One for the trainspotters

When Romania set about electrifying its railways in the 1960s (a process which has still yet to be completed), it chose Predeal to be the site of the first electric pylon on the CFR network. The pylon – found on platform one of Predeal station – today carries a commemorative plaque:

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Why Predeal?

We do not know for certain, but we would take an educated guess that because Predeal is the highest town in Romania, and the station almost certainly the highest on a mainline, the country’s communist authorities were making the point that if they can bring electric railways to Predeal they can bring them anywhere. (Which makes us think that if the communists had built motorways, they would have started with the most difficult bits, such as Comarnic-Brasov: the exact opposite of today’s muppets).

Of course, it could just be that Predeal is close to a hydro-electrical power station or such like. We await further edification on the subject if anyone is remotely interested and knows better than we can guess.

PS The Predeal-Bucharest journey now takes just two hours. On Friday evening we had a vaguely Top Gear-style race: Mr & Mrs Bucharest Life in the car, the kids on the train. The car won, but only just, and only because the train was delayed after a passenger jumped off (while it was moving) at Comarnic. Apparently, he was expecting it to stop at Comarnic and when it didn’t he decided to get off there anyway.

Calea Vitan

Pictured this morning: a bizarre, slightly creepy yet simultaneously rather fun assemblage of nonsense in front of a block on Calea Vitan.

The mind boggles.

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Comfortably homophobic

It’s been storm in a tea cup time this week in Bucharest, all caused by an incident at one of the city’s World Class Heath Academies (a large chain of expensive, flashy swimming pools and gyms). To cut a long story short, two gay men tried to take their adopted three-year-old daughter swimming. While they were changing, one of the charming muscle boy cocalari who make World Class such a delightful place (almost certainly a suppressed homosexual himself) took objection to the presence of a three-year-old girl in the men’s changing room. When her fathers pointed out that there was no mother on hand to accompany her to the ladies’ changing room, the cocalar became verbally aggressive, telling the gay couple that they were in Romania, not Germany, and that women should ‘fuck off back to where they came.’ Incredibly, when the World Class management were called, it was the gay couple and their daughter who were asked to leave, and not the dickhead.

Since then, World Class has set out new, rather draconian rules governing the access of children to its changing rooms. Basically, it’s girls with girls and boys with boys, even if the kids in question are barely old enough to walk.

How medieval.

Of course, the reason that World Class has brought in this rule is so that it can say in all honesty that it is not discriminating against gays. If any father – gay or straight – takes his daughter swimming, the little girl will have to change in the ladies changing room, even if she can’t reach the lockers. The same for mothers taking their sons swimming. It’s ridiculous.

We have three points to make:

1. Mums and dads have been taking their offspring swimming at World Class for years and have never faced any problems of this kind (we know: we used to be members). This situation arose purely because the couple in question were gay. To pretend otherwise is dishonest.

2. We are not surprised that this incident happened at World Class, and not at another gym in the city. World Class gyms – in our experience – are relatively expensive places which attract a membership which encompasses some of the worst elements of modern Romanian society: ill-educated and poorly raised idiots in their early twenties, the offspring of rich parents who have systematically stolen the country’s wealth over the past 25 years. We were members of a World Class gym for a while (we benefited from a corporate reduction) but did not renew the membership when it expired, for the simple reason that we couldn’t stand the people who went there. (We now go to this pool, by the way. Swimming hats are obligatory, a fact which keeps the cocalari and pitzipoancas away).

3. Romania sadly remains a rather homophobic country – a comfortably homophobic country even – and it has a long, long way to go before the seemingly controversial principle of equality for all is embraced by its intolerant minority. And before you tell us it’s all the Orthodox church’s fault, we’re calling bullshit on that argument. The church may not exactly advocate equal rights for gay men and women – we’ll give you that – but in many regards it is far more tolerant than the macho, no doubt godless cocalari who see fit to verbally abuse a three-year-old girl.

Let’s get political

It’s been far, far too long since we had a proper look at the mad, bad world of Romanian politics, so much so that we have even had people sending us emails demanding to find out what we think about the upcoming presidential election.

So, with the long Romanian summer now over, and finding ourselves with a bit of time on our hands, here – for the benefit of Mrs. Trellis of North Wales – is the current state of play ahead of the big vote (the first round of Romania’s presidential election is on November 2nd. Campaigning officially begins on October 3rd).

If you do not have the time to read this full post, the current edition of the Economist has a reasonably good briefing on the subject.

As we write, five candidates have thrown their hats into the ring: Prime Minister Victor Ponta, Mayor of Sibiu Klaus Iohannis, former Tourism Minister Elena Udrea, former Justice Minister Monica Macovei and the UDMR’s Kelemen Hunor. Other possible runners include former Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu and tabloid television presenter Dan Diaconescu. For the time being however we will concentrate on those who have actually announced their intention to run and who are in the rather ridiculous (and pointless) process of collecting the 200,000 signatures needed to officially secure a candidacy.

We shall start with the prime minister, Victor Viorel ‘Copy Paste’ Ponta.

The candidate of the ruling PSD, Ponta is the clear favourite to be Romania’s next president. Ponta will take between 35-40 per cent of the vote in the first round and will almost certainly have the most votes of any of the candidates. However, it is worth noting that just a couple of months ago there was much talk of Ponta winning the presidency in the first round (by taking 50 per cent of the vote). This is now highly unlikely, and Ponta’s falling popularity (for which there are many reasons) will at least mean that the second round – whoever Ponta faces in it – will not be a foregone conclusion.

While Ponta’s PSD is nominally a socialist party, it has – under his leadership – moved across to the far-right and now occupies much of the ground once the preserve of the extreme-nationalist Greater Romania Party, the PRM. Ponta’s adoption of Romanian nationalist symbols and ugly attacks on the ethnic background and religion of his probable main rival are tactics which come straight out of the playbook of former PRM leader Vadim Tudor.

The PRM itself is currently in disarray and does not appear capable of putting up a candidate in November; that its electorate and much of its membership has been seamlessly absorbed into the PSD speaks volumes. Indeed, the next time somebody tells you that Romania has no far-right political parties, we suggest laughing at them and telling them that a far-right party is actually running the country.

The most likely opponent for Ponta in the second round of the election is Klaus Iohannis, leader of the PNL and Mayor of Sibiu since 2000. Returned to office three times with positively Stalin-esque majorities, while Iohannis has – by Romanian standards – a relatively unblemished record on the corruption front (indeed, the only mud the PSD have found to throw at him in this sense is that he owns too much property), when it comes to national politics Iohannis is something of a non-entity.

Iohannis – of Saxon stock and a devout Lutheran – first appeared on the national stage in the autumn of 2009, as the prime minister-nominate of presidential candidate Mircea Geoana. Geoana of course lost that election to Traian Basescu, and Iohannis returned to the provinces to resume the successful running of Sibiu. On two recent trips to the impressive city we conducted some very unscientific polling amongst the locals. The worst anyone had to say about the man was a taxi driver who claimed that Iohannis had introduced far too many one-way systems.

To his inexperience at national level must be added the fact that Iohannis is a quiet man who says little. Neither is he a great public speaker, and he performs only adequately on television. Yet in a contest in which his opponent is the boisterous, pompous Victor Ponta, these things could be viewed as assets.

Whether we or their supporters like it or not, none of the other candidates have any real prospect of making the second round. Elena Udrea – a lady about whom we have written more than most – is well known to readers of these pages, Monica Macovei – a former Justice Minister – less so.

As much as we think a female president would represent a massive step forward for what remains a predominantly male-dominated society, we do not expect neither Udrea nor Macovei to get anything much above eight or nine per cent of the vote. They may well take an even smaller percentage, and this despite the very public support current president Traian Basescu has given Udrea. Interestingly, an opinion poll published this morning gives Udrea twice as many votes as Macovei. (The poll also places Iohannis just eight points behind Ponta in a second round run-off: if it is at all credible this news will start alarm bells ringing in the Ponta camp).

To add a little spice to the mix, Calin Popescu-Tariceanu has begun talking of yet another parliamentary suspension of Basescu. Tariceanu is proposing that parliament vote on a new suspension on September 23rd, with the subsequent impeachment referendum to be held concurrently with the first round of the presidential election. We have no idea what the motivation for a new suspension is: Basescu has less than three months left in office. Indeed, suspending Basescu means that he is no longer constitutionally forbidden from taking part in hustings: he would be able to actively lead the anti-Ponta campaign. We therefore think that Tariceanu is unlikely to get the support of Ponta and the PSD for the new suspension, but stranger things have happened. Watch this space.

The Dacia Amfibie

And we thought James Bond’s sea-faring Lotus was original.

Indeed, you think you’ve seen it all and then you come across this, the Dacia Amfibie: a Dacia 1307 (papuc) specially adapted for the water.

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We spotted this absolute gem of a motor in the car park of the Maritime University in Constanta, where a friend of ours keeps his boat (a far more conventional affair, alas).

We have no idea if the floating Dacia is still seaworthy, but intend to find out. We’d pay good money to see it in action, even more to take it for a spin on the lake.