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:



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.

The (almost) abandoned Cotroceni Stadium

Not quite completely abandoned (the grass is clearly being regularly cut, although not short enough to actually play football on) Cotroceni Stadium is in a sorry state. Once the most modern football ground in Romania (dating from the 1940s it was entirely rebuilt for the 1998 European Under-21 Championships, held in Romania) it has been unused since 2009 when FC National, the tenants, were forced to leave by the National Bank of Romania (the owners) having repeatedly failed to pay the rent.

FC National – a team which finished second in the first division as recently as 2002 and reached the Romanian Cup Final in 2003 (Dan Petrescu’s last match as a professional footballer, by the way) – have since all but disappeared, and now ply their trade in the fourth division under their previous name of FC Progresul.

Anyway, making the most of an open gate, we took a few photos last night.





The Week in Bucharest Life

First off, the really good news: we are getting our traffic light at the intersection of Bulevardul Marasesti and Strada Cuza Voda. Well done Mrs. Bucharest Life.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta is currently clinging on to his job and alas looks secure for the time being. He comfortably (and predictably) survived a vote to lift his parliamentary immunity (on Tuesday) and a no-confidence motion (on Friday). While the clamour for his resignation from all good, civil Romanians is becoming deafening, Ponta, his party (the PSD) and its allies (the UNPR and the PC) have so far stood firmly with him: they all know that if Ponta goes, they go. The mentality of these people is much the same as that of German soldiers encircled by Soviet troops at Stalingrad, and they will fight to the death.

The Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, in one of his best public appearances to date, called again for Ponta’s resignation on Tuesday and labelled parliament’s decision to defend him a grave mistake which does nothing except harm Romania. ‘It was a sad day for democracy,’ he said. He was right. But there is little he can do. The nuclear option in theory available to him (suspension) would only have become viable if Ponta had been stripped of his immunity. We therefore need to hope that the DNA can soon bring new, further charges against him (which it looks as though they may well do) else he looks like being able to see out the summer parliamentary session.

Ponta then further aggravated the situation by threatening any potential protesters against his regime with both prison, and old fashioned violence. ‘If the opposition bring 1000 protesters we will bring 10,000,’ he said. ‘And if they bring 10,000 we will bring 100,000.’ Lovely words, not least as this week is the 25th anniversary of the Mineriada, when Ponta’s hero and mentor Ion Iliescu ordered miners from the Jiu Valley to come to Bucharest and ‘deal with’ anti-government ‘hooligans’ who had been occupying Piata Universitatii for a month.

After they had killed more than 100 people and beaten up many more, Iliescu thanked the miners for their ‘deep sense of civic spirit.’

In a not wholly unrelated incident, Transport Minister Ioan Rus (guess which party he belongs to) was forced to resign on Thursday, having called the children of the Romanian diaspora ‘hooligans’ (yes, the same word Iliescu used in 1990) and their wives ‘whores.’ No, he did, really.

Asked on Friday why he didn’t follow the example of Moldova’s prime minister Chiril Gaburici (who resigned this week after it was revealed he had lied about his academic qualifications), Ponta told a journalist: ‘Why should I resign? What have I done?’


Our pink tie got its annual outing on Thursday at the UK Embassy’s Queen’s Birthday Party, held at the Arenele BNR in Cotroceni: fish and Chips, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding all washed down with gallons of Pimm’s. A couple of Coldstream Guards were on hand for photo opportunities, not that we’d ever do anything so common.


The Arenele BNR are right next to the all-but-abandoned Cotroceni football ground, until 2009 home of FC National (the last professional club of Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday legend Dan Petrescu; they are now defunct). Making the best of an open gate we took some photos. We will edit them and get them up over the weekend.

Finally, something which got forgotten last week amidst the news that Ponta had been charged with corruption.

Last Thursday, Ponta said (in response to president Iohannis’s declaration the day before that Romania remains committed to joining the eurozone as quickly as possible) that Romanians would be allowed to decide via a referendum if the country is to adopt the euro as its currency.

Not for the first time, Ponta was lying: Romanians will not be allowed to vote in a referendum on eurozone membership. The reason is simple: as part of Romania’s Accession Treaty (signed in April 2005) the country is obliged – as are all new EU member states – to adopt the single European currency as soon as economic conditions allow. Eurozone membership is not an optional extra. Any referendum therefore would have to be on Romania’s continued membership of the EU itself, and not a single issue such as adopting the euro. We would have expected Ponta to know such things – he is, after all, the prime minister. Perhaps he does and was playing dumb (somethng he does better than most). Whatever he does or doesn’t know, his increasing populist, anti-European stance is becoming wearisome. He is heading along a staunchly nationalist path until now the reserve of the ‘it’s all a Marxist-homosexual-global conspiracy against Romania’ loons.

Making Bucharest safer for children: Update

Remember this post of a few weeks ago?

Well, the police called Mrs. Bucharest Life this morning to confirm that her request for a traffic light to be installed at the intersection of Bulevardul Marasesti and Strada Cuza Voda has been approved.

Which is nice.

soon to be a lot safer

Soon to be a lot safer

Of course, the traffic lights will not go up overnight, although fortunately there is only a week of school left before the summer holidays start. Ideally though, they will be installed in time for the beginning of the new school year on September 14th. Before then, the Administratia Drumurilor need to find the funds to erect the new lights, which then have to be correlated with the much larger Budapesta intersection 200 metres down the road: we are not quite there yet.

Still, it’s a great way to start the day.

Who ever said you can’t get anything done in this country?