It was on this day in 1998 – at about tea time to be precise – that we first arrived in Bucharest, ostensibly to stay for a year or so in order to perfect the Romanian we had learnt at university in London.
Fifteen years on and – a Florentine interlude from 2001-2 aside – we are still here.
We’d been to Romania before 1998 of course, many times in fact, but never for more than a month or two and usually only for a week, or even less. No, the summer of 1998 was when we first arrived with the real intention of getting seriously stuck in.
Indeed, so stuck in (embedded would probably be the modern word) did we intend to get that we hadn’t planned on staying in horrible old Bucharest for very long at all; Lord no. We instead had rather idealistic notions of heading north double quick, to some remote town or village, in order to go as native as possible.
As it turned out, the free use of a rather nice apartment at Piata Universitatii, a few nights spent between the Dubliner and Club A and a small windfall courtesy of the World Cup sweepstake at the Harp (we had picked France out of the hat the night we arrived) encouraged us to stay in Bucharest a while longer. A little after that we were asked to work for a newspaper, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The city was at the time reaping the benefits of the foreign investment which had begun to flow into Romania since the election of Emil Constantinescu as president in December 1996. A right-wing, anti-PSD alliance known as the CDR formed the government (Radu Vasile had just taken over from Victor Ciorbea as prime minister), and although the economy would soon collapse and the CDR tear itself apart (in fact, Traian Basescu would tear it apart), in the summer of 1998 all was still rather rosy.
Two heavily competing GSM phone companies – Dialog and Connex – were bringing mobiles to the masses for the first time, and a few – although not a lot – of bars and restaurants had begun to appear to supplant the ghastly state-run places of yore. Caru cu bere – today such a tourist favourite and genuinely wonderful place – was one such state-run disaster. It was the kind of place where you would sit at a table, wait half an hour, then leave, with not a single member of staff having offered you so much as a menu. It was not the only place guilty of viewing clients as a pest.
Which is why venues like the Dubliner, the Harp, the White Horse and Sydney Bar & Grill were so revolutionary. You didn’t have to wait to get served. You could even go to the bar and order your own drink.
No wonder that’s where we spent half of our time.
By and large, however, despite clear signs that the country was starting to move in the right direction, the Bucharest we arrived in 15 years ago was not all that different to the Bucharest we remember from a visit in 1990. There were more adverts – although the horrible habit of defacing entire facades with enormous ads had not yet caught on – but while there were plenty of non-Romanian cars on the streets, the vast majority of vehicles on the road were Dacias of the old kind. And the comically bad Oltcit, of course (a car which a friend insisted on calling Oldshit).
The summer of 1998 was also the last time the Romanian football team qualified for the World Cup. They memorably beat England shortly after we arrived with a last minute goal from Chelsea legend Dan Petrescu. Never having been much of an In-ger-land fan, we were delighted: Chelsea had stuffed it to England. You may remember that the Romanian team then dyed their hair yellow before promptly disappearing without trace. (We often say, by the way, that we arrived on the day of the Romania-England game itself. In truth we arrived a week or so before).
Back in 1998 Romania used to charge us Englanders (and just about everybody else for that matter) to get in. Officially still a student when we applied for our visa, we only paid a pound. But we could only stay 30 days, after which we had to shuffle off to the passport office to get an extension for another 60 days. That cost $66, which had to be paid in US dollars (and you had to have the exact amount) at one particular branch of CEC. Oh what fun we had the day visas had to be extended.
We imagine non-EU citizens still do.