One of the countries that surprised me most on my travels was Romania. Until I went there in 2010 I had a rather negative image of Romania in my mind: it was unhappy, dull, corruption was rife.
What made me go there was the movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. By the time the DVD arrived in post, I had forgotten what it was about and why I had ordered it. And so it was with total lack of preconceptions that I watched this movie.
The movie was taking place in communist Romania in the 1980s and was about a university student girl helping her friend have an abortion, which was illegal in those days as President Ceausescu wanted to boost the population of the country. The girls had to find a doctor to perform the operation illegally and arrange a hotel room — neither which was straightforward. Then the doctor had other ideas too.
The movie told the story in a very simple way, without embellishing it, without any high-tech shots, keeping the camera at right angles to the subjects. It was so realistic that I thought it was made in the 1980s and was baffled as to how the communist regime would have given permission.
Only after the movie was finished and I looked it up on the Internet did I realise that I had ordered it because it had won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. I then watched interviews with both Cristian Mungiu, the director, and Anamaria Marinca, the lead actress. There are cases where the director or scriptwriter gets an inspiration and makes a groundbreaking movie, perhaps with a bit of luck. But, in Mungiu’s case, the movie was not the result of luck: he was very knowledgeable and knew exactly what he was doing. Likewise Marinca was just as articulate and trained.
They both were from the city of Iasi, in the northeast corner of Romania, and had been educated at the university there. I decided I would fly to Bucharest and travel up to Iasi, and then travel back down taking a different route.
With the intention of visiting Bucharest at the end of the trip, I first went to Brasov and then Sighisoara in Transylvania, where the architecture was cheerful and buildings seemed to be hiding boisterous stories from the past. Shops and cafes still had traces of communist times: coffee was weak, pastries on the bland side. There was some tourism but thankfully not yet at the level you see in Prague or Krakow.
Next, up into the Hungarian region, first to Targu Mures, a city where the aftermath of communism was evident all over: rundown apartment blocks, neglected hotels, pollution from the chemical plant, poverty. But also there was the elaborate early 20th century Palace of Culture, decorated with chandeliers, mirrors, stained glass windows, and other whimsical features. The dichotomy reminded me of a scene in Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo where the main character listens to classical music through loudspeakers on a boat in the Amazonian jungle.
And then to Miercurea Ciuc. Though much of the architecture was communist-style, partially because of the Ciuc beer brewery, the town was surprisingly affluent: this little rural town was the first place in Romania I saw a Porsche; the restaurants and coffee-shops were like ones in a first world country; the hotel was spotless. The only problem was, after waiting for several hours at the bus station, I couldn’t get public transport onwards, so I had to take a taxi all the way to Piatra Neamt.
The communist buildings in these places brought Le Corbusier’s words to my mind: ‘The house is a machine for living in.’
Both in Piatra Neamt and Iasi, I stayed in hotels right in the centre of the city: high-rise hotels built in communist days for visiting dignitaries. In both places I went to night clubs where young girls were working. In Iasi, a few of them were students at the prestigious Alexandru Ioan Cuza University, they spoke very well English, and were working there to fund their education. A couple of them were originally from the neighbouring country Moldova and with their student visas could not legally be employed, therefore this type of work was their only choice. It was heartbreaking to meet these girls: they were just normal nice girls.
There were also a lot of second-hand clothing shops, with clothes imported from places like Germany. Apart from that, I was surprised to see many foreign students from America and Africa in this remote corner of Europe; to find that the online retailer Amazon had a Development Centre; and to learn that the hotel next to the one I was staying at was designed by Gustave Eiffel!
I then took the train down south and spent the night in Ploiești, an oil-rich city with a very communist look. I saw several rich Western European kids at the Doroftei Sports Pub, whose parents probably were working in the oil industry.
My next target was the Transfagarasan, one of Ceausescu’s pet projects, completed in the 1970s. A road that climbs a mountain, goes through a tunnel at the top, and descends through the clouds on the other side. A road that doesn’t directly connect any two big cities. And therefore there is no public transport on it — only private vehicles and people who are there to enjoy the magnificent views.
The story is that Ceausescu was an outsider in the Eastern Bloc, seeking an independent foreign policy. He condemned the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. He refused Comecon’s idea of Romania remaining a farming country as he wanted to build factories. As a result, he was afraid the USSR would invade Romania. So he ordered the construction of this road on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia for military vehicles to be able to travel across mountains.
Back in Bucharest I visited another one of Ceausescu’s grand projects: the Parliament, perched on a hill in the middle of the city. It is said to be the second-largest building in size in the world after the Pentagon. It is so large that parts of it were lying empty. One part of it was housing a contemporary art gallery and there were talks of it becoming a shopping mall. It had a few interesting features: the main staircase was built to fit Ceausescu’s leg length; and, afraid of being poisoned by Air Conditioning, the dictator had instead got a special ventilation system designed which sucked in the wind from outside.
Old parts of Bucharest were in the process of being gentrified, with gypsies being evicted from properties. One Romanian I spoke to told me he didn’t like gypsies, as they begged in the cities, committed petty crimes, and prisons were full of them!
Another notable conversation I had was with a bright Romanian girl I met at a metro station. She was showing her French boyfriend around. She spoke perfect English and French, had lived in France as an exchange student for a year. Her salary was 500 euros, which she said was relatively good for a new graduate (note the difference of this from Western EU); she was sharing a little flat with two bedrooms but no living room in an old apartment block; at the end of the month, she barely had any money left. She didn’t see herself staying in Romania.
Romania was a revelation for me. An extreme country in many ways: mountains were high, Transylvania flamboyant, communist dictatorship taken to its limit. There was a good balance between development and natural life. Even in small places I found people who spoke good English. After my trip, I discovered quite a few interesting Romanian photographers on Facebook. On top of the places I visited, there is Timisoara, Maramures, Cluj Napoca, the Danube Delta, Bran Castle among others. Lastly, with its communist past, gypsies and socioeconomic issues, it felt as though the country had so many other modern-day stories waiting to be told.