Be thankful for freedom
On the last day of our Budapest to Bucharest Danube trip we docked about five miles south of Olenita at a port that was an empty barge on the edge of the river. The bus ride into Bucharest was memorable with a narrow road, wide bus and a fearless driver.
We were roughly 40 miles from the city and passed rural residences and small villages that spilled out to the very edge of the pavement where trash was caught up in the tall grasses along our route.
As we passed, our speed gave us only a minute or two to take in all of the activity (or inactivity as the case might be) — weary-faced gypsy women wearing their traditional scarves gathered in small groups, visiting or selling tomatoes and watermelons along with other vegetables at small stands while men gathered in another spot to talk and soak up the sun. Ducks and chickens foraged for food precariously close to the road edge and a donkey was lying so close to the road I sucked in my breath as we went by. There were bicycles scattered about and dogs — lots of dogs.
Between the small towns were pastoral scenes unmarked by fences — sheep and their herders, farmers cutting grasses with hand scythes, a father and his children riding in a small horse cart, and fields of sunflowers.
Romania covers 91,699 square miles and has a population of 21.9 million. (Oregon covers 97,073 square miles and has a population between 3 and 4 million.) Life expectancy is one of the lowest in Europe, because of pollution and limited living standards. About 40 percent of the working population is employed in agriculture, 4 percent in industry, 4 percent in construction and 6 percent in services. The average monthly salary is 400 Euros. The average rent in Bucharest is 300 Euros with utilities adding another 200 Euros.
In the late 1800s, Bucharest was a beautiful city with wealthy aristocrats and buildings influenced by French architects. Neglect under Communism and bombing during WWII took their toll. In 1967, Nicolae Ceausescu, a man who had come from a poor family and risen in the Communist Party, came into leadership.
He promised the people a new kind of communism and the people trusted him. His plans to reshape Bucharest into the socialist city he had planned were devastating to many of the beautiful old structures. More than 9,000 of these buildings were bulldozed. The replacements were rows of stark dreary gray apartment buildings, most of which lined his Boulevard of Socialist Victory leading to his People’s Palace. (Actually it was a palace for and a monument to this megalomaniac leader.) Construction began on the palace, currently the Parliament Building, in 1983. Ceausescu and his wife were never satisfied and they caused work to be expensively redone at their whim.
For example, several marble staircases were ripped out five times just to get them to his specifications. Huge debts were amassed and the standard of living for the Romanian people sank to an all-time low. Food was rationed. Gas, electricity and heating were shut off for blocks of time to save money for the construction using only the best materials. The construction continued on this largest building in Europe (second in the world only to the Pentagon), making it the most expensive building in the history of mankind. (Somewhere I read that it cost upward to $3 billion.) Ceausescu continued on with no idea that the people had such hatred for him until a revolution broke out in 1989. On Christmas Day 1989, Ceausescu and his wife were executed. The building has never been completed. It is not even known how much of the construction lies beneath the ground — at least eight stories.
City of contrasts
Five hundred-year-old Bucharest is a city of contrasts. There are some beautiful well-kept old buildings — one being a hospital that looks like a palace. We visited a shopping center that was stark and uninviting on the outside, but exhibited a very modern interior. Many older apartment buildings are no longer subject to being removed but are in such bad shape, insurance is very hard to get. The people who live in these are basically stuck.
They own their apartment and cannot afford to move, but their buildings are marked with large red circles claiming them uninhabitable and therefore not marketable. Then among all this, the city in 2008, installed 50 black street clocks elaborately decorated with gold at the cost of 50, 000 Euros each. Even yet, one quarter of the population lives primitively with no electricity, running water or transportation.
A highlight of the day was a visit to the Village Museum, an open-air ethnographic museum in Heastrau Park, containing 272 authentic peasant farms and houses from all over Romania. The craftsmanship in these buildings was incredible. (Ceausescu preferred his people to be in apartments close to one another so he could keep closer watch over them with his spies, and so many of these types of structures in the countryside were destroyed and cheaply built apartments were constructed.) The day we were there happened to be a Festival Day and numerous booths were selling handcrafted items — carvings, masks, painted eggs and beadwork as well as decorated cookies. These people were from the small villages and unable to take anything other than their local currency. Because we were in the country for only one day few if any of us had any money they would accept so opportunity for both sides was lost.
The next day as we strolled through the very new, very Spartan airport we passed two handsome young guards strolling the other way with machine guns resting across their chests.
Be thankful for freedom! Become informed! Exercise your right to vote! Enjoy!