have of the Ploiesti-Brasov section of the A3 motorway being built anytime soon are further from a reality than ever. It was announced on Thursday that the government had annulled its construction and maintenance agreement with the Vinci/Aktor/Strabag consortium (worth a whopping €8.5 billion over 26 years), signed earlier this year. For the motorway, it’s back to square one, although a government spokesman did say that it remains ‘a priority.’

Not that we expect him to keep his word (he never does) but back in 2013 Ponta said that if the motorway was not completed by 2016 he would not candidate for a seat in parliament in that year’s elections. At the same time Ponta’s alleged partner in crime Dan Sova – the then Transport Minister – said that he would ‘sleep in a tent on the construction site to make sure they job got done.’

Well, maybe he would have done. The problem of course is that there is no construction site.

(In fairness, the cancellation of the contract – done in response to general public outrage at the ridiculous cost – is no bad thing. The amount was outrageous, and clearly would have been an excuse to dish out barrel loads of cash to corrupt officials. It is a sign that fear of the DNA now stalks much of the land).

Deserving bunch that they are, Romania’s parliamentarians voted this week to award themselves ginormous pensions. When asked why MPs should have huge pensions and the rest of the country shouldn’t, the delightful Marius Manolache (PSD; Ponta was godfather at his wedding – Who’d have thunk it?) said that parliamentarians should not be treated like ‘the ordinary people’ and that they deserved more money as a mark of respect for the fact that they had entered parliament. ‘There can’t be equality between MPs and everybody else, the likes of workers, engineers and doctors.’ We kind of knew that all ready.

In a first class piece of (clearly unintentional) trolling, Cristina van Bonzel Gomez – the wife of the Dutch Ambassador to Romania Matthijs van Bonzel – had orthopedic surgery on Tuesday in a Romanian state hospital. The ambassador publicly thanked the doctors and staff at the hospital in Bucharest (the same hospital our kids were born to be precise) on Facebook.