What can Bucharest really pride itself on?

Last Friday evening we hosted a casual dinner at the Beraria Gambrinus for six distinguished English gentlemen, all in their sixties and seventies, and all except one visiting Bucharest for the first time. (What were we doing in such fine company? Well, one was a close friend of our father’s, and had invited us to join them for the evening).

Anyway, one of the questions we were asked over the course of the evening was ‘What does Bucharest pride itself on?’

We were stumped. We ended up mumbling something all a bit perfunctory (and unimaginative) about the sheer size of Casa Poporului as well as the fact that Bucharest is still a very safe city compared with any number of other places we could mention – not least in England – but we could tell that nobody was entirely happy with the answer.

It was only in the taxi on the way home that the definitive answer to the question became all rather obvious: kerbstones. Bucharest has the most amazingly well-kept kerbstones in Europe, if not the world.

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They are well kept of course because they are changed so often: in our sector, the People’s Republic of Sector 3, led by our dear leader Robert Negoita (he of Info 3 fame), the kerbstones are changed at least every couple of years.

This year, however, the local council has outdone itself, and is not just replacing existing kerbstones, it is actually placing brand new ones where before there were none (and where, the contrarian might argue, there is no need). One such place is Calea Vitan: the tram lines which run down the middle of the road are currently being fenced in by some beautiful new kerbstones. How lucky we are.

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Spending money on replacing kerbstones that do not need replacing is not, of course, a new phenomenon: it has been going on for years. It appears to be a popular way for the mayors of the various sectors to – how can we put this – ‘show their appreciation’ to some of the people who financed their campaigns. And as much as we or anybody else might want them to spend our money on the millions of infinitely more useful things that need improving in Bucharest, we can’t see anything changing anytime soon.

That’s why we should try and claim these amazing kerbstones as our own, and spread the word far and wide: Bucharest has the finest kerbstones in the world.

*Beams with pride*

PS What else did the six distinguished gentlemen get up to in Bucharest? Well, dinner at Caru cu Bere, Casa Poporului and the Sightseeing Bus – twice, apparently.

Victor Ponta will not be Romania’s next president

In the good old days of the Socialist Republic of Romania, president Nicolae Ceausescu would regularly feed his cult of personality by holding enormous, meticulously prepared rallies in football stadiums. Workers would be brought in from all over the country to cheer and applaud on cue, usually in exchange for extra rations.

Based on the Mass Games first seen in North Korea, Ceausescu’s rallies became grander and more impressive as the years went on (and, perversely, Romania’s living standards fell) until they unsurprisingly came to an abrupt halt in December 1989.

But fear not! Any Romanians nostalgic for such magnificent displays of affection for the country’s glorious, beloved leader will be pleased to know that prime minister Victor Ponta has decided to revive them.

On Saturday – his birthday – Ponta held a grotesque self-aggrandising party at Bucharest’s Arena Nationala to officially launch his candidacy for the Romanian presidency. The photos speak for themselves:

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Unsurprisingly, Romanian civil society was appalled at the spectacle, and did not waste any time in making the comparison between Ponta and Ceausescu. In response to such criticism, Ponta bizarrely said yesterday that comparisons with the old dictator were unfounded, as ‘Ceausescu actually held his party congress at the Sala Palatului.’

So that’s alright then.

Anyway, as the full, appalling spectacle unfolded on Saturday we said that ‘today is the day Ponta loses the presidential election.’ A couple of days on and we think it was a good call. Ponta will not be Romanian president. No matter who faces Ponta in the second round (and the most likely candidate remains Mayor of Sibiu Klaus Iohannis) we simply can’t see the prime minister winning. We refuse to believe that – beyond the medieval PSD heartlands of Teleorman, Olt, Gorj, Dolj and Moldova – anyone will choose Ponta over Iohannis. (Not, we should add, because Iohannis is the ideal candidate: he is far from it).

Ponta’s campaign by the way has been firmly centered on the nationalist slogan Marea Unire, the name given to the unification of Transylvania with Moldova and Wallachia in 1918. Beyond the slogan’s nakedly obvious expansionism there is also another parallel with Nicolae Ceausescu to be drawn: the idea of ‘uniting all Romanians behind one leader’ is very much the same as the Party – Ceausescu – Romania narrative of the 1980s, which made the notions of Ceausescu and Romania inseparable. Ponta is Romania: that’s what we are being told to think. Fortunately, people are refusing to do so.

Finally, it is worth noting that the photos above all come from Ponta’s own Facebook page.

It was Son of Bucharest Life (or Bucharest Life Jr., as he has called his blog) who first pointed us in the direction of Ponta on Facebook.

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As well offering us a glimpse at the sheer size of Ponta’s ego, the page is well worth reading for the comments underneath each post. Most entertaining.

PS For a better idea of what Saturday was like, this excellent little film will give you a very good idea. Look out for the way Ponta is introduced:

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.